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Beacons: Meet the Composers

We caught up with composers Unsuk Chin, Rebecca Saunders and Emma Wilde in the run up to Beacons at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on 16 May which features premiere performances by each of them, plus a world premiere London Sinfonietta commission from Charlotte Bray. Read on to find out more about their influences, favourite music and working processes...

Unsuk Chin

Unsuk Chin

We're very excited to be performing the UK premiere of Korean composer Unsuk Chin's pantomime-inspired cosmigimmicks. We chatted to her about artistic influences, her thoughts on musical style and what's currently sitting on her coffee table...

Every new piece is a new challenge, and with every new challenge I must forget what I have done before. Unsuk Chin

We’re really looking forward to the UK premiere of cosmigimmicks later this month, which draws from pantomime, puppetry and theatre do you often find inspiration for your composition in other artforms?
I am hugely looking forward to working with the London Sinfonietta again! Yes, I do occasionally find direct inspiration in other artforms as for my orchestral works, Rocaná, for instance, refers to Olafur Eliasson's installations; Graffiti alludes to Street Art, whilst Mannequin draws equally upon dance and the writing of E.T.A.Hoffmann and Bruno Schulz. However, the result is not an illustration of those influences, but music that is more or less abstract. In principle, I could also name my pieces Composition #1, Composition #2, and so on but that would neither be very elegant nor terribly helpful for the listener!

Can you describe your compositional style in three words? 
Describing music is notoriously difficult as George Steiner once said, music and words resemble two "eternally hostile sisters"  and I rather prefer the music to speak for itself and to have the listener encounter it on their own terms. I am a bit skeptical about the notion of style Picasso once expressed it this way: "style holds the artist captive in one and the same point of view, in a technique, a formula, but what he constantly wanted to do is something that is new and unknown even to himself."  

What composers or artists have inspired you and your music?
Many. It varies and of course also depends on which particular project I am working. At the moment, I'm composing a work for violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, which is why I am drawing inspiration, among other sources, from such different violin composers as Biber or Ysaÿe.

What do you regard as your greatest artistic achievement?
It's for others to judge. Every new piece is a new challenge, and with every new challenge I must forget what I have done before. Otherwise, I would start copying myself. If I ever get the feeling 'this is my absolute masterpiece', I'd better quit with composing.

A favourite London Sinfonietta question – what’s on your coffee table right now?
Lexicon of Musical Invective by Nicolas Slonimsky.

Rebecca Saunders

Rebecca Saunders

Berlin-based composer Rebecca Saunders’ Skin won the 2017 RPS Award for chamber work, and our performance will be the first time London audiences can hear its sumptuous textures, performed by soprano Donatienne Michel Dansac. We asked Rebecca for her advice to aspiring composers, her artistic process and biggest influences in life...

Hear your music as often as possible and learn from this wonderful experience. Be critical towards your own work and demand clear answers from yourself... Rebecca Saunders

The programme note for skin mentions your collaboration with soprano Juliet Fraser in the process of composition. Do you enjoy working closely with musicians?
It is very inspiring to work closely with musicians for whom I am writing and it is for me an essential part of the composing process. Exploring sounds, observing the performer, getting inside the core of their sounds is not only important but enormous fun. I need to hear it in my mind, to understand how a sound is produced and be able to define its limits and dimensions before I start writing. And in a piece like Skin or in a concerto with a soloist, the work is partly a hommage to the soloist, celebrating and exploring their brilliance. 

Skin grew out of a very exciting collaboration with Juliet Fraser, but on 16 May, the wonderful French soprano Donatienne Michel-Dansac will perform the work. I worked closely with Donatienne in preparation for my 80 minute spatial work, Yes, which followed and grew out of Skin so this is a kind of wonderful closing of the circle I think.

Who has been the biggest influence in your life?
Obviously firstly my mother who bore me and put me here in the first place; my father whose musicality inspired me enormously; Galina Ustwolskaya, whose uncompromising, direct and outrageously courageous music was way ahead of her time a music of extraordinary power and intensity; and then of course my children, who made me strong.

Do you have any words of advice for young aspiring composers?
Work closely with musicians be sure of your sounds, how they are produced, how they are notated, and where their limits lie. Hear your music as often as possible and learn from this wonderful experience. Be critical towards your own work and demand clear answers from yourself but be patient, as it takes time, and it is most important to simply learn through doing  so write, write and then write some more and enjoy!

Can you remember the first recording you ever bought?
It could have been Kaya, Bob Marley or a Roberta Flack LP, it's a long time ago!

Emma Wilde

Emma Wilde

Based in Mexico, British composer Emma Wilde has composed her first ever London Sinfonietta commission in memory in memory of Robert Clark, a long-time supporter of the ensemble who sadly passed away earlier this year. El Blanco Día will receive its world premiere at Beacons on 16 May performed by London Sinfonietta Principal Clarinet Mark van de Wiel. Emma chatted to us about her latest work, the influence of Mexican culture on her music and more...

Although I did not know Robert personally, it struck me that others spoke of his 'energy' and this word triggered the initial ideas for the piece. Emma Wilde

Have you found Mexico’s rich culture seeping into the music that you create?
I first visited Mexico a couple of years ago and was immediately influenced by my experiences there. During that first trip I visited Teotihuacan which is an ancient archaeological site near Mexico City and I composed a symphonic work which responded to the layout and structure of the pyramids and monuments.  Mexico is such a musical country. When you walk through the streets you are bombarded by a variety of sounds, (both musical and otherwise) and this has had an effect on my music. I have found that my music has changed since coming to Mexico in that nowadays it is much more rhythmically driven and has a greater sense of colour. My most recent works (El Hilo del Tiempo for accordion and ensemble and Tijax for orchestra) were influenced by the Mayan calendar which I find fascinating as each day exemplifies a different persona or character to which I have composed musical representations.

We’re looking forward to hearing the world premiere of El Blanco Día  can you talk briefly about your initial approach to composing this new work for solo clarinet?
Before composing El Blanco Día I had been working on music for symphony orchestra so at first it felt daunting to be stripped back to a solo instrument. The work is dedicated to the memory of Robert Clark, an avid supporter of the London Sinfonietta. Although I did not know Robert personally, it struck me that others spoke of his 'energy' and this word triggered the initial ideas for the piece. I realised I wanted to compose something that began with a sense of motion and movement. The work is also inspired by the poem Amor constante más allá de la muerte by Francisco de Quevedo which speaks about love continuing to grow and transcend the mortal world. I used this idea of continuation and growth to inform the structure of the piece.

What composers or artists inspire you and your music?
I have had a lot of technical inspiration from the works of Birtwistle and Carter. Mexican composers such as Revueltas, Chavez and Marquez have also been important influences as have various popular music artists. I also take inspiration from visual artists such as Kandinsky.

What music have you been enjoying recently?
Lean Back and Release by Molly Joyce and Violence the new album from Editors.

If you could have any other profession, what would it be?
I would still like to be doing something creative, so probably a novelist. 

Published: 8 May 2018