0712396065227_600When I put ‘Return of the Nightingales’ (Prima Facie records) into my CD player, my cat Monty immediately dashed into my office and up onto my desk to find the birds that sing so sweetly at the start of the title track of this new disc of music by Sadie Harrison. The piano enters, delicately yet brightly, imitating the twittering birdsong before moving into a lively, rhythmic passage. Ian Pace, the pianist for this track, is very much at home in contemporary and new music for piano, and it shows in the ease with which he handles technical difficulties and his vivid, immediate sound.

The variety of writing in just a few minutes of this piece signals the theme for the entire disc: it’s a wonderful example of Sadie’s compositional breadth and rich imagination and a lovely introduction to her colourful and accessible music. Not only does the disc demonstrate the range of Sadie’s compositional palette but it also showcases the talents of four excellent pianists – Ian Pace, Renée Reznek, Duncan Honeybourne and Philippa Harrison, all of whom have considerable experience in this type of repertoire and who bring myriad colours, timbre and musical sensitivity and individuality to each work on the disc.

Composed between 2011 and 2017, the pieces on this disc reveal the many contrasting styles within one composer’s output, reflecting Sadie’s wide-ranging musical and cultural influences, including the music of Bartok, Berg, Chopin, and Debussy, jazz legends Bill Evans, Fats Waller and Thelonius Monk, Methodist hymns, vintage film music, her passion for the cultures of Persia and Afghanistan (Sadie is Composer-in-Association of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music), and the natural world. In ‘Return of the Nightingales’ (the title is drawn from the translation of a Persian poem), near-Eastern folk idioms are woven into the starkly modernist suite of pieces Par-feshani-ye ‘eshq (played by Renée Reznek), while in Lunae ‘Four Nocturnes’ Duncan Honeybourne sensitively and sensuously illuminates the tender, intimate lyricism and delicate traceries of these delightful and arresting miniatures (I purchased the sheet music on the strength of this performance in order to learn the pieces myself). Philippa Harrison brings the requisite vibe and swing to the Four Jazz Portraits, capturing the style of each jazz great to whom they are dedicated; while in Shadows ‘Six Portraits of William Baines’ Sadie takes small quotations from Baines’ piano works and reflections on his diary entries to create intriguing miniatures, masterfully presented by Duncan Honeybourne. The Souls of Flowers recalls Chopin in its long-spun melodic lines and shimmering trills, while Northern Lights uses harmonies and idioms redolent of folksong and hymns. The final work, Luna…..for Nicola, is a tiny yet meaningful hommage to Nicola le Fanu, with whom Sadie studied for three years, and was written in response to hearing the premiere of Nicola LeFanu’s orchestral work ‘The Crimson Bird’. in February 2017.

The song of the nightingale is the unifying thread on this disc – in the third of the four Lunae, the evocation of Alabiev–Liszt’s ‘Le Rossignol’ as played by William Baines, and in the fluttering wings of Par-feshani-ye ‘eshq, but also less obviously in the use of trills, sparkling runs, chirruping note clusters and tremolandos.

This is wonderfully rewarding, varied and enjoyable disc, proof that contemporary piano music can be tuneful, attractive and entirely accessible. There is much to delight and challenge the pianist too: the pieces are generally within the capability of the intermediate to advanced player, and are available to purchase as scores (from University of York Music Press). I particularly like Sadie’s treatment of melodic fragments and her jazz-infused harmonies.

Highly recommended

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

I don’t really remember deciding to be a musician, it’s just something I always did, and always knew I wanted to do. It did take me a while to discover that I wanted to be a composer, however. I only really knew about performers, so that’s what I thought I’d be at first. (Of course the music we played was by composers – but they mostly seemed to be dead men from Europe!) At first I thought I would be a pianist, and then an oboist. I entered university as an oboist, and though it was a fantastic time, and I’m glad that I had those years of performance training and experience, it was never quite the right fit. I didn’t love practising, and I didn’t love performing: I loved the music itself, and those were the only ways I knew to get close to it. When I was 18 I went to a music summer camp and signed up for the composition class simply because it fit my schedule and the teacher seemed interesting. As soon as I started, I knew that I needed to be a composer.

