Sadie Harrison Interview

Sadie Harrisonm – Bella West © 2013

I talk to composer Sadie Harrison, whose work has been performed internationally and widely recorded. She is also known for her cross-cultural collaborative projects.

Tell us a little about your background. How did you become a composer? 

Firstly, thanks very much for asking me to contribute to Composition:Today. It’s taken me quite a while to formulate answers to some of the questions – partly because I am lucky enough to have a couple of commissions on the boil at the moment but also because the opportunity has come at a time when I am thinking very hard about the path my composing has taken me on recently and, indeed, after 35 years of writing, where it might lead me next. And if I am to be honest, I do find it rather hard to discuss my work, though I am often called on to do so. My non-musician friends will tell you that composition is not something that I talk about (though they are always interested), and generally I choose not to tell people that I do it at all in order to avoid difficult questions that simply cannot be answered in a few words. I am also mindful of a comment made by Frederic Rzewski in a pre-concert talk (2012 Late Music York) when he was asked why he didn’t like programme notes: ‘they are vomit bags for composers!’ Although I took offence at quite a lot of what Rzewski said that night, I did sympathise with his dislike of unhelpful verbosity. With this in mind, rather than contribute answers for every question I’ve suggested some sources for more information about specific projects as I’m going along. And there’s a lot of information on my website or publisher:

I can definitely say that I became a composer. I wasn’t born one. Although music was a big part of my childhood (taking piano and violin lessons, being part of local youth orchestras), the urge to compose did not manifest itself until I went to Surrey University as an undergraduate in the early 1980s. I remember the exact moment when it happened, during a lecture about Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, in particular Der Kranke Mond. I had an overwhelming visceral reaction to the piece. I immediately understood the language and wanted to write music like it. And I thought I could – something just clicked, a kind of coming home. This is a dramatic statement, but I have come to realise that I have always been searching for the right place for my music to inhabit since that moment. It’s a complicated search with directions changing over time, but it has been governed by developing what I hope is a strong, flexible compositional technique and an acceptance of the style of the music I want to write. Perhaps most importantly it has been about understanding how my music can resonate usefully outside the confines of the contemporary music world, a world that I have often felt very at odds with. 

A section from my current biography reads: ‘For several years, Sadie also pursued a secondary career as an archaeologist and reflecting her interest in the past, many of her compositions have been inspired by the traditional musics of old and extant cultures with cycles of pieces based on the folk music of Afghanistan, Lithuania, the Isle of Skye, the Northern Caucasus and the UK. She is also well known for socio-political aspects of music-making with several works challenging stereotypes of marginalised peoples – refugees, Afghan women, the deaf, the homeless – celebrating their creativity and individuality with powerful expressions of musical solidarity.’ 

I think this sums up where I am now! 

What was your earliest success as a composer?

Success can be measured in many ways – private and public – and for that reason I have many ‘first successes’ – the first good review, the release of a first CD, when the structure of a piece finally falls into place at the desk, when performers ask you to write them a new work because they liked the last one, when you hear a new piece and it sounds exactly as you had imagined. But if I was pressed for specifics, then I would say that Gulistan-e Nur (The Rosegarden of Light) written in 2015 was the piece that I feel most proud of musically and aesthetically. It has also had the most success publicly and has reached a huge international audience through broadcasts, and its inclusion in documentaries and on film soundtracks. More about that later. 

How did you come to have a secondary career as an archeologist? 

After working and teaching as a composer for nearly twenty years, I decided, at 40, to follow an alternative passion, namely archaeology, going back to university to study for a degree at Southampton. Subsequently, I worked as a professional field archaeologist in the UK for a number of years particularly with Wessex Archaeology (appearing with Time Team!) culminating with research on an exceptional excavation of a Bronze Age tell site at Szazhalombatta on the banks of the Danube in Hungary. Although I have worked on mesolithic to Medieval sites, my specific research has been on the prestige Bronze Age pottery of the Carpathian Basin called Kosider black-burnished ware. I situate myself most definitely within the post-processual or contextual school of archaeology, a ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down’ approach to the discipline where an individual’s agency is prioritised. Rather than trying to trace generalised typological trends or the transmission and transformation of creative ideas across distances and time (something that is very fashionable these days – always about the unification of diversities), I focused on identifying the individual craftsman or woman in the pottery, trying to pinpoint evidence of unique potter’s hands from some 4000 years ago. This entailed spending many hours in museum basements analysing patterns and shapes, the order of minute individual decorative events, counting lines and dots. 

