Emily Howard’s music is full of surprises. It holds that in common with many of the ascendant generation of British composers who, collectively but in their profoundly different ways, are radically changing our assumptions about how contemporary music is heard and understood. But Howard’s music surprises more than most because of its diverse range of inspiration.
Howard studied mathematics and computer science for her first degree, and a glance at her catalogue – which is extensive for a concert composer still barely into her 30s – suggests these worlds have remained present to her, with titles such as Magnetite, Cloud Chamber, and Calculus of the Nervous System. Nor are these titles simply evocative labels, in the manner of much of the music of the 20th century, which took its inspiration from the scientific developments of the day. Rather, the titles are properly descriptive of the compositional ideas driving each piece and provide the listener with both an imaginative and more technical means of access to the music.
Take Magnetite, the work which cemented Howard’s reputation as one of the most distinctive voices in British new music following its premiere by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 2008. Here the idea of magnetism is less the subject or ‘inspiration’ of the work than a description of the compositional method, where vast, confidently delineated textures are established and played against each other – the experience amounts almost literally to hearing the attraction and repulsion of gravitational centres.
But science is merely one part of Howard’s artistic horizons, her music embracing poetry and philosophy as well as less orthodox fields such as sport and even chess, such as in her recent work Zugzwänge for clarinet quintet, which takes a position where a player is forced to choose between two losing moves. In all cases, it is the direct application of the ideas that is so striking.
Howard’s compositional profile also differs from many of her contemporaries in its emphasis on large-scale orchestral works, a factor that reflects not just her gifts for assembling complex textures and rendering them with glittering clarity, but also the boundlessness of her ambitions as an artist. Also telling in this respect is her innovative attitude to musical storytelling in such works as the mini-operas Ada Sketches (about the mathematician Ada Lovelace) and Zátopek! (on the marathon runner Emil Zátopek). While major performances of her works are becoming an increasingly familiar feature of British concert life, including a UK premiere at the 2012 Proms season, Howard’s international profile has also grown recently. In 2011 she was composer in focus at the prestigious Wien Modern Festival.