ROSL launched its brand new Composition Award in March and despite the upheaval the world has seen since, our period of enforced isolation could prove creatively rewarding for entrants. Composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad, one of the judges for the award, discusses where she gets her inspiration from and the importance of nurturing young talent
As I sit down to write this article, about a week after the UK went into lockdown as a result of COVID-19, I am just starting to get some semblance of a concentrated work routine back. I am in an exceptionally lucky position: I have work to be getting on with over the next few months, I am used to working at home for long stretches by myself, and I am in good physical health. But, like many others who work in the arts, I’ve found it very hard to be creative recently: despite best intentions, I’ve found myself glued to the news channel, caught up in alternative waves of despair at the tragedy unfolding in front of my eyes, and determination to use time productively and for creative good.
For those of us lucky enough to not be directly affected by the virus, there is ample time to reflect. Why compose at all? What are the conditions that you really need in order to be at your most productive, and does it matter what inspires you? I am sure, in the coming year, we’ll see a range of artistic reactions to this global pandemic: some artists will engage directly with what has happened, others will steer clear of writing music that is ‘about’ anything. I find myself more inclined than ever to take inspiration from nature: a little violin and piano piece that is next on the list will likely take the idea of an opening blossom, as I’ve been paying a lot more attention to the developing buds on the apple tree in our garden this past week.
It won’t be necessary to know this when listening to the completed piece, and I won’t be trying to paint a picture in the music: rather, I think that I will experiment with harmony that gradually expands outward, or turns one way and then another, as if following the path of the sun. Of course, in its own way, this piece will be a reaction to the coronavirus crisis: for me, current events have reminded me not to take beautiful, perishable things for granted.
We’ll see a range of artistic reactions to this global pandemic: some artists will engage directly with what has happened, others will steer clear of writing music that is ‘about’ anything
As a composer, I often take inspiration from extra-musical sources: poetry, art, science, or even, in one piece called Game On from 2016, economics and Game Theory. Recently, in preparation for a talk I was giving about my work, I looked out my workings for this piece, and found pages upon pages of note rows that I had generated from number grids usually used to find the Nash Equilibrium. Try as I might, I could not work out how I’d gone about doing this: what had made perfect sense at the time now seemed like total gobbledegook.
I experience this sense of cluelessness a lot when looking back over pieces, even ones I’ve only recently finished. In ‘the flow’, patterns and pertinent reasons for making certain musical choices leap out at me, but as soon as these creative connections have served their purpose and helped me make something musically meaningful, their logic is forgotten. In Game On, creating long streams of notes based on number grids helped me to create a music that felt relentless, unpredictable and motoric. I’d have found it much more difficult to do this if I’d ‘just written’ what came in my head. For me, this is the purpose of ‘being inspired’ by something: in my recent piano concerto, using a novelist’s description of a river that flows for miles spurred me to create a long series of chords that change only very gradually (like those spelling games, where you go from one word to a completely different one by changing only one letter at a time). Using these chords as a basis for long melodic lines then enabled me to create musical phrases that seemed to go on forever, and I achieved a feeling of tautness that I would have found very difficult to create otherwise.
Even after 20 years of working to commission, I still find composing, and concentrating on my work, incredibly hard. In recent years, I’ve resorted to using software that blocks the internet on all my devices during work hours, and I try to keep to a regular timetable: I expect a lot of people are currently discovering that time vanishes easily at home if you don’t make a concrete plan for the day! I do have friends who still stay up all night writing pieces, but I gave up on that habit years ago, and now find that keeping to regular working hours, with enough breaks for walks (even if only around the garden these days) works best. Composing is a constant feedback loop between craft and inspiration, and on the days where I feel empty of ideas, I still persevere, relying on technique until something sparks my imagination.
I am so looking forward to being on the panel for the first ROSL Composition Award in November: it will be more vital than ever to nurture our future composing talent in the years to come, and I can’t wait to listen, in the same room as others, to the new creative voices of the future.
Over 100 young composers entered their works into the inaugural Composition Award, comprising: