Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Composer Series - Savourna Stevenson

Later this month we will be performing the World Premiere of our new commission, Tetra. A four movement piece funded by PRS Foundation's Women Make Music, the Ambache Trust, and the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust. Tetra is written by four female composers, each chosen by a member of the quartet, and we will be finishing our Composer Series by interviewing each of the four composers.

Our first interview is with Scottish harpist and composer, Savourna Stevenson. Savourna's music encompasses everything from large scale orchestral works through to solo harp pieces, with her music being heard everywhere from the BBC through to TV show Sex and the City! Savourna's most recent work for harp (aside from Tetra) is a concerto written for harp virtuoso Catrin Finch, commissioned by Holywell Music, to celebrate 200 years since the invention of the modern pedal harp. We like to think that being a quartet of four pedal harps gives us the opportunity to take this feat of engineering even further, exploiting the extra chromaticism and power that is available through having four of the same instrument.

Image result for Savourna Stevenson As a harpist/composer, what do you take from each discipline to complement and augment the other?
From the harp I get both inspiration and a sense of purpose to my composition. There are many beautiful pieces written especially for the instrument, some well known such as Mozart’s Flute & Harp Concerto and Ravel’s Introduction & Allegro, but music for the harp is generally regarded as a neglected area of repertoire. I hope that my harp music, including my Concerto for Pedal Harp, premiered by Catrin Finch with the Scottish Ensemble in 2012 and now, my movement of Tetra will become valuable additions to the future repertoire for this wonderful instrument.

My affinity with the Impressionist composers has been not only an inspiration behind my harp writing but, in the case of Ravel, has had an influence on my large scale orchestral works.
Although I love writing for the harp, the piano is the instrument I compose at even when I am writing for the harp.

Looking back through history, it is very common for musicians to come from families with generations of musical or artistic heritage. In keeping with this trend, your father, Ronald Stevenson, was also a composer. Have you found it helpful to follow in his footsteps or has it made you more determined to forge your own path? 
My father, Ronald Stevenson died whilst I was writing this new piece so he has been in my thoughts as this music was being created. Ronald was my first teacher and he encouraged my early gift for composition at the piano from the age of 5.

Although I did forge my own career, championing the small Scottish harp, (Clarsach), working within traditional, world music and jazz, my composing career involved me in writing for TV, theatre, film and concert music and in 2001 I studied orchestration with Ian Macpherson, ( Fellow of the Academy of Music London). My father was always a great supporter of my work and although our music may be of quite different styles we shared much in common in our eclectic musical tastes.

Beethoven was famed for taking long walks whilst creating his masterpieces. Do you have a routine to your compositional process and is there any location where you prefer to work?
I like to have peace when I’m writing which is tricky as all three of my children are involved in music - so, to escape the family I like to swim and go to the steam room - ALONE!

Looking at your catalogue of compositions, it seems like you are particularly drawn to music inspired by stories. Is it important to you to incorporate a narrative into each piece, or do you ever compose music without any specific external influence? 
The influences on my music are many and varied. I like to work with the written word as inspiration for my music but not always. Source inspiration for my Concerto for Pedal Harp comes from the great French and Spanish pedal harp traditions and from the jazz harpists of 1930s/40s America. I have also used natural and elemental influences in my writing for both concert pieces and natural history TV documentaries. My current commission, a work for piano and orchestra draws inspiration from two of my favourite composer’s, Gershwin and Ravel.

Your style of composing is rooted in folk, jazz and world music. What is it that draws you to these sounds and do you find that you prefer one style over all others?
I would say that I have come full-circle and that for the past 10 years I have been working mainly in classical music collaborating with and writing for the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, the RSNO, the National Youth Choirs of Scotland, Catrin Finch, the Scottish Ensemble, the Martinu Quartet etc. Working within the traditional, world music and jazz worlds over two or three decades has had an influence on my writing and I hope it brings a freshness and originality to my approach to contemporary classical music. I am certainly passionate about my Scottish cultural roots and hope that my music will continue to speak of my beloved homeland.

How did you find writing Tetra knowing that your movement would be part of a bigger piece? Were there any challenges involved in not knowing what the rest of the piece would be like?
I’ve loved writing this piece. It feels quite exciting and almost like a game, wondering how the other composers will have interpreted Renie’s wonderful theme. The concept of this project is inspiring in itself. I’m sure the end result will incorporate great contrasts in style - but surely variety is the spice of life.

Your movement of Tetra is inspired by Josephine Baker. What was it that drew you to this particular historical figure?
Josephine Baker, dancer, singer, actress and civil- rights activist is a truly inspiring figure from history. I wanted to evoke the era, a favourite era of mine in terms of music. The piece was inspired, in particular by watching the film of Josephine Baker dancing with her own shadow.

Tetra uses the opening theme from Henriette Reni√©’s solo harp work, L√©gende as a motif to link all the four movements together. How did you incorporate this into your composition? 
Renie’s Legende is a masterpiece for the harp and I had the luxury of being able to play it on the harp to really get into the work. I’ve started with the second line of her original theme which I extend into a longer phrase, marked Maestoso, then move into a poignant theme based on the first few notes of her opening theme. I have also used a chromatic motif from later in Renie’s piece and developed it into an extended and exciting passage representing Baker dancing with her shadow.

As a harpist, you know first-hand what works well for the instrument. Did you find any challenges though in the addition of three other harps, or was it an opportunity to expand everything that one harp can do?
Four harps was a bonus for me, especially with what I was trying to achieve chromatically in this piece . I’ve enjoyed trying to write in a truly democratic way, giving each player a chance to shine, tossing the motif from one to another in a call and response fashion suggesting the dancer and her shadow.

What three things would you take with you to a desert island?
If it can’t be my husband, harp manufacturer Mark Norris it will have to be a piano (grand if possible - but may not be allowed due to sheltering possibilities) manuscript paper & pencil.

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