Tag Archives: female composer

Meet the Artist……Soosan Lolavar, composer

soosan-220x220Who 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.


Meet the Artist……Sally Whitwell, composer and pianist

Pianist Sally Whitwell
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
When I was a kid, I lived in an extended family household i.e. my grandmother came to live with us. She brought her imposing beast of an instrument with her, a huge steel framed upright that she and I would play duets on, or sing songs together like Cockles and Mussels or The Wedding of the Painted Doll. I just felt drawn to the instrument. Maybe it was the bonding time with my grandmother? Maybe it was that it was the biggest toy in the house? I don’t know. I think it chose me rather than the other way around.
You are also a composer. Who or what inspired you to start composing?
My partner Glennda inspired me to start composing. At the time we met, we were both working strange hours. Musician hours are crazy at the best of times, and she worked rather unpredictable shift worker hours, so we found ourselves ‘dating’ at mostly odd hours of the night. I’ve always been a bit of a cheeseball and love Romantic period poetry, Shelley, Keats, Byron… Suddenly She Walks in Beauty Like the Night had great significance to me, so I wrote a choral setting of it and gifted her with the world premiere informal performance in our little shopfront studio we share (she’s a visual artist). My friend Michelle Leonard was at the performance and immediately asked if she could buy it for her community choir the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus. Thus my composing career was borne from love.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career, as both pianist and composer?
There are too many of those to list and I actually don’t like to single out someone over anyone else. I will tell you, however, what it is that these people have all done. They’ve made me feel capable of doing this crazy music thing. There is nothing so empowering and motivating as someone looking you in the eyes and saying “You can do this.” After that, it’s up to you to work hard at perfecting your skills and accumulating knowledge and experience that enables you to move people through your music making in whatever form that music making takes.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Having the courage to attempt new things. For example, when I was approached by Universal/ABC Classics to record my first album of solo piano music (Mad Rush: solo piano music of Philip Glass) I hadn’t played a solo piano piece in public for 17 years. I’d been happily working as an accompanist and chamber musician all that time, thinking that any kind of career as a soloist was not a thing that I was good enough to do. But I got thinking about it and realised that they’d never have asked me if they didn’t think I could do it, so I did it.
Which performances/recordings/compositions are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of my latest album I Was Flying. It’s the first album I’ve recorded of all my own compositions, which is quite daunting but exciting too. What makes me particularly happy with it is the opportunity to invite a whole lot of my colleagues from the Sydney music scene to be a part of it, flautist Sally Walker, soprano Alexandra Oomens, violinist Kirsten Williams, the Acacia Quartet and VOX (the youth ensemble from Sydney Philharmonia Choirs). There’s just so much incredible talent here. It was rather emotionally overwhelming to be in the studio thinking to myself that at least 60 people were slogging their guts out to bring my little dots and squiggles to life. I had a few teary moments. Haha.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
My own! Because they are all me. All of me, actually, and nobody knows me like I know me. Gosh, that’s a bit confronting.
How does your performing influence your composing, and vice versa?
Being a composer makes me increasingly aware of the value of detail on a musical score and how that manifests in terms of the dramatic shape of a piece of music. As a composer, I like to write with a considerable amount of detail in tempo and articulation, dynamic and phrasing, but I try not to make that detail stifling for a performer. They need some space for interpretation.
What are the particular challenges and pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? (if relevant) 
Hoping that the composer gives you the score far enough in advance for you to have time to learn it properly, which is often not the case. Such timings aside, it’s quite a challenge to learn the particular language of a composer whose works you haven’t performed before. You might make some decisions about what you’re going to do, and then they don’t like your interpretation, so you end up having to make some huge changes at the last minute. Sometimes this gives you an edge in performance though, so that can be a positive thing. It’s just a bit scary! When the composer is open and communicative and willing to be flexible, it is a joy to work with them. When they are prescriptive about interpretation or inflexible in any way, it can become strained.
What are the particular challenges and pleasures of working with other musicians, ensembles etc, as both composer and pianist?
As a composer, I love hearing what different performers bring to my music. Playing my music with other performers is the best way to learn about writing for various instruments. It can be tricky if said performers are not forthcoming with advice, or if they are less than helpful with the advice they do give. It’s about communicating well and having the same goal which for me is always to communicate something to a listener, to make them feel something.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I’ve performed in concert halls and churches, convention centres and jazz bars, school halls and shearing sheds… none of them are better or worse, they’re all just different. What I find makes the difference is the connection with the audience. If the audience is in the right zone, it’s a great place to perform!
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I enjoy performing my own music the most, because it makes me feel that I’m really communicating something personal. Likewise I like to listen to people perform their own compositions because I feel I’m getting the whole of them as a person. It’s what continually draws me back to Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Zoe Keating, Björk, Regina Spektor, Joni Mitchell, Rufus Wainright… I’m also listening to rather a lot of musical theatre at the moment ostensibly for research purposes, as I’ve just written my own musical Cog in the Machine. It’s interesting to explore the theatrical side of music making. I feel I may drift more and more in that direction. We’ll see!
Who are your favourite musicians?
It changes all the time, but at the moment I’m listening to lots of Björk, Agnes Obel and Olafur Arnalds. Being a performer/composer myself, it is particularly nice to see how others are doing at it.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Too many to list! My most favourite recent concert was in a Steiner school here in Sydney. The kids there were genuinely curious and open to new experiences, the whole atmosphere of the school was really positive. The campus was like an enchanted glade, there was even a picturesque waterfall, and it appealed to me that I got to wait outside near the chicken coop in the sunshine prior to my lunchtime performance.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Do your theory homework. Seriously, I use those skills every single day of my life and I’m so thankful for them.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
For myself, it’s connecting with people in all sorts of ways but primarily through my music. This world needs some joy and I try to provide that through what I create.

Award winning pianist Sally Whitwell maintains a busy freelance career as performer, conductor, composer and educator from her base in Sydney.

