Meet the Artist……Sadie Harrison, composer

Bella West Photography. Childrens Portraits
Bella West Photography

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

I come from a household of musicians. My father brought the family over from Australia in 1970 in pursuit of his dream to be an opera singer. He worked at Covent Garden and Glyndebourne for a while and my earliest musical memories were of curling up on velvet seats in dark, dusty auditoriums listening to music that didn’t make much sense at all! My mother’s musical tastes were pretty eclectic – I remember a lot of Chopin, heavy metal and Wichita Linesman on repeat. I learnt piano and violin as a child, mainly under duress and sadly, often felt all at sea, happier with books and paints.

In October 1983 I heard my first piece of ‘contemporary music’ in a composition class at Surrey University taken by George Mowat Brown – Der kranke mond from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. It was an absolute revelation…it sounds ridiculously emotive but honestly, it was like coming home. I wrote my first piece the same day, eventually played by the brilliant composer and clarinettist Sohrab Uduman, and from then I’ve been on my composing journey. ‘Modern music’ took a hold of me in a way that I couldn’t resist. I wanted to be part of this extraordinary world of sound.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer? 

Of course, looking back now I thank my parents for keeping me at it as a kid, for giving me wonderful opportunities and indeed for filling my head with music (that I have come to like somewhat!) George Mowat Brown believed in my ability and Susan Bradshaw told me that she’d never known anyone write so much music with so little technique – George gave me the get up and go, Susan, the desire to learn how to do this tough composing job. Nicola Lefanu was a huge influence on me as a student (and still is) – her encouragement, sometimes sternly critical, has been a foundation for much of my work and I respect her work ethic (and her music indeed) immensely. John Baily and Veronica Doubleday opened my eyes and ears to the music and people of Afghanistan and the last 14 years have been devoted more or less to exploring the extraordinary musical traditions of this country. And then there are the countless performers who have taken the time to learn, understand and play my music. Amongst them, I count Peter Sheppard Skaerved who helped me resurrect myself during periods of creative despondency with his untiring belief in what I do; Rusne Mataityte who understands the heart of my music so well; Andrew Sparling who played my early works with such total commitment and showed me that anything was possible! And most recently, my partner Richard Dunn for whom I wrote my first piece after a 5 year break away from composing. Thank goodness for his inspiration!

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

Starting again in my mid 40s after a long break away. Coming to terms with how the musical world had moved on, how very many more composers are out there now, how technology has become so important in terms of promotion, how hugely competitive the composing world is now. Of course, it always has been but the pool seems so terrifyingly huge now.

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

I am less worried about working to commission now and I like deadlines. I think people know my music well enough to know what they are getting so now I just write the best piece I can, really thinking about the qualities of the people I am writing for. Recently, I’ve written works for four different pianists, each with such special and defining qualities. I think that all the pieces sound like ‘me’ but each reflects, I hope, something of the technical prowess or quirkiness or passion of the players. And course, the relationship you build up with a player through writing something just for them is a hugely intense one, challenging on both sides – how terrifying it might be for some performers to share their interpretation with the composer that first time.

Which works are you most proud of? 

I have recently been working as Composer-in-Residence with an American ensemble Cuatro Puntos, a group who are dedicated to global co-operation and peace through the teaching and performance of music in some of the most dangerous and deprived areas of the world. This August, two of the group’s members, Kevin and Holly Bishop traveled to Kabul to work with the young girls of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, recording some pieces I had written for them based of Afghan songs and dances, to be integrated into a large cycle of works entitled Gulistan-e Nur (The Rosegarden of Light). Quite literally, Kevin and Holly risked their lives this August, working as explosions went off around them during one of the worst periods of recent bombings in Kabul. I am immensely proud, and privileged beyond words to have the chance to work with Cuatro Puntos and the students and staff of ANIM. And delighted that their playing will be heard by many people in America this September and in the UK and Berlin next year during tours of The Rosegarden of Light Project Tours.

