An Interview with Freya Waley-Cohen

In this interview, we speak to Freya Waley-Cohen, a groundbreaking composer who has been commissioned by various well-known musical organisations. Keep reading to find out more about her journey as a composer, which started very early, her works and her current exciting projects!


Hello Freya, for anyone who hasn’t heard of you before, please could you briefly introduce yourself?

Hi! I’m a composer. I started playing violin when I was 3 and the piano when I was 5, and by the time I was 8 or 9 I was improvising and jotting things down when I was supposed to be practicing. I’m British-American, and I grew up in London, but spent lots of time making music in New England as a teenager. As well as concert music, I’ve created installations and immersive works and staged works like opera. Along with William Marsey and Josephine Stephenson, I co-founded and ran Listenpony, a concert series and record label that commissioned over 50 composers over the course of 10 years.


How old were you when you first discovered a passion for music and what was it that sparked your interest?

Some of my first memories are sitting watching my sister practice the violin and asking when I could start. I had to wait until I was 3 and a half which felt like an incredibly long time. When I was 11, I first went to a place called the Walden School in New Hampshire which was like diving straight into a sea of all sorts of music, but with the ideas of the American avant-garde at the forefront. Music was redefined to me as ‘sound organised in time’ and the space for imagination in music seemed wide, mind-bending and endless.


What piece of music has made the most significant impression on you?

Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie.


When did you compose your first piece and what was it like to share it with people?

Probably the first things I wrote down were little fragments for myself and my piano teacher. At the end of a piano lesson, we’d spend the last 10 minutes playing through them. Then at The Walden School the first thing I wrote was a duet for two violas. Sitting in an audience and listening to a piece of mine being performed is often an out of body experience, like suddenly listening through everyone else’s ears. When I’m writing I’m always thinking about how music inhabits the time frame, but as soon as I’m in that state of listening to my own music with an audience, time moves both extremely fast and slowly and jumps all over the place.

The third or fourth piece I wrote at Walden - by which time I suppose I was 14 - was for chamber choir and mixed ensemble. There was some new chord or texture I was trying out (new to me anyway!) and when it sounded how I’d hoped in rehearsal - just that one moment in the piece, probably only a few seconds long - I remember being on a high for days.


You’re known for your instinctive use of colour in music - what inspires your pieces and what is your composition process like? 

Each piece is different. Sometimes the idea will come ahead of the writing, and by the time I sit down to write I’ve been thinking about the concept for a long time. Sometimes, the starting point is entirely musical - it couldn’t be said using any other medium. With each piece, the beginning of putting pen to paper is the hardest phase - any idea is perfect until it starts to come into the world. I’ll often sketch for quite a while, going back and forth between pen and paper and using notation software until a shape forms. Other times I start with one tiny sketch, and find myself going straight to full score and writing from start to finish. Each time a routine in my life develops around the music itself. The patterns of my days will form around the writing schedule that that particular music seems to need.


Which of your compositions are you most proud of?

I think the answer has to be Permutations. Every time I go back and listen to other pieces, I can think of little criticisms and things I’d like to change, but I don’t feel that with Permutations.

Permutations grew out of a project that started because I had an idea about a way of bringing listeners into the inside of a new piece of music for six violins. The idea was to create a new space especially for the music; a space that a listener could walk around, choosing which part would be their soloist at any given time.

I’m lucky enough to have a sister, Tamsin Waley-Cohen, who is a fabulous violinist and who wanted to pursue the idea with me. Along with architectural designers Finbarr O’Dempsey and Andrew Skulina, who became my close collaborators as the project developed, we were given the incredible opportunity of an Open Space residency at Britten Pears Arts.

During the years of our residency, many iterations of both the music and the architecture came and went - inspiring each other towards new and better versions.

Architecturally Permutations is six movable chambers made up of nearly 70 rotating doors. The doors change the isolation of different violin parts as well as the internal acoustics of each chamber.

Speakers, given to us by Amina Sound who were a sponsor for the project, attached to the timber that made up the top of each chamber. This gives the listener an infinite variety of possible listening experiences – it’s up to each individual to create their own version as they move around the space.

All of the six parts are performed by Tamsin and recorded by Signum Records - and therefore available to listen to, and I still feel proud of this whole project, and the music I wrote for it.


Having received a large number of commissions, what are the benefits and challenges of being asked to compose for a specific group?

A commission, versus a self-propelled project, means that someone else wanted to have you write music for them enough that they found a way to fund the project. So one of the biggest advantages is not having to spend your time applying for grants, and being able to go straight to spending the time writing the music.

