Gila Carcas, composer

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

I was brought up in a musical family. Although my father was a bank manager, he nearly became a professional musician when he was younger. In his spare time, he played the viola and conducted choirs. My mother was a teacher but she was also a trained soprano and she sang for him. As a child, I had piano and violin lessons and I started composing pieces for my family to play together around the age of eight. My mother and I played the violin, my father played the viola and my brother played the oboe. However, when I hit puberty at around the age of 11 or 12, I stopped composing. I did not study music for A-level and I went to university where I received a history degree. Actually, I have retained a strong interest in history throughout my life and I am presently doing some research in order to write a historical novel.

It was only when I was working in the Civil Service in London that I found a need to create music once more, I started composing again and I returned to university, a different one this time, to study for a music degree at the age of 24. Although I enjoyed writing words and I seriously considered becoming a journalist, I wanted to create something that was beyond words, and music was the means to do so. In order to help fund my way through a second undergraduate degree, I also started teaching the piano. At the age of 27, in 1990, I began studying at Durham University as a postgraduate, initially with Professor John Casken, a composer whose work I admire, and I finally obtained a PhD in composition in 1996. Throughout these years, I am deeply grateful for the financial help my parents gave me when I needed it to enable me to study fulltime.

As a postgraduate, various of my pieces were performed professionally by many ensembles, often through the auspices of the SPNM or Women in Music, and my career as a composer was gaining momentum.

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

Although I was brought up in a family where it was taken for granted that my brother and I would have equal access to education and career opportunities, and I never considered the fact that at that time I had never knowingly heard any music composed by a woman, when I returned to university to study music as a woman in my mid-twenties frankly I was not treated with respect by most of the male lecturers there, certainly at first. In addition, I enjoyed tonal and modal music, and my early attempts were in a similar vein, not acceptable in the late eighties. Although Professor Sebastian Forbes helped me and taught me seriously, one of the other lecturers sadly turned out to be a sadistic sociopath who, over time, abused me psychologically and emotionally. In the end I found I was literally fighting for the existence of my very soul, and my first string quartet, which was the co-winner of the composition competition in my final year there, was in reality a cry for help in the only way I could make it at the time. No one – except the perpetrator of course – realized what was truly going on at the time, not even myself consciously until I had come to the end of my undergraduate years and was finally able to escape from that situation.

As a result, although I was much better treated as a postgraduate at Durham University and I am very grateful in particular to the support of Professor Peter Manning who became my supervisor, I suffered from post traumatic stress disorder for a number of years afterwards, and every day was immensely difficult to get through. I was utterly determined to fight and to show that I COULD compose, whatever it took, and also lived in the hope that one day my life would actually feel like it was worth living. On the outside I could put a smile on my face and I worked hard at composing music, but on the inside I could only concentrate and get through each day by literally forcing myself to do so. Only someone else who has gone through such horrors and the long and difficult aftermath for many years afterwards would truly understand just how immensely damaging and totally unacceptable abuse is.

When I received my PhD in 1996 and could now call myself “Dr” – I found it hilarious when asked on the phone whether I was Miss or Mrs and I said, “Actually it’s Dr”, that the person on the end immediately apologized as though they should have realized – although my career at that time was going well, inside was a different matter. At the time, I longed to get married and to have children, but was let down by a man I fell in love with when I was thirty, and at the age of 29 I had become a Christian. I realized that the most important thing in life was to be as whole as possible, which at that time I was still a long way from being, and having been so let down by other people emotionally I turned to the Creator as the only place I could truly trust.

