Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
I always enjoyed music as a child and played recorder and then oboe growing up. I only really got into composing at the age of 16 when I was experiencing such horrific stage fright that it became clear I needed a different outlet. However, I came from a completely non-musical family so had no concept of how to turn this thing I enjoyed doing into an actual career. Perhaps the penny dropped at some point in my third year of undergraduate – studying Social and Political Sciences – when I realised that composing gave me the greatest pleasure of any activity in my life, and that if I wasn’t doing something creative I would lose my mind.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
All of my teachers who have helped me more than I can say, but especially Cecilia McDowall, Oliver Leaman, Dominic Murcott, Stephen Montague and Reza Vali. Also, hearing ‘Atmospheres for Orchestra’ by Ligeti completely changed my life.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Believing that I can do it, having the courage to make an artistic statement, dealing with failure, organising my life and work despite the total absence of a schedule, making money.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
Commissioned pieces are wonderful because you know you are working with people who are excited about contemporary music and keen for a challenge. There is always that worry that you’re going to deliver something that they will absolutely hate, but you can’t think about that, as then you will simply never write anything. You just have to believe that if you do something with enough integrity, it will work as a piece of art.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
I’ve done quite a bit of work with children and voluntary musicians so that has its own challenges in terms of how difficult you can make the parts, but also how interesting they have to be too. If you’re writing for an orchestra of children and you make the trombones count 200 bars rest then it’s likely those trombonists will be put off contemporary music forever. I feel that in a case like that, I have a duty to make their parts interesting so in the past I have experimented with handheld percussion and singing in the context of a large ensemble. The great thing about working with an ensemble like The Hermes Experiment is that you feel nothing is off limits. When I told them I wanted to write a piece that combined the melodies of Iranian classical music with Renaissance Counterpoint, they didn’t even bat an eyelid. And that was wonderful.
Which works are you most proud of?
The pieces where I held onto an artistic idea in spite of being terrified it wouldn’t work; working my way through that vulnerability and coming out the other side intact always makes me feel quite proud.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Ligeti is my shining beacon of inspiration at all times. Also Stravinsky, Berio, Morton Feldman, Rebecca Saunders and Xenakis. And I believe Bach is good for the soul.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Memorable concerts seem to either be incredibly exciting or make me sob uncontrollably. One was Johannes Moser playing the Lutoslawksi Cello Concerto and then a Bach Cello Suite as an encore (I sobbed in my cheap seat). Another was Lisa Batiashvili performing Shostakovich’s 1st violin concerto which was just incredible. And also a rehearsal of the Berlin Phil conducted by Simon Rattle performing Mahler 2 (I couldn’t get a ticket for the performance), in which I cried throughout.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
That self-doubt is both productive and good and will make you a better artist in the end. That you should strive at all times to do something new, whatever that may mean. To remember to be nice to people, as everyone in music is baring their soul and doing the best they can. To not neglect your personal life and relationships: practising the piano for 8 hours a day may make you a great pianist but it won’t ultimately make you happy, only people can do that.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I actually wrote a 10 year plan as an exercise with some friends last year. It involved composing, teaching, travelling and love. I don’t want to tell you the details as for some reason I’m scared it won’t then come true.
New works by Soosan Lolavar will be premiered by The Hermes Experiment at The Forge, Camden, London on 16th February, together with works by Giles Swayne, Ed Scolding, Claude Debussy and Richard Rodney Bennett. Further information
Soosan Lolavar is a British-Iranian composer, sound artist and educator who works in both electronic and acoustic sound, and across the genres of concert music, contemporary dance, installation, film, animation and theatre.
Her work has been performed at the Royal Festival Hall, V&A, National Maritime Museum, ICA, Chisenhale Gallery, LSE New Academic Building, Blackheath Concert Halls, Jacqueline Du Pré Music Centre, Bonnie Bird Theatre, Circus Space and broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
In 2013 she was selected as one of two Embedded composers in residence at the Southbank Centre and received funding from Arts Council England, Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Iran Heritage Foundation to pursue ‘Stay Close’, a ten-month project exploring contemporary classical music as a means of cultural exchange between the UK and Iran. In 2012 she won the John Halford Prize for Composition awarded by Ian Pace and was selected as part of the Adopt a Composer scheme funded by PRS for Music Foundation and run by Making Music, in partnership with Sound and Music and BBC Radio 3.
She holds degrees in Social and Political Sciences (University of Cambridge), Musicology (University of Oxford) and Composition (Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance) and her research interests include the politics of gender and sexuality, post-colonialism and the music industry and postmodernism in electronic musics. She has worked as an Assistant Lecturer at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, leading a course on music, gender and sexuality and at City Lit Adult Education college where she teaches classes on music and opera appreciation, film music and music gender and sexuality.