‘Challenges are what you feed off as a composer,’ says Charlotte Bray, whose sought-after pieces have been played and performed by the world’s leading musicians and conductors.
Renowned for her melodic intensity and rhythmic propensity, she’s fast becoming a leading light in British contemporary classical music unafraid to push the envelope when necessary.
She first studied under Joe Cutler at the Birmingham Conservatoire, falling into composition from a general music degree. Upon graduating in 2006, she studied under Mark Anthony Turnage at the Royal College of Music and later worked under Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews.
Now forging her own distinct path, she’s composed for the BBC Proms, Aldeburgh and Cheltenham festivals, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Copenhagen Summer Festival.
Last Sunday saw the premiere of her Falling in the Fire prom at the Royal Albert Hall, a piece inspired by the recent sacking of ancient Syrian archaeological site Palmyra by militia.
We spent some time with Charlotte to learn more about the piece, find out what else she’s working on and glean her top tips for overcoming writer’s block…
The premiere of your 2016 Prom Falling in the Fire took place on Sunday. It was inspired by the destruction of Palmyra in Syria…
Yes, exactly. That was one of the motivations for the piece. It was where it all started for me.
What drew you personally to the destruction of Palmyra?
That particular news event struck me in a slightly different way to the images of war we’re confronted with on a more daily basis. They are probably more horrifying from the humanitarian point of view, but this one got to me in a very deep way. Also, it literally happened the morning I sat down to writing notes for the piece.
How did you go about conveying that sense of destruction and despair?
I feel the piece isn’t pragmatic in any strict sense, but what did feed into it is a sense of different zones. There is definitely a zone that is more confrontational, a conflict zone that’s very fast moving and aggressive. There’s an inner nervous energy. And then you go into other scenes, which are much calmer, but quietly eerie.
The structure of the piece and these ideas came from me learning about the work of Tim Hetherington, who’s a photojournalist that created a really powerful film entitled Diary, where he cut footage together of going between Iraq and other parts of his life, such as a hotel room in New York. There’s a transformation between his two lives, the conflict zone and then his real life. But perhaps your real life is not as kind of rosy as you might think?
Do you follow your own composing patterns or do you approach each piece completely differently?
The pattern is usually quite similar with most of my pieces. I do quite a lot of reading and listening to other cello concertos or orchestral work that particularly inspires me. I think about elements I want to work on in my piece, in a very abstract way, before delving deeper into what that piece is about.
Stage one is separate from the actual creative stage. It’s more about listening, and then I leap into creative mode. I work with a piano, I work at a desk and go between both. My instrument is cello actually, so when I’m writing for strings, I use it for improvisation or fine-tuning or for bowing and fingering.
Working in the contemporary classical sphere, are there rules for composition or is it completely freeform for you?
I think there are definitely my own rules, challenges and ambitions, based on what I want my music to sound like or where I want it to go. But I don’t feel like anyone else is putting any rules on me. I’m certainly not aware of trying to fit into any kind of conventionality or trying to please anyone else.
It’s been about 10 years or so since you completed your first degree in Birmingham. How has your approach to composing changed since then?
I’ve been fine-tuning what I want to do, a process I expect will go on my whole life. As a composer, your lifelong pursuit is to write the best music you can and constantly challenge and reinvigorate yourself by perhaps changing direction or finding new motivations.
Who or what have been your biggest musical and compositional influences along the way?
In terms of role models, foremost it’s been the people I’ve studied with, either principally or otherwise. So Joe Cutler in Birmingham and Mark-Anthony Turnage in London. I look at their careers and am in awe of all the things they’ve achieved – it’s always been a massive motivation to me.
Also, composers Colin Matthews and Oliver Knussen who have been more like mentors to me than teachers necessarily. Although I’ve certainly learnt a lot from them.
Do you think it’s difficult for female composers in classical music?
I think it is pretty open, although there are clearly some problems, such as the gender imbalance between the numbers of successful male composers to female composers. I think that issue really needs to be addressed in our education when we’re children.
It’s partly to do with creative confidence. Someone in the industry who knows a lot about feminism said to me that my kind of creative confidence is quite unusual as a woman. And that really surprised me. I wonder whether that’s a factor stopping many women.
I think PRS for Music Foundation’s Women Make Music Fund has proven a lot already, hasn’t it? It’s got more women creators out there, being supported. It gives people the confidence, and I am positive that changes are happening.
When you hear about how female composers viewed themselves in the seventies – I certainly don’t have any of that baggage. They were tying their hair up and trying not looking feminine in any way. I’m glad times have moved on at least from that!
Do you ever suffer from writers’ block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Yes I do, and it’s very difficult to pin down exactly what it is. I definitely have struggles with creating and it depends on the process, the piece, many different things.
But I think sometimes I’m better when I write quickly. Not rushing it in any way, but getting in the flow and only composing for several days on end, before any kind of self-doubt starts to creep in.
Sometimes when I spend months and months writing pieces, I don’t feel happier about them. I think I need to find that balance between spending enough time on pieces and not dwelling on them for too long.
Are there certain triggers that will make things easier?
Yes, when a piece has quite a rich background and there are influences from lots of different places. At the moment I’m writing an oboe quartet and I’ve got inspiration from Ezra Pound and minimalist artwork – there’s all these threads that connect the things together and give me motivation from different angles.
What’s next for you?
I’m really excited about a collaboration that is still very much in the planning stage, so I can’t really say what ensemble it’s with. But it’s a collaboration with dance, and I’m really excited to get going with it and start a new kind of working relationship.
I have worked with dance a little before, but this will be a much larger undertaking and I’m really interested in the challenge. It’s what you feed off as a composer.
Image credits: Michael Wickham (top), Dave Maric (bottom)