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

There are so many it’s hard to list, but one huge influence on me has been the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. I’ve interacted with him, his music, and his writing in so many different ways over the years, and I think my own work would be quite different without his influence. Growing up in Canada, I sang many of his pieces in choir. These are pieces that can be sung by children or amateurs, but are really successful and interesting as new music, often using beautiful graphic notation to help non-music readers to create fantastic sound worlds. This has very much influenced my approach to writing for children and amateurs: music doesn’t have to be simplified or trivialized to be made accessible to performers of all experiences and abilities. In 1992 I attended a workshop by Schafer called Environmental Music Week. This got me started really listening to the sounds of the natural world, and thinking of music as something that belongs outdoors just as much as it does in the concert hall. And from 1992 until 2003 I was part of Schafer’s large-scale collaborative music-theatre work And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon, which involves camping in the wilderness of Ontario for a week every summer, and co-creating the work with about 50 other participants (who are also the only audience). This has influenced me in so many ways that it’s hard to even know who I would be without having participated in it, but a few things that come to mind are the importance of community, the importance of creating for the people you are with, the importance of participating in all kinds of art forms even if you specialize in on, the importance of storytelling, and the way music and performance can serve as a ritual to deepen our connections with people and the natural world.

Other strong influences that come to mind, in no particular order, are my piano teachers, medieval and renaissance music, Ravel, the book Music, Myth and Nature by French composer François-Bernard Mâche, the two years I spend studying with Louis Andriessen in Amsterdam, traditional music, starting to play fiddle when I was 30 (and playing in a klezmer band and French Canadian traditional music band), Bread and Puppet Theater, and my interdisciplinary research on bird and other animal songs. And, more recently, becoming a parent!

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

Overall I feel very satisfied and lucky with my career: I’ve been able to compose, collaborate with fantastic performers, have some great performances of my music, and pursue my interdisciplinary animal song research with some wonderful biologists. At the moment, I have my dream job, a 4-year research fellowship at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. I’d say the first greatest challenge is simply composing itself! Though I find being a composer immensely satisfying, I’m not one of those (rare) composers who always finds the act of composing easy or pleasurable. I love having written a piece, but getting there often involves a lot trusting in the process even when I feel like I’d rather be anywhere than sitting at the piano or the desk! There’s also the ongoing frustration that it can be so hard for composers to earn a living. I’m ok at the moment, but it’s always precarious, and there have been times when I’ve had to live on almost nothing, or when I’ve had to rely on the help of family. I’ve been lucky so far: but artists shouldn’t have to be lucky to survive. We need security just as much as anyone else does!

My current biggest challenge is getting used to being a parent-artist. I had my first child when I was 40, so I had had quite a long time to get used to my schedule being my own: following the needs of the music I was writing, working on evenings and weekends as necessary, getting a slow start to my days, and so on. During the 5 years I was a freelance composer, I’d take all day to get myself into the right headspace for composing, and then have a brilliant and focused 3 or so hours to compose between 4 and 7 or so. Now I’m lucky to have 3 consecutive hours in a day. I need to focus immediately, even if I’ve been thinking about something completely different previously. And I’m always interruptable now – if the kids get sick, if the babysitter cancels, etc. I actually think that getting used to new ways of working is a good challenge – perhaps it will stimulate new kinds of ideas – but its not always easy!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I’ve combined these questions, since they’re related. I only write pieces for specific performers or performance contexts: sometimes they’re commissioned by the performer, sometimes they’re initiated by me. An essential part of music for me is the communicative aspect. Ultimately I want to communicate with the audience (it doesn’t have to be everyone in the audience, but I want at least someone in the audience to have a meaningful experience with the music!), and the performers are the ones who are communicating the music to the audience: so having a good relationship with the performers is necessary! It’s always a great pleasure when performers just “get” my music without me having to say anything. But equally, it’s a great pleasure if they don’t “get” my music at first, but are willing to work together with me until they do!

Of which works are you most proud?

This is always changing, but at the moment I’m feeling most proud of my chamber opera ‘Jan Tait and the Bear’, which I was working on on and off since 2012, and which was premiered in 2016. I wanted to write something engaging and interesting for audiences of all ages – not a children’s opera, but an opera that both children and adults could enjoy equally – and I think I succeeded with that. I wrote the libretto myself – something I had never thought I could do – and discovered that I actually really enjoy writing lyrics. And I hadn’t really thought that I would be able to write something as large-scale as an opera, but I did, bit by bit, and here it is! The whole process of working with the ensemble, the singers, the narrator, the stage director, the costume designer, and everyone, has also been really fun: it’s so wonderful to see what an entire creative team comes up with.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Oh dear, this is always the hardest question to answer! I like notes, melodies, harmonies (tonal and non-tonal), sounds, colours, patterns, irregular rhythms, narratives, stories, words, silences. My pieces use these in various different combinations and to varying degrees. On average my work is tonal-ish, though some of my pieces are not. Many but not all of my pieces are influenced by my research on bird and other animal songs.

