“I think I produce my best work when I’m working cross-collaboratively. They are the most draining creatively, but I enjoy that feeling. I always work with a stimuli, whether it’s another person, or something else.” -Amelia Clarkson
Amelia Clarkson is a Northern Irish composer currently working between Belfast and Gdansk. Having graduated from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in 2019, Amelia’s work has seen performances at the Southbank Centre, Elgar Concert Hall and Blackheath Halls, the latter of which saw the premiere of critically acclaimed one-act ballet Dear Frances. Amelia is currently a member of the Worshipful Company of Musicians‘ Yeomen scheme, and has recently worked on pieces for the Central Band of the Royal Air Force and Presteigne Festival.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hey Amelia! Thanks for joining me today. Tell me a bit about your musical background; how did you get involved with composition?
Amelia Clarkson: So I didn’t really know that people “composed” music until I turned 18; it was never something — especially [with] women — that was introduced. I trained as a classical soprano and flautist, and [I] did GCSE and A-level composition and stuff, which is just… not composition. -laughs- Then I went to Cardiff University, and that’s where I was introduced to it properly, and where I started… so I only started writing at 18.
What kind of stuck out to you with composition? Was there some kind of grand calling, as it were?
At Cardiff, there was a huge emphasis on performing new music. There were opportunities from first year to get [your music] performed, which was really good and encouraging to approach musicians yourself to perform your work. I always come from the perspective that if I write a piece, it’s for a performance; I don’t write stuff to sit in a folder somewhere.
How did your compositional voice develop after you graduated from Cardiff?
I went to Trinity Laban straight after [my undergraduate], and at that point I’d written under 15 pieces of music. I had 6 weeks between graduating from Cardiff and starting Trinity; it was good for me, it worked, but it could have been a bit of a baptism of fire. It sounds really cheesy, but Trinity Laban changed my entire life. -laughs- I wrote more music in my first year than I’d ever written in my life. It was really freeing, and I was very open-minded when I arrived, and willing to do whatever was thrown at me.
Tell me about the writing process for your ballet, ‘Dear Frances’ – if I remember correctly, that was your final project for your Masters?
Yeah. The whole thing was created with choreographer Ruaidhrí Maguire within four months, exactly — you know how that is, in an education setting you’re doing four million things at the same time, anyway — and basically, we created some of it separately, but the main chunk was created in a studio in Gdansk, working with the dancers who were in it. It was quite high-pressure to write the next bit before they got it! -laughs- A lot of the collaboration was so elastic; you [could] kind of sense where it’s going. I really enjoyed the process of working in the studio.
Did you have a big input in how the choreography was structured?
Because it was based on Frances Shea, who was a real person, and had a real life [and] story, we structured that out first. I also chose to change the instrumentation as we went through; so at its biggest, it was for chamber orchestra, and at its smallest it was for solo piano. So that was all decided before [the compositional process]; and kind of depending on [the] intimacy, or what was happening [on stage], I chose the instrumentation with the [story] arc. I let [Ruaidhrí] run wild, for the most part; where you’ve got a “hit” in [the] music, or where there was a really strong point, it would be discussed… for the most part, it was completely natural and really cohesive.
Do you tend to prefer writing in interdisciplinary contexts?
Yes, but they’re kind of rarer, at this point in my career. I find them the most stimulating, and I think I produce my best work when I’m working cross-collaboratively. They are the most draining, creatively and stuff, but I enjoy that feeling. I always work with a stimuli, whether it’s another person, or something else.
Even in your instrumental stuff, I’ve noticed you have a flair for dramatic, which I absolutely love. -laughs-
Because a lot of the stimuli I work with is kind of dramatic, or maybe [touches on] quite a potent issue, for my more recent stuff anyway. I think just the way I interpret that, especially with vocal work, when you’re working with classical voices… especially sopranos. -laughs- It’s almost a crime, if they have a dramatic voice, not to use it. I think cumulatively, I enjoy working that way, really storytelling with it.
Tell me a bit about some of your recent vocal work. I saw that you had some pieces premiered recently?
I’ve just had a premiere of a set of songs that I wrote for the Presteigne Festival. It was a piece that deconstructed three poems by William Butler Yeats, that I chose because he basically simultaneously adores and resents women, and that really interested me, especially because the performers I was working with were both men. I think with the harp, it’s quite a dramatic instruments that has ties into Irish folk; that’s something I really wanted to look at, [using] the harp as its own character. Because I was a singer, I feel really comfortable crafting [a piece] with a singer, or for their voice, because every voice is really different. I think I really enjoy that aspect of it as well.
