“I work, compositionally, like a novelist. I know what the story arc’s gonna be, I know who my characters are; I know what direction [it’s] gonna go in, what’s gonna happen in each chapter. I know what the results of these conversations are gonna be between these two characters, but I haven’t written all the dialogue.”

Florence Anna Maunders

Florence Anna Maunders is a multi-award-winning composer, percussionist, pianist, educator, and producer based in the UK. Florence’s work explores unusual juxtapositions of sounds and collisions of styles, influenced by her interests in music ranging from medieval dance, prog-rock, electronic minimalism, bebop jazz, Eastern folk music, Stravinsky, and Messiaen. Following a varied international career as a jazz pianist, orchestral percussionist, electronic music producer, teacher, and more, she returned to composition as her main artistic focus in 2018. Since then, she has received multiple accolades — in the past year alone being a Royal Philharmonic Society Composer 2022-23, and receiving prizes and commissions from Khemia Ensemble, Uitgast Festival Prize, BCMG’s Flourish! Commission, Third Coast Percussion Currents Creative Partner, LCO New, Drake Music Ascendant Commission, and more.

Following her intense compositional year, we caught up with Florence in King’s Place, London, and spoke about writing ergonomically for performers, main character syndrome, coral reefs, hyper-genre, the “post-experimental” age, and more…

Florence Anna Maunders, ‘Not Getting Out’ (2020), performed by the Villiers Quartet.

Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Florence! Hope you’re doing well. We’re chatting on the tail end of what’s been such a busy year for you — your wonderful music’s been invading the contemporary music world recently, hasn’t it?

Florence Anna Maunders: Yes! Invading contemporary classical music! Sending out my footsoldiers of crotchets and quavers. My armoured vehicles of cluster chords… -laughs- I don’t compose in a militaristic fashion. Like a fungus growing on things, maybe; developing a culture. Maybe a fungal metaphor is a better way of thinking about it. Maybe it’s like zombie fungus — it gets into peoples’ brains, transforms them.

I mean, if you’re talking about how music affects people, one can argue there’s an element of persuasion…

There’s different ways to get people to do what you want, isn’t there? One of these, of course, is persuasion: you can try and persuade people [that] it’s in their best interest to programme my music. Then there’s deception: you can try and trick people into listening to my music — “you’re really gonna like this” — and then, of course, intimidation: listen to this music or I’m gonna kick your spine out through your ribs… -laughs- And then you’ve got bribery, [and] blackmail: listen to this music or I’ll tell everybody what you did last summer.

And so where does the work you’ve been doing over this past year fit on that continuum?

I think mostly, people have been coercing me. The other way round. I haven’t done a lot of work-chasing the last year, which is nice. I’s always great when you get these emails, or calls out the blue. I find it very hard to say no to people, though. Generally, I don’t compose music in the abstract; when I write music, I’m writing it for someone. I’m not writing music for a clarinettist, I’m writing for this clarinettist; I’m not writing music for a brass band, I’m writing music for this particular band.

I suppose I’m quite motivated by that. Probably the reason I got into composing in the first place is [that] it’s a good excuse to hang out with great musicians. Be part of the whole process: “look at me, hanging out with these really cool people playing my dots!” That’s one thing. The other thing is, I just thought “this music’s quite good, but it’s not what I wanna hear.” I’ve got a particular vibe I wanna do; which I’m still chasing, I think. It’s like, the goalposts always move — whatever you write, it’s like okay, I know I’ve got closer to the music that’s in my head. Maybe the next time, it’s gonna get a bit closer.

I understand that. Like, each piece you write is incremental to the larger whole of your development.

Yeah, but I keep moving the goalposts myself — like, what it is I want to hear. Every time I hear something else, it’s like “oh, that’s interesting!” I do a lot of listening. I use this metaphor quite a lot, [of] breathing while composing: if you want to exhale composition, you have to inhale listening. That doesn’t come from nothing; it’s really cool, listening to what other people are doing, what other people have already done, and talking about it.

[As a] mass generalisation — [many] people don’t talk about music; they talk about themselves. Say you have a premiere, un concert in which one’s music is performed — and people come up to you afterwards, they talk about their impressions of it, they say they liked it, they enjoyed it. They’re just talking about themselves. [There’s] not much to talk to about the music — but their reactions to it, which is interesting. But really, the only people I’ve found that actually talk about the music as music are other composers. I think we’re a weird clan; we listen differently.

