Dani Howard, whose new work ‘Gates of Spring’, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, will open Cheltenham Music Festival on Friday 5 July at 7pm, talks about her life as a composer.
Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
I was always interested in music from a very young age, and convinced my parents to let me start having drum lessons at the age of five. It continuously grew from there, where I began learning cello and piano, and as a teenager I taught myself the guitar. In short, I very much believe that it was my short attention span for any one instrument, but my love for all of them (and desire to learn many more to the point where my parents very understandably said no!). I was regularly tempted to change the pieces I was learning, and enjoyed writing my own short pieces as well as pop songs. As soon as I learned that studying composition was something that you could pursue, I knew that this was the perfect fit for me. Throughout my schooling years, I pursued basketball very seriously, and while at one point I was considering taking this to a professional level, I knew that my regret for not pursuing music would be far greater than that of sports. However I feel the discipline learned from competitive sport correlates hugely to music and the arts, and if anything benefitted me hugely in my pursuit of composition.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
The person who made me want to become a professional musician was Richard Bamping (principal cellist HK Philharmonic). He was my cello teacher and mentor for many years and demonstrated what being a professional musician was all about. Him along with many other members of the orchestra, allowed me to grow up surrounded by a supportive group of fine musicians, that have always encouraged me. Since then it has been very much the people I have met during my studies at the RCM and beyond, in particular my composition teacher Jonathan Cole, who again became a mentor, and has most certainly got me to where I am today as a composer.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
One of my biggest challenges as a composer, has been to fit in within the scene of ‘contemporary classical music’, as I have always believed (and still very much believe) that classical music should be accessible to all, regardless of education, background, and culture. This is often negated within the field of contemporary classical music (not always, but certainly often), and this has been something I have worked on hugely both personally and in my professional life.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on commissioned piece?
I LOVE working with people, so the interaction that happens in rehearsals with players is something I really enjoy. With that in mind, sometimes working with orchestras with very few (and
short) rehearsals can feel slightly less collaborative than chamber music. With that being said, nothing beats hearing a large orchestra play your work. I sometimes struggle with the exact numbers I am given to work with within an orchestral setting – as an example I always tend to write a lot for percussion, and have to condense some of this in order to fit the number of players I’m given. An absolute pleasure for me, is working with world-class orchestras who will play everything and anything that you write on the page. This makes me feel liberated to really push the boundaries of what I can communicate, knowing that it will be achieved successfully in the performance.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
I feel that I need to know who I am writing for when I am working on a piece. Imagining that soloist/ensemble while writing is an important part of my process. For example I am currently working on a new piece for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, which I have been fortunate to work with on two other occasions. I feel I know how this orchestra works and sounds / as well as the acoustic in their hall. This has meant I have a different approach to this new piece than I did the first time around. I was fortunate enough to write for the London Symphony Orchestra this year – and this was such a honour – as I have heard them perform so many times over the last eight years of living in London. I know the playing of certain players in principal roles that allowed me to write small solo’s knowing how incredible those individuals would play these moments.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
This is always an incredibly difficult question for a composer. I would certainly say that a rhythmic drive features heavily in most of my work. Being almost post-minimalistic with a constantly shifting harmonic centre, I think a lot about ‘implied melodies’ where I take the function of a melody, but rather than a ‘melody’ as we think of it in old fashioned terms – I enjoy creating these ‘implied melodies’ out of harmonic ideas.
How do you work?
I always begin working in my head, followed by manuscript paper. It is when ideas are more fully developed and concrete, do I begin notating in the computer. I must always have a story for a piece (that doesn’t always need to be made known to the audience). This varies and is sometimes very specific, and in other cases can be more broad topics and concepts. This is key for me when composing, otherwise I lose the sense of the direction and meaning in the piece. When beginning a new piece, the overall structure and shape of the piece must be concrete in my head – and so very often this is the most time consuming part of the process. Once this is clear, the actual composing usually comes quite quickly. With my new work “Coalescence” for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic as an example – I knew I wanted to address the idea of humans vs nature, and this is very evident throughout the work through specific solos you hear which represent different aspects of nature/certain animals that tell quite a specific story throughout. My work ‘Gates of Spring’ for the London Symphony Orchestra also tells the story of the founding of Cheltenham, and quite specifically depicts the growth of this town back in the 1800’s – all of the concepts throughout were concrete before the note-writing process began.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
My definition of success is being able to make classical music, and more specifically new music accessible to wider audiences. I know this can be done by regularly working with world class musicians and ensembles to broaden our audiences, and inspire people to listen and think about new and relevant ideas. As music has shown to have the power to inspire change, I hope to be able to achieve this in my work, and I think that this can be done by exploring more collaborations between art-forms, as well as using the power of technology to communicate. This also must involve people from a young age, and I hope to further explore works involving young players and audiences. Finally, I aim to inspire young people to pursue their passion (be that music or anything else), and to be an advocate for the importance of the arts in our society.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I would certainly say to be open to everything at the beginning, and learn how to listen. Being able to listen with and without personal judgement is a very important skill, and takes time. This allows you to be open to all types of music, which will subtly and slowly shape the musician you become. A second important thing I would say is to not be phased by rejection. I think the sooner people understand this the better. It will be a big part of your career (which is a good thing) and you must understand that some people will love your work and what you do, and others won’t. Both of these are okay.
What is your present state of mind?
I am currently in a state of mind where I am noticing that a lot of people take themselves too seriously. I feel that positivity is often not expressed in new music, and more often than not I am listening to new works based on very dark and sinister topics. While this is powerful and completely necessary in art, and I very much respect this, I find it disproportionate to the number of pieces representing more positive ideas, and also incongruent with the time and era we live in. I would like to remind people of how lucky we are to be living in the twenty-first century, and to communicate positivity and playfulness in my music.
Listen to Classic FM on Friday night when the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Elim Chan will premiere Dani Howard’s Gates of Spring in the opening concert of Cheltenham Music Festival. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Vasily Petrenko will open their 2019-2020 Season will Dani Howard’s ‘Coalescence’
Dani Howard is a British composer and orchestrator who is quickly gaining international recognition with regular performances across Europe, the US and Asia. 2019 marks her debut with the London Symphony Orchestra (a new commission for Cheltenham Festival conducted by Elim Chan), BBC Symphony Orchestra and a return to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic with a new commission for the opening of their 2019-20 season conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Her debut opera with ‘The Opera Story’ premiered in 2019 “a sophisticated and incredibly beautiful piece that surely places Howard amongst the best of contemporary British opera composers” (Bachtrack). In 2018 she received her Royal Albert Hall Debut with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra performing “Argentum” – commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society and Classic FM, and has had her works performed by the the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, Orquestra Clássica da Madeira, Southbank Sinfonia, Multi-Story Orchestra, Orchestra Vitae among others, and was composer in residence at the Suoni Dal Gofo Festival of Music and Poetry (Italy).