Sally’s album All Imperfect Things; solo piano music of Michael Nyman won the 2013 ARIA Award for Best Classical Album as well as Best Engineer for ABC Classics very own tonmeister Virginia Read, the first time that a woman has ever won this award.  Additionally, her debut album Mad Rush: solo piano music of Philip Glass  won her the 2011 ARIA for Best Classical Album.  Her sophomore album The Good, the Bad and the Awkward is a truly unique compilation of film music where she played not only piano but toy piano, harpsichord, recorder and melodica.  Sally’s fourth album I Was Flying is now available, featuring her own compositions in the art song, choral and chamber music genres.

Recent solo concert appearances for Sally have included the world premiere of the Philip Glass Complete Piano Etudes for Perth International Arts Festival and Ten Tiny Dancers, an all-singing-all-playing-all-dancing cabaret piano recital for the Famous Spiegeltent season at Arts Centre Melbourne.  In 2014, Sally will travel to Los Angeles and New York City to perform again with Philip Glass.  She will also be touring extensively within Australia, including shows for Adelaide Fringe Festival,  concerts at Riversdale for the Bundanon Trust and various trips to regional centres on the NSW South Coast and Byron Bay.  As a vocal advocate for classical music by women composers, Sally is currently curating a chamber music concert series in her home town Canberra. In Her Shoes features music by women creatives across the centuries, which she’ll be performing with Acacia Quartet, cellist Sally Maer and soprano Nadia Piave.

Sally other great love is choral music.  Currently she is a staff conductor and pianist for Gondwana Choirs and Sydney Children’s Choir with whom she has performed throughout Australia and in Europe, Asia and the Americas.  She has devised semi-theatrical choral shows for Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Bel A Cappella and Door in the Wall, composed new works for (and with) Sydney Children’s Choir, Leichhardt Espresso Chorus, Woden Valley Youth Choir (ACT), St Ursula’s College Toowoomba (QLD) and had her choral works performed by Gondwana Choirs, Canberra Choral Society, Brisbane Birralee Voices, Moorambilla Voices, various ensembles from the Arts Unit of the NSW Department of Education and Kompactus – Canberra’s Compact Chorus.  She’s looking forward to presenting workshops on collaborative composition at the 2014 Queensland Choral Conference presented by Australian National Choral Association. 



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. http://www.afghanistannationalinstituteofmusic.org/ http://www.cuatropuntos.org/about-us.html

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 www.uymp.co.uk and on her website www.sadieharrisoncomposer.co.uk  

Meet the Artist……Errollyn Wallen

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

There were several triggers — playing the piano, hearing Chopin in my ballet class, twiddling the knobs on the radio and discovering the range of classical music, a history teacher at school suggesting it as a possible career. My uncle told me I was a composer when I told him about the sounds in my head.

Eventually it became an inner necessity to compose.

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

J S Bach is my greatest inspiration. Gemini (founded by Ian Mitchell) gave me my first commission and I am continually learning from the musicians, collaborators and institutions I work with.

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

The greatest challenge is always how to manage one’s time —and finances — in order to do the work.

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

The challenge is to create a work which extends my range of musical thinking whilst also satisfying the brief of the commission.

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

I relish composing for specific performers — it always shapes the music. In composing Hawks and Horses I had the sound of Peterborough Sings! In my mind. I had already spent time in Peterborough so was able to get to know the personality of these special choirs and their brilliant conductor, Will Prideaux.

Every performer is unique and the challenge is to compose a work which lets the performer/s shine whilst bringing them something fresh and new.

Tell us more about your new work ‘Hawks and Horses’

What was the inspiration behind this work?

The inspiration was twofold — the sound of the range of voices (from young to old) and the way in which I came across Shakespeare’s Sonnet 91. Last year I was going through my Uncle Arthur’s house after he died and found a small book of sonnets which had an inscription in the front noting that that Sonnet 91 was about the giver and the receiver of the book. Was my dear uncle the intended recipient or was the book a second hand book? I will never know; but I was reminded of the power of words, the power of love and friendship. This is true for us at any age — which is why I decided to set Sonnet 91 for Peterborough Sings! which comprises a youth choir, a male voice choir and a women’s choir. As I was setting the poem I began to imagine the Peterborough landscape centuries ago.


Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force, Some in their garments, though new-fangled ill; Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse; And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure, Wherein it finds a joy above the rest: But these particulars are not my measure; All these I better in one general best. Thy love is better than high birth to me, Richer than wealth, prouder than garments’ cost, Of more delight than hawks or horses be; And having thee, of all men’s pride I boast:    Wretched in this alone, that thou may’st take    All this away, and me most wretched make.

How has working with Peterborough Sings! influenced the way you have composed the work?

I have never composed a work for children and adults singing together and am very excited to hear how the combination will work. It was invaluable spending time with Will and the choirs beforehand as that has had a profound influence.

Which works are you most proud of?

I have composed so much music. I am fond of all my works and am constantly surprised how the circumstances in which they were composed can have no influence on the finished work. I am very proud of my opera, the Silent Twins (librettist April de Angelis) which was performed at Almeida Opera Festival in 2007.

I also favour some of my simple songs which I perform at the piano myself. What’s up Doc? is a one-off and composed in a matter of minutes. I love performing it.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Ella Fitzgerald, Daniil Trifonov, J.S.Bach, Stravinsky, Ravel. So many more..!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hearing my works performed at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, knowing that they were being broadcast simultaneously to a billion people around the world was overwhelming. The work which also provided total concert experience was the première of Carbon 12 : A Choral Symphony for Welsh National Opera at the Millennium Centre, Cardiff. Carbon 12 is an oratorio about the history of coal mining in South Wales. The librettist, John Binias and I felt that we had achieved something bigger than ourselves. Everyone in that concert hall was somehow part of the story we were telling onstage.

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

When you think you’re done, give it 10 per cent more.

