Composer Spotlight: Hannah Kendall – Music Boxes, Harmonicas & Dreadlock Cuffs

Photo by John Angerson

Hannah Kendall’s work has been widely celebrated. Her work has been performed extensively, and across many platforms. She has worked with ensembles including London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Seattle Symphony Orchestra, The Hallé, Ensemble Modern, and London Sinfonietta, but you’ll also find her collaborating with choreographers, poets and art galleries; crossing over to different art-forms, and celebrating the impact these unique settings have on sound. She is currently composing an Afrofuturist opera for experimental vocalist and movement artist Elaine Mitchener, and is the recipient of the 2022 Hindemith Prize for music composition. Born in London in 1984, Kendall is based in New York City as a Doctoral Fellow in composition at Columbia University.

Hannah’s alternately buoyant and serene Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama will have its New York premiere, led by conductor Marin Alsop, with American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall on March 25, 2022. Part of Sanctuary, co-presented by ACO and Carnegie Hall, the concert explores the places, company, and states of mind in which composers seek inviolable refuge.

Below, we share a recent conversation with Hannah about her work. 

Lyndsay Werking (LW): Can you tell me about Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama.

Hannah Kendall (HK): This piece means a lot to me because it was the first of a whole series of pieces after Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artwork. I saw this at the Guggenheim for the first time about three years ago. Just before the pandemic and George Floyd’s death. Basquiat sketches, writes messages, uses iconography. His work refers to explorers like Vasco da Gama and Magellan, the Dust Bowl period, police brutality.

Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama opened the Proms Festival in 2020. They were looking for a piece that reflected our recent situation of Covid-19 and social unrest. Vasco da Gama and others chose to cross the seas. It left me wondering if they had any consideration how their actions would impact future people. This start of globalization is relevant to trade and to Covid as well.

Since Vasco ‘de’ Gama, I’ve written eight other pieces that are part of my Tuxedo series, taking titles from Basquiat’s artwork. I’ll probably go up to 16 since his artwork is made of 16 smaller works.

Excerpt of Kendall’s Tuxedo Vasco ‘de’ Gama, hosted on Soundcloud.

LW: Is each of your musical works a direct response to each block of Basquiat’s work? Do you envision the individual works being part of a larger experience at some point?

HK: I’m drawing on things he’s referenced that I find interesting. The 16 block art works come together almost like a person in a tuxedo wearing a crown.

I would love a chance to have all the works performed together as a festival. Three of them are happening as part of the Hindemith ceremony in August 2022.*  One is for a pretty large orchestra and the others are for smaller formations. They all borrow from each other. One could hear a common thread if they are all performed together.

(*Kendall is the recipient of the 2022 Hindemith Prize for music composition, awarded to outstanding composers as part of the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival)

Image of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Tuxedo 1982–83 Framed Print, available for purchase at MOMA Store at this link.

LW: I was reading the work description and you mention a transcription for a music box. Can you tell me more about that?

HK: There are music boxes that are pre-programmed and you can buy one where you punch in the notes on a strip. For my work, the tune from “Wade in the Water” is played in the middle of the work. The very first performance took place in empty Royal Albert Hall, which usually has up to 5,000 people.

Many of my Tuxedo pieces have music boxes that are part of them. In some of the works, I ask the person who are playing it to punch in their own version of the stated tune. Someone might choose to transcribe it in  a completely different way, which is really interesting.

Music Box excerpt of Kendall’s ‘Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama’ at the First Night of the 2020 Proms. October 19, 2020.

LW: I also heard that you have included the harmonica in the score.

HK: Yes. This is part of my practice of drawing in instruments that are outside the western orchestra. I love harmonicas because they are synonymous with blues, which is an Afro-diasporic music. I want to infuse these sounds into a Western classical ensemble. In this piece, I wanted them to blend into the orchestral sound world.

LW: I was reading your bio and noticed you write a lot of opera. Do you have anything coming up?

HK: I have piece being premiered March 8, 2022 with Elaine Mitchener at Wigmore Hall, which is the latest piece in the Tuxedo collection. It’s very dramatic because I wanted to take advantage of Elaine’s talents. The piece has harmonicas and 7 wind-up music boxes. The strings are cuffed with dreadlock cuffs, which produces multi-phonics.

LW: Do you approach writing for an orchestra differently than opera?

HK: I suppose I do. An opera has text involved. How to set text is the primary question. A lot of musicians in Tuxedo vocalize, so the words are used for textural effect. The big decision is how to treat the text and how you want that to come across. My next opera will be in Guyanese Creole, which my grandparents spoke.

Soundcloud link to excerpt of The Knife of Dawn, an opera by Hannah Kendall’s

LW: What was your path to becoming a composer?

HK: I went to university and was primarily a vocalist. I fell into composition almost by mistake. It wasn’t something I had planned. I had never thought I could do it. I had never seen anyone like me as a composer. I was in my early 20s and had never performed music by a woman or person of color. Composition was compulsory at Exeter. I needed to take 10 extra credits and had enjoyed my first composition class. I found that I enjoyed composition much more than performing and my teachers encouraged me.

When I enrolled in a Masters program, I had to work really hard. For my colleagues, composition was a longtime ambition. For me, it was a new ambition.

LW: Are there any other experiences that have been important to your career as a composer?

HK: I worked in arts administration between university and the Masters program. I self-produced my first opera because I had been doing fundraising and other administrative work. My administrative experience doesn’t impact the aesthetic of my work, but I have such a good knowledge of the industry that I know who to speak to for help. I know who to talk to about the idea of “Mega Tuxedo.” I know who to send works to, who to have conversations with. It’s almost like talking to a friend.

My Masters was also at the first school in the UK that had an arts administration degree. The director was really helpful in teaching about career practicalities and artistry. A part of developing your practice is learning these other things as well.

LW: Do you follow any rituals?

HK: There are two things I have to do every day to survive: journal and take a long walk. It’s about clearing my mind so I can focus on what I need to make that day. My thoughts can snowball but if you just actively try and clear the mind, it liberates thought. Journaling is a great way to plan works as well.

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