Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Freya Waley-Cohen

by 5:4

This afternoon’s Prom, the last of this season’s concerts at Cadogan Hall, features the newly-formed Knussen Chamber Orchestra. Alongside various works by the man himself, there’s also the world première of a short new work by one of Knussen’s former students, Freya Waley-Cohen. In preparation for that, here are her answers to some of my pre-première questions together with the programme note of her piece, Naiad. Many thanks to Freya for her responses.

1. What led to you becoming a composer? Did/does it feel like a choice?

I started out playing the violin and piano, and grew up wanting to be a violinist until I was about 14. My step grandmother happened to live five minutes away from a summer course for young composers called the Walden School, and I was lucky enough to attend it through my teenage years during the summers. It introduced me to the world of contemporary music and composing as a world full of freedom and excitement, and it was a place I knew I wanted to explore. I think whether its a choice or not is hard to say – I felt that I couldn’t help but love it so much that it was what I wanted to spend my life doing, but I was lucky to have the chance to attend such a place, so I’m sure there’s an element of chance.

2. Where did you study? Who/what have been the most important influences on your work?

I studied at Cambridge with Giles Swayne and at the Royal Academy of Music with Simon Bainbridge and Oliver Knussen. All of those three composers have been big influences on me, all in very different ways. I think my family’s involvement in different art forms has been a huge influence on my work too – my mother is a sculptor and my father works in theatre.

3. How do you go about writing a new piece? To what extent do you start with a ‘blank slate’ and/or use existing methods/materials?

I think that’s always the hardest bit. It’s also quite often the question you get asked if you’re in a pub or at a party and someone finds out you’re a composer! My answer is often ‘if I knew the answer to that question it would all be easy’. In all honestly, nothing’s ever a blank slate because we take with us the things we’ve learnt and heard and understood. I try and push at their boundaries and try to make new meaning and shape from them each time.

4. How does the piece sit in relation to your previous work? Why did you particularly compose this piece at this time?

I particularly composed this piece at this time because during rehearsals for a piece with the LA Phil’s New Music ensemble earlier this year, another composer – Christopher Stark – leaned over and said how much he loved my slower music and how much he’d love to hear a piece that was just those parts of it. I often put soft slow oases within harder and more jagged-edged pieces. These are often sparser, and explore my own ideas of simple beauty. I had been thinking about what would happen if I just allowed those bits to exist on their own … or a piece which was sort of the ‘inside’ of a piece for me. It’s a hard one to explain, but Chris’s kind comment helped me to take that step.

5. If people really like your piece, what other music of yours would you recommend they check out?

If people really like my piece, they should listen to Still Light, a song for orchestra and soprano that is the second movement of my song cycle Happiness, and also listen to Permutations, a piece for six recorded violins.

6. What’s next?

Right now I’m writing a piece for the King’s Singers and a Trio for the Albion Quartet to premiere as part of a day of my music at Wigmore Hall, where I am associate composer for the 2019/20 season.

Naiad – programme note

I had a set of images I mind when I was writing Naiad. I couldn’t find a word to sum them up, but they are things like how the light catches on the scales of a fish swimming through a shallow sunlit stream, or when it’s morning and you can see the dew in a spider web in the grass and it has a tiny rainbow if you look close, or the patterns that bees fly in between flowers, or when you’re walking in a forest and the sun makes dapples on the grass through the tree leaves. It is constructed a bit like lace, with tiny details in delicate patterns creating a larger pattern or picture when you look at it from further away.

From early on it is made up of two layers a slow moving melodic duet and a faster moving filigree figure that at first appears like an embellishment. These two elements hang together in a delicate balance, shifting between foreground and background variously. This interplay is coloured by quickly changing orchestration, settling momentarily on duets within the ensemble here and there.

This is a particularly meaningful commission for me, to be able to write for a concert dedicated to Oliver Knussen who was an incredibly kind and generous mentor, teacher and friend to me.

—Freya Waley-Cohen

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