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Composer Spotlight: Angela Slater

Interview conducted by Jan Li Tan, 5th July 2021. We caught up with Angela Slater to discuss her work as a composer as well as navigating her project Illuminate Women's Music during a worldwide pandemic.

Angela Elizabeth Slater is a UK-based composer, Illuminate Women’s Music Director, and Associate Composition Lecturer at Cardiff University. She has an interest in musically mapping different aspects of the natural world into the fabric of her music.

Recent significant achievements include being selected to become a 2020-21 Tanglewood Composition Fellow, a Britten-Pears Young Artist through which Angela worked with Oliver Knussen, Colin Matthews and Michael Gandolfi, developing Soaring in Stasis which received its premiere at 2018 Aldeburgh Festival. In 2019 she received the Mendelssohn scholarship award allowing her to further her studies at New England Conservatory with Chair of Composition Michael Gandolfi. Angela was the New England Philharmonic’s 2018 call for scores winner resulting in the world-premiere of Roil in Stillness in April 2019. In 2021 she is writing two new works for Royal Scottish Orchestra and writing a series of six new solo works through the Connected skies project funded by Arts Council England.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, what do you do? Who are you? Would you call yourself a composer, or what do you identify yourself as?

I think I definitely identify first and foremost as a composer, with a capital “C”, a creator of sound and a sculptor of sounds. That’s who I am, that’s my main passion and thing that keeps me going forward in life, writing music. I also do lots of other things as well, this last year I’ve had a part-time position as an associate composition lecturer at Cardiff University so lots of composition which has been fun. During the pandemic, but more in normal times I also run a project called Illuminate Women’s Music which I founded back in 2017. The ethos behind that is to highlight/illuminate women’s creativity both as performers and as composers, and to highlight that there is a historical legacy of composers who happen to be women. These are my main things I occupy my days with.

What would you say your interests as a musician are?

My mode of being a musician is being a composer and I’ve always been like that even when I was trying to learn piano as a 6 year old; I came to the piano out of interest of banging on it and being enthralled by all the sounds, I would always be hopeless at practicing as I progressed through grades and I would get distracted by a cool chord when I went wrong. I have always been fascinated by the sounds and that has continued for me as a composer, always being interested in engaging in the world in whatever form that might be for me at that point. I am always trying to reflect something of myself and my experience of the world in my music. A lot of the time, this has manifested itself in a desire to evoke the natural world. I like to try and map structures and colours into my music which is no different from the piece for this project, Murmurations, about birds and shapes. I find it fascinating actually, gestural shapes from the natural world. I come from a dance background (I never went very far) but I think it’s affected the way I conceptualise music as something that is a physical movement and I see that in nature; I see music as well as hear it when I’m writing.

Murmurations, when I first saw the score, I found it so pretty. I love the colours, the little bit of colour that just pops out. I really like what you’ve done with the score. I haven’t had a chance to hear it yet because Jakub, my co-project leader, was the one handling the recording of it but I’m very excited to hear the final product!

Why did you decide to become a musician?

That’s a really good question. Of course in my background I’ve already touched on that. My mum is an amateur musician, so music was always something that was there; I can’t remember when I didn’t know what a crotchet was because she had these big posters of drawings of crotchets, the “every boy deserves football” stave lines diagram so I had imagery of that and we had a drawer of toy percussion. So I felt that music was something that was just there. When my older brother was learning to play the piano, I would come in and start banging the piano keys. For me it’s always been about composing, as I said before I would get distracted by chords that were wrong within a piece and I was always wanting to begin writing music down. It was funny, I went home this week and my mum pulled out a piece that I wrote from 2003, we played it through and were like ‘hey it’s not so bad you know’.

As I grew up, I did lots of pop songs for a long time and the natural thing for most people is to do something sensible, so I went and started a pharmacy degree because I was good at science but I did music as well. One weekend I went home and I realised I hadn’t had a chance to do any music for the whole of that term. I started composing something at the piano and my mum said ‘that’s really great’ and it was a trigger moment, I burst into tears and said ‘I need to do music’. So my mum helped me to switch across from the pharmacy degree to a music degree the next year. Having made that drastic decision, I felt that if I was going to do music, it was because of composition and so I had to be a composer. It was very much sacrificing my financial security for what I believe has been a much happier, richer life in other ways. There’s no decisive moment as such in my younger years, but there was that snap decision that if I hadn’t gone home that weekend, who knows I may have been working as a pharmacist today.

