We have lift off! Earlier this month, we launched a brand-new year of music-making, inviting 775 teenage musicians to come together in our biggest ever activity, to perform a piece of music, live, over the internet. That piece was Jigsaw, music specifically composed for this activity, by Dani Howard. NYO Inspire musicians Shesh and Vivien joined Dani for an online chat, asking her questions about her upbringing, the inspiration behind Jigsaw and what she would like to change in classical music.
Vivien: How does your upbringing and family life influence you as a composer today?
Dani: That's a very big question. I'm English but I was born and raised in Hong Kong and so we had a completely different system. I mean, in many ways I'm in awe of what you have here in the UK with things like national youth orchestras; it’s just incredible, we didn't have anything like that. However, I was really lucky to have an incredible cello teacher that I started with when I was 10. He's principal cellist of the Hong Kong Philharmonic and he was a huge figure in making me want to become a professional musician and teaching me really. I also had incredible exposure to a company called YRock, which my mum founded, and it was a company encouraging teenagers to write original songs and perform them in banned contexts and they arranged events. Growing up I had a drum kit – it was my first instrument and I taught myself guitar, but piano and cello were the ones I took most seriously and did exams on. But I played in a lot of bands and worked with a lot of rock musicians, rappers, all sorts of musicians and played in house bands keyboards & drums and I really think that side of things: the open-mindedness, the improvisation that I learned through that and the writing of songs, the combination of that and having an incredible cello teacher in the purely classical music world was a really nice fusion to help me now as a composer.
Vivien: And what role did music play in your teenage years?
Dani: It was interesting, I didn't really get involved that much in school, I was in the school orchestra, but our orchestra was tiny, we had very few players! While I did that, I didn't really have the kind of orchestral experience that maybe I would have wanted and once a year the schools did come together but even then, there was no brass... It was just the culture was very different in Hong Kong, so I didn't have the biggest orchestral music playing background but I went to so many concerts. I always went to watch the Hong Kong Philharmonic the City Chamber Orchestra regularly and then obviously had a really active role with this companyYRock that meant that every week I was in band rehearsals and events, so yes it was it was very active, mainly outside of school in those two areas and it was indeed a great time!
Shesh: We're working on your piece, Jigsaw. Could you tell us the inspiration behind it and how you felt when you were writing the piece?
Dani: The piece was specifically commissioned for NYO Lift Off & Lift Up and I knew it was going to be a digital project. So, I wanted to create a piece that was not a fall-back plan of what should be live, a piece that could be the best that it can be in this context, so that we're not feeling like we're missing out. That was one element. Then in terms of the inspiration behind the piece, my only thing that I knew right away is that I wanted to create something uplifting and fun: we need something positive! And for me often it's not always the case but positive and fun equals rhythmic and quirky, so I didn't want to do just a soundscape-y thing, I wanted something rhythmic. So, I did think of doing something rhythmic where people have to count and they have to count rests and some of it's quite fast, so there's challenging bits but also a simplified version as well. I immediately thought: ‘Okay, fast piece. quirky, playful, rhythmic and then the title led me to the actual musical material. The title, Jigsaw, comes from my father, who always names every single one of my pieces! Because having 775 musicians and a different set-up of instruments everyday, it felt a kind of puzzle to me. I then reflected on the title because I do love doing jigsaws. What do we feel when we're doing a kind of solitary activity whether that's playing a game or doing a jigsaw? We move into a very subconscious state: very relaxed, very meditative, you don't know where time goes, and then we can get really excited about little things! So, I took the jigsaw idea and realised I wanted a series of build-ups and a series of small things with definitive moments that change now we're in a new section, and that's what informed the piece.
Vivien: When I was looking more into the piece, I found out that you've travelled to many different countries, I was wondering how this taste of different cultures has influenced your work as a composer?
Dani: It definitely has! Living in Hong Kong, I was at an international school and I had friends from all different nationalities and I'd often get involved with some of their religious or non-religious celebrations and that definitely exposed me to a lot. A trip that I made a few years ago to the US; I went to California for the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music as a composition fellow, so I was there to learn and that was a festival of all new music, all just incredibly vibrant and amazing new music! That experience really opened my eyes to a lot of American composers that I hadn't heard of and that's been hugely influential to me as well.
Shesh: How does it feel working with NYO?
