I didn’t actually intend to become a composer: I was training as a singer, and then they changed the credits at the university where I was studying, and I needed 10 extra credits to graduate. The composition class was worth 10 credits, so I thought: “Oh yeah, I’ll do that.” And I ended up loving that way more than singing, or anything else. And it turns out, I was much better at it, as well.
There was definitely a time when I wasn’t sure that I could be a composer. I didn’t have any role models, I hadn’t come into contact with any female composers, or any composers of new music in fact. So it wasn’t an easy road by any means. But I was so encouraged by my teachers – they were very supportive.
I actually have a portfolio career: I write contemporary classical music, I’m one of the directors at a music charity, London Music Masters, and I also teach at the Junior Royal Academy of Music. I’m also writing an opera, The Knife of Dawn: it’s based on the life of Martin Carter, who was a Caribbean political activist and poet from Guyana, where my mum’s from. I wanted to write something that drew on my own cultural heritage, and specifically, I wanted to write a piece for a classical singer of African-Caribbean descent, because I don’t think there’s enough music written specifically for them at the moment.
My work days are different, depending on what I’m doing. If I’m in the office, it looks like lots of meetings, lots of catching up. And teaching is full-on: a nine-to-five day with the most incredible, inspirational kids. They teach me something new every week. I think it’s important for creative people to get inspiration from other walks of life, and I find that the mix of work really helps, rather than just being at home every day, writing by myself.
When I am at home though, I normally work 10am util 7pm and write in my lounge. I’m not a morning person, so I don’t wake up too early. I have a morning routine where I listen to Radio 4 and listen Women’s Hour while I have breakfast. Breakfast is always two boiled eggs, a Nakd bar and a coffee. That sets me up for the day.
Then I try and reply to all of my emails, so that the admin’s cleared. If that’s hanging over me, I feel like I can’t do anything creative. It can be so difficult to get started with writing – to get the ball rolling. But once you get going, you can find that 10 hours have passed without leaving the flat. So I’ll always try and see friends for a coffee on my writing days, so that I know that I’ve actually seen some daylight.
I have a notebook for all my ideas, so if I’m starting a piece, I’ll jot down the inspiration behind it and other thoughts that might come to mind. Then I do a graphic score. It’s basically how I want the piece to look. I’ll decide how long it’s going to be, and pinpoint the different moods throughout the piece, but just with symbols and diagrams and pictures; I’m not bound by notes at this stage. It’s literally just a drawing on a piece of paper – it’s a visual map – of what the piece is going to be. Working on this takes a couple of few days.
Then I sit down at the piano, and work out the harmonic structure and the general sound. I add that to the map, to the visual score. Over a process of time, I add the notes and the rhythms. That’s how I write, layering it up like that.
One of my main aims is to be the best composer I can possibly be, and to develop my individual voice, but it’s also really important to me that in my lifetime, I can help address the gender imbalance in classical music. At the moment, only 14 per cent of the composers registered with the Performing Rights Society are women. 14 per cent! I think it’s really important to try and change that. I feel like God’s put me in a position to highlight those inequalities, and as I’m both a woman and from a minority background, I get asked about those issues a lot. I don’t have any qualms with talking about what I think could be done to change the inequalities. But it would be great eventually to not be talking about this anymore – that’s the ideal!
I think that passion, that desire to uplift women in the different roles they do, is part of the reason why I was nominated for a Woman of the Future award recently; it’s this incredible award that recognises women doing really cool, amazing things from all walks of life. I found out that I’d won for my section (Arts and Culture) on Twitter, as I was overseas. It was such a privilege to be nominated and to win was such an incredible accolade.
Anyway, I love the award, because I think it’s really important for people to recognise the incredible, life-changing things that women are doing. There’s lots of reports about gender imbalance in the workplace, and things like that, which is quite negative, so it’s great to be celebrating what’s going well, and highlighting that.
On Hannah’s playlist:
Worship songs (Hillsong mostly), Bach and Beyonce!
Described as “…intricately and skillfully wrought” by The Sunday Times, Hannah Kendall’s music has attracted the attentions of some of the UK’s finest groups including London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers, with performances at Royal Opera House, Southbank Centre, St Paul’s Cathedral and broadcasts on BBC Radio.
Hannah is also a Director at London Music Masters, a charity that aims to enable opportunity, diversity and excellence in classical music.