Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
I think it was watching ‘Young Musician of the Year’ on our black and white telly in the 1970s ignited my competitiveness and made me get on and do some practice. Although much of that ‘practice’ was improvising and composing because that is what principally interested me – though I took a long time to acknowledge it. For ages I thought the only way to have a career in music was to be a performer.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
One day when a pupil hadn’t turned up I decided to show some of my music to a talented composer friend. His reaction was pretty straightforward – I needed to do more and to get my work “out there”. I hadn’t had any real affirmation of my music before and although it sounds ridiculous, I was on a high for about a week after that.
Later I met Judith Bingham who became a tremendous friend and mentor. Early on, she insisted that I wasn’t taking myself seriously enough, which forced me to examine my approach. Organists can be a bit “throwaway” about the production of music, which is so often done on the spur of the moment with very little thoughtful preparation. Composing is different, not because of the speed of creativity; it’s about the preparation and decision-making in advance. It is the pre-compositional process that leads to the depth and meaning of the music which is eventually created.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
When I moved to Dubai because of my husband’s job, my worry was, “That’s it. Game over”. But actually, the experience has taught me a huge amount about seeking out opportunities and making things happen rather than waiting around hoping to be noticed by others.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
I really enjoy the sense of “team involvement” and having people invested in you. Knowing there is someone else interested in what you are producing is such a relief because composing is such an isolating process. I also deeply appreciate having deadlines. Luckily I have never had a commissioner who has “got in the way” of the process.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
Having dedicated professional musicians rehearse and perform your music is always a revelation. They breathe life into the thing you have struggled and grappled with for weeks or months. They’re the chefs who turn your recipe into a feast, checking with you that the taste is just as it is intended to be.
Working with musicians who haven’t prepared or even thought about your music is all about damage limitation. It’s very draining.
I once wrote a piano piece for a pretty well respected European pianist. He’d had a run of completely insane projects (including playing the complete Liszt in 48 hours!) and hadn’t opened the score before he arrived at the venue to rehearse. He sight-read very roughly through my piece while I sat there cringing and it was not much better in the performance the next day. I’m sure he felt bad about it, but I definitely felt worse because I had to sit there in the performance pretending my piece was really supposed to sound like that. It was nothing like!
Which works are you most proud of?
Immediately after finishing a piece I usually worry that it is complete rubbish. It’s often only years later that I get any kind of perspective. In my second year of living in Dubai I wrote my orchestral piece Kahayla and had the idea that I could write the score out on a giant piece of paper so it looked like a picture of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. So I did it and it always gets mistaken for an actual drawing. But the musical content was the only important thing as I was writing. The ideas behind it were strong and a sense of flow was there.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Among my composer contemporaries I love the music of Joseph Phibbs. He has a unique voice: beautiful and extraordinary, especially orchestrally.
I find pianist Katya Apekisheva’s playing wonderfully lyrical. And what a communicator! I hope she is huge in the future.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I recently heard the Syrian ney flute player Moslem Rahal in Abu Dhabi play a solo accompanied by rabab and Arabic percussion. It was a partly improvised piece derived from a mediaeval Spanish folk melody; very lyrical and rhythmically complex. He found a huge number of voices and colours in that instrument and virtuosic multiphonics appeared and disappeared seamlessly in the texture. There was no sign of him taking a single breath in those 20 minutes. I was riveted with awe: it was quite an outer-body experience.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
You need to be open to what life brings you. Don’t just think of the next thing coming up as the real opportunity, what you have on your plate NOW is the opportunity.
What is your present state of mind?
Slightly wired. I have lots of projects going on at the moment.
Joanna Marsh’s new work “Arabesques” is being premiered by The Kings Singers at Kings Place on 29 January as past of the London A Cappella Festival 2015. “Arabesques” is inspired Middle Eastern culture and is a setting of three poems by three contemporary Arab poets (Sa’adi Youssef, Abboud al Jabiri and Khaled Abdallah) each about a woman they have known. The music is also infused with mesmerising repetitive motifs which characterise each movement.
Joanna Marsh is a British composer who has been living in Dubai since 2007. The inspiration for Joanna’s compositions often comes from seeing contemporary subjects in a historical perspective. For example, “The Tower” (2008) for the BBC singers, (John Armitage Trust) was a reflection on the Burj Khalifa, Dubai’s famously tall tower, and its curious parallels with the mythical Tower of Babel. Her other piece about the Burj, Kahayla – written two years later, uses allegory to look at Dubai’s desire to ‘win’, comparing building the tallest tower in the world with winning a horse race. Horse racing is the national sport and a big part of Dubai’s cultural heritage.In addition to her concert music, Joanna composed the music for the short film “The Morse Collectors” which has won prizes at seven international film festivals including the Chicago Children’s Film Festival. Her songs for children’s choirs based on the poetry of Brian Patten, have been performed at festivals and choral competitions internationally and across the UK including Choir of the Year. In 2005 she wrote a musical installation for the Pier 6 Bridge at Gatwick Airport which is still playing in 2014.
Joanna is Programme Curator and Composer in Residence for THE SCORE, which most recently put on the region’s largest choral festival in Dubai: ChoirFest Middle East 2014.
Joanna (b. 1970) studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and was an organ scholar at Sidney Sussex College Cambridge. She studied composition with Richard Blackford and Judith Bingham. Joanna was selected as one of the composers on the ROH2 “Composing for Voice” programme at the Royal Opera House, which culminated in a performance with members of the London Sinfonietta in 2008.
Her experience of the Middle East has provided inspiration for many of her compositions including “Arabesques” for The King’s Singers and “A Short Handbook of Djinn” for harpist Catrin Finch, “The Travels of Ibn Battuta” for the Maggini Quartet and “The Hidden Desert” for pianist Gergely Boganyi. The British Embassy in Dubai commissioned her brass fanfare “The Falcon and the Lion” written for H.M. Queen Elizabeth II’s state visit to Abu Dhabi in November 2010.