How do you work?

This is constantly changing. I used to take hours – hours spent wandering, reading, cooking, biking, napping, daydreaming – to settle into the right headspace for composing. This is not currently possible, so I’m working on becoming better at just sitting down at the piano or desk and getting right to it. When starting a piece, I often improvise at the piano until I come up with the ideas I want to follow, or I start out with verbal or pictorial sketches. When I look back at the initial sketches, they usually have very little to do with what the piece ends up being – but I guess they’re essential as the way into it. I’ve never had a great concentration span, so composing for me is a continual process of redirecting my attention back at the music. When I get stuck, I like to sight read piano music or go for a walk. (I’m considering getting rid of my smart phone so I don’t have to constantly fight off the temptation to check facebook or the news!)

I never compose without a cup of coffee. Even if it has gotten cold and I am no longer drinking it, I find it reassuring to have it there!

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

There are so many, so this list is by no means comprehensive! From the classical/new music world, certainly Machaut, R. Murray Schafer, Ravel, Meredith Monk, Bach, Xenakis, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Stravinsky, Andriessen. I also love listening to the music of my peers – though I won’t name any because I don’t want to risk leaving people out! And I listen to a lot of traditional music, from all over the world. At the moment (as a relative newcomer to the UK – I moved here 2 years ago) I’m listening to a lot of English and Scottish traditional song – the Copper Family, Annie Briggs, Ewan MacColl, and so on.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I think the most memorable experiences have been large-scale, multidisciplinary, outdoor works: Murray Schafer’s And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon, the summer circuses of Bread and Puppet, Hanna Tuulikki’s Away With the Birds, the Environmental Art Festival in Scotland. Though those were not just about music – they were about theatre, community, and environment as well.

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

Keep listening and learning, and don’t let setbacks set you back. Everyone fails or is rejected sometimes. The successful musicians are the ones who learn and keep on going.

And look for as many ways as you can to build the kinds of musical communities you want to be part of. Some people try to get ahead by thinking only of how to further their own careers, but I think we’re all happier and healthier when we’re looking for ways to help others as much as we’re looking to help ourselves.

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

At the moment I have a number of composition and research projects that I’m really excited about – and I basically hope for the same thing 10 years from now! I do have some nascent ideas for future operas – larger scale than anything I’ve done so far. Perhaps these will be outdoor or site specific pieces, perhaps with a larger cast that I’ve written for previously – and I hope I am in the position to be making some of those happen then.

 

Canadian-born, Scotland-based composer Emily Doolittle grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia and was educated at Dalhousie, Indiana University, Princeton University, and the Koninklijk Conservatorium in the Hague, where she studied with Louis Andriessen with the support a Fulbright fellowship. From 2008-2015 she was an Associate Professor of Music at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. She now lives in Glasgow, UK, where she is an Athenaeum Research Fellow at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Doolittle enjoys writing for both traditional and less standard instrumentation, and has been commissioned by such ensembles and soloists as Symphony Nova Scotia, the Vancouver Island Symphony, Orchestre Métropolitain (Montreal), the New York Youth Symphony, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Ensemble Contemporain de Montreal, the Motion Ensemble (Canada), the Paragon Ensemble (Glasgow), soprano Suzie LeBlanc, viola da gambist Karin Preslmayer, and alphornist Mike Cumberland. Upcoming projects include a chamber opera called Jan Tait and the Bear, which will be performed in Glasgow by Ensemble Thing in October, 2016, and a concerto for Canadian bassoonist Nadina Mackie Jackson.

An ongoing interest for Doolittle is the relationship between music and sounds from the natural world, particularly bird and other animal songs. She has explored this in a number of compositions, as well as in her doctoral dissertation at Princeton and in interdisciplinary birdsong research with biologists and ornithologists. In 2011 she was composer-in-residence at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, where she collaborated with ornithologist Henrik Brumm in researching the song of the musician wren and presented a concert of her birdsong-related works, performed by members of the Bavarian State Opera.

Other recurrent interests include folklore, musical story-telling, and making music for and with children. These interests are combined in her piece Songs of Seals, based on Scottish folklore and written in collaboration with Gaelic poet Rody Gorman, for the Voice Factory Youth Choir and the Paragon Ensemble (Glasgow), which was premiered in the fall of 2011 in Glasgow and Skye.