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

In sensational health after representing Belize in the 100m at the Olympics

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being by the sea or in the sea. Preferably with family and friends.

What is your most treasured possession?

I’m not very good at treasuring possessions. I do always need a piano however and I have a very nice Steinway upright. I also love my copy of the CD, ERROLLYN, framed by NASA. It orbited the earth 186 times.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Thinking, composing, playing the piano, singing, eating. I ADORE recording too!

What is your present state of mind?

Juggling the present with the past and the future.

This August will see the premiere of Hawks and Horses, a new work by internationally acclaimed composer Errollyn Wallen, the “renaissance woman of contemporary British music” (The Observer), best known for her works Principia and Spirit in Motion which featured in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Commissioned by music education charity Peterborough Sings!, the work was written for the city’s award-winning choirs Peterborough Male Voice Choir, Peterborough Voices and Peterborough Youth Choir, who will perform it for the first time with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square in London on Sunday 30th August, with a regional premiere to follow at Peterborough’s Broadway Theatre on Sunday 6th September.


Meet the Artist……Fiona Bennett, composer

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

I had my first piano lesson at just four years old, my dad would love to have played but came from a family who just couldn’t afford lessons. He played me Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony when I was about seven years old and I vividly remember being bowled over by the storm section. My first pop single was the Adagio from Spartacus and Phrygia which was in the charts because ‘The Onedin Line’ was a very popular TV series. I began writing songs when I was 15, mainly due to my father’s encouragement.

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

Coming from Wales and being surrounded by music in school the whole time meant it was a huge part of my life, right from the very beginning. I really enjoyed piano lessons, took my first exam when I was just six and music was always my great love. Sounds daft but significant influences are every single piece of music I’ve ever heard, all the classical greats plus Barry Manilow and Abba. I love good pop music and Abba wrote the best, most beautifully constructed songs. I don’t have a favourite composer, too many to choose from!

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

Small hands! I have always had to choose my music carefully. Rachmaninov was never going to be possible but I played Mozart, Mendelssohn well. Becoming a mum meant being permanently busy and not having the time (or inspiration) to write. I didn’t compose a note between 1998 and 2011 but when my elder son was working towards his Winchester College entrance exams and spending lots of time at his dad’s to study, I began playing again.  Within a few months, I had composed the whole ‘A Country Suite’ album, eight pieces for piano.

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

I wrote to order early in my career. Jingles, incidental music for TV drama but I’m afraid I prefer working independently and putting together music for my own enjoyment (which, thankfully appeals to a wider audience too). I am a huge fan of Debbie Wiseman (she and I studied with James Gibb at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the 1980s) and she is expert at composing to pictures and being able to change things quickly. I am still very much a full time mum and would find that aspect very challenging. I still write at the piano with manuscript paper and a pencil!

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

Again, this isn’t something I do much. I composed a piece for SATB choir back in 2014 and it was a huge thrill to sing in a choir actually performing a piece I had composed in the beautiful setting of Douai Abbey in Berkshire.

Which works are you most proud of?  

I was a prolific songwriter in my teens/20s/30s and the first song I wrote ‘Ti a Mi’ (Welsh for ‘You and Me’) was a big hit for me. It has generated a lot of royalties over the years and is still played on the radio now.  I am very proud of ‘A Country Suite’: it has some lovely melodies and the piano pieces are rather more complex than they sound!

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

I love good music, melody, harmony and so, as well as classical music, I loved 1970s pop music, ABBA, Barry Manilow, Wizzard, Sweet, Slade, The Osmonds. In terms of classical music, I adore Puccini, Rachmaninov, Mozart, Bach.  I love a big romantic melody!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Singing ‘One Voice’ in Barry Manilow’s choir at the Royal Albert Hall in January 1982 was very exciting.  My own ‘Concert for Autism’ was very special too. I put on a free concert at St Nicolas’s Church in Newbury in September 2009. I invited along some of Newbury’s most talented musicians and we raised almost £5000 for the West Berkshire branch of the National Autistic Society. I sang, played Mozart duets and a massive ragtime medley. It was great!

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

I am not one to sweat over a piece. If it works, it tends to come quite quickly and I rarely (if ever) change things. If it works and sounds good, just do it.  I have broken many of the ‘rules’ of harmony and counterpoint, parallel fifths and octaves, parallel fourths. I’m not a fan of tritones and haven’t used those as yet but never say never! If the piece I’ve written sounds nice to the ear, is well structured, has a good intro, beginning, middle and end, then I’m happy.  If you have to keep changing it all the time, chances are it wasn’t that great to begin with.

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

Happily married and sharing my life with my new fiancé, John. He is also a trumpet player and we both practise together! Aw!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Loving someone special and knowing they love and cherish you too.

What is your most treasured possession?

I am not a big one for ‘things’ but my new engagement ring is very special to me.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Several things: attending concerts with John, playing the piano and realising a new piece is starting to form, going for pizza with my two amazing sons, walking my greyhounds in the woods.

What is your present state of mind?

As happy as I have ever been in my whole life!

Fiona Bennett’s ‘New Lady Radnor Suite’ is available now. With a nod towards Hubert Parry who composed ‘Lady Radnor’s Suite’ in 1894, Fiona has composed and dedicated her new album to her friend, Melissa (The Countess of Radnor). 


Meet the Artist……Dai Fujikura, composer

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

I have never pursued a career in music, it ended up like this. Ok, let me tell you backwards. All I wanted in my life was to compose my own music, whatever it may be to other people. The end result of my compositions are often categorised as “contemporary classical music” (which was also not my choice; I thought of my music is as easy listening top of the chart pop music, but I guess a lot of people don’t feel that way, sadly), and I always want to compose.

Like a lot of people, one needs to earn money to live, as I am from normal working class family; in other words, if I breathe, I need to earn (like everyone else, I guess), and I don’t want to spend time doing things other than composing. So naturally I had to think how can I compose music so that I can also eat. Then it became profession.