I love the variety of ideas that come my way because of having commissions. For example, in the next few months I’m writing an orchestral work, a song cycle, and a septet for mixed ensemble. Each one of those evokes different ideas and sound worlds, taking me in a new direction. Most commissions give a few parameters - instrumentation and duration being the main ones. Some are more flexible with these than others, and sometimes the commissioner will come to me with an idea - but how I engage with that idea in my music is then entirely up to me. I don’t see many downsides to commissions, but when a project comes to mind that I want to do and I know it’s too obscure for anyone to spontaneously commission it, then I set about finding a way to make it happen.


Do you have any words of wisdom for young people wanting to pursue a career in performing or composing music?

A career in performing or composing music is hard and you’ll need to be resilient. It’s worth spending time thinking about why you want to make music, and asking yourself what is the music that only you could make. If you can answer these questions and use that to guide the projects that you start working on, then the beginnings of a path might open up for you. It’s best if this path is one that only you could take. Following other people's footsteps can be helpful sometimes, but it will only take you so far.


The world premiere performance of your complete work ‘Spell Book’ (Volumes I, II and III) is taking place on 1st February, led by the Manchester Collective. This dramatic song cycle sets feminist spell-poems from Rebecca Tamás’ ‘WITCH’ to music - what was it about this poetry collection that captivated you and inspired you to compose around it?

The playfulness and beauty of Rebecca Tamás’ language combined with the visionary perspective within the poetry collection meant that I couldn’t help but engage with it artistically. The collection is from the witch’s perspective. It’s an outsider’s perspective looking at all the frameworks we live within and exploring them just by imagining something different. It’s subtle, radical and visceral language.

Within the book there are several spells. Fleur Barron, one of the singers who will be performing next week, described the spells as ‘unexpected explorations of womanhood’. Rebecca herself writes that ‘Spell-poems take us into a realm where words can influence the universe’.

I started dreaming about the poems and the witch’s world in Tamás’ book after I read it, so it felt like a clear sign I needed to create a sung spell-book.


What extra power will be added to this world premiere with the performance being given by an all-female ensemble?

This was the Manchester Collective’s idea and it’s a really nice creative response to the music from the ensemble. The ensemble and singers have already started rehearsals, and I heard from mezzo soprano Katie Bray today that the rehearsal process feels ‘creative and beautiful’.


What does it feel like to be anticipating the release of your debut album, ‘Spell Book’, later this year on 25th October?

I’m very excited about this album. It feels like the culmination of a project which has lasted several years. Each of the pieces is a magical spirit or object - or, of course, a spell-book. Reading Tamás’ poetry collection led me to think about music and poetry, like magic and the occult, existing in the space between what we know and what we believe. Somewhere in the membrane of reality. And by looking through this membrane sometimes we see fragments and reflections of our world in ways we otherwise couldn’t see.

The musicians I’m working with on this album are deeply inspiring and I’m so honoured to get to work with them all: The Manchester Collective will be recording Naiad, Talisman, and, along with Katie Bray, Fleur Barron and Hèloïse Werner, Spell-Book; Tamsin Waley-Cohen, Anne Beilby and Nathaniel Boyd will be recording Conjure; and The London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ed Gardner have recorded Changeling.

It’s also very cool to have an album coming out with NMC, whose records I’ve been listening to for as long as I can remember.


Now for some questions to get to know you a bit better.

What are your hobbies outside of composing music?

I read quite a bit, mostly poetry, short stories and novels. I draw little demons and paint them in watercolour sometimes. I started gardening a bit last year and getting my hands in the mud made me think about earthy connections with folklore and I started writing some of my own folklore ridden short stories.


One of the most important questions for us, what’s your current HiFi/music listening setup like?

Unless it’s a live shared experience - i.e. a gig of some sort - I’ve always found listening to music to be a private thing so I’m mostly a headphones only sort of person. Saying this, I seem to break my headphones at an alarming rate, so I don’t have particularly special ones!


And to finish, do you have any other exciting concerts or projects that people should look (or listen!) out for?

Later this month, on the 27th of February, the Colin Currie Quartet are premiering my new percussion quartet Stone Fruit, at the Wigmore Hall. The instruments I’m using include a set of tuned mixing bowls as well as vintage teacups and saucers. I’m mixing these instruments with temple-blocks, wood blocks, glockenspiel and tom-toms. The vintage teacups look delicate and dainty, but the sound can become quite firm and fierce. It came from thinking about the delicacy and intensity of daily domestic rituals. I’ve been thinking of the piece as being a little bit like a peach or any type of stone fruit with the sweet softness of the fruit hiding the hard stone inside, where you might chip your teeth if not careful. 


Thank you very much to Freya and for taking the time to organise and complete this interview, we hope you've enjoyed learning more about her life as a composer, and don't forget to keep an eye, or ear, out for her concerts and album release later this year!


Main image credit: Patrick Allen

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