Proms 2021: pre-première questions with Charlotte Bray

by 5:4

The second half of tomorrow evening’s BBC Symphony Orchestra Prom concert opens with the first UK performance of Where Icebergs Dance Away, by British composer Charlotte Bray. In preparation for that, here are her answers to my pre-première questions, along with the programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Charlotte for her responses.

1. For anyone not yet familiar with it, could you give a brief summary of your music, i.e. characteristics, outlook, aesthetic, etc.?

I would say there are two sides to my music: a suspended stillness, and a pulse-driven, rhythmic edge. I am often working with juxtapositions of material, so the “stillness” might have layers of movement within, and the rhythmic stuff could be accompanied by gliding swathes of melody that are actually quite serene. Contrasts and contradictions! I enjoy playing with the colour of instruments and combinations thereof, crafting timbre in considerable detail. I strive to create some kind of journey, whether it is about something particular or in a more abstract realm. The notes are very important to me. The “harmony” doesn’t function in a traditional way but nor is it atonal. I work with pivot points and pay very close attention to the line on a micro and macro level.

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

During my studies as a cellist I vividly remember sitting in the orchestra and wanting to communicate more with the conductor. I wanted to do more than sit in the cello section (often near the back!) and I knew there would be something else for me. At that point I didn’t know what. Composition then arrived as a total surprise. I had to do some composition homework for a musicianship class in my second year as an undergrad. I realised then how much I enjoyed it and that it was quite good. That was it. Having found this way to express myself, from that moment on I have always felt compelled to write music. Looking back, it makes total sense to me that I would compose. I always enjoyed making things, painting, sewing, and music had always been my passion. It never really felt like a choice for me to “become” a composer, although of course consciously, I did choose this path.

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

I studied at Birmingham Conservatoire for my undergrad with Joe Cutler, then the Royal College of Music in London for my masters with Mark-Anthony Turnage. Both teachers were brilliant and their music (and advice) influences me to this day. I met Oliver Knussen in Aldeburgh in 2007 and he became a very important mentor and friend. Olly gave me extraordinary encouragement through teaching and programming my work. I worked closely with him on my orchestral piece Stone Dancer,  which was the final piece of mine that he conducted.

4. 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 don’t usually feel like there is a blank slate, since each commission points me in a particular direction. Take my latest piece Crossing Faultlines, for example. Soprano Samantha Crawford and pianist Lana Bode invited me to create a song cycle about women’s experiences in the workplace as part of a project called dream.risk.sing. On poems by Nicki Jackowska, the three songs explore themes on mentorship, discrimination and ambition. Writing songs is perhaps more specific than most commissions, but still, there is usually a ‘way in’ presented, I find.

In terms of generating material, I do often return to certain ways of germinating ideas and to methods that are proven to work well for me.

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

The WDR Sinfonieorchester invited me to write a miniature with a political motivation. Whilst currently we are not short of stimuli in this regard, global warming is at the forefront of my mind. I then discovered Zaria Forman’s astonishing artwork and this immediately pointed me in a certain direction musically. Where Icebergs Dance Away has a positive edge; through my music I hope to inspire people to take more care of the world we inhabit. I wrote a large, rather dark orchestral piece before this entitled The Flight of Bitter Water. This was a reflection of the pandemic, written Summer/Autumn 2020, and so for the next piece I wanted to find a more positive outlook, even when the motivation behind it is also deadly serious.

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

I have two albums dedicated to my music: an NMC Debut disc At the Speed of Stillness and Chamber and Solo Works on the Richard Thomas label. You can listen to either of these, and various other recordings, via my website or on Spotify.

My piano quartet Zustände is a nice link to Where Icebergs Dance Away, since it was also inspired by the icefields of Greenland.

7. What’s next?

Where Icebergs Dance Away is growing into a much larger piece entitled Forsaken. I’m commissioned by the Hagen Philharmonic Orchestra to write a 20 minute piece and as I was composing Icebergs I knew there was still much to say, with the material and on the topic of ice melting and global warming. Forsaken will be premiered in Hagen on 14 June 2022.

The European Premiere of The Flight of Bitter Water will be on the 3rd February 2022 with Marin Alsop and the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna. Co-commissioned by ORF and the Winter International Arts Festival in Sochi, Yuri Bashmet conducted the World Premiere in February 2021.

But the very next premiere of my music will be on 20 October in Oxford Lieder Festival. Crossing Faultlines is a song cycle about women’s experiences in the workplace. It has been commissioned by soprano Samantha Crawford and pianist Lana Bode, supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. Having been approached by Samantha and Lana to contribute to this extraordinary project, I began looking for texts to set. Searching tirelessly through volumes of poetry, it became clear that very little has been written about this aspect of women’s lives. My friend, the poet Nicki Jackowska, whose poetry I had previously set in my mezzo-soprano cycle Fire Burning in Snow, generously agreed to write new poems specially for the cycle. The three songs explore themes on mentorship, discrimination and ambition. The cycle fits within the musicians’ programme; dream.risk.sing, telling women’s stories not traditionally told through song.

Where Icebergs Dance Away: programme note

The music is majestic and mysterious, with a powerful presence. Luxuriant, icy chords open the work, then melt unpredictably with descending motifs and sporadic splashes of colour in the flute, piccolo, harp and tuned percussion. This opening gives way to a playful, lively section. Layers build, with melodies at times spiky, at times smooth and soaring, sculptured by the wind. Accompanying textural and rhythmic material add to the covering – prickly chords and brittle pizzicato pick away at the ice while wintry, luminescent figures dance enraptured. The solid, seemingly impenetrable wall of ice returns in the material from the opening section, now more forbidding and portentous. In the added movement, a lingering uncertainty succumbs to the inevitable, ascending as well as descending notes, with richer harmonies. I strive to portray the light and beauty of the icy landscape glistening in the sun, exploring musically the contradictory nature of glaciers- stable yet fragile. My work is part influenced by the incredible artwork of Zaria Forman, who paints in pastels from photos taken of icescapes, particularly her work entitled ‘Disco Bay’, also a place I found inspiring during a visit in 2016.

—Charlotte Bray

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