Composer Hannah Kendall discusses unexpected instruments, creolising sounds and the inspirations behind her new piece for the LSO, O flower of fire.
‘I take influence from lots of literature and poetry for my music. I am particularly inspired by the works of Martin Carter, who was an incredible Guyanese Caribbean writer and a political activist, which is something that speaks to me very deeply. He speaks incredibly well about the situation of the Caribbean and its relationship to Europe and the plantations. And so it really helped me to work out what I might want to say in my music. He, in particular, has been a very, very important influence.
Through my music, I’m usually trying to evoke or even provoke various different emotions and feelings. That’s certainly the case with O flower of fire, which is a piece about faith and worship – two subjects that probably evoke quite strong feelings for most people – and more specifically about the wrestle of faith.
The Inspiration Behind O flower of fire
I was approached with the commission to write for the London Symphony Orchestra over two years ago, so it’s been quite a while in coming to realisation, but it’s been incredible having that time to think about what I might want to write about. I knew that I wanted to somehow tackle quite a meaty subject matter within this work, because I knew that it would be at least 20 minutes long – quite substantial, and I would have the time and space to really explore some new aspects in my music.
The inspiration for O flower of fire comes from a poem called Voices by Martin Carter, a Guyanese Caribbean poet and political activist whose works I have come back to many, many times. That’s because a lot of my recent research has been on invocation in music and on the plantations, in particular, and the coming together of many different faiths in those situations. In the poem itself, Carter is exploring many different creation stories – Christianity, Yoruba and other ancient and indigenous faiths of Guyana. There are substantial indigenous communities there. And so it worked really well with what I’ve been trying to do through my music recently. That is, trying to explore syncretic situations, which essentially means the transformative results of what happens when many different people, communities and faiths come together in one place.
In this piece, there are some unexpected instrumentation aspects. In my music recently, I have been incorporating harmonicas and music boxes into my soundworld, the harmonica specifically because it is an instrument that’s associated with the Afro diaspora. I’ve been really interested in trying to creolise sounds within my music. By that I mean blending soundworlds that are of the European – for example, the symphony orchestra – with instruments that are typically associated with the Afro Diaspora. For me, the harmonica, with its connections to the blues, is quite a poignant symbol.
So, in O flower of fire, I ask seven players to play two harmonicas at the same time. I have found that to be really effective, because you can put together varying keys, and then if you ask multiple players to play different keys, it creates this really beautiful and meditative soundworld and space, especially when everyone is breathing at their own different rates.
Combined with that there is the tinkling of music boxes. I think it creates this unexpected beauty. Then the traditional instruments of the brass section come in, but they are playing multiphonics, being asked to perform in a way that they might not ordinarily in a symphony orchestra.
I’m really working with trying to blend together all of these different and possibly unexpected sounds.’
There are two prepared harps in the piece, or I would say ‘creolised’. They have malleable dreadlock cuffs restricting the strings, and by being prepared in this way, it changes their sound to something unexpected. It’s only a few strings that are prepared in this way, but it means that we get to hear some instances of traditional harp sounds with the unpredictability of these new sounds. That’s something that is quite difficult as a composer, because you have to release this idea not knowing how it might sound. It’s terrifying, but the results are quite striking.
Using Music Boxes
I would particularly encourage audience members to listen out for the main central section, which is called ‘the whole sky is dying’ – a line from Carter’s poem. In this section 15 music boxes play by themselves.
The first time I ever used a music box, it used a transcription of an African-American spiritual. I had wanted to draw aspects of the Afro diaspora into my music in an organic way, but I didn’t really feel as though I could talk very openly about it. So I thought if I brought this in through music boxes, it would be a distraction technique – the listener would think, ‘Oh, it’s quite a sweet childlike sound. How beautiful.’ But, actually, the message through the transcription was incredibly deep, heavy, and poignant.
It was quite a eureka moment – I remember it was very late at night, and the music boxes came as a solution to something that I was trying to work out in my music, where I wanted to talk about subjects, but felt as though I couldn’t really bring them forward through my music at the time. That’s where it started, with one very small music box, and then it has grown from there. I’ve also used famous classical tunes by Beethoven and Mozart. I wanted to recognise the great masters of Classical music, the composers who I love, and to somehow make this link that the music they wrote was written at the time of the establishment of the plantations.
Because music boxes continue and repeat tirelessly, they are this incredible symbol. They wind down, decay and kind of melt into other musical aspects, my musical aspects, my music. But then you can wind them up again, and start that connection and cyclical nature. That’s why I love them, and that’s why I keep using them. Plus I think they just sound really, really beautiful.
Working with the LSO
It’s incredible to be able to work with the musicians of the LSO. This is an Orchestra that I’ve known and loved forever. I’m a Londoner born and bred, and I grew up coming to hear the LSO with my school, with my family – I’ve been seeing some of the players perform for most of my life. It’s almost unbelievable to be in a position knowing that they will be performing this piece that has been such an important part of my creative life for the past few years.
The thing I love most about being a composer is working with all the incredible different musicians. I appreciate so much having good creative relationships with different ensembles and individual musicians, and being able to work through and work out new things that I might be trying to do in my music. Having this incredible opportunity to write this substantial work and to be so open to the new sounds and the different aspects that I wanted to draw into the piece, it is the most incredible thing.’
The commission for O flower of fire is generously supported by The Boltini Trust