We arrived at Hannah’s home in South London, where she warmly welcomed us in and asked if we had trouble finding it. “You could interview loads of people around here,” she told me, and went on to explain how Hither Green had become a hub of artists and musicians all living within a one mile radius of each other. Like us, she had also found South London to be a bit of a shock to the system.

Hannah chooses to refer to herself as a contemporary classical composer as opposed to simply a composer. “Obviously contemporary classical itself is a huge paradox,” she laughs. “Just because [if] you say ‘composer’ the next question is always ‘Oh, what type of music?’ And, just saying classical… one thinks of Beethoven. There’s a lot of explaining… There’s talk [about] how the word ‘classical’ [is] hindering classical music because everyone thinks of the classic composers.”

Hannah's Grandfather

Hannah’s Grandfather

Hannah’s own introduction to classical music began at the tender age of four, when her mother, knowing the benefits music has on improving numeracy and literacy skills, signed her up for violin lessons. “They’re like, ‘you’re going to learn the violin now,’ and I [thought] ‘Oh OK. I don’t know what a violin is, I don’t know anything about learning an instrument’. So that was it.” Music seems to run in her blood, as her grandfather, a working class immigrant from Guyana, was a talented jazz musician who encouraged his children to study music and dance.

Hannah continued to play the violin throughout primary and secondary school, although admits that she “wasn’t very good”. That foundation allowed her to develop a love of listening and playing classical music when she learnt she enjoyed singing and went on to study voice at the University of Exeter. “It was always just really social as well, you get to form friendships with other people as you’re playing in the same groups.”

She stated that she always thought of herself as a performer, with composing being “the thing that you just sort of did at the last minute”. I was intrigued by her transition into composition. “I started writing really, really late, so at university, and it was because they changed the credits at university and I needed ten extra credits to graduate and I was like “I quite like that Joe Duddell guy who teaches composing, we’ve always got on, I’ll take his class. Fine. That’s it.” And then, it was literally from there, it was just completely by fluke, I had no ambition to be a composer, I didn’t really know it was a profession you could do really. I didn’t know many women who were doing it. It was never a concept. And had that fluke not had happened, I wouldn’t be where I am today, so the transition was just, I don’t know how to explain it, it was definitely not planned but it was actually seemingly easy because I just sort of went with the flow and sort of started doing it formally and found out that I really enjoyed it and found it a lot easier than performing, but I enjoyed it a lot more.”

Women composers are a rare breed, as Hannah stated herself when mentioning that she didn’t know many women who were composing before her career in composing. Earlier in the year Hannah, alongside fellow composer Charlotte Bray and presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsc discussed the lack of women composers in the classical music industry in an article for Radio Times Magazine. She made a point that she didn’t believe the industry was inherently sexist, but that there is a clear gender imbalance. I asked her why she believed this was the case.

_MG_4944“I think it’s a variety of reasons. I think that the industry is generally run by men; by white middle-class, middle-aged men, and I think it just makes it difficult if you’re outside of that network to break into it, and I don’t think those people running the industry are sexist as I said.”

“I would never think that anyone would say ‘I’m not going to commission that person because they’re a woman’ or because of whatever. Sociology tells us that we are more likely to want to work with people like ourselves and if the industry is based on a certain type of person it means that you’re more likely to favour someone like yourself. Our industry is based on informal practices as well. So you get work through people who you know, and if you don’t know the right people or those people at the top, then how do you get in?”

“I think things are changing but that is fundamentally the foundation on which our industry is based. Also the big publishing houses only have between 3% and 17% of women on their books, and they’re the institutions that are pushing their composers to these big commissioning bodies. And if there’re only 3% women on the books anyway then of course the composers who are going to be put forward for the big opportunities are going to be men because of that imbalance anyway.”

“I think we just need more positive action and the Radio 3 example of that was brilliant; just saying ‘Yeah, we want to do composer of the week, we want to listen to music by women only’. That sort of action, that’s a really great thing, but I think that people might automatically assume that by doing something like that means that the quality is going to reduce, but actually those five women that were presented on the Radio 3 programme were really good composers. It’s just saying we’re putting someone forward who’s really, really good, but they just probably won’t have the same opportunities because of their gender, or their background or their class or whatever. I’m personally a supporter of that, but I do know it’s contentious because I think people just get really bogged down with that idea of focussing on one part of a person but things just… they will not change if you don’t do something positive and active about it.”