If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would be doing the same thing, composing-wise. My life hasn’t really changed since I was an 8 year old composing every day. I guess I don’t have to go to school as I am 37, so I can spend more time composing, not just after school hours and weekends.

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

If I can speak about inspiration (before I get to the influence), I think I would say everyday life. I really think the inspirations are everywhere. Most significantly, by watching my wife being pregnant, going through each day until the birth, then my daughter growing and changing every day (she is now 3). The one and only good thing about being a composer is that you get to stay home and work, so you will not miss any of these magical times. I have written many works inspired by the specific parts of these situations, from early pregnancy to 2-day-old baby, movement of 2 week old cheeks, learning to walk, etc etc. All separate works.

Now, speaking of influences, I will mention these 4 people: Pierre Boulez, Peter Eötvös, Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Sylvian.

I am incredibly lucky, not just to know these people, or just shake hands once, but to actually work with these people, whom I grew up listening to when I was early teens. Sakamoto and Sylvian were my everyday play list, and Boulez and Eötvös were my everyday play list from when I was at music college student to today.

To be honest, I feel I’ve met everyone (my heroes) I wanted to meet in my life; everyone else, however many “famous” people are standing there in front of me now, I wouldn’t feel star struck.

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

Hmmmm, maybe writing my first opera SOLARIS.

It’s 90min, music for 5 singers, ensemble and live-processing electronics (I worked for months in IRCAM in Paris).

I must say I was a little worried before I started working on this opera, how would I feel about writing an opera. But from bar 1, until the final bar, I felt great. I have never had such a wonderful experience writing it, making drama, telling the story, controlling the pace, mood, atmosphere of the drama. At no point did I feel “I didn’t know what to do next” while composing SOLARIS.

I was sorry after 1.5 year I reached the final bar of SOLARIS, that I had to leave this world in which I lived for a year and a half composing.

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

Not every commission, but some commissions come with some “request”. I quite like this.

From when I was small, I always love studying. I loved school, I always studied (not because I wanted good grades, but I just wanted to know more things) something in my life, including unnecessary things!

For instance, I wrote a piece for Lucerne Festival, which was for anniversary of the oldest and biggest insurance company, Swiss RE. They requested me to write music about “risk management”, a term which I had not even heard of until then. Soon I found out one of my close friend’s partner whom I knew for years, is a professional Risk Manager! I knew that he wears a suit every day to go to work, unlike floating around everyday like a jobless person like me. So it was fascinating for me to study this totally unknown area.

Another was the anniversary for Kierkegaard. I knew the name, but never really knew about him. It was a great excuse to study and research him.

So it is not a challenge, it is an excuse for me to know more, a good reason to do research.

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

I wouldn’t say “challenges”, but I always think about the musicians who will perform (for the first time) the work I am writing. It may be hard to believe for some, but I really do. If it is an orchestra then I think about the conductor (especially if I know the conductor very well); if it is a solo or concerto works, I would have lengthy face to face or skype sessions with the musicians I am writing for. It is so important that I have these musicians in mind when I am composing.

But it is strange, quite often I compose music like that, then they premiere the work, they say nice things, but they never play the work again. A few years later, someone totally different from whom I imagined when I was writing the piece contacts me and then plays the work obsessively many times, as if the work was written especially for him/her.

I can never really control this, it’s a chemistry, I think. But it is nice, for me to try to seek the “reason of the work’s birth”. Once he/she is born, they walk their own life….

Which works are you most proud of?

Can’t answer that….though my old works, I feel are quite distant, a bit like someone else’s compositions with lots of bits I feel comfortable with, or like or am familiar with. I feel more possessive about recent works.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

“Daphnis and Chloe” BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, conducted by Pierre Boulez. It was amazing to me that I literary could hear every single note which was played, and the pacing of it. The piece started, and finished as if in one breath. Really clean, like the most smooth single malt whisky.

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

Why do you play these particular works in this exact time and for whom, and why those instruments. When I feel this clearly as an audience, I will most likely to like the concert.

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

I would like to be writing larger scale works only, like operas. Hmmm….. maybe some little pieces in between for people I like.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Composing – and when my daughter is lying on me on the sofa, watching tv or reading books (preferably the latter).

Although Dai Fujikura was born in Osaka, Japan, he has now spent more than 20 years in the UK where he studied composition with Edwin Roxburgh, Daryl Runswick and George Benjamin. During the last decade he has been the recipient of numerous prizes, including the Huddersfield Festival Young Composers Award and a Royal Philharmonic Society Award in UK, Internationaler Wiener Composition Prize, the Paul Hindemith Prize in Austria and Germany respectively and both the OTAKA and Akutagawa awards in 2009.

A quick glance at his list of commissions and performances reveals he is fast becoming a truly international composer. His music is not only performed in the country of his birth or his adopted home, but is now performed in venues as geographically diverse as Caracas and Oslo, Venice and Schleswig-Holstein, Lucerne and Paris.

Full biography here


Meet the Artist…… Lola Perrin, pianist & composer

Lola Perrin
Lola Perrin

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

It picked me, I couldn’t keep away from the piano and when I hit my early twenties I realised I had to compose, and knew it would take a good few years to write anything I could say was original.  It actually took 9 years to eventually compose eleven minutes of music that I rate; my first piano suite which is a set of seven miniatures.  After that, the door was open.


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

Edward Hopper, Ansel Adams, observing children set free at the piano, Rachel Whiteread, Carsten Hoeller, Dr Martin Coath’s emails to me about the speed of thought in the brain, Hussein Chalayan’s ideology that drives his designs, the passing of a close friend and musician and remembering him in a piano suite – these were all triggers, one by one, for my eight piano suites.


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

It’s unimaginably difficult to get other people to play your work which is fairly usual (so many of my predecessors only started getting played after their deaths), although my work is played now more than it was – it ebbs and flows.  It’s hard to get it to take off. I’m more interested in composing than promoting so I run out of time to promote my books. I spend less time than I would like on promoting my books because my composing and teaching take priority.  So I would say the greatest challenge is ongoing; getting my work further into the repertoire and into the hands of many more concert pianists.


Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

Always the next one.


Favourite pieces to listen to?

Bill Evans playing ‘Symbiosis’


Who are your favourite musicians?

Martha Argerich is high up in my list and I loved seeing her daughter’s amazing and intimate film about Martha: ‘Bloody Daughter’.


What is your most memorable concert experience?

Maybe the one where around 5 and a half people came. I was in a tiny chapel in Hamburg, My show included films and as there was no screen, they were projected onto the amazing and antiquated wallpaper, creating the sense of a one-time-only atmosphere never to be repeated but perhaps everyone would remember on a particularly deep level.


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

Once you find your path, never step away from it; no matter how hard it is, do not compromise. Be brave and keep reaching out!


What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve spent the last year creating “Now You See It” – a composer’s response to living in the age of climate change. It’s scored for piano and an orchestra of words featuring the voices of activists and innovators at the frontline of climate justice.  I worked with co-producer Christian Dymond, researching and interviewing a number of activists around the world; then I created a word based composition using extracts from the interviews and set that within piano composition. It has its premiere in London in March and is going to Hebden Bridge Piano Festival in April, will be on at Markson Pianos Concert Series in October, with more dates coming in. 


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

On a planet that has switched to renewable energy or NO energy.


What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Walking to my next gig; that’s when I most feel in my element.



Lola Perrin performs at Hebden Bridge Piano Festival on 18th April in a programme which culminates in her “Now You See It” – a multimedia project featuring solo piano with a sumptuous cloud film by visual artist Roberto Battista, and pre-recorded words captured from international activists, climatologists, inventors, writers, and oil rig workers; voices from the frontline of our global climate conversation.  “Such a brilliant idea!” George Monbiot

 Further information and tickets here 

Lola Perrin is a London-based, USA-born composer, pianist, publisher, and Composer-in-Residence at Markson Pianos.

She has been composing since 1992 and performs her compositions on mainland Europe, in the UK (including works for 2, 4 & 6 pianos at Lang Lang Inspires, Southbank Centre) & USA, and has published over 70 piano compositions in 8 books, distributed via Spartan Press. Commissions include silent film scores performed at Barbican, BFI Southbank and Peninsula Arts in Plymouth. She collaborates in performance with writers (including Mihir Bose  & Sue Hubbard), scientists, artists and film makers. 

Lola Perrin has been taken into the repertoire by concert pianists including; Elena Riu, Kevin Robert Orr, Paul Cassidy, Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble, LP Duo, Duo Gastesi Bezerra, Carles and Sofia.  Her technical exercises, commissioned by Trinity College of Music, can be found in their 2015 – 2016 Piano Syllabus Grades 3 & 4.

As an increasing number of pianists and piano duos take up her piano works she is turning her attention to instrumental works.  Elysian Quartet and Carlos Lopez-Real have performed her string quartet and saxophone work. Sarah Watts  commissioned ‘Her Sisters’ Notebook’ (ten bass clarinets) for Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival 2011 and played it at Irish Royal Academy 2014. Simon Desbrulais and Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble have taken up her forthcoming Suite for Two Pianos, Trumpet and Narrator. During 2014 two instrumental works (String Quartet & Saxophone, Wind Quintet & Choir) are due to be rehearsed / performed in London.

She has been interviewed and reviewed by various media including Berliner Morgenpost, BBC Radio 3 and local stations, The Guardian, Lyric FM.  Her recordings appear on radio playlists and occasionally on broadcast TV, are on general release and can be found through digital sites including iTunes (CDs: Fragile Light’, ‘By Peculiar Grace and other loves’).  She also works as a private piano teacher.  Pianist magazine ran an interview, June 2014, with her piano student Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, in which Lola made a sneak appearance.

As well as various composition projects, she is also currently transcribing ‘Concerto in C Minor’ by Helen Hagan, a forgotten 1912 virtuosic masterpiece still in the composer’s hand, and creating a concert programme around it.


Meet the Artist……Joanna Marsh, composer

Joanna Marsh

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

I think it was watching ‘Young Musician of the Year’ on our black and white telly in the 1970s ignited my competitiveness and made me get on and do some practice. Although much of that ‘practice’ was improvising and composing because that is what principally interested me – though I took a long time to acknowledge it. For ages I thought the only way to have a career in music was to be a performer.

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

One day when a pupil hadn’t turned up I decided to show some of my music to a talented composer friend. His reaction was pretty straightforward – I needed to do more and to get my work “out there”. I hadn’t had any real affirmation of my music before and although it sounds ridiculous, I was on a high for about a week after that.

Later I met Judith Bingham who became a tremendous friend and mentor. Early on, she insisted that I wasn’t taking myself seriously enough, which forced me to examine my approach. Organists can be a bit “throwaway” about the production of music, which is so often done on the spur of the moment with very little thoughtful preparation. Composing is different, not because of the speed of creativity; it’s about the preparation and decision-making in advance. It is the pre-compositional process that leads to the depth and meaning of the music which is eventually created.

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

When I moved to Dubai because of my husband’s job, my worry was, “That’s it. Game over”. But actually, the experience has taught me a huge amount about seeking out opportunities and making things happen rather than waiting around hoping to be noticed by others.

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

I really enjoy the sense of “team involvement” and having people invested in you. Knowing there is someone else interested in what you are producing is such a relief because composing is such an isolating process. I also deeply appreciate having deadlines. Luckily I have never had a commissioner who has “got in the way” of the process.

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

Having dedicated professional musicians rehearse and perform your music is always a revelation. They breathe life into the thing you have struggled and grappled with for weeks or months. They’re the chefs who turn your recipe into a feast, checking with you that the taste is just as it is intended to be.

Working with musicians who haven’t prepared or even thought about your music is all about damage limitation. It’s very draining.

