Ahead of the world premiere of her new work Antisphere, we caught up with composer, professor and LSO Panufnik Scheme alumna Emily Howard to talk about her writing, influences, and being a composer in the 21st century.
What's a typical day in the life of Emily Howard, composer?
I usually start work very early, mainly because I find that the best ideas come in the morning. I have to feed the cat, after that I’m allowed some coffee and then I read something to stimulate my brain. It could be mathematics, philosophy, poetry, anything. And then I start writing. Often in the afternoon I do something else – I might read, go for a walk or go the gym. When I’m in composing mode I’m quite rooted to my desk, so it’s nice to get away from that. There’s a hill just outside that has a really fantastic view across the Peak District. Often in the evening I'll go out there.
Then one day you hear you have been commissioned by the Barbican to write for Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO. How did that feel?
It was an amazing email to receive, 'Would I like to write a piece for the LSO conducted by Sir Simon Rattle?' It was one of those wonderful moments when you jump around the room and say, ‘yes, I really would like to do that!’. It’s just over ten years since my experience on the LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme. I've had time to mature and to have written so much music. Now to go back – it’s an opportunity to return but to have grown, and I'm really looking forward to hearing the new piece.
How do you start writing a new piece?
At the start of a piece I have a huge moment of brainstorming. I collect ideas (there are usually too many) and at some point I find I need to just decide on a few ideas to use. That’s when the hard work begins. Often I will then set up a strict framework based on algorithmic processes for working with these musical ideas until there comes a point when I then work much more freely. There are usually a couple of moments where somehow it crystallises in my head, and in those moments I need to be completely focused. There are also always moments where you feel slightly doubtful, but you just have to learn that that is part of the process. In fact, it wouldn’t be right if you never worried about it.
'I always feel that a piece is made from all of the things you’ve thought about before, a collision of all the ideas in your head and more.'
Where do you find inspiration when you are composing?
I love writing music that’s influenced particularly by maths and science, but also other things: poetry, experience of life. I've read a lot. I used to play chess a lot. I love nature – my cat is an inspiration. She’s called Ada after Ada Lovelace and she's been known to walk along my piano keys. I managed to capture it on video once and thought I might use the tune at some point. If you’re working on something important, she usually sits on it.
When I’m composing, all of these experiences can combine in the piece. It makes this kind of tangle in my brain, and it’s about putting that in some way onto a page for others to hear. It means that sometimes I might look back and think that a musical idea did come from a mathematical concept, but it combined with an idea that I had from a poetic source or an image. I always feel that a piece is made from all of the things you’ve ever thought about before, a collision of all the ideas in your head and more.
You’ve mentioned maths and science, what is your background there?
I was fascinated by science and mathematics from an early age. I did A levels – sciences primarily – and I was encouraged to study science at University. I did that and loved mathematics and computer science, but I also missed having lots of time for music.
After I graduated I went back home to the North-West of England. I began teaching – mathematics, science, teaching strings and choirs – and dedicating serious amounts of time to composing. A year or so later I went to the Royal Northern College of Music to study composition at masters level, and after that I was at the University of Manchester to study for a PhD in composition; it was at this time I also participated in the LSO Panufnik scheme. During my PhD, one of the things I really wanted to do was put ideas from the mathematics and computer science that I’d learned as an undergraduate into my music. Over time I’ve become better at taking ideas and translating them into music.
What do you think is the role of a composer in the 21st century?
I think it’s different for different people. Some people comment on society in a very extrovert way and some people are much more subtle with what they’re doing. I think your role is to say something about what's happening around you, but it's up to the artist how visible that is. Personally, I think that everything goes. With my music currently, most often I'm overtly responding to artificial intelligence and algorithms, mathematical shapes and structures.
'I think it can be helpful not to define yourself musically. Perhaps this could make it easier to reach different audiences? … I would love it if everyone had access to all music.'
And is it true what we read, that classical music is becoming less popular?
It’s difficult for me to say whether classical music is becoming less popular as a whole. When I’m not sitting at my desk I’m often based at the Royal Northern College of Music where I’m lucky enough to work with many young, up-and-coming composers. Contemporary music is thriving there alongside all types of music including popular music and traditional classical music. It’s a very healthy place to be. People can mix and you get all types of different influences. I love the classical music of the past and I really do hope that we try to find new ways to reach other audiences with classical music, as well as with all kinds of contemporary music. I would love it if everyone had access to all music.
I also think I wouldn’t define myself as a classical composer; I would call myself a contemporary composer. I think it can be helpful not to define yourself musically. Perhaps this could make it easier to reach different audiences?
Can you tell us about your new piece Antisphere?
It's the third in a triptych of pieces influenced by mathmatical shapes and geometries alongside a piece called sphere and another called Torus. The idea for Antisphere came when speaking with my colleague, mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. We were discussing Torus and the positive curvature of the sphere and he said, ‘have you thought about the opposite of that?’.
So what actually is an antisphere?
Difficult to say! Think of a sphere which is everywhere positively curved. Then try to imagine a shape that is the complete opposite of this – everywhere negatively curved.
What can we expect to hear in this piece?
I like to use extreme moments of very, very loud or very, very quiet. I think the LSO are so fantastic at making these changes. When I knew I was writing for them I thought, ‘I’m going to make these shapes in the music that go from one extreme to the other’. My music is very strongly influenced by shapes; how each moment relates to another is of great importance in the work. I’ve been interested in negative curvature and how it can translate into music. So you might hear lots of nearly familiar musical objects, but they might feel slightly shrunken in ways. It’s almost like you are hearing them from a different dimension. That’s what I’m after.
But I think it’s important not to tell the audience how to listen to a piece of music. Everyone has had their own experience in life and their own experience of music. When a new piece is put out there, each person will have a different experience of the piece. I’ve had moments where performers and audience members have said things to me about my piece and they’re things that I hadn’t thought about myself. That is a very exciting experience, to put something out there and have people react in different ways.