It makes sense; not only we are so involved in this field, it’s also the we also utilise the language we talk about it…

But it’s also about the way we listen to sounds. I think most performing musicians — I count myself as a performing musician here — when you’re performing a piece, you’re thinking about the practical technique. Last night, I was with Tredegar Town Band — I basically spent a lovely hour sight-reading a load of brand new brass band percussion parts. I wasn’t really thinking about the piece, because I was in full-on, hardcore, music sight reading mode; which is great, because it impresses people when you can do this stuff. -laughs- You’re not thinking about what the piece itself sounds like when that’s going on. You’re just looking ten bars ahead. Particularly percussionists — “okay, after I play this, I’ve got three bars to get to the bass drum, I need to set that bass timpani there to an F-flat, thanks Dave…” -laughs- I don’t care what the underlying harmony is — but I would, of course, if I was looking at it as a composer. But that performer point of view is: I just want that part presented to me, in a way that makes sense to me as a musician.

So I do think, [when] composing, I’m thinking about what the performers can mechanically do to produce these sounds. Being a multi-instrumentalist, with all this performing and conducting experience — before I really got back into composing, pre-2018 — I think it’s really helpful. Just being able to picture stuff in my head, like woodwind fingerings, [or] “which string is this gonna be on?”, “are the drummer’s hands gonna cross over?” You can write stuff that’s very complex, but it falls under the fingers well. It’s rewarding to play.

Florence Anna Maunders, ‘Either Everything Is or Nothing Is’ (2021), performed by Jennifer Langridge and Benamin Powell as part of Psappha‘s Composing For… scheme.

Would you say your compositional process is quite practically focused?

Absolutely. I think relative pitch is a lot more important than absolute pitch. If you’ve got a particular pattern that sounds great, but it’s really fucking awkward on the oboe — if you take it down a semitone, it falls under the fingers really nicely. So if you’ve got something that’s full of flats and sharps, it’s like “hold on a minute”… [you can] have the same musical idea, but it’s gonna fall under the fingers. Of course, there is that open sound as well [with] woodwind instruments — [all] you’ve got to do is take the fingers away. There’s particular pitches which just facilitate moving around the instrument really easily. You can write some really flashy, complicated stuff if you work around that.

It’s like the open strings on a string instrument. If you do the same pattern, but a fifth higher, all the player does is move their hands up a string. But if you do the same pattern a fourth higher, it’s [a] completely different fingering. If you really wanted it [as] a fourth, how about a fourth lower?

How do you feel like that focus has impacted your aesthetic?

I don’t know. Because I’m quite happy to break my own rules, and go “these are the notes I actually need here” — and players have got to find their way around it. But if you want your music to sound resonant, and fluid, and come from the players — if you want the results without having the luxury of stacks of rehearsal time… I’m not talking about making the music easy, I’m talking about writing for the instruments rather than against them. I’m saying this as someone who uses all kinds of extended techniques: super detailed mute directions, hands inside pianos, playing instruments that have been taken apart… It’s very much part of my aesthetic, and approach.

Of course — there’s ways of doing that while also taking the ergonomics of the instrument into account.

Ergonomic approach to music making — that’s an idea!

I’d love to compose [by going] “I’m gonna write a piece, I don’t know how it goes, I’m just gonna write some music…” My normal way of composing is [that] I’ve got an idea in my head of exactly how the piece is gonna go. I’ve imagined it all. And now I need to sit down and go through the whole process of notating it out, so the players can know how it goes, as well. It’s like telling a story: if you’re a novelist, I imagine when you sit down to write a story, you know who the characters are gonna be, the main plot points… But the coming together is in the actual writing out. The characters come alive, [with] a bit more dialogue and details, the adjectives. That’s where the craft and the fun comes into it.

I work, compositionally, like a novelist. I know what the story arc’s gonna be, I know who my characters are; I know what direction [it’s] gonna go in, what’s gonna happen in each chapter. But in the actual writing out [I can go] “oh, let’s substitute another adjective there” — I know what the results of these conversations are gonna be between these two characters, but I haven’t written all the dialogue.

Exactly — there’s so many routes to take between point A and point B, and the beauty is the journey between them.

Yeah. I mean, I trust my instincts very often. Some things just sound right, don’t they? A lot of my music’s got lots of chopped-up rhythmic stuff going on; if you ever have the misfortune to sit behind me when I’m composing, you can see a lot of me conducting the air — “ta-ta-ta-taa-taa-ta-ta, chaka-chaka dakada” — getting the feel of it in your hand. You just know when it’s right; like “that’s where the downbeat goes — there!” After all these rhythmic changes. You know when it feels right.

This skill that gets hammered into you, as an undergraduate — of transcription, basically. Dictation. That’s really what’s going on when I’m composing; I am dictating, or transcribing, the music that I’m hearing in my head.