I once wrote a piano piece for a pretty well respected European pianist. He’d had a run of completely insane projects (including playing the complete Liszt in 48 hours!) and hadn’t opened the score before he arrived at the venue to rehearse. He sight-read very roughly through my piece while I sat there cringing and it was not much better in the performance the next day. I’m sure he felt bad about it, but I definitely felt worse because I had to sit there in the performance pretending my piece was really supposed to sound like that. It was nothing like!

Which works are you most proud of?

Immediately after finishing a piece I usually worry that it is complete rubbish. It’s often only years later that I get any kind of perspective. In my second year of living in Dubai I wrote my orchestral piece Kahayla and had the idea that I could write the score out on a giant piece of paper so it looked like a picture of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. So I did it and it always gets mistaken for an actual drawing. But the musical content was the only important thing as I was writing. The ideas behind it were strong and a sense of flow was there.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Among my composer contemporaries I love the music of Joseph Phibbs. He has a unique voice: beautiful and extraordinary, especially orchestrally.

I find pianist Katya Apekisheva’s playing wonderfully lyrical. And what a communicator! I hope she is huge in the future.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

I recently heard the Syrian ney flute player Moslem Rahal in Abu Dhabi play a solo accompanied by rabab and Arabic percussion. It was a partly improvised piece derived from a mediaeval Spanish folk melody; very lyrical and rhythmically complex. He found a huge number of voices and colours in that instrument and virtuosic multiphonics appeared and disappeared seamlessly in the texture. There was no sign of him taking a single breath in those 20 minutes. I was riveted with awe: it was quite an outer-body experience.

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. Don’t just think of the next thing coming up as the real opportunity, what you have on your plate NOW is the opportunity.

What is your present state of mind?

Slightly wired. I have lots of projects going on at the moment.


Joanna Marsh’s new work “Arabesques” is being premiered by The Kings Singers at Kings Place on 29 January as past of the London A Cappella Festival 2015. “Arabesques” is inspired Middle Eastern culture and is a setting of three poems by three contemporary Arab poets (Sa’adi Youssef, Abboud al Jabiri and Khaled Abdallah) each about a woman they have known. The music is also infused with mesmerising repetitive motifs which characterise each movement.

Joanna Marsh is a British composer who has been living in Dubai since 2007. The inspiration for Joanna’s compositions often comes from seeing contemporary subjects in a historical perspective. For example, “The Tower” (2008) for the BBC singers, (John Armitage Trust) was a reflection on the Burj Khalifa, Dubai’s famously tall tower, and its curious parallels with the mythical Tower of Babel. Her other piece about the Burj, Kahayla – written two years later, uses allegory to look at Dubai’s desire to ‘win’, comparing building the tallest tower in the world with winning a horse race. Horse racing is the national sport and a big part of Dubai’s cultural heritage.In addition to her concert music, Joanna composed the music for the short film “The Morse Collectors” which has won prizes at seven international film festivals including the Chicago Children’s Film Festival. Her songs for children’s choirs based on the poetry of Brian Patten, have been performed at festivals and choral competitions internationally and across the UK including Choir of the Year. In 2005 she wrote a musical installation for the Pier 6 Bridge at Gatwick Airport which is still playing in 2014.

Joanna is Programme Curator and Composer in Residence for THE SCORE, which most recently put on the region’s largest choral festival in Dubai: ChoirFest Middle East 2014.

Joanna (b. 1970) studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and was an organ scholar at Sidney Sussex College Cambridge. She studied composition with Richard Blackford and Judith Bingham. Joanna was selected as one of the composers on the ROH2 “Composing for Voice” programme at the Royal Opera House, which culminated in a performance with members of the London Sinfonietta in 2008.

Her experience of the Middle East has provided inspiration for many of her compositions including “Arabesques” for The King’s Singers and “A Short Handbook of Djinn” for harpist Catrin Finch, “The Travels of Ibn Battuta” for the Maggini Quartet and “The Hidden Desert” for pianist Gergely Boganyi.  The British Embassy in Dubai commissioned her brass fanfare “The Falcon and the Lion” written for H.M. Queen Elizabeth II’s state visit to Abu Dhabi in November 2010.


Meet the Artist…… Natalie Bleicher, pianist and composer

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

I grew up in a musical household as my mother was a piano teacher. She taught me piano and I also played viola and violin, and for as long as I can remember I knew wanted a career in music. I think I first started composing because improvising new melodies and harmonies made practising my scales more interesting!

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

Many and varied. I was fortunate enough to have an excellent musical education with many good teachers, starting with my mother. My secondary school, Dame Alice Owen’s, had a very strong music department and I attended Trinity College of Music, Junior Department on Saturdays. I also played the viola in Hertfordshire County Youth Orchestra. I then went on to study music at Oxford and composition at King’s College, London.

More recently, I joined CoMA (Contemporary Music for All) in 2005, playing the piano in CoMA London Ensemble which is a contemporary music group open to all instruments and all abilities. Initially I thought that CoMA would be a good way to provide composing opportunities, but I enjoyed playing the piano in the ensemble so much that I started to realise that I had more of a passion for playing than composing, particularly the excitement of playing contemporary music. CoMA has taught me more about contemporary music than my master’s degree in composition and I have discovered many wonderful composers and explored their solo piano music, including Paul Burnell, Joanna Lee and Dave Smith whose works appear on my latest CD.

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

The greatest challenge for me has been working out how to find my niche as a musician in the first place. I always knew I wanted a career in music and after graduating I worked for several years in music organisations alongside some composing and teaching. However I always felt that I wanted to spend more time making music myself. When I had the opportunity to switch to part time hours in my administrative work I was able to think seriously about what career I really wanted and how to get there, and that’s when I realised that I wanted to focus on piano.

While I had always taken piano seriously I knew that converting this into a full-time career would require a concentrated period of study and that’s when I got in touch with my teacher Thalia Myers. Under her guidance I threw myself into getting my playing up to a standard where I could forge a career as a pianist.

