New Sound 31 \\ Yazz Ahmed honours courageous role models in ‘Polyhymnia’

11th September 2019

In 2015, Yazz Ahmed was commissioned to write a hour long suite of music that would be premiered at Women of the World Festival in 2015. “The whole suite”, explains Yazz below, “was composed and orchestrated in just six weeks”. It’s this ambitious composition that has evolved into her next album release, ‘Polyhymnia’. 

Honouring women such as Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai, Yazz Ahmed uses complex writing methods and creative ways to champion the courage of her muses. 

‘Polyhymnia’ is released via Ropeadope on 11 October, with design by close collaborator Sophie Bass and liner notes by Tina Edwards. 

Ahead of the release, Yazz Ahmed tells us more about the record. 

\\ Can you tell us about how the name of the record gives context to the tracks?
‘Polyhymnia’ is the ancient Greek Muse of poetry and dance: a Goddess for the arts. I came across her whilst I was researching my – as yet untitled – commission for the Women of the World Festival in 2015. Looking back I think maybe she helped me to conquer ‘La Saboteuse’, the inner critic, my anti-muse, and the subject of my last album. I think I just liked the sound of her name. Polyhymnia sounds like ‘many hymns’ and a hymn is a song of praise, so I came up with the idea of writing a suite with movements dedicated to, or in praise of outstanding women.
I chose to write about women who’s lives resonated with me in some personal way. There are countless more women deserving of recognition, deserving songs of praise to be composed in their honour. This is just my quiet voice hoping, by shedding light on the achievements of these courageous role models, to inspire others to become all that they can be.

\\ You seek to empower women and spotlight deep struggles on this record, how did you manage to carry these complicated narratives in your compositions?
I began by researching these women’s stories, their backgrounds and the music that surrounded them. Learning about their journeys helped me with the creative process, thinking in an intellectual way and then expressing these ideas emotionally. 
For example, my composition dedicated to Rosa Parks is based on the number of the bus, 2857, on which she famously made her protest. That number is represented both metrically and melodically in the structure. I constructed an abstract tone row and used a formula to create a melodic line over an asymmetric rhythmic pattern. I have used mathematics as a compositional tool before, but never feel constrained by any rules I may set myself, allowing the music to find its own course once the process has begun. ‘2857’ is a piece of two halves, the first expressing the quiet dignity of her action, the second, the storm of change to come, and, as with all my compositions, I like to balance the written material with room for free improvisation, here creating space for people to let off steam and express a little justifiable rage.

\\ Did you have any ‘firsts’ with this record? If so, what were they?
Yes there were a number of firsts with both the composing and the recording of ‘Polyhymnia’. This was my first commission to write an extended work. Creating an hour long suite was much more challenging than writing the odd tune for my band when the mood struck me. It was also the first time I had to work to a very tight deadline, something new to my creative process. I actually learned a lot of discipline and new techniques for fighting writer’s block during the writing period. Once I started, I knew I had to finish in time for the first rehearsal for my debut headline show at the Southbank Centre. The whole suite was composed and orchestrated in just six weeks.
It is also my first work for large ensemble and I learned an enormous amount during the making of the record. I took my time over that, developing and expanding the original compositions to incorporate new ideas and inviting some of my favourite players to feature. This was also the first music I had composed which had subjects. I was trying to portray the lives of individuals, to tell their stories, rather than composing purely abstract music.
For example, it was the first time I’d written for voice or set words to music. Something which I have continued to explore in recent years.

\\ Tell us about what’s happening for you for the rest of 2019?
I’m really looking forward to being back on the road with my quartet. We’ve got dates in France, Germany, Switzerland and The Netherlands coming up in the next two months. I feel very lucky that I’ve had so many opportunities to take my music abroad in the last couple of years and I couldn’t have imagined I’d have the company and support of such incredible musicians. 
The rest of the year revolves around putting together a tour with a large ensemble, to perform the music from ‘Polyhymnia’ in full. The band is an expanded version of my Hafla band with guests from the album as well as musicians I love working with. We have confirmed dates in York, Hull, Oxford and Cambridge, with some more to be announced soon for 2020.
I also have a couple of shows coming up with my side project, ‘Electric Dreams’, featuring Jason Singh, Samuel Hallkvist and Rod Youngs. We’ll be playing at the Jazz Cafe on October 3rd, and Gosforth Theatre, Newcastle, on Oct 4th. We’re sort of a secret, experimental band, exploring the margins between Jazz and electronica. We only get together once or twice a year and the entire set is always completely improvised, so each gig will be a unique event!

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