You mentioned that your music contains some influence from Irish folk. Tell me a bit about where that influence came from…
A lot of my music is quite folk-influenced, and I quite enjoy that juxtaposition of classical and folk elements. My dad and my uncle both play a lot of Irish traditional folk; flute, fiddle, accordion, anything they could pick up. It comes from a childhood of being subjected to that. I play classical flute, and I have a trad flute, but it’s not the same… It takes a few minutes to get your head around the difference in the conventions of trad compared to classical, [but] there’s something enjoyable about the freedom of it as well. As a singer, I’ve also enjoyed doing folk songs and things, so I’ve enjoyed writing my own.
Would you say you consciously wear your influences on your sleeve when you’re writing?
Hmm… probably not. Maybe the theatrical folk thing is kind of a part of it… I don’t know. I just try to write stuff that I would like to go to, or hear. I guess that’s what everyone does, or finds themselves doing eventually.
Kind of like writing what you like, or writing what you want to hear?
I’d say “write what you like” is kind of the wrong thing to say; I’d say it’s more [about] being curious in your writing. I like to make music that I would be curious to [see], or would be an extension of something else… I think [if you] “write what you like”, you can end up in a bit of a safe zone, which I don’t really enjoy anyway. I think [it’s better to] always push a little bit more than you did the last time, pushing even just an inch further with their pieces, in any direction.
With everything going on currently, in what kind of direction do you see the contemporary classical music scene in the UK heading?
I think it depends on our lovely government. -laughs- I think because of the COVID question, I think if we can follow on from the likes of Germany and Poland, we will be okay. I think a lot of people will have to adapt their work; a lot of what we’ve seen of online concert series popping up — that “accessible for everyone” type of performances [and] broadcasts — has been a really positive thing anyway, in terms of involving more audiences and increasing [the reach] for contemporary classical [music], and making it less classist. I think a lot of people will be very very happy whenever they can go to a live performance of anything. -laughs- People will be buzzing to get out to hear something live.
That’s a really interesting point; do you think that the freedom of online performances has democratised the audience for contemporary music?
Yeah, I think with how much of the rep has been put online, even with more traditional classical music, [for example] if you look at what the Royal Opera House has been putting out for free over the lockdown period. I think there are more people who maybe traditionally couldn’t afford to go to the Opera House, or wouldn’t have even thought of it, who might have seen clips of things that circulated during lockdown. A lot of these bigger music organisations do need to continue to look at who they’re accessing in their audiences, and maybe look at improving that. But it ties into everything, really; it ties into music education too.
Do you think the traditional composers’ commission-performance model is working, career-wise?
It should be; I think a lot of people have portfolio careers. I don’t think you can nowadays really rely on commissions; I think you have to be proactive in creating your own work. Especially at the emerging stage, it’s very unlikely that someone’s gonna offer to you the exact commission, or the exact piece, that you’d like to write. Having really great commissions, like the Presteigne Festival — or I’ve [also] just written a piece for the RAF — that are really technically demanding, or take you into a certain area, I always end up discovering something else that I wouldn’t have thought of if I hadn’t been offered the opportunity. I do spend a huge quantity of my time working on projects that I want to make, even [if] there’s absolutely no feasibility at the minute of that happening, I think it’s still something that I’m really driven to do.
What future projects do you have in the pipeline?
I wrote quite a big work — a 12-minute work — for the central band of the Royal Air Force. It was due to premiere in July, but has been postponed for the forseeable! Boris needs to let us know if that can go ahead. -laughs-
A lot of my work now kind of revolves around attitudes towards sexual consent; I’ve just started a piece called ‘Untongued’, which will look at the effect of anonymity on victims of sexual assault. It’ll be a dramatic vocal work, for soprano and small ensemble. I’m taking text message evidence from the Belfast Rape Trial; [I’m using] all the text message evidence in that [to] create this multi-roled, really dramatic piece that really shows the brutality of the justice system.
I’ve also started the beginning stage of another ballet. It’s very [much] at the pre-writing phase at the moment; hopefully it’ll be a youth ballet for a small instrumental ensemble based around the forming of the Peace People [during] the Troubles, in Belfast. We hope to be able to present that in Northern Ireland at some point, which should be really nice; especially since young performers and dancers there don’t get that many [opportunities]. There could be more contemporary music in Belfast; [which is] something that I’d really like to really push, if I’m ever in the position to, [and] make sure young people know about new music before they turn 18. -laughs-
Amelia’s work can be found at:
- Inside Court 12: the complete story of the Belfast rape trial, Irish Times (2018)
- History of the Peace People, Peace People website