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