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Jessica Cottis in Conversation

Jessica Cottis

On Friday 7 December we present Sapiens, an exploration of the links between composition and literature. We caught up with esteemed conductor Jessica Cottis to hear about the challenges of conducting previously unheard music, how she prepares for a concert, and what else she's been listening to this month.

Can you tell us more about what we’re going to hear this Friday at the Purcell Room?
We’re presenting world premieres by Mark Bowden and Colin Matthews, plus Oliver Knussen’s 1992 work Songs without Voices. Bowden’s new saxophone concerto was sparked by Yuval Noah Harari’s novel Sapiens, with the five movements written in response to the human stories articulated in Harari’s 200,000 year literary journey. It’s a hugely visceral and exciting piece. Colin Matthews’ new work As Time Returns is a setting of poems by Czech poet Ivan Blatný. Blatný defected to England in 1948 but in the years that followed suffered a deterioration of mental health, spending much of his life institutionalised. Well-known in Czechoslovakia, but not at all in England, it wasn’t until one of his carers recognised who he was that his poetry was again published. This is beautifully-wrought music, with extraordinary and linguistically wide-ranging texts, performed by baritone George Humphreys. Also, a beautiful tribute to the great conductor and composer Oliver Knussen, his Songs without Voices

This is beautifully-wrought music, with extraordinary and linguistically wide-ranging texts.

For someone who has never been to a contemporary classical concert before, what can they expect from Sapiens?
Always with London Sinfonietta concerts, there is an incredible sense of exploration and discovery, of sound and ideas. It’s the musical version of going to a gallery opening. The concert is shaping up to be a fascinating and sonically enchanting evening, exploring links between musical composition and the written word. Bidisha will be presenting, and through this combination of music and discussion I hope we’ll be able to gain insight and real connection with these new works. Do also expect to be blown away by the incredible virtuosity and vitality of sound of these instrumentalists. 

What do you enjoy about conducting new music and are there challenges unique to conducting world premieres?
I’m convinced of the importance of contemporary music. It is one of the most natural ways to communicate with our own time and society. When a new score arrives, there’s an aspect of curiosity and real thrill. Discovering a work's beauty, complexities, and personality is a wonderful opening up of possibilities. I love that we’re bringing to life something for the first time, to give audiences a chance to get to know and connect with a work. World premieres are unique in that everything is untested, it’s all about exploration, an unchartered musical territory. Sometimes what is on the page needs altering in order to become a reality, whether for example tempi or instrumental techniques. With this comes excitement and also a real sense of responsibility. 

I’m convinced of the importance of contemporary music. It is one of the most natural ways to communicate with our own time and society.

How do you go about preparing to conduct a brand new piece of music?
Most often I’m booked to conduct a premiere without having seen the work first. If it’s a composer I already know then I’ll wait until the score arrives in the post, otherwise I’m very interested to begin exploring their musical language: I’ll try to listen to and look over as many of their previous compositions as available. Either way, for me, everything goes into conceptual structure inside my head. I could describe it initially as a kind of large skeletal polyhedron. Any information discovered about a piece goes into this framework, and by the later stages of the learning process it fills out in a very detailed and complex manner, often with many connecting rods. The structure can be viewed as a whole, but it's also possible to zoom in on particular vertices or lines. Anything from specifics (for example, notes, tempos, and rhythms) to more subjective concerns (such as colour), join to make a cohesive whole, which in effect takes on a life if its own. 

Sapiens explores the links between music and literature. What are your top three favourite pieces of literature?
Almost impossible to narrow down to three, but at a push, I would say Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Leaves of Grass by Whitman, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and as an bonus extra: anything by Chekhov. 

How do you feel in the moments before walking out on stage and how do you get into the right mindset for a performance?
All the detailed work has been explored in rehearsal, so, in the hour leading up to the concert, it’s important to rest both heart and brain until it’s time to come alive again and perform. It feels like a mini hibernation. Without this is it hard to keep the intensity of focus and flexibility of mind needed for performance. Right before walking onto stage, there’s that special existence: excited yet calm. 

Always with London Sinfonietta concerts, there is an incredible sense of exploration and discovery, of sound and ideas. It’s the musical version of going to a gallery opening. 

What music are you listening to at the moment? Any recent discoveries?
Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Xenakis, and also Barbara Strozzi. Recent discoveries: the works of the Croatian composer Dora Pejačević (1885-1923), especially her Symphony in F-sharp minor. It’s a late Romantic work; rhapsodic, detailed and with incredibly opulent orchestral colour.

If you weren’t a conductor, what would you be?
I’d look to run a classical music festival. Away from music, I’m obsessed with things that fly, so, a pilot, or something related to astronautics or butterflies.


Jessica Cottis conducts Sapiens at the Southbank Centre's Purcell Room on Friday 7 December and is generously supported by John Hodgson.

Image by Kaupo Kikkas.

Published: 5 Dec 2018