About my work:
I am a composer of broadly contemporary classical music. As a composer, I have always been fascinated in the dialogues between science, visual arts, dance and politics. I have endless curiosity for gestures, shapes, sounds and their relation to the world, and how these relate to other artforms. When composing I find engaging with extra-musical sources whether this be visual art, poetry, the natural world or a scientific concept to be an extremely useful way to stimulate and structure my composition thoughts in the writing process. I find this helps me to map out the form of the piece, and to think about colour and texture.
How did you originally get into music?
I grew up in a large village called Cotgrave in Nottinghamshire. Thinking back to my childhood I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t know about music. Even before I was at an age where I could have piano lessons I was always drawn to play on the piano and would mess around, probably disturbing my brother’s practise. Later I would write little pastiche type pieces, which then transformed into pop-songs in my teenage years and then melded back to classical music, though now of a very different kind of course. I was always distracted through my childhood with the sounds of music and would more often than not end up being drawn away from practising because I was found a strange chord by accident.
What or who inspires you?
Music itself, the natural world and other artforms particularly poetry, dance and visual arts.
What piece of advice has helped you most in your career?
To stay true to the intentionality of your idea, don’t let it be watered down or compromised. That of course doesn’t mean not thinking about practicalities or idiomatic writing, but don’t shy away from writing the ideas in their fullest and most clear form.
What has been the most rewarding project so far in your career and why?
There have been many but most recently being on London Philharmonic’s Young composer programme working with Brett Dean and Richard Waters on my viola concerto Through the Fading Hour was a wonderful combination of time, space, mentorship, with the highest levels of musicianship and dedication which led me to write what I think may be one of my best works and also have an amazing performance of it.
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
My mum is perhaps one of the most significant people in forming who I am as a composer today. She introduced me to music when I was young, nurtured my music learning, took me to endless piano and flute lessons over the years, helped me write some of my most early piano works down, and encouraged me when I was a singer-songwriter in my teenage years.
Even before I was at an age where I could have piano lessons I was always drawn to play on the piano and mess around, and probably disturb my brother’s practise. Later I would write little pastiche type pieces, which then transformed into pop-songs in my teenage years and then melded back to classical music, though now of a very different kind of course. I was always distracted through my childhood with the sounds of music and would more often than not end up not practising because I stumbled upon a strange chord by accident.
I loved music and especially creating and composing music. However, I didn’t initially go into music. I had been taking science A-levels and I was drawn to perhaps what felt a more secure path so I started to do a Pharmacy degree at the University of Nottingham. In the first term I did not manage to find any time for music until one weekend when I went home to visit my parents. I started composing something on the piano, and my mum said how good it sounded. It probably wasn’t the most genius of things, but it helped me have a really important realisation that I needed to do music, because I needed to compose.
My mum helped me swap degree within the university and the next year I started my music degree and went onto do a PhD in composition.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I have faced a number of challenges in becoming a composer over the years. I am originally from the East Midlands and had a state-school education. The educational practitioners through my school years, though many trying their best, did not have the expertise to prepare someone to do music at degree level. This has left me at a disadvantage to my more privileged colleagues over the years and I have always felt like I am catching up and on the back foot. To be honest, I did not even realise that people could still become composers. However, I was always certain that I wanted to create music. My background meant I didn’t have many connections to the professional industry, nor knowledge of creative pathways.
This lack of connections to the industry and forming of vital creative partnerships continued in my undergraduate and PhD, where I didn’t get much of a chance to work with professional ensembles. This made it difficult to break-out into the industry and get opportunities as my initial track record, and network, was limited. During my university years I was also discouraged from continuing my compositional studies for reasons grounded in misogynistic views. I have found comments like these comments, and the male-dominated composition sector, to be a challenging mental barrier to deal with. I have so often been the only woman, and the only person from a state-school background, on a composition course or development scheme, certainly in the UK.
Not being able to see myself reflected in the people above me in the industry also contributed to difficulties in becoming a composer. It was a few years later I set up Illuminate Women’s Music, a chamber music touring and commissioning project, with a mission to illuminate living women composers through commissioning and performances. Our work demonstrates there is a rich heritage of music written by women in the past, and we are supporting the next generation of musical role models.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?
Overall, it is usually an absolute pleasure to work with musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras. It is what composers work towards and how our works come to life! We work in collaboration with performers to bring new soundworlds and pieces into the world. It can be challenging – sometimes things don’t work straight away – but these can be overcome if the performers on your side and they want to make something as close as possible to your vision happen. Of course, this takes compromise on the side of the composer as well.
Once in a while you come across performers who are closed off and not willing to help find solutions and engage with a work properly. When this happens it is a good lesson for all, take note, and learn. And going forward, you can work with the musicians you do trust, and who trust you, in striving forward on creative and potentially unchartered territory.
Of which works are you most proud?
I am very pleased to say as the years go on I am increasingly proud of more and more of my works, which seems to be a far more difficult thing for composers to say than you would hope!
One of the first pieces I was really proud of was my string quartet piece Eye o da hurricane. This piece foregrounds the viola as the protagonist in a story about a crofter’s wife trapped by the turmoil of the First World War and in a storm that surrounded her on Shetland. I was captivated by the way the viola could carry such impassioned, dramatic, and mournful lines and I knew I needed to return to writing for the viola.
How do you work?
When I compose I find it extremely helpful to have a clear concept for the piece before I begin. I often find the title for the piece before I start as this can give me a lot of stimulus from which I can develop musical ideas and a framework. I often first sit down with a blank piece of paper to plan the structure of the piece. This can take the form of written words and timings, but more often than not there are shapes, sketches and notes to myself about instruments or timbre. As much as possible I like to feel a connection to the instruments for which I am writing and will try to compose ideas on the instrument as much as I can, even if I can hardly play the instrument at all. This allows me to feel how the fingers sit and how the sound really resonates.
