Category: Breaking the Sound Barrier

Spotlight on Lili Boulanger

Lili Boulanger

Spotlight on Lili Boulanger

Marie-Juliette Olga Boulanger (Lili) grew up surrounded by composers and musicians. Her mother and grandmother were singers and her grandfather had been a noted cellist. Her father, Ernest, who was 77 when she was born, won the Prix de Rome composition prize at the Paris Conservatoire and his death, when Lili was only 6, was a cause of lasting sadness. Her sister, Nadia, who was 6 years older, was a formidably talented pianist.

Before she was even 5 years old, Lili accompanied her sister to classes at the Paris Conservatoire and sat quietly listening, and she soon began music theory and organ lessons herself. She also studied the piano, violin, cello, harp and singing, having lessons 7 days a week.

Taking composition lessons with her sister, Nadia, and with Gabriel Fauré, in 1913 Lili became the first woman to win the Prix de Rome composition prize. This was a significant achievement, not least because the rules of the competition stated that entrants were required to conduct their own work and at the time society frowned upon women directing male musicians.

Sadly, Lili suffered ill health all her life, following a case of bronchial pneumonia at age 2. She was in frequent pain from what is now called Crohn’s disease. In 1916, she was told she only had two years to live and she died in 1918, at the age of 24. She nevertheless wrote over 50 works, including choral, chamber and orchestral music.

D’un Matin de Printemps (A Spring Morning) and its companion piece, D’un Soir Triste (A Sad Evening), were written in 1917-18 in three different arrangements, for chamber groups and for orchestra. They are best described as symphonic tone poems. The two pieces share melodic lines and themes but the moods are completely different, and they are the last pieces Lili was able to write with her own hand. They are written in the impressionistic style and reveal the influence of Debussy and Fauré. The flute begins the main theme and it travels through different instruments with masterful orchestration. The happy, dancing movement is punctuated with moments of slowing down and with darker passages, suggesting a hidden sadness, but the piece is full of playful twists and turns and beautiful melodic lines. The strength of the ending indicates Lili’s vitality and zest for life, despite her physical frailty.

12 questions with Cathy Likhuta

Catherine Likhuta

12 questions with Catherine Likhuta

Cathy Likhuta is an Australian composer. We are giving the first UK performance of ‘Me Disagrees’, which started life as a trio for piano, alto saxophone and flute before being morphed into the symphonic wind ensemble version you’ll hear later this year.

Q: Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

A: My favourite musicians tend to be my collaborators, as we often become friends through the process of working on my music. And they usually inspire me. I tend to work quite a bit with horn and saxophone players as well as band directors, and I really love the appreciation and thirst they all have for new repertoire. It makes it especially rewarding to write for them. When it comes to composers, I tend to like the ones whose music is unmistakably theirs: meaningful, emotional, picturesque and/or dramatic/witty/cheeky/mesmerizing. There are also two composers who are very close to my heart: my former US mentors, Dana Wilson and the late Steven Stucky. I learned from them how to treat students, how to value collaborators, and a million of other things – so much more than just music writing! All of that was free of charge for three years. They are my heroes, and I will always be grateful to them. The bonus is that their music is superb.

Q: How do you think your music reflects your femininity?

A: I’m not really sure. I normally don’t think it does, but at the same time, my music is influenced by my life experiences and many of them wouldn’t be the same if I weren’t a female.

Q: Has the music industry changed to the extent that to be successful as a composer these days, you also need to be a businesswoman?

A: The music industry has definitely changed, and I don’t even know that being a good composer AND a businessman/woman is enough in order to succeed. It is such a competitive, over-saturated market! Self-promotion is a necessity yet so many people can see the slightest self-promoting moves as soliciting. It’s a very thin line, and it’s also very subjective. I would’ve been nowhere without self-promotion, as I had changed three countries in the past 14 years and basically had to start over three times as a result. So I had to contact people every time I would move to a new society, otherwise they would just not know about me.

Q: How would you characterise your compositional language?

A: Jazz-influenced, virtuosic, programmatic, emotional, dramatic, energetic, storytelling and I would like to think engaging!