Florence Anna Maunders, ‘Nest/Mound’ (2020), performed by the GBSR Duo in association with Vale of Glamorgan Festival’s Peter Reynolds Composer Studio.

I’ve always understood notation as more of a method of communication, rather than a creative end in itself — although many composers work in radically different ways to that.

A lot of composers — a massive generalisation — start with the notation. They’re working in a quite abstract way; what it’s gonna sound like comes later. The system comes first, and the sound comes after. For me, it’s always like I’m trying to get as close as possible, with the notation, to the sound in my head.

I don’t really have any notational issues as a composer. I’ve been to enough workshops, in my work as an educator [and] a composer, where you see all this time being wasted with people who don’t follow the conventions of notation. For whatever reason — sometimes because they think they know better, sometimes because they don’t know what the conventions are, because “it’s my art, and it’s important.” That’s great — there are no rules — but you’ve got to be aware you’ve got an hour with this ensemble, and they’ve spent forty-five minutes trying to understand what you mean. I think it’s just [that] I’ve sat on the other side of a music stand enough times, I suppose. -laughs- I don’t want that to happen to me!

I guess if you’ve worked as a classical performer, it’s easier to have empathy on those ends.

Obviously, I don’t want people to be limited by notation. If they’ve got sounds, and they can’t notate it — “how do I write this down?” — I really hate to pop your bubble, but someone has done this before. You’ve just got to find it; there’s a convention for it, there’s a way to communicate it. Even the craziest techniques — you think no-one has done this before — err, sorry, the 1960’s happened. -laughs- We’re living in a post-experimentalist society with music.

What do you mean by “post-experimentalist?”

Well, we got all the results for the experiments. I suppose like all arts, and all sciences, music is a limited field. Once it goes beyond the audible spectrum, [and] we go into this theoretical field of music, that’s great — but there’s a limit beyond which stuff is actually audible. A certain frequency range. And there’s a certain tempo range, as well. I mean, in terms of complexity, our ears can recognise certain subdivisions of sounds; we can hear if something’s in time, or on a beat, or off a beat. [If] we go up to sort of eleven tuplets, so many kilohertz high, so many events per second… Beyond that point, our ears give up, and they either focus on particular lines, or we start hearing multiple sounds as a combined sound, as a resultant sound. In particular, if it’s voiced by similar[ly] timbred instruments, you hear that as a unit rather than separate lines. In the same ways your eyes read separate letters as a word. But even the most highly developed musical brain [has] limits on it.

Where we are, in 2023… those limits have been pushed already in every direction. They’ve been pushed very thoroughly. You can spend the whole of the rest of your life reading peoples’ PhD papers in composition, and you would not run out of reading material. I don’t think I’m being very controversial when I say we’re living in a post-experimental age.

So then, if we’re not “experimenting” as composers, in what direction are we heading in?

The same direction composers have always gone in, when they’re not riding the cutting edge of the wave of the new. You do not need to experiment to innovate. Beethoven was an amazing innovator, who you would in no way describe as experimental; he knew what was gonna happen with every note he wrote. He was working entirely within the system that was established in his time. Because we’re in this wonderfully rich, post-experimental situation, our range of tools as composers is now vast. It’s not unlimited; there’s hard limits on what the human ear can actually perceive. But it’s pretty, pretty big.

Florence Anna Maunders, ‘Desert Spaces’ (2021), performed by Ensemble Black Pencil, performed at the Orgelpark Amsterdam as part of the Prix Annelie de Man 2021.

What do you mean by hard limits?

At a certain point, the extension of the audible sound is not actually perceiveable. It’s a nice theoretical exercise to say “we can add one more violin fade to the orchestra, we can [have] one more fraction of a semitone flat” — but at a certain point, the way in which the airwaves are vibrating towards our ears is not perceivably different. There is a hard limit, at some point.

If you just want chaotic complexity, that’s great. There’s a huge number of ways to create chaotic complexity; in fact, the vast majority of ways of organising sound result in chaotic complexity. If you want to notate chaotic complexity, it’s actually really hard work. You need to start fitting in all sort of weird subdivisions of sound, in time and in vertical pitch space. It becomes a lot of effort. It’s a lot easier to write a squiggly line and say “just go crazy here.”

But then if you just write a squiggly line, a lot of performers…

Will fall back on what they already know. Whatever falls under the fingers. You’ll get those open strings, and F major scales. -laughs- If you want actual, really bonkers craziness, you need to write it out. Write some music like Brian Ferneyhough — so complex it can’t be performed accurately.