Can you tell us about your new Illuminate commissioned work?
My new work for Illuminate's spring season is called Tangled breath in winter air written for Trio Sonorite. It is divided into three movements - I. Breathe II. Inhale and III.Exhale
The work is a reflection on the sense of exhaustion I have been feeling, serving as a reminder to take time to breathe; to inhale and exhale; to be calm and reflect; to allow myself to be lost in the flow of creativity; to enjoy the beauty and emotion of that. The outer movements explore a reflective calm world rich in colour, expression and emotion, both in timbre and harmony. The middle movement - ' Inhale' - evokes a sense of failing to be calm, a reflection of being overwhelmed by the world.
Illuminate in conversation with Angela Elizabeth Slater
Composing Between Traditions: Combining South Asian and European Musical Culture by Vinthya Perinpanathan
I am a British-Sri Lankan composer, violinist and DJ based in London, due to begin my PhD research in Sri Lankan ritualistic and religious music at the University of Manchester, in September 2023. After receiving what I would now deem a life altering Christmas present at the age of seven, I trained as a Western Classical violinist in London. This passage into the world of music led me to perform in orchestras and smaller ensembles throughout childhood, while also studying the subject throughout school, sixth form and University, always with a keen interest in the creation of new sounds, while also deeply inspired by previous composers’ techniques and styles. My ambitions now lie in carving out my own compositional practice.
Over the last three years, my compositions have been centred around the combination of Western and South Asian music idioms, old and new. My interest in cross-cultural composition was first sparked by a commission I received for the Commonwealth Resounds Awards Ceremony. The brief specified for the piece to take influence from the composer’s heritage, and so my duo for tabla and cello, ‘Sri Pada’, was born. Due to my training as a Western Classical violinist however, it was only after writing this piece that I discovered the tabla is not a common instrument in the southern region of the subcontinent. A very similar instrument does exist, however, in the Carnatic (South Indian Classical) music tradition: the mridangam. To me, this experience demonstrated the gap in my knowledge of South Asian music traditions, and so, given my Sri Lankan heritage, I became extremely eager to learn more.
In 2020, during the final year of my undergraduate degree at the University of Manchester, I used the available, virtual resources to learn more about Carnatic music, a music tradition also practiced widely in Sri Lanka. I dedicated time to familiarising myself with the Carnatic ragas (modes), talas (time cycles), composition structure, performance practices and techniques, and everything else that interested me about this music idiom. In this year, I took a shining to Konnokol, an ancient art form which can be described as a verbal performance of percussion syllables. This practice formed my inspiration for the duo I submitted as part of my portfolio, ‘The Second Quarter of the Night’ for violin and percussion, which has yet to be performed!
During my part-time master’s, now focussing solely on Composition, I continued to take inspiration from both Western and South Asian music idioms. Still under lockdown restrictions, my compositional output during 2020/21 comprises of solo works, most notably, my ‘Caprice in Raga Kharaharapriya’ for solo violin – a virtuosic solo, centred around this Raga, which explores numerous timbres of both Western and South Asian violin performance. I am most pleased with outcome of my muted, senza vibrato, sliding main theme of the piece, which pays ode to the timbre produced by the Ravanahatha – an ancient Sri Lankan stringed instrument, also bowed; suggested to be an ancestor of the violin. This piece was premiered by the brilliant Marc Danel in April 2021. It was a dream come true to work with Marc, having watched him perform alongside The University of Manchester’s quartet in resident, Quatour Danel, throughout my undergraduate course. Owing much to his support, the piece has since received multiple international performances.
Fast forward to the summer of 2022, where I was grateful to receive premieres of two new works. The first, a commissioned string quartet, performed by the ADAM Quartet at the Nederlandse StrijkKwartet Academie (NSKA) Strijkkwartet Festival, in Utrecht, for their 20th Anniversary. ‘Flight UL505’ is named after the flight boarded by my cousin and her family as they immigrated to the UK in early March 2022. While composing the piece, I reflected deeply on the different challenges faced by my own parents, and the life they were leaving behind, when they had journeyed to the West. Given the emotional context of the work, it truly was a full circle moment when my parents and I drove to Utrecht for this first performance, where we resided between 1998-2001.
The second piece to be premiered was my trio for Carnatic Indian vocalist, violin and vibraphone. This piece was written as part of the Manasamitra Mentoring Scheme 2021/22. The very talented Supriya Nagarajan not only mentored me throughout the year, but also performed my work alongside Sammy Okumachin (violin) and Tom Hall (vibraphone). Supriya was great to work with and I learned how to collaborate with musicians who do not read Western notation – a necessary skill for cross-cultural composers! She guided me on what information was needed in order for her to perform alongside others who would be reading from a score, and thus, I devised my own notation which worked very successfully! This piece focussed on the three types of Carnatic vocal improvisation: Alpana, Thanam and Swaram. Using the meditative Raga Bowli, I composed music for instruments which complimented both the strong attack and rhythmical of Thanam technique, as well as the melismatic and sustained nature of Alpana improvisation. Recording day was the make or break moment, and I’m pleased to share that this day, despite the challenges that came with it being the hottest day in 2022, filled me with confidence in my ability to bring these two contrasting music idioms together.
Start at 14 minutes 26 seconds
Due to the meaning behind Carnatic Ragas, my recent compositional process has used the choice of Raga as a starting point for any piece. I had previously been interested in exploring the numerous musical languages which could be assigned to the various properties of water and its infinite forms; to this end, I began the compositional process by searching for an appropriate Raga. It was almost too perfect when I discovered Raga Amritavarshini, a pentatonic Raga which holds a legendary association with causing rain or showers. Although much of the imagery and initial inspiration for Varshini, the title of the work meaning goddess of rain, was derived from such ancient and programmatic tales, the repetitive musical material is drawn from the composer’s love of two contrasting, yet appropriate, musical traditions: Techno and Konnakol. Both music idioms are monotonous and enchanting, which I felt fitting for a piece essentially inspired by the idea of a rain dance. Both musics lend themselves to unapologetic repetition, creating the sense of ritual and inducing rain. The added challenge of recreating these musical elements for a concert hall performance was extremely satisfying. To compose a piece for Trio Sonorité which combines such an eclectic range of my musical inspirations has been extremely fun. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Illuminate Women’s Music for commissioning this work!
