Classical composer Dani Howard loves pop and hates pretension

Dani Howard’s path to composition was not the most conventional. “It was the influence of my piano teacher. I was working on my exam pieces and asked him if I could just rewrite a few bars. She said, ‘I’m not sure, but why don’t you try writing your own songs?’ »

Howard took his advice, jumping into the thick of it. “When I was about 12, I started a piano concerto which I called The masterpiece. It was only about six bars,” she laughs. “A few years later, I discovered that you could actually go and study composition.” She then won a place at the Royal College of Music in London and since then commissions have multiplied, including a trombone concerto receiving its London premiere with the London Symphony Orchestra on 24 April.

The concerto came out of confinement, which she spent in Mallorca with her Spanish conductor husband, Pablo Urbina. (Lockdown hasn’t been a hardship for her: “I’m an outgoing introvert. I love being with people, but it’s exhausting me. I’m very happy to go home and be there for days and days.” roll over it: Not only was it the greatest orchestral work Howard had written, but it was also one of the first works to be performed live post-lockdown, when it premiered in June 2021 by trombonist Peter Moore and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

Howard says his main goal was to make it “as uplifting as possible for the audience.” She succeeded: the concerto, which won Howard a Royal Philharmonic Society award, is cinematic and richly orchestrated, with an accessibility that seems to owe less to the world of contemporary classical music than to pop.

As well as writing music for the concert hall, she has worked with dancers, artists, filmmakers and architects, on projects ranging from an immersive soundtrack for Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Batlló in Barcelona to an installation at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. She writes bold, exuberant music that manages to be both complex and sympathetic. Several major British ensembles have now commissioned her, with the London Chamber Orchestra appointing her composer-in-residence for the 2022-23 season.

Howard admits she frequently draws inspiration from pop music, including how “a drummer in a band might interpret certain beats.” It’s no surprise: Growing up in a British family in Hong Kong, she made her first forays into music experimenting on drums – a controversial choice of instrument for a five-year-old living in an apartment building. His detective father introduced him to 1970s and 1980s pop classics such as Elton John and Billy Joel while his mother, an amateur clarinetist, started a community charity for teenagers interested in pop music, where Howard cut his teeth as a composer, writing songs.

For a long time music remained just a hobby: Howard’s other interest was sports and in her senior year of school she was accepted as a member of the women’s national basketball team. from Hong Kong, with whom she played for a season.

The time she had devoted to sports, she says, was not wasted: it helped lay the foundation for a career in music. “You don’t turn around at 21 and say, ‘I’m going to be a classic performer’, just like you don’t turn around and say, ‘I’m going to be a professional football player.’ Sport teaches you discipline It was a lesson, obviously, that she took to heart, forcing herself to work a certain number of hours each day, whether she felt inspired or not.

She admits the composition process can be torturous: “Sometimes I work for hours on a section and only then realize it shouldn’t exist at all. There is no correlation between the time I devote to it and the amount achieved. However, she disapproves of composers who take shortcuts in trying to explain what is missing from their works: “I once heard a composer’s pre-concert speech that was about twice as long as his piece of real music, then when I listened to the piece, I couldn’t hear anything he had described. After that, she swore she would never insist on an audience knowing the background of her work. “My music should speak for itself.”

Howard thinks pretension is endemic in contemporary classical music: “There’s this attitude of, ‘If you don’t like a piece of new music, it must be because you don’t understand it’, even if you’re a classical musician. yourself. And that’s so condescending. There shouldn’t be any pressure to write or listen to something that doesn’t feel authentic to you.

So what feels authentic to him? Obviously not the austere branch of experimentation favored by Webern, Boulez and their followers. “I don’t want to write pastiche music, but I’m not trying to push the boat forward harmonically. What interests me the most is the orchestration,” she says. “I like to combine instruments in a way that we have never heard before.”

Above all, she is keen to demonstrate that new music can be very enjoyable: “I’ve been sitting behind people and hearing them say, ‘Ugh, ticking boxes here. Of course, there is a new piece on the program. I’m happy to be a gateway to new music. And that’s partly why I also like to undertake multidisciplinary work,” she says. “The more people who can hear music being played in different ways, the better. That’s how we keep our art form alive.

Peter Moore and the London Symphony Orchestra perform Dani Howard’s Trombone Concerto at the Barbican on April 24

Argentum: composer Dani Howard/performers Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/conductor Michael Seal

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