Lillie Harris, composer

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

This is a really hard moment to pin down, and I think for me it was a series of people and events that cumulatively built up to one inevitable conclusion.

There were my earliest music teachers, James D’Alton Bellas and Genevieve Wakelin; I saw Mr Bellas (as he will probably always be to me) leading a classical guitar ensemble in a school concert when I was about three years old, and I turned to my mum and stated “I want to do that.” When he kindly suggested to my mum that I should be able to read English before starting an instrument, I took up the challenge and rapidly became an avid bookworm, which led to my initial desire to be an author. Genny taught me flute and piano from when I was about six I think. She ended up becoming virtually a part of our family, and through that I saw up close what it was like to be a professional musician, as she progressed with her singing. Although I resisted at times (“Being a musician is risky and difficult, I can’t do that!”) I think without her gently opening doors into parts of music that I had never thought of before and encouraging me to peek through, I wouldn’t have made the jump.

There was also my life-long love of words and stories, and wanting to be creative and expressive. I used to make anything and everything, from teepees using bamboo poles and dust sheets to a dolls house made from cardboard boxes, with tiny furniture made of paper and carefully stuck in place.

Around the time I was doing my GCSE’s, there was also a lack of any long-lasting meaningful connection to any of the career paths I was trying to envision for myself: volcanologist, astrophysicist, lawyer, some sort of biologist… My mum really wanted me to have a stable career, which would allow me to be creative on the side but with something reliable at the centre. But although I felt excited and interested in each of these for a while, that enthusiasm always wore off quite quickly, and just didn’t feel right. I looked around myself, and finally had to admit that music was where I wanted (and needed) to go. My secondary school music teacher, Julian Ross, was also very encouraging and helped me with my application to the Royal College of Music, as well as overseeing an active music department in the school which of course helped too.

Finally, there was how impressed I was with the emotional power of film music – the fact that a choice selection of sounds in combination with a story and images could make me feel so strongly. That was the sort of music I initially pictured myself doing, and whilst that’s no longer what I want to write myself, I still absolutely love it and get a real buzz out of being part of some film music teams as a copyist.

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

My composition professor at the Royal College of Music, Haris Kittos, has certainly had a big influence on my composing career thus far. He was always so enthusiastic about any and all ideas I would bring to him, and in being so supportive and encouraging, he really helped me learn to take those initial thoughts and develop them into something. In the years I spent with him at RCM, he stretched my capabilities and approaches, introduced me to all sorts of pieces and ideas, and demonstrated to me (through his suggestions and pointers) the sort of approach I would need to take as I finished at college and moved out into the world: actively searching regularly for opportunities, going for anything and everything, seeking out workshops and courses, that sort of thing.

In a similar vein, I’ve definitely learned so much and been inspired my the other composers around me – my colleagues, fellow young composers. It feels like there’s a solid network of us in the UK, and seeing what schemes my colleagues do and the sorts of pieces they produce through them can be really instructive.

More creatively, I think I remain inspired and motivated by the pieces and works I learned and performed when I was younger, such as exam grade pieces for flute, guitar, and piano as well as large choral works I sang in school choirs, like the Mozart and Fauré Requiems and Carmina Burana. When I listen to or play those pieces even now, I’m taken right back and relive the nerves and delights of graded exams and the buzz of choral concerts – in particular, our school carol services each Christmas in Canterbury Cathedral. I still proudly sing the descants I learned for those services at any carol singing event I go to!

My turn towards focusing on composing choral music has been inspired by choral singing at school, my lifelong love of words, and more recently the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain’s composers scheme. I was on the scheme in 2019 and it was just brilliant, I learned so much on it thanks to the amount of time, activities, and residential courses they included us in and on how supportive they’ve been ever since. It also made me want to get back into choral singing, and prompted me to join Covent Garden Chorus.

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

A lot of the time, deadlines and time management feel like the biggest challenges! I’ve been really fortunate to have been selected for a number of really excellent schemes for young composers with a number of top ensembles and orchestras, but once or twice this has involved some overlaps and tense creative crunch-points. Balancing creative pursuits with other commitments is certainly a significant challenge, particularly when luckily I get a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction from my other work! It can be hard to ring fence my time and attention for composing, especially the ‘letting the mind roam’ early stages; I often forget to factor enough time for that into my schedule, because there are always other, concrete things to be doing.

A very common creative frustration I have is the feeling that I’m never quite able to articulate the musical ideas as precisely and eloquently as they seem when they first come to me. I always seem to end up simplifying them or compromising, I think because in some ways I’m impatient to get it all down and notated!

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

Commissioned pieces bring their own type of pressure, both in the obligation to deliver a work with a specified instrumentation and duration etc at the set time, but also the emotional pressure to come up with just the right thing for the commissioners. I always want them to be happy with the finished piece, and for it to feel truly, uniquely “theirs”.

I would say the pleasures are closely related to that though – knowing that this piece is wanted by someone, and that once it’s written you’ll get to give it to them like a present; hopefully, if I’ve judged the piece right, that’s how it will be received, and that’s a lovely thing to be able to give someone. Because I find myself most comfortable creatively with a specific brief, the often very specific context of a commission and their requirements really helps my composing process, which makes that more pleasurable for sure.

You have two pieces being premiered at the Cheltenham Music Festival this summer; can you tell us more about them?

Absolutely, one is a choral piece for Merton College Choir, the other is a trumpet fanfare for trumpeter Aaron Diaz.

My initial thought for the choral piece was something that had a Midsummer Night’s Dream-feel to it, inspired by the Forest of Dean and the idea of magical happenings in the woods at night. So I spent some time researching the Cheltenham area and the Forest of Dean, and stumbled on the information that the area has an iron-rich soil, and was mined by the Romans for it. Also as a result, yew trees are plentiful as they like iron-rich soil, and as soon as I read about some of the ancient yews and the amazing properties of this tree, I knew I wanted to find a poem about yew trees to set. That led me to Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’. I wasn’t very familiar with Tennyson’s poems themselves, and I was so struck by it. It’s incredibly touching, with the neat verses and rhyming structure letting the imagery speak. The enjambement of “And in the dusk of thee, the clock / Beats out the little lives of men” is so moving. I think those are my favourite lines in the poem, and contributed to my ultimate choice of title: ‘The Dusk of Thee’. I like how in the context of the piece, those words both refer to the literal shade beneath a large yew tree, and the metaphorical shadow a loved one has left behind.

Musically, ‘The Dusk of Thee’ is quite consonant, stemming from an almost plainsong-like phrase that came to me quite early on that felt right for the tone and the opening verse. Around the verses, the choir imitate tolling church bells – this is both a literal reference to the location of the poem, but also to the passing of time so eloquently captured in my favourite line described above. I wanted it to have the mournful feeling of the poem, and to have lots of space for reflection with some brighter moments for the lines that refer to the natural rejuvenation of spring and of feeling a one-ness with the tree. The spring of leaves and flowers after the winter is truly a heart-lifting thing, and a reminder that we can always hope for light after the dark.

My trumpet fanfare, ‘A Point of Pride’, is an optimistic, forward-looking short piece inspired by the Covid vaccine rollout (with a pun title that I just couldn’t resist). Of course, here in the UK it hasn’t been without some issues but I feel so proud of what so many hard-working people in the medical sector (not just doctors, nurses, and volunteers of course but those working in laboratories and development, logistics, everything) have already achieved in such a short span of time, really. The centre where I received my first vaccine was so organised, friendly, and professional but they were all acting like it was just normal! After such a difficult year, the optimism that the vaccine rollout is starting to allow is very welcome.

The fanfare has some very short jab-like notes (no prizes for guessing what that represents) followed by softer held notes, that swell gently like a liquid diffusing. It starts a little hesitant and uncertain, but grows in confidence. Finally, the choir join at the very end – representing the spreading of the vaccine across so many people, and of the unity we hope to regain as a result.

