Angela Elizabeth Slater, composer

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

My mum is perhaps one of the most significant people in forming who I am as a composer today. She introduced me to music when I was young, nurtured my music learning, took me to endless piano and flute lessons over the years, helped me write some of my most early piano works down, and encouraged me when I was a singer-songwriter in my teenage years.

Even before I was at an age where I could have piano lessons I was always drawn to play on the piano and mess around, and probably disturb my brother’s practise. Later I would write little pastiche type pieces, which then transformed into pop-songs in my teenage years and then melded back to classical music, though now of a very different kind of course. I was always distracted through my childhood with the sounds of music and would more often than not end up not practising because I stumbled upon a strange chord by accident.

I loved music and especially creating and composing music. However, I didn’t initially go into music. I had been taking science A-levels and I was drawn to perhaps what felt a more secure path so I started to do a Pharmacy degree at the University of Nottingham. In the first term I did not manage to find any time for music until one weekend when I went home to visit my parents. I started composing something on the piano, and my mum said how good it sounded. It probably wasn’t the most genius of things, but it helped me have a really important realisation that I needed to do music, because I needed to compose.

My mum helped me swap degree within the university and the next year I started my music degree and went onto do a PhD in composition.

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

I have faced a number of challenges in becoming a composer over the years. I am originally from the East Midlands and had a state-school education. The educational practitioners through my school years, though many trying their best, did not have the expertise to prepare someone to do music at degree level. This has left me at a disadvantage to my more privileged colleagues over the years and I have always felt like I am catching up and on the back foot. To be honest, I did not even realise that people could still become composers. However, I was always certain that I wanted to create music. My background meant I didn’t have many connections to the professional industry, nor knowledge of creative pathways.

This lack of connections to the industry and forming of vital creative partnerships continued in my undergraduate and PhD, where I didn’t get much of a chance to work with professional ensembles. This made it difficult to break-out into the industry and get opportunities as my initial track record, and network, was limited. During my university years I was also discouraged from continuing my compositional studies for reasons grounded in misogynistic views. I have found comments like these comments, and the male-dominated composition sector, to be a challenging mental barrier to deal with. I have so often been the only woman, and the only person from a state-school background, on a composition course or development scheme, certainly in the UK.

Not being able to see myself reflected in the people above me in the industry also contributed to difficulties in becoming a composer. It was a few years later I set up Illuminate Women’s Music, a chamber music touring and commissioning project, with a mission to illuminate living women composers through commissioning and performances. Our work demonstrates there is a rich heritage of music written by women in the past, and we are supporting the next generation of musical role models.

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 is, of course, needing to stick to the required criteria for that particular commission, whether that is a simple as length and forces, or more specific if the work is for a particular event. These things can sometimes spark the creative juices, but if your creative flow is desperate for a 4-minute piece to actually be 20 minutes that can be difficult to deal with. Sometimes you have to admit to yourself that you had started writing a different piece that needs to be put in the drawer (so to speak) for a while, until its right for that material to come out again.

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

Overall, it is usually an absolute pleasure to work with musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras. It is what composers work towards and how our works come to life! We work in collaboration with performers to bring new soundworlds and pieces into the world. It can be challenging – sometimes things don’t work straight away – but these can be overcome if the performers on your side and they want to make something as close as possible to your vision happen. Of course, this takes compromise on the side of the composer as well.

Once in a while you come across performers who are closed off and not willing to help find solutions and engage with a work properly. When this happens it is a good lesson for all, take note, and learn. And going forward, you can work with the musicians you do trust, and who trust you, in striving forward on creative and potentially unchartered territory.

Of which works are you most proud?

I am very pleased to say as the years go on I am increasingly proud of more and more of my works, which seems to be a far more difficult thing for composers to say than you would hope!

One of the first pieces I was really proud of was my string quartet piece Eye o da hurricane. This piece foregrounds the viola as the protagonist in a story about a crofter’s wife trapped by the turmoil of the First World War and in a storm that surrounded her on Shetland. I was captivated by the way the viola could carry such impassioned, dramatic, and mournful lines and I knew I needed to return to writing for the viola.

This year I had the opportunity to do so through London Philharmonic Orchestra’s young composer scheme in which I wrote a short concerto, Through the Fading Hour. In the process of this piece I was able to take my time to find the right concept and the right title, and wrote a short poem that became the springboard for my inspiration for the work:

Through the fading hour

Whispers morph and mould

A flickering light gives one last breath

Before being blown into the ether.

Through the Fading Hour explores the light qualities and hues that we see during the twilight hour, the onsetting of darkness and the fading of light. In this piece I was also imagining the twilight hour of the earth, at least with our presence on it, as the realities of climate change and atrocities repeating becomes increasingly evident.

I am also very proud of work that is going to be receiving its world premiere on 4th November 2022 – my piano concerto Tautening skies. It is a work I started before the pandemic and the world premiere has been delayed twice. It is a huge work, both in length and forces, and it has been a significant for both me and soloist Laura Farré Rozada.