How does the archaeological work relate to your life as a composer?

For me, music and archaeology are totally intertwined. Since 2001 I have been preoccupied with historic folk musics and have considered them through my archaeologist’s eyes, as someone who spent a number of years trying to reconstruct the creativity of other individuals. I realised as I thought about my relationship with ancient musics (both classical and traditional, if such a division is helpful) that many of the ideas and concerns I have as a composer chime with those I have had as an archaeologist – for example, issues relating to the appropriation and transformation of the culture of others, and the extent to which this can be more destructive than illuminating. Also, how the music of people from other countries and times can meaningfully be incorporated into the music of an Australian living in the second millennium, and how its meaning is transformed by its new context. My interest in identifying individual Bronze Age potters finds a direct parallel in my use of folkloric material, where I engage with it at the level of the individual who performed it with the individual’s related activity and presence always implicit within it. 

The act of archaeology is unavoidably a personal one. It is creative and recreative. We dig up artefacts from the past, attempt to understand them in their own cultural context and inevitably imbue them with substance in our own. It is to look at the material world that humans have made and to make for ourselves some sense of it. Material culture is a text whose meanings are actively manipulated – the meanings we produce are always in the political present and always have political resonance. It is easy to draw a parallel between the piecing together of shards of pottery and piecing together disparate but related elements of a composition, but the analogy is a superficial one. Like an archaeologist, I ascribe meaning to the musical culture of the past when placing it within my own. And as such, I am also involved in a political act – it is not just a question of playing with style. As a composer, I need to be actively aware of my own part in the dialogue that I am creating. 

In archaeology we are constantly reminded to ask the question ‘whose heritage is it?’ As a composer exploring traditional musics I must ask the question ‘whose music is it?’ Just as a pattern on one of my Kosider jugs is not just a pattern, but the inscribed heritage of an individual passed down through generations, an expression of beliefs, preferences and belonging, so a folksong is not just available sound. For me, this heritage must be preserved and be heard to be preserved. And personally, bringing some of this wonderful folk music back into the light has given me a sense of compositional purpose, helping me create a musical identity in the present through an engagement with the wonders of the past. 

Why has the music of Afghanistan become such an important source of inspiration for you?

Although the music and culture of Afghanistan is in my blood now (most recently expressed through The Rosegarden of Light Project) I have often wondered why I was drawn to the country and its music in the first place and it is a question I’ve been asked more than once by others. People look at me, a white Australian-British female and think – that’s a rather unlikely combination! And my experiences of Afghanistan until now have been vicarious – I don’t speak or read any of its languages, I can’t play its instruments, yet my creative life for nearly 15 years has been dominated by its music and its musicians. Alongside an intense curiosity about how the music is put together, it structures, scales, notations and evolution, I have also been passionate about sharing the music through the sometimes-uneasy conjunction with my own composition. To be honest, trying to create musically satisfying works which celebrate and illuminate their sources without radically altering the nature of my own music has been quite a struggle. Yet it seems hugely important for me to work the issues out. Why? Indulging my fatalistic approach to these things, here’s the second unexpected closing of a circle as possible explanation. 

A year ago, I received an email from one of my Australian cousins, which contained some photos and information about my heritage. It was quite extraordinary and completely unknown to myself. My great-great-great grandfather, George James Harrison (born in 1846) was known in the family as George the Afghan, son of George the Crimea who fought at the Battle of the Light Brigade. He was awarded the rare Kandahar Bronze Star in 1882 to commemorate his march from Kabul to Kandahar to free the British troops from Ghazi Muhammad Ayub Khan in 1880. The defeat of the Afghans, which has been called ‘inspiration to an empire’, brought about the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War. After his return to Australia, he settled in Perth and called his house Kandahar. 

Tell us about the collaborative project Gulistan-e Nur: The Rosegarden of Light.

In 2015, I was approached by Kevin Bishop, an American viola player and leader of a group called Cuatro Puntos (, a collective of chamber musicians who are dedicated to global co-operation and the use of music as a means to educate and build bridges between cultures. He was looking for a composer who understood something of Afghan music to be part of a collaborative project involving students from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. (ANIM is the first and finest institution for the education and nurturing of gifted young Afghan musicians:

Kevin wanted a piece for rubab and viola to be premiered by himself and the young rubab player, Samim Jafar at the French Embassy in Kabul in June 2014 during his and his wife Holly’s tenure as tutors at ANIM. The piece should represent the two distinct but equal musical cultures of the performers, and as such both players are required to adopt characteristics of each other’s traditions, both techniques and languages. I had thought that Dast be Dast was to be an extraordinary singular event but on 11 December 2014, in the same venue that the piece had been performed, a young man blew himself up during a theatre performance in which students from ANIM had been taking part. A number of performers were injured, all were traumatised and ANIM’s founder and Director, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast was left with severe injuries, most poignantly the loss of hearing due to the blast and the impact of shrapnel.

