Hayley Jenkins interview

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background? 

Hayley Jenkins: I am a composer from the North East and a lecturer of Music and Education at the University of Sunderland. In my spare time I play flute and saxophone in Darlington Orchestra and I conduct Darlington Clarinet Ensemble. I first really accessed music through dance lessons, and it was a trip to see Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance that inspired me to play the flute. A dancer dressed in a gold costume sat on the front of the stage and played a beautiful flute solo, afterwards I said to my Mum ‘I want to do that’. From that point onwards I knew music was something that would always be part of my life.

I didn’t really get into composing or conducting until University due to not really having the opportunity to explore music in those ways until that point.  This led me to major in composition and then continue on to do a masters at York St John University with Dr David Lancaster before deciding to do a PGCE. I am currently undertaking a PhD in Composition with Dr Gareth Williams at the University of Edinburgh. This year I have been composer in residence with Streetwise Opera and have learnt anew the power music can have on people’s lives and have really explored composing as a collaborative process with participants which has been fantastic.

SC: Can you describe your new work to us?

HJ: My new work is called ‘Wrong Jacket’ and sets the words of York poet Carole Bromley. Before choosing which words to set, Carole and I met up for a coffee and discussed our creative processes and what inspired us both to write. I think getting to know the author of the work is very important to how I approach the writing. When Carole mentioned this particular poem, I could instantly hear the musical possibilities just from her descriptions of the story it was telling, and I fell in love with the fact it focused on a small life-moment which has probably happened to everyone at some point in their life. 

SC:Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?

HJ: With any setting, I usually print out the poem and annotate it- where the important consonants or alliteration are, where there might be room for repetition to help tell the story or if a particular motif/musical metaphor needs to be attached to certain words or phrases.  Then I usually sit at the piano to get a feel for a basic mood/chord structure. After that, I usually compose in fits and bursts, sometimes sitting for a whole afternoon where I get lots down followed by a period where I need to rest my ears and take a break from it. Walking always helps to think through a piece and decide where to go next. If it is not a setting of words, I sometimes draw out a structure as an image or timeline before I put notes to paper.

SC:Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?

HJ: Most definitely. Sometimes it is hard to get the time to have an extended discussion, but I certainly like to contact them, ask them some technical questions and also listen to some of their work before I start writing. I am also happy to discuss the work and see what their thoughts are, if they think anything might work better done in a different way for example.

SC:How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?

HJ: I love things that sound beautiful and have ‘space’. When I say beautiful that doesn’t mean everything has to be consonant, there is a lot of beauty in the resolution of dissonance or in unusual chord changes. I like things to have a meaning behind being there- so thematically and metaphorically a chord or motif might be very symbolic and recur at very specific points. Recently I have also tried really hard to create more space in my work, for there to be pauses for a sound or motif to rest and be pondered. As a flautist it is very easy to write ‘tunes’ so there tends to be a ‘singability’ and lyricism to the melodies I write.

SC: What motivates you to compose? 

HJ: Learning and curiosity first and foremost, but also a passion to tell a story or to communicate a feeling. I often read something or see something, and I think ‘that would be a lovely starting point for a piece of music’. It is usually something extra-musical like a poem, landscape, piece of art or even something someone says in conversation.

SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?

HJ: From my days studying the flute it has be to Ian Clarke, as he writes some beautifully organic (and technical) pieces that are a joy to play. For the same reason I also really admire Guy Wolfenden’s work, but unfortunately, he passed away in 2016, so I guess I cannot count him in this list now, but I have loved playing and conducting his work over the years. In April 2018, I had the opportunity to go to a composing residential with Gavin Bryars and although already a huge admirer, a week getting a unique opportunity to reexplore his work has been particularity influential and inspiring. Finally, the work of female composer Anna Clyne has been of huge interest to me, her use of imagery and musical textures is really interesting.SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?

HJ: Oh gosh, this is difficult! I guess I have always loved Benjamin Britten’s work, especially his Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes and Midsummer Nights Dream is just such a magical spectacle on stage. I am not all that sure what I would ask him however, I don’t think one pint would be long enough to have all my questions answered! 

SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.

HJ: A bit of an eclectic mix here: Arvo PärtFratres, Billy Joel She’s Always a Woman, Mark Knopfler Romeo and Juliet, Pink Floyd Breathe (In the Air),Phillip Glass Low Symphony, Gavin Bryars Three Elegies, Ian Clarke Sunday Morning, and the one I could not be without has to be Benjamin Britten’s Sea Interlude 1: On the Beachfrom Peter Grimes. 

SC:…and a book?:

HJ: To choose one book is absolutely impossible! If I have to choose it has to be Vera Britten’s Testament of Youth.

SC:…a film?

HJ: I could say Testament of Youth (again) but I absolutely loved Robin Hood Prince of Thieves as a child, the music is wonderful but the cameral trick with the arrow was amazing for 1991! I remember pleading for a bow and arrow after watching it. If it was on TV I would still love to sit and watch it.

SC:… and a luxury item?

HJ: My camera, I love visiting new places and taking good quality photographs.