Tansy Davies characterises the role of the solo saxophone in her 2004 work Iris as that of “a shaman, or ‘one who walks between worlds’,” and in doing so she also describes herself – a musician whose boundary crossing curiosity makes her one of the most distinctive voices in British music today.
Born in Bristol on 29th May 1973 (Gemini Sun, Libra Rising, Taurus Moon), her studies in composition began with Alan Bullard at Colchester Institute, where she was later (in 2011) awarded an honorary doctorate. In 1996 she was a BBC Young Composer, and subsequently studied with Simon Bainbridge at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and with Simon Holt at Royal Holloway.
Early support from the Composers Ensemble and the London Sinfonietta led in 2002 to The Void in this Colour, a Spitalfields Festival commission for the Brunel Ensemble, vividly reviewed by Tim Ashley in The Guardian as “a prismatic soundscape at once alluring and alienating.” The work’s qualities of sensuousness and brittleness feature in much of what Davies has written since, while the prismatic aspect points towards her fascination with the physical world, both natural and manmade. The visceral impact of her music can perhaps be partly attributed to her own immediate, physical sense of making sounds; from her background as a horn player, electric guitarist and vocalist.
Her work is often inspired by an acute visual/spatial sense. Components of Zaha Hadid’s buildings find exact parallels in the structuring of Spiral House (2004) – a trumpet concerto for Mark O’Keeffe and the BBC Scottish – while the work of Anselm Kiefer gave inspiration and a title for Falling Angel, a work written for Thomas Adès and BCMG and first performed successively in Birmingham and in Paris, at Présences in 2007.
Alongside works for sinfonietta and orchestral music of such brazen confidence as Tilting (2005) for the LSO, Davies has composed a series of equally vivid chamber works, some of which involve electronics. The almost literal tang of the textures and the title of salt box (2005) and the suggestiveness of grind show (2007) can both be heard on her much admired first album, Troubairitz (Nonclassical) which was released in 2011.
Davies has been commissioned by numerous world class ensembles and orchestras, including the London Sinfonietta, the CBSO Youth Orchestra, the City of London Sinfonia, the BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra, BIT 20, the BCMG, and a large-scale piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Wild Card, for the Proms in 2010.
International groups including the Cantus Ensemble, Grup Instrumental de Valencia, the Tiroler Ensemble für Neue Musik, Musiques Nouvelles, Melos Ethos Ensemble, Orchestra of Filharmonia Baltycka, Israel Contemporary Players, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Orquesta Sinfonica de Chile, Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, and Tokyo Ensemble Factory, have performed her work.
In 2009 she received a Paul Hamlyn Award. In 2010 the critically acclaimed As with Voices and with Tears, a requiem for choir, string orchestra and electronics, was performed to commemorate Remembrance Sunday in Portsmouth Cathedral, with the London Mozart Players. This work was nominated for the South Bank Show / Sky Arts Award 2011. Also in 2011, Davies collaborated with Norwegian choreographer Ingun Bjørnsgaard on Omega and the Deer, a dance project which toured to Oslo, Berlin, Potsdam, Hamburg and New York. Later that year her carol, Christmas Eve, was performed at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in King’s College Cambridge and broadcast around the world.
2012 saw the premiere of a piano concerto Nature for Huw Watkins and the BCMG, conducted by Oliver Knussen (a co-commission with the Oslo Sinfonietta), as well as the release of her second commercial CD, spine, on the NMC label. The disc, which features many of her ensemble and chamber works, has been widely praised for its ’emotional depth & unrestrained exuberance’, as well as its ‘sensibility’ and ‘inventiveness.’ In 2014 her trumpet concerto Spiral House was performed at Warsaw Autumn Festival, with trumpeter Marco Blauw and the Warsaw Philharmonic. Later that year the Asko Schönberg ensemble brought neon to the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Her opera Between Worlds, written in collaboration librettist Nick Drake, was premiered by ENO at the Barbican Theatre, London in April 2015. Praised for its ‘originality’ and ‘inexorable power’, the work was well received by audiences and critics alike. Following that, a new work Re-greening for large singing orchestra (without conductor) was premiered at Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, by the National Youth Orchestra, who later performed the work at the 2015 BBC Proms. The Evening Standard listed her in Progress 1000, as one of the UK’s most influential people of 2015. 2017 saw the premiere of Song Horn premiered at the Berliner Festspiele by Musikfabrik’s Christine Chapman and Antenoux, a new work for 10 players, premiered by the Crash Ensemble, who later recorded the work.
In June 2018, Cave, a new chamber opera, to a text by Nick Drake, was premiered in the vast warehouse space of the Printworks, in London’s Canada Water. Staged by the London Sinfonietta in association with the Royal Opera, this new work for tenor Mark Padmore and mezzo-soprano Elaine Mitchener follows a grieving man’s quest for survival and renewal, in a dystopian future of deserted shopping malls and melting glaciers. Cave was awarded a Royal Philharmonic Society Award for best chamber work during the 18/19 season. Also during that season, Davies was Composer in Residence at the The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, resulting in Soul Canoe: a new work for the Asko|Schönberg Ensemble, co-commissioned by Red Note Ensemble for Sound Scotland festival.
Current projects include new solo works for Zubin Kanga and Ruth Morley, and a new electronic score, in collaboration with Rolf Wallin, for the Ingun Bjørnsgaard Project in Oslo, Norway.
Biography taken from composer’s website.
Photo: Malcolm Crowthers