Since writing my dissertation on women’s representation in the art world, I’ve become more aware of articles and features focusing on women who have had success in their industries, as well as journalists beginning to highlight the extraordinary discrepancies in “best of” lists that grossly overestimate the number of men that are top of their fields (see the Guardian’s recent article on Robert McCrum’s 100 Greatest Novels). One recurring topic is how frequently women are given titles alongside their gender, rather than just being talented in their own rights. I asked Hannah if it was frustrating being labeled as a “female composer” rather than simply a “composer”.

“It doesn’t bother me. I would much rather use that to talk about the subject rather than brushing it under the carpet and if I don’t talk about these issues then no-one else will. How will things change otherwise?”

Alongside her gender, another part of Hannah’s identity frequently highlighted in interviews is her race, and I was curious to know if how this played a part in her work. When asked if she knew of any other black women working in the classical music industry in her generation, Hannah told me there were very few, but Shirley Thompson and Eleanor Alberga are two composers born in the mid 20th century who are still working, with Eleanor having recently written a piece for the last night of the proms.

Hannah’s own Caribbean descent obviously forms a significant part of her identity, but she told me that it was only lately that she has been using that heritage in her own work. Currently she is writing a one-man opera based on Martin Carter, a Guyanese social activist and poet in whom Hannah became incredibly interested. “I think he is a fantastic poet, and more people need to know his work, they are beautiful, beautiful poems and they transcend through time as well. He was writing [throughout] the 1900s, and usually people just don’t know his work because they don’t know much about the country Guyana. “

“A lot of people think it’s Ghana. It’s not. It’s Guyana. It’s in South America, but it’s part of the Caribbean and obviously such a huge part of my heritage. I think more people should know about that country because it was actually a part of Britain until the 1950s and its whole history is sort of tied up in Europe… My family wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t that connection, and there is all of that through this work that I’m writing, but also just very specifically, I want to write a role for someone who’s of African/Caribbean descent. I think that’s really important.”

“There are lots of really good opera singers coming up, and it would be great for them to have the opportunity to have a role that’s just specifically for them. There’s always been discussion when Otello is done, ‘Oh well, are you going to get a black person to sing this, or are you going to get a white person to sing it and black them up, but then know that wouldn’t be right?’ There’s always this discussion around that role and I just want to say that this role is for a person of African/Caribbean descent. This is just one where there’s no discussion. Martin Carter was Caribbean, so you know, there you go.”

_MG_4967Hannah believes that this part of her identity hasn’t ever held her back. When asked if she thought that she had ever been denied opportunities because of her race, she responded: “Not that I’m aware of, no, not in the industry. But to be honest it’s more that I’ve never really been on that side on the whole, because I come from a middle class family, I went to good schools, I went to the right university, I went through the right channels, so in that sense I am part of that network I was talking about. And, I think I say that a lot, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced racism or sexism or anything, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t see that others might not reach their full potential because of barriers that are in place that won’t let them progress as easily.”

Along with composing, Hannah also works as a Director at London Music Masters, a charity that aims to help young people overcome these barriers Hannah mentions. Founded in 2007, London Music Masters operates a variety of programs including offering music lessons to students aged four onwards studying at inner-city London schools, financial support and performance opportunities for talented violinists. Hannah has been working there for seven of the eight years the charity has been running and tells us that, as the entire team is in their 20s or early 30s, they intend to keep it fresh and challenging.

Talking about the charity, Hannah begins, “It’s about saying that if you give anyone the opportunity to participate in music lessons and classical music as a whole then anyone can do it and have a love for classical music and will most likely go into the profession.”

“There are two strands: we have the education side of it, which is the Bridge Project, where we go into schools, in challenged inner-city areas. Areas where parents may not be able to afford or even have the inclination to give their children lessons in classical music. So we go into certain schools and make violin lessons and musicianship part of the curriculum so that every child from the age of four starts with musicianship and progresses onto learning the violin.”

