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Interview: Deborah Pritchard, composer

02 March 2018

‘The process of composition makes me aware of my humanity, but also of what lies beyond myself, in a spiritual sense’

Deborah Pritchard

Deborah Pritchard

I’m a synaesthetic, classical composer. I’d describe my music as expressive and colouristic, often influenced by visual art or other programmatic influences.

Synaesthesia is an involuntary link between one of more of the senses. In my case, it’s a link between colour and music: more specifically, harmony and intervals. Because of this natural resonance, I’ve worked with a number of visual artists, including Maggi Hambling, Hughie O’Donoghue, and sculptor Steinunn Thorarinsdottir.

I learned to paint as a small child, before I had any music lessons, and, as I grew up, I began to realise that not everybody experienced such a strong connection between these two disciplines. That’s not to say I’d never explore sound from a more autonomous perspective, or been experimental in an avant-garde sense, but this is the creative practice I’m most strongly drawn to at this point in my life.

There isn’t just one way of writing music now, and composers develop their own unique musical language. When I engage with colour, light, and darkness in my work I become aware of a broader emotional content, and I hope that I can help illuminate some kind of beauty to the listener, whatever that may mean to them.

The process of composition makes me aware of my humanity, but also of what lies beyond myself, in a spiritual sense, and that’s where my faith becomes connected to my creativity. For me, colour illuminates a sense of spirituality, a sensibility which resonates in Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, where he writes: “Colour is a power that directly influences the soul. Colour is the key-board, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

I’ve been commissioned to write for orchestras, ensembles, choirs, and individuals, including the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Sinfonietta, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. I’ve been released commercially by NMC, Signum, and Nimbus, broadcast by BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 4, and funded by organisations such as the Performing Rights Society Foundation, the Arts Council, and the Britten-Pears Foundation. Usually, the commissioner will ask for a specific length and orchestration, but the meaning and artistic vision are left to me.

I’ve also written a great deal of church choral music, including pieces for Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford; Lichfield Cathedral Chorus; Lincoln’s Inn chapel choir; and the [London] Festival of Contemporary Church Music. In 2014, Worcester College chapel choir commissioned me to write a new Benedicite for choir and trumpet to celebrate the college’s tercentenary.

Deborah Pritchard with one of Maggi Hambling’s works

Listen to “Benedicite” here.

I really enjoy working with large ensembles and orchestras, particularly involving a soloist. A piece that’s particularly special to me is my violin concerto, Wall of Water, which responds to the series of sea paintings by Maggi Hambling. It was premièred in 2014, and subsequently performed at the National Gallery in 2015 as Maggi’s paintings were exhibited. It’s also written in memory of my father, who passed away the previous year.

Watch a film on Wall of Water here.

Following on from that, I wrote a double concerto for solo violin, solo harp, and strings called Edge, which was also inspired by Maggi Hambling’s art, this time on the subject of global warming. Edge was premièred at the 2017 Aldeburgh Festival as Maggi exhibited.

I’m also proud of my solo violin piece Inside Colour. It was inspired by the colours of the aurora as seen from the International Space Station.

Watch Inside Colour here.

I also paint visualisations of my own music, and music by other composers. I was commissioned to create a series of music maps by the London Sinfonietta, to act as visual guides to contemporary music, as part of their programme notes: you can find them online. I’m particularly happy with the visual guide to In Seven Days, by Thomas Adès, and Chamber Concerto, by Ligeti. These are static images with a timeline at the bottom rather than a moving film, designed to help the listener understand complex contemporary music more easily.

My preliminary art training came from the fantastic art department at my school, but it’s becoming more and more important to me; so I have two forms of artistic expression.

I’m a professionally trained double-bassist, having performed at the BBC Proms when I was younger; but now the majority of my time is spent composing. I also give composition tutorials at the University of Oxford, and, more recently, at the Purcell School. I don’t do so much playing now, but, if I do, it tends to be with smaller, chamber ensembles.

Nine Beats is a collaboration of world-class musicians, artists, and songwriters exploring the ancient wisdom of the Beatitudes through an album of popular music (Feature, 14 July 2017). I was asked to write four string interludes to go in between the songs, to add a contrasting, classical perspective. “Flame” was written after “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It portrays a rectitude that shines like fire in the darkness of persecution.

© Deborah PritchardDeborah Pritchard’s visualisation of her work Inside Colour

“Tread Softly” was inspired by “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God.” It meditates through a contemplative ground bass. “Song for the Earth” is written in response to “Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted.” It holds a poignant sadness through a deep and expressive chorale, expressing loss but also hope. “Towards the Sun” portrays “Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.” Undulating textures weave around each other, gradually building in intensity.

Watch a film on the NINE BEATS project here.

I’ve been aware of my faith ever since I was a small child, seeing God in the beauty of the world and in the kindness of others. I loved being in the garden, painting everything I saw, exploring colour, texture, and light, in an attempt to capture an essence of joy. I can compare my experiences to the recollections of C. S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy. He wrote: “Once in those very early days my brother brought into the nursery the lid of a biscuit tin which he had covered with moss and garnished with twigs and flowers so as to make a toy garden or a toy forest. That was the first beauty I ever knew. . . As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden.”

That garden was a model, and his joy came afterwards as a memory; but my garden was real, and the art it produced gave me a direct awareness of God.

I didn’t discover classical music until I was perhaps 11 or 12, and immediately my spiritual awareness grew even further. I was lucky that my school in Kent, the Folkestone School for Girls, had magnificent views of the sea; so, when I heard Debussy’s La Mer for the first time, it made the experience even more powerful. The sea is my favourite sound.

The greatest influences on my music have been my former teachers Robert Saxton and Simon Bainbridge, and composers such as Olivier Messiaen, Claude Debussy, and the artist Kandinsky. Many people have influenced my life, including my family, friends, and the Revd Dr Paul Turp, the Vicar of St Leonard’s, Shoreditch, in east London, where I help to lead the singing on Sunday mornings.

When I’m not working, I enjoy travelling, though it tends to be work-related. My work is my life, and I don’t really separate the two.

I pray most for peace.

Injustice is what makes me angry. Love makes me happy.

Compassion is what gives me hope for the future.

If I was locked in a church with anyone, I’d like it to be with Nelson Mandela, to learn about courage and hope.

Deborah Pritchard was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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