22 August 2019

Photo: NYCGB Young Composer Lillie Harris. Credit: Kevin Leighton

NYCGB Young Composers Lillie Harris and Harry Baker tell us about the inspiration behind their new pieces, premiering at Saffron Hall, and performed by the National Youth Girls’ Choir of Great Britain this Saturday.

Lillie Harris

Tell us about the inspiration behind your new piece.

When a couple of us expressed an interest in writing for the Girls' choir, their Director Esther Jones gave us some prompts that would help fit with the concert: she wanted to include music to represent all the continents on Earth, and asked if I would be interested in writing a piece about Antarctica. I absolutely was! As I was already planning to base my piece for the main choir in the Arctic, this seemed the perfect companion, and my mind was already filled with frozen landscapes and penguins, from the BBC Dynasties episode.

At one point, I considered creating lyrics using some words written by a scientist who had been based in Antarctica for research, but it didn't feel quite right to put the famously uninhabited continent into words. Instead, I focused on some of its defining characteristics and imagined standing near an Antarctic beach, listening to the blustering wind, the chatter of birds, the crash of waves, and admiring its crisp beauty - with the edge, of course, that this is a place where the natural elements are incredibly raw. This turned into very literal representations of wind and bird calls in the piece, staggered across the voices in the choir to recreate ideas of movement and space. I also wanted to find a small amount of musical material to reflect the sense of a place that is powerful and ethereal in its unknowability, but also very fragile and vulnerable to change; I hope I have captured this in the melody, which starts very still but suddenly shifts into a different gear before disappearing into the wind.

The title ‘blue and white and wind and snow’ is partly inspired by a diary entry written by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen during his expedition to the South Pole in 1911: he described Antarctica as "a wonderful fairy tale in blue and white".

How do you feel about your work being performed by the National Youth Girls' Choir of Great Britain?

Extremely excited! When I spent some time with them in the Spring, I was incredibly impressed by their abilities, not just as a group in the choir but as individuals with a lot of musicality and ambition, and also their ability to keep track of all the games planned for them whilst simultaneously concentrating very hard in rehearsals! They were presented with a wide variety of music - some light-hearted, some very serious, some with unusual rhythms, some with tricky modulations, and also a marvellous arrangement of Reach for the Stars - and were able to adapt themselves perfectly for each one. I can't wait to hear what they do with what I've written for them!

Do you come from a musical family?

No, not really - we never went to classical concerts, and at home I tended to listen to whatever cassettes were around (the Lion King soundtrack, the Spice Girls, and the Beatles). Learning instruments started through primary school: when I was 3 my mum took me to one of my elder sister's school concerts. When the Classical Guitar ensemble came on and played, I turned to my mum and insisted, "I want to learn that". When she spoke to the teacher, he said I should probably be able to read first, which possibly is one reason why I also ended up devouring books from then on too. After my parents divorced, my mum wanted to make sure we had plenty of opportunities to follow our interests and keep doors open, so she encouraged us to pick up more instruments - fine by me! Although my sister learned piano, cello and electric organ for a while, it was never really her thing (she was instead an amazing sportswoman and a particularly great swimmer) so we're not quite sure where the music bug came from!

How and when did you first discover that you wanted to be a composer?

It was around the time I was doing my GCSE's, and naturally having to make decisions about A Levels and therefore career choices. My mum was rather keen that I follow a science-based route that would lead to a more stable career, because at the time I was struggling to find anything I wanted to be more than ‘author’. I think I had internalised the idea that it was really hard to earn a living as a musician, and that that could never be my 'actual' career, so I was searching through jobs like astrophysics and volcanology but getting nowhere. Then I think a combination of focusing on composition properly for my Music GCSE, a spate of films with excellent scores, and my lack of enthusiasm for anything else led to the idea of "well, writing music is fun!" I always joke that ‘Composer!’ was my response to my mum trying to divert me away from creative writing, which is partly true, but she has always been so supportive of me that I think she realised this was something we just had to explore, even though neither of us knew anything, really, about the classical music world!

Which composer or composers most inspire you?