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

The main worry I have when writing for specific musicians is that I’m not thinking in enough detail about their unique abilities, ranges, strengths and weaknesses, and so on. I would never want a musician to get some music, look at it, and think the composer had no idea about them or didn’t bother researching. It can be a fairly big pressure when you’re aiming to stretch a musician or ensemble too, pushing yourself as the composer to come up with something extravagant and impressive!

The pleasures of working with specific individuals include having incredibly knowledgeable sources to consult with questions or to try out excerpts, especially if workshops are possible as part of the creative process; being able to research the musician or ensemble, listen to previous performances or recordings, and get a solid idea of their style and group dynamics; and for me personally, having a specific context that I can form a solid foundational idea for the piece around.

Of which works are you most proud?

I think my orchestral piece ‘remiscipate’ is one I’m still really proud of, five years later – whenever I listen back to it, there are of course a number of things I pick out that I would do differently now or I don’t think work so well in the context of the work. But even so, I think the pacing is good, and there are some really touching moments. There are some detailed passages of orchestral colours that I’m quite pleased with.

My LSO Soundhub piece, ‘My Last Duchess’, is another one I’m proud of but for slightly different reasons – I think the work itself isn’t my strongest, and there’s so much in the musical content I would rewrite, but at nearly twenty minutes long, it’s my longest piece yet and involved 4-channel electronics plus some live-triggered samples. I definitely stretched myself to produce that work, and although it’s far from perfect, I’m really glad I did it and so grateful to everyone at LSO and St Luke’s who helped me get it realised and taught me so much along the way.

‘Margaret’, an a cappella choral piece, is also up there on my list – on the NYCGB composers scheme, one of the visiting composers, Alexander L’Estrange, gently challenged me to try composing a more accessible choral work, after attending a workshop on my more challenging ‘Not Been Found’. During my studies at the RCM, we had spent a lot of time focusing on detailed, complex instrumental writing so this was something of a different challenge. As it turned out, I loved composing ‘Margaret’ – it was almost soothing to inhabit such a sweet musical space, and I think the resulting work does exactly what I wanted to. It’s opened a door for me to compose more in this direction, and I’m really enjoying it.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Expression- and emotion-driven, often utilising short melodic gestures and bespoke harmonic worlds based on the work’s mood and purpose.

How do you work?

Primarily on paper whilst I’m writing, I like to sketch useful gestures and chords that sound like they fit with the piece in a manuscript notebook, and then start writing out the music ‘in-time’ on landscape A3 manuscript, or sometimes just in the same notebook. I’ll do mind maps if a title isn’t obvious, and I also often draw graphs to work out the overall structure; they often end up quite cluttered, as I regularly update and amend them as I go, adding little notes with new ideas or specifics about how a particular moment might work. Thinking about the work and running it through my mind if something isn’t immediately obvious tends to happen when I’m out on a walk or in the shower.

If I’m setting a text, I’ll write out the words by hand in a notebook, to get the words fixed in my mind. I’ll annotate that too with plans for what musically should happen in each verse or for particular lines, whether there should be music between verses, that sort of thing.

When I’m happy with the piece overall, or sooner if that feels right, I’ll type up the piece into a notation software (I use Dorico, partly because I write its user manual so have come to know it very well). Depending on how precise I was during the writing phase, this can be a very quick or a frustratingly slow process (if I have to keep making decisions about how long notes need to be, or what time signature a section is in!).

Tidying up the score and adding title pages, notation information, a programme note etc is usually the last stage in the process, and often quite pleasing – all creative musical decisions should be done by then, and it’s a case of getting it to look its best. I can listen to some music or the radio at this stage too, which can be a nice treat.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I think people actively wanting to perform and listen to your music, either by performing an existing work or by commissioning a new one. It’s hard to express how lovely both of those feel, especially when they organically come to you, through the grapevine or based on someone else’s recommendation. Especially when the music you’re creating feels true to your voice, when it’s music that genuinely feels right for you.

