Interview with Cheryl Frances-Hoad

What's the most exciting thing about being a composer writing now, at the beginning of the twentieth century?
I think the fact that one can just write anything one wants, and that there is so much to be inspired by. Everything from the great classical works through jazz and pop inspires me, and I feel very lucky not to have to worry about whether I’m in or out of fashion musically. I don’t know whether this is true, but it also feels like there are unparallelled opportunities to collaborate with all manner of different artists, and people outside of the arts too, which I find really exciting.

Until comparatively recently, audiences listened almost solely to the contemporary classical music of their time. Now that we perform such a broad range of music, do you think the contemporary audience has become more specialised, and does that affect your writing in any way?

To be honest I just write exactly what I want to write. I think if I were to think too much about who it was for, then my writing might become too self conscious. That said, I do really think of the audience and the performers when I compose - I want my music to be satisfying and idiomatic to play, and emotionally engaging to listen to, and I realise not everybody will find it so, but I just have to hope that there are enough people who will. If I didn’t write exactly what I want I think I’d feel I was cheating myself. Obviously in “Five Rackets” there were certain restrictions: the Ping Pong movement only contains open strings or randomly placed notes in the amateur strings etc, and I wanted this work to be accessible and enjoyable for young people to play. But restrictions are often good things, and in any piece you have to create rules otherwise the possibilities would be endless and stifling and you’d never write anything.

If you could go for coffee with any composer born before 1900, who would it be, and what would you ask them?

I think Monteverdi would be very cool to have coffee with, and I’d ask him how he came up with the idea for The Coronation of Poppea. Mind you I might opt for Satie instead, since according to the next question we’d go to the pub instead, or at least have a liquor coffee...

To aid their writing, Beethoven liked his long walks in the Vienna woods, Brahms liked his Austrian lakes, and Satie was fond of the odd absinthe. What does it for you?!? 
Actually, walking is a great one. Cliche alert: I’ve recently taken to bringing notebooks with me when I go out walking because it’s amazing the things that occur to you as soon as you leave the desk and piano. But having said that I recently had a great idea in the gym while blasting myself with grime music, and I’m eternally grateful to David Attenborough for playing a Strauss Waltz on Desert Island Discs the other day - until his third record I had absolutely no idea how I was going to set a big section of the opera I’m currently writing. Basically I think, if you’re tuned in and in that obsessive “my-piece-is-all-that-matters” frame of mind, everything tends to be pertinent and inspiring. But, you know, Satie may have had a point...

Do you have any personality traits that you consider to be peculiar to composers?
Oh dear, I think in some ways I’m probably very stereotypical, if not typical. I never get lonely if there is a piano around, have a massive ego hidden under an unassuming and rather inept manner which I’m not sure if I cultivate or not, am adept at self bribery and self delusion (I have to con myself that I’m writing something unbelievably brilliant, otherwise I’d just end up watching GMTV instead) and spend a lot of time when I do have time to compose putting off composing, and then, on the rare occasions when I have to do something else, I moan that I have no time and all and that all I want to do is compose. I think I’m quite self obsessed also. At parties I get stroppy if people don’t ask questions about my work, because then I don’t have the opportunity to be all self-effacing and modest. I think I need to get out more.

Where did you grow up and did the local landscape have a bearing on your music?
I was born in Southend-on-Sea but moved to the North Essex Countryside when I was 6. But at 8 I went off to the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey and stayed there for 9 years. That certainly affected me in numerous ways. To be honest I think it was more being surrounded by so much music, and playing music that had an influence on my work. I used to play the ‘cello pretty well, and I still very much think from a performer’s perspective when I write. To me the landscape is very inspiring, but not more inspiring than other things, such a poetry, art or science.

What was your most inspiring/memorable musical experience as a young musician growing up?

I won a prize in the Lloyds Bank BBC Young Composer’s Competition in 1996. I wrote a Concertino for Cello, piano, percussion and orchestra, and was just completely blown away by hearing my music played by the BBC Philharmonic. Up until around that point I’d really wanted to be a professional cellist when I grew up, but that experience confirmed that I wanted to write, rather than play. However, having said that, I still remember going to hear a ‘cello concerto in London when I was about 7. I can’t remember who played, or what they played, but apparently I told my mum that that was what I wanted to do, and I still remember that feeling of absolutely knowing that music was for me.

A double piano trio is something of a first - which challenges did this present for you as a composer, and which new opportunities did this combination invite you to explore?

Yes, as far as I know there aren’t any other double piano trios! I may have approached it differently if it was a piece solely for professionals, but my main priority when writing this piece was for there to be a great deal of interaction between the amateur and professional players. So I often thought of the piece as three layers of duos: if for instance at one point there is a melody, counter-melody and accompaniment, it’s likely that thre’ll be one professional player and one amateur player playing each strand, and that within that strand they will be interacting in some way. I see parts of this piece as a study in ensemble playing: the more advanced movements (each of the five movements is suitable for a different Grade in the amateur parts) demand that you really listen and consider your place in the group, rather than simply being technically more difficult. I thought about all aspects of ensemble playing whilst writing the piece and made sure that the amateur parts both had to lead the ensemble at times as well as follow the professionals. I know I learnt a tremendous amount from playing with people with more experience than me when I was the Menuhin School, and this was a big motivation for writing Five Rackets also.

