As we release a new EP of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s ‘Excelsus’ for solo cello, we thought Thomas Carroll should have the chance to interview the composer, who happens to be his childhood school-friend, on the work he’s had to practice so hard…
TC: At what point did you decide to become a composer and did it have anything to do with the fact that composers are far more remembered (and revered!) than performers ever will be, no matter how hard we try?
CFT: Haha! I’m not going to lie, the thought that people might still be playing music after I’m dead and gone is quite appealing. Fingers crossed about that one! But I didn’t consider that at all, when at around 16 years old I decided it was composing, not playing, for me. I have written music since before I can remember – somewhere in the loft there are pieces for only the open strings of the cello, written when I first started and couldn’t use my left hand yet. As I can’t remember writing these pieces, it’s difficult to say why I wrote them. But if you remember me when I first arrived at school – an eight-year old cellist who was shorter than her cello case – well, I didn’t really speak, at all. I was so painfully shy, that in all honesty, writing notes was an easier way to communicate and express my feelings. Cliched perhaps, but very true in my case, and, as the years have progressed, it’s been my drive to continue composing that has helped develop into a slightly less awkward human being. For instance, I remember in 2005 I won a prize in Florida for a piano trio I’d written – part of the deal was that I give a 90 minute lecture about my music. I’d managed to get through Uni without really saying anything, and the thought of standing up in front of people and talking about my music filled me with dread. But I was damned if I wasn’t going to get my US premiere, so I forced myself to go through with it. Largely due to the fact I had an English accent, the talk was well-received, and little by little, my own confidence caught up with my musical assurance.
Really, it was taking part in the BBC Young Composer of the Year in 1996 that made me certain I wanted to be a composer. Standing in front of the BBC Philharmonic as they rehearsed my cello concertino at 15 years old was an utterly life changing experience – the memory feels as fresh today as it did then, and still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I found my place in life that dull afternoon in Manchester, and I feel eternally grateful.
TC: I used to compose – very badly – and always struggled, because everything I wrote sounded like someone else. Aside from natural talent, how do you manage to sound unique? Is there a conscious process you go through that gives you such an individual voice?
CFT: You are very kind! To be honest I try not to think about it – I get too neurotic if I start to analyse these things. I spend much of my time feeling so thick – I don’t know as much music as I should, I’m rubbish at musical analysis, and I have a hard time explaining how I write things, mostly because I seem to forget how and why I wrote things straight after finishing them – it’s as if I have some sort of automatic brain dump after finishing one piece, so I can fill my head up with new ideas for the next piece! I guess one thing I would say is that I try to distill emotion in my music with ever-increasing potency – if that harmony feels full of longing to me, what notes might I add or take away from the chord in order to emphasise that emotion? Or how might I bring that feeling out in a rhythm – could that last note, if it were notated fractionally earlier, make the music sound more desperate? Or is that overcomplicating things, and it is best to let the natural musicianship of the performer shine through? Above all, I just want to communicate something, usually strong emotion, to the performer and listener. It’s probably all related to how I felt as a child playing Brahms, Bach and Beethoven – these composers spoke to me so directly and powerfully, and I just want to recreate that feeling of connection and empathy in my work.
TC: Do you have any unusual rituals that help you to get inspired when you compose?
CFT: Have you read Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey? I am so boring compared to a lot of these guys, I can tell you!
I find composing really hard. I have to block the internet when I compose, because I just find it so distracting – the turning point for me came when I found myself sitting at the piano, being paid to write a piece that I really wanted to write, but instead of really concentrating, I was sitting there wondering how many more likes my latest tweet had got, and using all my self-control to try and avoid checking. The ridiculousness of this situation made me sort myself out a bit, and buy some software which literally doesn’t let me access social media for most of the day, but I still find concentrating on writing really hard. Starting a piece is like swallowing horrible medicine or jumping into the cold sea – you have to sort of hold your nose and close your eyes and just do it, because committing those first notes to the page can feel agonising. I have to look at old pieces and say ‘look, you did it before, so you can do it again’ – but of course, once you get going you tend to forget all this stuff and just get on with it, and then wonder why you made such a song and dance about it. I have to get going in the morning really, because, if I leave it until after lunchtime, I convince myself that half the day is gone anyway, so there’s no point starting. My pieces are usually inspired by something extra-musical – a story, painting, poem, landscape – so I’ll spend a lot of time thinking and reading, and writing down ideas (in text, not notes) before basically noodling around on the piano, and seeing what comes out. I try to keep a constant feedback loop between intuition and intellect when I’m composing – although intuition always gets the lion’s share of my headspace.
TC: Does it ever worry you that some of the greatest composers have had such intense life experiences?
CFT: I think quite a few composers worry about this! If my life is boring and happy, will my music be boring – that sort of thing? Unfortunately, my constitution renders me entirely useless if I burn the candle at both ends – in order to get what I need to write written, I have to lead a rather sensible life, most of the time. But let’s just say, there are life experiences I can remember, if I need to, for the good of my music! Also, I’m a great believer in just using one’s imagination…
TC: How much do composers secretly (or perhaps not so secretly!) dream of a scandal at their world premieres, akin to that of Stravinsky´s Right of Spring? Do you think that this could ever happen today?
CFT: Honestly, I just want total adoration after any premiere. Premieres for me can feel so exposing – it’s like ‘here are my deepest thoughts and feelings on display: please be nice and don’t reject them!’ If someone shifts in their seat a little too much, I start thinking ‘oh my goodness, that person is bored – that means everybody is bored, and I’m a terrible composer and a terrible person and I want a hole in the floor to open up right now’. So, yeah. Nothing other than praise for me please, ha!
TC: How guilty did you feel that your piece was so hard?
I do feel a bit guilty about this piece! It was written way back in 2000, when, let’s just say I didn’t realise that performers maybe had other things to do in their lives except practice my music all day. So many times during the recording of this piece I said to Ates Orga, the producer, ‘what was I thinking!?!?!’. I don’t think I’d write a piece quite like this nowadays – I would think more about whether that passage really needed to be as hard, or whether the emotion would come across more potently if there were fewer notes to contend with. But, having said that, you totally nailed it, and the sheer difficulty of this piece does add to its emotional power, even if you did have to suffer for it! Perhaps I have something to learn from my younger self here…you never feel you get it quite right as a composer: I don’t expect I ever will. But if anyone can do this piece justice it’s you Tommy, and I’m forever grateful to you for commissioning it, even if at times you must have wondered what the hell you had got yourself into!