YSO Interview Series: Composer, Hannah Kendall

Hannah Kendall’s “Disillusioned Dreamer” opened our concert on November 16th, 2019. YSO cellist Emery Kerekes ’21 interviewed Ms. Kendall in October of 2019 as part of an ongoing series of talks with this years’ living composers.
What is your first musical memory? How did you get started in music, and eventually settle on composing?
My first musical memory is being signed up for violin lessons by my mum. I was four, and I went into school one day, and there were hundreds of tiny violins, and I was going to be one of those violinists. In my family, everyone always played an instrument growing up. My grandfather was a jazz saxophonist, and he encouraged his children to play a musical instrument, so it was just kind of standard that we would as well. And I just really stopped from that time, but I never really composed…well, we had to as teenagers as part of our exam requirements, so it was compulsory. Not that that really means anything — I did it then because it was compulsory, but I didn’t really get interested in composition until university, where again it was also a compulsory requirement, but they actually changed the credit system while I was there. I needed ten extra credits, so I just took the composition module because I quite liked the teacher — why not?
So I tell that story sort of tongue-in-cheek, but I didn’t really know that I could be a composer before then. I’d never seen anyone like me writing music, I don’t think I even played music by a woman until I got to university. It just really wasn’t part of my mindset. I didn’t realize that could be a part of being a musician for me.
Take me through your process — how does your music go from concept to page?
There’s usually some sort of trigger — a piece of text, or maybe a political event. For example, I had a piece at the BBC Proms a couple years ago, and it was around the time that the Windrush scandal was happening. A lot of people emigrated from the former British colonies to the UK to help rebuild after WWII. They were literally British citizens, and generations later we find out that thousands of them were deported back to the Caribbean because they didn’t have immigration paperwork they really didn’t need. I was asked to write a piece that was noting the anniversary of the end of WWI, and I wanted to focus on the British soldiers from the Caribbean that were never even considered as fighting on behalf of the UK. I called that piece Verdala, which was one of the ships on which the British West-Indian regiment came over to fight.
So usually subjects like that are the triggers, and then it progresses on to some sort of graphic score, because that’s the only way I can link it from an idea to something that represents how I want it to look and sound. Then, I plot the harmony against the graphic score, and then I just sort of go on from there.
Interesting — why graphic score first?
It’s almost like a vomit-draft that writers do. It feels a little less overwhelming that way, and it lets me say, okay, at this point in the piece I want it to sound like this, and I don’t know how yet to do that. And it often doesn’t end up sounding like that, but I can’t kick off the process without doing that first.
Tell me a little bit about Disillusioned Dreamer — why you wrote it, how it plays into your compositional style. What are a couple things that won’t be in the program notes that you want the audience to take away from the piece?
I was rereading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which is set in New York (I don’t think I even knew I’d be living in New York at the time, which is crazy). Reading works such as his and James Baldwin’s, you read these texts and they could be layered over today, really. And just thinking about race relations in general, never mind in the USA in particular, it seems very pertinent. But also, I just really liked that it focuses on black male vulnerability, which we don’t really read about or see very often in any way. Invisible Man looks at how, even though your skin color can make you so visible, how visible are you really in society?
And that’s where Disillusioned Dreamer came from. One day, I’d like to extend the piece into something much larger, because I think I have more to say about that through my music beyond a 12-minute orchestral piece. I sort of see this piece as the springboard, the starting point, and I’m sure I’ll come back to it.
As for my style, I really don’t know the answer to that. I started writing the piece in London, and then I moved to New York and finished writing it in the US. It was a very stressful time in my life, uprooting and moving to the place where this book was set, as well. And I think being a new space, being a new environment, I think my composition style was changing anyway due to different influences and sounds, different networks, different conversations — which is part of the reason I moved here in the first place. So I don’t really know how it fits into my style. I think there’s a shift and I think you can definitely hear the changes and shifts, but I don’t know quite how to articulate that yet. I think there are still moments of brilliance and clarity, which is something I aim for in my music, but I think there’s also a darkness and murky side, which I think is needed for this piece.
Now that you’re at Columbia, how do you find that the American new music scene is significantly different from that in Britain?
