Sami Jalil (2022, Music) on the Henfrey Prize for Composition

An excerpt of the score for ‘Let’s Talk’ by Sami Jalil

Every year, St Catherine’s College hosts the annual Henfrey Prize for Composition, which supports the creation of outstanding new chamber and acoustic music. The prestigious award is open to students and recent graduates from the University of Oxford, and comes with a prize of £1,000.

Sami Jalil (2022, Music), one of this year’s finalists, writes about their experience during the competition.  

For the 7th Annual Henfrey Prize for Composition based at St Catherine’s College, student composers across Oxford were invited to write for the duo of Helen Anahita-Wilson on piano and Shahbaz Hussain on tabla with a theme of ‘Dialogue’. Combining a Western instrument with an Indian instrument, and expertise in North and South Indian traditions, this duo brought a wonderful dynamic to the table. It was a true honour to write music for them.

Instead of entering with the piece itself (as is typical for other composition competitions), you enter the Henfrey Prize by attending a workshop to meet the musicians followed by a proposal of what you intend to write for them. From these proposals, four finalists are selected to write, and after workshops with the musicians and several drafts to act on their feedback, the winner is determined after a concert of the compositions.

I’ve always had a strange relationship with composition: I greatly enjoy the process, but I often feel like studying composition forces me into a box – even when unintended. Thus, I was hesitant to apply in the first place. But after meeting this duo and hearing their music, their energy really resonated with me. The tabla comes from an oral tradition, and as a result it facilitates a very complex and rich improvisation environment that both Anahita-Wilson and Hussain completely embodied. This wasn’t your average composition prize: we were writing pieces for living, breathing and ever-changing people.

Receiving confirmation of my entry was only the start of a very long few months. At this point, I can barely remember what my first draft looked like, but by far the main challenge was notating for the tabla. As an improviser, I have a fascination with sheet music as a means of communicating music: we often use it without much thought, but there is a whole world of scholarship on how the Western world is completely infatuated with a need to represent music in its “purest” and most accurate form of the score. Writing for tabla presented the ongoing challenge of translating musical ideas, and the finalists took many different approaches towards doing this.

My piece, titled ‘Let’s Talk’, was centred around a fusion of rhythmical cycles and sound worlds. Energy was a key driving force: contrasts between tense polyrhythms and more spacious, resonant textures created the overall trajectory of energy levels. My approach involved notating some traditional Indian time cycles and using lines to indicate precisely how long they should be played for. I left a lot of my piece in the players’ hands because I trusted them with my music, and it took me a while to find the right balance between presenting my own ideas as a composer and celebrating their own freedom as improvisers.

Being a composer for me is all about that final concert. It is so magical to see your own piece come to life, and I am eternally grateful for all the people who helped make this fantastic opportunity happen.

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