I’m quite a fan of making sounds which the performers, the audience, and myself can actually appreciate as a sound. Sometimes, that means being simple about it, and presenting a sound in isolation. I was talking to Tansy Davies a lot about this during the spring and early summer, about what she’s calling a “coral reef form”. It’s a whole load of objects, [which are] related in that they exist in the same space — they move around, and past each other — but they’re not actually related in any real way. There’s different colourful fish, and a shark drifts past, and [there’s] a lovely outcropping of coral… Each thing, in itself, is beautiful, but the way it relates is [that] they happen to be in the same bit of ocean. The ordering, the structure, doesn’t really matter — there’s no sense of a conventional development — nice sounds are made, floating in the warm water of the piece as a whole.

I think that makes sense to me — that by putting these elements together, that automatically forms a relationship.

“Here is something; here’s something else; and here’s something else.” You can form whatever relationship you like between them; but in terms of the actual sound content, the relationship is just [that] it’s the same musicians playing the same piece. I suppose it’s the opposite of some of those mono-thematic ideas, going back to Haydn symphonies or Liszt tone poems. There is no need to interconnect things; something happens, and then something else happens, and that’s life. Everything’s connected because it’s happening in an interconnected world. But… -Flori points outside- …there’s no particular reason that person just walked past.

Florence Anna Maunders, ‘Harbingers of Change: Eight of Cups’, from the EP Harbingers of Change (2022).

How does that relate to your treatment of musical material?

I try and avoid the idea of main character syndrome; I don’t have a “main theme”. Just because a musical idea comes back again, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more important. I really enjoy starting a piece of music with a musical idea that’s not heard again in [the] piece, and I really enjoy finishing off a piece by bringing something new. Of course, I have recurring ideas — ideas that come back — but I try to avoid giving them that main character syndrome [of] “let’s bring that idea back at the end to round it all off!” That big idea we heard the way through, that’s not the main idea — you’ve just heard it a lot.

You’ve mentioned that much of your compositional process feels quite novelistic — so how do these two ideas relate to each other?

Music’s quite unique as an artform, as it’s linear. You cannot hear the end of a piece first — if [the material] comes at the beginning of the piece. If you look at an artwork, for example, you can cast your eye across in any direction; you can pick up a book and read from the back page through to the front. There’s some great novels in which the events are told out of sequence — there’s movies which tell the events out of sequence. That’s very clever. [But] you can’t do that with a piece of music — stuff always has to refer back to what’s come before. You can never refer forwards to something that’s gonna happen soon. You can do some foreshadowing — you can have a flashback, absolutely — but you can’t do this clever, 21st-century-novel thing in which the events are told out of order, and only make sense when you get to the end.

There are still ways to do that, though… right?

Maybe another composer might pick up on it — especially if they can see the score — but for somebody who’s listening to it, as sounds vibrating in space and time, you hear the first note first and the last note last.

So when I’m writing a piece of music, I never start with the beginning. I generally start with what is gonna be the main “thing” — what’s the bit of this piece I’m really excited about? The bit that made me want to write this piece in the first place. It’s great when you have the opportunity to work with an ensemble, and you present them with a whole load of “chunks”. I generally present it as if it were a piece, with all of the chunks stitched together into a sort of frankenstein-piece. Then I can hear what’s working, what’s vibing; and then it’s about assembling those objects into what feels like the right order.

I love to work with material. Who doesn’t love to work with material — it’s the real fun of composing, isn’t it? Coming up with the ideas; any monkey can do that, given enough time and enough typewriters. But the real craft of composition — what takes the practice, and the skill — is working with the material. That’s the really intellectually satisfying bit: I’ve got these ideas, these textures, sonorities, timbres, melodies, harmonic progressions — let’s do something with them!

Are there any particular techniques you find yourself coming back to?

I mean, we all have our favourites. I really love the sound of flutes with muted trumpets — either doubling or making a chord together. Say you’ve got two trumpets, and two flutes; [if] you’ve got the flutes playing the upper and lower notes, and the trumpets in the middle, it sounds like you’ve got four flutes. If you’ve got the trumpets playing the outer notes, it sounds like you’ve got four trumpets. Muted trumpets and flutes!

You can do the same with horns and bassoons. I want a full horn chord here, but in my little Haydn-esque orchestra, I’ve got two horns and two bassoons; so have the horns play the outer notes, and the basoons fill the middle, it sounds like a horn chord. These are just little tricks! “Oh yeah, four horns!” Nah, two horns and two bassoons, mate — your ear’s just thinking horns.

