Talking Heads: Emily Howard

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Meet Emily Howard, the featured composer at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival. We will hear four works from her impressive canon – a new orchestral piece, sphere, receiving its UK premiere together with Magnetite in a program from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Mark Wigglesworth. This concert comes a day after Afference, her string quartet, which will be played by the Piatti Quartet.

Her biggest work to date, however, is a new opera, To See The Invisible. Developed with writer Selma Dimitrijevic and director Dan Ayling, it will receive three performances at the head of the festival. Arcana was able to chat with Emily to get her thoughts on the new pieces. As is traditional, however, I began by asking for her earliest recollections of classical music.

“I was lucky that it was always around me since I was young,” she recalls. “My dad, a medic, also played the cello. I was brought up in the Wirral, near Liverpool, and I remember going to see the Liverpool Mozart Orchestra, and really loving it. I was taken to operas as well, and because my mum is a pianist too, I was around music all the time.”

Howard began learning her music in a traditional route, but soon realised composition was the discipline for her. “When I was really young I started learning the cello. I was never so good at very regular and disciplined practice – even then I was always more interested in exploring new sounds and tones. Composing came naturally in that way, at the age of eight or nine years old, and what I really wanted to do was write a piece for orchestra. I made a piece for the cello, and transcribed for orchestra. I wrote it all out and the composer/conductor Guy Woolfenden, who was a great influence, was really kind and got the orchestra to play it through!

Fast forward to 2016, when Emily’s Torus (Concerto for Orchestra) enjoyed its world premiere at the BBC Proms in 2016, her ‘home’ orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. It made a strong impression on those present (including yours truly). She declares herself “really pleased, overwhelmed” with the reaction. “The piece has won a British Composer Award since then, too. You can’t tell necessarily how these things are going to go but I was absolutely delighted!”

To See The Invisible is her biggest work to date, and she considers the challenges in writing such a substantial piece for the stage. “It lasts about eighty minutes in total. To be honest I have no idea how I managed to write something that long, but I suppose you’ve got the narrative and texts, which have helped to extend it to a length similar to that of Mahler’s Third Symphony. I had worked with Selma before on Zátopek!, a mini-opera I completed several years ago. We have been talking ever since, and with our director Dan Ayling, the approach has been truly collaborative, making it a very exciting and enjoyable experience. Composing abstract music is not a sociable activity necessarily, and I have found that throughout the opera process, it really helps when you share ideas with your creative partners, and take on board their viewpoints, often very different. Collaboration is a wonderful thing, and it does change you.”

The opera takes its inspiration from a short science fiction story by Robert Silverberg. “For ages Selma and I had been talking about writing an opera based on the experience of a person who is shunned by a society. The central character would be ignored, rather like being sent to Coventry. While Selma was writing the libretto, her brother said about the Silverberg story in which a character is sentenced to a ‘Year of Invisibility’ for ‘a crime of coldness’. It turned out that Selma had been partially remembering the story and we read it and the opera became an adaption. We were really knocked out by the Silverberg.”

She describes the setting in more detail. “It is a sort of musical deuce, where this person is somehow different, and the story plays on the isolation of people who do not fit the system and are excluded from society. Therefore I wanted The Invisible, the opera’s protagonist, to be vocally distinct from the other characters and I chose for them to be represented by baritone and soprano voice simultaneously, particularly in the character’s private moments.” The singers are required to have great flexibility and dexterity here. “The soprano and baritone have really wide ranges, together they are a meta-voice portraying an emotional journey, with the baritone often a lot higher than the soprano.”

Musically, the opera is about collisions between The Invisible’s world and the World of Warmth. “I have intentionally set up contrasting sound worlds with The Invisible’s language consisting of musical extremes, ranging from ethereal to anguished. The World of Warmth is much more traditional and tempered in feel.” The opera looks beneath the surface of these different worlds. “With the World of Warmth, we are all asking is this really the world of warmth?”

One of the many intriguing elements of Howard’s work is its fascination with the relationship between music and mathematics. This is perhaps best captured in a recent work, The Music of Proof.

A collaboration with mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, it began while Howard was writing another – Torus (Concerto for Orchestra) – itself a musical work influenced by mathematics. “I met Marcus through a friend when I was writing Torus, and we had a coffee at the Royal Albert Hall. We really connected about the piece, and about the doughnut shape of the hall’s construction. He immediately said the Royal Albert Hall is torus-shaped (shaped like a doughnut), and since then we have been meeting and working together on various projects.”

