Joanna Marsh: in Dubai I find inspiration

Ahead of the BBC Proms Dubai, which will open with her composition, the Dubai-based British composer is defining what it means to create in a brand-new landscape

Most of my work over the years has been done from the UK, but on the other hand, the majority of influences for my work have come from Dubai.  When you’re a composer your pieces are influenced to a large extent by where you are. On the whole it’s the things that are closest to home and mean the most to you that impart the greatest intimacy. It’s the same for authors – ‘write what you know’.

I’ve chosen, quite self-consciously, to find inspiration from this part of the world, because I felt quite strongly when I first came that I had to make this work for me. In some way, it had to create value in my life.

When I arrived I wrote a piece almost immediately about the Burj Khalifa [the world’s tallest building], although it was more of a stump back then. I wrote a piece called The Tower, for the BBC Singers, choir, organ and brass. I chose texts and looked at all the sources that exist that refer to the Tower of Babel.

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The legendary British classical music festival BBC Proms is in its 122nd year

I lined them all up on a massive piece of paper and chopped it up to make my own original story, keeping all of these texts. I wouldn’t have been writing about a tower if I’d been in Sussex. That was a great thing to get my teeth into, because it made me feel like I was connecting.

A big part of connecting is contributing to the place that you live in. It’s not just about what you can get, it’s what you can give – what you can send out, how to communicate from where you are, about where you are – to someone. It feels meaningful, and that engagement gives you a sense of a place having depth.

I came out here where there was no work, so I had to think about things differently, and that in itself is quite a creative process, though a demanding one as well. Looking for opportunities I approached the literary festival and did some music to accompany their talks and signings.

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BBC proms is coming to Dubai Opera for four days between 21 and 24 March 2017

I work with Shelley Frost for [talent management agency] The Fridge, and together we put on the annual ChoirFest in the Middle East. Shelley is a great example of someone who has created an infrastructure in the region. With ChoirFest, we wanted to do something that would embrace all the different musical traditions, and singing does that. Each year we bring choirs from all over the Middle East. We’ve had choirs from Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia… we’re really open about whoever wants to come.

The BBC Proms Dubai commissioned me to open the Proms with a six-minute piece, which is an incredibly huge thing for a composer to hear. I wanted to write about something in the region, and found a little short story by Saudi novelist Mohammed Hasan Alwan called Oil Field, about a little boy who sees the flares on the horizon in Saudi Arabia for the first time. The tale is of the mixed fortunes that come to his village through the oil industry. When I read it the first time, my hairs stood on end. It didn’t pontificate on whether the oil industry is good or bad, but displayed a variety of incredibly complex emotions. That’s what I wanted to do with the piece.

The BBC Proms Dubai will run from 21 to 24 March at Dubai Opera