Over the next few years I tried to find a way to support myself by teaching in a university, but it seemed like the goal posts kept moving and I never achieved the stability I was seeking in finding sufficient teaching work so that I could have the independence I craved and could pursue my compositional career more actively once more. I spent a year as a visiting lecturer at Southampton University, I started teaching in the weekly Junior Department at the Royal College of Music in London, and I spent a couple of years as a lecturer at a further education college in Chichester. The latter job was stressful and demanding, although I also gained more understanding of the technical and theoretical aspects of music through my teaching there which was helpful. During my time at Chichester my father became ill and died a few months later from a brain tumour. This was immensely difficult to deal with and in fact, after everything else I had already been through and with the stresses of having just started a new and demanding job, proved too much. Basically my mind could no longer deal with everything, I fell to pieces emotionally and I needed a lot of time off accordingly, which unfortunately my then line manager did not understand or respect. I returned home to live with my mother – not easy to do in your late thirties, but I could not afford to live on my own financially – and I started trying to rebuild my career which had suffered over the past few years from a lack of time and energy to compose and to pursue opportunities as I had been able to do as a postgraduate.

However – and I appreciate this may be difficult to understand if either you do not believe there is a Creator or have particular ideas about how we are supposed to interact with Him – it was not long before unexpectedly I found myself on an immense spiritual journey instead which became overwhelming. My family was originally Jewish – my maiden surname of Carcas was a Sephardic Jewish one – but that was several generations back. As someone very English, I was surprised to find a growing pull to needing to do more and more Jewish things, I visited Israel several times where various spiritual things happened to me, culminating in an incredible experience of being shown something of the infinite and unfathomable Mind of the Creator directly by Him just below the holiest Jewish site of all, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem at the age of forty (a very Biblical age!) in 2004. This journey was amazing beyond all imagination, utterly terrifying and deeply uncomfortable all at once, and once again I found myself at the end of my emotional resources to cope.

I found I could no longer live in England where the very air now seemed heavy and harsh and I had to be in Israel where I felt more whole and alive. So I moved there in 2004, with just two suitcases at the time, and went through the deeply and demandingly difficult process of converting to Judaism. This again took me to the extremes of what I could cope with emotionally, as I faced a huge fight to convert thanks to a false accusation made against me and it was truly agonizing to have to wait to do so, but with the help of various good people who helped me fight, including the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Rabbi Yeshuv Cohen who passed away in recent years, finally I came home to be the Jew I had found I was supposed to be in December 2005. There truly was a soul difference and at long last my soul was at home. I was able to become an Israeli citizen in 2006 and, thanks to a wonderful female friend I made, I met the man who became my husband and I finally married at the age of 44 in Jerusalem in early 2008. Although it was already too late to have any children of my own, I have gained a wonderful family through him and I am already a grandmother several times over. My husband is an American from Denver who is also a rabbi and is supportive of my being a composer, I am very happily married to my soulmate, and we live in a very nice apartment in Beit Shemesh, about twenty miles southwest of Jerusalem, and as an observant Jew in Israel, life nowadays is very good.

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

I believe I have already answered much of this question as part of my previous answer. However, I will add, firstly it is highly competitive to make it as a composer and it is also very difficult to find a way of supporting yourself financially and also have the time and energy to compose. In addition, since moving to Israel in 2004, without being able to speak Hebrew at the time, as a middle-aged person I have found it is much harder to learn a new language than when I was younger. My still not very good Hebrew is a barrier to being able to pursue my career more effectively in Israel, although many people speak some English, especially highly trained composers whose English is usually very good indeed. However, there is a great deal of personal warmth here in Israel, and more active support than I found in Britain as a woman composer. After spending the past few years doing some compositional work and private teaching, but also recovering from all the traumas I had gone through before that, I have just started teaching composition at the new Beit Shemesh branch of the Har Nof Conservatory for religious girls and young women, and this is a supportive environment both for teachers and for students. No young women should be harmed here in the way I was as an undergraduate composition student and the students’ creativity is fully supported by some excellent teachers. Many fine musicians teach there, including a number from Russia where musical training is highly formalized and also highly effective. In addition, now in my mid-fifties, I am determined to work hard now at improving my Hebrew both to be a more effective composition teacher but also to be able to participate more fully with other Hebrew-speaking Israelis in social situations as well as my Hebrew speaking peers in pursuing new compositional opportunities.