Written by Vinthya Perinpanathan
My music is often characterised by an exploration of timbre and the use of a small amount of material. I love creating intimate pieces which explore the materiality of sound, notions of close listening, perception, rawness, and instability.
I love working with unstable sounds - I think they are full of rich possibilities and remind me of things in our world which change over time without human control (e.g. rust). However one thing I’ve been grappling with is how to give performers more freedom to respond to, and embrace, the unpredictable ways in which unstable sounds can behave in performance. This has meant making sure the effectiveness of a piece does not depend on a sound being played in an overly defined and fixed way, when what it wants to do is change or be elusive.
In Overlapping Transformations for prepared baritone electric guitar, bass clarinet, violin and double bass (written for Prague Quiet Music Collective), I created sound maps for each instrument with carefully chosen sounds and potential relationships with other players. Each player decides how to get from one sound to another - they are encouraged to discover the malleable boundaries of their sounds and how these sounds might transform into one another. They also have prompts to explore certain variables should they wish. With duration and form more open, the players have more space to follow their curiosity and their ears, to be responsive to the sounds and each other in the moment.
Score excerpt 1: Bass clarinet part from Overlapping Transformations
In another piece, flare for solo piano (written for Ben Smith), space is also given for the pianist to make their own explorations with the sounds, though unlike Overlapping Transformations, these periods are more brief and are woven into a fixed structure. This piece investigates the natural harmonics found on only two keys of the piano.
Score excerpt 2: flare (note: 8vb always, harmonics notated as sounding)
What I enjoyed about these two pieces is that they encourage the performer to listen closely and curiously to the intricate details of their sound and to explore its possibilities within a clearly defined sound-world, harmonic field and atmosphere.
For Illuminate’s Spring Season 2023, I’ve composed a piece called (left detail) for Trio Sonorité, consisting of clarinet, cello and piano. It’s a set of five miniatures, with all the material contained within the opening. What follows is a zooming in to this material as object - an invitation to look at it in more detail. Splinters of the opening are magnified, drawing our attention to the near synchronicities and rhythmic instabilities of the opening.
This piece is a little different from what I’ve been making recently. Where my starting point would naturally be to explore the inside of the piano, with clarinet multiphonics and preparations on the cello, I gave myself a creative limitation to use only the conventional sounds of the instruments. Having not explored these sounds for several years now, I wanted to challenge my default ways of working and see what would happen. There’s also a return to shorter, more precise forms which seem to dissect the material, and intricate rhythms play a bigger role.
If you’d like to discuss any of the above in further detail, feel free to drop me an email: email@example.com
To read/hear more about my music, please go to: www.sylvialim.co
It is however recorded that even as an abbess, Kassia still opposed the emperor. He oversaw the second period of destruction of religious icons in the Byzantine Empire which she was deeply against, saying: ‘I hate silence when it is time to speak’.
And we know that she was a composer and poet, with more than fifty of her vocal works surviving, many still part of the Orthodox liturgy sung daily around the world.
The Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene - women have often been symbols, empty vessels used by mostly male artists to represent the sorrows of Easter and the joy of Carnival, sacred and secular, purity and corruption, wisdom and folly. Summer and winter. Absolute good and absolute evil.
Meanwhile, actual flesh and blood women are and have always been something else entirely - human beings. No human being is all good or all bad. Humans are creative, and this concert explores the creativity of female composers, who often had to pursue their creativity and curiosity against tough odds.
Chiquinha Gonzaga’s husband forbade her to compose and play music. Surely Gonzaga, a mixed-race woman and young mother in 19th-century Brazil, would have had no choice but to do so? Like Kassia, she answered back.
‘I cannot imagine a life without harmony’, she’s said to have told him. She left, and her father and husband declared her ‘dead and of unpronounceable name’.
Gonzaga lived a long life and had a prolific career - she wrote choro music, Rio’s pop music of the day, which combined elements of the music of the enslaved people who had been taken from different parts of Africa with that of immigrants from various regions of Europe. There was great shock at the Presidential Palace when Gonzaga and a friend played a new tune on piano and guitar - how could they have brought this street riff-raff music into such refined surroundings?
‘For boys, and even more so for girls, in music school there was a sense of ‘What are you doing, writing? Who do you think you are, Beethoven?’ It was really not a good attitude. ‘All the good music has been written’ was basically it. And I was the only female in class, with six guys, all grad students. I was an undergrad, and I just sat there, and they never bothered to look at my work, and that’s the way it was.’
This experience didn’t crush Hoover’s curiosity and desire to create. She was fascinated by Native American art, literature and music. The flute and flute players have an important role in many Native American cultures, and Hoover, a flute player herself, has written beautiful, unique music for the flute which explores these ideas and images. Playing them is like being in a shimmering kaleidoscope of light and colour.
Sometimes people ask ‘Why have a women composers concert?’, and I have sympathy for women artists, tired of being put in a box and wanting to be recognised for their work first and foremost, who correctly complain that ‘female isn’t a genre’. The music by the female composers in this concert doesn’t all sound the same.
Most of the classical music that I have learned and performed has been by men, and the simple reason for that is that there have been and are numerically more male composers. But that’s not the end of curiosity - why is that? And how can it be that millions and millions of people have heard the music of women every year for decades, centuries, millennia, without even knowing it? Why did de la Guerre achieve huge success in her lifetime only for her work to slide into obscurity for centuries?
