Joanna Lee, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I essentially fell into composing – it was a required component of GCSE and A Level music so I started to compose for this and found the area of music I really loved; I preferred creating and experimenting with music rather than performing or repeating what already exists. I have played the piano since I was four – my Mother encouraged me to lessons – and I have never looked back; music has been my life and considering another career didn’t cross my mind.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

There are several people that have been significant influences in my musical life. Initially, my childhood piano and school music teachers, who fed my endless musical appetite and encouraged me to composing and music college. From there, my undergraduate teacher Joe Cutler, the first person to teach me that there were actually living composers (!), whilst also having an open-minded approach to different styles of music. Plus other mentors who have selflessly shown faith and generosity to me as a young composer, such as Jane Manning and Oliver Knussen.

Hearing the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky during A Level was a revelation; I had not heard modern music before this. I am also from the east of Suffolk, where the incredible legacy of Benjamin Britten is strongly felt. A huge turning point was being introduced to the ‘avant garde’ composers and works of the 1950s/60s, e.g. Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies, Aventures by Ligeti, Sequenza by Berio. This era initiated a prolonged period of inspiration and direction for my composition.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

From a compositional perspective, writing a children’s opera for English National Opera was a great challenge – composing continuously for over a year about one topic, to create 50 minutes of music that would engage both children and opera buffs, and would be placed on the stage in London and travel to other countries. It was an exhausting and pressured experience but also the most amazing one of my career thus far.

The other greatest challenge of my career has been combining composing and motherhood. Composing is all-encompassing, requiring a huge amount of time and focus, but children are too! There is an element of isolation – I had never seen a pregnant composer before myself and they are two worlds that seem to rarely collide. But I continue to endeavour to find a happy balance between the two.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The great pleasure of working on a commissioned piece is knowing your work is going to be performed – this is not something that necessarily happens early in a composer’s career. I never grow tired of hearing my music brought to life by brilliant musicians; it is such a privilege and thrilling experience.

The challenge of working on a commissioned piece is composing to certain criteria, such as the forces available, duration (if you find yourself wanting to compose more or indeed, less) and trying to compose to the level and enjoyment of the ensemble. This is a good challenge – the majority of commissioning bodies are very accommodating and enthusiastic. Having no boundaries is difficult, you grapple around with too much choice.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Working with particular musicians means you can compose tailor-made pieces specifically to them – one hopes this will lead to a piece that is of greater enjoyment and fulfilment for them but also, is a greater success overall. In this context, you usually get to work in close collaboration with the musician/s, which means you learn more about the instrument. It can however make second performances more difficult, if a piece is made for a certain performer/s (especially singers).

Of which works are you most proud?

I am proud of the children’s opera I wrote for English National Opera, The Way Back Home. It was such a challenging project but I feel proud of the work the team and I created; seeing the children’s enthralled faces made the year of painstaking work worth it. There are also two works where I feel the idea and execution came together – Chansons Innocentes (written for the Orchestra of the Swan in 2008) and Every Inch Of Many Effigies (for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in 2013).

How would you characterise your compositional language?

This is always a difficult question to answer – I think different listeners hear a different musical language, plus composers are often finding new avenues to explore in their work.
I have never been sure my music sits anywhere in particular – I have composed for more traditional genres like opera (e.g. tonal) but also for contemporary music ensembles (e.g. atonal), whilst also composing for children (e.g. simple) to some of the most gifted professional musicians (e.g. complex). My work currently feels in a state of flux – I was creatively exhausted and at the end of a compositional chapter following the completion of my children’s opera and PhD, so I am tentatively trying new pastures.

How do you work?

In isolation and quiet; I live in the countryside as I find it difficult to compose in the hubbub of a city. After planning the piece, I begin at the piano or if it’s a vocal piece, with the text and vocal line, to conjure up the basis of musical ideas. I then compose straight into full score/all instruments.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Berio, Ligeti, Kagel. Debussy, Chopin, Stravinsky. Mark-Anthony Turnage, Oliver Knussen, Joe Cutler. Barbara Hannigan. There are so many I could list and very varied!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Concerts where I have been left stunned include hearing live for the first time the Rite of Spring (Stravinsky), Wozzeck (Berg) and The Importance of Being Earnest (Gerald Barry), for their compositional perfection and/or ground-breaking work. Also, Katie Mitchell’s direction of Pelleas et Melisande (Debussy) at Aix Festival with Barbara Hannigan – the music and direction was so subtle yet that outcome was incredibly powerful, whilst also telling the opera from the female’s perceptive, specifically the entrapments of motherhood; this is something I had never witnessed in opera before.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Work hard and keep faith – the standard is high but it only takes one person to have confidence in you to find yourself moving forward. Be open-minded and informed – there are so many styles of music and composers out there doing great things. Be human – a

strange thing to suggest perhaps but the history of classical music lifts composers and musicians to a lofty status; being grounded and aware, I think, makes for a better musician.

What is your most treasured possession?

A toss-up between my piano and Golden Retriever. Where would my life have been without my piano? The best ‘toy’ my parents ever bought me. My dog has been my calm composing companion for 10 years – devotedly sitting at my feet whilst I compose in isolation for hours, days, months, and affording walks through the countryside to either fill or clear my head in order to compose.


Joanna Lee’s Concertante for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon & Horn receives its world premiere on 14th February in a concert with the Orchestra of the Swan in Stratford ArtsHouse, and will be performed again in Birmingham Town Hall on 22nd February. Details here


Described by The Guardian as “a considerable talent”, Joanna’s compositions have been shortlisted for a British Composer Award and Arts Foundation Opera Composition Award, featured in Premieres of the Year in Classical Music magazine and her first chamber opera received the Stephen Oliver Award. She was the 2013 recipient of the John Clementi Collard Fellowship.

Read more about Joanna Lee here

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