After my mother passed away in 2010, thanks to part of the inheritance I received from her I was able to finance a studio recording of various chamber pieces I have composed, with the help of composer Dan Yuhas and various Israeli performers, which I entitled “Transformations” and which is available for purchase here

In the past few years also, I have received various international performances of works I have composed, including more recent pieces, in the USA, Australia, the Ukraine and in Italy. In fact, I was able to visit northern Italy to attend a performance of my experimental solo double bass piece “Indigo Dreams” just this past May 2019.

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

It is always good to work on a commission. Over the years I have received various commissions, including from ensembles such as Musica Mundi, Gemini and various others. One of the most fun, but also most frustrating at the time, was for a newly invented five string version of the traditional four string Chinese pipa. When working on a commissioned piece, firstly you have the satisfaction of being paid as the professional composer that you are, and secondly you have an added impetus to do the very best you can to create a good piece of music. As someone who has their lazy moments, personally I think I work best as a composer when I need to produce a good piece by a certain date. In recent years, I have also received many commissions for arrangements, many of these from a colleague who runs a wind ensemble for students at the Har Nof Conservatory in Jerusalem, with a specific line-up of various different instruments. As well as arranging many Jewish melodies, I have also introduced these religious Jewish girls to traditional music from the British Isles in some of my arrangements which they have very much enjoyed, and my most recent arrangement was a setting of “Happy Talk” from the musical “South Pacific”.

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

It has been a pleasure to work with all the various musicians and ensembles who have performed my music over the years. When you compose, I equate the world you are inhabiting to that when you are gripped by an exciting novel. However, the performance is reality, but now you have finished your own hard work, you can essentially sit back and let it unfold. You know the music well as its composer, but it is always a delight to hear how performers interpret what you have written. Challenges are to make the music as clear as possible. When I was younger, I had to write out my scores and parts by hand, very neatly, ink them in, blank out extra unwanted staves and get them carefully photocopied. Nowadays, it is much easier to produce good quality printed scores on parts by computer, and you can send them anywhere in the world via the internet at the touch of a button.

Of which works are you most proud?

My forty-minute chamber opera “Boudica” completed in 1995, which sadly is still unperformed, but was essentially my expose in music of the reality of abuse and its effects. Very cathartic. My chamber piece “Cissbury Ring”, which was commissioned for Gemini to perform in 1996 but then sat unplayed for nearly twenty years until performed in the studio for recording for my CD “Transformations”. I sat there and thought yes, this is a good piece, and had essentially forgotten everything about how it sounded. So I was very happy to hear it again.

One piece especially dear to me is “Beside the Lake at Taize” which I composed after my father died and honouring his memory. The Sussex Piano Trio, which essentially came together to play music to my father when in respite care in a hospice, asked me to compose a piece for them. Taize is a Christian retreat in central France, famous for its chants by the Brothers there. I visited there when my father was dying to look for some spiritual comfort. The Sussex Piano Trio performed this piece on several occasions, including at my mother’s funeral in 2010. More recently, this work has become part of the repertoire of the Muses Trio in Australia, dedicated to performing music by women composers.

My third string quartet, “Encountering the Creator” completed in 2009, especially the second movement, “Infinite Embrace” is essentially inspired – although the experience was incredible way beyond any music could truly begin to convey – by the unexpected life-changing revelation from the Creator of something of His infinite and unfathomable presence in 2004 in Jerusalem. It occurred to me that perhaps I could – and even should – try and put something of this experience into music, however lacking the result would actually be. Isn’t that what composers do? Write music inspired by things that have happened to them personally? I don’t know how many other composers have had a direct experience of being personally embraced by the infinite and loving Creator of us all just below the Temple Mount in Jerusalem but as someone who has, at least I had a go at trying to express something in music relating to that unbelievable night.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Eclectic. In my earlier years as a composer, after the horrors of my undergraduate years, I was essentially putting into music my struggles to overcome this overwhelming trauma and to become more whole as a human being. Fundamentally I don’t think I ever truly stopped preferring more tonal and modal approaches to creating music, but intertwined an essential struggle between more atonal approaches and more tonal approaches into my musical language. I have often used pitch centres based on bright keys of A and E major as reference points towards which and from which music flowed and circulated around. It has also been fun to be experimental, in pieces such as “Indigo Dreams”. More recently as I have become much more whole and happier in myself, my music has been moving more towards tonality and modality, with added notes here and there, but I can still create experimental music or totally tonal arrangements of melodies, or anything in-between.

How do you work?

I work best in response to commissions, requests or responding to composition competitions and calls for scores. Sometimes I feel I work too much on the computer and not enough on paper in the earlier stages of creating music: it is in many ways easier but at the same time it can be more limiting to do so. I think it is better to start completely away from the computer, put ideas on paper, play around with them etc. and then put a more developed piece into the computer. But computers also allow you to cut and paste and play around with ideas with less hassle.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I’m pretty traditional in terms of “classical” music and do not listen to a great deal of contemporary music nowadays, although I still enjoy hearing contemporary music live in concerts. I’ve always liked Mozart, Beethoven and Vivaldi. In addition, I enjoy listening to Medieval and Renaissance music, plus various types of ethnic music from many different cultures. As a postgraduate student, I played in a Javanese gamelan. I also enjoy rock music from the late sixties and seventies (I was introduced to Top of the Pops in the early seventies when I was about eight or nine by babysitters), as does my husband, and have recently been getting more into Led Zeppelin. In my quieter moments I like groups like Bread and the Eagles. In addition, here in Israel I have played the violin more than I did in England, and I enjoy improvising on it. Recently I have started playing in a string quartet which is very enjoyable, good for my playing and my appreciation of the brilliance of composers such as Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven etc. in writing for this genre.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To be whole, to be happy, to have enough money to live on comfortably enough, to be creative and productive and to enjoy what you do. It’s always nice to receive outside and international acclaim for what you do musically, but ultimately it is more important to love, to be loved and to be living life fully in a good way.

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

Practise, create, go out and meet and play with as many other musicians as you can. Listen to a lot of different music. Always aim to inspire and to help others, not to hurt them.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Alive and still married to my wonderful husband.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being embraced by the loving Creator of us all.

What is your most treasured possession?

My father’s viola which I inherited. I have played it as well, but I have small hands, he had large ones, and the viola is big and heavy for me. But I like to think he is looking down on me when I play it.

What do you enjoy doing most?

I spend more time than perhaps I should on the internet, but I enjoy finding out what is happening in the world and learning in particular about history, archaeology, geology, the weather, space, many things. And I enjoy playing in a string quartet very much, or creating improvisations on my violin. Composing music. Writing. I enjoy teaching. Being with the grandchildren. Being with our five cats and being loved back by them. Being with my husband. There are so many things that I enjoy. Life every day is a gift.

What is your present state of mind?

Very good. I have recently found the determination to become healthier physically as well as to improve my Hebrew. And I am actively still pursuing my composing career, also researching for a historical novel which I want to write. I am also deeply concerned about the present state of politics in Britain and the USA and the ridiculous attempts to impeach the US President, the growing antisemitism in Europe and Britain thanks largely to a rising Muslim population and the antisemitism, hatred and bigotry towards non-adherents tragically contained within Islamic ideology, and although I miss England I am glad to be living in what is today a freer country in Israel which still possesses full freedom of speech and where family values and human rights are better respected. In the past year and a half I have felt obligated by my freedom to speak out publicly on my youtube channel about my concerns for the future of western civilization, especially that of Britain. The weather in Israel is rather better as well!

Born in England in 1963, Dr Gila Carcas is an accomplished composer, musician and teacher.

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