Doolittle has received a number of awards for her music, including the 2012 Theodore Front Prize for A Short, Slow Life (commissioned by Suzie Leblanc and Symphony Nova Scotia), two ASCAP Morton Gould Awards, and the Bearn’s Prize. Her work has been supported by grants and commissions from the Artist Trust (Seattle), the Eric Stokes Fund, The Culture and Animals Foundation, ASCAP, the Canada Council, the Nova Scotia Arts Council, FIRST Music, the Montreal Arts Council, and the Conseil des Arts et Lettres du Québec, and with artist residencies at MacDowell, Ucross, Blue Mountain Center, Banff, and the Center for Contemporary Art in Glasgow.

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

The joy of discovering new things in music inspired me. I was self-taught, and I just found the notion of making music such a thrilling adventure.

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

I think a composer draws inspiration from all of the events in their lives. But looking back, I’m pretty sure some of the music I listened to when I was young provided some serious influence…the Beatles in particular. My flute teacher, Judith Bentley was also a huge influence. And then there are all of my colleagues…they continue to inspire me every day.

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

Starting out in my undergrad not knowing much of anything about classical music was an incredible challenge. For a long time I felt that I was climbing a huge mountain of knowledge, trying to pick up as many “pebbles” as I could manage to carry. But every step made me smarter and stronger. Along the way, I realized that one spends an entire lifetime learning.

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

Every piece is a challenge. To create something from nothing is a big thing. Sometimes I’m learning about a particular instrument’s needs (I just finished a tuba concerto…so I studied a lot of the repertoire and talked with various players to get a sense of what would be ideal in the piece). Other times, I’m trying to craft something that works for the performer(s). Then there is the challenge of getting notes on a page, which I hope the performer and listener will find interesting.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I don’t think it’s possible to make a generalization about this (I’m so lucky to be able to work with such a huge assortment of performers)…each piece is different and the challenges and pleasures change daily and yearly.

Of which works are you most proud?

I don’t know if it’s possible to be proud of one particular work. They all reflect so many things for me. But the one that feels very personal is “Blue Cathedral” … it seems to affect so many people. I’m sometimes surprised at how many instrumentalists and composers tell me this is the first piece of contemporary music that they encountered when they were younger. Even more surprising is how many people have performed it more than once. That’s one of the things that makes it special.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I let other people decide that for themselves.

How do you work?

I try to work every day, composing 4-6 hours a day: consistently, persistently, and conscientiously.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Impossible to name as there are literally thousands!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I’m lucky to have had many incredible and memorable experiences. One of the most life changing was the Philadelphia Orchestra premiere of my “Concerto for Orchestra” which took place at the League of American Orchestras’ Conference. My life changed over night after that performance. Suddenly I was known, and commissions started coming in.

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

Make sure you love what you’re doing, as you’ll spend so much of your waking time doing it. Work hard and do it to the best of your ability. Share the joy with as many other people as you can.

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

Composing in my studio

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Composing in my studio

 

Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon (b. Brooklyn, NY, December 31, 1962) is one of America’s most acclaimed and most frequently performed living composers. Higdon started late in music, teaching herself to play flute at the age of 15 and beginning formal musical studies at 18, with an even later start in composition at the age of 21. Despite this late beginning, she has become a major figure in contemporary Classical music and makes her living from commissions. These commissions represent a range of genres, including orchestral, chamber, choral, vocal, and wind ensemble.

Higdon holds a Ph.D. and a M.A. in Music Composition from the University of Pennsylvania, a B.M. in Flute Performance from Bowling Green State University, and an Artist Diploma in Music Composition from The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Hailed by the Washington Post as “a savvy, sensitive composer with a keen ear, an innate sense of form and a generous dash of pure esprit,” her works have been performed throughout the world, and are enjoyed by audiences at several hundred performances a year and on over sixty CDs. Higdon’s orchestral work, blue cathedral, is one of the most performed contemporary orchestral compositions by a living American with more than 600 performances worldwide since its premiere in 2000.

Her list of commissioners and performing organizations is extensive and includes The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Chicago Symphony, The Atlanta Symphony, The Baltimore Symphony, The Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra, The London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Luzern Sinfonieorchester, The Hague Philharmonic, The Melbourne Symphony, The New Zealand Symphony, The Pittsburgh Symphony, The Indianapolis Symphony, The Dallas Symphony, as well as such groups as the Tokyo String Quartet, eighth blackbird, and the President’s Own Marine Band. Higdon has worked with musicians that include Nathan Gunn, Isabel Leonard, Hilary Hahn, and Yuja Wang.