Women composers had to tramp out more difficult, uphill paths while they were alive and working. Emperors, husbands, pregnancy, children, rivals, kings and God could all come between a woman and her music while she was alive, and after she was dead those same factors and a male-led ‘posterity’ meant the path she’d stamped out could easily become overgrown and disappear.
When the silent symbol decides that she has her own ideas to express, it can be very disruptive.
Simply, without performers and programmers making the effort to open the way, the music of women won’t be played or acknowledged as much, and there’s no pretending otherwise. Illuminate founder Angela Slater has made a huge contribution to this work, not only with Illuminate but with her earlier analysis of the ABRSM music exam syllabuses, which found that only 4.4% of listed works were by women. This has already begun to change - I’ve noticed a massive increase in works by women in their most recent flute syllabus. They are great pieces; the broader repertoire will enrich the learning of young players.
This concert is a celebration of women from different times and places who were told ‘you can’t do that’ and did it anyway. Women who took themselves seriously when nobody else did. Perhaps that extra pressure is what gives their work its diamond shine.
If you’d like to read more about Elizabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre and seven other female classical composers, I highly recommend Anna Beer’s brilliant book Sounds and Sweet Airs.
Timbre, Titles, and Inexplicit Influences: Blair Boyd on Composing Dim shapes grow clearer for alto saxophone and piano
As part of my previous contributions to the Illuminate Women’s Music blog, I have discussed my compositional practice more generally within the context of several pieces. However, for this third article, I would like to focus on aspects of a single piece, Dim shapes grow clearer for alto saxophone and piano, which is programmed as part of Illuminate’s 2021 concert series.
One of the features of Dim shapes grow clearer is the exploration of sustained pitches through alterations of dynamics and timbre. Particularly at the beginning of the piece, long notes which are held by the saxophone come alive through the use of extended playing techniques which alter the tone colour of a note. Flutter-tonguing, a playing technique in which the performer uses a rolling movement of the tongue to manipulate a note, is introduced near the beginning of the piece.
The static opening of the piece is interrupted by a 4-note descending figure in the saxophone. The stepwise motif, simply a descending natural minor scale, is well known from John Dowland’s lute song Flow my Tears and symbolized grief in Elizabethan music. Performed and recorded by early music specialists and pop stars alike, Dowland’s song has served as inspiration for artists for centuries and can be heard via the link below:
While the ‘falling tears’ motif contributed to the initial development of Dim shapes grow clearer, its inspiration is not obvious in the final composition. This is something that is very interesting to me as a composer: how initial impetuses evolve or how several unrelated influences can combine in a musical work to form something unique. Sometimes to even mention such inexplicit influences in a piece would be distracting to a listener, as one would try to pick them out while listening; I mention them here as an interesting topic for the purposes of this blog. While further statements of the ‘falling tears’ motif are quickly abandoned in my saxophone and piano duo, the sombre tone remains, yet somehow more resigned.
To continue the piece, sustained pitches are ornamented in the saxophone while chords sound, striking like clock chimes, at the bottom of the piano's register where pitches are less distinct and blur together. It is this repetitive feature of the piece from which its title comes — with each repetition not only does the material become more familiar, but it also delineates the passage of time. Sometimes choosing the title of a piece is easy, for instance in a vocal piece with a preexisting text; however, I often find deciding titles very difficult as a composer. A title is very important for the reception of a piece, and it can be very difficult to overcome a disconnect between a title and how a musical work sounds. True to form, much contemplation was given to the title of my saxophone and piano duet, and I hope it contributes positively to the impact of the work.
As an alumna of Cardiff University, I am incredibly excited to close our 2021 season with a performance of Dim shapes grow clearer given by saxophonist Naomi Sullivan and pianist Kumi Matsuo on Tuesday, December 14th at Cardiff University Concert Hall.
To read more about my music check out my previous contributions to the Illuminate Women’s Music blog here: https://www.illuminatewomensmusic.co.uk/illuminate-blog/blair- boyd-my-recent-compositional-obsessions
And here: https://www.illuminatewomensmusic.co.uk/illuminate-blog/march-11th-2019 To hear my music check out my Soundcloud page: https://soundcloud.com/blair-boyd-4
I am a composer, researcher and, eventually, vocal, objects and electronics performer. During the past ten years, I have lived in four countries, and this ‘nomadic’ experience has made me resignify my identity. Being immerse in different cultures, geographies, and languages has taught me that we are not fixed beings, predetermined by labels of gender, race or nationality. Identity is a very personal discovery and construction at the same time; it is a process of understanding of our bodies, needs, feelings, curiosity and desire for learning through a particular (and very complex) social, political and economic environment. We are in continuous transformation, we change our minds, sometimes we adapt, and sometimes we escape.
Moreover, I truly believe that in this process we can find each other and recognise common dreams or ideas to work on together. This is what Illuminate Women’s Music means to me. An unexpected and magnificent coincidence, an opportunity to know talented colleagues and their music, which I would probably not have listened to in other scenarios. It is also a space to contribute to building a society that actually represents and respects how diverse we are.
In some way, the responsibility of knowing and expressing myself has led me to develop very particular perspectives to approach (and appropriate) notions and concepts from which to compose my music. In fact, I have been obsessed with timbre for a long time, and I have felt committed to researching on it to try to define it and use it as a main compositional resource. Consequently, suelo seco (Spanish for dry soil) is based on the exploration of texture as one of the semantic dimensions of timbre, from which I develop the experience of dryness as an opportunity to study the timbral fragility. This piece, commissioned by Illuminate Women’s Music, pushed the boundaries of my own tendencies towards aesthetic delight. Having a skin condition of high sensitivity, dryness can even become painful; nonetheless, what I pursue in this timbral exploration is an attention to extremely subtle details of touch: the levels of roughness of the interacting surfaces, the noise of friction between materials. As a result, my compositional approach to texture responds to a more explicit tactile experience, an intimate relation of contact with the sound sources, which also includes working with everyday objects found at home.
