Neon Part I: A chat with Hannah Peel

“As the sun starts to dip below the horizon, our cities change. One by one, streetlights and neon signs flicker into life. This nocturnal world, this Neon world, is a place of mystery where anything is possible.”

Manchester Collective have commissioned two absolute pioneers of the electronic-classical-crossover world – Hannah Peel and Lyra Pramuk – to compose a piece for a programme built around Steve Reich’s monumental Double Sextet. The premiere of both pieces will be performed by Manchester Collective as part of a live show, coming to Birkenhead’s Future Yard on Saturday 21st May. The performance interrogates the darker side of our urban dreams, evoking the intrigue and momentum of sleepless nights and crowded streets…

Ahead of the tour, which kicks off this week, we’ve been lucky enough to chat with both Hannah Peel and Lyra Pramuk about their works. For Part I we sit down with the incredible Hannah Peel to find out more about her piece ‘Neon’, ahead of Part II with Lyra Pramuk and her piece ‘Quanta’.

Through her explorative approach to electronic, classical and traditional music, Emmy nominee Hannah Peel has joined the dots between science, nature and the creative arts. Not only has she had a series of successful solo albums, with 2021’s ‘Fir Wave’ being nominated for The Mercury Prize, she has also composed soundtracks for the likes of Game of Thrones, conducted for Paul Weller and presents regular show ‘Night Tracks’ on BBC Radio 3. 

Her titular ‘Neon’ is inspired by light and life, fusing layers of live electronics and field recordings from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo with acoustic performances by the Collective. We were lucky enough to meet Hannah over Zoom to find out more about ‘Neon’, plus her brand new collaborative album, ‘The Unfolding’,  with Paraorchestra – the world’s only large-scale virtuoso ensemble of professional disabled and non-disabled musicians.

Before we jump into the present, how did you first get into music?

Well, I was brought up in Northern Ireland within a very musical family. They’re not professional musicians, but my cousins would play music at parties and at Christmas; my dad plays guitar, my grandad was an incredible conductor and pianist… I didn’t know I was going to get into music, but then at school you find that all your friends are the musicians, you play in the school bands, then you choose a uni course and you think, “oh well, I’m good at music so I’ll do that.” It was a natural progression of “well, I don’t think I can do anything else”. 

I was a session musician when I started out and taught singing, too. Then I had the courage and confidence to write my own music to finally now, where I’m doing music for TV and film. I guess this is what I’ve always wanted to do, but it takes a lot of stamina and I think I’ve had to work up to that.

What a journey as well, from playing in the school band to composing for film and TV! 

Yeah, it is the dream! Especially as a recording artist, but the reality of writing for TV and film is so different to making records. It’s so heavily deadlined and demanding – it’s amazing what you get out of it, but you really have to be prepared to give up any kind of ego. The ego plays a lot in music and you need it sometimes to make records, but you need to be able to collaborate. And I think that’s one of the things I’ve always done is collaborate with different people; from my friends to now with the Paraorchestra.

Talking about writing scores, is that fairly recent for you? Do you usually have to write to a brief or do you have creative control?

You’re part of a team, so it never quite feels like it’s your music because you’re working with directors, producers, exec producers etc… Luckily now I work with a small music team who can assist in editing and getting things done. But yeah, it’s very collaborative. It doesn’t feel like it’s necessarily just your doing, if that makes sense. I think it’s a nice balance to be able to work with people and then go back into your own world and make records at the same time.

You’ve got experience in both the orchestral music world and the electronic music world, too – do you find that there are many parallels between the two? Any differences that you’ve noticed?

Definitely, on a practical level there’s always a difference. In a kind of hypothetical, more philosophical level, I don’t treat it any differently – I think a synthesiser has as much right in an orchestra as a violin. I mean, it’s changing all the time and actually, that’s the reason I’ve been working with Paraorchestra – they question the boundaries of what an orchestra should be. You’re mixing acoustic instruments with digital instruments and digital assistive instruments, and it all works! It feels great to collaborate with musicians who want to experiment and take things further. I wouldn’t say I’m classically trained per se, but I have a lot more fun if it’s based around developing ideas and combining those instruments. I think when you can find a world that both electronic and classical can sit in, you can do some really magical things with it.

And what was it like to work with Paraorchestra on your recently released collaborative album, ‘The Unfolding’?

It’s magical. Charles Hazelwood who runs it is just this bundle of joy, energy and light. He dances when he conducts and he makes everybody feel like they are just the same. Everything is just for the music. They have an ethos of, if you’re open and willing you get to work with them, and I think that’s a really special quality. As soon as you say, “I want this kind of effect, can you try it?” Everyone’s straight in there, there’s no holding back! There’s this freedom that comes from just the joy of being able to play with each other and not taking it for granted. You know, a regular orchestra can’t cater for everyone. But yeah, to answer your question, it’s just brilliant fun.

