Monday, 13 April 2015

Composer Series - Harriet Adie

Summer is fast approaching, as is the 28 May World Premiere of our new commission by composers Nicola LeFanu, Alissa Firsova, Savourna Stevenson and Ayanna Witter-Johnson. We still have a few interviews to come in our composer series though, and this one is with our second resident composer, Harriet Adie.

In recent years Harriet has taken up the baton of chief arranger for the quartet, egged on and inspired by fellow harpist/composer/quartet member Eleanor Turner. Together the two girls (who first met aged 15 at the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music) have arranged and composed upwards of 40 pieces for 4 Girls 4 Harps to play, and recently set up their own publishing company Wild Bird Publications.

Harriet is a mother of two young children and juggles her time between performing with 4 Girls 4 Harps, composing and arranging, and looking after her family. In addition to her numerous arrangements, she has written two original pieces for 4G4H. Sun, Moon and Stars (2004) is a musical memory of her life spent growing up in Oman, in the Middle East. It is an early marker of her compositional style, full of toccata-like punctuation and a love of intervals of a 4th, 7th and 9th. It was recorded by 4G4H in 2009 on their debut CD, Fireworks and Fables and you can listen to it here. Elemental (2012) was written whilst she was pregnant with her first child and has been a favourite with the quartet ever since! A substantial piece, Harriet views it as her 'coming of age' work and the piece that she is most proud of. You can listen to a live performance of Elemental here.

You grew up in Oman which provided a vivid inspiration for Sun Moon and Stars.  What else has inspired your compositions?

I am inspired by nature, colour, myths, philosophical ideas (by which I refer to my own pondering rather than learned tomes). Sometimes very specific, random images such as the movement of a playground swing! I once wrote a solo harp piece Half? which was inspired by the concept of whether a glass is half empty or half full.

Elemental was completed only one week before you were due to give birth to your first child in 2012, do you work best under pressure?

I think I probably do the actual work best under pressure, but it is important to have plenty of time to mull over the ideas behind a composition. The ideas behind Elemental were germinating for about two years before I actually started to write the music!

Tell us about the story of Elemental, why you wrote it and what it is about.

Elemental is based on the four elements: Earth, Wind, Water and Fire. Each movement illustrates something about the individual element. Earth is the story of a group of gnomes journeying through a mountain, and Water is a portrait of ripples on a pond created by leaves falling on its surface. I wrote it because I couldnt not write it. By this I mean that the idea had been growing quietly for some time until I got to the point where I felt it had to be put in to musical form. I was very lucky to have a ready-made group there in the form of 4 Girls 4 Harps waiting to perform it for me!

Having already written Sun, Moon and Stars did you approach writing Elemental differently?

Definitely. In the eight years since I wrote Sun, Moon and Stars (2004), I had written several other original works for harp and various other instruments. More importantly I had done a huge number of arrangements for 4G4H which were a fantastic training ground, both for how to divide up parts for four harps, but also as an opportunity to study compositional process close up. When I wrote Elemental, I was able to put this knowledge and experience into good use. It is a much tighter piece in terms of structure than Sun, Moon and Stars which was much freer, and I think it is more effective as a result. I was also better equipped to develop my ideas which led to a much more substantial piece.

How do you feel being a harpist affects the way you write for the instrument compared to how you write for other instruments?

I much prefer writing for the harp as it is what I know. Whenever I have written for other instruments I always worry that my lack of first-hand knowledge of how they are played will result in a piece which, whilst it might sound great, is a real headache for the player to perform. Having said that, I do love the options that other instruments provide, such as the power to sustain notes for a long period of time, or greater chromaticism.

Do you feel that your quartet work is influenced by 4G4H. Do you write something imagining it would be played by a certain member and has the group influenced the path of the composition in any way?

The quartet definitely influences the way I write pieces for us, however the path of the composition has always been dictated by the music and inspiration behind it. Working so closely with a group results in an in-depth knowledge of each players strengths and weaknesses. When allocating parts in both arrangements and original works I always have the individual player in mind. For example, Keziah loves to play quite cheeky sounding melodies and Eleanor is fantastically strong both in terms of sound and her attack. I love dreamy melodic lines and playing harmonics, and Elizabeth has a wonderfully resonant middle register to her harp which means that she can really push a melodic line in this area through other higher textures.

What's the one tip you, being both a harpist and composer, would like to share with other composers out there writing for the harp?

Arrange other peoples music! In past centuries composers would learn their craft by copying out the popular pieces of the time. They would learn style, structure and technique by doing this, and then be able to develop, extend and modify it to suit their own individual style. I know that I have learnt more in the years I have spent arranging than I ever could have by just writing my own pieces. Separately, one of the things I always have to strike a balance with is the importance of the music I want to create versus what is realistic and comfortable to perform on the harp. In a world where rehearsal and practise time is often far too short, it is important to bear in mind that a piece has to be performable or it will struggle to be heard beyond the first performance. Having said that, there have definitely been more than a few occasions where the music has won through for me.

Have you another idea simmering away somewhere for another quartet piece? Or anywhere you would love one of your pieces to be performed?

I would love more harpists to hear my music. I think I will always be drawn to write for the harp – in fact I can’t think of a single composition in the last 10 years that does not have harp in it! – and I would love to hear other people perform and interpret my creations. Funnily enough, I was driving back at about midnight from a recent 4G4H concert, and thinking of ideas for a new solo piece based on the idea of Time: the concept of there being an appropriate time to do different things such as love, protect, relax, inspire and enjoy. Perhaps a suite of short movements!

What piece (for any instrument) do you most wish you had written?

A few years ago I began to draft a piece for harp and oboe inspired by the book Jonathan Livingstone Seagull by Richard Bach. It never really got off the ground though as I couldnt seem to create the music that I wanted to suit the narrative (perhaps I need the pressure of an imminent birth to focus my mind!). It is such a beautiful and truly inspiring story, and I would love to write it in the future.

What three things would you take to a desert island?

My husband Ruari and two children, Freddie and Beatrice. Fingers crossed it is an island with coconuts on though, as otherwise my failure to take anything practical will mean we will starve!