Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Composer Series - Nicola LeFanu

We are only two days away from the World Premiere of our 15th Anniversary commission, Tetra, and are all really excited about sharing this wonderful collection of pieces with the world! This next interview in our composer series is with eminent composer Nicola LeFanu. Nicola is widely respected in the musical world as a composer, director, and teacher (having previously been Professor of Music at York University and taught composition at King's College, London). Her music varies from large scale orchestral and operatic works through to smaller chamber pieces and music for solo instruments. She is particularly drawn to vocal music and has composed eight operas, the most recent of which, Tokaido Road, a Journey after Hiroshige, was premiered at the Cheltenham Festival last year.

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On being asked to write a piece for four harps, what was the first thing that went through your mind? 
That it would be a beautiful and striking sonority, but that the piece might not get many other performances as it was for such a ‘niche’ ensemble.

Your movement of Tetra is inspired by Millicent Fawcett. What was it that drew you to this particular historical figure and how did you incorporate her into the music? 
I admire all she achieved in her life, and she had a very full life, both professionally (she was passionate about her work and her campaigns) and as a wife and mother – that is something I also aspire to. Her name – its rhythms and contour – appear in my piece. I tried also to keep the chronology of her life in mind – her DBE appears at the end! 

The harp is a very ornate instrument to look at, with a strong stage presence. Is the way a performance will look or be coordinated on stage ever a factor in the way you compose? 
In my many stage works it’s all-important; for a chamber piece, less so, though I did take careful note of the preferred seating arrangements of the four harpists. 

Tetra uses the opening theme from Henriette Renié’s solo harp work, Légende as a motif to link all the four movements together. How did you incorporate this into your composition? 
You can hear reference to its harmony and the melodic outline, but I did not find it a very  inspiring theme, I must admit, so it does not figure very prominently in my piece. 

Looking at your catalogue of compositions, it seems like you are particularly drawn to write music for the human voice. Is it the ability to use words in addition to musical sound that inspires you, or is it a deeper connection to something that is within every person, be they musical or not? 

In addition to writing your own music, you also teach other composers? What is it that you enjoy about this process, and if there was one bit of advice you could give to young composers, what would it be? 
I enjoy the two-way dialogue, I enjoy watching their development.  As to advice.. to be as professional as possible, and to work with performers at every opportunity.

When you are writing a piece do you prefer to compartmentalise things and write in a structured way, or does the creative process completely take over?  
Sorry, I do not understand the question! ‘Compartmentalisation’ is not a part of composition; and the ‘creative process’ is a structured one. 

Aside from being attracted to certain instruments, what else inspires you? In a similar vein, do you think it is possible to undertake a commission if you aren’t drawn to the idea behind it? 
I would not undertake a commission that I was not drawn to. As to inspiration – many things, different at different times.. often it is other music, it might be a poem, it might be a landscape.. 

You have written a number of pieces with an educational purpose. Is it harder to write something where you have to bear in mind the playing level of the performers? 
Yes, it is a technical challenge, but it is fun. 

What three things would you take with you to a desert island? 
Assuming that I had sufficient fresh water, I’d take an endless supply of lemons, a sunhat, and pencil and paper. If that is 4 items, leave out the sunhat and I’ll make one out of a sheet of the paper.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Composer Series - Savourna Stevenson

Later this month we will be performing the World Premiere of our new commission, Tetra. A four movement piece funded by PRS Foundation's Women Make Music, the Ambache Trust, and the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust. Tetra is written by four female composers, each chosen by a member of the quartet, and we will be finishing our Composer Series by interviewing each of the four composers.

Our first interview is with Scottish harpist and composer, Savourna Stevenson. Savourna's music encompasses everything from large scale orchestral works through to solo harp pieces, with her music being heard everywhere from the BBC through to TV show Sex and the City! Savourna's most recent work for harp (aside from Tetra) is a concerto written for harp virtuoso Catrin Finch, commissioned by Holywell Music, to celebrate 200 years since the invention of the modern pedal harp. We like to think that being a quartet of four pedal harps gives us the opportunity to take this feat of engineering even further, exploiting the extra chromaticism and power that is available through having four of the same instrument.

Image result for Savourna Stevenson As a harpist/composer, what do you take from each discipline to complement and augment the other?
From the harp I get both inspiration and a sense of purpose to my composition. There are many beautiful pieces written especially for the instrument, some well known such as Mozart’s Flute & Harp Concerto and Ravel’s Introduction & Allegro, but music for the harp is generally regarded as a neglected area of repertoire. I hope that my harp music, including my Concerto for Pedal Harp, premiered by Catrin Finch with the Scottish Ensemble in 2012 and now, my movement of Tetra will become valuable additions to the future repertoire for this wonderful instrument.

My affinity with the Impressionist composers has been not only an inspiration behind my harp writing but, in the case of Ravel, has had an influence on my large scale orchestral works.
Although I love writing for the harp, the piano is the instrument I compose at even when I am writing for the harp.

