The way I work: Emily Howard

The Liverpool composer explains how the world’s most magnetic metal and the moment a nerve cell gives rise to a feeling are among her inspirations. And doughnuts. Interview: Saskia Murphy

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I had a musical upbringing. I played the cello as a child. I was born and brought up in the Liverpool area, and two orchestras that were important to me were the Liverpool Mozart Orchestra, which is an amateur orchestra, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. I also loved science and mathematics, and I studied those as well.

I went to university and took a mathematics and computer science degree, but I missed the music. I got my degree, had a couple of years out, and eventually got myself into a position where I could apply to the Royal Northern College of Music to do a masters in composition.

“I read about mathematics. This activates my brain and and then I’m ready to compose.”

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic gave me my first big opportunity, which was for the Liverpool European Capital of Culture in 2008. They asked me to write an orchestral piece, which I called Magnetite. Magnetite is the oldest-known magnetic substance. It’s the most magnetic of all naturally occurring minerals and there are lots of intriguing superstitions about it. I was also interested in magnetism and the idea of music behaving magnetically.

Since then I’ve written a lot for orchestra and I’m also excited by theatre and opera, but Magnetite was a key moment for me. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic performed it in its opening concert with chief conductor Vasily Petrenko. My relationship with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic has been ongoing. Last summer I had a big piece called Torus (Concerto for Orchestra) in the BBC Proms. This was co-commissioned by the BBC and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic for its 175th anniversary.

I would definitely say my background in mathematics feeds into my career as a composer and increasingly so. Mathematicians are often interested in understanding different shapes (for example the torus), and when I compose, I’m always concerned about the piece’s overall shape from the outset. I’m keen for listeners to be aware of the shape of the piece as it plays.

A particular example of this concern for shape is in Torus, the piece that was performed at the Proms. A torus is doughnut-shaped – a whole with a hole – and everyone can imagine that. I was delighted that the work was first performed at the Royal Albert Hall because this building can also be thought of as doughnut-shaped. You can walk round and round (in the “doughnut” part) the hall, which has the platform in the middle.

When composing Torus, I imagined I was travelling round and round on the surface of a torus. As I travelled across different parts of it, I would experience different types of sounds as though I was encountering different landscapes. I like to think of the final piece as a set of torus-shaped journeys in sound.

I spend a lot of time absorbing ideas. I got a Leverhulme Trust artist in residence grant to be a fly on the wall in the mathematics department at the University of Liverpool in 2015. I had lots of meetings with mathematicians there, and also with physicists and chemists. They love and are enthused by their own subjects, and I enjoyed the challenge of trying to absorb so many new ideas.

When I speak to scientists and mathematicians about their work, I find that they are strongly connected to discovering scientific truths. I’m not so worried about sticking to scientific truth in my line of work. What I like to do is to take their wonderful ideas and to use them as creative catalysts for my music. Many mathematicians have told me that they are as concerned with finding beautiful solutions as they are about finding truthful ones and I connect with them in this pursuit.

Maybe I’m a bit different from some other composers in terms of working methods because of the strong science link. I now purposefully seek collaborations with mathematicians and scientists because these ongoing conversations bring such rich thoughts to me. It’s taken time to discover and develop this working method but now I’ve got a stimulating network of scientists that’s growing. I actively speak to people about their work and involve them in my projects.

When I’m at home I’m quite regimented. I get up very early and make myself a coffee and I usually try to do really creative work in the morning. I start by reading for an hour. Often I read something to do with mathematics. I’m reading some books by Marcus du Sautoy at the moment. This activates my brain and then I’m ready to compose through until late afternoon. After this I’ll go for a run, and read some literature or poetry later on. That’s a perfect day.

Alongside the scientific interests, I go to the theatre and I appreciate lots of different art forms although my main focus creatively is writing music. I also love poetry, but I don’t create poetry or mathematics. I find that my own ideas always sit best in the medium of sound.

Often, ideas that I am interested in influence a number of very different works and I have a set of pieces that stem from an interest in the work of Ada Lovelace. She was the daughter of Byron and she was also a mathematician who worked with Charles Babbage. In 2010-2011 I wrote a set of pieces, The Lovelace Trilogy, and one of them was called Calculus of the Nervous System. Lovelace had wanted to develop a mathematical model for how the brain could give rise to thought and nerves to feelings. I found this image utterly thought-provoking.

Next I wrote Axon – which literally means a nerve fibre. It was like taking this nervous system, zooming in and really looking at how an axon could work in sound. And then after this I composed Afference, a string quartet [nominated for the British Composer Awards 2016 in the Small Chamber category].

Afference is a medical term describing how the brain receives signals from the body and how nerve fibres convey sensory experiences to the central nervous system. When composing Afference I was imagining how and when we might become conscious of sensory information – things we touch, see, hear – and how this might sound.

This year the British Council has invited me to be part of a composer showcase in Porto. There’s a venue called the Casa da Música and they’re having a year of British music and talking about Brexit and the effects of Brexit on music.

I think for artists there’s something wonderful about being a part of a whole European tradition – I think it’s really helped artists. I’ve got several friends who have moved to Berlin and found it really stimulating. I find that being united and collaborating is something that artists really go for, but it will be really interesting to have a debate about it.

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