Embarking on a career as a professional pianist in ones thirties rather than twenties has its challenges, but I believe that a richness of musical and life experiences informs my playing, providing me with something a little different to offer audiences.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

My first CD, Dream Rotation, which I recorded in November 2013 and which has recently come out. Dream Rotation is a collection of six contemporary works by composers I know. Four of the works were in fact written for me to play, two of which are dedicated to me. Five are premiere recordings.

I had at the back of my mind that I would like to record some of the repertoire I had been working on. I decided to go for it in 2013 when I discovered I was expecting a baby in early 2014 and I knew that my practising time would be reduced afterwards. I recorded the six works in one day in November 2013 at the Jacqueline du Pré music building in Oxford with the excellent recording engineer Adaq Khan. In the run-up to the day I had to put a lot of work into learning the works to a standard I was happy with and I had three other concerts during that two-week period. All while being seven months pregnant! The recording day itself was enormous fun and went more smoothly than I could have hoped for, then all the editing and admin that goes into bringing a CD out was done during 2014 in bits of time snatched in between looking after my little boy.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

As I am always learning new things and developing as a player it tends to be whatever I’ve performed most recently. I love playing contemporary music and I actually find standard repertoire quite daunting because there are so many interpretations already out there. I also love playing in ensembles and orchestras and regard this aspect of my playing as just as important as my solo playing.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

In a variety of ways. Depending on what concerts are coming up I may look for a piece for a particular occasion or others might make a specific request. In addition, composers often send me their works, which I welcome although I also warn them that their pieces will go on to a large pile on my piano and there’s no guarantee of a performance! I have discovered that male composers are much less shy about sending pieces to performers than female composers. Women take note!

As a composer, who are the major influences on your work?

A tough question! Every piece is different and I have sometimes noticed that each piece has something of whatever I’ve been listening to and playing at the time. In recent years this means CoMA repertoire, particularly the use of aleotoric notation such as indefinite pitches and rhythms and generally thinking outside the box. Composers such as Howard Cheesman, Joanna Lee, Stephen Montague and Dave Smith all think creatively about what the performers are required to do and how to express that in a notation which will be understood.

Do you find your composing informs your performing and vice versa?

Absolutely! In terms of playing it is useful to think about what kind of sound the composer was aiming for in any particular texture and to imagine each passage as if it were written for voice, and as if it were written for orchestra, as well as how it is actually written for piano. Understanding the structure of a piece and how the material develops is essential in planning a performance.

It is imperative for composers to understand their music from the point of view of a performer because it is only the performer who can actually bring the music to life. Since I have been playing contemporary music I have thought much more carefully about writing music for the instruments playing it and notating from the performer’s point of view. I think the music I have written as a result of this has greater clarity and I have been much more careful about how things are notated.

You have a special interest in contemporary repertoire and new music. What are the special pleasures and challenges of working with this repertoire?

Bringing a piece to life for the very first time is a wonderful experience. I love the feeling of discovering a piece I didn’t know before and with a brand new piece there is the added feeling of being the first to discover it. Think of your favourite piece of music and imagine being the first person to hear it!

Performers who concentrate on mainstream repertoire rely on a filtering process by which the best works survived and the less successful ones didn’t, whereas performing contemporary music involves being part of this filtering process. I find this exciting and rewarding but it does require patience because one has to engage with the less successful pieces as well as the gems. Patience is also required when working on a piece for the first time because there are invariably teething problems requiring a dialogue with the composer. Again, I enjoy this but it does require patience.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I have given several recitals at the Schott recital room in central London. I like the intimacy of this venue which enables the performer to engage with the audience. So many concerts are in churches and other large venues where the audience can hide at the back. Having said that, I am very much looking forward to performing at St. Cuthbert’s Church NW6 on 27 September. It is a modern building with a wooden interior and is beautifully proportioned inside. The concert is to celebrate the arrival of a new piano and launch of their concert series and I think it is going to turn out to be a popular chamber music venue.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I have a few pieces which I come back to regularly because they work so well in performance. Gabriel Jackson Angelorum is one I have performed many times as it is so satisfying to communicate to the audience, whether they are regular listeners of contemporary music or completely new to it. The pieces on my CD, particularly Joanna Lee Atta and Hopper and Paul Burnell 3 Plain Pieces fall in to the same category. Another piece I loved performing and hope to perform again is Patrick Nunn Music of the Spheres which includes electronic sounds taken from data from Voyager spacecraft as it flew past the planets. Great fun!

To listen to, I have several favourite composers including Bartok, Messiaen, Ravel and Schumann but really I love all classical music from Bach to Birtwistle.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Goodness, how long have we got? I think I’m just going to pick out a few musicians who have inspired me somehow for various reasons.

The pianist Mary Dullea is quite special. I have heard her and taken masterclasses with her at CoMA summer schools and her playing displays a really sensitive and intelligent musicianship as well as formidable technique. I am also a fan of the pianist Nicholas Hodges whose mastery of counterpoint makes sense of the most complex of Birtwistle’s piano works.

There are a number of living composers who I count amongst my favourites. Aside from the composers I have previously mentioned, I love the music of Phil Cashian. He has written a number of pieces for CoMA which work really well and he always uses fresh textures and has a wonderful ear for harmony. Julian Anderson and George Benjamin are also favourite composers of mine.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My first recital at the Schott recital room in September 2011 was very special as it was my first recital after I started studying piano seriously again. I played a set of twelve waltzes by Schubert, a short piece by Phil Cashian called Slow Air, Gabriel Jackson’s Angelorum and Schumann Kinderszenen. Unfortunately the event was tinged with sadness because, having taught me to play the piano in the first place and provided so much support over the years, my mother was not there to hear it as she had died earlier that year.

