New music focus: Joanna Ward

Joanna Ward is a young composer from Newcastle who is already making quite an impact, with a long list of impressive commissions and awards.

Listening to Joanna Ward’s music, Jean Sibelius’ famous words about God throwing down the pieces of a heavenly mosaic immediately sprang to mind. But, where Sibelius felt his task was to put the pieces back together and find the original design, Ward’s music suggests to me that we can also look for beauty and interest in how the fragments land, and find new patterns from them.

Joanna Ward grew up in Newcastle and became interested in composing after having to do it at school (anyone planning music syllabuses – take note!). She went on to study music at Jesus College, Cambrige, and is now a postgraduate student of composition at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Through an impressive number of awards, commissions and young composer schemes, she has written music for ensembles including Gesualdo Six, EXAUDI, St John’s Chapel Choir and Jesus Chapel Choir in Cambridge, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, National Youth Choir of Great Britain, the National Youth Orchestra and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, along with solo and chamber works and two short operas – and this year she receives a year of artistic development at Snape Maltings as s Britten Pears Young Artist.

A page from one of Joanna Ward’s graphic scores

Ward’s music combines conventional notation and forms with graphic scores, electronics and improvisations. Whilst the texture is often minimalist – often just a few sounds at a time, passing between different instruments or voices, the music itself isn’t minimalist in the sense of drawing on tiny changes within repetition – each piece is continuously evolving and growing.

I’m not a contemporary music expert, and I deliberately chose not to ask Joanna questions about how her music works. Although studying any music in depth can add extra layers understanding, I also feel that music has to be able to speak for itself without an intermediary. So I brought myself to this very new repertoire completely cold, to see what I could find, and to share a few thoughts.

There’s a beguiling beauty about Ward’s music: going back to the mosaic metaphor, everything glitters and although the underlying musical language is challenging to me, it’s also very attractive to listen to. And although it’s abstract there’s always a sense of a strong underlying structure, and a clear pulse, so every note feels well-designed. think at the sun, was written as part of Sound and Music’s Next Wave 2 scheme, and for the project she was assigned the musician Quinta as soloist, playing the musical saw. The instruments respond to the ethereal wobbling sound of the saw by building up long held notes and sliding harmonies (a distinctive part of Ward’s voice) to create layers of sound. I’m reluctant to use the word ‘soothing’ about music, because it can sound dismissive, but think at the sun completely absorbs me and takes me out of the present in a way that leaves me feeling deeply refreshed.

In the same vein, I recommend watching Bean Piece which combines music and video and is inspired by a packet of beans that Ward received in the post from her grandfather. The film uses close-up footage of the beans being emptied out of the packet and and moved around with footage of (I assume) her grandfather’s allotment and parts of a letter that came with them. There are also graphics derived from the patterns on the beans, and I get the sense that these may be the inspiration for the score, played on viola with additional electronic sounds. The music also feels very rooted in the earth and looking at the date (April 2021), I read into it the closer connections to the natural world that many of us have experienced through lockdown.

Ward also makes use of background sounds and other music, particularly music from the North East. I’m sure Bean Piece quotes a children’s song called ‘In a tiny house’, and I cannot get to my love, written for the National Youth Choir of Great Britain’s Fellowship Octet as part of the NYCGB Young Composers’ Scheme, uses both ‘The Keel Row’ and ‘Waters of Tyne’ (from which the title comes). The folk songs slip in over eerie sliding chords and humming, with the voices singing them at completely different times. It’s unsettling, as if each singer’s private mental earworms, and by extension their thoughts, have suddenly been made public. Another choral piece on Ward’s Soundcloud (see below), Gloria Tibi Trinitas feels to me like plainchant that has been refracted through a prism – the original pure white light broken up into a multitude of colours.

Although Ward’s music appears very abstract, she’s driven by politics, and from reading and watching interviews with her, it’s clear that she often takes political texts and thoughts as her starting point, even if they’re not obvious in the final piece. Vocal music of course is the easiest way to express political ideas and I was struck by the raw power of Ward’s 20 minute opera Hunger which explores how artists have to fight to escape the ‘woman’ label. The sparse score captures the internal anger of the opera’s protagonist as she navigates a tragically misunderstood clash between domesticity and art

Ward has another opera in progress, The Garden Party, based on a short story by Katherine Mansfield that examines female subjectivity and class disparity within the colonial context of New Zealand and like many of her pieces the final work will emerge from a collaborative process with all the creatives involved.

So far, two of Ward’s pieces – I cannot get to my love and think at the sun have been recorded for commercial release, both on the NMC label, and available on streaming services (details below) and there’s also plenty to explore on her Soundcloud and YouTube channels. She keeps popping up on Radio 3 as well, particularly her choral music, so keep an ear out for her – I suspect we’re going to be hearing a lot more of Joanna Ward in future and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.

Find out more

Recordings

(Click on the album covers to go to more information on NMC website)

Joanna Ward is a young composer from Newcastle who is already making quite an impact, with a long list of impressive commissions and awards.

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