Sasha Siem workshopped and composed her orchestral piece Ojos del Cielo in 2008 as a participant on the LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme. Ahead of a free concert broadcast featuring a re-recording of the work, available from Sunday 22 November, Sasha told us all about the piece, reuniting with it (and her younger self) years later and how it has inspired her to bring the worlds of pop and orchestral music together.
When did you first get involved in music?
I started young. My brother started playing the violin when he was two or three years old, so I wanted to be in on the fun! I took up playing cello and piano, and also began writing songs. As a teenager music was my safe space, a place for expression and to adapt to all the changes we go through in adulthood.
How did your relationship with the LSO start?
While I was studying for my PhD in Composition in the US, I heard about and applied to the LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme. I had done a bit of orchestral writing by that point, and to be able to workshop my ideas with the LSO – an iconic orchestra that I’d seen in concerts from the age of seven and always looked up to – was an amazing and beautiful experience! For both my composition and development it was really empowering, and I learnt so much from it. At the end of the scheme, I was commissioned to write a piece for performance at the Barbican – to have such proficient players performing my piece was just wonderful.
Since composing Ojos del Cielo in 2008 on the LSO Panufnik Scheme, you’ve had reason to revisit the piece in recent years, haven’t you?
Yes, that’s right. I was touched last year when I was told the LSO wanted to record the piece for the Panufnik Legacies III album. Since my time on the Scheme, I’ve moved from orchestral music into more vocal music and have been writing albums across generic borders, integrating more approaches into the pop world. So it was lovely to revisit Ojos del Cielo and to hear it in a different light. It was a chance to commune with a younger part of myself and witness that the piece had a life beyond that time, which was so touching.
The same is true of this concert recorded from LSO St Luke’s. It’s quite amusing actually that at the last minute Ryan Wigglesworth was called in to conduct, as the piece was dedicated to him. We became good friends while I was at Cambridge doing my MPhil but haven’t been in touch for a decade or so. To honour that period of time later in my life, and for Ryan to conduct the piece, was a beautiful thing.
Did you make any changes to the piece before recording it for the album and then for this concert?
A few tiny technical things changed, but I maintained the integrity of what it was at the time. It would be impossible to try and change Ojos del Cielo now, as I would create a different piece altogether. It’s staggering to see the piece now as a mirror of my own progress. As composers we’re expressing where we are and how we are, and while we have defence mechanisms in place, ultimately it’s a very naked experience and form of expression.
In the piece there is a beautiful melody that keeps trying to emerge, but it keeps getting stifled. When it does come out all the violins are wearing practice mutes, so it’s muffled. I wonder if it is actually frustrating for the players because it’s so suppressed. That’s a reflection of where I was at that point in my life, and it was shortly after that I then started singing again, having initially got into composition by singing my own songs.
What does the title Ojos del Cielo mean?
It translates literally as ‘sky eyes’, an idiom which means ‘the eyes of a person who is absent or no longer here’. The biggest thing we have to confront as human beings is the call to open our eyes. The way the world is at the moment has brought many people to confront the places in their lives where they’ve been asleep, and we have to answer the call to wake up and be fully aware. When we achieve higher levels of consciousness, we are able to make better choices and build a more peaceful, sustainable world.
What was it like seeing and hearing your piece being recorded at LSO St Luke’s last week, particularly with the Orchestra spaced apart for social distancing? Did that change anything?
It was fascinating really because the piece relies on this melody that, while continuous, is fragmented in who is playing what and when. Sometimes players at opposite sides of the orchestra are playing melodies in union, then it switches to other extremities of the space, so the whole piece definitely requires an awareness of space.
With social distancing requirements, the woodwinds are playing from up in the balcony. So the whole Orchestra is on multiple levels and across a greater distance. To perform like this requires another level of mastery that the Orchestra rose to, which was incredible. I really felt in that moment that that was the best I’d ever heard the piece. That is the power of music – we can traverse space, connect and stay unified with these measures of distance, and sound waves can travel and touch us physically.
Aside from this performance of Ojos del Cielo, where is your work as a musician taking you now?
Having made this departure back to writing my own lyrics and using my own voice after composing Ojos del Cielo on the LSO Panufnik Scheme, I now find myself more than ten years later going back to orchestral writing and bringing the two worlds together. It’s a case of taking the direct expression that I have come to explore and make use of in pop music and combining it with the refinement, intricacies and artistry from my background in orchestral music.
I am currently working on orchestral music with voice in it, weaving together those two aspects of my life, and I’m really excited about it. I was aware already that I wanted to do this, but going back to orchestral music with the LSO Panufnik album recording last year awakened something, and I feel very inspired to do something that is an expression of now.
Your most recent EP, Come as the Sun, is recorded at 432 Hz, known at the ‘Love Frequency’. What is that and how did you hear about it?
About ten years ago I started diving deep into metaphysics and the science of spirit, which came from wanting to understand more about who I am and why I’m here. Through that process I met many interesting people and developed a friendship with some sound alchemists. Experimenting with them led to this passion for healing frequencies in music.
So much research has been done to prove that certain frequencies are able to bring healing to the body and mind, with studies carried out with people living with PTSD, Alzheimer’s, depression and more having found that listening to music embedded with certain frequencies can really change their situation. I now run workshops all about healing frequencies in music, giving concrete tools for how people can empower and uplift their lives. I have also set up a record label, Sound Sanctum Records, to release the work of artists across genres, all embedded with these healing frequencies.
The ‘Love Frequency’ in particular is a celebration of woman and man, divine feminine and divine masculine. Something really important in our times is that womanhood is celebrated, and healing between the sexes is embraced.
Finally, what advice would you give to young people looking to pursue a career in music?
Follow your heart, you can do it! No matter what comes, just keep going. From my own experience, I have kept making music in the face of so much opposition – people telling me I shouldn’t bother, financial issues … But here I am and the world keeps opening up with more opportunities. So if music is truly in your heart and is your heart’s desire, never give up!
Sasha Siem's Ojos del Cielo features in our latest YouTube Sunday release, a full concert available from Sunday 22 November. The concert was recorded at LSO St Luke's on 11 November and also includes music by Schnittke and Mozart, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth and featuring Roman Simovic and Carmine Lauri as soloists.
> Watch on YouTube
> Find out more about YouTube Sundays, our regular release of excerpts, works and concerts from our Autumn season
> Find the Panufnik Legacies III album, featuring Ojos del Cielo, from the LSO Live store