Performers in the Time of COVID: Michael Csanyi-Wills
I met the composer, conductor, pianist and, might I say, deep thinker, Michael Csanyi-Wills, on the first Monday morning of March, 2021. He was sitting in the office of his house which turned out to be a stone's throw from mine. But with lockdown rules still firmly in place we spoke on Zoom.
It emerged that for Michael, the past year has not meant a shift in direction. 'I was talking about this with a friend the other day,' he commented. 'For poets, writers, composers and painters, lockdown has generated an explosion of creativity. For performers it's been devastating. I know of an award-winning Singaporean conductor who is delivering food.'
But as Michael explained, he hadn't always intended to be a composer. 'I started at the RAM studying piano,' he said, 'but in my fourth year I discovered I was more interested in composition.' Michael collaborated with his composition tutor on a film score for Jinnah (Jamil Dehlavi's 1998 multi-award winning film about the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah). This was followed by a series of children's films including The Little Polar Bear which achieved international acclaim. And in 2012 when he parted ways with his collaborator he continued to write music for film.
'I feel that I fell into writing film scores,' Michael continued, 'and it became an enjoyable living. But over the years I started to become passionate about writing concert music.' In 2013 conductor Mark Eager asked Michael to take on the 3 year position of composer-in-residence of the Welsh Sinfonia. It was Eager who commissioned his first symphony which was recorded by the Cardiff University Symphony Orchestra in January 2020 (a further two pieces, The Last Letter in an arrangement for cello and orchestra and The Seagull Nebula are to be recorded in a couple of weeks).
It was during lockdown that Michael became inspired to write a second symphony. Although he had continued teaching piano online and editing film for the World Heart Beat Music Academy (where he had previously also taught composition and conducted the orchestra) and had earned money writing film scores, he yearned to be composing concert music. 'I was visiting my sister-in-law whose partner is a composer and we spoke intensely for a week. When I got home I began immediately to teach myself Dorico (the software devised by the creators of Sibelius which is a specialist notation tool for composers). Although I had become completely fluent with Sibelius, it took me a week of watching Youtube videos to be able to make my way around Dorico.'
Having made a beginning with Dorico, he decided to continue to learn the niceties as he went along. Michael explained that his second symphony is narrative-driven. 'It tells the story,' he said of a man trudging along a stoney path. To his left is a snowy landscape and to his right is a void of mist. Ahead of him is a shining light. After attempts to both move from the path to one side or the other or to reach the light, the man finally realises that his salvation lies in the path itself.' I asked Michael if his experience writing for film had inspired this idea of basing his symphony on a story. 'I think music in general is very much about narratology,' he responded. 'Western music began as a prop for the Church with Gregorian chant being a way to engender an emotional response to the readings. And actually music is not only a way to enhance language,' he said. 'It is, itself, very much a language.'
I asked Michael what he has learnt from this past year and he answered very directly:
'Learning and loving,' he said. 'I have become very grateful for simple things. For the roof over our heads and the fact that we are alive. I think about the NHS workers putting their lives at risk to save others and how little we think about them. I hope that in the future they will be rewarded, by raising their pay or making their lives easier in some way.'
And did he, I wondered, think that there would be an increased appetite for live music when we find our way out of lockdown? 'I certainly hope so,' Michael said. 'Ask anybody what their lives would be like without music and they can't imagine it. What a dark world we would live in. Music,' he mused, 'is central to our lives. Many years ago I was told that in the creation myths of some Eastern religions the world began with sound rather than light. As a musician you are looking for that original sound that takes you to God. And when the sound isn't quite right, too sharp, too flat, too dissonant, it acts as an impetus to get you to the right sound, to resolve the friction.'
As Michael reflected on that friction, the anxiety and uncertainty that has played such a big part for all of us during this past year he spoke about the gift of writing his second symphony. 'It has given me something to focus on and has been extraordinarily cathartic. Of course I have dreams about who might play it when it's finished. At the same time I'm aware that I spent my 20's and 30's trying to achieve a goal that I didn't even understand; I had this ridiculous notion that I needed to be successful. But I've come to realise that it's not about finishing. The goal,' he said echoing the realisation of the fictional path-walker of his second symphony, 'is the process.'
You can listen to some of Michael’s music here:
Spring in times of pandemic’ (written in the first lockdown)
“The Last Letter”
And his website: