Hayley Jenkins, composer

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

I have my parents to thank for encouraging me in my musical interests. They are not musical, but I loved dancing and music as a child, and they did what they could to help me follow those interests. There was always music playing in the house or on long car journeys to the Lakes or Scotland and both grandmothers enjoyed music, so I have quite an eclectic taste!

When I got to University, we were introduced to so much music I had never heard before and I fell in love with Britten, Palestrina, Philip Glass, Bach, Arvo Pärt, to name a few, and I soaked it all up like a sponge. I loved learning how music was constructed and with some encouragement from the academic staff, I started writing music for the first time. I saw composing as a journey of discovery, an opportunity to learn new things – I certainly did not expect to be forging a career in it.

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

I think for any early-career composer there are several challenges to overcome. One of these is finding a balance between work life and projects you want to pursue – I find there is always a tension between the two and it is so important to carve out time to be creative and write but it is also imperative not to berate myself when I can’t. The second is confidence and self-belief. Self-doubt is something that doesn’t go away and perhaps it shouldn’t, I sometimes believe the constant worry about being good enough is what keeps us on our toes and searching for new ideas.

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

Firstly, it is a huge privilege to be asked to write music and I am so overjoyed when I am asked – I feel it is the highest commendation that people like what you do. Each commission is different, which brings its own challenges. In turn, each challenge affords an opportunity to learn something either about the instrument/voice, the chosen topic or the parameters of performance. I look back at work I have written and can see how each one contributes to a development of practice.

Part of the pleasure of working on a commission is the research that surrounds the writing. It sometimes takes me down unexpected paths and I might discover something that becomes the key to unlock the solution to the puzzle, other times it is not as plain sailing, but it is still a joy to join the dots between ideas and translate it into sound.

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

It depends upon the performer and the time you have to discuss the piece. When I was just starting out I had quite a bad experience with a performer and it made me question my role as a composer. I was young and I was judged before I had handed over the music. I believe that it was in part my fault, I should have been more assertive. After that, I have been very determined to form positive relationships with performers, discuss ideas and techniques and clearly discuss the origins of the piece. I see the process as a collaboration if I know the piece is for a specific person and I believe the music is always better for it.

Music is a language and each performer views music through the possibilities of their instrument and technique; I enjoy having conversations about how best something should be played as there are often possibilities, I wasn’t even aware of, and that is exciting.

Of which works are you most proud?

I don’t feel pride as such; each piece is different, written for a different purpose and communicating different things. I don’t think I could put one above the other. There are certainly ones that have been received with more interest than others but for me, they are all held in equal esteem. It is always nerve-wracking releasing a new piece as it has been ‘in my head’ for so long, I never know how it will be received, it is always a relief to hear people enjoy and connect with my work.

The ones that have a special place in my heart are usually ones that are connected to specific people. I worked as Composer in Residence for Streetwise Opera and the whole process, the people I worked with and spent time with, were so special. I would love to work with them again because their passion for singing together was so powerful.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I believe my compositional language is very much influenced by my being a woodwind player. I ‘think’ in melodies and my work is strongly lyrical and programmatic. That said, I am interested in using my music to represent the ‘everyday’; an exploration of ‘identity’ through autobiographical, biographical and autoethnographical approaches to composition. Traditionally, a lot of classical music dealt with fictionalised representations of people and although a lot of the themes are still relevant to people today, I am interested representing the lives of real people and giving them a voice.

Popular music is so reactive to contemporary issues and classical music often drags its heels. However, during lockdown, we have seen a surge in projects that commented on the COVID-19 pandemic which was fantastic. I was lucky enough to be involved in a number of these projects, one being instigated by pianist Duncan Honeybourne, live streaming on Facebook every lunchtime to raise money for Help Musicians UK, which has resulted in an album called Contemporary Piano Soundbites. It demonstrated how classical music can be reactive, relevant and powerful.

How do you work?

I often start with an extra-musical idea and then draft sketches of how I might translate these into musical forms and motifs. This is often accompanied by a lot of research, perhaps into the subject matter of the piece so I have a lot of contextual information as inspiration. I do work at the piano, but I am certainly no pianist so sometimes I get my flute out to explore melodic ideas. I often work quite intensely, partly due to work pressures and partly due to the eagerness to write. That said, I often try and take breaks from writing to give my ideas space to settle. I am currently writing a piece for cello and I have acquired one to experiment with – I cannot play it, but I am interested in how the harmonics are created and the palate of sounds different bowing techniques can create etc. That sort of exploratory process is important, so I know what options are available to me, but I also to get a sense of what is possible for the performer.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I think as long as I can write things I want to write and have them performed and enjoyed, that is a success. I am not one to chase competitions or awards, the reward is in the writing of something interesting and being excited by the process.

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

Firstly self-belief, if you believe in your work and ideas you will be more successful at convincing others your work is worth performing. That isn’t always easy, and I think that is my biggest nemesis – it is easier to say than do.

Networking is important. If you turn up to things, talk to people, discuss ideas and show you are willing this creates a space for collaborations to grow. I did this as a student, I went to as many concerts of new music and talked to performers and composers as much as I could and I still do now (even in a COVID world, I have been going to online composer talks etc). Some of the people I met as I student I work with still and I value those connections and professional relationships.

Finally, find your voice. Don’t be afraid to be your authentic self and write music you believe in – I always worried my music had to be technically complex for any professional to want to play it. But that isn’t the case, clarity of ideas and having something interesting to say is just as important. Interesting doesn’t mean complicated or radical, it means thoughtful and considered.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

At the moment that is a very pertinent question for all music and the arts. I think one thing we have learned from the fall out of COVID-19 is that the power of modern technology can be a huge enabler and provide some unique opportunities for innovation. In particular, the opportunity to widen participation at concerts through live streaming means audience numbers can be almost unlimited, access isn’t restricted to geographic location and this, therefore, provides an opportunity to grow new audiences. I am not saying attending a concert through a live stream is a replacement for experiencing music live, but it does mean there are more opportunities for experiencing new music than ever before.

The other two main things are better music education and breaking down the presumption that classical music is only for certain people or for people who can afford it. We have quite some way to change these and some great initiatives are making change.

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

Hopefully with a complete PhD. Teaching composition and writing music. I have always had multiple jobs so consolidating those would also be quite nice.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being outside, walking, running and enjoying everything the great outdoors has to offer. Seeing family and friends. Being creative – making things, especially music.

What is your most treasured possession?

This is so hard! Probably my garden. I love pottering around, it helps me think and relax. I love spring and summer when everything bursts into life and I can listen to the birds.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Making things. Sewing, gardening, baking, music.

What is your present state of mind?

Grateful. For my home, my work, my family; I think the pandemic has helped people evaluate what is important to them. It has been hard to adjust but it has made me grateful for what I have.


Born in Darlington, Hayley Jenkins began her musical career as a flautist playing in the District Wind Band and later learnt clarinet and saxophone.  Hayley studied Music at York St John University at undergraduate level and then continued her studies with a MA in Music Composition.

Hayley is a freelance contemporary composer and is always eager to collaborate with fellow composers, performers and artists of all disciplines.  As a composer her work has featured in the Late Music concert series, most recently a saxophone quartet “Kaleidoscope” performed by the Delta Saxophone Quartet. New projects include a commission for the Albany Trio.  Hayley’s work explores narrative forms and draws influence from nature, art, literature and different cultures. She has written for soloists, chamber ensembles, orchestra and film.

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