Winner Buma New Music Incentive 2022: Franki Dodwell

Franki Dodwell winner New Music Conference pitch

During the final hour of The New Music Conference, Franki Dodwell was one of the seven (former) students to take the stage at The New Composers Pitch. Dodwell shared two works with a personal story. The jury thought she was very honest and decided unanimously that she was the winner of the Buma New Music Incentive of 250 euro. Dodwell studied at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague.

From school to New Music Conference

How did somebody from Birmingham end up in The Hague?
Dodwell: ‘I did my degree in jazz performance at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and ended up staying in Birmingham. As I was finishing my studies, I got into renaissance music. I started to teach myself some things, and after University I ended up managing bars for a long time. I realised I needed a change and so I took the bits of information I had taught myself and managed to write enough to apply for a masters in compositions. The Birmingham Conservatoire and The Hague have a powerful connection. Someone I knew in the Birmingham conservatoire told me I needed to apply to The Hague. Even though I had minimal composing experience I made up for it with determination and managed to get in!’

What was your jazz background?
Dodwell: ‘Singing, jazz singing. But I can also play the piano. And they liked that in The Hague, they thought it would be interesting to have someone with a jazz background on the composition course. I graduated with my master’s degree in 2022, however I started my artist certificate in September. So by the time I finish that certificate I will have been in the Netherlands for three years.’

With what perspective?
Dodwell: ‘In jazz, not much in written down. It’s all about being in the moment with a performance. Looking back, I wouldn’t say I liked that because I was not too fond of that lack of control. When I started to compose things, I felt amazing: I had something tangible written down where I could really see the hours I had put. I didn’t want to do anything jazzy anymore, I wanted to compose.’

“I didn’t want to do anything jazzy anymore, I wanted to compose”

Franki Dodwell

Why did you start jazz in the first place? Did your parents force you?
Dodwell: ‘My parents don’t like jazz’ (laughs). ‘I did classical singing, but I had issues with my stomach that later caused issues with my throat. My teacher told me I could sing but couldn’t rely on my voice. I always listened to jazz, and I thought I would like the improvisation, but it turned out I don’t like losing control’ (laughs again). ‘Now, I think classical music is the coolest thing. I started to listen to John Zorn, obviously, he’s done everything in every kind of genre, which made me love the classical elements in it.’

Fly on the wall

‘In my last year of University, I wanted to challenge myself. So I tried to compose that year, even though I found it quite scary. It’s vulnerable to put yourself out there, but I did it anyway and wrote some music for my band. I like being the fly on the wall and being a bit invisible as a composer, so you can actually sit back and enjoy the music with the audience. It’s so much better than being alone up on the stage.’

What kind of audience do you have in mind when you compose?
Dodwell: ‘I would say I don’t have one in mind. Coming from jazz, I think crossing different genres served me well. I don’t do that deliberately, but that’s how music grows and develops. It’s like cross-pollination with flowers. So, when people listen to my music, I don’t see them as traditional or classical audiences; I just put people together in a room, Dodwell explains. ‘I don’t want to pigeonhole music.’

Do you feel prejudice about specific audiences yourself?
Dodwell: ‘I don’t say prejudice, but jazz for instance, doesn’t get the audience it deserves. Especially in England, it’s often in a jazz club or a quite noisy bar. Whereas when people go to classical concerts, they are quiet and concentrate on the music. For some reason, with jazz, there’s this weird thing where it’s reduced to background music. When you’re paying to go to a gig, it’s annoying when people talk through it. Maybe that’s because it’s been used at functions like weddings for too long, subconsciously or not.’

Different audiences

Franki Dodwell winner New Music Conference pitch

You are quite the concertgoer. Can you enjoy that fully, or do you question everything that happens on the stage?
Dodwell: ‘It depends. My brain is sometimes scattered, so sometimes I get distracted. But the Johannes Brahms concert I saw last week is my favourite piece, and I don’t think I took a breath for the whole concert. That was really nice. Sometimes with orchestras, I can be a nerd and listen to the music too well. But that’s how you learn!’

Is it possible to perform the same piece for different audiences? How does that feel?
Dodwell: ‘It changes the piece. Especially performing to young kids would change how the performers feel. You can feel the atmosphere if you’re performing, like if there’s a spark in the room or not. That will have a positive or negative effect on the performance. Even if you’re a top-tier performer, sometimes you have to work really hard. Unless it’s electric, which makes it easier just to be.’