Dani: It's amazing because ever since I came to London, I didn't understand the kind of gravity of how much of a big deal it is to be to be in youth orchestras, like NYO. And I've been blown away with the NYO Inspire programme, reaching more and more teenage musicians with a passion for orchestral music. I've just been in awe of what has been able to be done, and how much the team cares about the young musicians, so it's really incredible! It's been a real honour to even be associated with the organisation.
Vivien: Yes, I agree. I think NYO has a great atmosphere and the music played is very varied. What piece of music would you share with a teenager who is new to classical music?
Dani: I am like a firm believer that new music is really important and so the first thing I would recommend is definitely a piece by a living composer and I'd probably pick John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine. It's one of my all-time favourite pieces, it's just perfection to me: it's short. I think something that people who are new to classical music get overwhelmed by is the length of orchestral pieces. And with pieces like Short Ride in a Fast Machine, you can imagine that it’s about the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, driving through there... it's kind of more relevant and some people are more in touch with it, whereas if you play a piece of a Mozart Piano Sonata, it might feel they have bad connotations. I feel like there are ways that we can get people into loving classical music and each will have their own taste, you might not be unsuccessful and that's fine, but I think that would probably be the piece I'd say everyone every teenager should listen to.
Vivien: If there was one thing that you could change about classical music in our society what would it be?
Dani: I personally get really upset about contemporary music and composers and the snobbery around modern music having to sound a certain way. And the thing that is most important to me, is I would like to make new music more accessible to wider audiences. I've been to so many concerts including concerts where my piece is about to be played and I've heard someone in the front row saying: Ooh the token contemporary piece, it's going to be awful', and I've thought: ‘Oh dear, if they knew that I was sat right behind them!’. And actually, one of them said ‘Oh, that wasn't too bad!’
I feel like a lot of contemporary music has a very bad reputation among the public, even at the BBC Proms you hear people really arguing about new music commissions, and I just want the reputation of new music to change and in order to do that, I think there's a place for all type of contemporary music, but I think there's also a place where – and I feel this is where my music sits – it's like an in-between, a training piece for more contemporary pieces where there are accessible things that people can hold on to, an in-between where people can grasp hold of a sound world and then eventually get to know more music. Because there is a lot of amazing new music that is very contemporary out there that I think people will enjoy, it'll just take a bit of time.
Shesh: People in lockdown are playing various pieces of music, like NYO did with ‘Ode to Joy’ virtually. How do you think that this kind of music can help people through these kinds of times?
Dani: I think most people whether they're active music audiences or not in any genre, they hear live music, you hear buskers, you hear in pubs, a band you'll walk past somewhere and there'll be a group singing. I think it's one of those things that you don't realise what you've got until it's not there anymore! I think people have been really creative during lockdown, I've seen some incredible videos: the ‘Ode to Joy’ video that you all did, it was amazing! I've always thought that by having things recorded properly you can reach more audiences. I'm a big believer that digital projects are vital, but not a replacement, both live and digital are really necessary. And I want to see more of live performances that are really filmed properly and recorded properly audio-wise, where you can then have both and have millions of people from around the world watch at the same time, as people in a live setting.
Vivien: Yeah: I think this lockdown has given us an opportunity to be more creative with our sharing: with social media it's been incredible that we've been able to stay in contact and carry on spreading music and inspiring people and I think that's amazing!
How has lockdown presented any challenges for you and how did you overcome them?
Dani: Yes, as you mentioned, people have been more creative, I actually love what it's done in many ways because I have friends that would never ever have ever filmed themselves playing and posted it anywhere ever in a million years. And because of this whole lockdown that's become much more commonplace and now a lot of them have taken part in quintet or orchestral multi-tracking projects, and that just the confidence to film yourself and put it out there wasn't there in a lot of people before and now we've all been forced to have that barrier broken. That's really good!
For me, in terms of challenges, I was in Spain and the lockdown there in March was so extreme, we couldn't leave the house even for walks. So, it was quite emotionally difficult, especially trying to write beautiful, inspiring music when you're feeling like the world is crumbling in front of your eyes! I'm not going to pretend it was all easy and all inspired, it really wasn't, but I just really had to try my best, and I am really proud of what I wrote during that time because I think there are some things I wrote in that piece that I've tried before, which is also quite interesting.
Vivien: Yeah, I think everything that we're doing now is very inspiring for anyone and it's just incredible that we are able to carry on as if it's normal even though we're restricted so much, I think all of our work is going to pay off in the end!
Photograph by © PRS For Music.