Looking back through history, it is very common for musicians to come from families with generations of musical or artistic heritage. In keeping with this trend, your father, Ronald Stevenson, was also a composer. Have you found it helpful to follow in his footsteps or has it made you more determined to forge your own path? 
My father, Ronald Stevenson died whilst I was writing this new piece so he has been in my thoughts as this music was being created. Ronald was my first teacher and he encouraged my early gift for composition at the piano from the age of 5.

Although I did forge my own career, championing the small Scottish harp, (Clarsach), working within traditional, world music and jazz, my composing career involved me in writing for TV, theatre, film and concert music and in 2001 I studied orchestration with Ian Macpherson, ( Fellow of the Academy of Music London). My father was always a great supporter of my work and although our music may be of quite different styles we shared much in common in our eclectic musical tastes.

Beethoven was famed for taking long walks whilst creating his masterpieces. Do you have a routine to your compositional process and is there any location where you prefer to work?
I like to have peace when I’m writing which is tricky as all three of my children are involved in music - so, to escape the family I like to swim and go to the steam room - ALONE!

Looking at your catalogue of compositions, it seems like you are particularly drawn to music inspired by stories. Is it important to you to incorporate a narrative into each piece, or do you ever compose music without any specific external influence? 
The influences on my music are many and varied. I like to work with the written word as inspiration for my music but not always. Source inspiration for my Concerto for Pedal Harp comes from the great French and Spanish pedal harp traditions and from the jazz harpists of 1930s/40s America. I have also used natural and elemental influences in my writing for both concert pieces and natural history TV documentaries. My current commission, a work for piano and orchestra draws inspiration from two of my favourite composer’s, Gershwin and Ravel.

Your style of composing is rooted in folk, jazz and world music. What is it that draws you to these sounds and do you find that you prefer one style over all others?
I would say that I have come full-circle and that for the past 10 years I have been working mainly in classical music collaborating with and writing for the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, the RSNO, the National Youth Choirs of Scotland, Catrin Finch, the Scottish Ensemble, the Martinu Quartet etc. Working within the traditional, world music and jazz worlds over two or three decades has had an influence on my writing and I hope it brings a freshness and originality to my approach to contemporary classical music. I am certainly passionate about my Scottish cultural roots and hope that my music will continue to speak of my beloved homeland.

How did you find writing Tetra knowing that your movement would be part of a bigger piece? Were there any challenges involved in not knowing what the rest of the piece would be like?
I’ve loved writing this piece. It feels quite exciting and almost like a game, wondering how the other composers will have interpreted Renie’s wonderful theme. The concept of this project is inspiring in itself. I’m sure the end result will incorporate great contrasts in style - but surely variety is the spice of life.

Your movement of Tetra is inspired by Josephine Baker. What was it that drew you to this particular historical figure?
Josephine Baker, dancer, singer, actress and civil- rights activist is a truly inspiring figure from history. I wanted to evoke the era, a favourite era of mine in terms of music. The piece was inspired, in particular by watching the film of Josephine Baker dancing with her own shadow.

Tetra uses the opening theme from Henriette Renié’s solo harp work, Légende as a motif to link all the four movements together. How did you incorporate this into your composition? 
Renie’s Legende is a masterpiece for the harp and I had the luxury of being able to play it on the harp to really get into the work. I’ve started with the second line of her original theme which I extend into a longer phrase, marked Maestoso, then move into a poignant theme based on the first few notes of her opening theme. I have also used a chromatic motif from later in Renie’s piece and developed it into an extended and exciting passage representing Baker dancing with her shadow.

As a harpist, you know first-hand what works well for the instrument. Did you find any challenges though in the addition of three other harps, or was it an opportunity to expand everything that one harp can do?
Four harps was a bonus for me, especially with what I was trying to achieve chromatically in this piece . I’ve enjoyed trying to write in a truly democratic way, giving each player a chance to shine, tossing the motif from one to another in a call and response fashion suggesting the dancer and her shadow.

What three things would you take with you to a desert island?
If it can’t be my husband, harp manufacturer Mark Norris it will have to be a piano (grand if possible - but may not be allowed due to sheltering possibilities) manuscript paper & pencil.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Composer Series - Harriet Adie

Summer is fast approaching, as is the 28 May World Premiere of our new commission by composers Nicola LeFanu, Alissa Firsova, Savourna Stevenson and Ayanna Witter-Johnson. We still have a few interviews to come in our composer series though, and this one is with our second resident composer, Harriet Adie.

In recent years Harriet has taken up the baton of chief arranger for the quartet, egged on and inspired by fellow harpist/composer/quartet member Eleanor Turner. Together the two girls (who first met aged 15 at the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music) have arranged and composed upwards of 40 pieces for 4 Girls 4 Harps to play, and recently set up their own publishing company Wild Bird Publications.

Harriet is a mother of two young children and juggles her time between performing with 4 Girls 4 Harps, composing and arranging, and looking after her family. In addition to her numerous arrangements, she has written two original pieces for 4G4H. Sun, Moon and Stars (2004) is a musical memory of her life spent growing up in Oman, in the Middle East. It is an early marker of her compositional style, full of toccata-like punctuation and a love of intervals of a 4th, 7th and 9th. It was recorded by 4G4H in 2009 on their debut CD, Fireworks and Fables and you can listen to it here. Elemental (2012) was written whilst she was pregnant with her first child and has been a favourite with the quartet ever since! A substantial piece, Harriet views it as her 'coming of age' work and the piece that she is most proud of. You can listen to a live performance of Elemental here.

