Meet the Artist……Yfat Soul Zisso, composer

26-apr-soul-zisso-contemporary-voices-web-131063328970695992Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
When I was 14 I started writing songs and realised I had so much music in my head that I didn’t know how to write down, as I couldn’t play any instruments. This led to a ‘eureka’ moment where I just knew that composition was what I was meant to do in life, which resulted in my deciding to go away to boarding school to study for an A Level in music from scratch when I was 15. 

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
My teachers (both composition and instrumental/vocal) and friends have had the most significant positive impact on my career. They have taught and supported me, always being honest and therefore helping me improve and acknowledge both the good and bad. 

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 
Having only started studying music at age 15, my greatest challenge was catching up with everyone else: first with general music and performing and then with composition. This meant always making sure I was working harder than everyone around me, and not giving up even when it meant not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for years and years on end.  

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 
Each piece is different and special in its own way. I treat the compositional process as a type of meditation, seeing the players playing in the hall inside my head, hearing what they’re playing and how it works spatially in the space. Once the initial idea of the piece is established, it’s all about answering all the different questions about what the piece is trying to do and how, until I can hear the whole structure in my head and can write it down.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
Every different instrumentation brings with it lots of possibilities and new ideas, which is always exciting. Working with musicians I know and admire is particularly great as it’s easier to write a piece that is influenced by them as players / singers and has that added element of being written especially for them. I find writing pieces for myself to perform (as a soprano) the most challenging – it’s like a constant battle between my performer side wanting to perform strange extended vocal techniques and my composer side needing to justify every choice compositionally.

Which works are you most proud of? 
Poke – a piece for large mixed ensemble I wrote two and a half years ago for a workshop with BCMG. Even though it was the only piece I’ve written in the last three years that has only been workshopped rather than performed, I worked on it for a solid three months and am very proud of the level of detail and complexity in it. I hope it’ll someday get a proper performance. 

From the Darkness, for symphony orchestra – this was my first attempt at writing an orchestral piece fresh from finishing my undergraduate studies and my chance to use all I’ve learned about orchestral writing from sitting in on weekly rehearsals and watching countless concerts (another attempt to catch up, this time by a 1st study singer catching up on orchestral knowledge). I’m still proud of this piece because it shows how much I’ve progressed in just a few years, from a singer who couldn’t tell apart oboe and clarinet colours to using the orchestra in ways I haven’t even seen being done before. 

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Ligeti, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Radulescu, Saariaho

What is your most memorable concert experience? 
A few years ago I was fortunate enough to have my first orchestral piece ‘From the Darkness‘ chosen to be workshopped and then performed by BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The experience of having my piece played by one of my all-time favourite orchestras when I didn’t think it even stood a chance to be chosen was surreal and overwhelming, one which gave me hope for the future and that I would never forget. 

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 
That pieces of music need to have a reason to exist, be it an idea or structure that comes across – there’s no point to writing pieces that just sound pretty without having something to say. 

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Working professionally as a freelance composer and teaching composition at a University / Conservatoire 

What is your most treasured possession?
I have a few items that, to someone who doesn’t know me, might seem childish and bizarre but actively help me compose. These include a ‘touchy-feely’ hamster book, a squeezable orange octopus toy (with its knitted hat), and my personal scores for the Berio Sequenza III for female voice and Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata (which are both symbolic in reminding myself I can overcome massive challenges when I set my mind to it)

How do you work?

I usually compose in what I like to call my ‘office’, which is essentially sitting on the floor in the hallway of the Conservatoire, opposite the composition notice board. It may sound bizarre (and passers-by keep wondering what I’m doing there or assume I’m queuing for a practice room), but it really helps to think about new pieces away from a piano or any other instruments at first in order to get a clear idea in my head of what I want the piece to sound like and do. The sound of lots of different students practising nearby actually becomes a kind of white noise that helps clear my head and I really prefer it to silence, and lots of people walk by so it doesn’t feel too alone. To add to the weirdness, I’m usually surrounded by my ‘composition aides and mascots’ which help me deal with stress – quite often I’ll be sitting there hugging my copy of Berio’s Sequenza III and petting my hamster book. I heard I’ve become quite a mystery for pianists who frequently practice on that floor.
How would you describe your compositional language?

I really like using different types of microtones to explore less common soundworlds. My pieces used to be mostly harmonic-series based but in the last year or two I’ve been frequently experimenting with other microtonal soundworlds, which feels like exploring a wealth of unexplored territory. As part of my doctoral research at Birmingham Conservatoire I am researching microtonal singing in order to create my own unique microtonal language that will incorporate voices as well as instruments, which is why I’m currently trying out lots of different ways of using microtones. Another side of my compositional language is influenced by my work as a performer – using extended techniques and/or a greater sense of acting/performing, especially for voices.


Carla Rees and Xenia Pestova premiere Hidden Elegy for alto flute and piano at The Forge, Camden, on 6th September 2016. Further information and tickets here

Ever since commencing on her music studies at the relatively late age of 15, Soul has been dedicated to her dream of becoming a composer. She graduated from Cardiff University, studying with Arlene Sierra and Robert Fokkens and for a brief time studying with Alison Kay, before commencing on a Masters and later a PhD in composition at Birmingham Conservatoire under the tuition of Joe Cutler and Howard Skempton.

Her music, which has been described as “curiously original” (Wales Online) and having “real character and sensitivity” (Wales Arts Review), has been performed by the likes of BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Orchestra of the Swan, Xenia Pestova and the Fidelio Trio across the UK, Europe and Canada in a wide range of venues including Wells Cathedral, Hoddinott Hall and Stratford Town Hall, and festivals such as the Cheltenham Music Festival, Occupy the Pianos and Frontiers new music festival.

Her interests range from the use of different microtonal soundworlds and textures to children’s books and the exploration of various extended techniques. She is also interested in writing for dance and has composed music for Rambert Dance’s Vintage Rambert project.

In addition to composing, Soul is also a singer, specialising in performing contemporary repertoire, including Berio’s Sequenza III for female voice. She is a member of Via Nova chamber choir, has performed as both soloist and choral singer across the UK (including at the Wigmore Hall and at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival) and abroad and is committed to promoting new music, which includes premiering many new pieces, particularly ones for solo unaccompanied voice.

www.yfatsoulzisso.com