Q: If you were to describe your music in three words, what would they be?

A: Programmatic, emotional, virtuosic.

Q: What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

A: Money? (LOL)… But to be serious, I’m a “glass half-full” kind of person. The only thing I can think of as really challenging was changing countries and the worries associated with that. But this is also what made me stronger and, in the end, enriched my list of collaborators and friends.

Q: What advice would you give your younger self about preparing to be a composer?

A: I’m very lucky to have no regrets so far!

Q: What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

A: I think it’s very different for every composer, and it’s also different for me with every new piece. One of the pleasures is that (typically) a commissioned piece is being written for someone who is already familiar with my work and really enjoys it (otherwise why commission it). I find it reassuring and inspirational, and I don’t want to disappoint them. The only challenge I can think of is the pressure to perform well. Quite often, I am given the details of the venue/event where a world premiere of the commissioned piece would be taking place. That can be a bit nerve-wrecking sometimes (OFTEN!). For instance, I recently wrote a piece for low horn and piano, commissioned by a very well-known US low horn virtuoso, Denise Tryon. She commissioned it for the world premiere at the 50th International Horn Symposium, THE most important horn event in the world. It was decided that I would be the pianist for that performance, and we had to play it (for the first time) to an audience of about 600 horn players from all over the world. You know, no pressure! Luckily, I found inspiration in all this, the performance went extremely well and I’m very proud of that work.

Q: Of which works are you most proud?

A: My oratorio-drama “Scraps from a Madman’s Diary” (2016); a trio about my mom’s fight with multiple Sclerosis entitled “Lesions” (2017); a piece about Russia’s war in Ukraine entitled “Bad Neighbours” (2017); and a concertino for 5 horns entitled “Hard to Argue” (2014), which was the winner of the International Horn Society composition contest, virtuoso division. Also “Rituals of Heartland” (2017), which is a piece I wrote in collaboration with my then 4-year-old daughter Skylie (she contributed characters and did the artwork); my 2008 piano concerto; my first horn piece “Out of the Woods?” (2011); the most virtuosic piece I’ve ever written called “Motions” (2007) for clarinet and piano; and some others… Sorry to mention so many! I work really hard, with no weekends or vacations, so I always try to only write music that I am happy with and proud of.

Q: How do you work?

A: I compose when my daughter is at daycare or asleep (or with my partner, who is helping a lot). I use piano in my composing extensively, though always keeping in mind the instrumentation I’m writing for, to ensure my music comes out idiomatic (and doesn’t sound like piano music played on other instruments if that makes sense). I use what I call “premeditated improvisation”, which is somewhat similar to free improvisation, except I think extensively about what I want to improvise before sitting down at the piano. I record my improvisations and then work with them, incorporating bits and pieces that I like the most into my works in progress. I really love composing and feel more and more comfortable with it and fascinated by it with every new piece.

Q: What is your most memorable concert experience?

A: I’ve been lucky to have had so many memorable ones! The most recent two would be the US premiere of “Scraps from a Madman’s Diary” in October 2016 and the world premiere of “Vivid Dreams” at the 50th International Horn Symposium just last week. I am always beyond grateful to the performers and audiences for their engagement with my music.

Q: How important is someone else’s opinion of your work to you?

A: It hugely depends on who that “someone else” is. I remember thinking about it a lot in 2007, when I came to the realisation that not a single composer had written music that every person in the world would like. People just have such different tastes! So back then, I decided I should try writing the music that really drives me and that I’m proud of, and also the music that performers can use as an opportunity to further develop their technique and musicality. It’s been working really well so far. The opinion of the performers and conductors who commission my works means the world to me.

You can find out more about Catherine’s work on her website www.catherinelikhuta.com

11 questions with Elizabeth Winters

Elizabeth Winters

11 questions with Elizabeth Winters

Elizabeth Winters, whose composition ‘Playing With Destiny’ was written for and first performed by us back in 2010.

