BBC National Orchestra of Wales violist Laura Sinnerton speaks to Birmingham Record Company about collaborating with young composers on her latest album ‘Inner Voices’.
Birmingham Record Company (BRC): Inner Voices, your new album of pieces for solo viola, was conceived in late 2019 and recorded in 2020. What was it like to work with six different young composers remotely during the COVID-19 lockdowns?
Laura Sinnerton (LS): Such a large aspect of the project was giving early-career composers the opportunity to have intimate time with an instrument that they might not ordinarily have the time to engage with. There’s so much written about ‘how to write for violin’, maybe even ‘how to write for cello’, but I think the viola is a little bit of a mystery to composers. Much of the project was going to be about that time spent one-on-one with composers in person, allowing them to be up close, really hearing what works, finding out why some things don’t work but what you can do to have a creative solution around that.
So when the lockdown hit I thought this was an absolute disaster! I thought it would make the most important part of the project completely null and void! But then we’re so fortunate that (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) we live in the age of video calls, and so it ended up being a really positive experience. There was such a sense of isolation in the first lockdown, with the feeling that the entire music industry had ground to a halt and we just had no idea when anything could restart. Creatively as musicians we thrive off each other’s company and input, so to be able to connect with the composers regardless of where they were spending the lockdown was amazing. It was really motivating actually, to be able to spend that time with them. I don’t think doing stuff remotely will ever take the place of being in a studio with each other one-on-one having a really intense time but I do think it opens doors for being able to collaborate with people who are geographically distant from you. Being able to have contact with these composers really inspired and motivated me, being able to spend time with them, answering questions and trying stuff out: I really valued it!
BRC: You’ve got six different composers on your album. How did you go about selecting the people that you wanted to work with, build a relationship with, and create a piece with?
LS: I’ve be so fortunate in that all of the places I’ve studied have had a really strong emphasis on instrumentalists collaborating with composers. So it’s always been something that I’ve been interested in, and in my work with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales we do a lot of work with composers at all stages of their careers. It’s something that I find it really intellectually stimulating and exciting.
I came to this group of composers for a variety of reasons: I knew Anselm McDonnell initially through the Composition: Wales programme, but he’s also from the same neck of the woods that I’m from in Northern Ireland. I was actually introducing one of his orchestral works in a concert and we were talking afterwards and he invited me to record one of his pieces. I love working with him so much and really wanted him to be involved in Inner Voices.
With Carlijn Metselaar and Sarah Lianne Lewis it was kind of a similar deal. I met them initially through my work in Wales. With Sarah I really enjoy the sound worlds that she creates. And Carlijn has such a lovely warmth and integrity in what she writes that’s really appealing. There’s also a muscularity about her work: it bristles with energy!
Jimena Maldonado, Patrick Ellis and Emily Abdy are all composers with a connection to Birmingham and they’re all really different people from really different backgrounds. It was very important to me to represent the work of female composers and I feel that I’ve achieved that on this album. I liked the fact that each composer has such a different compositional voice and to me that was really interesting. There is such variety on the album.
BRC: That’s the thing about an album where the music is united by a single player yet there are all these different people composing the music. You want to have that sense of variety, you don’t want it to sound like it could have all been written by a single composer. Did you find that the composers on the album came up against similar problems? Or was your mentorship of them tailored to each individual and their specific needs?
LS: It was quite tailored to each individual. Each one had such different levels of experience and exposure to the viola, so the mentorship was specific to each composer. But that in itself was great, and really challenging for me. I think that when you’ve been playing an instrument for so long, sometimes people will ask you something specific and you’ll say ‘no that can’t be done’. But then you’ll start asking yourself ‘but why can’t that be done!?’. This challenges you to think differently!
When a composer comes to you with a musical idea that is utterly musically solid, the joy as an instrumentalist is in helping them find the language with which they can capture that idea and put it on the page so that it can be perfectly recreated. And that’s great because then the next time that composer has the opportunity to work with that instrument then they’re that little bit more confident and their music is that little bit more sure of itself: everybody’s a winner! The performer and performer feel more comfortable, and both feel more confident. The key thing about this kind of work is trying to help composers to find clarity and explicitness in what they write down so that the performer has the best opportunity for conveying their musical ideas to the listener. All this means that the listener has the most complete experience of the piece.
BRC: Thinking of the album as a listener yourself, what stands out for you in the pieces you recorded?