Her Percussion Concerto won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in January, 2010. Higdon also received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto, with the committee citing Higdon’s work as “a deeply engaging piece that combines flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity.”

Among her national honors, Higdon has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts & Letters (two awards), the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, Meet-the-Composer, the National Endowment for the Arts, and ASCAP. She was also honored by the Delaware Symphony with the A.I. DuPont Award for her contributions to the symphonic literature. Most recently, she was awarded the Distinguished Arts Award by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett.

Higdon has been a featured composer at many festivals including Aspen, Tanglewood, Vail, Norfolk, Grand Teton, and Cabrillo. She has served as Composer-in-Residence with several orchestras across the country including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Fort Worth Symphony, the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra, the Wheeling Symphony and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. Higdon was also honored to serve as one of the Creative Directors of the Boundless Series for the Cincinnati Symphony.

One of Higdon’s most current project was an opera based on the best-selling novel, Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier. It was co-commissioned by Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera in collaboration with North Carolina Opera. All performances in Santa Fe were sold out and Higdon’s opera became the third-highest grossing opera in the company’s history at Opera Philadelphia. Higdon recently won the International Opera Award for Best World Premiere.

Dr. Higdon currently holds the Milton L. Rock Chair in Composition Studies at The Curtis Institute of Music, where she has inspired a generation of young composers and musicians. Her music is published exclusively by Lawdon Press.

For more information: www.jenniferhigdon.com

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

When I was three years old, my Dad came back after work one evening with a tiny little electronic keyboard for me and a little book of tunes. This thing was so small – smaller than a harmonica, I remember. I think my Dad got it at the local petrol station where he had been collecting loyalty stamps and this was one of the rewards (no doubt along with some kind of tankard and a Castrol GTX baseball cap). Anyway, I remember the keyboard didn’t have black and white keys but just a series of black buttons with do re mi etc. printed below. I learned all the tunes in the book that first night and I really enjoyed it. I still remember the feel of this little gadget in my hands – I have a very strong memory for how things feel. Some time soon after that evening, my parents and I visited my grandparents’ antiques shop in the Cotswolds and there was a piano in the showroom. I somehow managed to work out the tunes I’d learned on my little keyboard on that piano and was playing away. My grandparents asked if I could pick out a tune from the radio and work it out on the piano and I seemed to be able to do this. My Mum decided I should definitely have piano lessons and so we got a piano and she learned too, to begin with. As far as I can recall, all though primary school I knew that I wanted to be a pianist and had already formed that identity for myself. I had about four weeks when I was ten when I thought I might like to be a stockbroker: I think that was because I’d seen some footage of traders doing all those fascinating hand signals on the trading floor and I thought it looked cool. I love hands, and hands doing interesting things. Other than that brief interlude I’ve always been hellbent on being a pianist. I was very lucky to have such supportive and encouraging parents. They were never pushy – they just did whatever was possible to give me the best opportunities they could and I’m deeply appreciative for all they did for me.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I’ve had loads of teachers over my life – way more than most people, for some reason. I don’t know why this is. I’ve had some really brilliant teachers. I’ve had a few truly terrible ones too, and, actually, I learned a tremendous amount from those awful ones in terms of what I don’t want to be, how I don’t want to play and how I don’t ever want to treat a student. Enough of the bad ones though – the good ones were oh-so-good and they made a big impact on me. My most influential teacher, with whom I studied through most of my teenage years, was Caroline McWalter. She taught me at the Junior Birmingham Conservatoire and was the best possible fit for me – always so encouraging, and I hear her all the time when I’m teaching my own students. Other big influences on me were Alexander Kelly, Darla Crispin, Martin Butler and Peter Feuchtwanger. I’m really thankful to have had some fantastic teachers – all of them very interesting people. I like interesting people……. sounds like a dumb thing to say, doesn’t it? When does anyone ever say “I don’t like interesting people”? But what I mean is that I needed people with real personality to respond to when I was a student. Personality is key.

