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In Conversation with Daniel Kidane

Daniel Kidane is a London-based concert composer whose works range from solo pieces to large orchestral works. His music has been performed extensively across the UK and abroad as well as being broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Here he answers our questions, interviewed by Charlotte Browne:

1.) What do you think the industry means by a ‘new wave’ of British classical composers (which you’re often described as)? What do you hope they can bring to the scene?

The British classical music scene has in recent years thrived because of its forward thinking pluralistic ways. Composers today are fortunate enough to exist in an environment where no singular style trumps others, allowing composers to draw upon lots of diverse and interesting points of inspiration. The nation’s higher education institutions have played a positive part by not enforcing any particular house style and encouraging young composers to explore their creativity, rather than diligently adhering to a particular school of thought. As musical inventors, I believe it’s a composer’s duty to create fresh and captivating new sounds, no matter how you get there. I often make time to listen to what my colleagues are creating and enjoy finding inspiration in what others do. I would also credit the UK’s rich and diverse cultural scene and the healthy cross pollination that exists throughout the arts. This year’s BASCA Composer Awards were especially poignant in exemplifying the broad range of talent that exists in the UK – winners included emerging composers as well as seasoned heavy hitters. All of these positives allow for British composers to have a solid grounding, in a global sense, with emerging composers only adding to the rich mix.

2.) Could you tell me more about some of your recent projects? Perhaps the Camerata Orchestra? 10/10 ensemble, Adelaide and the Royal Philharmonic? How have these works/projects differed and which has excited you the most and why?

As a composer I have always placed particular importance on the collaborative aspect of commissions. Getting to know a player or an ensemble and understanding their uniqueness has allowed me to create many of my favourite works, which in turn have led to further projects. This particular ethos was instilled in me during my time at the Royal Northern College of Music, where I credit the college’s open plan refectory area with allowing me to meet and work with musicians who then went on to champion my music. One thing that I picked up early on is that a compositional career is cumulative, among other things. Things happen slowly and bit-by-bit, which is hard to grasp when you’re fresh out of music college or university.

Recently I enjoyed working with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, who commissioned several young composers affiliated with Manchester to create pieces inspired by Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for his 400th anniversary. The commission brief was quite unique in that the pieces written needed to work as concert pieces as well as works that would be used for radio plays. After working closely with playwright, Zodwa Nyoni, I managed to create a work that evoked a relentlessly propulsive ride through the Manchester, inspired by a place where one could experience jazz, rock, jungle, R&B and dub all in one night. The idea of portraying both the euphoric and the gritty arose from Shakespeare’s Sonnets 153 and 154, in which both the legacy and the lessons of love are reflected.

3.) What insights has your doctorate research unearthed? If you’re able to share? How has it/is it impacting your perspective on your work or classical music ‘in general’?

For me the main benefit of doctoral study is the focused inspection of my own working methods. All composers apply some degree of research through their practice, but perhaps not to the extent one would need to demonstrate when approaching it from an academic stance. It has also allowed me to understand what interests me, musically, and why. By dissembling my musical aesthetic, I have been able to explore compositional techniques that have added to my musical language. In a nutshell, my topic of research tackles a problem which all composers face when writing compositions based on a given text or inspired by a piece of literature. How does one go about creating a piece of music from a non-musical starting point? An influx in commissions relating to literature and language led me to tackle the difficulty of creating pieces that are not merely related to the initial stimulus via some vague interaction, but instead share a much greater level of interactivity with the literary source. I can also attribute my interest to this language related field due to my multilingual upbringing – my mother is Russian, my father is Eritrean and I was born and raised in England.

4.) What challenges are facing composers today in the contemporary scene – in terms of receiving commissions, ensuring follow up commissions and getting their work heard and performed?

As a composer of mixed heritage, I am glad to see that in recent years more of an effort is being made to commit to improving diversity in classical composition. Having recently appeared as a guest speaker at BBC Radio 3’s industry conference titled ‘Diversity and Inclusion in Composition’, I was pleased to see Alan Davey (Controller BBC Radio 3) pledge to expand BBC Radio 3’s classical cannon to be more representative and to feature unjustly neglected composers, to focus on a reappraisal of the BBC commissioning process and to committing to reconvene such conferences in order to ensure on-gong action. Unfortunately there are still realms within the classical music field that have a very dated outlooks and for too long the scene has been the preserve of the well to do.

5.) What does the contemporary scene need? How can we attract new audiences/fresh ears to the scene and make it more accessible? Do we need to?

I would love it if there was more of a positive ethos towards contemporary classical music, especially in the way it is programmed, portrayed and promoted. Although I’m a big fan of the old school classics, more of an effort needs to be made to readdress how new music is portrayed. I almost want to say – can people stop harking back to the past so much and take a leaf out of the contemporary art scene, where artists receive a more balanced representation in relation to their historic counterparts.

6.) How do your influences (from Bach to Pantera) play out in your work? To what extent does your Eritrean heritage find a voice in your work?

I’ve always been a fan of allowing my non-classical music likes to influence my compositions. My most recent endeavor is a new piece that I’m writing for CBSO Youth Orchestra where I have chosen to incorporate a style of urban music, known as Grime, that is uniquely British but has never properly been incorporated into classical orchestral music. Grime emerged in England in the early 2000s and is primarily a development of UK Garage and Jungle. By fusing the two genres together I aim to make classical music more accessible for younger audience members and to also create a rewarding experience for the young orchestral players – allowing them to work on a hybrid style of music that has never been explored in a solely orchestral context before.

7.) What direction can you see the contemporary classical scene going in? What are your hopes for it? What worries you?

As humanity progresses in to the future, there seems to be a trend for governments to have less time, and money, for the arts. Therefore the idea of purpose has become a hot topic when talking about funding and support from public bodies. For the foreseeable future I predict more new and intriguing ways of presenting classical music. We have already seen the rise of the classical music club scene, which has definitely proved successful with younger audiences who enjoy having a pint or two whilst listening to music, and I look forward to what comes next.

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