The Prom Queen
Words Jude Rogers
Photographs Brian Doherty
Fed up with hearing how classical music should be more diverse and accessible, composer Hannah Kendall decided to take things into her own hands. ‘It’s easy to agree, but it’s much harder to do something about it,’ she says. ‘So I’m trying to do something…’
If you were looking for a composer in London’s Waterloo, you’d probably head to the Thames. Here, the Royal Festival Hall gleams majestically over the river, while the Queen Elizabeth Hall nods regally, as ever, next door. The woman we’re meeting has had her music performed in both of these venues, but tonight she’s tucked behind Waterloo station, ordering a beer in the back garden of the Scootercaffè – one of the less gentrified spots on Lower Marsh – where branches of Greggs and Ryman’s rub shoulders with artisan coffee shops.
Hannah Kendall, 34, is trying hard to contain her excitement about her thrilling new commission for the summer: her first Prom. It’s a big thing for her as a Londoner. ‘I’ve been going since I was young,’ she says, beaming; she’d travel down from Wembley for concerts, with her mum, Audrey, who brought Kendall up on her own, and remains her daughter’s biggest inspiration. (‘I’m just getting over a lunch with her yesterday – she’s a whirlwind.’) The 10-minute composition, Spark Catchers, is inspired by a poem by contemporary British-Ethiopian writer Lemn Sissay, and it’s being written for the Chineke! foundation, a pioneering new orchestra of black and minority ethnic (BAME) performers from across Europe. It comes less than a year after Kendall’s one-manchamber opera, The Knife of Dawn, was performed at the Roundhouse’s Sackler Space and broadcast on Radio 3, inspired by poet and political activist Martin Carter, from Kendall’s mother’s home country of Guyana.
Today, Kendall is, she laughs, ‘knackered’ – she’s quick to laugh, with a brilliant smile. As someone without a glittering nest-egg behind her, Kendall finds time to compose around a few day jobs: a two-day-a-week role as awards director of London Music Masters, a charity near here that gets young people experiencing and performing classical music, and a Saturday job teaching composition to teenagers at the Royal Academy. ‘That work is very important to me. I’ve sat in so many meetings where people agree that classical music should be more diverse and accessible. It’s easy to agree, but it’s much harder to do something about it. So I’m trying to do something.’
Kendall’s story arc is not a typical one for the classical composer. She was born in 1984, in the heart of multicultural North-West London; her family had moved there from Guyana in the 1950s. ‘Wembley was an amazing place to grow up. I experienced cultures from all over the world mixed together as something very normal. I went to a Jewish primary school. One of my fi rst memories is celebrating Diwali. I loved Indian culture so much. I used to make my mum buy me saris to dress up in!’ Music also ran down the family line. She remembers her fourth birthday party vividly, dancing to soca records ‘with a huge grin on my face’. Kendall’s grandfather was a saxophonist in jazz bands back in Georgetown, Guyana, before moving to Britain where he became a builder and carpenter. He took incredible pride in the things he made, Kendall says, but still encouraged his children to get into the arts. Western classical music was a big thing in the Caribbean, which often surprises people, she notes. ‘I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because assumptions are made based on the people we often see making music or performing it. But my granddad loved Bach, and so do I – because he’s the best!’
Kendall’s mum (a much-loved, progressive head teacher of two North London state primary schools) got her daughter violin lessons at the age of four. ‘I didn’t love the lessons, but I liked the community of being in a school orchestra. Us all learning to be musicians, as performers, together, had a big effect.’ By her teens, Kendall was playing piano and singing too – and renting Handel CDs from the local library – but she also made up dance routines to songs by Take That and the Spice Girls. She still rates pop highly, playing Kiss FM in the car. ‘And I really love grime. The beats and the bass, and this intricate irregularity it has… the way Stormzy and Dizzee [Rascal] get music, sound and words working together just blows my mind.’
Kendall went to Exeter University to study music in 2002, but thought she’d probably do a law conversion course later (‘aspirational immigrant family and all that’). She only took the module in contemporary classical composition because she needed 10 credits to finish her course map, and the tutor seemed nice. ‘But when I got into it, I couldn’t believe it. Here were ways of writing music that I’d never encountered before.’
At Exeter, she regularly used graphic scores instead of conventional notation, placing visual symbols on the page to tell the performer what to do, which often allowed them more freedom and scope. ‘It was so freeing and exciting, and I knew so many other young people would love making it this way. I genuinely think it’s criminal that kids go through school thinking composing can’t be an option. Music is something we all cherish in our lives, so to be given the option of making it – why isn’t that pushed?’