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

Ten years ago I was at a really exciting point in my career. I’d left music college and was getting really good gigs at high profile venues and I had recording opportunities. Things were going very well but I was starting to lose my hearing. It was sporadic – my hearing would just go for several hours each day. At that same time I noticed many changes to my hands and feet. The joints would often look a purple colour and they would swell, become stiff and very painful. After many tests and much monitoring I was diagnosed with an aggressive type of rheumatoid arthritis that went on a rampage through my body. I was told by my doctor that there was a good chance I would be wheelchair-bound within four years. I was told to give up playing piano. This was devastating to me. Losing my career was the worst news I could have been given and losing my greatest joy, passion, my raison d’être was just awful. I was given a lot of serious medication to take (15 pills a day) and the news from my medical team was pretty gloomy. As my mobility decreased, some days finding it difficult to walk even a few steps, I entered a deep personal crisis. I was scared of my own body – scared to be in my body, scared of how my body was changing and scared of what my body would be like in the future. On getting the diagnosis I was sent on a course to learn about my “condition”. I was shown slides of terrible deformities and was told that this is what I’ve got to look forward to. Frankly, it was a form of torture. I can’t quite believe I had to go through five weeks of attending this impending doom/gloom fest and be told to give up hope. Their advice was basically to sit at home, take loads of drugs, don’t do much, and spend hours each evening with my arms strapped into splints. It was grim, grim, grim.

Then after a few pretty darned depressing years something suddenly changed in me and I thought “well, I’m not having this – this is not what I want for my life.” I connected with this little, tiny fire deep in me that fuelled me and gave me the confidence to change my life. It was around the same time that my father died and so big change of course was bound to occur. I understood that I had the power to heal myself. I started doing yoga (Iyengar originally but now I do kundalini yoga), I developed a wonderful meditation practice and I totally cleaned up my diet. Things started to improve and I became more and more positive and capable. I started playing piano again (I had still been teaching whilst I was ill) but I was extremely tense and found everything very difficult. I found my way to the late, great piano teacher Peter Feuchtwanger and he helped me find a very natural, easy technique and put me back on track. He also sparked my interest in Asian musics and philosophies. He really changed my life and I will be eternally grateful.

My body is my greatest teacher. I wouldn’t change a thing about what I’ve gone through. I’ve learned so much. I don’t believe that I had rheumatoid arthritis – I believe I was in a state of “dis- ease” and my body was telling me that I had to change certain aspects of my life. It was a case of soul-sickness physically manifested, lack of connectedness, and it needn’t have been medicalised. In order to transform and move into another phase of one’s life often one has to experience some pain and there is a form of “death” to go through…….. the cycles of life within one’s own life. I had some pretty dark times and I’m all the better for them. The journey from being terrified of my body to now being totally in love with it and with all that it does has been so remarkable and so valuable. These days I run, I take no medication whatsoever, I wear high heels (didn’t think I’d be able to do that again!), I play for hours and am really happy, really well and feel connected and ‘in the right place.’ The little fire I re-discovered in me several years ago is now big, beautiful, creative and passionately burning.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of my very first solo album which I’ve recently recorded. It’s called BHOOMA and is inspired by the Hindu goddess representing Mother Earth, she of infinite variety. It’s a collection centred around my own compositions alongside works from across Asia and America and is due for release in 2018. There are Indian textures and Persian rhythms and quite a lot of jazz. Although most of my career has been focused around contemporary classical music, in my heart I feel much greater affinity to jazz. I used to play a lot and am now steering myself back in that direction.

It’s difficult to categorise what I do these days so recently I’ve found myself opting for terms like “post-genre” and “polystylistic.” I don’t particularly like these descriptions but they can be useful.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Pretty obvious, I guess, but my own compositions are what I play best! I seem to be a good baroque player and I also gravitate to composers with rich, resonant soundworlds like Messiaen, Somei Satoh and my old teacher Peter Feuchtwanger. Huge generalisations about to come….. A lot of French stuff suits me. American too. Russian stuff doesn’t.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

For some reason, my most memorable concert experiences are negative ones, but quite funny, some of them. For instance, I gave the opening concert of a new piano festival at a big venue in London a couple of years ago and only two people turned up. One of them was my best friend. Another time I was doing a gig at a venue, also in London, and arrived to discover that there was no middle C in the piano – caused me no end of bother having to move everything up and down an octave the whole bloody time. A few years ago in Manchester I was playing one of my very, very favourite pieces (Incarnation II by Somei Satoh) which is a hugely rich and resonant and intense work. I had built up so much sound in this small venue that it had really disturbed someone. She said to me afterwards that my playing made her feel physically sick. Charming, eh? She had to leave the room to puke.

