These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you’ll hear in the concert hall.

Sep 30, 2021

Musical Explorations with Composer Hannah Kendall

By Steve Holt

The music of London-born, New York-based composer Hannah Kendall will figure on San Francisco Symphony programs for the first time, as Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the Orchestra in the US premiere of Kendall’s Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama, October 7-9.

Tell us about Tuxedo: Vasco 'de' Gama.
I came across Jean-Michel Basquiat's Tuxedo at the Guggenheim in New York a couple of years ago. And I was particularly drawn to the fact that it references so many things: The explorers Vasco da Gama and Magellan; police presence in Black communities; environmental aspects; all sorts of things. So then the BBC Proms asked me to write a piece to open their 2020 season. And the reference to Vasco da Gama seemed really apt for the year 2020. He was the first explorer to leave Europe and travel across seas to Asia. So that came under the umbrella of globalization, and also the resulting multiculturalism. I was in my New York apartment at the time, and Black Lives Matter was very prominent there then, and of course the pandemic as well. Actually, this is the first of now five pieces I've written that are inspired by that Basquiat. I think there'll be about ten in total, but this composition kicks off the whole series.
This is the first time the San Francisco Symphony has performed one of your works. Can you give us an idea of what it sounds like?
In the very beginning it's bright and funky. Ordinarily, having a piece opening the Proms would be an incredibly celebratory moment, but on the whole it's quite a solemn piece, because of how I was feeling and what I wanted to portray in the summer of 2020. Towards the end it's incredibly emotive, and throughout I have not shied away from strong melodic lines.
How about the instrumentation?
Lately I've been trying to bring an aspect of the "other" into the western classical context. That's something Basquiat was interested in as well. So, for example, I've incorporated harmonicas into this work. They're a nod to the blues, music that's very specifically connected to people of the African diaspora. The central aspect of the piece is the presence of a spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” and that of course harks back to Vasco da Gama crossing the seas.
How has the current pandemic affected your life as a composer?
I think I've found a lot of creative freedom and liberation in the pandemic, actually. I started doing things I wouldn't ordinarily have done because I thought, well, the whole world is turned upside down, so what does it matter if I want to change things drastically in my music? For example, there's a hint of a tinkly music box in this piece. And ever since COVID, auxiliary instruments play a huge, huge part in the music that I'm writing. I've started preparing stringed instruments with dreadlock cuffs, which are hair accessories that people with locks wear, and it sort of distorts the sound in really interesting ways; things like that. I've just sort of thought, you know, it's an opportunity to push the boundaries a bit; to see how far I can push things.
COVID also affected the premiere of Tuxedo in London last year, right?
It was really bizarre. Because I'm a Londoner, I've been going to the Proms my whole life; they were very important to my musical development. Opening the season is such a huge occasion and a huge deal. But last year I couldn't even take my mum! The Royal Albert Hall seats over 5,000, and I was the only person in the audience. It's one of the most memorable experiences I'll probably ever have. It was just exactly of its time, writing a piece in the midst of a pandemic, when the cases were really high in London. It just all came together in this really unusual way.

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