How have you found the experience of writing for student performers both in this piece and in your earlier commission for Chamber Music 2000, the piano quartet, 'Pay Close Attention'?
You know, I’ve absolutely loved it. Being at Menuhin School since I was 8, I grew up with such amazing musicians that I think in hindsight I was a little snobby about writing for people who couldn’t play anything and everything. But I realised a while ago that that was definitely my weakness: that writing with simplicity and directness of musical expression and meaning is really very hard, and that sometimes it’s easier to hide between quadruple-stopped quintuplets than write a good tune that retains your compositional voice even if it doesn’t use notes outside the first position on the violin etc. Good music is good music is good music, and I think it takes a great deal of skill to write music that bring the best out in performers - whether they are able to play all the Paganini Caprices backwards, or whether they just play for fun and don’t have a great technique.

The 'Five Rackets for Trio Relay' is witty - both in terms of the music itself, the choreography and also the textual references throughout the score. Do you feel that a sense of humour constitutes an important part of your compositional personality?!

I certainly do now. I was awfully serious when I was younger (going through my scores recently I found a piece entitled “All is Lost” dedicated to everybody who ever died in a war....). I have written lots of very serious pieces, but, well, I like variety in my music and that includes light and shade. For this piece in particular I wanted lots of humour: I did want it to be approachable and fun to play. I think contemporary music can be presented in an intimidating way sometimes, and I definitely didn’t want that: I’ve described what’s happening a lot in the score, which I hope allows the players more insight into the music and makes some of the stranger bits more accessible (the audience will just have to guess!) When I was writing the piece I spent ages investigating each sport and their various rules and techniques, and everything from the rules of archery, through curling techniques, to the heel-toe-heel-toe action of the 50k walkers finds its way into the score.

Do you feel that music is a reflection of your conscious self - the 'self' which those close to you would describe as Cheryl Frances-Hoad?! Or does your music allow you to access a self which is 'other' in some way?
I think those very close to me would describe my music as me, but I’m not sure actually. When I compose, I really really get into it: I sing my guts out, get ridiculously emotional and generally just go for it. It’s a rather Stanislavskian approach to writing! For me composing is largely about distilling emotion to the nth degree, although of course there’s lots of thought that goes into it too! The idea of anybody actually seeing/hearing me compose fills me with terror (I live in a detached bungalow in the middle of nowhere and can’t compose with anybody else around) so nobody really sees that side of me. I think however my music is just a massively more confident and heart-on-sleeve version of the real me, everything magnified and camped up a bit. At least I hope that’s what it is...

If finance and time were no obstacle (ha ha!), what piece would you write next and where would you go to write it?

Blimey, that’s a good one. I’ve always wanted to write a cello concerto, and there are several operas that I’ve got ideas for too. I would go to write it in a mansion in the Lake District with its own private helipad, so I could nip to Topshop every so often. But in reality I’m unbelievably lucky where I live: I have a room with a piano with a lovely view over the fields, so I’d probably just stay put actually. I’m very aware how fortunate I am, to be able to get up most days and just stay at home noodling away at the piano. It’s a charmed life really, even if I’m unlikely to ever be rolling in it...
What message or advice wild you give to the next generation of composers?
I think just not to give up, and to become very good at self promotion, and to be extremely organised. I remember the first time I had to really promote myself on paper, it felt so wrong. Now I routinely tell everybody how fantastic I am in applications without flinching. If you don’t believe in yourself and your music, well, actually, other people probably will anyway, but if helps if you do too. I think an all consuming passion for writing, even when you absolutely hate it and would rather be working in Tescos is useful too. Also getting used to rejection. I’ve won quite a lot of prizes but that’s largely due to the fact that I’ve entered about 10 times more competitions, at least. Oh, and, major cliche but just to be true to yourself. If you want to whack in a massive C major chord, just do it, and to hell with what anyone else thinks!

What would be your top 5 desert island discs?

“Out of Space” by the Prodigy
Mozart’s Requiem
Britten Canticle No. 1
“Love me or leave me” sung by Nina Simone
Bach’s Cello suite No. 2 in D minor

Can we look forward to any themed attire at the Purcell Room premiere??

Funnily enough, I have been thinking about this A LOT. I already have some very fetching high heeled trainers, a ping pong necklace and a 2012 badge. At the moment it’s a toss up between wearing all the Olympic colours, or a sport themed dress. I have a garden gnome print dress, and I think the gnomes might be fishing. But as far as I’m aware if fishing isn’t an Olympic sport. Much more consideration is needed actually, and I’ve only got two months. Crikey, I thought writing the piece was stressful...Did I mention in the revised edition of Five Rackets there are mandatory sports related costumes for the performers?

You can find out more about Cheryl through her website, and read her blog about her new opera, "Amy's Last Dive" here