Composer Portrait:
Nina Whiteman

With re­cent premi­eres by Dutch ac­cor­dion duo TOEAC, Colinton Amateur Orchestral Society, Manchester Camerata and period in­stru­ment trio Spirituoso, 29-year-old com­poser Nina Whiteman has had a busy year, not men­tioning per­form­ances as a vo­calist with her flute, voice and cello group, Trio Atem, whose most re­cent per­form­ance was the premiere of graphic scores by artist Michael Mayhew at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery and who make their London debut in April at Kings Place.

You can cur­rently see and hear Nina’s re­cent Manchester Camerata com­mis­sion, Windows on the Neva, over on [link ex­pired]. Scored for a single-stringed chamber or­chestra, the work is an 8-minute re­flec­tion on the river Neva’s in­ex­or­able path through the city of St. Petersburg whose lucid tex­tures and well-controlled pa­cing re­veal a com­poser with a keen ear for both sound and drama. In the first of what will hope­fully be­come an oc­ca­sional series of en­coun­ters with mu­si­cians, Nina has kindly answered some ques­tions about her music, prac­tice and fu­ture plans, so read on to find out what makes her tick.


Chris Swithinbank: I realise that this is not a ques­tion that you prob­ably con­sider every day, but let’s start at the be­gin­ning. What drew you to write music? Is it a vo­ca­tion and if so, why?

Nina Whiteman: I think I was al­ways in­clined to being cre­ative with sound. I re­member starting piano les­sons aged 5 or 6 and wanting to make my own music to play – these ‘com­pos­i­tions’ con­sisted of a series of note names (A E D C and so on) be­cause I didn’t have any ma­nu­script paper. I also wrote pieces for re­corder, and my bril­liant music teacher at middle school would in­vent a piano ac­com­pani­ment for them. So, com­posing seemed to sit nat­ur­ally along­side per­forming really.

Is it a vo­ca­tion? I was al­ways in­clined to­wards cre­ative activ­ities, and felt from quite a young age that I would like a ca­reer in the arts where I could use my ima­gin­a­tion. By my late teens/early twen­ties I’d com­posed quite a lot of pieces and knew deep down that com­posing was some­thing vital to me.

CS: How much do extra-musical ele­ments play a part in your com­pos­i­tion pro­cess and how much could your works be said to have ab­stract origins?

NW: Natural phe­nomena, po­etry, paint­ings, and places have all formed the basis of ideas for pieces in re­cent years. I like to look out­side my art form for in­spir­a­tion, and hope­fully bring some­thing in­nov­ative and in­ter­esting to my music and the audi­ences that hear it. My cycle of pieces for bass flute and various en­sembles (The in­ven­tion of clouds, The modi­fic­a­tions of clouds, Night Shining) was in­spired by sci­entific re­search into clouds that ranged in date from 1804 to the present. I really en­joyed working on this pro­ject be­cause I learned a lot about the world in which I live and the sky I look at every day through my re­search processes.

As well as being a way of gen­er­ating some ini­tial ideas and binding everything to­gether, these extra-musical ele­ments may draw some­thing out of me that I would not have thought of if I was working with ab­stract ideas alone. Some more ab­stract ideas come into play, but I’d say that the ori­gins of my pieces are al­most al­ways from an ex­ternal source of inspiration.

Gavin Osborn performing from Michael Mayhew’s The Alchemy Collection

CS: With Trio Atem you re­cently worked with artist Michael Mayhew in real­ising a three-part per­form­ance of his visual work. This semi-improvised work pre­sum­ably re­quired a form of col­lab­or­ative com­pos­i­tion with flautist Gavin Osborn and cel­list Alice Purton. How do you go about working in this way?

NW: Rehearsing for our per­form­ances of The Alchemy Collection was an in­ter­esting pro­cess, and as you sug­gest we spent a lot of time as a trio fig­uring out how to re­spond to Michael’s ideas and in­ter­pret his im­ages. Each of the graphic scores had some written notes that either ex­plained the sources of the shapes/lines in the im­ages, or sug­gested prin­ciples for in­ter­pret­a­tion, or both. We worked closely with Michael in the ini­tial stages of re­hearsal, so a dia­logue was set up between him and the trio and cer­tain shapes began to mean par­tic­ular sound char­ac­ters to all four of us. For one of the pieces we worked out a series of struc­tural sign­posts in order to travel to points of con­ver­gence as a trio that we felt were ne­ces­sit­ated by the score. Listening to each other and being ima­gin­ative were prob­ably the most im­portant factors in a suc­cessful performance.

CS: To what ex­tent does this type of col­lab­or­ative work feed­back on your ‘solo’ composition?

NW: It’s a kind of labor­atory really: dis­cov­ering the po­ten­tial of in­stru­ments, and finding in­ter­esting tex­tures, sound char­ac­ters, and modes of in­ter­ac­tion between sounding bodies can all feed into my own music.

CS: You wrote The modi­fic­a­tions of clouds for your own group, Trio Atem. How im­portant is this kind of direct col­lab­or­a­tion with per­formers to you? Equally how does your own role as per­former in­flu­ence your work?