“A great example: our first children who were at primary school have gone onto secondary school and have got scholarships to specialist music schools, they’ve got scholarships to the junior conservatoires (I teach at one of them as well) which is sort of the junior section of music colleges, so children ages twelve-eighteen who will be the musicians of tomorrow. Some of them have scholarships there or music scholarships at schools they have gone to and these are children who are just normal children from just down the road, local to these schools. From varying ethnic backgrounds, from normal working class families, and it just shows you that if you put in long-term, high-quality music teaching and the opportunity to experience that, anyone can succeed in classical music. It shouldn’t just be for parents who can afford to give their children that opportunity, and so it’s incredible.”

The music lessons, a reflection of Hannah’s own upbringing, are one of the main focuses of the charity, but Hannah is quick to point out that the reason behind it is more to expand the appreciation for classical music. “We’re not saying that everyone who goes through our program should be a world-class violinist, or even a violinist really. We teach the violin because it’s a huge part of what we do and it’s a great way to get children playing together. But we’re saying that you will be the audiences of the future as well, you will appreciate classical music.”

“The hopes of that [is] as they grow up they will continue to do that; they will be audiences, and their families will be the audiences as well because we [also] try to bring in the whole community. They need to have support from their family and parents.”

Expanding more on the reason Hannah believes sharing classical music with the younger generations is important, she responded: “We just have to get different audiences, and also because it’s just really strange. All the classical music audiences do not reflect general society, especially in London. You’re walking around and there’s every different type of person under the sun, obviously lots of different ages, and then you go into a concert hall and it’s like the 1800s. It’s really weird. It’s really jarring. And there [are] people on stage and they’re wearing white tie. It’s weird. It is really strange. I’m a classical musician, I’ve been playing music for my whole life and I find it really strange.”

“I think it is important to generate new audiences, new diverse audiences for the music, because it’s such a shame. The music’s amazing, it’s incredible. It’s really, really good, moving, dynamic music on the whole that’s been written over hundreds of years. It’s an incredible tradition! Why is only a certain segment of the population engaging with it? What a shame! That’s ridiculous. It doesn’t make any sense!”

Along with the Bridge Project, London Music Masters also runs a “professional side”. “We have an awards program for young professional violinists (and soon composers as well) who are role models for the children, and they go into schools and they work with them.”

“We [also] commission new work for the children, so we’re saying all of you should be playing music of your time, that’s really important. We think it’s important to challenge the imbalances in classical music, and we’re starting to do that a lot. We had a whole series of discussions on class [and] race in classical music where we were talking about all of these issues in the open and saying ‘look [at] these inequalities, they’re not right, what are we actually going to do about it?’ Everyone is on the same page, but what are you actually doing?”

Since Hannah works a lot with young people (and because earlier in the interview she had apologised for not concentrating because she was analysing the classical music playing on the radio) I was interested in learning her opinion on contemporary pop music.

“I listen to all types of music! I love it! I make it a point as I’m driving around I’ll always have Kiss FM on… I love it. I don’t care what anyone says, I really, really like it. I want to know what’s being written [in] our time. I teach young people who are teenagers, and I’m interested in what they’re listening to. They obviously listen to pop music as well. I think it’s important to know all types of music that’s being written.”

_MG_4948The response was unsurprising; her Twitter profile states herself to be “A lover of everything to do with contemporary culture – music, theatre, dance, art, literature”, but rather than other music, Hannah’s biggest inspiration lies in the words and text of other people. “That’s my thing”, she tells me.

Hannah composed a piece inspired by Fundamental, a poem written by Rick Holland whilst he was spending time in India in 2009. Unlike some of her other poetry-inspired work, Hannah had the opportunity to collaborate with Holland directly after being put in touch with him through a friend.

“That meeting with [Rick] and those conversations shaped the work in itself because it was a very personal poem. That one in particular, it was based on his time in India, his encounters with faith, growing and shrinking depending on the situation. That’s a very personal subject, so I think that it’s sort of an extension of him, those conversations [and] obviously my own thoughts and interpretations of what he has said.”

Being inspired by so many limitless art forms, it seemed unlikely Hannah would ever face a lack of inspiration, but, like all artists, I rightly assumed she would face creative blocks. I wanted to know her approach to dealing with them in order to progress.