Inspiring composers and restrictions that helped

You mentioned renaissance composers. Did they drag you into composing?
Dodwell: ‘Yes, I got into people like Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, and I became obsessed with them for some reason. A good friend of mine is a classical organist, so we started to write some harmonies. I had never learned classical theory before, only jazz. It circles back to all the same thing, but it’s a different way of looking at music. I love the minimal notes, and maximum effects.’

England has had a long history with choirs and ensembles. Did you ever feel like looking them all up?
Dodwell: ‘Yes, that was what I was doing when applying for my master’s. If I hadn’t gotten in, I would have found my way to keep learning about it.’

What do you think of the Dutch learning system as opposed to Birmingham’s?
Dodwell: ‘I love The Hague and the teachers I’ve had here, like Guus Janssen and Martijn Padding. It was just the best combination because they would help guide me with what I wanted to do. Even if they had their own opinions or sometimes didn’t like it, they didn’t stop me from doing something and were very patient when I learned to compose. The Hague’s learning system is very project-based, which is great. I love the collaboration aspect; that’s how you get the best out of people. It’s just like jazz, which is very collaborative.’

You like to impose restrictions upon yourself when composing.
Dodwell: ‘Yeah, I think so. It’s like a blessing and a curse. At University we were taught that when improvising you shouldn’t move on to the next lick or piece of language until you had exhausted every possibility, so that’s where that comes from. It is a very useful tool for me in terms of writing.’

Photo by Karen van Gilst

Examples at New Composers Pitch

Can you talk us through the examples you brought to the conference for your presentation?
Dodwell: ‘So, one of the pieces I wrote was called “Morning Glory”. It was based on insomnia I badly suffer from ever since I was a kid. Those themes often pop up in my work. I’m constantly thinking about sleep. So, I wrote this piece, which has me in the middle, being woken up by two birds having a conversation. The performer would turn to her right when she’s bird one, and turn left when she’s bird two, so I would be in the middle. I wanted it to have humour, and I wanted it to be absurd and funny. The language in it is made-up French. When I hear birds singing, it gives me panic attacks because it reminds me of not sleeping yet. So, I will hear screaming when other people think the chirping is beautiful. A made-up language somewhere in the middle of English and French would add to the confusion but would sometimes make sense. It gets crazier and crazier from there.’

Insomnia is almost the worst example of something that could be very inspiring.
Dodwell: ‘Insomnia is one of those things like depression that almost becomes romanticised. People have the idea of this poet at night staring at the moon, but it isn’t anything like that. When I first moved here, it got really, really bad again. So I started writing loads of pieces about it, which helps. It adds a layer of authenticity to my music. The research I did for my master’s was about insomnia and how I could use that in writing as an added layer.’

Can you tell us about the second piece you brought with you?
Dodwell: ‘The second piece is called “Pickpull.” It’s about how I bite my nails when I’m nervous. The piece is based on a scale, where you try to move up, but it can’t. Every time it makes a mistake, it has to go back again. It’s like when you try to do a task, and the more you try the harder it gets. You should wait and go back to the task later, but you just want to finish it. Again, anxiety is the underlying theme. It was written for the British Music Festival in The Netherlands. That’s a new festival held just before Christmas, in The Hague. As the piece goes on and on, it gets more insane. But the whole piece only goes up: it’s always in a G that goes up and never goes down.’

Franki Dodwell’s future

What are the steps you want to take in the future?
Dodwell: ‘I’m looking at different programs, like artist-in-residence programs for when you finish your master’s degree. I’ve been looking at different programs, and I’m working out what’s feasible. Besides that, my grandfather was a glider pilot who fought in Arnhem, which I’ve wanted to work on for a while. I’m hoping to find the funds to do something with that. There are thousands of other ideas, but that has my focus. And I’m hoping to stay here. I miss England, but I’m not sure if I want to live there again. I would be willing to move to any country that requires me to go there for my music.’

“Moving here has definitely shown me that if you try really hard, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have success, but you have a better shot at it.”

Franki Dodwell

Read more about the New Composers Pitch