I have also had many lovely memorable experiences too though. Having St. Paul’s Cathedral all to myself for a whole week of nightly concerts as musician-in-residence was rather marvellous. I’ve been lucky to have concerts in fabulous settings like French chateaus, candle-filled churches and once in an Italian cave. I love those wonderful concerts where you just hit the right flow and can hold everyone in a beautiful space together, in communion with sound.

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

1. Naturalness.

2. Personal authenticity.

3. You don’t have to be good at everything.

4. Don’t follow the crowd.

5. Take risks.

6. Don’t be an operative.

7. Make everything you do physically pleasurable.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Among my piano heroes are Bill Evans, Martha Argerich, Abdullah Ibrahim, Nina Simone, Rosalyn Tureck, Jeremy Denk, Nat King Cole…. there are more. Beyond the piano I love Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Handel, Monteverdi, Bach, Messiaen, Steve Reich, Shivkumar Sharma, Amjad Ali Khan, Toumani Diabaté, Elton John (childhood hero), Stevie Wonder, Scott Walker, Roxy Music, David Bowie. I could go on forever……

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

I see myself in ten years’ time living in France running a cross-cultural music exchange centre in a beautiful location where musicians from all over the world can come and meet and collaborate with other musicians from across the globe. I intend to have a recording studio there and I want a venue where I can run candlelit festivals of ineffably gorgeous music.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

The bright silence of transcendence. There is perfect happiness in meditation.

What is your most treasured possession

My beloved piano.

I also have a small nineteenth-century bronze shrine to the goddess Lakshmi that I’m exceedingly fond of. If there was a fire in my flat there’s no way I’d be able to save my grand piano, of course, but I would make sure I took my Lakshmi shrine and my box of family photographs with me as I ran from the burning building.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Playing piano, writing music, kundalini yoga, transcendental meditation, dancing, singing, eating, drinking, going on road trips, and having as much fun as possible.

What is your present state of mind?

Full of wonder.

 

www.helenanahitawilson.com

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

I came to composing by a rather unusual route. I was studying cello at Birmingham Conservatoire and during a musicianship course was asked to compose a piece in the style of Bartok. I quickly realised how much I had enjoyed doing this and within a few weeks had an interview to change onto the composition course. In the following couple of years I became familiar with Mark-Anthony Turnage’s music and this inspired me to keep going and find my own voice. Two years later, after accepting to teach me for my Masters Degree at the Royal College of Music, Mark continued to inspire me, this time in person.

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

My family have been the most significant influence. Without their continual support and understanding I am sure I would not have a career as a composer.

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

I find the greatest challenge to be balancing my time between composing and all the other things a composer must do to maintain one’s career. Being able to do this successfully whilst still finding the concentration and imaginative space one needs should not be underestimated.

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

Imagining the sound of the musicians and the process of working together with them on a new piece is something that I find incredibly motivating since this is a highlight of the whole process. When the ideas are flowing, I find the working process of composing very pleasurable.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Building a long relationship with a particular ensembles make the experiences of working together all the more pleasurable. Birmingham Contemporary Music Group stands out for me in this regard. I got to know the ensemble and organisation as a student, received opportunities to develop my compositional voice through working with them, and continue to have a strong relationship now in my career as a professional composer. Their virtuosity and brilliance makes every encounter special.

Of which works are you most proud?

When I achieve something in a piece that is ‘new’, adventurous or challenging for me, that is when I am most proud.

How do you work?

I start composing first thing and work through until I feel my concentration diminishing. I work with pencil on paper for much of the process, moving to Sibelius when I feel I have enough of an idea about the piece. I use a keyboard and sometimes my cello too, especially to try things out later on.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

My friends. I find nothing more enjoyable that hearing and watching a friend perform or a friends’ music being performed; feeling their sound, expression and interpretation, each time knowing them a little deeper.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My Proms debut in 2012 with ‘At the Speed of Stillness’. I’ll never forget the feeling of standing on that stage for the first time to take a bow.

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

Write the music that you want to hear.

And performers?

Play music that is being written now, before it is too late.

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

Somewhere unexpected.

The composer Charlotte Bray has emerged as a distinctive and outstanding talent of her generation. Exhibiting uninhibited ambition and desire to communicate, her music is exhilarating, inherently vivid, and richly expressive with lyrical intensity. Charlotte studied under Mark Anthony Turnage at the Royal College of Music and previously under Joe Cutler at the Birmingham Conservatoire. She participated in the Britten-Pears Contemporary Composition Course with Oliver Knussen, Colin Matthews and Magnus Lindberg, and at the Tanglewood Music Centre with John Harbison, Michael Gandolfi, Shulamit Ran and Augusta Read-Thomas.