“Short term you just have to take a break, walk away from it. You just learn how to just do something, even if it’s not working, you just pick that up in your training, I know how to generate material. You might not like it, but then you’ll know what’s not working and how to solve it. So it, I don’t think it’s ever, ‘I don’t know what to write, I’m not going to write anything’. It’s never the case of not having any notes to write. You sort of generate notes, generate music, and think ‘that’s not working for these reasons, so I’ll have to do…’ It’s like a puzzle and I think that’s why I like it. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle or like a problem to work out and I think sometimes the pieces just slot into place a lot quicker and easier, and sometimes they don’t.”

Whilst preparing and researching for this interview, I was forced to recognise that my knowledge of classical music was limited by my lack of listening experience, so I consulted a friend who advised me on a further series of questions related more to technical aspects of classical music.

G: Beethoven or Mozart?

H: Beethoven. I’ve got deep love for Beethoven.

G: Why?

H: I just think his life was incredible… I think it’s because he changed the course of classical music. He started off the Romantic period and it’s specifically because of his life; I think that’s incredible. Because he was deaf that changed the way he was writing music. And you just think had he not lost his hearing, where would the space of music be today? He was taught by an organist which shaped the way he wrote the piano. So I just think “wow, what if he was taught by a pianist, what if he hadn’t lost his hearing”. We could be in a completely different place today, And that’s amazing. And I love the music, the meatiness of it, and the energtic drive, that’s what I like.

G: Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess’ – love it or hate it?

H: I don’t think I love it or hate it.

G: So it’s somewhere in the middle?

H: Yeah. I think that, again, it’s one of those things, obviously because it’s something that African/Caribbean singers can perform in. I think there needs to be something newer now than Porgy and Bess. That was quite some time ago. I think there needs to be someone thinking “what’s the new Porgy and Bess? What’s that look like? When’s that going to happen?” So I think that’s quite contentious for me.

G: Do you compose in Sibelius or with pen and score?

H: I start off doing sketches with pencil and paper, but the music, I don’t compose in Sibelius, but it always ends up going into it. So that’s where the notes will end up.

G: Yeah, I saw your little doodles on the piano. The keyboard. With all the colours.

H: Yeah. That’s the graphic score, so I’ll start of with that without anything, without notes, because you’re just hindered by what the notes might be. I think that just for any piece you should say I want it to start off like this, and I want a climax to happen there.

G: So the pace? The wiggles.

H: [Laughs] Yeah, so you can just do it really quickly and then it’s a plan (that you’ll probably ignore). It won’t end up like that, but you have a starting point and I think that’s really useful.

G: Twelve tone serialism. Musical cul de sac or historically necessary shake up? And useful or irrelevant?

H: Definitely relevant. Oh my goodness! It was definietely, definitely needed. Again, we wouldn’t be where we are without all of these changes, and without serialism, there wouldn’t be American minimalism, which was a huge thing in the 60s. So… there are twelve tones on a keyboard; the white notes and the black notes, so twelve of them. And serialism is about using every one of those notes within a given section, so it makes it atonal. I’m just thinking about… I love this question.

So there’s tonal music and atonal music. Tonal is Beethoven, Mozart; there’s a key. You say C Major, D Major, C minor, D Minor. That’s the key that the piece is in. Serialism just blew all of that apart because you were using all of these notes and music became atonal; there wasn’t a tonal center, and on the whole that’s how composers are writing today– without that tonal centre. So, yeah, that’s hugely relevant.

Serialism was so much contained to Europe and sort of around the wars, the World Wars that were happening in Europe, and because of that atonality it sort of conjures a very specific type of mood. One might say a dark mood on the whole. And so the Americans [thought] “it’s weird for us to write music like that, because we haven’t been through World Wars in the same way that Europe has, and in fact over here we’re going through a huge change socially, it’s sunny all the time, we’re going around in our convertibles, so it would be really disingenuous for us to write like that”. And so that’s where American minimalism came up, which is tonal. In the 1950s and 60s. It’s very tonal; bright, repetitive, a lot easier on the ears, and had serialism not happened… No! Definitely not a cul-de-sac, it’s definitely very important.

To find out more about Hannah and listen to samples of her work visit her website: www.hannahkendall.co.uk
Or follow her on Twitter: @HannahKendall_
Or Facebook

Portrait Image Credit: Amy Barton
With thanks to Paul Roylance