I'm most inspired by the personal and professional lives of the women composers who have come before us, because - as the increasing attention on this topic is proving - despite all the odds and obstacles, many, many brilliant women have composed music for hundreds of years. Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre's opera 'Céphale et Procris' is an incredible work, and the start of 'Chantons, chantons sa valeur immortelle' in particular just captivates me - I can listen to it round and round for ages! In an otherwise busy and fast-moving piece (as was the style), she injects beats of silence, just enough to make you wonder if the piece has stopped, but suddenly in it comes again. She was writing in the 17th century and was by all accounts very successful and well-regarded; many other composers were heavily discouraged by the fact of their gender, the specific criticism that often centred on this, the oft-repeated assertations that "women just can't write good music", and their time in history - but continued writing anyway. Whenever I'm having a bad compositional day and can't shake my own doubts that "this is all terrible, why even bother", I remember them and pick up my pencil.

How would you sum up your experience of the NYCGB Young Composers' Scheme in 5 words?

Singing, learning, friendship, inspiration, discovery!

What are your composing hopes and ambitions for the future?

It can be a difficult career path to navigate, so I just hope to keep writing and finding opportunities to write for ensembles and choirs. I really do believe that a piece doesn't 'happen’, and the music doesn't come alive until it's off the page and heard! After my time with NYCGB, I am very excited by the idea of writing more choral pieces and working with more choirs, because I hadn't realised how much I missed singing in a choir and how joyful it is. So that combined with putting my two loves,  words and music together, feels like a great place to aim towards.

And finally, what piece of advice would you most like to give to aspiring young composers?

Just write! The amazing - and sometimes scary - thing about creating anything is that there are no right or wrong answers. And there don't have to be any boundaries or labels either, although limits and restrictions can be helpful to guide your creativity. For example, telling yourself "I'm going to write a piano piece about a sunset" might help you come up with ideas, because you know it can only be for two hands, and because it's about a specific thing, some notes might 'sound' right to you for this piece. That's how I write, I like to know what feeling I want to express or what mood it should feel like; that way, it's easier to pick some notes over others. Each piece you write can be totally different, and you can listen to other composers to get ideas for other styles and chords, but you also don't have to be like anyone in particular: you're you! No one else can write like you, so if you have some ideas, write them down however you like, and when you feel ready, share them with someone - particularly if they can play it to you!

Photo: NYCGB Young Composer Harry Baker. Credit: Arthur Vickery

Harry Baker

Tell us about the inspiration behind your new piece?

From the outset of planning the piece, I knew that I wanted to include some kind of folk influence: I've always connected with the directness of melody and concision of harmony prevalent in folk music but hadn't ever consciously included folk elements in my composing. Things started to slot into place when I realised that Ralph Vaughan Williams' and Cecil Sharp's renowned collecting of English folk song, which took place approximately 100 years ago, fits neatly with NYCGB's 2019 theme of 'Discovery'. From here, I trawled through Vaughan Williams' and Sharp's collection and found a suitable text.

How do you feel about your work being performed by the National Youth Girls' Choir of Great Britain?

It's an amazing privilege! We're very fortunate in the UK that we have not just a strong youth choir, but a 'database' comprising a plethora of choirs: there's a choir for children and young adults of all ages and abilities. I'm really chuffed to compose for such a thriving upper-voices ensemble, spanning a big age range.

Do you come from a musical family?

Not really! My mum used to play the flute at school, whilst my dad is, to all intents and purposes, tone-deaf!

How and when did you first discover that you wanted to be a composer?

I used to compose bits and pieces at primary school, but my first 'commission' (!) came at the ripe old age of 11 when I was asked to write incidental music for the school play. My parents kindly bought me Sibelius notation software, and from then I was obsessed. 

Which composer or composers most inspire you?

A diverse range, which perhaps have in common a fearlessness to be uncompromisingly themselves in their music. Brad Mehldau, Laura Jurd, Kit Downes, Thomas Adès, Oliver Knussen, Bach, Brahms.

How would you sum up your experience of the NYCGB Young Composers' Scheme in 5 words?

(A) Platform to foster musical personality. 

What are your composing hopes and ambitions for the future?

To keep on writing, and to pray that ensembles – both choral and instrumental – sustain interest in my composing!

And finally, what piece of advice would you most like to give to aspiring young composers?

Be proactive. In the classical world, composers are arbitrarily placed outside the realms of the performers; why not turn that on its head! Set up a group to play your (and others') music. The pros: full artistic control, repeat performances, the capacity for recording albums...the list goes on. What's not to like?

NYCGB Young Composers Scheme - run in partnership with NMC Recordings - is open for applications. The deadline for applications is: Fri 30 Aug, 5pm.

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'Voyages of Discovery' features Lillie and Harry's new pieces performed by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, on Sat 31 Aug, 4pm

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