Hannah Kendall is discussing her experience writing for an unusual instrument – the unamplified music box. “It’s a very intimate listening experience”, Kendall observes, “and I find that people retune their ear. You hear the whole room entering into a kind of intimacy with the sound.”

Hannah Kendall
© Emily Denny

Music boxes have played a key role in several of Kendall’s recent pieces. The London-born, New York-based composer often uses them pre-programmed to play excerpts from well-known tunes – from the “Ode to Joy” to “The Blue Danube” to the spiritual “Wade in the Water”.

They are set alongside shimmering, ambiguous clouds of ensemble sound in shouting forever into the receiver. Or they are played by instrumental soloists in the ongoing Tuxedo series, inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artwork of the same name.

But these are more than just sonic effects. “One thing I’m doing”, Kendall explains, “is exploring the creole-ness of my experience. The only way I can really reconcile it is to have those iconic sounds blended with the specific sounds that I’m composing, and for them to be just there in the mix. I like that they repeat and repeat until they wind down slowly, and then that process starts up again.

“For example, in shouting forever into the receiver, those tunes – Beethoven, Strauss, Mozart – melt away into a chorale for harmonicas”, Kendall continues. “It points to an Afrological aesthetic, due to the harmonica’s associations with the blues. At the same time, I love that the harmonica was invented in Germany. I don’t automatically think about the harmonica being part of a European tradition. Certainly not a classical tradition. But I’m embedding it back into that world.”

shouting forever into the receiver performed by Ensemble Modern conducted by Vimbayi Kaziboni at Donaueschingen 2022

This March, Kendall will be composer-in-residence at the Royal Academy of Music. Currently a doctoral fellow at Columbia University, the five days she’ll be in London will be very much, as she observes, “a working week”. As well as lessons with composition students and coaching student performers through her work, Kendall will be taking part in several public events: first, on Thursday 16th March, an early-afternoon concert entitled “Bells and Thorns”. Two pieces from the Tuxedo series will be presented, alongside the string quartet Glances/I Don’t Belong Here:, inspired by the work of artist Ingrid Pollard. (The concert is followed by a conversation with journalist Paul Morley.)

Then, on Friday 17th will be the final evening concert, in which the Academy’s Manson Ensemble will play Kendall’s Verdala, premiered at the Proms by the London Sinfonietta under George Benjamin in 2018 – as well as the world premiere of the new piece Even sweetness can scratch the throat.

“I taught at Junior Academy for five years before I came to New York, and it’ll be wonderful to come back and work with students again”, Kendall says. Kendall has been working on Even sweetness can scratch the throat with both the Manson Ensemble and the Wavefield Ensemble in New York, who will perform the piece on March 25th. “Two performances in two weeks is unheard of, really!” she says

Hannah Kendall
© Emily Denny

The title is from a poem by Vietnamese-American writer Ocean Vuong. “We both have multiple heritages which are steeped in colonialism, and I’m using that line to suggest how, in the old world, the production of sugar was a very sweet, profitable thing, but that was obviously not the case for those who produced it within the plantation system.”

A notable feature of this piece will be its use of walkie-talkies, a device first used in shouting forever into the receiver. “I grew up, as a lot of inner-city children of the ’90s did, listening to grime music, mostly on pirate radio stations”, she says. “For me, radio symbolises moving between dimensions, finding ways to communicate to a wider group of people.”

Discussing the ways in which differing listening experiences with radio might trigger varied memories for different communities, Kendall notes: “In the UK, people might just have Radio 4 on all day, and there’s also the BBC World Service and the tradition of radio in the colonies. Whereas, with the walkie talkies in shouting forever, African American people who were there at the premiere had this sense of police radio because of that distorted, raw sound quality.”

Kendall’s earliest musical influences were the Baroque composers whose work she borrowed on CD from Willesden Green’s well-stocked public library at the age of seven. Today, through the influence of mentors and colleagues at Columbia, such as George Lewis, Georg Friedrich Haas and Jessie Cox, Kendall is currently, she suggests, “going through a transition in my work”.