The day after the attack I contacted Kevin and said that we had to do something to help redress the balance, to shout out about ANIM again. The result was Gulistan-e Nur (The Rosegarden of Light). The genesis of the piece was very quick. We decided immediately that somehow both Cuatro Puntos and students from ANIM should both take part. As it wasn’t possible to get the US and Afghan performers in one room we decided that the ANIM students should learn a set of short interludes which would be videoed and played back during live performances of the entire work, so that the whole piece was 6 movements long – video, sextet, video, sextet etc. It was immediately clear that I couldn’t write my more modernist music, that it had to be tailored specifically for the girls, several of whom were around our Grade 1-2, with a few a little more advanced. Originally, I was advised to write for strings alone but by the time the recordings took place we had a percussionist playing xylophone amongst other things, a piano duet, an oboist and a clarinettist. I wanted to write music that the ensemble would enjoy playing, that they would understand and that technically was challenging but possible with practise. It had to be accessible, joyful and fun. 

The Rosegarden of Light has had an incredible journey – performed complete and in part over 50 times in the USA and in Europe, featuring on two important documentaries (The Staging Post: Australia) and Laila at the Bridge (USA/Afghanistan) and on a feature film about ancient Afghanistan – The King of Kabura. Toccata Classics CD of the same name ( has been reviewed so favourably. Most important though is the added profile that the music has given to the incredible young people and tutors of ANIM. Being part of their story has given me a sense of purpose as a composer, for which I am so intensely grateful. And it has lead to some extraordinary opportunities, including being asked to write Sapida-Dam-Nau for the Afghanistan Women’s Orchestra, premiered at the 2017 Closing Concert of the World Economic Forum in Davos. 

More information about The Rosegarden can be found on a British Music Collection Spotlight 
article at:

How do you feel about the UK artistic environment? Are we living in healthy times?

I don’t know if I can answer this very helpfully. I think you would get a different answer from every composer you asked. I have been incredibly lucky to have been awarded several prestigious UK grants since I hit my 50s and, personally, I am the busiest I have ever been with many commissions, performances, broadcasts and CD releases since 2015. This is in direct contrast with many older composers who struggle for any form of recognition now, though they may have been in the spotlight in their younger years. I think this is a great pity. That said, the range of composers who are supported by ACE, PRSF, Hinrichsen, RVW, Ambache Charitable Foundation, Finzi Scholarships is wider than ever (though I might say that the same grantees do crop up multiple times – I ought to be careful, as I am happily one of those at the moment). I applaud the funding bodies for their inclusivity and hope that this continues as they fight for funds in such disrupted and uncertain times. I love the diversity of performance venues today and the desire to bring contemporary music to different communities through concerts in garages, factories, car parks, underground tunnels! Unlike some commentators, I don’t think this is a gimmick for funding and profile. Quality music played by passionate performers for everyone is what matters, however and wherever! 

You were appointed the first composer-in-residence at the Bei Wu Sculpture Park, Wesenberg in 2017. What did that entail?

The Bei Wu Sculpture Park in Wesenberg is located on the Weissensee (White Lake or Bei Wu) in the Müritz National Park, surrounded by marshes and pine forests. It was opened in 2016 as a venue for the cultural exchange of fine arts between Australian and German artists. It functions as a working artist’s colony with in-situ studios, and as a public exhibition space and location for concerts through the year. Being appointed as the Park’s first Composer-in-Residence for 2017-2019 ( has been just fantastic. I’m now into the second year and have had the opportunity to work with some incredible German musicians, most of them part of Concerto Brandenburg, Berlin’s foremost Baroque orchestra. The post has been supported by PRSF and by Arts Council England/British Council International Development Fund, allowing me to travel back and forth to Wesenberg and Berlin to rehearse with the performers and build relationships that I know will continue long after the residency finishes. The first commissioned work was a very special one for me. Entitled mimih, it was written for the Inauguration of the Park’s Australian Indigenous Art Gallery and gave me the chance to express my own feelings about being a white Australian. I am taking the liberty of attaching a sizeable section from the programme note for the piece as I am very keen to share information about a culture that is so little understood and today, sadly, tarnished by so many images of aboriginal degradation:

‘Aboriginal people in the rocky environments of western and south-western Arnhem Land relate stories of spirits which they callmimih. The Mimih taught the first people how to survive on the Arnhem Land plateau and also instructed them in dance, song and art. Mimih are still depicted in a popular form of wooden sculpture thought to be an adaptation of artefacts used in ancient mortuary ceremonies. The sculptures are regarded by the Aboriginal communities as a way of sharing their way of life with the outside world whilst also containing complex references to their cultural traditions. The Maningrida people describe the Mimih as extremely thin, having necks so slender that a stiff breeze would be fatal. For this reason they emerge to hunt only on windless days and nights. As soon as a breeze develops, Mimih run back to their rocky caverns and disappear inside.’ My musical interpretation of the mimih is in five brief sections that run continuously: The Land of the mimih spirit; The Dance of the mimih spirit; The Lament of the mimih spirit, with The Dance and The Land repeated. The structure of the piece is related to the repeating but varied layers of decoration on the sculptures, with the Indigenous clapsticks marking the changes between sections. The Land is full of bird song, transcriptions of Northern Territory Pied Butcherbirds, Yellow Orioles and Rainbow Pittas against a backdrop of slow atmospheric piano chords representing the vastness and age of the country. The Dance is fast and quirky, a depiction of the spirits jumping about the rocks, with its music based on an Arnhem Land tune called Truganinni’s SongThe Lament is composed from overlaid versions of a melody collected by anthropologist Domeny de Rienzi in 1830. He entitled it Air australien des sauvages de la terre d’Arnheim. The music is a meditation on the post-colonial destruction of much Aboriginal culture, with the clapsticks almost entirely absent from the landscape.’ 

And what is your composing routine. When do you like to write?

I wish that I had a routine! I do a great deal of piano teaching, both privately and in my local school and my weekly schedule generally revolves around this. I try to keep Fridays and weekends for composing but 3 days together is a rare luxury. I find it difficult to settle into writing if I know I only have a small window of time and prefer to spend it researching for a new piece rather than wrestling with sound. When I do get extended periods to work I will happily compose for 8-10 hour stretches. I was hugely grateful when I received a PRSF Composers’ Fund Grant last year (, which I was given specifically to buy me time away from my teaching. As a result, I have managed to produce a lot of music in a relatively short period. Space to think is so important – not just to prepare for a new piece but throughout the process – space to reflect, to listen deeply to what you have written.

What’s the worst thing about composing?

The self-doubt and never having enough time to do the best job possible. 

And the best?

Working with musicians who become your friends. 

What advice would you give to a young composer just starting out?

I am very lucky indeed to be a mentor with the South West Music School and tutor with the New Music in the South West Young Composers Academy, so I find myself imparting advice to young composers a great deal. A little while back I was also asked this question by Frances Wilson (Cross-Eyed Pianist) and I don’t think I would change anything I said to her: 

‘Work harder than you think possible. Make it your duty to develop your technique. Listen to as much music from as many ages and cultures as possible. Be generous. Support other composers. Never take performers for granted. Listen to everyone’s point of view. Don’t panic when things aren’t running as smoothly as you’d like. Learn from your mistakes. Listen to your own music deeply and intelligently. Take every opportunity that is offered to you. Be passionate about what you do (quietly if you want!). Remember that the musical world intersects with every other bit of your experience so make music part of your life, not all of your life – your music will be better for it. Don’t give up. Don’t be scared.’

Actually, this is advice that I might offer to any composer of any age and at any stage in their career, especially the bits about not giving up, not panicking and not being scared. We all need to hear this, much of the time. Sure that a composer’s helpline would go down a storm! 

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m juggling several projects at the moment – a chamber orchestra piece for the Wesenberg residency (The First Song for Concerto Brandenburg) that will be premiered this June; Cantare et trepidare for singing violist to be premiered by the fabulous violist (and singer!) Katherine Clarke in November; a setting of My Hazara People by young Afghan poetess Shukria Rezaei, to be premiered by the Orchestra of St. John’s also in June; and a set of pieces for the Czech pianist Tomas Klement, to be broadcast on Czech Radio this summer. So I’m keeping busy!

And what are your plans for the future?

To get through each day feeling satisfied with my work but not so tired that I can’t go spinning. This is my obsession just now – all muscles, little brain, and the chance to socialise with a really interesting group of people who know absolutely nothing about contemporary music!

For further information about Sadie Harrison:

Originally posted at Composition:Today ©Red Balloon Technology