Bringing the world together, note by note: Roxanna Panufnik
Interview and photos by
Hailed as one of the “elite composers in the world today”, Panufnik is a courageous artist who has pulled us all a little closer by looking at our compatibility rather than our differences.
Final Note met Roxanna in her London home to chat about what inspires her today, along with her upcoming commission for the legendary Last Night of the Proms.
Our media seems to focus on our respective differences, but I like to emphasise what we share and how compatible we are, especially through music."
What was your ‘jolt’ moment into full time composition?
It was a conversation I had with my father just before he died – I realised that life was too short to do stuff you don’t enjoy. Surviving the hideous bereavement when he died, a few days later, gave me the strength to follow my heart, both career-wise and in other more personal aspects of my life.
Tell us about your relationship with Sr. Raphael at Stanbrook Abbey, Thirsk.
When I was commissioned to write Westminster Mass in 1997, I asked Cardinal Basil Hume (whose 75th birthday present it was to be) where I could escape from the hurly-burly of life and spend some time in quiet contemplation (I could do getting into zones then, as I didn’t have any other responsibilities!). He sent me to stay with an enclosed order of Benedictine nuns at Stanbrook Abbey (which was then at the foot of the Malvern Hills), as he felt I’d benefit enormously from their singing of plainsong and he was right. Sr Raphael was a fount of wisdom when it came to chant and hugely inspirational in her very optimistic and positive “can-do” attitude to everything. I used to visit regularly, whenever I started a new piece – it didn’t have to be religious – and she would send me off whirring with ideas. When the Malvern monastery became too big for the order, they moved up to Wass in North Yorkshire – sadly I haven’t been able to get up there as much as I would have liked, but we are in constant touch via email or phone. She is such a wonderful person – radiating warmth and light – a tonic for the soul.
Then I managed to persuade myself that some people will like it and some people won’t – I have no control over that so I might as well stop worrying about it."
You’ve been commissioned for the Last Night of the Proms, how do you prepare for such a famous event?
It took me a long time to start this piece – you are under such scrutiny with any Prom, but especially so with the Last Night. Then I managed to persuade myself that some people will like it and some people won’t – I have no control over that so I might as well stop worrying about it. I was very lucky to have a detailed commission brief so I had lots of ideas to go on before I even started composing a note. I found two texts that not only spoke to me, but also to each other; I have a conversation between the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, which I now can’t wait to hear!
What’s next for you?
I’ve just started a crazy piece for two conductors, two choirs and symphony orchestra commissioned by Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. It’s about two incredibly inspirational ladies from the 19th century – escaped slave and slave liberator Harriet Tubman and Indian Warrior Queen Lakshmibai. They then have a “conversation” together in which I have to work out how to create and notate one conductor and choir in 4/4 and the other in 5/8. It could be exhilarating or it could be chaos – or, even better, both!
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