Like how our brains are, more often than not, able to detect words if we have the first and the last letter.

So often, if a word’s misspelled, you know what it means anyway. Our ears do the same with music; it fills stuff in. You write a root, a third, and a seventh, your brain fills in the fifth — you’re hearing a dominant seventh chord. We have these pattern-seeking brains. We evolved them to look at predators. The human mind looks for patterns, and when there’s not any, we look for them anyway. And after a while, if we don’t find any pattern, we get mentally pissed off. It’s stressful — it becomes a random string of stuff.

I think we (as a species) enjoy — on an emotional, physical, and intellectual level — listening to music where we can perceive pattern. I’m talking completely outside of genre and style here; we love pattern. And of course, with music, the clearest way to express pattern is very often through repetition; whether that’s direct repetition, sequencing, ostinato. Because it’s temporal — we hear a thing, and move on to the next thing — people need to hear stuff multiple times. We hear the music very differently as [the] composer, because we know what’s coming next — we’re familiar with the piece! But for someone who’s not familiar, maybe hearing it for the first and only time…

Exactly — stuff that people can latch onto.

That’s why minimalism was so successful. Who doesn’t love an audible process? People feel smart because they can hear what’s going on — it ticks everybody’s dopamine release for identifiable pattern. And of course, when you have repetition, you set up an expectation — and when you break that repetition, you go “ooh! Something’s changed…”

I really like music which is full of repetition, but there’s no actual repetition. It’s just very similar — the same motivic shapes, maybe the same interval values, the same melodic lines, rhythms — but nothing is ever actually identical repeats of something you’ve heard before. It’s even better when you do it with fragments of well-known material, as well. I don’t know if you heard the piece I wrote for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, ‘In the Land of Hypocrisy’ — there’s fragmented bits of the National Anthem, and Rule Britannia… All our favourite patriotic songs. Including the football chants. -laughs- Music’s very good at being sarcastic.

Oh, I love that. Have you used much quotation in your work in this kind of “throwing shade” capacity?

A little bit! A little bit of quotation’s fun… Quotation is really in the form or four or five note melodic fragments. It just happens [to be] a five note fragment that people find recognisable — “God save our gra-…” — it doesn’t need to be anything more than a suggestion, because it’s so familiar. Like the piece Errollyn Wallen wrote for the Royal Northern Sinfonia, for their 60th birthday [ed. ‘FONDANT’] — these little fragments of “happy birthday”. But when you mix it with dubstep beats, and farting trombones, and stuff… it becomes very fun.

Florence Anna Maunders, ‘Aftershocks’ (2021), performed by Magnard Ensemble at Vale of Glamorgan Festival 2021.

Because it then recontextualises things — like, “why have I heard this alongside this?” — and I can definitely hear that in the way you compose; it’s almost post-genre.

I like what you said about my music being “post-genre”. What does genre mean? Either my music is post-genre, or it’s relying on genre perceptions to a respect. It’s either one or the other. If I write something that’s basically a brass band-drum and bass piece — it’s not a [typical] drum and bass piece, and it’s not a typical brass band piece. But it’s relying on the combination of those two established genres for its musical effects. So, is that post-genre? Or is it using the whole concept of genre to a new, heightened level? Is it genre-plus? A heightened multi-genre-ism.

That’s such a wonderful way of putting it! It’s like, you’re still using tropes of genre, and through combining them creating something new.

Genre-plus… hyper-genre! It’s like the whole thing of hyperpop. I love hyperpop — I want to create the hyperpop of classical music. It’s the maximalism, and the lack of embarrassment; it’s very un-British. It’s very un-subtle, it’s not self-effacing in any way. It’s very silly. I do like to embrace the silliness.

It’s something I appreciate in some of what Ben Nobuto does — serious music that can also lean into the silliness.

Really strictly notated, very clearly crafted, constructed music, with silly sounds when you get it all right. You can be really serious, [and] accompanied by silliness. I think it’s important sometimes that music just goes hard — all these genres like brostep, or death metal, gabber techno. This is great, I love that energy. I want to steal some of that energy… Uninhibitedly over-the-top. People worry a lot about making nice, beautiful sounds, which is great; but the juxtaposition between the nice, beautiful sound, and the brutality… It’s life in 2023, isn’t it? In the midst of beauty, brutality; and in the midst of brutality, beauty. It’s like [a] serial killer looking at the beauty in the blood splatters.

Learn more about Florence Anna Maunders and her practice at:

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Zygmund de Somogyi is a composer, performer, and writer based in London, and artistic director of contemporary music magazine PRXLUDES.

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