We were lucky just before Christmas to have a wonderful virtual chat with the very talented Alison Willis, runner up in the Walter Hussey Composition Competition 2018. We talked about the musical effects of 2020, the importance of competitions for young composers, and her dream performance of her work.
WHCC: I sit here writing this on the Saturday evening that should have been the Reading Phoenix Choir annual carol concert. At the 2019 concert in Reading Minster, we premiered your incredible Gold and Spices. Thinking about that makes me ponder (yet again) what a bizarre year 2020 has been for us all and, for many people, without the music-making we love. How has this past year been for you musically, and do you think it has changed the way you write?
AW: I think 2020 has been a huge challenge for all musicians. As I write this, I am so very aware that this is the first year since I was about three that I haven’t been preparing for Christmas concerts and services and as a musician that is very unsettling, Christmas usually starts in about September. I have hugely missed being able to make music with other people.
As a composer it has had a huge impact. I had a major new choral work, Salve Deus, Rex Judaeorum due to be premiered on March 28th so obviously that couldn’t happen… timing is everything!
There are of course positives to come out of this as well including the opportunity to do some really enjoyable online tutoring with young composers. I have been fortunate to have a number of pieces performed as part of some amazing virtual festivals and concerts. I have also been working on The Canticle of Mary, a collection of seven medieval carols for choir, organ and soprano solo from a little-known text combined with a new poem by Charles Anthony Silvestri thinking about the Christmas story from Mary’s perspective. Whilst not intended to be performed virtually, they are written in such a way that they can be rehearsed and recorded online if necessary… hopefully in an enjoyable and successful way!
WHCC: This year’s competition was open to young composers aged between 16 and 24. How old were you when you started composing, and do you remember your first piece? What would you make of it today?
AW: I started playing the piano when I was four and I think I have been making up pieces since then. The first piece I had performed was a Christmas Carol when I was eleven. I know it was in G Minor and started with the words “T’was cold one night” but I can’t remember anything else about it and sadly there is no documentary evidence…
WHCC: The theme of this year’s competition was ‘New Horizons’, which could make the winning piece very poignant to perform in 2021. What does that theme mean for you, and how might it influence a piece of music you would write?
AW: I think I would start by thinking about the positives that have and will hopefully continue to come out of these strange times. I think there is an increased sense of community and people looking out for each other. I also think that, whilst we would all rather be able to actually interact face to face, technology has been an absolute life saver. Without Zoom I wouldn’t have seen my Mum, siblings or children for months. Off the top of my head, I might look at writing something combining elements of electronics, choral sounds and spoken word based on words we all find ourselves using in a way we would not recognise a year ago and seeing where that took me…
WHCC: You’ve won some amazing awards and accolades in your career. How important are competitions for up-and-coming composers (such as this year’s young entrants) and what advice would you give to them?
AW: Competitions are one really good way of getting to hear your music actually performed. There is no substitute, in my opinion, for hearing the music you have so carefully crafted in your head played by live musicians… and no quicker way of finding out what works and what doesn’t!
I also think there is an element of working to a brief that is quite important as a professional composer. Understanding what somebody wants to get from your music and then finding a way to achieve that, whilst remaining true to your own voice, is one of the things I most enjoy about composing.
In terms of advice, always remember you are writing actual music for actual musicians. Just because your notation software says it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s actually going to work in reality! Also, wherever possible sing or play what you have written, again, this is how you really get inside what you have composed and find out whether it is practical and really what you wanted to say. I always sing every part of my choral works on the basis that if I can’t pitch it then I can’t really expect anyone else to!
WHCC: Back round to Gold and Spices, which was recorded by Reading Phoenix Choir in early 2020 and will be released on 6th January 2021. As a singer, the thing that really struck me was the incredibly rich texture of the voices and the contrasting mood between different sections of the piece – it was a joy to sing. Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration for the piece?
AW: Thank you, and thank you for your wonderful performance! The theme for the piece had to be something to do with Gold, so as usual I started by looking for a poem that captured my imagination and happened across They Have Brought Gold and Spices by Christina Rossetti. I was also aware that Reading Phoenix Choir frequently perform from memory so I wanted to write something that would be enjoyable to sing in that way. I think what drew me to the words and influenced the setting was the different colours throughout the poem, from the wonder, immediacy and excitement of “They have brought gold and spices”, which I set in a contrapuntal way, to the much more reflective and chordal “I, bound on earth, weep for my trespassing”, to the joyful “Sing, saith He to the heavens…rejoice!” and finished with the gently questioning, “what can I bring?”.
WHCC: Finally, if you could hear a piece of your music sung by any soloist or choir in the world, who would be singing it, where would it be, and what would they be singing?
AW: Well obviously I am very much looking forward to hearing your recording of Gold and Spices! I have been so lucky to have pieces performed by some brilliant ensembles and choirs including the BBC Singers, The Gesualdo Six, Brisbane Chamber Choir and Blossom Street to name but a few. That’s quite a question! I guess if pushed I would have to say BBC Singers, The Proms at The Royal Albert Hall….and maybe I haven’t written it yet!