Talking About Myself Is Embarrassing

Adopt a Composer Scheme 2014/15, Anna Braithwaite with Quirky Choir

So, I put in my application for a place on the 2014 'Adopt A Composer' scheme (AAC), I went to my interview, I was chosen for this year's scheme, I was assigned both a group to write for and a mentor (Mr. Fraser Trainer) and after all that, I went to Doncaster to meet The Quirky Choir. So far, so good. But it was only then that I realised I would have to run workshops with the choir, not something I felt very confident doing, and fear set in. Luckily, just in the nick of time, the nice people at Sound And Music invited me and the other AAC composers to a self-referentially-titled workshop on ‘How To Run A Workshop’ and I took the train to London, on a mission to equip myself for the challenges that lay ahead.

The mentors and composers in this year’s AAC project are a charming lot, pleasingly diverse and, like my choir, quirky. We started the workshop by talking about ourselves for five minutes, which was strangely embarrassing to do but enjoyable to listen to. It’s interesting to discover the various ways people have got into composing and makes you realise, as with most things we do, that ultimately there is no ‘normal’. Next, we had to describe our music to the proverbial bloke down the pub. More embarrassment. I said that my music is made up of lots of musical ingredients, which I put through a mincer and turn into a delicious sausage that even vegetarians would enjoy. After many years of working in both design and theatre I have gained a strong visual sense, which is probably why I used such a graphic metaphor to describe my music.

The visual component is an essential part of my composition work: for example, I always collect visual research alongside words and musical references to inspire me. I love to wander around the places that my subjects inhabit and find it essential to visit the venues in which the pieces will be performed. I take in sights as well as sounds and tailor the piece to a particular venue as much as is possible. Throughout the entire creative process, I think of the audience and what they will see as well as hear; this could be attributed in part to my years in the theatre, but also because, as an audience member, I often feel that contemporary composers have needlessly turned the general public away from their new music by making the experience self-consciously alienating, or 'difficult'. Whilst making sure the audience have a strong reaction to my music, I equally want them to feel like they are at a special event created with them in mind.

Whilst much of the music industry is desperately trying to react to the freedom and speed of exchange of music on the internet by recording it and then scaling it down to MP3, I am busy making site-specific pieces that can only be fully enjoyed at particular events and in unique venues. My pieces don’t record well: they need to be experienced. I create them this way because I personally love the live experience and want to encourage the growth of live music and because I am perverse. I aim to write music which demands to be seen and not just heard, because such a task is difficult and therefore I feel that it is worth doing.

I tend to centre my music around people involved in my chosen subject, exploring it through their experiences. I set the verbatim words of my chosen interviewees to music and usually have professional musicians perform the work. For my AAC project, I am aiming to create parts of the libretto from interviews conducted with the Quirky Choir. I hope that this will strengthen the collaboration, making the singers feel involved in the creation of the piece and help them to connect with the work. I want to gather the words during my first workshop with the choir and, with so many members (about forty), my aim is to get them to interview and record each other. The Sound And Music workshop was the perfect place to try this technique out. During my practice run, I got the attendees to interview each other about their memories of listening to the radio. I took one of the responses and showed the group how I would find the rhythm and tonality of my piece from their own words. The experience gave me the confidence that it would be an interesting and engaging process for my choir and calmed some of my own fears.

So what did I learn from the workshop about workshops? Firstly, the uncomfortable experience of having to talk about myself for five minutes has reminded me to be gentle with the people I interview for my music, as one can feel quite exposed. The enthusiasm the group had for putting their own words to music re-enforced my intention to use the actual words of the Quirky Choir to create my libretto. It unquestionably engages the performers on a visceral level. I was also taught that metaphor is a strong tool for communication. And so, warming to that theme, I would like to explain why I write music. In my daily life, I often feel like a headless chicken, but when I am composing I am a swan gliding through the water with strong webbed feet: I am in my element. However different the various paths this year’s composers have taken in order to arrive at the AAC, I think we probably all feel a similar way, which means that for once, among this crowd, I am ‘normal’.