Interview: composer Sam Hayden

This Winter Festival French quartet Quatuor Diotima are bringing a programme of new music to Spitalfields. Alongside music from Gérard Pesson, and Bartók, they’ll present Jonathan Harvey’s String Quartet No.3 and give the premier performance of Transience, a new work by Sam Hayden. We caught up with Sam to ask him more about the piece ahead of its premiere.

Image: Simone TarsitaniWhen did you first write a piece of music, and was there something that inspired you to do it?

While I was a member of the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, I wrote a piece for a group of fellow LSSO players to try out. At a certain point, it occurred to me that it could be interesting to create something new rather than to always rehash the old. I was also very interested in the intellectual side of music so composing seemed like the way forward. I came to composition quite slowly though. I’m not one of these people who was convinced from an early age that it’s what I had to do. I could have followed a number of different paths. At one stage, I might have studied mathematics instead, for example.

Your new piece Transience will be heard for the first time this December at our Winter Festival, what will the listener hear?

In many ways, it’s up to the listener to find their own path through the work, and I certainly don’t want to dictate what they should hear. What I can say is that the piece is about constant change and transformation (hence the title) and this will be very immediate and apparent. The quartet is conceived very much as a single sonic entity, out of which the individual instruments are striving for autonomy. The sound is very unstable and energetic, constantly evolving, never settling on one state before moving to another. The surface of the music is in a constant state of flux. Although there is no literal repetition, there is a consistency of sound (tiny variations of similar material) throughout the piece. I was particularly interested in the transformation between complex noise-based sounds and purer sonorities, often based on harmonics.

Transience is dedicated to your mentor and friend, Jonathan Harvey. How has his work been an influence on you and your music?

This dedication is because this work is the first that I have completed since his death and I couldn’t help but think of him. Jonathan was always a supporter of my music since I first studied with him at the University of Sussex as an undergraduate. I kept in touch with him ever since and he always encouraged me to find my own way. He was a very special personality, at once gentle yet determined. It was his openness to new sounds and new ideas that was so refreshing. He didn’t have an agenda in the sense of pushing a particular aesthetic or technique. In many ways, our music is very different, although I do feel an affinity with his String Quartet No.3, which is being performed in the same concert. In Transience, there is the occasional nod towards spectralist-like ideas of which Jonathan was an enthusiast, which is probably not a coincidence.

Has the quartet Quatuor Diotima shaped the creative process or writing this music?

The experience of hearing them play has certainly had an influence as their approach is very much as equals, striving towards a collective goal. Their sound gives the impression of a singular entity without individual egos, which I very much admire. Their virtuosity and enormously varied repertoire was also very reassuring as I felt it a very open invitation to write for them. They’ve not had any direct intervention in the composition per se, but I will certainly incorporate their expert advice during the rehearsal process.

What do you hope that the audience will take away from their encounter with Transience?

That’s really for them to decide, having listened. All I ask is for open minds and open ears. The piece can be heard on many levels, but there is definitely an immediacy to the sound. I hope I can encourage the idea that there can always be alternatives to received ideas and orthodoxies.

You can hear Transience be performed for the first time on Sunday 14 December at Shoreditch Church (St Leonard’s) and tickets are still available from our website. If you want to hear more of Sam Hayden’s music we’ve put together a playlist of some of his other works too.

Quatuor Diotima
7.00pm, Sunday 14 December
Shoreditch Church (St Leonard’s)
Book tickets now


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