Calculated compositions

Junior chess champ; graduate in mathematics and computation; tutor in composition; award-winning composer. Call me shallow, but I’d drawn a number of conclusions from Emily Howard’s CV and, suffice to say, prepared for our meeting with some trepidation. But amid the fluster – and flashbacks to maths exams – Howard’s music seemed to convey a message of reassurance.

Magnetite, a short orchestral work commissioned to celebrate Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2008, is named after a naturally magnetic mineral and is inspired by the physical properties of its crystals. Put like that, the piece sounds cold and academic, but in reality it is highly coloured and instantly engaging. And Solar, which premiered with the London Symphony Orchestra last year, manages to distil a sense of cosmic immensity into a jewel-like miniature. At 32, Howard is yet to produce compositions of any great length, but her work to date – characterised by intellectual rigour, structural complexity, a strong narrative drive and, perhaps above all, an insight into the human condition – suggests a level of sophistication well beyond her years.

When we meet at her house in Manchester on the cusp of the most important year of her career to date, she is welcoming and approachable – and touchingly excited by the whirlwind of projects ahead of her.

Howard has no fewer than three premieres lined up over the next two months – a triptych of loosely related pieces inspired by the life and work of Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, and the mathematician described by many as a prophet of the computer age.

“She’s such a fascinating character, and she inspired pretty much all of my course in computation at Oxford,” Howard says, launching into a detailed biography. Born in 1815 and brought up in the shadow of her celebrity father, Lovelace was steered into the sciences by a mother keen to suppress what she considered to be dangerous artistic tendencies. By the early 1840s Lovelace was working closely with the renowned inventor Charles Babbage on his plans for a steam-driven calculating machine, the analytical engine. Although her role was primarily as a note-taker and aide to Babbage, it was Lovelace who is credited today for understanding that such a machine was not merely capable of calculation but of computation too – with numbers representing more than straightforward quantity. The computer programming language Ada is named in her honour.

“What’s really interesting about her notes – in fact I have a copy, I’ll show you them –” Howard says, dashing upstairs and returning with pages of densely typed prose and dizzying algebra, which she spreads on the table between us. “You see they’re very wordy, they’re full explanations. She starts by asking ‘what am I doing in this?’ – she’s quite self-obsessed – and she thought that she might be a sort of tuning fork for the analytical engine, which I think is a really interesting musical idea.” Like Lovelace’s notes, Howard’s conversation struggles to keep pace with a teeming mind; scattered with false starts, tangents and non-sequiturs, it’s exhilarating to listen to.

We turn our attention to Ada Sketches II, a solo work for mezzo-soprano that will premiere at the Wien Modern festival of contemporary music in Vienna next month, where Howard is the subject of this year’s Composer Focus. “It comes directly from the idea of running an exponential equation through the analytical engine,” Howard explains. I nod enthusiastically. “So she’s actually performing an equation, and from that she goes into a fantasy.” Calculus of the Nervous System, another work that will premiere at Wien, was inspired by Lovelace’s vision of a mathematical mind map. And Mesmerism, written for the young Romanian pianist Alexandra Dariescu and the Liverpool Mozart Orchestra, which will premiere next week, takes its name from the 19th-century hypnosis technique.

“I love it when one thing that I’m working on completely infuses the next thing,” Howard says. “Ada dabbled in mesmerism, which was all the rage in England at the time, and then there’s the Liverpool Mozart Orchestra, and Mesmer, the Austrian physician who invented mesmerism, was Mozart’s patron.”

There is another pleasing connection with the LMO: Howard’s father was a cellist with them for 40 years, and the orchestra “premiered” her very first composition (“which is really embarrassing, because it was called ‘Howard Opus 1’,” she laughs) written at the age of seven at one of their rehearsals.

As a child, Howard was interested in both the arts and sciences; at one stage she became entranced by the Mozart-Da Ponte operas, at another she immersed herself in astronomy, and she excelled as a cellist. “When I was about 10 I was obsessed with the periodic table.” So were you one of those people with a poster of it above your bed, I ask? “Yep!” she laughs. “And I knew all the elements, and I tried to collect them, too, which didn’t please my mother, although I didn’t get as far as uranium.”

A small cat noses open the door and leaps on to the table, sprawling languorously over Lovelace’s notes. “Watch out, she sometimes bites,” Howard says, introducing Daphne. “She’s very spoilt and she sits with me all day while I compose.”

As well as her teaching commitments at the Royal Northern College of Music, Howard has spent many hours with Daphne recently, working on a new composition called Zátopek! commissioned by the young opera company Second Movement. This short chamber piece, written with librettist Selma Dimitrijevic, and inspired by the legendary Czech athlete Emil Zátopek, will be performed as part of next year’s Cultural Olympiad. Zátopek became a household name after winning gold in the 10,000m with more than a 300m lead at the London Olympics of 1948. And in Helsinki, four years later, he became the first (and to date, only) runner to win gold medals in the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon events at the same Olympic Games.

Zátopek’s gruelling training techniques and unorthodox running style – shoulders hunched, head swinging and pained expression – became well known, and have encouraged Howard’s interest in the physicality of vocal performance. “I’m really fascinated by processes, not so much breathing, but rhythm, and how the body copes,” she explains. As well as a trip to the Czech Republic to meet Zátopek’s widow and some of his friends, she and Dimitrijevic have started running 5,000m as part of their research. “What I’ve found interesting is how it affects your mind, all the tactics and all the game play. I think that’s why Zátopek did so well. And you know I used to play chess, I was a junior chess champion, and I’m obviously attracted to patterns and that type of thinking. I think this is a lot like a game of chess.”

It’s a telling comparison as Howard prepares for her marathon year. “You have to go through pain to get to these situations, and musicians – like athletes – are working really hard all the time, quite obsessively really,” she says. “I’m interested in seeing a goal, in that human nature thing of thinking I’m really going to achieve that, and in maximising all options.”

‘Mesmerism’ premieres at Pacific Road, Birkenhead, UK on October 8. Emily Howard is the Composer Focus at this year’s Wien Modern festival, October 28 to November 25,

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