First, thank you for the opportunity to share your thoughts and music with our HocTok audience.
What role do you see your music playing in the lives of people who are directly involved with it?
I love to write for individuals whose playing I know well. Because I started out as a viola player, I have many, many strong friendships and connections with performing musicians, and these have remained the most usual route to new commissions.
I love to tailor a piece of music, often responding to an extra-musical idea from the soloist (eg the novel 'All Quiet on the Western Front' as the starting point for my violin concerto for Anthony Marwood; and shared political disquiet with pianist Jonathan Biss, following the US election, as the main influence of my recent piano concerto 'City Stanzas')
You’ve written music for film, ballet, orchestra, period instruments, etc.. Do you have a favorite type of work that has a more natural flow than others?
I love writing for dance. I used to say, if I was asked what piece I would most like to write, that it would be a ballet. I finally got to write my first ballet at the age of 60 (The Tempest, with choreographer David Bintley, for Birmingham Royal Ballet – the score is short-listed for a British Composer Award). I can say with certainty I have never had a more satisfying and inspiring experience. Immediately after this I was commissioned to write a score for 'The Little Mermaid' for Northern Ballet. This time the choreographer was David Nixon, and again, it was hugely rewarding.
Without doubt, dance is my favourite genre, and I think it is largely because of the aspect of collaboration, but also because it is wonderful to 'see' the music expressed physically. It has changed the way I write, and I often now create concert works with dramaturg Peter Thomson – also my partner. He is a playwright, and we work together on shaping and structuring the idea for a piece, so that it has a strong dramatic trajectory.
What is the desired effect of your music on audience members who are seasoned music patrons as well as those who are newcomers to the music scene?
I hope that through the flare of the performer I will communicate with the audience. I try to use strong clear structures, and repetition of material, so that the audience have something to relate to.
I also work a lot with colour, so that the sounds are unusual and memorable. I think it is very hard to listen to a new piece of music for the first time, so the 'signposts' are important. For that reason, I always try and speak about the music before it is performed, if possible also demonstrating key themes.
Where do you turn for hope and inspiration on a daily basis?
I am always working to deadlines, with a performance in view, and this is the biggest inspiration! The show has to go on, and giving up on a work just isn't 'on the menu'. I have an image and a sound for the piece in my mind's eye, because I am always familiar with the playing of the musician/s and I know where the piece will be performed, and on what occasion. All these things help as a driving force towards completion.
The hardest thing is to work in a vacuum – to write something speculatively – but sometimes I just feel a piece is waiting to be written, and I do it. This was the case with Seavaigers, which was directly inspired by the playing of Chris Stout, Catriona McKay, and the Scottish Ensemble, all of whom I know well.
Outside of the music world, what are some of the roles you cherish most? My role as mother, of course, is supremely important to me. The children were the reason I chose to stop playing and concentrate on composition – composition is the perfect job for a parent. They are now grown-up and have all inspired me in their own ways. My eldest son is a filmmaker and has made videos of several of my works, with his own artistic input. My second son is a composer, and writes all the material for the band Urvanovic. I find I am constantly influenced by his language, which is so different from mine. My daughter is a luthier, and has made me a viola. After 20 years with no instrument and no playing, I am now playing professionally again. Quite a gift. I also paint, and at one time was exhibiting quite a bit (I designed most of my CD covers). And I have several poems and short stories published. Writing is something I have done since I was very young, and occasionally I set my own texts to music. I started writing seriously in 2002 when I became 'blocked' after a difficult experience with an opera. It was a release to concentrate on something different for a while – related, but not the same, with no professional expectations. I gained a great deal by attending a writers' group in Stirling, Scotland, and learning how to craft poems and stories. It is easier to share one's 'work in progress' by using words than by using notes, and to learn from the reactions of one's readers. If something isn't clear, they tell you! What and who has had the greatest influence in your music writing? I would say that William Walton and Oliver Knussen had the biggest influence when I was forging my language. More recently, Mark Anthony Turnage and Thomas Ades. Peter Maxwell Davies was a dear friend and mentor, and conversations with him had a big impact on the way I approach my work, particularly the aspect of community involvement. My meeting with Branford Marsalis in 2006 was crucially important. His playing is a core inspiration, as are the Scottish folk musicians Catriona McKay and Chris Stout. Jazz, and Scottish traditional music, find their way into much of my work. There are also often visual aspects to what I write – landscape, seascape – and then natural sounds such as birds, rain, wind. Story is immensely important to me – hence my delight at finally writing for dance. But going right back to the start, my mother, the violinist Ursula Snow, taught me to read and write music when I was four. So, she gave me my first means to communicate, and I started composing straight away. It was very important, I think, that many female members of my family were musicians. Role models are crucial. Your work, The Judas Passion, had its US premiere earlier this month (October 2017). Your Seavaigers was performed in mid-October in Montreal, Canada. Takes Two was performed in Melbourne in Australia recently, too. How do you feel about the various interpretations of your works in such an interesting list of different places around the world? It's so exciting that the music is now travelling independently. It's gratifying to hear about performances that have arisen from a general momentum – to feel that my music is becoming 'repertoire'. I love to travel for performances when I can, and to meet the musicians. It's always inspiring. When the children were little I missed quite a few premieres, so there are some pieces I have never heard. In September, I was festival composer at the wonderful Trondheim Kammermusikkfestival in Norway; and among the 20 works of mine they programmed, there were three pieces I had never heard before! Do you have any agonizing thoughts as an artist and where do you find solace? I suffer from 'Imposter Syndrome' like everyone else! So, I try to forget about 'what people will think' – or rather, what the critics and new music aficionados will think. I focus on the performers, and on the audience. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to communicate through the most fantastic musicians, and I hang onto my good luck and try not to harbour negative thoughts. I love my work.
What accomplishments are you proud of in your long career as a fine composer and viola player? In 2006, I wrote a stage musical for my village theatre company about the Highland Clearances (the forced removal of whole crofting communities to the New World). I worked with a local poet, Donald Goodbrand Saunders, and we made a story with roles for all the members of the company, including the children. We then entered it for a competition held by the theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh, and it reached the finals, receiving a televised professional production. That was an extraordinary experience, and enormous fun! Playing-wise – I think the recording of Brahms sextets with the Raphael Ensemble has to be my one of my proudest moments – and then, a few years ago, performing on stage again after a gap of 20 years, in my string quartet Opus California, on an instrument made by my daughter.