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CotM Q&A rectangle 2 Sarah Lianne Lewis copy 2.png

What was your journey into composition? 

I grew up in a family who were keen (amateur) musicians - every Christmas we’d sing and perform together in family concerts, including singing extracts from Handel’s ‘Messiah’.  Learning piano and violin from a young age led to me writing down little melodies that I would devise at the instrument as a child. I didn’t conceive that composing was a career path though until the second year of university. I’d had a few pieces performed by student groups, and through the Dyfed Young Composers scheme.  It ignited a realisation in me - solidified by a year ‘out’ from music following my Masters, where I worked in an office - that I wanted to (and more than that, I needed to) write music.  Its not an easy path; for the majority of the time since graduating from university, I’ve worked in non-musical part-time jobs to help support my composing. I don’t think enough people talk about the practical financial aspect of working in the music industry. It’s a hard balancing act, and can take a lot of mental energy merely trying to keep everything going!

 

What is your process for creating a new work? 

I’d describe my process as very slow, and then very fast, and slow again.  When starting a project, I usually sit with the idea for a long time (weeks, if not months) before committing any ideas to paper. I’ll begin by writing down words, sketching shapes and ideas of structure and texture.  Then, as the music forms in my mind, I’ll move to exploring and recording different chord sequences - and often leave myself voice notes when the ideas come to me when I’m out for a walk… This is all a part of the process that helps me work out what I’m trying to say with my music, and a lot of these ideas get distilled down before they find their way into the finished piece. 

 

Once I have found the way in to the piece, I notate sketches on manuscript paper in shorthand, before inputting the music on the computer. The inputting of music to the composition software is usually the fastest part of the process, helped by years of training as a music copyist.  The final part is sitting back and taking a few days out from that hyper-focussed environment, taking time to reassess the work, slowly making adjustments to the orchestration or structure, and then editing the score and parts for the musicians. 

 

Nowadays, there is inherently more structure to my composing, helped / hindered by the rhythms of motherhood.  I use my infant son’s nap times to do short bursts of project admin, and then make the most of the time when he is in nursery to have that focused, uninterrupted composing time.  I am fiercely protective over these short composing slots, much more so than I ever was in the past, and it has resulted in a surprisingly productive few months so far.

  

How do you deal with creative blocks? 

I used to panic when I hit a creative block… I’d worry that the ideas had dried up, and then it’s easy to spiral from that to thinking that you’ll never have any good ideas again!  Nowadays I’m more grounded… and, perhaps it’s experience?… but I let myself take time out. I used to feel guilty about not being productive and having ‘time off’ from working when I’d allocated certain work days to projects. Now, I have realised that time out doesn’t mean that it’s not productive… We need that balance of work, life and rest.  When I’m stuck, I tend to turn towards practical hobbies / tasks that keep my hands busy but that let my mind wander - gardening, baking or doing some DIY around the house are my favourites. Removing myself from my work space and taking that pressure off myself to fix the creative block eases the worry, and often engaging in a different task helps my brain to work through the problem in its own time.  When I’ve experienced longer creative blocks, I often need to refocus on looking after myself; eating well, moving well. It’s a time when I enjoy absorbing and appreciating the amazing creative outputs of colleagues and friends, and often this leads to small ideas creeping back in. 

  

What do you think is the most important skill for a composer to possess? 

With the current state of funding and opportunities within the music industry, in practical terms… determination.  That, and adaptability.  As the landscape shifts, we need to be able to move with it. 

 

The ability to effectively communicate our ideas is integral - our work is collaborative, and for us to make our best work with musicians we need to be able to communicate clearly and with conviction.

 

Musically, knowledge of how to write for the instruments / voices is important… But there’s orchestration books and musicians available to help when needed! I always have a couple of my favourite orchestration books on my desk when I’m writing, and I refer to them regularly.

 

If you could change anything about the industry, what would it be? 

The lack of funding and support for musicians and music creators makes it so, so difficult to encourage younger people to enter the industry.  In recent years, there has been a dwindling amount of development opportunities for those entering the industry, and there are so many vying for the same funding pot.  We’re seeing an increasing amount of excellent music organisations across the UK fold due to financial pressures, and it feels like the whole industry is standing on sinking sand.

 

With the lack of a basic level of support for artists in the UK, there isn’t that space to take risks; artists have to be careful with the funding that we do receive, and therefore there is a danger that we create ‘safe’ works, because there isn’t the space (or grace) for experimenting and the accompanying risk of failing. 

 

When I look at other European countries, the governments place a much higher value on culture and the arts.  There is more substantial funding - and better distribution of funds across regions. It is interesting how this is then reflected through audiences; I've noticed that audiences are more engaged and interested in new - and what could be seen as ‘challenging’ - works programmed.

 

I would love to see a UK government that truly understood that arts and culture are not a novel add-on that can be taken away when financial pressure hits, but that they are an integral part of our national identity, and an important contributor to the country’s economy. Until we have people in power that understand the importance of this, we’ll continue to see more and more cuts to culture. I worry that by the time funding is found, we’ll have lost the next generation of creatives, because of the severe cuts in education budgets for creative arts. It’s a bleak landscape right now, for sure.

 

Despite that, there are so many organisations that are championing music, and show a generosity and solidarity to fellow creatives.  I recently worked with Arts Active (a Cardiff-based organisation offering free music and arts courses to young people), who are passionate about creating a space where young people can explore creating music.  And organisations like Her Ensemble and Donne, Women in Music have been amplifying women’s voices in music and pushing for a more diverse, equitable music industry.  And of course, Tŷ Cerdd offers brilliant opportunities for music creators through their CoDI programmes, of which I’ve benefitted myself from in the past.

  

What’s next for you? 

In terms of composing new works, in all honesty (vulnerable moment..!) I’m not sure; some of my projects for 2024 are dependent on funding coming through.  Work as a freelancer always seems to come in peaks and troughs…

 

The last few months have been very busy with premieres of recently completed works, and Spring 2024 sees my largest work to date ‘L’Île des jamais trop tard’ (‘The Island of Never Too Late’) being toured around France by several orchestras, following the co-commission by the Consortium Créatif, led by the Orchestre national de Bretagne last year. It’s a 50min work for narrator, pianist and orchestra that tackles the subject of climate change through the eyes of a 10-year-old girl living on a remote island, with text written by the talented French author Stéphane Michaka. It’ll be coming to Wales after the French performances; the English-language version (translated by Gwyneth Lewis) will be premiered by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in July 2024.

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