“We presented The Music of Proof at New Scientist Live in 2017, featuring a newly composed work entitled Four Musical Proofs and a Conjecture premiered by the Piatti Quartet, five miniatures for string quartet. Each miniature is related to a different style of mathematical proof and in order to compose them, I had asked myself the question “What if I approach writing music as though I am proceeding with the construction of a mathematical proof?” This was a completely different way of working for me and certainly helped me to brush up on some mathematical proofs I had all but forgotten! In the show, Marcus explains the proof, and I explain what I did in response – I have found very different ways to translate aspects of these proofs into music, and then you get to hear the music. We’ve recently repeated the show in Sheffield at Music in the Round.”

The success of the collaboration has filtered through to Howard’s tuition work at the Royal Northern College of Music. “At the RNCM, we have started PRiSM (which stands for Centre for Practice & Research in Science & Music), and we are encouraging collaborations between music students, scientists and mathematicians. I feel that there are real links to be explored: for me both music and maths are about pattern-making.”

“As a composition student, I had wanted to take ideas from mathematics and science and create musical shapes with them, and to begin with I found this difficult. As my musical craft has grown, I feel as though I’ve become more successful at translating ideas from mathematics into musical ideas on which to base my work. For instance, when I created Torus, I imagined I was on the surface of the shape, travelling around and around in one direction, and encountering different landscapes as I went. Around 14 minutes into the work, there is a significant shift and a complete change of musical soundworld, and this is where I had instead imagined a rotation in the other direction. So considering mathematical shapes in this way does help me to define musical shapes and structure in my compositions.”

Returning to the Aldeburgh Festival, Afference – completed in 2014 – represents a significant foray into chamber music. “That was a very difficult piece to write”, she admits. “I had written several orchestral pieces and I really wanted to write some chamber music. I spent ages on it and it’s helped me a lot to write that piece. Perhaps with chamber music in general and certainly with this work, everything feels much sparser and I find that every note, every gesture has a poignant significance. The Piatti Quartet are playing it at the festival, and it will be very interesting to hear them perform another of my works – they’re such fantastic players. They’ve put in an incredible amount of work on the piece.”

Howard is naturally delighted to be given such a prominent role in this year’s festival. “It’s an honour, I’m really proud of being Composer In Residence, alongside esteemed colleagues such as Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Simon Holt, and of course it’s Benjamin Britten’s festival. It’s a wonderful festival and a magical place – especially for opera. In fact we developed To See The Invisible in Aldeburgh, so the piece has grown up there!”

For more information on Emily Howard, visit the composer’s website

Pierre-Laurent Aimard – Birdsong at Aldeburgh

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Pierre-Laurent Aimard (photo Marco Borggreve)

This will be the eighth and final season of the Aldeburgh Festival to have Pierre-Laurent Aimard as its Artistic Director. To mark the occasion, the pianist has curated some unusual and intriguing concerts, and for the final year these revolve around his first instrument.

There will be a complete performance of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, but the event generating even more discussion is a performance of the complete Catalogue d’oiseaux, the collection of pieces for piano completed by Olivier Messiaen in 1958, the composer looking to directly replicate a rich variety of birdsong.

Aimard is presenting all of these, some 3 hours’ worth of music, in Snape and surrounding locations on Sunday, June 19. The day begins before first light, at 3:30am, with the audience given the opportunity to enjoy the dawn chorus, before Aimard begins his own performance just an hour later.

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Le traquet stapazin (Black-eared Wheatear) – the first of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux to be performed in Aimard’s sequence.

During the day the music will move out and about, taking in RSPB Minsmere, before returning to the Britten Studio in Snape Maltings, where the final performance is at 11:00pm. Pierre-Laurent generously allowed Arcana time to talk about the day of birds, his experiences with Messiaen around the music itself, his thoughts on the festival and his plans for the future.

When did you first visit Aldeburgh, and what were your first impressions?

I first visited Aldeburgh a certain amount of time ago, long before I took over the direction of the festival. Like everybody I was impressed by the magic of the landscape, and also by the acoustic at Snape Maltings, not to mention the open-mindedness of the audience. These things don’t change!

What gave you the idea of performing the ‘Catalogue d’oiseaux’ in this way? Is it because Aldeburgh lends itself as a venue for music about nature?

I played my first bird pieces when I was twelve, so it’s a long story of music that has always been very close to me. I loved those pieces from the start, but I always wondered how can we present them to make sense? The sonorities in each of them are so different. Does it make sense to play them in recital? I’m not sure, and so I think we have found the most genuine, natural environment for this music.

Have you been rehearsing at the appointed concert times, such as 4:30am?!

I played the pieces recently in Tokyo, and they were day concerts – so I realised that when you play at midday there it is like 4:00am in the Europe. Now I think I’m trained!

