Histories and Herstories Composers part 4

Lillie Harris

Lillie Harris Photo ©Kevin Leighton

Some composers just have a feel for the North. Lillie Harris is one of these. I commissioned her to write “AND”, inspired by Jen Hadfield’s poem “Blashey Wadder”, in 2016. At that point she’d barely travelled north of Glasgow, where we’d met when Lillie was part of the RSNO Composers Hub.

Granted, Jen Hadfield’s vivid description of a Shetland storm provides plenty of inspiration, and Lillie has a real feel for words, but it was only when she subsequently visited Shetland with me that she understood just how precisely she’d captured the tumultuous weather in music – and all for a solo viola! Lillie landed at Sumburgh Airport at the tail end of just such a storm as she joined me in Shetland in November 2016. She got off lightly – as I left Baltasound in Unst, Shetland’s most northerly isle, I nearly chopped my leg off with the car door! Driving across the neighbouring island of Yell was a white-knuckle ride. I wasn’t even sure Lillie’s plane would land as I approached Sumburgh, but land it did – fortunately there was a tailwind rather than a headwind.

Lillie joined me for a week in Baltasound and Lerwick, where we gave the premiere performances of “AND” as well as working together in Baltasound Junior High School in an improvisation workshop.

“AND” was the first piece I commissioned and a big learning process for me. Working with a composer is an intense and rewarding experience. No-one has ever played the music before (obviously!) which means there is no precedent, no prior performances to work from. The piece exists in the composer’s mind and together you work on realising that vision. I feel a great responsibility especially in the first performance of a new piece. I want to do it full justice so that the audience appreciate the new work: after all, I am the mouthpiece for the composer. It’s interesting seeing a new piece mature and, as Lillie says, at some point, you have to let it fly and let the performer interpret it in their way. After hearing me perform it in Shetland, Lillie didn’t hear me play “AND” again until January 2018, by which point I’d really got inside the piece and made it my own. The more I play it, the more I love it – the feeling of tension, of something in the air at the opening, the double stops that sound like the wind whistling through a gap in the window and the storm unleashed, whirling around at the climax of the piece.

Shetland gave Lillie a real taste of the north and in 2017 she was back to the Northern Isles, this time in Orkney, for the St. Magnus Festival Composers’ Course. There she wrote “Elsewhen” for sextet, inspired by the ancient monuments of Orkney. It’s a wonderfully evocative and slightly eery piece. Once again Lillie had captured the spirit of the north. “Elsewhen” is in Nordic Viola’s plans for the future and we look forward to introducing this piece to you.

You can find out more about Lillie and her music here: https://www.lillieharris.com/about