Angela Slater - Song of Isolation (2020) for The Arc Project: Digital Edition

Just going back a bit, you mentioned your mum was an amateur musician. What did she play?

She played the piano.

Wow, a piano family!

Yes, but she encouraged my brother and I to play other instruments. I took up the flute and he took up the clarinet, so that’s also helped. However, as a composer, the piano is such a useful instrument to play.

I’m a bit biased but yes. *laughs* What has your involvement with The Arc Project been and what has the experience been like for you?

The Digital Edition where I worked with you and Ellie on that piano and flute piece with bird song was an interesting project and absolutely perfect for lockdown (to have something to really focus on). It was interesting for me to do something which included instruments accompanying birdsong because I hadn’t really done much with electronics before so it definitely gave me the space to explore a different mode of writing. There was less pressure on it, even though it was still going to be publicly “performed”; there was this liberation from the normal modes of engagement. With this latest piece, I thought it was so interesting to come up with the concept of one piano but three pianists. I was, for a while, thinking what on earth can I do, but then I realised how much it opened up the idea of exploring the whole palette of the piano in a way that you could never do with one pianist, being able to go from normal modes of playing to being in the strings (both plucking and percussion). I had a hard time trying to find any other repertoire that had really done that before, because I always like to listen to lots of pieces as much as possible, but it was usually one and then the other. So I’m really excited to hear the blend of those sounds coming together. You’ve really just opened up new worlds and concepts for me and I’m sure it’s been very exciting for other composers as well!

It has been really exciting, from what we’ve heard and the scores that I’ve seen, everyone has come up with so many different things. I can’t wait to hear everything. Even the way that all the scores have been made have been really different, we even had someone do a video score. It’s all been very varied.

OK, next question! Could you name some musicians that have influenced your perspective on music and your style?

*hmm* This is such a huge question for me, I can think of so many composers! I think one of the big discoveries for me, a number of years ago, was the music of Kaija Saariaho and her use of timbre as a modulating factor, as the prime mode of development; it takes precedence in a lot of her pieces over harmony and the usual hierarchy of compositional parameters. I found that really exciting because for me, it seems to give a melody scope for even further expansion of its expressivity and the colours within just a single line. I suppose you could say that she implants that harmony into the melodic line itself though the use of timbre. That definitely influenced my music and my engagement in melody as well, so I tend to be one of few contemporary music composers that really likes to engage with melody, in the expressionistic romantic use of melody but then they’re always coloured with these timbral extensions which is very much coming from that mode of thought that comes from Kaija Saariaho’s music.

That’s very interesting. I love Saariaho, just beautiful music. If you had to pick one of your works that you are particularly proud of, which would you pick and why?

A piece that never seems to leave my listening plate for me and that I’m really proud of is a string quartet called ‘Eye o da Hurricane’. It’s a piece I wrote very quickly back in 2017, for the St. Magnus festival, and I was on a composition course there, paired with one of the poets on the writer’s course. The poets gave us a poem of theirs to be inspired by and I was paired with a poet called Christian Tate and her poem was called ‘Journal of a Crofter’s wife’. It’s a poem that's broadly set in World War I and the character of a crofter’s wife is trapped in a storm, (a literal storm) on the Shetland Island (because that’s where Christian is from) but also in the storm of World War I. They are in the eye of the Hurricane and it’s all in the Shetland dialect. The poem has lots of musical imagery, there’s things like ‘fiddle strings vibrate in tune with my black despair’; it inspired me so much and ended up influencing the narrative and the musical choices within that piece. It’s been one of those ones where it seemed to marry the drama and expression with extended techniques in such a way that I’m not sure I’ve done so perfectly again. It seemed to encapsulate this crystalline storm, it lives and then it’s gone. So that’s a piece I’m very proud of, go take a listen.

Angela Slater - Eye o da Hurricane (2017)

What kind of areas of composition would you like to explore more in the future? You mentioned that you haven’t done much with electronics before, do you think you’d like to explore more of that?

When this kind of question is presented to me, I’m always like ‘but there’s so many things to do’. I think if the opportunity presented itself for me to have some more training in electronics, so that I could actually feel confident in creating in that space, then I think it’s something that I would pursue more. However, I think it would always be with acoustic writing.