‘It’s good to know that operas can be written in a room over too many glasses of wine’
A First Class degree from Exeter later, and Kendall was a composer. She studied advanced composition at the Royal College of Music (achieving distinction in her Masters), by which time her magpie brain was landing on different areas of inspiration all the time. Take her startling orchestral piece, Kanashibari, about an experience she’d had of sleep paralysis (during which a person temporarily experiences the inability to move when waking up). Its violins and brass instruments skitter, shudder and moan. Another piece, Iscariot Blues, was inspired by a tranquil Chris Ofili painting of Judas, featuring an oboe, cello and piano moving with a lulling, menacing, beauty.
Next Kendall started working with texts, setting Wilfred Owen poems in soundscapes of eerily beautiful horror, then working alongside contemporary poet Rick Holland to turn his words into music (Holland also made an album with Brian Eno in 2011). In Kendall’s hands, Holland’s poem ‘Fundamental’ becomes a meditation on breathing – both in singing voice and brass instrument playing – and the experience of that collaboration was a revelation. ‘I genuinely think that people work much better when they work with other people,’ Kendall says. ‘I mean, if we know other living artists who we could learn from and share from, who are experiencing the same things politically, socially, artistically – and don’t collaborate with them, then what are we doing? It’d be really weird if we didn’t work together and create together.’
Then, in 2015, Kendall had another revelatory experience: she saw Chineke!’s first performance at the Royal Festival Hall. ‘Just looking at the stage, then the audience, and going, “Wow, I’ve never seen this before – why haven’t I seen this before?” The dynamism, the energy of everyone there… there was the most incredible sense of celebration’. The experience made her realise how important role models really are, which set her off writing The Knife of Dawnin late 2014, a one-man opera for a black baritone.
The opera is set in a prison cell in 1953, in what was then British Guiana; its sole character, Martin Carter, a poet and political activist wanting his country to be liberated, is in jail without charge (Kendall’s production marked the 50th anniversary of the country becoming independent). ‘Opera at its best is successful storytelling, and I realised I wanted to be a storyteller,’ Kendall explains. ‘And I wanted to tell a real story, not get lost in fantasy and myth. Operas sometimes put people off because of this, but they really shouldn’t – they’re grand pieces of work that aim to make an impact on people.’ She shrugs. ‘Musicals have that impact, don’t they? In 2017, I’m trying to crack the nut that opera should be the same!’
Kendall also produced, cast and raised funds for The Knife Of Dawn herself; knowing that her opera was something unusual in the classical world, she determined to do things differently. She was being lined up at the time for Radio 3’s Composer of the Week, and managed to convince 11 trusts and arts bodies to give her the bulk of the money. She also got the Trinity Laban conservatoire to fund workshops based on the opera for BAME students, which was a very important part of the process for her. ‘These kids from state schools in Peckham asking all these curious, clever questions – I wish more people could have seen that. It was brilliant. And why shouldn’t they ask them? They’re as curious and clever as anyone else.’
The opera began life in sketches at Kendall’s small flat in South London’s Hither Green, before being fleshed out over a kitchen table in Kilburn with Canadian-Guyanan librettist Tessa McWatt. McWatt’s house was only a road away from where Audrey Kendall grew up. ‘That felt good. It felt right. It’s also good to know that operas can be written in a room over too many glasses of wine.’
The production had to work within its means: only 10 days of rehearsal were possible with the musicians: nine of them in a room in one of Kendall’s mum’s schools. (Kendall only relaxed when, as she puts it, ‘I got my bum on a seat in the premiere performance. I knew then there was nothing more I could do.’) Six months on, she’s proud of how it went, particularly because 45 per cent of its audience was from a BAME background – something unheard of in classical music. The Guardian’s George Hall called the opera ‘often ingenious’, while Richard Fairman of the Financial Timespraised it for being ‘intricate and imaginative… surely a springboard to more ambitious works in the future’.
And now here we are, in a bar near London’s great river, down the Jubilee Line from Wembley, with Hannah Kendall’s Prom just around the corner. You wonder what she will do to Sissay’s words, which spill over beautifully with both poetry and politics, telling of how the ‘tide twists on the Thames and lifts the Lea to the brim of Bow’, the place where Victorian matchmaker girls ‘made millions of matches that lit candles for the well-to-do and the ne’er-do-well to do alike.’
Kendall was drawn to Sissay, she says, because he believes ‘in poetry in public places… that allows us to engage with the place that we’ve always known, in a way that we’ve never known’. In other words, classical music as a realm in which our ordinary worlds truly come alive. ‘Totally! Draw in more people, expand the audience, extend the possibilities… and do it loud!’