Composer Spotlight Q&A: Clara-Jane Maunder

Clara-Jane Maunder is a young composer currently studying composition with Dr John De Simone at the University of Aberdeen. 

Prior to starting university, Clara-Jane attended sound's annual composition course, Go Compose!, in the school October holidays. 

Recently Clara-Jane had 2 pieces premiered at soundfestival 2021 -

a piece written for local new music ensemble Any Enemy and a piece for violin and electronics exploring climate change in Scotland which she talks about in more detail below.

What stage are you at in your career right now?

I’m in my fourth year of the BMus undergraduate degree at the University of Aberdeen, studying composition with Dr John De Simone. I’m loving this stage of being a beginner – every experience teaches me something, as does every person I work with – and this gives me complete freedom to try anything. Part of that has been trying to work out my identity as a composer, getting used to my rather disorderly creative process, and discovering new ways to write music while still staying true to myself. It’s quite a balancing act!

When and what made you decide to pursue composition as a career?

I have Sound Scotland to thank for this – when I was in secondary school I took part in their Go Compose! course in partnership with Red Note Ensemble, and instantly fell in love with the process of writing for live instrumentalists. I’ve had a few other moments of inspiration to pursue composition as a career, usually when I hear a piece of particularly evocative film music (by John Powell, for example) or some epic orchestral scores live in concert (Rachmaninov, Vaughan Williams, Holst…)

Tell us about a favourite piece of music that you have written.

It’s difficult to pick a favourite, but due to the sheer amount of background work that went into writing and producing it I’d have to pick my recent piece ‘Erosion’ for violin and electronics. It was written in response by Historic Environment Scotland’s 2018 report on how climate change is negatively affecting historic Scottish sites and landscapes and was performed by my lovely mother Guera Crockett at one of the Sound Festival 2021’s Late Night Sound Sessions. This was the first time that I’d had to deal with obtaining permission to use existing material (which turned out to be a very long process), and I had to quickly learn a lot of music processing skills to produce the backing track. This track – which was played alongside the live violin part – was made up of quotes from the climate change report pre-recorded by my friends and family, a pre-recorded violin part played by myself, and a synthesized track layered on top of one another. The result was an immersive tapestry of music which (I hope!) expressed my concern for the loss of our Scottish heritage and history.

How have you been coping with the pandemic and how has this affected your output?

This past year or so has been very strange. On the one hand, because I’m not an established composer yet and I don’t get many commissions the pandemic hasn’t directly affected the amount of composition work I’m given, but on the other hand the pandemic did negatively impact my student life, shutting down rehearsals, concerts and composition opportunities almost immediately, as well as my job with Aberdeen Performing Arts. For a while there was just radio silence, but out of this came an astonishing number of opportunities for creatives as the music world tried to establish itself once more. I will always remember how difficult it has been (and still) is for those involved in the creative industries, but in a way I’m thankful for the communities and opportunities that the pandemic has built, and I know they will be essential to getting the arts back into the spotlight. 

Were you involved in any special musical or compositional projects during lockdown?

One of my favourite memories from lockdown is being involved in a fun performance of John Cage’s "4’33’’ hosted by Red Note Ensemble. When things were looking bleak it was incredibly uplifting to just have a bit of fun and be reminded of the community of creatives who were going through the same difficult times.

What are your compositional aspirations? 

Quite simply, I want to write music that I like to listen to, and that helps audiences to zone out into their own little magical world for a short while. I’d love to get to a point where I’m consistently producing music for short films, animations and/or concerts, and writing rep for fellow musicians to play, inspired by the world around me.

What forces do you prefer writing for and why? (Instrumental, orchestral, chamber music, choral…?)

Interestingly, the instruments I write for has changed a lot recently. When I first started composing, I loved writing for massive forces – orchestras, choirs, the works! But having spent time developing works for smaller ensembles and really focussing on the detail in each part, expanding out into any more than 5 instruments is rather overwhelming. My aim for this year is to develop an effective process for writing for large ensembles, but with the level of detail that I’d write for much smaller ensembles. Orchestra and choir with some traditional Scottish flavour (maybe a clarsach or a bodhran) is still my favourite soundworld – probably due in part to John Powell – and I can’t wait to start writing epic scores again soon.

Which composer (dead or alive) has most inspired you and why?

As I mentioned earlier, John Powell’s music is a massive inspiration to me, specifically his scores for the How To Train Your Dragon films. He has an amazing talent for combining folk music into this score and his storytelling ability is incredible. I love the thick textures that he creates sometimes, and his chord progressions are incredibly satisfying. I’m a little bit obsessed!

If you could describe your work in three words, what would they be? 

Folky, rhythmic… unexpected?

(Apparently my work doesn’t tend to go where the audience expects it to go…)

What music have you been listening to lately that you would recommend to others? 

I’ve been going in and out of a Bardcore obsession lately – which is basically modern music (usually popular music) played on Renaissance instruments. I love the weird but wonderful culture/time period crossover, and the instrumental versions are great to have in the background when I’m doing admin. It’s a bit bonkers but definitely worth a listen! 

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