Meet the Composer: Yazz Ahmed

After a year spent pushing their music in new directions, four of our LSO Soundhub Phase I composers will be presenting their work in a showcase concert at LSO St Luke's on 19 June. Here we meet one of them, Yazz Ahmed...

Tell us a little about your background as a composer

I first studied composition with Scott Stoman while on the postgraduate jazz course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (GSMD). After graduating, I began writing for my very first band – it was a quintet made up of musicians I studied with at the GSMD. My first compositions were very influenced by jazz, but it wasn't until I started rediscovering my Bahraini roots that I began to find my true voice as a trumpeter and composer. I began experimenting with Arabic scales and rhythms, fusing them with jazz harmony and improvisation, opening my ears to a whole new sound world. My first album reflects this journey. It is a collection of original compositions and improvisations, exploring the sounds and rhythms of my Arabic heritage, revisiting the memories from my early childhood in Bahrain, and are contrasted with pieces reflecting the classic British jazz from the 1950s and 60s.

A year after the release of my debut, Finding My Way Home, I was selected by the Tomorrow’s Warriors to participate as a performer and composer, in a cultural exchange project, Interplay, where I collaborated with jazz artists from the UK and Sweden. The following year, in 2013, I was selected by Serious for their Take Five artist development scheme. During the Take Five programme, I was given some funding towards a few lessons with composer/arranger, John Warren, who's teaching and ideas have been a great inspiration to me. I was later commissioned by Serious and EFG London Jazz Festival to write a piece for the London Jazz Festival which was premiered with my Hafla band at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in November 2014. This piece, Whispering Gallery, was inspired by the sounds of the Whispering Gallery in St Paul’s Cathedral. This was the first time I had experimented with field recordings, chopping them up, making loops and manipulating the sounds on Logic to create something completely new.At a Recording Session for 'Finding My Way Home''Yazz Ahmed at the recording session for 'Finding My Way Home'

2015 was very busy for me as composer and performer. Earlier this year, I was funded by the Tomorrow’s Warriors and PRSF Women Make Music to write a suite which was premiered at the Women Of The World festival on International Women’s Day for an all female ensemble, the Nu Civilisation Orchestra, at the Purcell Room, London. The piece was inspired by strong, positive female role-models and to celebrate their courage and the changes they have made, one of whom was Malala Yousafzai. I later received a second commission from the Tomorrow’s Warriors. The compositions were for the Tomorrow’s Warriors Youth Jazz Orchestra and drew on tales of migration, family traditions, cultural mysteries and myths in a celebration of cultural diversity and the changing face of post-war Britain.

I was also awarded a jazz fellowship from Birmingham Jazzlines who supported me during the course of a year in writing a major new suite, Alhaan Al Siduri, which was performed in October 2015 at the CBSO Centre, Birmingham. The suite was inspired by the work songs of the Bahraini pearl divers and the wedding songs of the women drumming groups of Bahrain. I began writing this music after a trip I had made to Bahrain, last October, to record the pearl divers sing their traditional work songs in a private concert. During my stay I also did some research on the songs of the women groups, rushing around bookshops looking for wedding song lyrics and poems, listening to the many CDs given to me from family and friends, and enjoying a rare treat of my grandfather singing songs from his own wedding day. I brought my field recordings home, and with the help from voice sculptor, Jason Singh, I created new sounds, loops and textures, which formed the basis of many of the pieces and shaped the creative process of composing the suite. Five of the movements include fragments of these field recordings. The traditional Bahraini grooves, spliced with jazz harmonies and improvisations, create a contemporary sound inspired by the music of my first home.

What was it that attracted you to the Soundhub scheme?

What attracted me about the Soundhub scheme was the incredible opportunities to work with world-class classical musicians and to receive the support from a mentor and of LSO St Luke’s. I saw this as a new and wonderful experience for me because, coming to composition at a later stage, I received little compositional support and guidance during my formal education, where I was focusing on my development as a performer.

The chance to work with elite classical performers I thought would be a fascinating experience and I relish to see both what they can bring to my music, in terms of expression and precision, but also hope that my material will push and challenge their own musical comfort zones. The access to Soundhub resources, including the LSO musicians, rehearsal space, and technical equipment, is something that would be very difficult for me to afford on my own. So, this scheme will be invaluable in affording me the opportunity to realise my creative ambitions for this project. The guidance of a mentor, somebody to oversee my composition, to challenge me, to encourage me to explore new techniques, to push me to reach into areas I am unfamiliar with, all these things I saw as a golden opportunity and again would not be something I could easily fund from my own finances. 

Are there any particular themes ideas or techniques you explore in your music?

I have always been fascinated by Arabic music and the deep emotions expressed through the use of quarter-tones, and since meeting French-Lebanese trumpeter, Ibrahim Maalouf, I have been inspired to develop my own music using these haunting sounds to create a style that is contemporary, rather than purely traditional, and true to me.

Recently, I have been developing a unique quarter-tone flugelhorn with instrument maker, Leigh Mckinney, founder of Eclipse Trumpets. This new instrument will enable me to play these microtones I have been wanting to play for a long time, so I’m very excited about this. I will actually be writing for this instrument during my Soundhub year along with violin, bass clarinet, marimba, Arabic percussion, and also incorporating the use of electronic effects both to modify the sounds of the individual instruments and as a compositional device.

Since working with art-rock band, These New Puritans, and voice sculpture, Jason Singh, I’ve been experimenting with field recordings - manipulating the recorded sounds, creating loops, textures and motifs to not only use as inspiration for composing but making backing tracks that weave into live performances. I’ve also been enjoying working with electronics in live performances to effect my trumpet sound. I use the Korg Kaoss Pad 3 and a Boss Vocal Processor which enables me to create whole new sound worlds live. An example of sound manipulation can be seen in this video of me practising on my Kaoss Pad. I use this speech in my composition La Saboteuse.

What other projects are you currently working on?

Along with my Soundhub composition, I am currently working on my second album, exploring further the soundscapes I have been developing since the first. The album will feature my two bands, some duets with vibraphonist, Lewis Wright, and a collaboration with Swedish guitarist, Samuel Hallkvist.

I’m also planning to record my Polyhymnia suite next year with the Nu Civilisation Orchestra. 

download video

Listen to '2857', an excerpt from Polyhymnia 


You can find out more about Yazz Ahmed on her website, Soundcloud or YouTube pages, or by coming to the Soundhub Phase I Showcase at LSO St Luke's on Sunday 19 June 2016.