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Interview with Music Composer Carmen Ho

Talented young composer of orchestral and instrumental music.

Carmen Ho is a composer of orchestral, instrumental, and choral music based in the UK. She has received numerous awards including the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize in 2018 and most recently 4th prize in the Toru Takemitsu Composition Award 2020. Carmen has worked with musicians such as BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Bristol Ensemble, Bristol University Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble 360, Ensemble Variances, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Kokoro, Musikfabrik, Riot Ensemble, The Bach Choir, and Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. She has participated in the Summer School at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (2016), Kyiv Contemporary Music Days (2016), Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra Composers’ Day (2017) & (2019), Bristol New Music (2018), and Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra Composers Scheme (2019/20). Carmen has completed her Ph.D. in composition at the University of Bristol, under the supervision of Professor John Pickard.

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What’s the story behind your motivation to study music? What are your best childhood memories related to music? As you grew older, what were your influences?

I was exposed to music at an early age. My parents are not professional musicians but they love music and much of my early childhood was involved music at home. I think one of the best childhood memories related to music was my first Classical concert experience. I was around 6 years old at the time and my dad brought me to see a symphonic concert at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre concert hall. I was fascinated by the different orchestral instruments on stage and I managed to sit through the entire concert. And I would say this has been an important aspect of my early development as a musician.

When and how did you realize you wanted to be a composer?

I started composing when I was in my 6th form years as part of the course and I must confess that I didn’t enjoy it at the time. I didn’t have a great interest in composing music until I was in my second undergraduate year when my earliest influences were Penderecki and Pärt, the most memorable pieces I looked at during that time being Polymorphia and Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. They were the key to changing my perspectives on classical music and they led me to explore sound and space as well as experiment with extended techniques.

Can you walk us through an average workday and tell us about your creative process? How do you compose, and how do ideas come to your mind? What would you consider the most challenging aspect of composing music?

It’s hard to explain the writing process as it’s different every time I start a new piece. And I found that maintaining a healthy head-space is very important to me throughout the creative process. My writing process usually begins with an endless process of listening and studying scores before I start sketching ideas. I rarely write the whole piece with a big brush, I often add, rework, omit and discard ideas until I know I am ready to start writing the piece.

“For me, the title Unforged means authenticity, originality and possibility, and the piece begins with a minimal idea before expanding and evolving into a rich and complex sound world. I’m really happy that the BSO has commissioned this piece and that its world premiere will be performed here in Poole, where I’m currently based!” – Carmen Ho

Carmen is an up-and-coming talented young composer whose work has been garnering international attention

Besides passion, study, determination, and will, what are some sacrifices you’ve faced pursuing your passion for music? What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I must admit that I’m finding it difficult to find time to rest when working on a new piece and having a day job at the same time but, to me, when you love and enjoy what you do, it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. One of the greatest challenges of my career so far is to find a way to pace myself and it’s something I’m still learning and constantly reminding myself of.

Do you have a piece of music you are most proud of? Can you tell us the story behind it?

I would say I’m most proud of my orchestral piece ‘Saṃsāra’. It was written as part of my Ph.D. portfolio and it was my first attempt at writing for orchestra. This work has marked a new stage in my development in terms of the use of subtle harmonic progressions, textual transformations, and meticulous orchestration. I’m very fortunate that this piece has won 4th prize in the prestigious Toru Takemitsu Composition Award 2020 and was performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.

Her new work, Unforged, has been commissioned for Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s autumn season. The piece was performed on Wednesday 24 November (Lighthouse, Poole) under the baton of the BSO’s Chief Conductor Kirill Karabits. The performance was also live-streamed to a global audience and available to view for 30 days, presented by broadcaster Martin Handley

Do you think the Internet has impacted the music business? What is the role of social media for a composer of orchestral, instrumental, and choral music?

Digital media certainly has had a huge impact on the music industry in the past 2 years. Musicians and composers were seeking new ways and adopting new formats to collaborate and create music and thanks to technology enabling us to keep music alive and giving an opportunity for the industry to continue reaching new audiences.

The theme for International Women’s Day, 8 March 2022 is, “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow” Does gender still matter? What do you think is the role of gender in your field? Do women have the same opportunity as males?

I’ve always thought of myself as a composer and don’t define myself as a ‘female composer’ but I’m aware that female composers’ work is still underrepresented in the contemporary music world. In the near future, I hope to see that everyone has the same opportunities and composers from all backgrounds can realize their full potential.

Can you share with us, a piece of advice that you would give to someone who wants to get into the field of music and be a composer of orchestral?

My piece of advice would be to be prepared for sleepless nights, lots of disappointments and most importantly, just believe in yourself and keep writing.

Carmen’s new work is part of a triptych of new pieces written by women being celebrated by the BSO: the Orchestra performs material by Elizabeth Ogonek and Franghiz Ali-Zadeh in season 2021/22.

Photos courtesy of Carmen Ho

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