I know that one of the things I’ve really loved this last year is writing for orchestra but also writing for soloists and that combines itself perfectly well when I’m doing a concerto. I find when I’m writing for solo instrument, it’s like a whole orchestra within themselves and really getting to the depths of exploring the nuances of colour of a single instrument but then the orchestra is always an exciting thing for a composer because you’re basically in a toy shop! You’ve got all these colours and combinations in an orchestra and then with a solo instrument the idea of how can I explore all of the different colours of just that one instrument but then enhance them or perhaps deliberately negate them through the orchestration is very exciting. Last year, I wrote a piano concerto and I just love the idea of exploring all the instruments gradually. It’s certainly a desire of mine, to explore all of the different instruments in turn with the orchestra.

Another thing I’d love to do, would be to write music along with dance, working with a choreographer. It’s always an interesting challenge, particularly as composers we’re often isolated and you’re making all the decisions all the time. I think it’s good for myself and for other composers to be challenged on that and have our creative process nudged in different directions by another artistic practitioner. So I hope to get a chance to do that at some point in the future as well.

Is there anyone you would like to collaborate with in the future?

I suppose I don’t want to name names as such.

Or maybe even someone who, in a way, feels out of reach?

This year I did a project called ‘Connected Skies, I was working with 2 US soloists, 2 UK soloists and 2 soloists from Europe. Though the world had shrunk due in the COVID bubble, it also had allowed for this project to happen in a way that never would have previously been viable because of Zoom becoming an acceptable medium of collaborating. In that sense I don’t feel like certain things are so out of reach, I’m planning on hopefully collaborating with a Boston-based soprano called Rosie Hegele at some point next year and so I feel there were a host of ‘it would be good to work with them but they are in wherever’ but that barrier seems to have dissolved. I just hope to keep working with exciting and forward-thinking musicians and I’m not necessarily interested in a status as such, there are famous soloists and don’t get me wrong I definitely wouldn’t turn down a commission from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, that would be fantastic to get an opportunity to work with them and get on the proms.

Going back to your work with Illuminate. For us on The Arc Project we’ve spent more time in a pandemic situation than we have in a face-to-face situation, and I know Illuminate has been around quite a lot longer, do you think the pandemic has been a good thing for Illuminate or...?

I think the Pandemic has been an interesting thing for Illuminate. It’s actually something I’ve been looking into and thinking about. On one level, we stopped our normal mode of concerts, where we’d have one set of performers in residence for 6 concerts. They would perform newly commissioned works from 5 or 6 composers and they would get repeat performances and would also get to be heard by lots of different audiences around the UK (as well as geographically, and the type of audience that would go to a casual coffee concert as well as the evening university concert and all the other types of concert series in-between). I was always very keen on bringing the music of women to audiences who, in some cases, didn't realise that women composer’s existed both historically but also perhaps didn’t realise that people were actually composers now regardless of their gender. So it was good in normal times to be able to do that.

Angela Slater - Woven Half dreams (2021) as part of the Connected Skies: Solo Series Challenge

One of the things that we’ve been doing in the digital version of Illuminate is having a different performer for every digital concert, so I feel that we’ve been able to support more performers in showing their recitals and in some ways that’s given more exposure to more composers and perhaps been less UK-centric. Usually due to funding stipulations all the composers have had to be UK-based composers so it’s opened up the world a little bit more. I think it’s also therefore opened up our reach regarding being far more international. The only thing that concerns me is this audience is self-selecting, they come because they are already on-board with the message, they already know about women composers and so that’s where a disadvantage is (we’re not reaching people who happen to go along to a concert as part of a certain series they go along to and have their minds opened to these ideas). The main thing for me is that I didn't want to stop celebrating and illuminating the great creativity of women, both as composers and as performers and I do worry about the patriarchy doubling down on us with the pandemic. We’ve got to keep saying we’re here and this is what we believe in.

What projects have you recently been involved with? Have there been any other exciting things that you‘ve been doing recently?