In the exploration of different kinds of friction, I work on unconventional instrumental techniques, thus cello and piano are approached as resonant boxes for the strings, and mirrored sources of sound, that is, both instruments respond to each other as mutual extensions of their timbral conditions. Three specific textures of the dry soilinspired me to structure this composition: first, the perception of dryness in the surface, granular but almost homogeneous, it is soft, condensed but not static; second, the cracked soil, broken and separated, hostile and crumbly at the same time; finally dust, the remains, multiple particles that drift in the wind and fall down to the soil again forming fragile layers ready to scatter at any impulse. Therefore, performers are invited to approach their instruments as dry soil territories and move on them to discover new textural identities.
Each section presents a timbral experience composed from the action of friction with particular objects: a paper sheet, a toothbrush, a piece of polystyrene, bow hair. These elements are used to rub the strings at a determined speed, direction, and distance for the displacement with the intention of generating a specific quality of dryness (see figure 1). As a consequence, the transition through the three sections of the piece is developed from the physical interaction between the instruments and the properties and conditions of the objects that ‘touch’ them, the pressure imposed, the resistance experienced, the impact of the contact itself (see figure 2).
Furthermore, the experience of dry soil is explored in timbre from the perception of inharmonicity and noise as dynamic entities. This association allows the exploration of timbral consequences like the hisscreated by the gentle friction of two surfaces, or the roughnessgenerated by the resistance in the displacement when there is a high level of grip between them. However, in more spectral terms roughness is mostly attributed to the presence of the higher partials (especially after the 17th partial), which are closely spaced and interact by ‘beating’ against each other. Thus, overtones are generated by ‘touching’ the strings at specific points, especially when rubbing or bowing, contributing to the perception of different levels of this harmonic dissonance.
Generally, the textural experience of dryness in this piece requires attentive listening in order to discover the almost unperceivable, minimal expression of timbre produced by friction. Loudness is thus explored principally at its lowest levels, as a direct consequence of the materials selected and the kind of interaction developed for each technique. Consequently, amplification in this piece works as a microscope: rather than intensifying the sound, it is conceived as a magnifier of the inside of timbre, its movement, its structure, and its behaviour. It is a resource by which to appreciate the inner nature of dryness and its transformation through the physical interaction.
More about my work: https://micheleabondano.com/
Some of my pieces: https://soundcloud.com/michele-abondano
More about my obsession with timbre: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5Z4MUQAxKM
In my practice, I often work with storytelling and look at how concepts or life stories can be seen from different perspectives. Fitting to the ethos of Illuminate Women Music, the stories I have been drawn to in recent years are those of women composers. When exploring these stories, I like to see how music can hold the space for contradictions and ambiguity. This can be seen in my choral work Clara,written on Making Music’s Adopt A Composer 2018/19 in partnership with choir Ex Urbe, in which I drew on the composer-pianist Clara Schumann’s diaries. I was particularly struck by her own description of the composition process in which ‘one wins hours of forgetfulness’, that was a stark contrast to her internalised misogyny which believed ‘A woman must not desire to compose’. I was intrigued by this unresolved ambivalence Clara expressed, which led to the composition of the first movement: ‘Composing gives me great pleasure’. Using a double choir to demonstrate Clara’s internal conflict regarding her own identity as a composer, the work gives an insight into what it may have been like for Clara to navigate the C19th gendered ideologies surrounding female creativity. Below is a recording by the choir Ex Urbe and harpist Angelina Egerton, conducted by Benjamin Hamilton:
For more information about the project, please see the interview to hear reflections from members of Ex Urbe and myself:
Following this project, I began to think about how and why the stories and works of women composers are not acknowledged in mainstream classical music. Often the assumption remains that there were very few active women composers in the history of classical music, despite there being a vast array of evidence to the contrary. As part of a Jerwood Arts Bursary in 2019, I was able to work with Elizabeth de Brito from the Daffodil Perspective to identify three C19th women composers all active in the Parisian music scene – Augusta Holmès, Marie Jaëll and Clémence de Grandval. The research period allowed an understanding of the key obstacles each of the selected women composers had faced – self doubt, pseudonyms, emphasis on beauty - and an insight into how this may have impacted how their compositional output was considered beyond their lifetimes (see more here: https://www.chloeknibbs.com/projects/ruinsi). Using the metaphors of ruins and erosion, I considered these obstacles to each be ‘erosion factors’ that eroded the narratives and works of the three selected women composers. This led to the composition of the electroacoustic work, Ruins, in which ‘erosion factors’ were placed in juxtaposition with recorded extracts of the composers’ works:
Due to the nature of Ruins, I wanted to see if the work could exist in another form and how a visual element could enhance the experience of the work. Earlier this year I was able to undertake a mentoring period with sound artist and lecturer Linda O’Keefe, which allowed me to learn a range of techniques including granular synthesis. These techniques allowed me to return to the first iteration of Ruinsand develop the way sonic disintegration was used, and how this could develop the concept of a ‘sonic ruin’ of the works and life stories of Augusta Holmès, Marie Jaëll and Clémence de Grandval. Alongside this process, I collaborated with designer Denitsa Toneva to explore how C19th aesthetics could be paired with the audio elements of the work, leading to the creation of an online audio-visual installation. A fitting example of these pairings can be seen in how the sketch of the glove is paired with a recording of pseudonyms, looking at the connection between shame and societal expectations. The Ruinsinstallation can be explored below:
With Ravelled, written for Illuminate Women Music’s Season II,I decided to explore my own experience of grief. The work considers the definition of the word ‘ravelled’ (to tangle; to disentangle; to tease out; to fray) and the contradictions of seeking emotional resolution but becoming further entangled by oneself. This manifests in the work through lyrical and vulnerable cello melodies accompanied by shifting harmonies, arpeggiation and extended pedal sustain, portraying a sense of dissociation and lack of resolution.
