Freya Waley-Cohen on composition - Britten Sinfonia

Freya Waley-Cohen on composition

Described as ‘at once intimate and visionary’ by BBC Music Magazine, Freya Waley-Cohen’s music has been performed all over the country in a plethora of prestigious venues. Freya is being commissioned to write a new piece for Britten Sinfonia to be performed in January 2020 in Cambridge, London and Norwich in At Lunch Two.

We had a chat with Freya and got to know a little bit more about her, what her influences are and her career so far…

Freya Waley-Cohen © Patrick Allen

Freya Waley-Cohen © Patrick Allen

What’s your earliest musical memory?
My earliest musical memory is sitting on one of those tiny chairs made for children, aged two and a half, watching my sister Tamsin practice the violin and asking why I wasn’t allowed to start learning until I was three. A story I don’t remember but have been told, is that when I finally got to that first violin lesson, I spent half the time hiding under the teacher’s chair, behind her long flowing skirt.

What has inspired you most recently?
In October I went to see writer Octavia Bright interview the poet Rebecca Tamás and novelists Sharlene Teo and Daisy Johnson. The conversation’s starting point was enchantment, and the ways in which we retell fairy tales and archetypal characters as the beliefs we live with evolve. I’ve worked with Bright before and am planning to work with Tamás’ poems very soon! Since reading her book Witch last year, I’ve been fascinated by ideas around magic, language and sound. Tamàs is also the co-editor of a brilliant book of poems called Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry. The idea of incantation and using language and utterance to reach into the world and create change is something I find very powerful. In Tamás’ book, it ties in with alternative ideas of feminine power and its representation in history. I like both the playful and the serious sides of these ideas. As Ursula K. Le Guin puts it: ‘Magic exists in most societies in one way or another, and one of the forms it exists in a lot of places is, if you know a thing’s true name, you have power over the thing, or the person. And of course it’s irresistible because I’m a writer. I use words, and knowing the names of things is – I do magic, I do make up things that didn’t exist before by naming them.’

What advice would you give to aspiring composers?
To be a composer, you need to be resilient and persistent. The path to becoming a composer can seem shrouded in mystery. This is because there is no one path to follow – you have to make your own.

Write as much music as possible, listen to as much music as possible, go to as many concerts as possible. Try to find like-minded musicians and artists. Finding peers who you trust and respect will help you in so many ways – create projects with these people, show them the things you feel vulnerable about and listen to their advice… and do the same for them!

One piece of advice I was given was that any success you have is down to so many factors that there is an element of luck, so you need to believe that what you’re writing is worth writing, even if no one else seems to care.

For me, a guiding principle is to write the music that I want to hear and make the art that I want to experience. I try to imagine what I’d be excited to go to that doesn’t yet exist, and then make that. At least I know that someone will like it, even if that someone is me!

What’s your musical guilty pleasure?
I don’t really think I feel guilty about any music. I try to stay away from the sort of mentality where you’re worrying about what someone else might think about you because of the music you listen to. I think the way that different types of music become associated with, or come out of, different cultural identities is what makes us think we should feel guilty, more often than the music itself. I want to enjoy as many different types of music as possible!

If you turned your iPod on now, what would be playing?
It was a playlist that includes things like:

Little Simz -101 fm
Jai Paul – Jasmine
Still Woozy – Wolfcat
Emily King – Sleepwalker
Angel Olsen – New Love Cassette

Yesterday I listened to as many different recordings of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op 109 as I could find.

Which musical instrument do you wish you could play, and why?
I think it would be pretty fun to be a jazz singer. Also if I was a better singer, it might sound less absurd when I sing bits of my music to myself while writing.

If you hadn’t been a musician what might have happened, or not happened, in your life and career?
Perhaps I would have been a writer – I was really into writing poetry and short stories when I was younger, and in some ways the discipline isn’t so far away from composing. Answering this question has made me realise that I never seriously considered anything other than music.

Career highlight?
This summer has been particularly highlight-filled, and it’s hard to pick one event because each of the highlight-moments were special to me in very different ways… So I’m going to cheat a bit and pick three! Earlier this summer I had a newly commissioned work premiered by the LA Philharmonic and John Adams at the Walt Disney Hall. Everything about it made it an amazing experience: John Adams was incredibly warm and supportive, as well as being a brilliant and dedicated conductor; the performers were fantastic, well-prepared, and full of enthusiasm for the project; and on the night of, the atmosphere in the audience was jubilant. As well as all that, it was the main-stage concert of a bustling day of contemporary music in the Walt Disney Hall with ensembles from all over the US performing an incredible array of new music.

Also this summer, the Knussen Chamber Orchestra and Ryan Wigglesworth premiered my first (hopeful wording here!) BBC Proms commission at the Cadogan Hall Proms. Of course, the excitement of the Proms helped to make this a career highlight, and it was particularly meaningful to me because the concert was dedicated to Oliver Knussen who was my teacher and friend.

The third highlight I’m choosing is this week! I am associate composer at the Wigmore Hall this year, and have a day focusing on my music there, including the premiere of a new string trio. It’s extra special because my sister Tamsin is playing the morning concert, which is solo violin works, and her quartet (the Albion Quartet) is playing the one in the afternoon! I grew up in London and because I was always passionate about music, my parents would sometimes take me to the Wigmore Hall. Even as a child, I had a sense of the prestige of Wigmore Hall. I would never have dared dream that a day like the 2nd of November could happen!

You can be among the first to hear Freya’s new piece in At Lunch Two from 21-24 January 2020 at Cambridge’s West Road Concert Hall, London’s Wigmore Hall, and Norwich’s St Andrew’s Hall.

Thank you to all those who contributed to Freya Waley-Cohen’s Musically Gifted campaign. This campaign has now closed.