I’ve been very busy composing, I’ve been on a treadmill with composing to be honest. I’ll say a bit about what I’ve been writing in the last month or so. One of the pieces I’ve done is a short piece for trumpet for a project called Diversifying the Stand, again very much a project after my own heart, but I think they’re a bit broader in diversifying, not just in terms of gender but also race specifically. It’s been great to write for that. I wrote a piece called ‘Noctilucent’ about nature and clouds that illuminate in certain ways because of ice crystals in the atmosphere, so I tried to create lots of colourful writing in that. There seems to be lots of brass recently. I’ve also been writing a piece for brass quintet, this piece is called ‘Dispelling Light’ which takes on a line which is in one of Walt Whitman’s poems called ‘Twilight’ and that’s for a course which is called the Stockholm Chamber Brass Academy. I am ‘virtually’ going Sweden, despite being virtual it’ll be exciting to work with the ensemble ‘W1 Brass’.

Another project, that is quite different from my normal things and I actually did some electronics for, is for this very unusual ensemble called ‘Hats and Heels’. They are a duo for bassoon and harp, so Rosanna Moore and Blaire Koerner. Their project was for me to write a piece that evoked the life and events of four suffragettes, so I looked into Margaret Haig Thomas (who is essentially the equivalent of Emmeline Pankhurst for the Welsh movement in Newport), Emily Davison (who was the famous one who threw herself in front of the kings horse and sadly died) and Sophia Duleep Singh (who was a princess of Indian origin who’d come across to the UK and was very privileged in many ways but was also very poor in otherways). They were all there on Black Friday. Then the final movement is about Ethel Smyth, who was a composer herself, and so the theme she wrote ‘March of the Women’ runs throughout that whole thing. I actually did some recordings of a bike wheel and a fire because even the idea of the bike was so controversial, that a woman riding a bike symbolised their independence and that they didn’t need to be chaperoned by a man. So I thought I’d have that sound and manipulate it in different ways running throughout the whole thing, as a sound of defiance. Of course the suffragettes did a lot of violent actions, like setting fire to post boxes and throwing bricks through windows, so that’s why I recorded some crackling fire as well. This piece ‘She was a woman’ should be performed later this summer on 24th July and also put out digitally afterward so people will be able to look that up at some point as well.

Angela Slater - Enclosing skies (2021) as part of the Connected Skies: Solo Series Challenge

Just out of interest personally, how did you go about recording fire because I imagine recording devices and heat are not exactly the easiest thing to get around.

No, it was really difficult and I don’t know how successful it was. I did manage to get a good sound at one point which I did use. So we have a burning bin that the last people to live in this house left, and we’d got all this wood just behind the garage, so we put that and some paper in. There was a little hole where I put my little recorder in. We had to wait for the road to be quiet as well. Anyway, I managed to, out of luck probably more than judgement, get a good fire crackling sound (enough for me to use). But yes I was definitely holding it *gestured to recorder* at one point, thinking I need to move my hand back from the flame. Don’t do this at home kids! *Laughs*

*Laughs* You mentioned that piece is coming out later this summer, are there any other things that are being released in the near future that you would like to plug?

Yes! Recently, I had a piece for the RSNO workshopped and they will be releasing a little interview, a clip from the workshop as well as a full run through of the piece that I wrote for that, which was called ‘The Louder the Birds Sing’. It’s a piece reflecting on nature and the pandemic, it’s about that phenomenon that some people observed where they thought the birds were singing louder during lockdown but it was actually that we were just not filling the space with our own noise as such.

Is there anything else coming up?

Over the summer period, I’m virtually in America twice. I’m first on an opera project with a company called Fresh Squeezed Opera for their Vocal Lab. I wrote a piece for baritone and piano for that, and I haven’t really written very much for voice before until this year really so it’ll be good to get some tips from them. The other American festival I am involved in is a festival called ‘Impulse New Music Festival’ in Los Angeles. I am writing a piece for the Brightwork Ensemble which is made up of players from the LA Philharmonic. I’m very excited to get started for that, I’ve not written a note of it yet and I need to finish it by the end of July, so wish me luck!

Last question and it’s a bit of a fun one. If you won the lottery tomorrow what would you do with the money?

The thing I end up thinking about is what I would do with Illuminate, setting up music projects and helping musicians in this country. I have visions of course buying a house but alongside it you’d build a small concert hall and create a festival around where you live in a random part of the country that hasn’t yet got enough culture going on. The security that would provide and would allow me to do so much more with Illuminate Women’s Music, and it would open up so many things because I’m sure as you know you have to keep scrambling round for different pots of money here there and everywhere and try to defend it all the time and not get on with the business of organising it and creating new music as well.

Angela is one of the composers on our project, Beyond 88, releasing next month. Keep an eye out for updates on that!

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