In conversation with… Sam Colcheedas, pianist, composer

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

I had the chance to speak to Sam Colcheedas, a busy pianist, teacher and composer. I first heard Sam’s work late last year, when I attended New Music Sounds Good, a concert of newly composed music held at Tempo Rubato. Sam’s piece Aromatic String Quartet was played with heartfelt feeling and nuance by Invictus Quartet. You can keep up to date with Sam’s work through his website, SoundCloud, or Facebook page.

When did you decide to pursue music performance more seriously?

It seeped into my life and slowly became my passion, without me realising it at first!

When I was studying engineering, I had about twenty-five hours contact hours a week. And they say as a general rule, you need to add another twenty-five to your week for study. And I was also doing my Diploma of Music, so trying to practice as well… Things were busy! I was still teaching a couple of piano students on the weekends. All the breaks I took from engineering were music related.  

I think it was two years into engineering when I realised, oh I actually like music more than this engineering stuff! And I wasn’t seeing results from all my hours of study in engineering. Music just clicked more.

Do you find there’s any cross-over between the disciplines of engineering and music?

The mathematical brain is very similar. I actually love maths, I’ve often considered going back to university to do a maths degree. I like problem solving with equations. You look for patterns in equations and you do exactly the same thing in music. I can hear all the cogs ticking over in my brain when I start looking at music I haven’t seen before.

I learn by memorising patterns and shapes, because I have synaesthesia. [A dictionary definition of synaesthesia describes it as: “the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body, by stimulation of another sense or part of the body”. The condition varies widely depending on the individual, but for example, listening to a piece of music could produce sensations of particular smells, shapes and colours]

Secondo Piano concert with Edoardo Lenza. Sardegna, Italy, September 2019.

One of my last assessments in my music degree was a scales and modes test for Music Language 3. The day before the test I played through them all, and they all sounded like a particular colour. So I memorised the colours and I was sorted for the test! Synaesthesia is different for each person who has it, it’s so specific to the cross-wires in the brain of each person.

Alexander Scriabin was the same. He actually wrote pieces with the idea that when they were premiered, certain smells would be released to the audience via pipes under the seats, and colourful lights would be projected onto the stage.

So how did you begin composing music, was it a natural progression?

When I was younger, I wrote little doodles which only went for a line or two. I would have these ideas but would never finish them!

I think a lot of pianists fall into composing. A few years ago, I met a woman who was running Carlton Connect Initiative, a collaboration between University of Melbourne and a number of organisations in Carlton.

We had met up to chat about possible future projects, and she mentioned that they were putting together an exhibition called Naturophilia, about sustainability and urban design. I offered to write a piece for the exhibition and they ended up commissioning me! I spent about three or four months on it. It was a fifteen-minute work for solo piano, inspired by wind turbines. (You can listen to A Wayward Zephyr here)

I wasn’t seeking compositional projects for a while. But last year I was commissioned by them again as part of National Science Week. This time I was inspired by the Mars Rover ‘Opportunity’. The premiere was at Parliament House and it went really well! (You can listen to It’s Getting Dark here)

Premiere of It’s Getting Dark at Parliament House, August 2019.

The path to composing has been a really natural progression. I think if I started to force it too much, I wouldn’t churn out the right music. I think about it too mathematically, too systematically… I’ve started to become more comfortable with the idea of waiting for inspiration, and being patient. I’m not a patient person, at all!

When I was writing Aromatic String Quartet, I made a start on it, then left it alone for a month or two. Then I came back to it and finished it two weeks later.

When I was writing It’s Getting Dark, I hadn’t finished it yet and it was the week before it was due to be performed. I had hit a wall with it, I couldn’t figure out a way to transition between two sections of the piece.

I was away at the beach with some friends, and I randomly heard two chords in my head. There was no piano at their house so I had to write down what I thought they were! These chords just came out of thin air, and I checked them as soon as I got home… And they ended up being the perfect solution to that problem!

Who are some composers who inspire you?

I’ve always loved Rachmaninoff. I find him hard to play, because I don’t have large hands! And I don’t think I’m mature enough to properly dive into his music yet. I’ve played some of his pieces but nothing major. His style hasn’t completely ‘clicked’ with my fingers yet. You play a composer enough, your fingers start to get what’s next, you get good at predicting.

More recently, Scriabin has been a source of inspiration.

Solo piano recital at Tempo Rubato, August 2019.

Do you think the future is bright for young Australian composers, or do you think it’s a bit of an uphill battle to get new music performed?

I think it’s more of an uphill thing.

I was talking to a friend and fellow composer the other day, about how we thought Australian music has this weird taint to it, when compared to European music. It’s almost seen as ‘nice’ or ‘cute’ and not taken seriously. In Melbourne, I haven’t seen many concerts with all-Australian programs. I haven’t specifically looked, but it’s interesting that by contrast there are so many opportunities to play your music in Europe.

What does an ideal musical career look like to you?

This year I’ve done a lot of re-juggling of the pie chart. It used to be eighty percent teaching.

Now it’s more like sixty percent teaching, and a lot more playing and composing. And it would be great to do even more. I think I’ve found my niche with performing now. I love performing contemporary works and my own compositions, it’s what I feel more comfortable with. But that has also improved my performances of other works, by Beethoven or Rachmaninoff or other composers I love.

I finally understand how picky composers have to be in writing a score if they want other people to play it! I only realised that when I was writing Aromatic String Quartet for Invictus quartet. If I was performing it, I could just play it how I imagined it, but when someone else is performing your works, you have to tell them exactly what is in your head. I have a lot more respect for composers now!

I’d love to perform less selfishly as well. That’s one of my goals. To not be so self-centred and so nervous to share the music. We can definitely fall into this intrinsically inward way of thinking, as oppose to a mindset of just sharing the music.  

You’re speaking my language! As a performer, you can get stressed out of your mind because you want do so well… but then you think, actually, the audience just wants to hear the music and have a nice time.

That’s where a lot of my own performance anxiety stemmed from. Thinking, me, me, me… I had an epiphany a few years ago, where I asked myself, why do I actually perform? Not for praise. But to share music I’ve discovered, music I really enjoy playing.

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