You grew up in Oman which provided a vivid inspiration for Sun Moon and Stars.  What else has inspired your compositions?

I am inspired by nature, colour, myths, philosophical ideas (by which I refer to my own pondering rather than learned tomes). Sometimes very specific, random images such as the movement of a playground swing! I once wrote a solo harp piece Half? which was inspired by the concept of whether a glass is half empty or half full.

Elemental was completed only one week before you were due to give birth to your first child in 2012, do you work best under pressure?

I think I probably do the actual work best under pressure, but it is important to have plenty of time to mull over the ideas behind a composition. The ideas behind Elemental were germinating for about two years before I actually started to write the music!

Tell us about the story of Elemental, why you wrote it and what it is about.

Elemental is based on the four elements: Earth, Wind, Water and Fire. Each movement illustrates something about the individual element. Earth is the story of a group of gnomes journeying through a mountain, and Water is a portrait of ripples on a pond created by leaves falling on its surface. I wrote it because I couldnt not write it. By this I mean that the idea had been growing quietly for some time until I got to the point where I felt it had to be put in to musical form. I was very lucky to have a ready-made group there in the form of 4 Girls 4 Harps waiting to perform it for me!

Having already written Sun, Moon and Stars did you approach writing Elemental differently?

Definitely. In the eight years since I wrote Sun, Moon and Stars (2004), I had written several other original works for harp and various other instruments. More importantly I had done a huge number of arrangements for 4G4H which were a fantastic training ground, both for how to divide up parts for four harps, but also as an opportunity to study compositional process close up. When I wrote Elemental, I was able to put this knowledge and experience into good use. It is a much tighter piece in terms of structure than Sun, Moon and Stars which was much freer, and I think it is more effective as a result. I was also better equipped to develop my ideas which led to a much more substantial piece.

How do you feel being a harpist affects the way you write for the instrument compared to how you write for other instruments?

I much prefer writing for the harp as it is what I know. Whenever I have written for other instruments I always worry that my lack of first-hand knowledge of how they are played will result in a piece which, whilst it might sound great, is a real headache for the player to perform. Having said that, I do love the options that other instruments provide, such as the power to sustain notes for a long period of time, or greater chromaticism.

Do you feel that your quartet work is influenced by 4G4H. Do you write something imagining it would be played by a certain member and has the group influenced the path of the composition in any way?

The quartet definitely influences the way I write pieces for us, however the path of the composition has always been dictated by the music and inspiration behind it. Working so closely with a group results in an in-depth knowledge of each players strengths and weaknesses. When allocating parts in both arrangements and original works I always have the individual player in mind. For example, Keziah loves to play quite cheeky sounding melodies and Eleanor is fantastically strong both in terms of sound and her attack. I love dreamy melodic lines and playing harmonics, and Elizabeth has a wonderfully resonant middle register to her harp which means that she can really push a melodic line in this area through other higher textures.

What's the one tip you, being both a harpist and composer, would like to share with other composers out there writing for the harp?

Arrange other peoples music! In past centuries composers would learn their craft by copying out the popular pieces of the time. They would learn style, structure and technique by doing this, and then be able to develop, extend and modify it to suit their own individual style. I know that I have learnt more in the years I have spent arranging than I ever could have by just writing my own pieces. Separately, one of the things I always have to strike a balance with is the importance of the music I want to create versus what is realistic and comfortable to perform on the harp. In a world where rehearsal and practise time is often far too short, it is important to bear in mind that a piece has to be performable or it will struggle to be heard beyond the first performance. Having said that, there have definitely been more than a few occasions where the music has won through for me.

Have you another idea simmering away somewhere for another quartet piece? Or anywhere you would love one of your pieces to be performed?

I would love more harpists to hear my music. I think I will always be drawn to write for the harp – in fact I can’t think of a single composition in the last 10 years that does not have harp in it! – and I would love to hear other people perform and interpret my creations. Funnily enough, I was driving back at about midnight from a recent 4G4H concert, and thinking of ideas for a new solo piece based on the idea of Time: the concept of there being an appropriate time to do different things such as love, protect, relax, inspire and enjoy. Perhaps a suite of short movements!

What piece (for any instrument) do you most wish you had written?

A few years ago I began to draft a piece for harp and oboe inspired by the book Jonathan Livingstone Seagull by Richard Bach. It never really got off the ground though as I couldnt seem to create the music that I wanted to suit the narrative (perhaps I need the pressure of an imminent birth to focus my mind!). It is such a beautiful and truly inspiring story, and I would love to write it in the future.

What three things would you take to a desert island?

My husband Ruari and two children, Freddie and Beatrice. Fingers crossed it is an island with coconuts on though, as otherwise my failure to take anything practical will mean we will starve!