Pathways - Interview with Samantha Fernando

Samantha Fernando is a London-based composer and a Lecturer in Composition at Royal Holloway, University of London. In this video and accompanying Q&A, she tells us about musical openness, "tableaux-like textures", and motherhood as a creative spark.


What does it mean to be a composer in 2018?

Openness. Being open to diverse musical styles and influences. Your music may or may not showcase this eclecticism but it is important to embrace an artistic life that is conscious and curious about the wealth of creative endeavour going on around you.

In pieces like Fault Line you seem to be fascinated with questions of timbre and sonority, with exploring how instrumental sounds can be pushed or transformed. Are there particular composers whose work has impacted on you in this area – and if so, how?

At the moment I am very interested in the music of Beat Furrer and Georg Friedrich Haas. Their music inhabits very different worlds, but, for me what they have in common is the ability to create fascinating tableaux-like textures; sonority and timbre are important in and of themselves but they also serve a larger whole.

Your new piece Formations was given its world premiere by the London Sinfonietta recently. Were there some specific ideas and themes behind the piece, and how did you go about writing it?

I was delighted to receive a commission to celebrate the 50th birthday of the London Sinfonietta and my personal circumstances felt wholly apt to be marking the inception of an ensemble with which I have built a close relationship. Formations was composed during my first pregnancy and completed during the early weeks of my child’s life. During this time, I was awestruck by the strength and versatility of a mother’s body to grow and nurture a new human. Additionally, the sense of expectancy and the change of identity that accompanies motherhood preoccupied my thoughts. This piece is an attempt to encapsulate the feeling of standing on a threshold of something new and unknown. Of beginnings and of the present moment. It explores collective sonorities of the ensemble. Less concerned with individual line but rather with a sense of coalescence and unity. Everything is part of a present whole.

You’ve spoken before about the challenges of developing a compositional career alongside the experience of pregnancy and motherhood – a set of issues that isn’t often discussed publicly. Could you say a bit more about your thoughts on this? Also, do you see your art as one place in which these concerns can be expressed, even worked through or negotiated?

Finding a balance between work and motherhood is something women in all fields have to contend with, not just in music. What has struck me is the specific challenge of being freelance and having a baby. From my experience so far, there is no easy solution and there is a lot of compromising in order to find the formula that works best for your circumstances. And these change as time goes on.

Since having a baby, when people hear I am a composer, often the response is ‘how lovely, that must be a career which fits well with having a family.’ This is far from the reality.  Being freelance and working from home affords me a certain flexibility but actually the blurred line between home and work becomes even harder to discern once a baby is added to the mix. The room which was the study is now the baby’s room and the piano and my desk have migrated to the living room. Finding a space (both physically and mentally) of quietness and of stillness in order to compose has become very challenging. There are the physical intrusions of all the baby paraphernalia around me and the mental intrusions of ‘when did I last feed him? Should I change his nappy? Why won’t he sleep?!’.In addition, I have been exclusively breast-feeding and whilst I am so happy and fortunate to be able to do this, my time and my body are tied to him. Attending concerts and rehearsals have been exercises in military planning in order to accommodate his feeding schedules.

Financial considerations are particularly pertinent for musicians with children. Options for maternity leave and childcare are not always possible or severely restricted when you are self-employed. Compounding this was a fear that if I took out any time from work, I would struggle to find my way back in. Being freelance means working very hard to forge a career for yourself and the thought of stopping felt like jeopardising everything I had worked so hard to achieve. This fear might have been misplaced or amplified but nevertheless it governed a number of decisions I made during pregnancy and later with regards to my work/life balance.

I feel incredibly fortunate to be a mother and I have moments of joy on a daily basis. I mention these challenges because it is important to acknowledge them and to give a voice to full the experience of motherhood.

Paradoxically, I have written more music in this first year of motherhood than the preceding years. It has been a wellspring of creativity it turns out! Perhaps in an effort to fully understand this seismic change in my life and my identity, I have delved into the literature- poetry, prose, philosophy and the biology of motherhood- and this has directly fed into the music I have produced.

My wonderful support network of family and friends has made all of this possible. Giving me their time, love and the occasional pep talk. Equally, I have been lucky enough to work with some very understanding musicians and ensembles this year who have given me space and support when I have found the mum-composer balancing act has been difficult. I’m still just muddling through and I expect I will continue to do so. My little one is changing all the time, it is a case of constantly adapting and trying my best to meet his needs and my own.

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