Five minutes with composer Charlotte Bray

Wednesday, May 2, 2018 - 11:37

Five years after her compositional debut, Charlotte Bray was being commissioned for the BBC Proms. The fast-rising young composer was first heard at Southbank Centre in 2008, while she was still a student.

In the years since, she’s worked with everyone from London Sinfonietta conductor Oliver Knussen to great British violist Lawrence Power. Her compositions have been inspired by subjects ranging from the 2015 atrocities in Palmyra, Syria to poetry by surrealist photographer Dora Maar.

Three years ago, her chamber opera Entanglement reexamined the crime of passion for which nightclub hostess Ruth Ellis was executed in 1955, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. The Guardian called it ‘challenging’ and ‘thoughtful’, commenting on its ‘metallic-edged, chill aura of sound.’

This May, the Arditti String Quartet premieres a new work in honour of scientist and polymath Leo Hepner, a tireless supporter of contemporary classical music who died in 2015.

One of the earliest public performances of one of your works was at Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room, the saxophone quartet Throw Back in 2008. What are your memories of the occasion?

I wrote Throw Back for some fellow students during our studies at the Royal College of Music. It was wonderful to have a piece programmed in such a prestigious hall at this point in my career and it’s great that the piece has gone on to have at least five other performances in the UK and Sweden.


As a young composer, what do you hope the future of music will look like?

Innovative, creative, immersive. There is some great work being done to engage audiences and approach ‘classical’ music in new ways. I’m hopeful that our industry will keep transforming and adapt to the times we live in.


Can you tell us a little bit about the process of writing the works that will be premiered here in the 2017/18 season?

The concert on 29 May is in memory of the chamber music patron Leo Hepner, and features four new compositions that Leo wanted to bring to life. My piece, Mid Oceaned, is a duo for viola and cello performed by the Arditti Quartet’s Ralf Ehlers and Lucas Fels.

I had the idea for the piece when I was travelling east by sea and crossed the International Date Line. I began composing on the first day, the 18th of April, writing ideas for the first movement. At midnight, the day was reset. How would it play out for a second time?


You’ve had several premieres of your work at Southbank Centre. How do you approach a new commission? What are you thinking about in the run-up to the first performance of a piece?

For me each new commission grows from a different seed. First I think about the musicians and their sound: so being able hear them at a concert, rehearsal or at least in some recordings is essential. Often the piece grows organically from conversations with the musicians themselves.

The lead-up to a first performance is always thrilling and nerve-wracking. By the time the performance comes I am usually just hoping it goes well.



Arditti String Quartet perform the world premiere of Charlotte Bray’s Mid-Oceaned, as part of our Purcell Room concert New Music for Leo Hepner, on 29 May.

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Later this year The Mariani Piano Quartet join forces with pianist Huw Watkins and the Ducasse Trio to perform new chamber music by Charlotte Bray.

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