I spend much of my composing time questioning why I bother adding to the volume of new music, and my pieces related to Afghanistan and Lithuania (The Light Garden Trilogy, An Unexpected Light) offer some answer. They are concerned with bringing to light the endlessly beautiful, witty, dramatic and ‘real’ traditional music that can now only be heard on ancient recordings. My interaction with other musical cultures is the driving force behind most of my writing and I gladly welcome all the political connotations and misunderstandings that such an interaction can engender. I was accused by an American reviewer many years ago of writing a piece of music I was accused by an American reviewer many years ago of musical terrorism – he described a performance of one of my Afghan works in Carnegie Hall as the equivalent of my writing a piece in support of the IRA and having it played in the Albert Hall. It was a ridiculous statement but I am rather proud of it – it was a piece that said something important about the state of things.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Too hard! This morning I was listening to John Coltrane’s mellow album Ballads from 1962. He made it at the same time he was thrilling and confounding the world with his pioneering free jazz. I love the easy way all these musics can co-exist in the hands of a master. He’s great, so let’s say John Coltrane today.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Watching my 5 year old daughter jump up (from being asleep) in the middle of an execrable piece of music (can I say that?) at Blackheath Concert Halls, exclaiming “Stop that horrible noise!”

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Work harder than you think possible. Make it your duty to work at your technique. Be generous to people. Support other composers. Never take performers for granted. Listen to everyone’s point of view. Don’t panic when things aren’t running as smoothly as you’d like. Learn from your mistakes. Listen deeply and intelligently. Take every opportunity that is offered to you. Be passionate about what you do (quietly if you want!) Remember that the musical world intersects with every other bit of your experience so make music part of your life, not all of your life – your music will be better for it. Don’t give up. Don’t be scared.

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

By the sea.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

There’s no such thing.

What is your most treasured possession?

My daughter (yes, I know, she’s not a possession, but she is my treasure.)

What do you enjoy doing most?


What is your present state of mind?

Accommodating – my cat has slowly taken over more and more of the chair I’m sitting on to write this and I am now balancing on the edge with my feet jammed against the skirting board!

Sadie’s music has been performed and broadcast across the globe in venues such as Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera House, Vilnius Philharmonie Hall and the SBC, with works released to critical acclaim on Naxos, NMC, Cadenza, Toccata Classics, Sargasso, BML, Divine Art/Metier, and Clarinet Classics. Many of her compositions have been inspired by the traditional musics of old and extant cultures with cycles of pieces based on the folk music of Afghanistan, Lithuania, the Isle of Skye, the Northern Caucasus and the UK.  

Highlights of 2015 include the release of a portrait CD by Toccata Classics, appointment as Cuatro Puntos  

Composer-in-Residence 2015-16 and Guest Directorship of the 2015 Irish Composition Summer School. Notable 2015 performances include works at the International Mozart Festival in Johannesburg, in Pietermaritzburg and Stellenbosch, SA (Renée Reznek), Late Music Festival (Chimera and the Albany Trio),  

Bergen Music Festival (Peter Sheppard Skaerved), Club Inégales (Dr. K Sextet), Bristol (SCAW), Seaton  

(Trittico), Isle of Rasaay (Sarah Watts/Antony Clare/Laurence Perkins), Huddersfield (Nancy Ruffer), York Spring Festival (Geert Callert), National Portrait Gallery and Wiltons (Peter Sheppard/Eve Daniel/Roderick Chadwick), Holbourne Museum (Elizabeth Walker/Richard Shaw), Shaftesbury (Madeleine Mitchell/Geoff Poole) and Hartford, Connecticut (including radio and TV broadcasts with Cuatro Puntos and the Hartford Community Orchestra). September 2015 will see the premiere with 10 subsequent performances of Gulistane-Nur for string sextet and youth ensemble in Boston, Massachusetts and Connecticut, supported by an Arts Council England International Development Award and the Ambache Charitable Trust. Sadie is currently writing works for the Afghanistan National Youth Orchestra (Kabul, December 2015), Rusne Mataityte/ Sergey Okrushko (Vilnius, September 2016), Frano Kakarigi (Granada, November 2015) and David Heyes (Teppo-Fest 2016). Sadie’s music is published by UYMP and Recital Music.  She has several works on the Trinity Examination Syllabus and in the ABRSM Spectrum Series. Full details of her past and current works can be found at and on her website  

1 Comment

  1. This is indeed a real great interview…, so many elucidation points concerning the importance of new music. Sadie Harrison shows an incredible capacity not only of composing but also making absolutely clear the motives of what she is doing. Intelligent and very talented in everything she says and works on. Just wonderful.

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