Classical music is embedded into the rich history of the Ivors Academy, so it brings us great pleasure to feature young torch bearers of classical music. This month’s spotlight, we are introduced to emerging composer Xia Leon Sloane. In July, a premiere of Xia’s work, ‘in peals of æther ‘ was performed at the Cheltenham Music Festival.
Xia’s work engages with the interplay between spiritual practice and activism. In acknowledging nature as their source of creative inspiration, Xia’s work connects deeply with the sacredness of the living Earth, as well as its growing fragility in the face of ecological crisis, and responds from this place of intimate connection.
‘In peals of æther ‘ is an embodiment of this – exploring the unity between the terrestrial and spiritual through musical exploration. Xia introduces an earthy lower register voice as a vehicle to mirror a ‘climbing from the depths of the earth’ — eventually rising over the course of the work to reach a luminous peak on the word ” æther”. The rising shape of the phrase, ‘in sheathes of raw enwildening’ acts as a microcosm for the overall direction of the voice, as if it is this wild, alive act of nature which the voice wishes to embody. Meanwhile, a combination of swift and sustained harmonics from the viola bear a shimmering, aethereal quality. Sustained fifths on the open strings both mirror the trajectory of the voice and serve as drones around mantra-like incantations of the text. The unification of radiant and murky elements in the voice and viola serve as a sonic mirror to the interchangeability of Earth and aether.
Xia explains how the composition drove its own direction. Originally conceived as a “meditation on escape”, compositional elements began to “point towards a groundedness, rather than fleeing from Earth”. The inherent parallels between nature and the almost autonomous, natural way in which the piece was created affirm ‘In peals of æther’ as a deeply intimate, honest and organic piece.
As a winner of the BBC Young Composer of the Year competition 2018 and the RPS-Classic FM 25th Birthday Commissions 2017; Xia is already a very accomplished composer at the ripe age of 21! The Ivors Academy are very proud of Xia’s accomplishments and expect there will be more accolades to come in the future!
Introduce yourself to those who may not know you.
I am a writer of music and sometimes words. Born in Cambridge, I have just completed my undergraduate studies in Composition at the Royal Northern College of Music, where I am due to begin a Masters course in September.
What artists have you been listening to recently?
I have been listening to lots of Quranic recitation, which I find mesmerising and arresting for its long, meandering, drawn-out melodic lines, often extending over hours, and the exposed nature of the solo voice which conveys these incantations.
I have also been falling in love with traditional Bulgarian vocal music for the way it unites joyful rawness with beguiling melodies and beautifully eerie harmonies.
Karine Polwart’s music is tender and sensitive, and for me her poetry engages with the vulnerability, beauty, and resilience of life on Earth. Hildegard of Bingen’s texts often explore an interplay between nature and divinity, and for me her songs feel like offerings to something at once intimate and encompassing of all of life.
Describe your work in your own words.
I am passionate about my creative work as a form of spiritual activism. Buddhist spirituality and ecological engagement are two of the central areas in which my music is rooted. I see it as my artistic response-ability, (to use Donna Haraway’s term) to play a part in giving voice to the beauty and sacredness of the living Earth, as well as bearing witness to its fragility.
What are some of your biggest influences?
Nature, including aspects of human and other-than-human experience: ground, sky, ocean, darkness, moon, queerness, vulnerability; the wonder of intimate connection with others and the world, and the pain of feeling all this eroding.
I remember hearing Messaen’s Quartet for the End of Time when I was 12 or 13, and being spell-bound by the stratospheric, whistling cello, by those earthy chords and lingering melodies that seemed both intensely personal and to be flowering out of another world. Then I found out about Messiaen’s synaesthesia, his fascination with birds and deep spiritual devotion, and my excitement grew.
While Messiaen was certainly an important early influence, I now feel more drawn to other musical nourishment. Pauline Oliveros is an artist with whom I deeply resonate. An openly queer composer, feminist and radical thinker, her music is grounded in the profound, active creative-spiritual practices of deep listening and global attention which she pioneered, and brims with visceral passion and authenticity. She engages with questions of politics, identity and ecology, and I aspire to bring as much courage, sensitivity and verve to these vital subjects in my own artistic work.
How has The Ivors Academy helped you get to where you are today?
I am privileged to be part of several of The Ivors Academy’s Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Working Groups. In these spaces, I have observed and participated in passionate conversations and I believe crucial discussions around how to shape a more open, compassionate industry. It is not only exciting, but hope-inspiring to come together with so many voices who share this thirst for positive change.
As part of Disability History Month, I was honoured that The Ivors Academy invited me, alongside a number of incredible artists, to reflect upon some of my own experiences with access in connection with creative practice. Before then, I had been resistant to drawing attention to these aspects of my identity, not wishing myself or my work to be defined by what some may perceive to be deficits or limitations. Working on the article for The Ivors Academy’s blog encouraged me to question this. I still struggle with potentially being labelled by a single facet of my sense of self; but I have learned to value it more, and my confidence to take part in discussions around access needs has grown. For this, I am very grateful.
What’s next for you?
Earlier this year, I was incredibly lucky to join Paraorchestra as a composer. I am very much looking forward to being involved with projects with this wonderful group of people over the coming months and years. I am also excited to be writing a piece for the 2022 CoMA festival, as well as for an accessible multimedia project happening over the next year, in partnership with community groups, d/deaf artists, and musicians from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
Interdisciplinary work is a part of my practice I hope to develop. I am particularly interested in exploring collaborations with choreographers, filmmakers, visual artists, and scientists. Staying with a wider and longer-term lens, I hope to continue engaging with spiritual and ecological ideas in my work, and perhaps to work towards exploring other aspects of my experience and identity in the context of creative practice.
Follow Xia on Twitter.