Sunday, 28 July 2013

Composer of the month: Sadie Harrison

Since 2007, Sadie has worked as both an archaeologist and a composer. Her recent music reflects an active interest in the ancient and contemporary cultures of other countries, leading to several cycles inspired by the traditional musics of Afghanistan, the Northern Caucasus, Skye and Lithuania. Sadie’s music has been played in venues such as the Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall, RFH, Barbican and Lithuanian National Philharmonic, released to critical acclaim on Sargasso, BML, Metier, NMC and Clarinet Classics and broadcast on BBC R3, in Eastern Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, America, Lithuania, and The Netherlands. 2013 has seen premieres in Ripon Cathedral, Norway, Denmark, Vilnius, Cyprus, Brecon, RAM and the Vale of Glamorgan Festival with others to come at festivals in London, Vienna, Tennessee and York later this year. Sadie’s music is published by UYMP ( and Recital Music. Website:

Sadie’s new work, Return of the Nightingales, will be performed at the next Late Music concert (Saturday 3rd August) by Ian Pace
Steve Crowther: Can you describe the work to us?

Sadie Harrison: With Rzewski’s music in mind, this piece is something of a concoction of musical and contextual ideas – a pre-recorded nightingale (the bird of hazar dastan, ‘a thousand stories’), a classical Afghan song, improvised patterns from Afghan musicians played in response to hearing Messiaen’s Le Loriod, and a vicious moto perpetuo which attempts to obliterate everything before it. The score is prefaced by a beautiful Persian Sufi text 'Ajab tarana e sar karda am darin golshan, Khoda konad ke na sazad falak khamush mara' (I have started to sing a wonderful song in this flower-garden like a nightingale, I hope the movement of the stars (destiny) does not make me silent again.) I use it as a direct reference to the silencing of Afghan music during the period of the Taliban, and its re-emergence following the Taliban’s expulsion in 2001. It’s a deliberately uneasy piece – an outsider’s view of another country’s conflict, with a distinctly Western ‘resolution’. It’s problematic.

SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?

SH: It totally depends on the piece. But generally, pen and paper away from the piano - the freedom to annotate and revisit, move paper around, not be conditioned by any particular sound. It’s too difficult to talk about planning – too fluid a process – too Escheresque where the ideas flow downstream and upstream at the same time!

SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?

SH: Whenever I can. It’s certainly the ideal. The piece for Ian really started with a memory of hearing him play Scriabin’s Tenth Sonata in 2004 – it was quite something! Although the context for the material changed radically, Ian’s presence at the keyboard was integral to the soundworld of the piece.

SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?

SH: Again, it depends on the piece, who has commissioned it, what the performer might want. I’ve just finished a set of pieces that sound like neoclassical Stravinsky…the previous piece had a touch of Hollywood romance about it…the one before that was as hard as granite, implacably modernist. I don’t have a problem with diversity now, though once I would have condemned such postmodernism!

SC: What motivates you to compose?

SH: I stopped writing for two extended periods in my life because I didn’t have anything to say. I’m sure that most of what I write is completely peripheral but I strive to illuminate musically those things that are important to me. Much of my recent work has been concerned with creating a dialogue between my own music and that of traditional cultures…but it’s fraught with difficulties…I’m motivated by challenges!

SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?

SH: Harrison Birtwistle, not just because we bump into each other at the local garden centre and share a love of plants! His music grounds me – it’s hard to explain.

SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?

SH: Steve Martland. I never knew him and I wish I had.

SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.

SH: In no particular order, and with irritation at the restriction:
Debussy ‘Pelleas et Melisande’,
Messiaen ‘Vingt Regards de l’Enfant Jesus’,
Shostakovitch Violin Concerto No. 1
Karine Polwart ‘The Light on the Shore’
Jeff Buckley ‘Grace’ (the whole album!)
Ligeti ‘Piano Etudes’
Perry Como ‘Angelina’
Harrison Birtwistle ‘Fields of Sorrow’

Can’t chose between the Buckley, the Ligeti and the Debussy…a third of each?

SC: …and a book?

SH: David Lewis-William’s brilliant ‘The Mind in the Cave’, a connection with my work as an archaeologist.

SC: Film?

SH: Can I take the series remake of Battlestar Galactica?

SC: … and a luxury item?

SH:  A piano without a moment’s hesitation. I’ll try and learn some of the Ligeti by ear – I really do like challenges!