Meet the Artist – Joanna Marsh, composer

Joanna Marsh

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

Although I have composed from as far back as I can remember, I went into teaching and organ playing after university, as I had no role model in composition and no understanding of how a person would forge a career doing that. It really was Judith Bingham, who I met in my thirties, who helped me make the transition to being a professional composer. She had a very practical and down to earth approach but she was also very inspiring and I felt a strong affinity with the way she thought about music.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

I find that as a composer living in Dubai, I need to be highly proactive. You can’t sit around waiting for commissions to find you, you need to think up interesting projects and connect with people who can help make them happen. And actually it has been challenging living in a society that has no government funded performing arts sector as the priorities of a nation do largely filter down from the top. There are no professional orchestras or musical institutions in Dubai so the natural places for a composer to find work don’t exist. Things are subtly changing but Islamic Art and local Arabic Music will always be first in line for attention, which is probably as it should be.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The commitment and investment of others in a work is often very helpful. Composing is very solitary and although there may be collaboration at the point where you meet the performers at the first rehearsal, generally you spend many hours alone in a room working on the music, thinking hard and crafting ideas. A commissioner will provide an initial direction for these ideas through the occasion of the performance and musical forces offered. And then of course, they provide the most helpful thing of all, a deadline! I have been lucky enough in that no commissioner has got in the way of the piece so far. I have colleagues who have had their commissioners move the goalposts during the compositional process (actually we need a different length, sorry it needs to be for strings not brass…!), which can really create havoc.

How do commissions generally come about?

Lots of different ways. Sometimes people have heard something of yours that they like and get in touch. It is usually the performers in this case. But sometimes you happen across people looking for a way to mark a special occasion or anniversary who may not be the actual players. You suggest some ideas and it dawns on them that creating a piece of meaningful art could give relevance and immediacy to something they care about. Always at some point in the process ideas are discussed that catch a spark of excitement that lead the potential commissioner to think this work should definitely go ahead, and you should be the one to do it.

With my last piece, Rupert Gough, Director of Choral Music at Royal Holloway, came to performance of Act 1 of my opera My Beautiful Camel with National Opera Studio last May. That work was in collaboration with David Pountney who wrote the libretto from a story I had devised. Rupert mentioned that they were looking to commission a piece about the suffragette Emily Davison, who was an alumni of the college, for a date in January with the London Mozart Players. I remember excitedly telling David, who instantly poured forth a number of fantastic ideas for a choral depiction of the famous Epsom Derby incident. I could see that a musical record of the entire occasion and its aftermath could make a very interesting cantata and indeed it captured the imagination of Royal Holloway so they decided to go ahead.

You’ve collaborated with librettist David Pountney to create a work which celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, which first gave women the right to vote. Can you tell us a little more about the piece?

The cantata ‘Pearl of Freedom’ tells the story of suffragette Emily Davison’s ultimately fatal collision with the King’s horse Amner at the 1913 Epsom Derby. It opens with words that Emily Davison wrote in her diary about her passion for women’s suffrage. She uses the expression ‘Pearl of Freedom’ to refer to the prize that she was seeking, women getting the vote.

David created a text from original sources, juxtaposing factual elements from the day (the horses names, the riders, their numbers, their colours etc), with Emily Davison’s state of mind. He also includes commentary from various contemporary voices including King George V, the police sergeant on duty who listed Emily’s recovered possessions, and the Press. The only bit of text he invented is the race commentary before the collision between Emily Davison and the King’s horse Amner. He wrote this section in the style of Peter Bromley, a race commentator of a slightly later era, because no such live commentaries exist from this period.

Emily Davison was regarded as a loose canon within the Suffragette movement. Her militancy and extremism had considerably alienated the public. The work opens with jagged rising line of unison strings suggesting the intensity and turbulence of Emily Davison’s state of mind as she prepared and carried out her plan. She evidently knew that her actions would be far-reaching as she had commented to a friend that they should look at the press the following day. Her purchase of a return ticket to the Derby suggests that she was not planning to endanger herself fatally, however. The piece is around 20 minutes long and the final episode of the piece is devoted to Emily’s funeral, which was a very large scale public affair with 50 thousand people in attendance. The music of this section takes the form of a funeral march based around one of the hymns that was sung on the day “Nearer my God to Thee” with echoing quotes from Chopin Funeral March which was played throughout the procession.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

It’s easier for a composer to explain the intentions behind the creative process than to describe the outcome, which is the listener’s experience. But there are a few general points. For example I am certainly drawn towards tonality. I like the gravitational pull of it but always try to look for a means of expression that is not the obvious. I also enjoy using snap-shots of ideas or idioms from old or ancient musical works that can impart flavour but take off in a different direction in my own music. Development is important to me, I aim to find a strong idea and work it through fully in a piece. Clarity of structure is critical. An interesting or quirky idiom is just an empty costume when there is no actual body to inhabit it. And line is essential, it carries the energy that is the piece.

How do you work?

I work best with a deadline that is not too far away, or at least with some mini-deadlines to help me measure out the time! Usually I find a long time needs to be set aside for the pre-compositional process. This is when the idea of what the piece is going to be gradually appear as if out of the mist. When I start the actual writing I always find that the first two minutes seem to take an inordinately long time, much longer than any other section of the piece. It feels like ploughing a furrow for the very first time. After that the composing seems to move on much quicker, probably because the ideas to be developed further are distilled by then. And I always have to remind myself not to panic as I start to get to the end of a piece. Endings are difficult. They feel like bringing a plane into land; too easy to make a bumpy landing and you really don’t want to crash.

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 in the most general terms. We can all get a bit fixated on what we think our careers should look like and look to our contemporaries for a benchmark. It is not helpful. Don’t just think of the next thing coming up as the real opportunity, better than what you are doing now. What you have on your plate NOW is the opportunity; focus on that and the future will take care of itself.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I have been surprised by how much I have enjoyed living in the Middle East and I hope my connections here will still be alive and well regardless of whether or not I am still living here. Otherwise really I just want to be getting up each morning excited about the projects on my desk. That would be more than enough to ask for.

31st January sees the world premiere of ‘Pearl of Freedom’ by Joanna Marsh, a cantata which tells the story of suffragette Emily Davison and her death at the Epsom Derby under the King’s Horse. This coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918, in which women first gained the right to vote.