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

General musicianship is so important. Develop a good sense of rhythm, pitch and harmony and everything else will be much easier. Taking part in a variety of musical activities, particular singing in a choir but also playing in an orchestra, accompanying, composing, arranging and improvising all helps to build a rounded musician.

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

I would like to be able to play a scale in thirds with one hand and for it to sound beautifully smooth.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

The things around me here at home: my lovely piano, wonderful husband, brilliant son and Maestro the cat. Not necessarily in that order!

What is your most treasured possession?

It would have to be the piano. What else? It is my first real piano. Until five years ago I only had a digital piano which is no replacement for the real thing. When I got married my in-laws gave us a proper piano as a wedding present. It was the best possible thing anyone could have given me. We chose a Boston upright UP132. When it arrived I realised that all I wanted to do was play the piano and I followed the course which has led me to where I am today.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Playing the piano, spending time with the people I love, eating and sleeping. Not necessarily in that order!

What is your present state of mind?

My mind is in many places at once nowadays as I try to get so much done in so little free time.


Debussy updated for the modern age: Unsuk Chin’s Six Piano Etudes

A guest post by Daniel Harding

Hearing Unsuk Chin’s concerto for sheng, Šu broadcast from the BBC Proms recently has sent me back to my listening library, and to her Six Piano Etudes, composed between 1993-2003.

Chin’s set of studies lifts the veil on her evocative and magical vision in a series of shimmering soundscapes, captured in the opening gesture of the very first piece, which is followed by nervous, skittish upper-register writing over sustained pedal notes. The registral layout is typical of Chin’s handling of the piano – skeletal, spidery upper-register, sonorous lower range pedal-points – and is both clear and effective.

The second revels in a Debussy-esque exploration of the instrument’s lower register, with constant chiming building a repetitive upper voice, becoming progressively stormier. Parallel octaves leap beneath a fizzing, sparking right-hand (again, Debussy’s Feu d’artifice springs to mind) before the piece gradually subsides.

The third movement, Scherzo ad libitum, comprises fragmented gestures, exploring contrary and similar motion across several octaves, supported by dabbed piano chords.  The music eventually walks carefully away in tentative steps towards the ends of the instrument’s range. Similarly, the fourth piece darts and scurries up and down the keyboard in shifting, fleeting gestures. The fifth scintillates, with a turning figure hovering between whole-tonality and a dominant seventh (the latter sonority also a feature of the opening of Chin’s opera, Alice in Wonderland);  a slow-stepping melody unfurls in the lower voice beneath.  As so often in this set as a whole, the textures gradually expand across the keyboard; spiky staccato chords punctuate the constantly turning figure, creating (as elsewhere) the miraculous aural effect of more than one piano playing. A fierce rumble endeavours to effect change, but eventually trickles out, exhausted, in contrary motion and evaporates at extreme ranges of the instrument.

As if in response to this, there is a hesitant opening to the final movement, Grains. The piece is anchored by a repeated Ab; even as the work becomes more fragmentary, the Ab persists sporadically . The piece cannot escape from its relentless pull; it tries to do so as shapes tremble and pop around the stubborn Ab, but is ultimately unsuccessful.

Chin’s set of studies belongs firmly in the tradition begun by Chopin, continued  Debussy and Ligeti, lifting what would otherwise be a technical exercise into another realm. Others have remarked on the ghost of Conlon Nancarrow’s dizzying works for player-piano hovering over them. For me, the set also stands as something of a modernist updating of Rachmaninov’s studies, turning explorations of technique into dazzling virtuosic displays which leave no aspect of the instrument uncharted. The six pieces are unified both by their registral and textural explorations, as well as by their lack of anything approaching a regular metre; the pieces revel in their liberation from a constant time-signature.

The set demands a fearsome technical accomplishment and pianistic virtuosity from the player. I heard it performed live by the remarkable Clare Hammond at the Total Immersion concert devoted to Chin’s work which was broadcast on Radio 3 in 2011; the set has since been recorded by Malaysian pianist,  Mei Yi Foo (who also performs them at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival) with the composer’s approval, on a disc together with Gubaidulina’s wonderful Musical Toys. But that’s for another blogpost…

Here’s Mei Foo in the scintillating fifth study.


A former Music Scholar at Lancing College, Daniel Harding read Music at York University, specialising in French piano repertoire. He was awarded a Major Research Fellowship in Conducting, after conducting Britten’s first operetta, Paul Bunyan, working with Donald Mitchell, and Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, as well as works by Mahler and Dvorak, as an undergraduate.

During his post-graduate studies, he went on to conduct the University Symphony and Chamber Orchestras, the University Choir and Chamber Choir, as well as various New Music ensembles. He also founded the Early Classical Orchestra, focusing on historically-informed performances from the period. He also conducted Steve Reich’sTehillim on the Contemporary Music Studies course at Bretton Hall College, Wakefield. Other roles have included Director of the Senior and Junior Choirs at York Minster Songschool, and a Lecturer in Music for ten years in Further Education.

Daniel is an experienced accompanist and repetiteur. He is also a keen jazz pianist, and has performed at various venues including the Water Rats, King’s Cross, Pizza on the Park, Knightsbridge and at the Poco Loco club in Sardinia as part of the Jazz Festival. Since arriving at Kent, he instigated the Watch This Space series on the foyer-stage of the Colyer-Fergusson Building. Daniel conducts the University Chamber Choir, and founded the University Cecilian Choir, the Sirocco Ensemble and the String Sinfonia, and accompanies the University Music Scholars in lunchtime concerts in the Canterbury Festival. Recent compositions include a choral piece for the inaugural concert of the opening of the University’s new Colyer-Fergusson music building, which was performed in December, and a work for choir and percussion performed in 2013.

He also writes and edits the department blog, Music Matters and blogs about choral music at the University on Cantus Firmus.

Away from the University, Daniel is an advisor on the Artistic Board for the Sounds New Festival of Contemporary Music and a member of the Advisory Board for the Wise Words Festival.