Q: Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

A: I never tire of listening to Mendelssohn, Schumann or Stravinsky. I love Bach but I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I find Beethoven’s music a bit of a struggle to enjoy – even though I obviously admire his work a great deal. Among more contemporary composers, long time favourites are Julian Anderson, Thomas Ades, Judith Weir and Oliver Knussen and from the younger generation I like what Ed Nesbit, Helen Grime and Charlotte Bray are doing very much. I love listening to recordings of ‘old school’ string players such as Fritz Kreisler, Albert Sammons, William Primrose etc. The fact that the performances aren’t ‘perfect’ or anywhere near today’s sound quality somehow adds to the appeal for me.

Q: How do you think your music reflects your femininity?

On the whole, I’m not sure that it does! Although…I recently wrote a song about breastfeeding (for a concert during World Breastfeeding Week) and I perhaps responded to the text in a more personal way than a man would have done, given the nature of the topic.

Q: Has the music industry changed to the extent that to be successful as a composer these days, you also need to be a businesswoman?

A: I think this has always been the case actually. It also helps to be very diverse – a conductor/composer/performer is always going to have an edge. Or, many people go down the academic route.

Q: If you were to describe your music in three words, what would they be?

A: I asked my husband and he replied ‘engaging, lyrical and beautiful’. He’d just come in from playing squash though and was pretty tired, so maybe this affected his response!?

Q: What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

A: I was incredibly lucky with my early compositional career. Up until I was about 30 or so, things really went along pretty nicely and easily. I was doing all the usual young composer stuff and getting some good commissions. Things then went downhill a bit as I was struggling a lot with the conflict between writing how I wanted to write and how I felt I ‘should’ write. There were some challenging things going in in my life as well at that point, and I didn’t write anything for about 3 years. I then had a baby and started writing again! This is probably not a recognised way to rejuvenate your composition, but it worked for me! The frustrations now are that I have very little time to devote to the business side of composition and living out of London makes it extremely hard (both time wise and financially) to travel in for concerts and networking. I also need to be a lot more practical in terms of making money as I have my son to support, so I spend most of my working time teaching.

Q: What advice would you give your younger self about preparing to be a composer?

A: Don’t expect to do everything at once and make the most of every opportunity while you can.

Q: What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

A: Since the birth of Edward (now 3 years old), I have only written a few pieces and they have all been commissions. Even before then, I pretty much always wrote with a specific performance or performer in mind and I would find it very hard to write any other way. The challenge for me now, with a young son, is the deadline, but without it I would probably never write anything at all!

Q: Of which works are you most proud?

A: I am proud of all my pieces in the sense that they all exist in their own time, for a specific purpose. Even the few which I would happily never hear again have played a part in my compositional journey. I know which works I think are ‘better’ in terms of technique or which ones have been more successful, but this doesn’t mean I am any prouder of them.

Q: How do you work?

A: In a shed (sorry – music studio!) at the bottom of my garden. This was built with funding from The Composers’ Fund which is a PRS for Music Foundation initiative in association with the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. I think a lot before starting the piece and usually have it sketched in my head before I start. Once I can hear bits of it reliably then I get to work with manuscript paper planning out the structure and what ideas will come where. If there’s a time limit (which there usually is) then this bit is very important, and I won’t move on from it until I am happy. It saves so much time in the long run. Then I just write the piece from beginning to end! I will sketch each section on manuscript paper until I am happy with it and only when I have a large chunk of ‘finished’ music will I go anywhere near Sibelius. Some of my composition pupils write directly onto Sibelius and I would find that extremely hard.

Q: What is your most memorable concert experience?

A: Hearing Maxim Vengerov play Shostakovich’s 1st violin concerto with the LSO when I was about 13 or 14 years old. I was totally blown away.

Q: How important is someone else’s opinion of your work to you?

A: Ten years ago, I would have said ‘extremely important’ but now I would say the total opposite! When I was younger, I was constantly thinking ‘is this good enough…how do I know…does so and so like it?’ etc. etc. but now I don’t really care that much. Of course, it’s lovely to have people say positive things about my pieces but I can’t be driven by that anymore. It doesn’t change my opinion of my music and I know that in general I am writing better pieces now than I ever have done.

You can find out more about Elizabeth’s work on her website elizabethwinters.com