It has been a real pleasure to work with our performers Ivana Peranic and Rachel Fryer for this series of concerts, and to get to know work by Amy Beach and Rebecca Clarke along the way. Please see details of all upcoming concerts of Season I and II here: https://www.illuminatewomensmusic.co.uk/whats-on-2021-season-i-and-ii.html
After such a long hiatus it feels astonishing to be finally returning to live Illuminate Women’s Music concerts and, with the return of the season, to be writing a new blog about my compositional work generally and the commissioned work I have written for the Illuminate series of concerts.
Punch echo for saxophone and piano
(Illuminate Women’s Music commission)
This autumn my piece Punch, echofor saxophone and piano that will be premiered and given repeat performances by Naomi Sullivan and Kumi Matsuo across the Illuminate series of concerts across the UK. This work is actually the last piece I finished before the pandemic hit and our lives as we knew it stopped in it tracks. I decided not to edit the piece any further after this – this decision was not really a conscious one – but I think it is good that the piece remains a snapshot of an energetic optimism I had for the year ahead. I feel the piece perhaps has an innocence about it as I was completely unaware of what path lay ahead for us all in reality.
I have always been fascinated in the dialogues between science, visual arts, dance and politics in my music. I have endless curiosity for gestures, shapes, sounds and their relation to the world, and how these relate to other artforms. My works are often inspired by the natural world, visual arts – particularly colour theory – and dance where I have engaged with Laban’s Eight efforts dance theory. Punch echo is an example of a piece that engages with these movement concepts.
Punch: to strike with the fist. Echo: a sound or sounds caused by the reflection of sound waves from a surface back to the listener.
This work draws on the meaning of the words ‘punch’ and ‘echo’, representing these through the lens of Laban’s Eight Efforts. Laban Movement Analysis is a method and nomenclature for describing, interpreting and documenting human movement. I feel a deep connection between the gestural language of movement and music. Laban categorises movement into eight efforts, descriptively named Float, Punch (Thrust), Glide, Slash, Dab, Wring, Flick, and Press. In this work I explore the effort of ‘punch’ on both macro and micro levels, exploring the musical impact of a ‘punch’ and its subsequent aftermath, the echo effect.
Though I haven’t edited this work since the start of the pandemic, for one of Illuminate’s digital concerts last year I created a postcard version of this piece, switching the words around to become Echo (punch) [a piece for unusual times]. This work essentially reimagined the material from my original piece by flipping the effort punch in reverse. The original Punch echo explores how music can convey the effort of ‘punch’ and its aftershock, which is essentially the echo. However, the echo here comes first followed by the action that caused it. In turning the idea on its head – taking material from my original composition – I was able to reimagine and explore the musical echoes in detail. These musical moments are the equivalent of zooming in and experiencing the aftershock of something in numbing slow motion with sudden bursts of movement that surges forward.
Spinning Colours | Faded Time for piano quartet
(written for Trio Northumbria and Alison Gill)
Another of my recent works that explores Laban’s eight efforts is a piano quartet called Spinning Colours | Faded Time.
Spinning Colours | Faded Timewas written for the Trio Northumbria for the 2021 Royal Musical Association Conference held at Newcastle University. The piece explores the ways that musical expressions of colour interact with musical renderings of Laban's eight efforts. Each gesture and colour has an associated weight, energy, and speed, creating interesting relationships between the instruments and their respective sonorities. The first half of the piece explores the slow Laban efforts: float, glide, wring, and press. The second half engages with the gestural efforts: flick, slash, dab, and punch, before the material disintegrates into pure harmonics, seemingly ever longer each time.
Woven half dreams for solo cello
(written as part of Connected skies project and programmed in Illuminate Autumn concerts)
In this autumn’s concerts, which feature our Illuminate performers in residence Ivana Peranic (cello) and Rachel Fryer (piano), my solo cello piece called Woven half dreams is being performed across some of the concerts.
This work, composed during the first series of lockdowns, is an emotional reaction to the pandemic. The work was written for Sarah Gait as part of the Arts Council England funded projected Connected skies: solo series challenge. In this project, I set out to write six new works for double bass, cello, flute, accordion, percussion and mezzo soprano between October 2020-May 2021. Each of these works received a digital premiere with monthly digital events from January 2021-June 2021. These events can still be watched on my YouTube channel.
Woven half dreams was the second piece in the Connected skies collection of solo pieces. All the pieces draw upon a poem I wrote, connecting the individual compositions into a song cycle of sorts. Woven half dreams explores unfurling threads and lines that are interrupted by burst of aggressive energetic passages. These aggressive bursts become ever more prominent throughout the piece, until they push the weaving lines completely away through the centre of the piece. The piece then returns to the weaving lines through delicate harmonic threads to the end of the piece.
When the sky enclosed around me
Shrinking ever smaller
I found woven half dreams
fractured in spaces inbetween
which ache and scream
I tried to shut the noise out
but it echoed right back at me
Please consider supporting Illuminate Women's Music future projects in both live and digital concerts:
Music has a role in ‘cultural and subcultural identity,’ (Cook, 1998: 5) a big part of which is communicating things that are important to an audience. I often think carefully about my work before I start writing and ask myself ‘what am I trying to communicate to an audience?’ and ‘how might this message reveal itself through the music that I write?’. Furthermore, I am drawn to extra-musical starting points, often ones that provide a duality of perspective such as a historical primary source which also comments upon something in the present, or something mundane from the everyday which can be elevated through the lens of performance and is perhaps widely experienced by listeners and performers alike.
