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The Spark Catchers

The tingling detail in The Spark Catchers illustrates Kendall's response to a poem about women doing dangerous work in a match factory in the 1880s.

Hannah Kendall was born in London in 1984 and lives in New York City. She wrote The Spark Catchers on commission from BBC Radio 3 for the BBC Proms. It was premiered by the Chineke! Orchestra conducted by Kevin John Edusei in London’s Royal Albert Hall on August 30, 2017. This is the first Boston Symphony Orchestra performance.

The score of The Spark Catchers calls for piccolo, two flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, percussion (2 players: triangle, glockenspiel, cymbals, tambourine), harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The piece is about 10 minutes long.

The London-born composer Hannah Kendall’s work is performed frequently by major British ensembles including the London Philharmonic, Philharmonia Orchestra, and Chineke! Orchestra, which premiered The Spark Catchers at the BBC Proms in 2017; that live performance was released on CD by the NMC label. Kendall’s work has been presented at the Proms many times: Tuxedo Vasco “de” Gama was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and was premiered at Royal Albert Hall by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo’s direction in August 2020. Verdala was premiered by George Benjamin and the London Sinfonietta at the 2018 Proms. In January 2021 Kendall’s Where Is the Chariot of Fire was premiered by the Hallé Orchestra, which commissioned it.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra first performed Hannah Kendall’s music in 2021, videorecording her Disillusioned Dreamer for the orchestra’s BSO Now streaming programs during the pandemic-altered 2020-2021 season. The piece was performed in the Koussevitzky Music Shed by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in July 2021.

Kendall has described her mother, a primary school teacher, as her strongest influence in convincing her of her own capabilities, regardless of her chosen life path. Her early musical training included piano and voice; she studied vocal performance as well as music composition as an undergraduate at the University of Exeter. She went on to the Royal College of Music for her master’s degree in composition. Her teachers included Joe Duddell at Exeter and Ken Hesketh at the RCM. She also holds a master’s degree in arts management from the Royal Welsh College of Music and has worked extensively in that field. As a teacher, she worked with young students at the Junior Royal Academy of Music. She is currently a doctoral fellow in composition at Columbia University.

Hannah Kendall’s interest in literature, visual art, and other cultural media provides the direct impetus for her music. Disillusioned Dreamer transforms the emotions of one scene of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man into the composer’s own emotionally resonant musical language. Her recent orchestral work Tuxedo Vasco “de” Gama takes its title from a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, which also suggested the music’s structure and its expressive and stylistic variety. Her 2018 orchestral work Verdala references the name of a ship carrying the British West Indian Regiment to the theater of battle in World War I. The role of imagery and literary ideas in Kendall’s music was centralized in her 2017 chamber opera The Knife of Dawn. Its single role is the Guyanese poet and activist Martin Carter during his hunger strike while incarcerated by the British government. That opera was revived in October 2020 as part of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden’s staged-and-streaming season.

Kendall’s particular interest in narratives of the African diaspora has exerted a powerful influence on much of her work. Her most recent orchestra piece, O flower of fire, revisits Martin Carter’s poetry, specifically a text that touches on the complex sociological and religious fabric that makes up Guyana. (O flower of fire, a substantial piece commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, was premiered by the LSO just two weeks ago at the Barbican in London.) Kendall’s own parents were Guyanese immigrants to England; she was raised in Wembley in northwest London, a culturally vibrant area known for its diverse population made up of South Asian, East Asian, Caribbean, white European, Black African, and other heritages. Her recent music, the composer has written, reflects and explores this blending and dynamic interaction of cultures in “creolised” music—music whose sonic sources and stylistic content reflect the wonderful possibilities of her own real and human world.

Hannah Kendall’s music is notable for its attention to instrumental color and sonority; even her solo piano works are distinctive in the transparency and luminosity of their textures and harmonies. In The Spark Catchers, images and even the sounds of the language in Lemn Sissay’s poem seem ready-made for the fleeting, intricate textures in Kendall’s music: “They became the spark catchers and on the word ‘strike’ / a parched arched woman would dive / With hand outstretched to catch the light.” Of Ethiopian heritage, Sissay (b.1967) was commissioned to write “The Spark Catchers” while serving as official poet of the 2012 London Olympics. The poem memorializes the location in Olympic Park of the Bryant and May’s match factory, the scene of the 1888 Bow Matchwoman’s Strike protesting the hazardous conditions of the work. The poem is displayed in the park. Kendall’s sharp rhythms and layered textures suggest the reactive, unpredictable actions required of the matchwomen as well as the mental tension and corresponding release they must have felt at the end of a shift.

The composer’s comments on her piece follow.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications.

Hannah Kendall on "The Spark Catchers"

Lemn Sissay’s incredibly evocative poem, “The Spark Catchers,” is the inspiration behind this work. I was drawn to its wonderful dynamism, vibrancy, and drive. Specific words and phrases from the text have established the structure of the work, and informed the contrasting musical characteristics created within the piece’s main components.

The opening “Sparks and Strikes” section immediately creates vigour and liveliness, with the piccolo and violins setting-up a swelling rhythmic drive, interjected by strong strikes from the rest of the ensemble. This momentum continues into “The Molten Madness,” maintaining the initial kinetic energy, whilst also producing a darker and brooding atmosphere introduced in the bass lines. A broad and soaring melodic line in the French horns and first violins overlays the material, moving into a majestic episode led by the full string section, accentuated by valiant calls in the woodwind, brass and percussion; culminating in a sudden pause. A lighter variation of the opening rhythmic material in the clarinets, harp, and strings follows, creating a feeling of suspense. The texture builds up through a jazzy figure led by the brass, leading to powerful and surging interplay between the flutes, oboes and violins.

The lighter, clearer, and crystalline “Beneath the Stars/In the Silver Sheen” section follows. Quiet and still, it is distinguished by its gleaming delicacy through long interweaving lines, high pitch range and thin textures. An illuminating strike, underpinned by the glockenspiel and harp, signifies the climax of this section. Subsequently, the opening zest comes back again through dance-like material which culminates in “The Matchgirls March” with its forceful and punchy chords.

The Spark Catchers ends with a coda-like section, which carries over the power of the March, whilst also incorporating variations on musical motives from “Sparks and Strikes” and “The Molten Madness”; finally concluding on a sparkling flourish.

—Hannah Kendall