It’s like night and day, really. Now that I’m here, I realize (practically and logistically) how lucky we are in the UK because we have so much public funding for music and the arts. We have all of these BBC orchestras which are funded by the public, and we have the BBC radio and broadcasts, and it’s just like, you get to work with these great orchestras, and it gets recorded, and broadcast, and then I get royalties, and that’s really cool.
That infrastructure doesn’t really seem to exist here, so that’s been an insight. But I think because of that, there are some really interesting things coming from music creators in NYC in particular — I don’t know much about the US as a whole, but I assume it must vary from place to place. Because of that lack of support, things happen in a completely different way here, and I find it difficult to tap into that because back at home I’ll just be like “Oh yeah, I’ll go to the Southbank Centre, there’ll be something there, and it’ll be great!” You know the places to go to hear things. But here, there could be something happening in a space somewhere that you haven’t caught wind of, so I’ve missed a lot. I’m trying to get on board with that.
And also, I’m in an academic environment for the first time in a decade. I think I could’ve stayed in the UK. Things were going really well, and I think I could’ve just stayed there and been really comfortable in this network that I know, and been supported, and found it really easy to conjure new opportunities, and so on. But actually, I think it’s important as a creator to mix that up. So for me personally, it’s great being at Columbia and being able to talk about things with a certain amount of academic rigor to see how I can feed what interests me into my music: reconciling my African and Caribbean heritage with Western classical idiom. These were conversations that I couldn’t really have in the UK.
What’s next? What do you have on for the rest of this season, and beyond?
I think it’s important to plan ahead, so I’m already in conversations about projects two, three, five years down the line. I mean, say I want to compose this really big piece based on [xyz], and it’s probably going to take two or three years do that anyway, so I can already start talking to people about that.
In that vein, I’m working on an opera right now which is one of those things, because I think that’s going to take quite a while to come to fruition. It’s called Tan-Tan and Drybone, and it’s based on a short story by Nalo Hopkinson, who is a Caribbean-Canadian Afrofuturist sci-fi writer. The story is inspired by the traditional West African character of Anansi, who is this man-spider trickster character. I was particularly drawn to it because he’s a character that has been passed down from West Africa via slaves, totally mouth-to-mouth storytelling, down the generations of the Caribbean and beyond. He’s a character that’s still known today, and I love that thread. Hopkinson has created an incredible story about Drybone, who is that man-spider character, who picks on a vulnerable girl who, it turns out, has killed her father in a previous life because he was abusing her, and he tricks her into taking him back to her hut, and he makes her force-feed him food constantly. It’s sort of set in this parallel Caribbean universe, all very fantastical and extremely dark as well. But it’s sort of dark in a fairy-tale way. It has a very African-Caribbean twist to it, which I like. And it’s being supported by the Royal Opera House and Opera North back in the UK, which is amazing. We’re workshopping the first part next month, which is what I’m working on right now. That’s going to take at least two years, which seems about right for an opera.
You’re stranded on a desert island and you’re only allowed to have three albums with you. What are they?
Oh my gosh. Well, definitely Beyoncé’s Lemonade. I’ll never get over the fact that it didn’t win that Grammy. I think about it at least once a week. I’m like, what? Even Adele was like….what? I just think it’s one of the best albums made, ever. But not just because of the album, but because of the concept. Also, the music is amazing.
Definitely something by Stormzy, probably Gang Signs and Prayers. Because again, I love British grime music. It’s sort of come out of my generation and below — first- and second- generation African-Caribbean young people in the cities of the UK. In the UK, if anyone thinks of black culture in particular, there’s an automatic assumption with African-Americanism. This is something that’s very specific to the black British experience.
Do I have to do a third? Let me think about it. I’ve got quite a few Barbara Strozzi albums, and there’s one that I really love. I’ve got really strong ties to baroque and renaissance music — I trained as a singer originally, and I sang in a one-on-a-part early music choir for years. It was the best thing ever!
You obviously have a very distinct compositional voice. What do you want your voice to say?
In general, I think I want to say things that other composers might not say, whatever those may be. I don’t know whether it’s purposeful, but I think my subject matter, more often than not, is quite provocative, so I’m trying to marry my draw to social and racial justice into my music, somehow. That’s what I want to say.