Read Charlotte’s full biography

(picture © Michael Wickham)

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

My mother was the composer Elizabeth Maconchy, so clearly I had a role model. As a child I was more inclined towards writing plays but gradually composing music took over. No-one pushed me towards a career in music, it chose itself, really.

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

Four composers: My mother, my husband David Lumsdaine, my first composition teacher, Jeremy Dale Roberts, and my last, Earl Kim.

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

Composition is always a challenge, and one that I welcome. Fashion is a frustration! For example, throughout the seventies and eighties almost everything I wrote was broadcast on Radio 3. Then for the next twenty years very little was broadcast. Now things seem better, as I shall be BBC Radio 3 ‘Composer of the Week’ (April 24-28 2017).

And ‘location’ as well as fashion perhaps, since I moved from London to York in 1994, and UK musical life is very London-centric. (But I love living in York.)

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

It is a pleasure and a stimulus to know the context of a piece – what kind of programme it is part of, who the audience are likely to be and above all, who the performers are. Occasionally it can be a challenge to keep composerly independence while meeting very specific demands of the commission.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

A good working relationship with a performer is the greatest pleasure. And every medium offers its own pleasure – writing for orchestra is marvellous. Yet the challenge also lies in the medium. For example, composing an orchestral work might take a year, but there will only be two or three hours of rehearsal and maybe only one performance. An opera (also at least a year to write) will have two or three weeks of rehearsal and several performances or a run. A much more satisfactory ratio.

Of which works are you most proud?

‘The Old Woman of Beare’, a monodrama for soprano and large chamber ensemble, is perhaps my best piece. But I would also single out a couple of the chamber operas – ‘Light Passing’, a church opera set in Avignon in the 14th century, and ‘Dream Hunter’ which has a great libretto by John Fuller about the Corsican mazzeera.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Lyrical, dramatic. Harmony and voice-leading create and underpin the structure.

How do you work?

I work every morning (no email till after lunch!); I sketch with pencil and paper, then I use Finale to make the fair score. Sometimes I work at the piano and sometimes at a desk, it doesn’t seem to make much difference.

The best days are ones where I work right through but all too often life intervenes and I only get the morning.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I don’t deal with favourites really…Mozart, Janacek? Of my musical friendships, the New Zealand composer Gillian Whitehead is a close friend whose music I admire very much.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The first rehearsal of my first big orchestral piece, ‘The Hidden Landscape’ for the BBCSO at the 1973 Proms.

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

Cultivate your inner ear! Then for the outer ear, know how to value silence and be active in combatting noise pollution,

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

In an opera house watching one of my operas.

What is your most treasured possession?

As a child, my cat. Now that I have no cat, and since I am writing this on March 29th when the Prime Minister took UK out of Europe, I’d say my EU (Irish) passport is my most treasured possession.

To mark Nicola LeFanu’s 70th birthday (28 April 2017), Radio 3 will feature her as ‘Composer of the Week’ from 24-28 April.  Upcoming performances of LeFanu’s music include a birthday concert on 10 May in York with the Goldfield Ensemble, the world premiere of LeFanu’s May Rain in Oxford with the Orchestra of St John’s  on 16 May and the world premiere of The Swan with Jeremy Huw Williams at the Beaumaris Festival on 30 May.  

Nicola LeFanu has composed over a hundred works which have been widely played, broadcast and recorded; her music is published by Novello and by Edition Peters.

She has been commissioned by the BBC, by festivals in UK and beyond, and by leading orchestras, ensembles and soloists.

Her catalogue includes a number of works for string ensemble, and chamber music for a wide variety of mediums, often including voice. She has a particular affinity for vocal music and has composed eight operas.

She is active in many aspects of the musical profession, as composer, teacher, director etc. From 1994-2008 she was Professor of Music at the University of York. Recent premieres include works for chamber ensemble, for solo instrumentalists, Tokaido Road – a Journey after Hiroshige (music theatre) and Threnody for orchestra.

She was born in England in 1947: her mother was the composer Elizabeth Maconchy. LeFanu studied at Oxford, RCM and, as a Harkness Fellow, at Harvard. She is married to the Australian composer David Lumsdaine and they have a son, Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine.

www.nicolalefanu.com