This week we had a chat with composer and singer Yfat Soul Zisso about her musical upbringing and her plans for the coming year as part of our Associate Composers scheme. When composing, Soul draws her inspiration from microtonality, children’s books and extended techniques. She has a particular interest in the dissonant, human-like quality of quarter-tones, and for the last 7 years has been developing a new technique that trains singers to hear and pitch quarter tones.

Tell us a little bit more about your journey as a composer. How and when did you first start getting into composition, or new music in general?

I started studying music quite late. From about age 12–13, I started writing songs but didn’t know how to properly notate them, trying to memorise them and using graphic squiggles on the page as a kind of notation. I heard all this music in my head but didn’t know how to write it down. When I was 15 my parents were going through a difficult separation, and my family offered to send me to boarding school to get away from it. It was a difficult choice, but I said I’d go if I could study music. I spent 3 years at that school doing A Levels in Music from scratch, practising the piano 4-5 hours a day, learning to sing classically, and studying other instruments like the guitar, drums and organ, all to catch up on music in order to be able to compose.

Going to Cardiff University for my undergrad, I felt caught up on music but nowhere close to doing the same with composition. I went there as a singer and again worked as hard as possible to catch up, this time with composition and everything around it. Since I knew nothing about orchestral writing, I religiously sat in on the weekly University Orchestra rehearsals to learn about orchestration – which paid off when I wrote my first orchestral piece and it was chosen to be workshopped and performed by BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Tell us a bit more about your PhD. What are you working on and how is it developing your current work?

For the last 6–7 years I have been developing a microtonal compositional language, amazed by the soundworlds created by composers like Radulescu and Saariaho. I started by using microtones spectrally [a school of composition that bases its material on harmonic frequencies]  but as a performer it didn’t feel expressive enough – it was missing the ‘grit’ of dissonance. From that need, I started focusing in on quarter-tones and how they could be used in an expressive and melodic way. As a singer, I felt I couldn’t expect other singers to sing quarter-tones if I couldn’t, and in the absence of an existing method to help train singers to hear and pitch quarter-tones I realised it was up to me to create one, being in the unique place of being both composer and singer.

The PhD is all about two stands progressing seemingly separately but constantly informing each other – composing quarter-tonally in a way that is both expressive and idiomatic for voices and instruments, and creating a method for quarter-tonal singing training. It is a lot of work but I feel it is sorely needed in order to promote the use of quarter-tones in music for voices, which is highly expressive but rarely used because there’s no way to learn how to do it. I feel it has added even more focus and expressiveness to my work, as quarter-tones within a melody sound very ‘human’ and act as a hyper dissonance. I’m gradually working through all the extra quarter-tonal intervals, so I’m very excited to see how the rest of these new intervals affect my work.

You mention in your biography about taking influences from microtonality, children's books and extended techniques. Could you tell us a little more about that?

Microtonality is my current focus. I find them fascinating when used melodically – instead of sounding out of tune they sound more human and expressive, and my favourite thing is the ability to achieve dissonance with just one instrument!

I’m fascinated by the different sounds and techniques you can achieve on instruments and with voices. As a singer, I massively enjoy extended vocal techniques because of their unique noises/sounds and how well they work in performance – unexpected, expressive, fun. In instruments, it’s a magical child-like way of approaching writing for that instrument – what’s special about it? What sounds can you get out of it that may rarely be used by ‘proper’ performers? Finding new sounds and techniques you can build a whole piece around is one of the most exciting parts of composing.

I’ve always loved children’s books. As a child, they were just fun, but as an adult you finally notice all the hidden sarcasm, the brilliant wording, the sheer excitement hidden in each phrase. My favourite has to be ‘That’s Not My Hamster’ from the touchy feely book series – I love its brilliantly focused storyline and use of words (‘That’s not my hamster, its back is too tufty!’), plus the fact that you can pet the hamsters on each page – it’s my secret weapon for calming down and being able to think while composing. Apart from setting the text in these books, I find them inspiring in terms of maintaining a child-like excitement when it comes to music and composing, which is so important in order to avoid stress and to remember to actually enjoy yourself.

Being both a performer and a composer, how does singing feed into your composition, and vice versa?

I feel like singing – as well as being a fun way to perform, be challenged by music, and get to know more brilliant musicians – is a way of always being connected to and thinking about the performance aspect while composing. Performing music by composers like Laurence Crane made a massive impact on my composing – by experiencing what it felt like to perform music that was very focused and sparse, and understanding what value those brings to a piece, I started to view every piece as a performance, imagining every aspect from both the audience’s and the players’ point of view and focusing my writing in a way that really highlighted performers as expressive soloists, even within an ensemble.

What are your plans for the Associate Composers Scheme?

I would like to use my skills and experience as both composer and singer to create and curate pieces that put a strong emphasis on performance and expression – whether they include voice/s or are purely instrumental. I really look forward to advancing my composition and performance through collaboration, mentorship, and learning from the other Associate Composers.

What does it mean to be a composer in the 21st century?

To be a composer in the 21st century is to also be a performer, curator, educator, promoter, publisher, producer – and the list goes on – you need to be able to do everything. It means to be constantly switching back and forth between all those roles, and needing to learn how to do each of them well enough to succeed (by learning as much as possible from different people in different roles). It means learning how to play as many instruments as possible to both put yourself in the performers’ shoes AND remember how fun music is. In order to succeed, you must never stop learning from those around you and constantly strive for more knowledge, skills and compositional / performance re-invention.