NW: The modi­fic­a­tions of clouds is based on a piece that I wrote for Gavin Osborn called The in­ven­tion of clouds, which I de­veloped with the help of some ex­per­i­ment­a­tion ses­sions with Gavin: I would take him some music, he would play it, I’d make changes, we’d talk about how it could go further/be more in­ter­esting. So when I came to write The modi­fic­a­tions of clouds, I had some clear ideas of where to take the flute writing. The ‘cello part for this piece wasn’t sub­ject to as much col­lab­or­ative work, but knowing Alice’s cap­ab­il­ities and ap­proach to per­forming cer­tainly helped me to write it, and I didn’t need to worry about it being un­play­able! As for the voice part in that piece (which was written for me), I was able to sing to my­self whilst writing it, and of course knew the voice I was writing for pretty well.

Being a per­former as well as a com­poser is really ex­citing. I know how it feels to per­form music, which I think in­forms my nota­tion in par­tic­ular, and I’ve learned to play a number of in­stru­ments, so have a great sense of the phys­ical de­mands I’m pla­cing on the performer.

CS: How do you con­ceive of sound in your work?

NW: This relates to the extra-musical ori­gins of my ideas dis­cussed earlier. Most re­cently I’ve been drawing on a lot of visual stimuli to gen­erate sound ma­ter­ials: in my piece for Manchester Camerata Windows on the Neva I took a number of old maps of St. Petersburg and traced the line of the river onto a grid of notes/pitches. I was then able to ma­nip­u­late these raw ma­ter­ials to draw out par­tic­ular sound char­ac­ters by making choices about or­ches­tra­tion, pitch centres, and tempo, for ex­ample. As well as making all these graphs and plot­ting se­quences of notes, I re­sponded to im­agery in poems de­scribing the city by Anna Akhmatova, where I was re­lying more dir­ectly on my sonic ima­gin­a­tion – hearing a timbral quality in my mind and finding a way to create it with the in­stru­ments available.

CS: Composition can be a sol­itary activity. How and where do you spend your writing time? Do you have spe­cific rituals, habits or spaces that stim­u­late the cre­ative process?

NW: Attics. I com­pose most of my music in two spaces: the attic in my house, and the roof space in the studio I share with my partner. It’s a com­plete co­in­cid­ence that they’re both in the roof, but I rather like the prox­imity to the sky and the strange angles, and feel both spaces en­able me to ima­gine freely.

And I drink lots of tea (es­pe­cially when stuck).

And I like to draw plans on huge pieces of paper, and then scribble things on them.

Nina Whiteman

CS: What pro­jects are in the pipeline for you?

NW: I’m com­posing a piece for viola and ‘cello for Quatuor Danel, who are string quartet in res­id­ence at The University of Manchester. My pro­vi­sional title is Waggle Dances and I’m re­searching the activity of honey bees (spe­cific­ally the dances per­formed by bees to lead others in the hive to­wards good food sources). The premiere will take place along­side Lachenmann’s second String Quartet on 17 February as part of the university’s free lunch­time con­cert series.

CS: What ex­cites you about being an artist today?

NW: The standard of music making in the UK is very high, and I think there are lots of per­formers and com­posers of ex­cep­tional ability, so there’s a buzz about my pro­fes­sion and a lot of people with real en­thu­siasm in­stig­ating mu­sical events and happenings.

I feel both for­tu­nate and daunted to live in a world where tech­no­logy is such an es­sen­tial part of our lives: I’ve worked with elec­tronics for a number of pieces and can also see that tech­no­logy could play more of a role in my com­pos­i­tional pro­cesses, so I feel the 21st cen­tury is an ex­citing place to be in that sense.

I’m also really en­joying working in the com­munity and in edu­ca­tion on one-off pro­jects or through reg­ular teaching. It’s so im­portant to stay con­nected with people around you, par­tic­u­larly as com­posers spend a lot of time on their own!

This entry was written by Chris, posted on Saturday, 13 November 2010 at 2:23 pm, filed under Composer Profiles and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Music & Links

  • Nina Whiteman - Photo © Nik Morris & Late Music

    Nina Whiteman
    Photo © Nik Morris & Late Music

  • About the Portraits

    For I while I have con­sidered it very im­portant to sup­port fellow com­posers and mu­si­cians. Despite com­posers’ repu­ta­tions for re­clus­ive­ness and oc­ca­sional awk­ward, com­pet­itive hos­tility, I feel in fact we make up a very strong com­munity of artists sharing ideas and ex­per­i­ences. It is this sup­portive dia­logue that per­mits us to exist at all in many cases and brings us to­gether not just loc­ally but also glob­ally. The founding of the Raise Your Voice Collective last year was a way for me to pro­mote, with friends, the music of com­posers in the North West that we knew and liked, and to dis­cover com­posers we hadn’t met be­fore. In a con­tinuing ef­fort to offer in­sights into young com­posers whose music I like, this oc­ca­sional series of pro­files will hope­fully allow me to show­case mu­si­cians you might not oth­er­wise en­counter and give them a plat­form to speak about their work.

  • Portraits So Far