What was your journey to studying at the Royal Academy of Music?
Before starting formal music lessons I had immersed myself in art to express my love of colour, light, shape and form. Consequently when I discovered classical music, learning the double bass aged 12, it was natural for me to link music to colour. Certain intervals seemed cold to me, and others warm, because I have synaesthesia.
Prior to studying at the Academy, I completed an undergraduate degree at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, where I initially studied double bass with Thomas Martin, moving on to composition with Robert Saxton. The experience of training in symphony orchestras under the baton of conductors including Sir Colin Davis, Sir Simon Rattle and Louis Frémaux, and then, as a participant of the London Symphony Orchestra string scheme, with Mstislav Rostropovich, André Previn and Michael Tilson Thomas, was invaluable for my understanding of orchestral writing, balance, timbre, communication and meaning.
At the Academy, I studied for a MMus degree in composition with Simon Bainbridge. This gave me the opportunity to develop my musical language, hear my work performed and contextualise my way of thinking through historical study and analysis. It was hugely inspiring to attend seminars by György Kurtág, Louis Andriessen and Sir Harrison Birtwistle during my time there. I then held a Fellowship for one year, before going on to complete a DPhil at Worcester College, Oxford, with Robert Saxton.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
It was a privilege to be awarded a British Composer Award in 2017 for my solo violin piece Inside Colour
(2016). My piece responds synaesthetically to the colours of the aurora as seen from the International Space Station. I imaged detailed colours in my mind’s eye, evoking them through intervals, timbre, density, register, velocity and rhythm as I fully notated the piece. After it was notated, I painted it retrospectively as a visualisation, showing the structure in shape and colour [see image below]. This painting was displayed at the Amazing Women of the Royal Academy of Music exhibition from 2017 to 2018. Inside Colour was commissioned by the London Sinfonietta (with funds provided by Lark) and premiered at a private event by violinist Daniel Pioro, publicly by Jonathan Morton and recorded by the NMC Recordings label.
Another important work to me is my violin concerto Wall of Water (2014), which responds to a series of magnificent seascapes by the contemporary artist Maggi Hambling. It was written for the violinist Harriet Mackenzie and the English String Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Woods, and was recorded by Nimbus. I was able to visit the paintings as works in progress, respond to the vast palette of colours and have my concerto performed at the National Gallery during Maggi’s 2015 exhibition.
This was followed by my double concerto Edge (2017) for solo violin, solo harp and orchestra after Maggi’s powerful paintings on global warming. The piece premiered at the 2017 Aldeburgh Festival, performed by Harriet Mackenzie, harpist Catrin Finch [the Academy’s newly appointed Head of Harp] and the Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Berman.
Tell us about your composition for 200 PIECES – what was your inspiration?
My new work for solo cello is called Angel in the Marble and it was inspired by Michelangelo’s words:
‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’
It’s written in miniature form: a fleeting moment as the angel comes into focus and takes flight, finding freedom towards the light. It explores the broad range of timbre on the cello, particularly the powerful and lyrical upper register as the music soars above, before gently resting in an ethereal conclusion. It was written for and recorded by Ben Michaels.
You’ve spoken about synaesthesia. Do you have ideas about what this piece might look like?
This particular piece is predominantly constructed of warm colours, growing in density as the tension increases. The shape opens out and expands upwards before dissipating in delicate spirals with an evocation of resonance.
Tell us more about the synaesthetic images you create.
I create images in three different ways:
- Graphic scores: to be freely interpreted by the musician. An example of this is my Colour Circle (2020) [see image above], commissioned by the London Sinfonietta over lockdown. It was inspired by Wassily Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, in which he describes yellow as ‘bursting forth aimlessly in every direction’ and green as the ‘most restful colour that exists’.
- Visualisations: created retrospectively to my own music after the work has been fully notated as a synaesthetic guide. [See image Inside Colour, above].
- Music maps: constructed as guides to key contemporary works using shape and colour, developed with the London Sinfonietta. This example is my map of In Seven Days by Thomas Adès, showing the structure and detail of the work visually, with annotations [see image below].
How do you approach working on a new piece?
When I begin to write a new piece, I firstly consider what it means, along with a sense of light, darkness and colour. Other aspects follow such as timbre, density, velocity, rhythm and dialogue. I always sketch out the shape and narrative, considering what is functional – working in a renewed way each day, to let the music naturally emerge.
What other projects have you got coming up?
I’m currently writing a new concerto, Calandra, for the violinist Jennifer Pike and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, to be premiered at the Barbican this December. It’s programmed with Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, but makes reference to the Eastern European calandra lark, native to Ukraine. It is a work symbolic of freedom that ascends without borders, inspired by these lines from the George Meredith poem:
The voice of one for millions
in whom the millions rejoice
for giving their one spirit voice
What advice would you give to an aspiring composer?
Let your compositional practice emerge from what inspires you, so it develops with authenticity. Think about what is functional in your language, what creates tension and release, and what methods and approaches facilitate these principles.
Consider what your music means to you: does it convey something beyond itself in a programmatic sense or is your approach more autonomous, finding beauty in the musical fabric of composition?
Allow yourself to progress at your own pace. Everybody’s path is different and we all develop at different rates. Be encouraged that you have a unique voice that just needs time to flourish.
Header image: Kayleigh Allenby