What has your journey been like from first getting into music to where you are now?
I was fortunate to have music lessons from an early age. I wanted to play classical guitar, so that was my first instrument, then I picked up a few other instruments. A little later I started looking at composition as well. I just kept going with it! I applied for the LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme in 2017. The scheme was an opportunity for me as an early-career composer to experiment with orchestral writing and to develop a three-minute composition, workshopped at the end of the year.
I received the 10-minute commission from that year’s scheme. It means a lot to me to have my first orchestral commission with a hometown orchestra, especially one as distinguished and supportive of living composers as the LSO. Growing up in London, I went to the LSO’s concerts at the Barbican often, so for the coin to flip and for something of mine to be presented is quite surreal!
What are your first steps when you start writing a new piece of music?
Initially it’s all about fantasising the premise for a piece in an unrestrained way. Then I think about how my chosen idea could be brought to life in some way with certain conditions in place, and I try out some initial thoughts through sketching. For instance, with this piece Spellbound Tableaux, I was first considering the architecture for the work, in part because of the considerable size of the instrumental force, but there is also the inevitable challenge of scaling the idea into 10 minutes.
Where do you find your inspiration?
My work is fuelled by many things. It can be linked with a specific sound, instrument, form, performance narrative or something completely outside of music that I have encountered. The actual process of composing itself can be a form of inspiration too! It often sparks secondary layers for a piece, ideas that are quite far out, or perhaps an alternative that is more interesting than the original. All of this contributes to the finished work, even if not everything is included.
Sometimes, as with this particular piece, an external thread might directly inform my compositional workings. The Kuleshov effect (a film-editing effect from the 1910s and 1920s) was something I was drawing a parallel to when it came to designing the structure of the piece. Spellbound Tableaux is a take on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 film Spellbound. I was absorbed by the cluedo-esque quality of the film – there is this thrill of knowing that certain objects hold an intricate detail. In the spirit of that, I made my own letter-to-note system and from that I generated some cryptograms around the Spellbound characters’ names, as well as for Hitchcock himself. It was a nice stroke of serendipity that the whole piece grew out of. The cryptogram for ‘J.B.’ (one of the identities assumed by the amnesiac Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck)), is particularly present in the piece. You’ll hear it right at the beginning of the piece and it comes back often across the whole Tableaux in different forms.
What drew you to Hitchcock’s Spellbound in particular?
Hitchcock’s films are so wonderfully crafted that it’s hard not to be captivated by them! Hitchcock was an influential auteur. Imagine what it must have been like to see this star-studded film in the 1940s with the provocative poster headline ‘will he kiss me or kill me’. It’s very different to today’s cinema, but I think as a contemporary viewer you can still appreciate the drama, Hitchcock’s vision and also the impact this film had.
Hitchcock combined classic Hollywood allure with Surrealist art, suspense and the pseudo-cryptic. There are moments that have a beautiful hallucinatory realism to them, like in the kiss scene or the iconic Dalí dream sequence. It’s a fascinating and complex curio.
How would you describe your finished piece?
The Tableaux is a set of scenes, a montage of different ideas – there are five in total, each one short in duration. It’s very much an appreciative impression of what caught my eye when watching this particular film, rather than a re-telling of the plot or a replacement underscore to a specific frame.
One thing I really enjoyed writing was a kind of tribute to Hitchcock’s own cameo in the film. His cameos are one of the elements that make his films Hitchcockian – 39 out of his 52 films have one! Even though in Spellbound it’s a very small, playful detail, lasting no more than a couple of seconds, it takes centre stage in my Tableaux. I won’t give away how it plays out, but I’ll give you a clue – it involves the violin!
What is it like being a young emerging composer in the 21st century?
As a career choice it has its challenges; the main one is making it sustainable. On the other hand, it’s a very individual journey of creating, discovery, attempting to realise ideas – that’s one of the great things about it! I think it’s promising that there is an increasing diversity in the image of who might be a composer. There is also an unrivalled opportunity to be multifaceted and I personally hope to embrace that as much as possible.
As well as being a composer, you’re also a saxophonist. How does your work as a composer inform your work as a performer, and vice-versa?
The two are quite interconnected for me as I play my own music and write for myself as well. I’m a classically-trained musician, so most of the time I’m playing Classical repertoire, but through the saxophone I became more conscious of experimental forms of performance. One of the things I got hooked on is playing with loop stations and effect pedals. I love that with looping you can make a kind of orchestra with different colours and layers – it can be really detailed and immersive. For solo work in particular, it offers an interesting performance dimension. I improvise with this kind of gear a lot, as well as composing notated pieces for acoustic instruments and effect pedals.
When I’m composing a piece, I find working at an instrument a useful way to think aloud, the piano being my main go-to instrument. It can be quite freeing to allow a part of the composing to evolve at an instrument, not being always fixated on a piece of manuscript paper. Plus beautiful accidents can happen from it!
Your debut album Electric Scent has just been released – what can you tell us about it?
The album takes quite a different direction from this orchestral piece. Electroacoustic music is a distinct thread of my composing and this album provides an introduction to it. It’s a concept album, comprising miniatures inspired by floriography (the language of flowers) and perfume. All of the featured music was specially made for the release, with myself playing all the instruments including saxophone, cello, found objects and harpsichord.
Sophya Polevaya’s Spellbound Tableaux receives its world premiere on Thursday 19 December, with François-Xavier Roth conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.
Spellbound Tableaux was commissioned through the LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme, generously supported by Lady Hamlyn and The Helen Hamlyn Trust.