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By Freya Parr
Charlotte Bray stands out in the British composing scene as a distinctive voice with an ability to create vivid, intoxicating soundworlds across a wide-ranging musical output of chamber, orchestral, instrumental, choral, chamber operas and stage works. Her music has constant movement, heightened emotion and a bold insistence to explore a huge range of sonorities. Bray has written for some of the country’s top musicians and ensembles, and her latest work for cello and strings will be premiered at Kings Place in December, performed by Natalie Clein with the Aurora Orchestra.
You originally studied performance as a cellist. What made you decide to make the move towards composition?
We were given some composing homework while I was studying at Birmingham Conservatoire, and I found I really enjoyed it. I took a leap of faith and changed course. It was quite amazing that they let me, because I hadn’t really composed at all.
In what way has your music changed over time?
The music I write now is different to the music I wrote five years ago, and I hope that journey continues to evolve. It’s been influenced by what inspiration I’ve taken and what has interested me at different times in my life. I see music as a constant journey. Hopefully you’d recognise my voice throughout, but not be too stuck in it.
A short film about Charlotte Bray’s At the Speed of Stillness
How do you tend to listen to music on a daily basis?
I still buy CDs. I don’t really like listening online so much, although some younger composers’ music I’ll listen to on SoundCloud. People should pay for music, but there’s a certain amount that should be available as well. It’s great that music is so much more accessible nowadays, but if it’s commercially available, it should be paid for.
Your new work for cello and strings, The Certainty of Tides, is being premiered at Kings Place in December. What was the inspiration behind it?
The original commission was from the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra, who wanted me to write something to tie in with the anniversary of the National Gallery in Ljubljana. I chose a sculpture from their gallery called ‘Amidst the Powerful and the Powerless’ by Drago Tršar to base my piece on. It’s a powerful bronze sculpture of people surrounding a person in the middle – it struck me as though it were a woman trying to emerge through the crowd of the more powerful masses.
The Aurora Orchestra then came onboard with the First 100 Years project for a co-commission. They wanted to celebrate the centenary of the 1919 legislation which allowed women to practise law. They wanted a very powerful piece – something forward-looking to illustrate women in the profession and how far they’ve come but how far they’ve still got to go.
How do the images of the powerful and powerless manifest within the piece?
There’s a lot of continuous motion throughout the piece, and a lot of the gestures are ascending. The solo line is quite high and sweeping, so it is quite a powerful voice that sits over the ensemble and encourages it forward.
Classical music has historically seen as quite white and male. Have you seen a shift in the diversity of voices being commissioned in recent years?
The shift that’s been positive is in the awareness of our ambitions. Publishing is still just depressing for women though – I’m not sure how they really get away with it in this day and age. There are so few female composers with publishers in the UK and Europe.
Do composers need publishers?
There are ways to work around it – I have management, as well as Composers Edition who print all my music. You pay an annual fee to Composers Editions, and they take a cut of the music that’s sold either digitally or printed. They print in the same houses as the publishers, so the quality is just as good. What they don’t have, though, is the network of orchestras or magazines to promote to, which is why I have management who do my publicity. Publishers are still seen as a reliable endorsement for composers, and still have that prestige.
What does life as a composer look like in today’s world?
Working as a composer now, you need to be able to do everything – manage accounts, do your publicity, create and manage your website. As for composing, I try to have most thing sketched on paper before I go to the computer, because I tend to find I’m more secure in my ideas with the keyboard. I usually use the afternoon more for emails and admin. I have a home studio, which was one of the main reasons we moved to Berlin from London. I needed a bit more space to afford to live and work as a composer.
Who are some other exciting contemporary composers you’d recommend?
I really love the music of Anna Thorsvaldottir, the Icelandic composer. It’s quite different music to mine, but the way she evokes the landscape she’s from is so clear. Apparently one in three Icelandic people are an artist of some kind. I also love the intricacy and depth of the music of Helen Grime, who is a good friend of mine.
Charlotte Bray’s new work, The Certainty of Tides, will be performed by Natalie Clein and the Aurora Orchestra at Kings Place on Saturday 14 December. Buy tickets here.