The work was commissioned by pianist and mathematician Laura Farré Rozada to explore methodologies and strategies for the memorisation of post-tonal music – the topic of her current doctoral research at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. The concerto is structured on a self-authored poem which forms the titles of its movements:

Tautening skies

As the Colours Fade

Through the Needle’s eye

My thoughts on the work:

The notion of memorisation was ever-present during the compositional process as I was aware that my structuring of material may aid or undermine memorisation. The first two movements are constructed on interlocking ‘daisy-chain’ patterns of intervallic material that unfold and fold back in on themselves. Like a labyrinth or a maze, you go down familiar paths but there is only one route through…The third movement explores complex polyrhythms, and a relentless building of intensity, punctuated briefly by chamber moments before being pulled back and swallowed up by the power of the orchestra.’

Laura describes her experience of the work:

From my perspective, the music could be framed as if you were walking through a colourful maze, where there are many paths you can choose, but that eventually take you back to a place you have already visited, constantly evoking a sensation of déjà vu. The different colours are very present in the textures of the piano part, which explore the full register of the piano, presenting simple rhythmical sections that contrast with others based on complex polyrhythms. All these effects are further adorned and amplified with the orchestra, contributing to creating a bigger gesture in the music.’

Link to concert event:

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I think my music is overall colourful and highly expressive. Sometimes it is characterised with impassioned, expressive, sometimes even romantic, melodic ideas, and other times it is far more gestural and complex in harmony and rhythm, moving closer to an atonal language

How do you work?

When I compose I find it extremely helpful to have a clear concept for the piece before I begin. I often find the title for the piece before I start as this can give me a lot of stimulus from which I can develop musical ideas and a framework. I often first sit down with a blank piece of paper to plan the structure of the piece. This can take the form of written words and timings, but more often than not there are shapes, sketches and notes to myself about instruments or timbre. As much as possible I like to feel a connection to the instruments for which I am writing and will try to compose ideas on the instrument as much as I can, even if I can hardly play the instrument at all. This allows me to feel how the fingers sit and how the sound really resonates.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Sometimes I worry that success is unattainable because as you reach a point in which a past self would have thought that is what success looks like somehow for your present self the goalposts have moved.

With that said, I think success is being able to work with creative inspiring musicians on projects that encourage me to continually develop my creative practice, along with the financial sustainability to make a living from commissioned work.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?

I was given a lot of advice at certain points in my career and not all of it was entirely useful. Getting lots of different opinions is important but having a clear sense of your own artistic goals can help navigate what is useful and what you can put to one side.

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

There is clearly an appetite for classical music amongst a wide range of audiences. I have found that programming concerts in different venues, locations, and towns/cities outside of the normal sites have opened up new audiences to my music and the work of others. Never underestimate the extent to which audiences are willing to hear something new, even if this sits outside of what they might be expecting.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about but you think we should be?

I think we need to be speaking more about how privilege, background in both education – cultural capital and financial resources can have a huge effect on the success of your career, both when you start out and as it continues. I feel certain disadvantages such as gender are now at least being acknowledged even though this area continues to be one that has a huge impact on those in the industry. Educational and financial background is still somehow brushed under the carpet, perhaps because it is sometimes less visible and more difficult to define. Acknowledging that opportunity and access are not fair and equitable for all in the current climate, as the sector is beginning to grapple with in some areas, is part of that process and can be a productive first step towards a more inclusive and just sector.

Angela Elizabeth Slater’s The Louder the Birds Sing and her piano concerto Tautening skies receive their world premiere at Bradshaw Hall, Birmingham Royal Conservatoire on 4th November 2022. Details/tickets here

Angela Elizabeth Slater is a UK-based composer, Illuminate Women’s Music Director and Professor of Composition at London Performing Academy of Music, having previously taught at Cardiff University. She has an interest in musically mapping different aspects of the natural world into the fabric of her music. 

Recent significant achievements include being selected for the RPS Composer programme for 2021-22, 2020-22 Tanglewood Composition Fellow, and a 2017-18 Britten-Pears Young Artist through which Angela worked with Oliver Knussen, Colin Matthews and Michael Gandolfi, developing Soaring in Stasis, which received its premiere at 2018 Aldeburgh Festival. Her work Eye o da hurricane (for string quartet), was shortlisted in the British category ISCM world music days in 2017. Angela was the New England Philharmonic’s 2018 call for scores winner resulting in the world-premiere of her orchestral work Roil in Stillness in April 2019. Angela also became the 2018 Young Composer of the Year for the London Firebird Orchestra, leading to a new work, Twilight Inversions, which received its world-premiere on 11th June 2019. Angela was the 2019 Mendelssohn Scholar resulting in her furthering her studies with Michael Gandolfi at NEC in 2019. 

Read more