Do you think, as members of the music community, there’s more that we could do to make the industry more accessible for people with disabilities?

Yeah, definitely. I mean, not all venues are catered for. I think even just what this record does is highlight these amazing instrumentalists – if you’re looking for a clarinetist, it doesn’t matter if they’ve got impaired hearing, they’ll still be just as good as anybody in a regular orchestra or session musician. 

The one thing that we always come across is there is more funding needed. As the arts are getting cut constantly, that affects disabled musicians more than anybody else. I think if there’s anything we could do it’d be to give those musicians more work and highlight what they do. That’s what’s important about this record – it’s their first record, even though they’ve been together for 11 years. The abilities of people can be knocked sideways by social norms, so it’s all about giving people hope and inspiration that they can be part of something and enjoy it just as much as anyone else. 

Can you tell us more about ‘Neon’, your commission with Manchester Collective?

Yeah, so they approached me and said that they were going to be doing a tour with Steve Reich’s ‘Sextet’ piece with tape. I’d heard the piece and then I was like, “I think I’ve seen this” – when I was in Liverpool in 2008 for the Capital of Culture, they performed the UK premiere to like 40 people in St George’s Hall. And so when I started to think about it, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is amazing’ – his music encapsulates cities and movement of cities, and people and the changing landscape of cities from daylight to morning, right through to darkness, dawn and sunset. 

So I was thinking about cities at night and said to them I’d like to explore a piece about neon, because I find that that, in itself as an art culture, is really dying. We’re now all switching to LED lights because they’re easy to make and they last for a lot longer, but Neon is made with the human touch. And it’s made with breath. And it’s made with spark. And the fragility of it, which is a really beautiful thing about it. I found this incredible story on YouTube about a Japanese man who was sat in his workshop on his own and was like, “20/30 years ago, I had 30 people working for me and now it’s just me on my own because I have no one to pass this skill down to. There’s no one to learn it because it’s now become such a unique art form.” I just thought that was really sad. So yeah, the piece written for Manchester Collective has that delicacy and joyousness of neon, but also the dying breath of it as well.

And what was it like working with Manchester Collective?

I think it’s really important to say how incredible Manchester Collective are. I remember when they first started out and they were taking classical music to places that are just not the norm, like working men’s clubs and I love that about them. 

They’re making the most gorgeous and insane music, as well as commissioning younger artists and people that don’t necessarily write classical music. I think it’s really exciting and it’s always pushing a boundary. They deliver it with such confidence and clarity; it’s a great thing as a composer to work with a group who have so much presence and value as performers.

I’m really excited to hear it. So the piece contains a mixture of live electronics and field recordings from Tokyo – was there anything about Tokyo in particular that made you want to include sounds from there?

It was influenced by the guy and his story, and imagining the link between Tokyo and New York. They’re both on an island and built up in such an incredible way. My friend and music artist Hinako Omori (who’s just released a beautiful ambient record) was visiting family in Japan at the time, so I asked her to capture some sounds for me (as the chances of me going in a pandemic were slim!) A lot of the sounds that are in the piece are very glasslike tones; the scraping of stones and lots of breath. It’s a nice blend between the digital tape performer and the acoustic instruments. Also, I’ve never been to Japan and I’ve always wanted to go, so this was a good way of putting it out into the universe!

What else do you have planned for this year?

I’ve done the soundtrack for a new TV show coming out on Sky in June called ‘Midwich Cuckoos’, which is an adaptation of The Amazing John Wyndham 50’s sci-fi novel. I can’t wait for that to be on the TV and actually watch it myself as well when it’s finished. It’s really scary watching something with your music on, but yeah, you get that buzz! When you perform and put a record out there’s a period of longevity; the record sets and it gets played over time or when you do a gig, it’s instant. But people can discover TV years later – it feels a little bit more cemented in time. If somebody gets shivers up their spine or feels something, that for me is the biggest compliment. I guess maybe not so much with this show as the music is almost a character in itself, but if someone says they didn’t notice the music, that’s a really good thing for a composer. You’ve done your job in supporting the action, the actors and the script.

Thank you for speaking with me, it’s been so nice to talk to you. And by the way, ‘Fir Wave’ was my Mercury winner!

Aww thanks, that means a lot! That album was self-released, we never intended to go in there and win anything, it was all hand-done and my own money put into it. So if the fact that we actually got to such a commercial place that’s supported by big labels inspires other people to play synths, do things and release their own music, then I’ll be really happy about that.

‘The Unfolding’ by Hannah Peel & Paraorchestra is out now on Real World Records. Check it out below and get your tickets for Neon, this Saturday at Future Yard, here!