Being able to support yourself (and a family, if applicable) through your creative output is a massive success too.

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

To trust their own ideas and instincts – of course we should all be open to learning and being challenged, but in music very little is clearly ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, it’s mostly subjective. Fresh ideas that challenge the status quo quite often end up leaving important legacies.

To value their unique musicianship – we’re always told not to compare ourselves to others, and I for one often fail at that quite often. But it’s a good thing to remember – particularly when the thing that only you do, or that you do in a different way, could well be the thing that makes you stand out in the long run. Be proud of yourself, and ready to push to share your music.

To know their limits and not to be afraid to take breaks or turn things down – there can be so much pressure to say ‘yes’ to everything and to push yourself. Finding out where your comfortable level is, and learning how to manage the balance of work and relaxation is important for your own sustainability, I think – and I write that from a position of not quite having the balance I think I need, at the moment. It’s especially hard for musicians I think, because we love what we do and most of the people we love also do music – when most of your friends and colleagues are also musicians, it can be hard to see the where ‘socialising’ ends and ‘work’ begins.

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

That’s a really hard question to answer! My gut instinct is that the message that classical music really is “for anyone and everyone” needs to be got across, and for attending classical concerts and listening to classical music to be just a normal thing that most people do fairly regularly.

Perhaps film and TV can play a role – I know that some of my favourite pieces from the classical repertoire were ones I first heard when they were used in film or TV, and that additional layer of context and narrative embedded when I listen to them even now helps me listen more carefully and feel more engaged. Seeing works performed in their intended context, like seeing a ballet performance rather than simply listening to the music on the radio, helps too in bringing the work to life.

Making sure all young people have the opportunity at least to try learning an instrument would help too, I imagine – being able to produce music yourself, physically using an instrument and coaxing music from it, is something very special and also puts the classical repertoire into context: a school orchestra learning a movement from a larger work can go to a concert and hear the full work performed by a professional ensemble, not only teaching them something about a piece they’re learning but also giving them a chance to see adult, professional musicians playing with real skill. That connection and knowledge of the pathway that they could take towards a professional musical life, if they want, needs to be there so young people can recognise the potential future benefit from their investment in learning an instrument now.

What is your most treasured possession?

On a practical level, probably my boots – I don’t own many pairs of shoes, I tend to have a few that I wear exclusively until they wear out, and finding a replacement pair of ankle boots (that I wear the most) can be a difficult process. My current pair are from Will’s Vegan Shoes, and they both go with almost anything and are very comfortable. I love walking fast, and they let me do just that.

On an emotional level, probably a small teddy bear that I’ve had since I was very small – I took it on a school picnic and lost it. Some years later, I still mentioned him and expressed a wish to have him back; when my mum investigated, it turned out the centre where we’d had the picnic years before had found my teddy shortly afterwards and kept him all that time. We were reunited, and I very much still have him!

Lillie Harris has been commissioned to write a new choral work for the Cheltenham Music Festival, through the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Emerging Composer scheme. Originally scheduled for 2020, the new premiere is 5th July 2021, as part of Merton College Choir’s Classical Mixtape concert in Gloucester Cathedral. More information

Lillie graduated from the Royal College of Music in July 2016, studying with Haris Kittos and winning the Elgar Memorial Prize for her final portfolio. Musical from a young age, her interest in composing grew out of learning instruments, a flair for languages, and a love of creative writing; narrative ideas and complex emotions are still a huge source of musical inspiration for her, and often form the backbone of her compositions. Her pieces have been workshopped and performed by ensembles including Psappha, LSO and LPO players, the Assembly Project, the RSNO, Ebor Singers, and Ensemble Recherche, and at venues including the Southbank Centre, Science Museum, King’s Place, LSO St Luke’s, Usher Hall Edinburgh, and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

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(photo credit: Kevin Leighton)

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