Catching Sparks: In Conversation with Composer Hannah Kendall

Conductor Jonathan Heyward and the Seattle Symphony perform the U.S. premiere of Hannah Kendall’s The Spark Catchers, June 6, 8 and 9 at Benaroya Hall.

By Andrew Stiefel

Composer Hannah Kendall is rapidly gaining international acclaim for her imaginative and intricate orchestral scores. The London-born composer’s music has been performed by some of the United Kingdom’s finest ensembles, including the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra, among others.

Now she’s catching fire in the United States.

The Berkeley Symphony performed the world premiere of Kendall’s Disillusioned Dreamer in January and the Seattle Symphony performs the U.S. premiere of Kendall’s The Spark Catchers, June 6, 8 and 9 at Benaroya Hall. The Symphony will also present an evening of Kendall’s chamber music in Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center on June 10.

We spoke with Kendall ahead of her concerts to learn more about her music, her creative process, and a bit about what life is like for composers today.

Tell us about your piece The Spark Catchers. What inspired it, what can audiences expect to hear?

The Spark Catchers was commissioned and premiered at the Proms in 2017. The piece opened Chineke!’s debut concert at the festival. The group is majority minority ethnic players, and it was such a momentous occasion, and a privilege to have written the piece for the occasion.

It takes inspiration from Lemn Sissay’s poem with the same title, which he wrote for the 2012 London Olympics, and is permanently etched into one of the transformers at the stadium. It depicts the working lives of the women who worked in the Bryant and May match factory, which once stood on the edge of the Olympic Park, and how they had to keep a watchful eye, catching any stray sparks that might set the factory alight.

[Read Lemn Sissay’s poem in his book, Gold from Stone: New and Selected Poems, available from Canongate Books.]

The piece isn’t a musical depiction of the poem, but instead, four lines from the text form the structure of the work, and shape the music within those sections: The lively ‘Sparks and Strikes’; the ‘Molten Madness,’ which is darker, and brooding. ’Beneath the Stars/In the Silver Sheen’ is quiet, still, and crystalline; and finally, ‘The Matchgirls March’, which begins dance-like and culminates with forceful and punchy chords.

Starting a piece can be both exhilarating and terrifying. How do you confront the blank page? What are your sources of inspiration?

I find starting a piece the most difficult part of writing, but I’ve found that creating a graphic score first is really helpful. My works are often inspired by visual art, or texts, and I draw images and sketches to plot the structure of the work, and shape how I’d like it to sound. For me it’s a great way to get the process going without having to think about harmony or the notes right away.

How did you get your start in music?

My mum signed me up for violin lessons when I was four, and haven’t looked back since! As I got older, I took up other instruments, and enjoyed playing and singing in ensembles. I always used to go to the music library after my piano lessons each week, and take out classical music CDs. I was really into J.S. Bach and Scarlatti.

Was there a turning point that inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I went to the University of Exeter to study music, and my teachers there encouraged me to go for it. Despite reading the subject, I hadn’t considered being a professional musician, and certainly not a composer. I think this was because I had never seen or known anyone like me doing it. In fact, I only continued composing after the compulsory lessons in our first year because they changed the credit system, and I needed extra points to graduate.

Could you give us a snapshot of what a day in your life might look like now?

I’ve just finished the first year of a doctoral fellowship at Columbia University in New York, so I’m completely focusing on music for the first time ever, rather than juggling jobs in-between writing. I’m lucky enough to know what I’ll be working on for the next few years, and so I mostly mold my day around whatever it is I’m writing. I compose late into the night, so always start the day with really strong coffee. Also, I love water, and am very lucky to live close to the Hudson, and so, I usually make time for a walk by the river for a break every day.

What advice would you give to someone attending their first concert?

I really enjoy taking friends to their first ever concert. Almost every single time, they are blown away by the music and experience; the impact of the works, and the skill of the musicians. So, the only advice I would give is to go along with at least one friend who you can speak to about the overall experience, and discuss the things you liked; things you didn’t. They don’t have to be expert in classical music, but sharing the occasion will make it an even more fulfilling experience.

What do you enjoy doing when you're not composing?

I’m a Londoner, born and bred, but got into hiking through doing the Duke of Edinburgh Awards as a teenager, where we’d walk-up mountains, and camp for days. I’ve loved getting out of the city to walk and enjoy the countryside regularly ever since, but have never camped again! I’m also a big fan of contemporary art, and go to as many exhibitions as I can. It’s great for collecting ideas for future pieces too. Also, I’m really enjoying watching Dexter on Netflix, and Fleabag on Amazon Prime at the moment!

What projects are on the horizon for you?

I’ll be starting my second opera over the summer. Opera North and Royal Opera House, back in the U.K., have given me an amazing opportunity to develop a new work based on a West African folklore character, Anansi, who is a half-man, half-spider trickster. Tales of Anansi have been passed-on in various forms over hundreds of years from West Africa, via slaves, to the Caribbean, the United States, the U.K., and beyond; continuing down the generations to the present day. It will be fantastical, with a dark twist covering both historical, and contemporary themes. It’s been three years since I wrote my first opera The Knife of Dawn. I’m really looking forward to getting my teeth stuck into a music theatre project again.

Jonathan Heyward and the Seattle Symphony perform the U.S. premiere of Kendall’s The Spark Catchers, June 6, 8 and 9 at Benaroya Hall. The Symphony will also present an evening of her chamber music on June 10 in Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center.


Hannah Kendall’s The Spark Catchers is presented as part of the Seattle Symphony’s New Music WORKS initiative, which is supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. New Music WORKS features commissions, concerts and educational activities that use composition as a catalyst for collaboration and engagement in music.

Support for the inaugural season of artistic programming for Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center is generously provided by the Judith A. Fong Music Directors Fund.

Posted on June 3, 2019