Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background? AS:I grew up in a large village called Cotgrave in Nottinghamshire. Thinking back to my childhood I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t know about music. Even before I was at an age where I could have piano lessons I was always drawn to play on the piano and mess around, and probably disturb my brother’s practise. Later I would write little pastiche type pieces, which then transformed into pop-songs in my teenage years and then melded back to classical music, though now of a very different kind of course. Throughout my childhood, I was always distracted with the sounds of music and would more often than not end up not practising because I was found a ‘strange’ chord by accident.
SC: Can you describeyour new work to us?
AS: My new piece for piano trio Shades of Rainexplores the imagery and textures of different types of rain. The piece functions as though it is two movements happening within the same piece: Cloudburst and Petrichor. Cloudburst refers to an extreme amount of precipitation in a short period of time often accompanied by hail and thunderstorms. The piece reflects this with dramatic driving rhythms and strident dramatic chords from the piano. These spells of extreme dramatic rain and musical descents are interrupted by music representing Petrichor. Petrichor is the pleasant aroma that occurs after rain has fallen for the first time after a dry period. These parts of the music are explored through expansive and reflective lyrical lines, providing relief from the dramatic movements and figures found in the Cloudburst sections.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
AS: It is really a combination of the two and very dependent on the piece. When I compose I find it extremely helpful to have a clear concept for the piece before I begin. I often find the title for the piece before I start as this can give me a lot of stimulus from which I can develop musical ideas and a framework. First I usually sit down with a blank piece of paper to plan the structure of the piece. This can take the form of written words and timings, but more often than not there are shapes and sketches and notes to myself about instruments or timbre. As much as possible I like to feel a connection to the instruments for which I am writing and will try to compose ideas on the instrument as much as I can, even if I can hardly play the instrument at all. This allows me to feel how the fingers sit and how the sound really resonates.For Shades of Rain I planned the harmonic structure and much of the piano material at the piano, but I found a lot of the violin and cello material actually at these instruments. Though I don’t play these instruments (or certainly not very well!) it does help me to write idiomatic material if I initially create the initial ideas on the instruments themselves.
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
AS: It’s certainly extremely useful to know the performers when writing. I certainly believe it can change the way you approach a piece when you know their style of playing and their personality as this of course alters the music you write as you compose with this in your mind’s ear.This piece was originally written for Anna Arazi’s Prism piano trio and so I did a lot of research into her playing earlier in the year. For this upcoming concert I am very excited to hearing how the Ethel Smyth Trio’s interpretation of the piece will differ. I feel the soundworld of this piece comes from a desire to express the different types of rain and to really create a piece that contrasted with my other piano trio Rainbow Fires.
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
AS: I feel that my soundworld shifts and evolves from piece to piece. I tend to think about my music in terms of gestures and textures. These determine the soundworld of a piece. Generally, I strive to be highly expressionistic and sometimes lyrical in my lines.
SC: What motivates you to compose?
AS: Composing is something I have always felt a need to do – it’s a compulsion, something beautiful and an addiction too. It is my internal desire to communicate and express something of myself and my impression of the world.
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
AS: Helen Grime, Judith Weir, Charlotte Bray, Jennifer Higdon, Thea Musgrave
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
AS: Ethel Smyth – I would love to talk to her about her compositions and what it was like to be a suffragette.SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
AS: Elizabeth Maconchy String Quartet No.3
Helen Grime Into a Cold Spring
Stravinsky The Firebird
Thomas Adés – Concentric Paths – violin concerto
Judith Weir – Piano Trio Two
Elliot Carter – Triple duo
Amy Beach – Romance for violin and piano
Messiaen – Quartet for the end of time for string quartet.
SC:…and a book?
AS: I’m going to pick a TV series instead– Stranger Things
SC:… and a luxury item?
AS: My own piano to compose on.