How else have you prepared for this performance? Have you been walking in the reeds around Snape?

I have been walking of course, at all kinds of moments, both day and night. The impact of the place, and the nature of how the music sounds, is very strong. I do feel that we have picked all the right locations for this, and especially in the case of Minsmere, which is absolutely the right location. Messiaen loved and studied birdsong, so there is nothing better.

I am amazed by the number of places there are in the UK dedicated to the observation of birds, and the number of people who are devoted to them. Clearly this is a thing where mankind realises what can be lost, and I think this is an important thing to consider in the performance.

It is great there is this increase of interest in nature, and I think Messiaen, as a sort of prophet, felt this keenly. He was seen as foolish and crazy when he wrote the Catalogue d’oiseaux in the late 1950s, and he was a lost, isolated man as a result.

However I notice a big difference in the listeners between then and now. I performed the whole set in Dresden recently, with two short breaks, and there was a fabulous level of concentration from the audience. It shows how artists can challenge people.

There are many levels of richness in the music itself, exploring the relationship between man and nature, and showing the new language in the 1950s that Messiaen found, in sound vocabulary. He didn’t do it with new innovations such as serial composition, but with his birdsongs.

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L’Alouette lulu (Woodlark)– the last of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux to be heard in Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s sequence.

What did you learn from studying with Messiaen himself, or his wife Yvonne Loriod, about the ‘Catalogue d’oiseaux’?

Studying with Messiaen was like hearing the original language, and you can sense it in their fingers. It was just like he imagined and wrote the music, and he is the source – so it was an incredible privilege to experience this music from him. He loved to explain everything and he spoke a lot about each piece. He would imitate the birds with onomatopoeia, describing their habits as well as the songs they sang. Even the silences in this music should be just right, and alive.

Do you plan to record the complete ‘Catalogue d’Oiseaux’?

I would love to at some point. I have recorded small parts within my albums for Deutsche Grammophon on the music of Liszt, and Messiaen, but I would love to record it in full.

You have also programmed the complete Mikrokosmos to be played at the festival. Do you think this will especially appeal to those players who have encountered this music of Bartók as part of their learning?

The last Sunday will be my very last day as Director of the Aldeburgh Festival, so I wanted it to reflect the priorities we have shared. Discovery is a big part of that, so we finish with the sixth book of a huge project. The second priority is shared pedagogical progress, and discovering the shared accessible world of Bartók’s project. All kinds of pianists are taking part, so it is the principal of sharing with a community spirit. On the Saturday we will include new pieces alongside them.

These are the priorities – creation, pedagogy and community, the culmination of working with a marvellous team for 8 years.

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The view from Aldeburgh Music (c) Philip Vile

Do you see the Aldeburgh Festival as a unique institution?

Yes, both in its range and originality. I was the exception but I am an interpreter that loves creation. Jonathan Reekie, who chose me, saw an interpreter who was not from the UK, and saw that as a way to open up the festival. I try to be an interpreter, and not to stick to one religion. I have treated it rather like a composer, and I try to have a dialogue between ‘religions’ or ‘composers’.

Jonathan chose me because I could bring a presence from outside of England, and an eye on the UK artists that is not the same. That was the wish, to open up the game.

If you are in charge of a big legacy you are not serving it well by simply copying it. Clearly you have to try to bring in complements, differences, and sometimes controversy, to help it progress. I have looked to present the music of Britten in different contexts, and this year I chose Tippett, for the links of friendship, harmony, contradiction and consideration.

Do you think it is important to take classical music beyond those who already know it with the festival?

I think we have been very lucky with the team and community of programmers. This is not only a tradition but a necessity in the special way that artistry should be shared with many participants.

What are your plans for the future, post-Aldeburgh?

With my future plans I am sure of one thing. I loved doing this job, though mentally it took a lot of time and attention. I will be delighted to invest that back in to the piano, but I will have many activities other than that, which you will find out about!

Looking back on your time with the festival, what has been your most satisfying achievement?

It is not so important for me to think of personal achievements, but it is important that there were memorable moments for people watching. As far as I could analyse the comments, I think the festival has changed, but has stayed alive and continued to move forward. Fundamental elements have been retained and that was important, to respect the identity of an institution the best I could, but to have another level of reflection and excitement, to avoid a routine, provincial approach and sterility. I think we can say we have achieved that.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard will perform the complete Catalogue d’oiseaux at Aldeburgh Festival locations throughout Sunday 19 June. Tickets are sold out, but BBC Radio 3 will be broadcasting the whole experience, beginning here and ending here

For more information on Pierre-Laurent Aimard, visit his website