Emily Hall writes about what it means to be both mother and composer – the ways in which her composition practice has been informed and changed through becoming a mother as well as some of the challenges she has faced.
When I was heavily pregnant with my first child, awell-known poet told me that she had written many wonderful poems whilst nursing her baby in her very early days of motherhood.
Motherhood certainly had a transformative effect on me, and quite possibly contributed to some of my best work. But in those very early days, this kind of effortless multi-tasking productivity with babe in arms was anything but my experience. The long stretches of time spent tramping the streets of South London pushing the pram did not give me hours and hours of thinking time. There wasn’t room for the old type of thoughts, my mind was subconsciously buffering any signs of danger from passing traffic or falling debris off scaffolding—did I leave the house without nappies? Maybe I should try re-usable nappies? Have I had my quota of coffee already? Why is baby so wakeful at 4am?
At that stage, there wasn’t room for creativity when I was in my baby’s orbit: I was mother now, and the free-thinking, creative side of my brain just shut off. I think this kind of ‘locked in’ engagement with baby is for the most part how mothers are biologically set at this time and another clever trick of the hormones which come with early motherhood.
Creativity did come slowly creeping back. Four or five months in, when the baby was asleep at home in his cot (which was rare because he mostly slept on me in a sling or in the pram in motion) or later, safely in the care of his aunt or grandparents, and eventually at the childminder. That’s when I was almost (but never fully) “off duty”.
The big surprise was that, even though I was still sleep-deprived and completely out of it, compositionally I’d never been sharper—I cracked out some of my most successful pieces when the children were tiny (most played on the radio, most scores bought, most performed). Why was this? Partly I think I was forced to become more focused with the time I had, childminders in London are very expensive, there was a finite amount of pumped milk to keep baby going—you could literally hear the clock ticking.
Writing within these heavily managed gaps was also pushing me towards a more instinctive and authentic mode of expression, cutting out the cognitive and cerebral stages of my process. ‘Eternity’, my most popular piece, was indeed written and recorded in the gaps in some small gaps when my first born napped. ‘So Far’ was written not long after.
Looking back, I think this was very much in line with where I was heading anyway, I had felt increasingly disillusioned with complexity and the cerebral manifestations of music playing out on the scene and around that time I deep dived into folk music. Collaborating had also freed up a more instinctive part of my expression, by bouncing off another person’s words or voice, I was able to be more authentic. A colleague recently asked me if the simplicity of my compositions around, and since becoming a mother, were linked to the hours and hours spent singing simple lullabies and folk songs to get my babies to sleep. I hadn’t made that link myself, but it’s possible there was a return to early experiences of music. I certainly felt a realigning with those simple melodies in the daily hymns I sang at school for all those years, a ritual which surely informed my authentic voice and had perhaps been dormant up until then, in some kind of attempt to prove I was a ‘clever composer’, worthy of the textbooks that contained Boulez and Birtwistle. The best example of my writing with this very stripped back simplicity is ‘I am alone’ (ironically from my song cycle about motherhood).
Trigger warning: this song contains lyrics referring to stillbirth
When I had a baby, aged 30, I met a whole troop of mothers with ‘normal’ jobs, who talked about not wanting their maternity leave to end and who could go back to the full professional identity at the flick of a switch. When my baby was old enough to be left at the childminder, I didn’t have much work at that time and so I didn’t feel like I had much of a career to go back to. I felt envious that these friends could just suspend their professional identity for a year or so whilst being mother, and then simply get dressed up on the appointed day and return.
Being a composer was a massive part of my identity at the time, and something I’d worked hard to nurture. At that time, I felt very wobbly without it – a tension that Rachel Cusk expresses so beautifully in her book A Life’s Work.
“The threat to what made her herself, to what made her an individual: this is what the mother finds hardest to face down. Having been told all her life to value her individuality and pursue its aims, she encounters an outright contradiction, a betrayal – even among the very gatekeepers of her identity, her husband or colleagues or friends – in the requirement that she surrender it.”
– Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work
My husband travels a lot for work (he is a sound designer) and my early motherhood years were punctuated by long stretches of time when he was away, engaged in the music-work world and I wasn’t. I would be lying to say I wasn’t mildly jealous and feeling the new music community was sliding away from me. There were fraught trips across town up to the Barbican where I sat in on his rehearsals with my baby son squirming in a sling trying to engage with the music, but the two roles just did not seem very compatible. There is no doubt about it: for me, a freewheeling, self-employed composer, those early years of motherhood are particularly acute.
Then, over time, my priorities changed, and at the same time the children gradually grew and became more independent, so I now have some perspective on motherhood and composing. By the time the children were four and eight, I was able to be writing down ideas or hammer out piano chords as they were shouting commands at me or melting down over lost Lego figures. I made a setting of Marina Tsveteava’s poem, called Veins for the BBC Singers touches on that blurring of domestic and creative life, which I found was gradually able to happen in my own life.
It wouldn’t be fair to write this article without mentioning a few lucky breaks that propped my career up after the birth of my second child and enabled me to afford the ridiculously high childcare costs and the investment in my creative projects when I really needed it. The Paul Hamlyn Award in 2014 and various PRS foundation grants gave me a massive boost. I don’t think my opera Folie a Deux or releasing music with Bedroom Community would have happened without this support.
Becoming a mother has changed me. I have had to learn patience. I have buckets of it now. Composing comes at special, designated times. Pre-parenthood days were wide open to composing whenever, woven into long uninterrupted stretches of time. Now I tuck it into the hours I have and mostly that’s enough. Sometimes I wonder if I should be more engaged in the contemporary music scene and be attending more concerts. But mostly I don’t think it matters, so long as I’m finding the inspiration within myself to write. Sometimes I’m grateful when my daughter’s tummy bug gives me an extra day’s grace from starting that difficult-to-start piece.
Another big surprise has been how music has folded back on itself. My youngest is now nine years old and a prolific songwriter, and we often find ourselves working on songs together after supper. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were collaborating, but I would say I take on some kind of low-key producer/ advisory role! It is obvious she is going to be showing me the way before too long.
Emily Hall is a composer, violinist, improviser who collaborates extensively, especially with writers and is currently training to become a music therapist.