Cheryl Frances-Hoad Interview
We’ve been fortunate enough to receive a theme composed by Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies for use in Music Junction’s 15/16 season. Could you tell us a little about the theme, and how it will be incorporated into your composition?
Interestingly, the theme wasn’t specially written for this project – it already existed. Entitled ‘Rousay Wedding Dance’, Sir Peter had written the tune (presumably!) for a wedding previously. It is nonetheless an honour to have this tune (for solo violin) as the starting point for the piece, and elements of it will be incorporated into the ‘Hero’ section of my work. The two parts of the tune are related but contrasting and have a stoicism and vigour that will influence everything from the harmony to the mood of the piece.
The showcase performance will involve a variety of children and young people, both in terms of age range and musical experience. How will this effect your approach to the composition, and how can you make sure that all the participants are not only included, but also challenged?
It requires a certain mindset, writing a piece like this! I’m so lucky to have had the experience of working with Music Junction and LCO two years ago on this project as this time around I know (a little more!) what to expect. The key thing, I think, is to involve everyone in the compositional process (when I compose I think in very simple terms, in plain English, if you like, about what I’m writing and how I’m writing it, so I don’t find talking about composing with people of all musical levels a problem) and make sure that as far as possible you can write music that allows everyone to shine during the performance. The great thing is that in music, everyone can feel something different when listening to a piece, there are no right or wrong answers, so, if for instance, you are writing a piece about what it feels to be a hero, everyone will be able to contribute (albeit perhaps in response to a series of questions: ‘Would heroic music be loud or soft?’ etc). There are a great number of craftsmanship puzzles to solve whilst writing a piece like this, but for me that is part of the fun: writing a piece that will hopefully be fulfilling to play and listen to whilst also being entirely fit for purpose. The harmonic and melodic language of this piece is likely to be somewhat simpler than my usual ‘concert’ works, but other than that (and the fact that I’ll be given lots of idea by the participants) my approach to composing the work won’t be that different from usual. In essence what you try to do when you write any piece is convey emotion in as direct a way as you can, and part of the way to do that is to write idiomatically for the performers involved. So, whilst writing idiomatically in this case might demand a simplification of material (in order for the piece to be satisfying to play and to hear) there will be no feeling of ‘dumbing down’ whatsoever.
This season is the second time you’ve been composer-in-residence for Music Junction, we’re very happy to have you back! What are you looking to develop this time around?
It’s so great to be back! When I said yes for a second time, I must admit I was a bit terrified, as I thought I’d used every trick in the book for my first piece A Young Person’s Guide to Composition! This piece was based on a theme by Benjamin Britten and explored the emotions of Hope, Excitement, Courage, Pride and Joy. In this next piece I’m looking forward to exploring how one can take musical inspiration from words (something I often do – at the moment I am writing a piano quintet inspired by the poetry of Ted Hughes). The great thing about this is that everybody will be able to contribute, as we will all be writing our own poems during the process (so, I’m hoping that by the end of the project, in addition to the piece I’ll write, everybody will have their own mini song which they can call their own). The theme of Heroes and Antiheroes is a very exciting prospect too: it’s a theme which I’m not entirely sure I understand (what’s the difference between a hero and an antihero exactly?) so I’m looking forward to being helped by the young people in this respect. This time around we want to make participants feel they are even more essential to the compositional process than last time (I think we succeeded in this last time too, but we can do even better this year!). The pride of seeing a composition finished, even for someone like me who’s written hundreds of pieces, is immense. Every time I see a finished published score, I can’t believe I managed to write it and it increases my self esteem a bit. I’d love it if everybody who participates in Music Junction this year could feel that sense of pride too.
Modern technology allows us to connect to participants via the internet easier than ever. How are facilities such as Music Circle (LCO Music Junction’s online learning environment created in partnership with Goldsmiths University of London) incorporated into the education process?
I’m afraid this is going to be a new thing for me too, and I’m very exited about the possibilities that all the technology will provide (I’m strictly a pen and manuscript paper person usually!). However, one thing that I am definitely going to be doing is a very regular video diary of my progress whilst I’m writing the piece (something I did a bit two years ago but Music Circle wasn’t around then). It’s great because I’ll be able to post almost daily videos of what I’m doing – demonstrating how I’m incorporating everybody’s ideas – so, even when I’m alone in my house writing, I’ll hopefully be able to make everyone feel that they are still a vital part of the compositional process. So much of the fear of contemporary music comes from the fact that we can all be a bit po-faced about it I think. It’s not that complicated, it just needs, on occasion, for the composer to explain what they are doing, and why, in plain English, for people to be given a ‘way in’.
We currently see a lot of debate surrounding issues involving music education and the lack of access to quality music for young people in general. How do you see LCO Music Junction fitting into this bigger picture?
I think what LCO Music Junction is doing is absolutely vital, and becoming more so every year. Seeing the decline in music making in (for instance) my county is enough to make one despair, and anything that can be done to introduce young people to the life affirming activity of making music is a wonderful thing. It’s also very gratifying to hear that some schools have continued to provide music lessons for participants after the Music Junction project has ended.
However, there is only so much Music Junction can do if there is not Government funding available to young people to study a musical instrument year after year: Music Junction, however hard it tries, cannot do the impossible. It’s wonderful to be part of this project and I have the deepest respect and admiration for everyone involved in the planning and implementation of everything that Music Junction does. I can’t help but feel a sense of hopelessness though about the state of music education in this country and am certain that had I been born ten or twenty years later I would not be in the lucky position I am now (working full time as a composer). I am the granddaughter of Essex shopkeepers, who comes from a single parent family but has been given access (through full Government grants and scholarships) to the best education, in the best institutions that money can buy. To know that one has been made the very best of, in an era when so many young people will not be made the very best of, is sobering, humbling and depressing. In today’s cultural climate, Music Junction is a shining light that simply must be nurtured, philosophically and financially.
Thanks so much for your time Cheryl