4 Jun 2018

Music of Today: Composers' Academy - Freya Waley-Cohen


4 Jun


In June, the Philharmonia Orchestra presents the culmination of the 2017/18 Composers' Academy, in partnership with the Royal Philharmonic Society. 

Under the baton of Anna-Maria Helsing, we will showcase three world premieres by outstanding emerging composers: Eugene Birman, Freya Waley-Cohen and Austin Leung. Watch the free performance on Thursday 7 June at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.

In this blog post, Freya Waley-Cohen introduces her piece, Ink, and the musical characters that develop as the work unfolds. 


Coming back to Ink for the final stretch of writing, I found I had a set of characters in my sketches which seemed to me like distinct individuals. I imagine it was like a playwright having a fully formed set of characters before there is a narrative, and then allowing the storyline to emerge through them. There is no underlying story to Ink, and I use the word ‘character’ in the loosest sense possible, but personifying musical materials and instrumental parts made writing a playful process for me. 

Permutations - the project in which Freya worked with architectural designers (you can read more about this at

The practice of personifying musical passages or instrumental lines was a seed planted in my music during a previous project where I was working closely with architects. They regularly personified the structures they designed, and during the process of collaborating with them, I started to absorb this into my way of thinking. 

In Ink this was magnified by meeting individual musicians from the Philharmonia for workshops during the year, and by the way my year unfolded in the Philharmonia Composer’s Academy. Between Philharmonia concerts, workshops, rehearsals and lessons with Unsuk Chin, there were a series of mini deadlines. Because of this timeline, I wrote Ink in bursts, interspersing it with other projects, and adding new sketches to my collection for each lesson or workshop. The time between writing sketches meant that each one could absorb different influences from other projects I was working on. This reinforced the separate characters, even though I knew that the final process would be the weaving together of these passages. 

Freya Waley-Cohen, Eugene Birman and Austin Leung in a workshop with Philharmonia musicians and conductor Anna-Maria Helsing

I have a poetry book by Caleb Klaces on my shelf at home, and as I was naming Ink - which was towards the end of the writing process - I was looking at it. The book is called ‘Bottled Air’, and it always gives me the image of capturing the writer’s breath and bottling it into ink. I like the kick of the K at the end of the little word ‘ink’, and it seems suitable for this piece, which starts with a playful sort of kick, before drifting into softer, airier, spaces. 

Snap Dragon - a string quartet commissioned by & premiered at the Santa Fe music festival, performed in the UK by the FLUX quartet - much of this string quartet is ‘character driven’ in an abstract sense - including in the moments where the four players become individual soloists, pulling out of the framework of the ‘togetherness’ of being a string quartet. 

© Freya Waley-Cohen 2018