How I Write for the Strings: Composer Dani Howard | Blogs
I just finished a new 8 minute work Heads or tails for the Britten Sinfonia, written entirely for string ensemble – 9 musicians (22221), but with the possibility of being performed with larger forces in the future. It’s been at least four years since I wrote a work for solo strings, and it was really refreshing to come back to this medium, because I felt like I was going back to my roots.
The cello is my main instrument and I played in a string orchestra throughout my childhood. I had the most amazing cello teacher since I was 10, Richard Bamping, Principal Cellist of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, who became a great mentor to me between the ages of 10 and 18 before moving to London to study composition at the Royal College of Music. It was during these 8 years in Hong Kong that a large part of my musical identity was formed.
I think my teacher knew I didn’t want to be a cellist, and we often focused the lessons on the larger concepts of music. We would review the new music he performed in great detail – exploring the capabilities of the instrument in a less traditional sense – as well as dissecting a huge amount of standard repertoire. During my studies at the RCM, I was keen to learn more about instruments that I knew little or nothing about, and therefore wrote very little about in the string music department for several years.
There’s always a huge element of nerves that comes with getting a commission focused on writing strings, because I still feel the immense pressure from the huge canon of iconic music written for strings that I’m writing with. grew up. I don’t know if that will ever change – I haven’t written my first string quartet yet, for example. At the same time, this is certainly where my brain goes crazy the most with the different possibilities of sound universes that I would like to try to create. This certainly happened when I had the opportunity to write for the musicians of Britten Sinfonia – the piece ended up taking me much longer to write than usual (probably because of this pressure on me -same !). I was really able to explore something that I found new in my own writing, which is always an exciting time for a composer.
The inspiration for Heads or tails comes from the graphic animations of Swedish designer and digital artist Andreas Wannerstedt. It creates endless loops, like pendulum swings, that are hypnotic and meditative to watch. The piece evolves in several cycles of contrasting “textures”; repetitive and fast-paced in nature, but with different colors “showing up” in the group. I focus a lot on the natural harmonics of the four instruments – and in particular, I love the resonance that comes after the note of a natural harmonic, once the bow flies off the string. There’s a lot of that everywhere, and I also really tried to consider the visual aspect of the performance. When I can imagine where the different instruments will be positioned on stage, I aim to use that to form a 3D concept for the performance, knowing that sound can come to you from opposite sides of the stage at different times. I think there’s a lot to explore in this area, and there are many exciting effects that can be achieved, which I certainly enjoy playing with these elements while composing.
Of course, I have a natural inclination to write for the violas, cellos and double bass sections. Historically, the violins have always had the best tunes, so I have consciously tried in all my works to give the lower strings more interesting parts to play and shine, notably in my Trombone Concerto. I wrote this work for the principal trombonist of the Royal Liverpool Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra, Peter Moore, who will give the third performance, and the first in London with the LSO in April.
We were in lockdown when I composed the concerto and the RLPO expected to have drastically reduced the players on stage for social distancing – of course that meant thinning out the string section, miserably. Luckily, when they premiered in Liverpool in June, they managed to increase those string numbers slightly. I of course kept that in mind during the writing process, but I still wanted the piece to have some form of longevity beyond the premiere, and so I was hoping to hear a version with the full string section in the future which will eventually perform at the London Premiere.
The reason I like the larger string sections is that I can split the sections. A lot of my writing is tone-definite – it makes the chords more interesting and the sound denser. This can make the first few reps a bit trickier, so I try to avoid them as much as possible! Let me quote John Adams on the trials of being a composer:
‘With an orchestra seeing the piece for the first time, the sound comes to you… Everything you hear is a shock. It can be a harrowing and hysterically horrific experience. There is a tendency to want to run on stage and yell at someone, but I have to be very polite and write it down in a notebook”. This is always true, no matter how exceptional the orchestra!
Heads or tails with the Britten Sinfonia premieres February 25 | RLPO Youth Orchestra give the UK premiere of Verticality March 20 | The LSO performs the London premiere of Dani Howard’s Trombone Concerto on April 24