LS: So many things! With Patrick [Combinations, Phrases, track 9] it was his courage to just take these simple cells and just let them be. It’s so sparse but yet there’s this undercurrent of movement, and I think that’s really brave especially for a younger composer. There can often be the temptation to throw the kitchen sink at something, but Patrick is just like ‘no, I’m not going to do that’, and it’s wonderful. His piece is quite hypnotic. Emily [Ruminant, track 10] wrote something that’s raw, personal and intimate. And again it’s her bravery that struck me. It was quite an experience to perform it!
BRC: Yeah Emily’s piece involves you declaiming spoken text. Is that something that you’ve done a lot of, or was it a new experience?
LS: Well, y’know, with my Northern Irish accent oftentimes subtitles might be needed! But I really enjoyed it. It’s funny, we as instrumentalists are so used to making sound with our instruments but not with our voices, so initially I felt a bit shy and a little self-conscious. But then I embraced it and it felt good. It was actually quite liberating to take on the role of another character. There’s an emotional narrative from start to finish and the piece ends in quite an ambiguous way. I think it’s up to the listener to decide whether they think it’s a contented ending or not.
Jimena’s piece [Where there was wood is now water, track 1] is for a mixture of live and pre-recorded viola parts, and hearing it all mixed together is just beautiful, especially the acoustic games that it plays with your mind. She based the piece on a series of photographs called Water Table by Anthony McCall, and there’s a real unbreakable link between the visual work and the musical work.
What I love so much about Anselm’s work [The Testimony of John Paton, tracks 2–6] is that he manages to combine extended techniques, microtonal writing, vocalisations and all manner of different bowings to make music that somehow sounds really romantic and feels really familiar. I think he’s so clever and so sensitive in how he combines these things. He has a desire to know the clearest way to write something and a curiosity and hunger to understand and to know more.
Carlijn’s work [Lift, track 8] is very gestural. She got such a feeling for movement and gesture, and it’s all about the phrase. And it’s the same with Sarah as well [Weathering, track 7]: gesture and the shape of things, the colour of things is crucial. Timbre too, it’s the detail that she really wants. It’s really cool to work with young composers who have a really strong sense of self, and strong ideas about what it takes to make the music jump off the page. They all draw out the essence in a piece of music: the shape, the phrasing and the colour.
BRC: Is there anything that you experienced in the music of these composers that perhaps you haven’t encountered before in the work of more established names in the field?
LS: With Sarah in particular there’s this idea of metamorphosis. Her piece Weathering [track 7] is about an object that you find on the shore that has been one thing in the past but that’s been weathered away into something else. I wonder if this idea of change is a preoccupation in the younger generation in society in general, this idea of us living through a period of flux. This is also something that comes across in Patrick’s Combinations, Phrases [track 9] too, because although the building blocks of it look quite simple there’s a slow progression and development over time with it. So I think this idea of metamorphosis is something that comes across in one way or another in all of the pieces on the album. The most exciting thing for me is the fact that there are six works that sound completely different, with none of the composers feeling like they have to write in a specific way, in a specific style.
BRC: If there are some composers listening to the album thinking of writing for the viola, which bits would you say really stand out as characteristic of the viola?
LS: I think the ‘Reunion’ movement [track 6] from Anselm’s piece The Testimony of John Paton. It really captures the mournful voice that the viola has but still with the ability to be really light as well. For me that’s a great example that showcases the true versatility of the instrument. A lovely section in Sarah’s piece [track 7] also springs to mind, where the music flitters between natural harmonics, false harmonics and stopped notes. I think that’s a good example of the fact that the viola can be just as agile as any other string instrument. It’s got these surprisingly magical sounds in it and people can write for it in a really challenging way.
BRC: You collaborate a lot with different people: how does collaboration sit within your overall work as an instrumentalist?
LS: I think collaboration is so important! It’s the lifeblood of any musician. If you were stuck in your own head all the time your ideas would get pretty stale pretty quick. I think it’s only through talking to other people and listening to other people, trying out new ideas, that’s the only way we grow as musicians. What we do is such a privilege: it’s a career where we get to be life-long students. There’s no point in your career where you stop learning, where somebody else can’t teach you something new. So I find collaboration hugely exciting and enriching.
BRC: What else do listeners need to know about the album?
LS: The music world is tough at the moment, and this past year has bruised it badly. These six young composers deserve our support in every way. They deserve to be listened to and invited to write for people.