Gwyneth (2015) was a work where I felt this idea of capturing real life- past and present- really started to take shape in my practice. The piece attempted to tell the true story of a child refugee (my Great Aunt) being sent to Australia during WW2 being retold at a time when many refugees were seeking safety from war-torn Syria. The importance of this comparison was to draw an analogy between the past the present, and to trigger empathy and understanding against the fear and frustration which was being whipped up in the media; the difference in circumstance was that during WW2 it was British children looking for refuge. In particular, it referenced elements of music which was symbolically poignant to the narrative in the form of Elgarian references in the lyrical writing for violin and cello. This enhances the music’s ability to draw upon the emotional conflicts that the situation presented and worked to ‘overcome some of the inertia’ (Becker 2014: 133) around this contemporary issue in an indirect way. In essence, the music became a programmatic representation of the event(s) it aimed to represent, and which acted as an ‘aesthetic artefact’ (Patti, 2009: 57) or a repository of historical and contemporary lived experience though music and narration. Patti (2009) discusses how ‘autoethnography is an art that “responds to life itself” and struggles meaningfully against the limitation of representing and translating lived experience’ however I feel that this meaningful struggle is essential as it adds a richness to the artefact produced. Music cannot be an exact representation of the identity, moment, or experience, but instead the artist/composer/interpreter/performer has a unique agency in accentuating key aspects in a form of augmented and artistic reality.
This idea of ‘humanness’ and fragility is something I have wanted to explore further in my work. This can be seen most readily in Fragments (2017) for soprano and piano whereby the text is five short poems by American poet Christopher Poindexter who “considers himself more of an observer, trying to make sense of the human condition in all of its grit and glory. Being inspired by both the darkness and the light, he aims to share an ultimate truth in all of his writing” (Poindexter, 2018) The poems are from his first body of work: Naked Human (2015) which, “is an exploration of humanity at its finest and at its worst,” and is a theme which perpetuates through a lot of music, specifically opera.. Poindexter’s short but blunt ‘fragments’ of lived moments, capture quotidian fleeting moments that many of us experience or have heard in our own internal monologues, which elevates the minutiae of the everyday into something more remarkable through performance.
Musically, the vocals switch between freely spoken (unscored) and singing in the mid to upper register of the range. The juxtaposition throws the audience between two listening modes and makes the starkness of the words even more pronounced. In addition, ‘breath’ is scored, making the audience feel uncomfortably close to the performer/persona’s thoughts. Immersing the audience through a textual or multi-sensory listening experience brings the audience closer to the story being told, the persona being represented and hopefully allowing them to ‘make use of it’ (Bourdieu, 1991: 43) emotively.
The questions I ask myself before I start writing became more poignant in March 2020 when communication and connecting with others took on a new meaning. This provided problems for those of us working in the arts and also required creative and innovative solutions to carry on working. One such example of this innovation was a series of live streamed daily concerts by pianist Duncan Honeybourne to raise funds for Help Musicians UK (Honeybourne, 2020). I was fortunate enough to be asked by Duncan to write a short piece for this project that was inspired by Lockdown. My inspiration came from watching BBC Breakfast one morning whereby the news reporter remarked hearing birdsong for the first time on her commute to work due to the reduction in noise pollution from commuters and industry. I went straight out to the garden and decided to record my resident blackbird, who’s song I am particularly fond of as it resembles the melody form ‘I’m a Barbie Girl’. I wanted to capture the contrast between everyday life before and after March 22nd 2020, specifically people’s renewed acknowledgement of their local area, the natural world and the importance of wellbeing. This resulted in a duet for piano and blackbird.; the first movement the blackbird cannot be heard over the cacophony of man-made noise which is juxtaposed by the tranquillity of the second movement.
It was important the blackbird and piano shared a language, so there are certain motifs that have been transcribed from the recording for the piano. The piano has two roles in this, firstly having a conversation with the blackbird in which they take turns most of the time so the bird song can be heard clearly. The piano melody is decidedly bird-like with trills and appoggiatura to ornament the melody, but also adding a more coherent lyrical flavour which is more ‘human’. Secondly, the piano adds emotion, harmony, texture, movement, and structure. Without the harmonic movement at bar 43 (see fig.1) and again at 64 the piece would lack pace and a richer texture. Like the first movement, this tries to use a lot of the piano’s range to give it depth and distinguish between the ‘conversation’ and the background noises of the environment.
I think the validity of taking a much-used practice of ornithology inspiring music is certainly the elevation of the quotidian through my music. It is just unusual that during lockdown the ‘every day’ is in fact rather extraordinary and therefore my piece is much more than just being about the blackbird’s song.
My work for Illuminate Women’s Music continues this investigation of elevating the ‘every day’. Partition (2021) was initially inspired by my reading about the fall of the Persian Empire during lockdown and how Persian rulers allowed the people they conquered to continue their lives and keep their cultures, customs religions, and traditions if they paid their taxes. I found this interesting, as too often these things are lost because of conflict and change of rule; you only have to look at the news and the current changes taking place in Kabul following the cities takeover by the Taliban to see the impact change of rule can have upon a nation. Furthermore, I realised the same could be said about the COVID-19 pandemic and lives being plunged into isolation because of an unseen threat; this, and the subsequent endeavours to keep culture and entertainment alive. Culture, community, family, friends, social activities are so important to our wellbeing and what makes us ‘human’ (Williamson, 2014) that we strove to find ways to keep it going online and stay connected.
Throughout history the world has been full of divisions.
These divisions are often man-made.
Conflict, violence, religion, gender, nature vs. nurture.
Land partitioned like a commodity. Lives destroyed over its
ownership. Cultures lost.
Even in the current times in which we live, we have been
segregated due to disease and disagreements over race and
Rainforests and the natural world plundered. The atmosphere
slowly being destroyed. Ice-caps melt.
Will there ever be harmony; will we always be partitioned?