The narrative drama and rhythmic momentum of works like Verdala or The Spark Catchers – which Kendall has linked to the energy of grime – hasn’t disappeared, but it’s evolving into something more ambiguous, a world of morphing textures. Recognisable points of reference, such as those provided by the music boxes, are made strange, revealing to us things we never knew were there. As she puts it, “the cloud of sound is always present, but it’s then revealed: it has the momentum of a revelation.”

Kendall’s work has also been impacted by her move from the UK to the US. Her solo cello piece Tuxedo: Hot Summer No Water, which will be performed on the Thursday concert, was written in 2020 during her second full summer in New York. Protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd would pass her window on an almost daily basis.

Tuxedo: Hot Summer No Water performed by Louise McMonagle

As the piece opens, the soloist winds up a music box which plays a transcription of “Then Shall the Eyes of the Blind Be Opened” from Handel’s Messiah. “I was saying ‘the rest of the world seems to have woken up to this’, and it’s here in this music box”, Kendall says. The piece also requires the soloist to play an Acme whistle, as previously used by the London Metropolitan police. “I have a very vague memory”, Kendall remarks, “of police still having those whistles and what they sounded like. Using the whistle was bringing a British experience of policing into a work that was very much reacting to a US context.”

The Acme whistle has a musical history, of a sort. Its inventor, Joseph Hudson, was a violin player: the story goes that he one day dropped his violin, causing it to shatter on the floor. Noticing the way that the sound from the breaking strings travelled, he came up with the idea of putting a pea in a whistle, creating that characteristic, ear-splitting rattle, capable of being heard as far as a mile away. The following year, he signed a contract with the police, going on to become the largest whistle manufacturer for the British Empire’s police, military, sports, and railways. Truth is often stranger than fiction.

Kendall draws attention to such confluences, not by obvious or thematic writing, but by drawing attention to the “sound objects” that provide a visual, performative dimension to the work – from the cellist blowing the Acme whistle, to the violinist preparing their instrument with dreadlock cuffs in Tuxedo: Crown; Sun King.

“I’m thinking about unpitched texture produced by traditional instruments”, Kendall notes, “and about how these instruments might be distorted. It’s about altering these iconic western instruments that are very much within the tradition of preciseness and messing with that. There’s an unpredictability of sounds. And it’s important that they’re specifically altered by objects associated with Afro traditions.”

Verdala performed by the London Sinfonietta

For Kendall, music is always about more than just music. At one point, we discuss the idea of the “plantation machine”, a term from Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s book The Repeating Island, referring to the globalised nature of the plantation system, and its continuing operation in the present. In their book The Plantation Machine, Trevor Burnard and John Garrigus argue that the 18th century Caribbean plantation was the laboratory in which world capitalism was formed.

Kendall, too, suggests that “the plantation system is still continuing today in new ways: the machine still continues, still repeats”. But Kendall – whose mother is from Guyana, her father from Antigua, who grew up in London and now lives in New York – also emphasises the unforeseen connections that system produces. She invokes the idea of “creolisation”, set forth by Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphael Confiant in their 1989 In Praise of Creoleness, more recently applied to classical music by Kendall’s mentor George Lewis.

“I’m into these repeating systems,” Kendall says. “I don’t know how optimistic that is. At the same time, I’ve been thinking about what the fourth world might be: the theory of the third world being people and communities who have experienced and fought against colonialist structures, and the fourth world being what a truly post-colonial experience might look like”.

Hannah Kendall
© Emily Denny

The broader conditions for structural change are, as Kendall notes, moving at what might seem a glacial pace. There is still much work to be done. Yet in, as she puts it, “making these references to a creolised experience, these connected sites of activity which allow for transformation,” Kendall has begun to create a music that knows no potential boundaries of influence or possibility.

As Cuban Surrealist sculptor Agustín Cardenas put it, “history is not finished”. In Kendall’s work, we can hear that continuous unfolding.

Hannah Kendall’s two concerts at the Royal Academy of Music are on Thursday 16th March and Friday 17th March. Future performances of Hannah Kendall’s music are listed here.