A Q&A with London-Based Composer Natasha Sofla

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  1. Natasha, we would love to hear a bit about your background- how did you get into music, and more specifically, composing?

    For as long as I remember I’ve always had an interest in music. There are pictures of me as a toddler bashing away at our ancient piano, and I’ve always loved to sing, much to the delight of my long-suffering parents. I really got into music, however, when I was offered the chance to learn an instrument at school and I chose the clarinet. I stuck with the clarinet from age 7 right through to university, but made sure to pick up other instruments along the way. I learned piano and saxophone, played in orchestras and jazz bands, and have always sung in choirs. I basically filled my time with music! As for composing, I always had an interest in it, especially in film music, but it didn’t become my focus until university. I had enjoyed my composition assignments at school, and found I took quite naturally to them. Then when I went to university I had the chance to study classical and electroacoustic composition in more depth, and eventually decided to switch focus from clarinet to composition. I went on to do a masters degree in Composition for Film and TV, and my career since then has been an eclectic mix of all three types of composition, and I still pick up my clarinet sometimes too.

  2. Concert works, film projects, new music commissions, and more, are all in your wheelhouse. Can you tell us a bit about each vein of music you work in? Is the process different for each?

    As a clarinetist and choral singer I was always performing classical music throughout school, university and beyond, so it made a lot of sense that I started out as a composer by writing classical music for a concert setting. There is a vibrancy to live performance that I’ve always found pretty special, and I enjoy giving my pieces over to performers and hearing how they interpret them. While at university I also discovered electroacoustic music which, if you are unfamiliar with it, is often very abstract and is similar to sound art or a soundscape (but don’t tell my professors I said that!). I find this medium to be very freeing, and it allows me to explore the parameters of sound and texture in a unique way. It also lends itself very well to immersive performance which is something I’ve always been interested in, and it combines well with live performance making it a very versatile space to work in. My film and media music tends to combine classical and electroacoustic influences, and I really enjoy playing with the unique timbres and textures that this combination can create. While the genres I write in vary, my process tends to be similar across all of them. I usually start by figuring out the feeling or feelings that I want the music to convey or the story that I want it to tell, then I figure out how to do it. I’ll choose my instruments (or source sounds if it’s an electroacoustic piece) based on the

    kind of sound world I want to create, and work out the structure of the piece. This step often involves experimentation, and it’s usually around this stage that motifs start to emerge and the piece starts to take shape. There are some differences based on the genre I’m writing in – film music is often highly collaborative, for example, so the final version will be a product of many creative visions and influences rather than just my own. It also requires a lot of precision to time key musical moments to the right moment in the edit, meaning that certain building blocks of the piece are decided for me. Overall, however, my approach is quite consistent and I find that the different genres that I write in all influence each other which I think (I hope!) makes them each more interesting.

  3. You are the co-founder of “Festival Fresco”, a new chamber music festival in Manchester, England. Can you tell us more about this? What gave you the idea, and what is the festival like?

    The idea for Festival Fresco came from a conversation with a friend of mine, violinist Vanessa White. I had fallen in love with festivals through volunteering at Manchester Jazz Festival and Manchester International Festival, and Vanessa has a close relationship with the Great Bowden Music Festival. These experiences had inspired us both to create something of our own, and we decided to do it together. The festival focussed on bringing early-career musicians together to perform chamber music, and contemporary music always featured heavily in the programme. We ran one iteration of the festival in Manchester in 2019, before COVID took it online. While this wasn’t what we had originally planned, it gave us space to explore a different way of running a festival and allowed us to work with musicians from much further afield. After one fully virtual year of Fresco in 2020 and a hybrid year in 2021, Vanessa and I decided to move on to other projects. I loved running Festival Fresco and continue to work in the festival sphere, having worked for the London Film Festival for the last two years. I absolutely plan on starting my own initiative again in the future, so watch this space!

  4. Seems like you’ve written many commissions for various events, concerts, and festivals. Can you speak on some of these commissions- what inspired you for the piece, what the composition process involved?

    All of my commissions so far have involved some kind of brief, whether it’s the theme of a concert (as with my most recent commission for the Elysium Consort) or something much more specific. In 2020, for example, I was one of six composers commissioned by Collective31 to write an electroacoustic piece based on a movement from Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Each composer was assigned a movement, and the pieces were to become more abstract as the programme progressed. My movement was in the middle, so I chose to use clips from a recording of the work and rearrange, edit and distort them

    while keeping a few recognisable motifs as threads of continuity throughout the piece. My commission for the City of Bristol Choir, however, gave me a lot more free reign. The theme needed to be wintery enough to fit within a Christmas concert and I had to write for choir and chamber orchestra, but other than that I had almost total creative freedom for the piece. I chose to set the first verse of the carol A Spotless Rose (translated by Catherine Winkworth), and used the music to evoke certain parts of the text, such as the flower blowing in the wind and unfurling from a bud.

  5. “This Land”, a short film you scored, screened at the International Wildlife Film Festival in 2020. What is the film about, and would you tell us more about your music for the film?

    This Land is a documentary short about the damage done to forests in western USA by illegal marijuana growing, and the efforts of a group of people working to clean up these forests. I wrote the opening track for the film, and it’s an ominous and atmospheric electronic track which draws heavily on the sound design of the film. For this track I wanted to blur the line between score and sound design, so I approached it thinking about sound first rather than melody, harmony or motif. The opening sequence is full of striking visuals which provided much of the inspiration for the score, and I worked in close collaboration with the film’s director Maddy Brunt to create something that complemented both of our artistic visions.

  6. Do you have a go-to ensemble you most like to write for? Does it change based on the type of music you’re writing or the sort of project the music will be for?

    The first piece I remember composing when I was at school was for full symphony orchestra. This seems quite ambitious looking back, but at the time I was playing in my local youth orchestra and listening to John Williams so it seemed like an obvious choice! As I progressed with my classical training I continued to explore my love for contemporary classical music, which I still nerd out about to this day. I mostly write for chamber ensembles now, though I’ve been branching out into choral music recently which has been an exciting challenge. Often the ensemble I write for is dictated by the commission or performance opportunity, however sometimes an idea comes to mind that I can only imagine on a certain set of instruments. I have an idea for an orchestral piece up my sleeve at the moment, for example, so hopefully I’ll get to return to my roots soon!

  7. Have you got anything exciting on the horizon that you’re able to share with us?

    I’m currently in one of the less glamorous (but still very important) stages for a composer, which is applying for development and mentoring opportunities in both the

    film and classical worlds to help me develop my craft. I have some new ideas to work on (including the orchestral piece mentioned above), and am planning on refining some of my existing pieces with the aim of eventually releasing them on Spotify.

    Check out the AWFC Directory for Natasha Sofla

    Interview by Connor Cook

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