Partition (Jenkins, 2020)
Therefore, Partition (2021) is an extraction of some snippets of conversations I had with family and friends during Lockdown, either on the phone or Zoom. The content of these conversations is not necessarily important other than the fact there were strong recurring themes (such as the virus, lockdown, the weather etc) and a lot of uncertainty, anxiety, and frustration at various things in our ‘new normal’. Conversations follow lots of different patterns, rhythms and structures depending upon their subject and how this unravels. Conversation is ultimately an improvisatory process in which an exchange of opinion, ideas and emotions are expressed- much like an exchange of musical ideas. I found that during lockdown these patterns and sentiments were improvisationary but also had strong themes and sometimes a feeling of familiarity as we responded to the news and progression of the global pandemic. The piece has a modal feel but isn’t attributed to a particular mode or mahab as it is a non-conventional nine-note pattern which is particularly chromatic in the middle as this gives a distantly familiar yet unsettled feel. Similarly, to Fragments (2017), this piece is concerned with small units of motif that occur, recur, and are respelled in different ways amongst other changing elements such as timbre, tempo, and form. This all works to give a sense of shifting perspective and uncertainty but also a strong sense of belonging.
In her chapter The Influence of the Extra-Musical Katz (2012) investigates how the extra-musical is mapped over onto musical structures and how different theories might shed some light onto these practices. I certainly believe that my work, to an extent, follows the idea that metaphor is a synthesis agent between two disparate domains (Ortony, 1979) – in this case it is language and music. De Bono (1970) calls this ‘lateral thinking’ or in other words, problem solving with information that is not overtly related to the initial problem or solution. (Katz, 2012: 175) In the main part, my central aim for the piece was to enable the cello and piano to be equal agents in this piece – I was determined to avoid the piano becoming an accompaniment and wanted an equal demonstration of virtuosity for both players. Secondly, I wanted the piece to communicate something quotidian, present and avoid the quixotic. Therefore, as Katz (2012) identifies, I have started a modulatory process as each extra-musical element has a unique character which starts to determine creative choices.
Firstly each ‘conversation’ or musical exchange is categorised by a synonym of the word partition and as such they each take on their own character, some of the musical ‘relationships’ more disparate than others. In a way these try and capture the different perspectives of life during lockdown – some going to work, some furloughed, some in forced isolation, some choosing isolation due to fear or the protection of loved ones – either way these unnatural divisions characterised our lives and therefore our conversations. Work to represent this has been particularly focussed upon the ‘light and shade’ of dynamics and the range of timbres afforded by utilising different techniques such as shimmering harmonics, tremolando and double stopping.
There are times where the cello is clearly being harmonic support for the piano and visa versa other times both parts seem to be working against each other or interjecting each other’s melody (see fig.2). Some conversations are short, others longer or some moving though different moods. These are all examples of how this mon-musical model has dictated form at both a macro (such as structure) and micro level (harmony, timbre, and texture) (Katz, 2012: 177).
I think it is important to note that although the ‘system’ is governed by the extra-musical, it isn’t the sole decider in the creative process. Allowances have to be made for musical logic. For example, the musical equivalent of a conversation if taken literally would mean that the speakers take it in turns but this wouldn’t necessarily make for a successful piece of music and therefore it is essential to take this framework as a starting point or for ‘inspiration’ rather than rigid rules. Therefore, there are many times where both instruments are playing together but it is very clear who is ‘dominating’ the conversation and where there are moments of agreement (see fig.3) which might be cello and piano playing in unison or one leading with a clear melody whilst the other is providing harmonic support. This is essential so the piece feels coherent and complete.
As mentioned, my music cannot be an exact representation of the identity, emotion, or experience of an event, but I do hope it has agency in accentuating key aspects of the ‘everyday’ in a form of augmented and artistic reality.
BBC (2020) The Art of Persia. BBC4, Wednesday 17th June 2020. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000k48g
Becker, H., S (2014) What about Mozart? What about Murder? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bourdieu, P (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity.
Cook, N (1998) Music: A short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
De Bono, E (1970) Lateral Thinking. New York, Harper and Row.
Honeybourne, D (2020) Contemporary Piano Soundbites. Prima Facie.
Jenkins, H (2017) Fragments [WP]. Payee Chen (soprano) Kate Ledger (piano), 04 August 2017. York, Late Music. Available at: https://soundcloud.com/jenkinsonare/fragments
Jenkins, H (2015) Gwyneth [WP]. The Albany Trio, 06 June 2015. York, Late Music. Available at: https://soundcloud.com/jenkinsonare/gwyneth
Jenkins, H (2021) Partition [WP]. Ivana Peranic (cello) & Rachel Fryer (piano), 01 October 2021.Brighton, Illuminate Women’s Music, Series II.
Katz, S. L. (2012) The Influence of the Extra-Musical. In Eds, Collins, D (2012) The Act of Musical Composition. Surrey, Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
Kramer, L (2011) Interpreting Music. London: University of California Press.
MacDonald, R., et al (2005) Musical Communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
MacDonald, R., Hargreaves, D., & Miell, D (2017) Handbook of Musical Identities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ortony, A (1979) Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Patti, C., J (2009) Musical Artefacts of My Father’s Death: Autoethnography, Music and Aesthetic Representation (pg 57-72) in Eds: Bartleet, B., & Ellis, C., (2009) Music Autoethnographies: Making Autoethnography Sing/Making Music Personal. Sydney: Australian Academic Press.
Poindexter, C (2015) Naked Human. Monarch Publishing.
TED (2013) Bernie Krause: The voice of the natural world. [online] Available at: https://youtu.be/uTbA-mxo858
United Visual Artists (2019) The Great Animal Orchestra. [online] Available at: https://vimeo.com/364836175
Williamson, V (2014) You Are the Music: How music reveals what it means to be human. London, Icon Books Ltd.
Please consider supporting Illuminate Women's Music future projects in both live and digital concerts: