You’re currently working on a community chamber opera called Woodwose for Wigmore Hall – could you give us a short overview of the opera?
The commission came about because it’s Benjamin Britten’s centenary year, and Wigmore Hall wanted to commission a composer to write a theatrical work for the community, so they asked me. The work lasts about fifty minutes and it’s for a five-piece band called Ignite who are residents at Wigmore Hall. They mix classical music and improvisation, and [comprise] a professional tenor called Andrew Kennedy, along with a community choir and an elderly singing group. My task was to meet all those participants, chat to them, start thinking about stories, and get them to help me a little bit with ideas, some lyrics, and little fragments of music that I worked into the opera. Woodwose is the main character, played by Andrew Kennedy, and it’s based on the legend of the Wild Man of the Woods, which you find all over the world. It also looks at Woodwose as an outsider figure, which is a typical Britten operatic thing to do (Billy Budd, Peter Grimes, etc.).
You mentioned the Britten centenary celebrations – did you take Britten’s own community chamber opera, Noye’s Fludde, as a precedent to Woodwose in any way?
I did listen to Noye’s Fludde which I’d only ever heard bits of before, but actually I listened more to – and looked at the scores of – Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. I didn’t just want to think about what children are capable of, but what works well theatrically and operatically. What I take from Britten – not necessarily from his work for children but from his work for music theatre and opera generally – is how good he is at leaving space for the words, and leaving space for the voices. I think that a lot of people overwrite operas; I went to an opera recently and at the big important dramatic moment you just didn’t know what had happened because there was so much orchestral writing, and the vocal line was so high.
That was part of the Art On The Underground Central Line Series commissions, with a wonderful artist called Ruth Ewan, who almost always works with the community in her work. It was done in collaboration with Laburnum Boat Club in Hackney, which was on a canal where young people come and learn to canoe and kayak, but they also have arts activities. We went along – the two of us and a poet, Evlynn Sharp – and the general idea was to get them creating work, both visual art and words and songs, based around journeys and growing up. Sometimes the work that was created musically would then be responded to with visual art by the kids, or the other way round. We often worked with codes, and worked out how to interpret the music, so it was just looking at the relationship between visual art and music. On the escalators in Bethnal Green underground station, which is my local station, there are some long line drawings by girls who were listening to vocal melodies that I’d recorded, and there are some other artwork and posters in the underground. What I did as the concept album was I recorded about fifteen of these young people singing any of the little songs unaccompanied, or saying some of their poems, or doing different creative things vocally. I recorded all of this raw material and then took it back home and played around with it and treated it like a collage. It’s very much a sonic portrait of those kids; I didn’t add anything else, although it was tempting.
You do a lot of educational outreach programmes; I was wondering how working with communities and children shapes your compositions?
It’s really started to come out in my work. The first teaching that I did was really so I could earn some money and live, and I taught in two primary schools for three years and eventually ended up doing more freelance work. It’s gone from being a necessity to being something that I actually feel passionate about, because I don’t always see the point of music that’s only going to be performed by, or played to, a certain elite crowd. I think that it’s important to, at least some of the time, create music for all sorts of people. In terms of how it’s actually shaped my music, I’m not sure. I try and write for who I’m asked to write for, so I wrote for this professional early music consort [Alamire] last year and wrote some difficult music, and I can’t think that there’s anything in the way that I’ve worked with community participants that has influenced that. It may not have influenced me musically, but ideologically I think it’s important that some of the work you do is all-embracing, and welcoming, and engages people.
What direction do you think that contemporary classical music is heading in at the moment?
All directions, and that’s been happening for a long time: for twenty years or maybe more than that. At least, with the scene that I’m in with juice, the trio that I sing with, you might have come from a classical background and you might call your music contemporary classical but really it’s influenced by or going in the direction of all these different things: pop music, electronica, theatre, jazz and improv, world music, all those things. We’re on a label called Nonclassical – they’re a label and a club night too – and their ethos is mixing contemporary classical with electronica. I think classical music is constantly splintering, but I think that’s very positive. I’m not terribly interested these days in formal concert surroundings and listening to academic contemporary classical music – that’s not to say I don’t enjoy it sometimes, I do, but I prefer the music that doesn’t really sit in any particular camp.
There seems to be a wave of contemporary classical composers that are becoming increasingly involved with music of other genres, like you with You Are Wolf (Andrews’ folk side-project) and juice; Anna Meredith, who has just released an EP (Black Prince Fury) on indie label Moshi Moshi; and Nico Muhly, who has done arrangements for acts such as Sigur Rós. What do you think about the way that this interaction between classical music and other genres reinforces and problematises such boundaries?
I definitely don’t think it problematises everything, and people who think that are slightly narrow-minded. I think that people who don’t just have one hat are brilliant. People call them ‘portfolio’ musicians, like Gabriel Prokofiev, who runs Nonclassical, and has produced electronica and grime as well as a cello concerto and ballet commissions. Some might see it as somehow weakening the voice of contemporary classical music, but I think that it’s a way of drawing other people into that world, and even if somehow that world feels diluted you’re still reaching more people that way. If anybody who goes and sees Anna Meredith’s electronica act looks at classical stuff that she’s done, that’s a good way in. I think that it’s much more likely that audiences will go that way rather than go from listening to formal concert music to her electronica. Maybe that’s just me being cynical.
When talking about contemporary choral composition, especially among young singers there are certain names that repeatedly crop up – John Rutter, Eric Whitacre, Bob Chilcott – that are extraordinarily popular but which many other composers and music critics dismiss, or are suspicious of. Do you think that the success of those composers is giving young singers an inaccurate impression of choral music in any way?
Well you certainly find in the choral world that if you write something a bit wackier than those composers it can be seen as really crazy, whereas in the contemporary classical world generally it’s really not. All those three composers write very tonal, beautiful music, and it’s possible that if singers think that that’s all contemporary choral music is then they’ll always hate the more dissonant stuff. It depends on the choir you’re in and the conductor, so I think it’s more down to individual experience.
Are there any ways that your non-classical projects influenced your classical compositions?
Juice was always there – we’ve been together ten years – and that came out of York University, where we all studied. It also came out of working with John Potter, a fantastic tenor who used to sing with the Hilliard Ensemble and now does solo stuff; he drip-fed us vocal music from all around the world. That influenced me as a composer at the same time that it influenced juice as an ensemble, which is why we’ve always been interested in just doing new music commissioning and singing music that’s definitely influenced by other genres.
I got influenced by folk music at university too. I feel like a lot of folkies come out of a folk family, and I didn’t have any of that, I just got into Eliza Carthy. When I write more accessible choral music, or music for amateur choirs, or even the band music for Woodwose, I write in modes all the time. If I’m going to write any kind of tonal music, it’s modal, and that’s come out from listening to and singing folk song. There are maybe two or three modes that you find a lot in English folk, and definitely performing You Are Wolf has led me to writing modally. I can’t possibly write in a major or minor key; that just feels weird. I think there’s something much more natural about modes, as they’ve been there a lot longer. The folk stuff is all sort of interwoven with my classical compositions – as soon as I’ve been interested in something it’s inspired some of the music I write for choirs, or for classical chamber groups. Storytelling has [always] been a big thing for me, and I guess that’s what comes out of being interested in folk music and all those amazing ballads, these simple popular songs that have brilliantly dark stories that you don’t get in pop music. I’ve always been interested in storytelling but I think that’s been strengthened by You Are Wolf and getting more immersed in popular song.
Given classical composers’ reliance on funding, grants, commissions and competition prizes for income, do you ever find yourself under pressure to compose in a particular way?
The only time I might feel slightly under pressure is when I’m writing for amateur choirs, because I always want to write harder music than is reasonable for them. I’m very happy writing the music I’ve been asked to do and I don’t seem to be asked to do any commissions that I then feel will make me have to write in a certain way. I think that I’m lucky enough to be in a position that people understand the sort of music that I’m going to write. It is something to be careful of and be aware of, but then again, there’s nothing wrong with being a jobbing composer. If you’re given a brief to write a piece of recorder music for five-year-olds then that’s what you write, you can’t write something that Consortium5, the best contemporary recorder quintet, are going to play. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing to a brief or writing to a spec. I always remember telling myself ten years ago, “if I write music for money then I should be really happy”. I’m proud of all the music that I write and it feels like me. It’s something to think about, but I think that if you’re a student composer and you’re writing music in five or ten years’ time then that’s brilliant.
Do you think that being a full-time classical composer will be a viable career path for future generations?
It depends what you mean by ‘classical’ composer, because as we’ve already discussed, there are people, maybe including me, who have ‘portfolio’ careers, and I think that that’s a more realistic way of looking at it. If people ask me what I do, I still say that I’m classically trained first, because that means I’m not a film music composer, and I’m not writing songs for Adele. I think it is viable as long as you’re realistic about what sort of ways you might compose, and also if you’re realistic about teaching. Knowing that you’re going to teach, and that’s an important part of being a British composer coming out of Maxwell Davies and Britten and so many other composers who have always been involved in working with young people, I think that it’s certainly viable.
Kerry’s official website can be found at kerryandrew.net. Her community chamber opera Woodwose will be premiered on July 19th at Wigmore Hall. Kerry presents a radio show called Strawberry Shortwave on Haggerston Radio, airing at 4pm on occasional Sundays. John also interviewed Kerry about her side-project You Are Wolf for Oxide Radio, University of Oxford’s student radio station. To hear the interview, along with live performances of the songs “Oh Ruin” and “Cuckoo”, please visit the Oxide Sessions site