Monday 4 November 2013

Sally Beamish on composition

The Britten Sinfonia At Lunch series begins in December with At Lunch 1 and in addition to works by Mozart, Lutosławski and Fauré, we will hear a new work from Sally Beamish, co-commissioned by Britten Sinfonia and Wigmore Hall. We talk to Sally about what it’s like to be a composer and where she gets her inspiration from.

Please describe yourself in one sentence.

I’m a composer living in Scotland and I was a viola player for ten years in London but have always composed since I was 4 years old.

You were a performing musician and became a composer, tell us more…
I’ve always written music, since before I learned to read and write. My mother taught me to read and write music when I was 4 and in fact when I started piano lessons a year later I was quite indignant to have someone else’s music put in front of me so I wrote my own piano book ‘How to play the piano’. I felt that playing was terribly important as well and I studied the viola and managed to get into playing contemporary music in London. By doing that, I met a lot of composers who were working for groups like the London Sinfonietta and they helped me with scores which was fantastic. I think that’s something that’s always informed my music; I’m very aware of how it feels to play a new piece and the first reaction on seeing the notes on the page. Writing for strings is something that I understand from the inside so I’m very excited to be doing this piece.

What can you tell us about the piece you are writing for Britten Sinfonia?
Writing a piece for string trio is the bare bones of string writing. Like three legs is the minimum for a chair to stand up. You need those three parts, the top, middle and bottom. What tends to happen is that the viola player ends up almost playing two parts. If you look at Beethoven’s string trio, for instance, the viola part is really quite complex, holding it together from the inside.

As you are a violist yourself, do you find you write differently for that instrument?

I don’t think I’m consciously aware of writing differently for the viola, but I often do find that at significant points in the score I’ve given a solo to the viola, or I’ve written something for the viola section, I might open a piece with the viola. I’m not actually conscious of doing that but I think it is a special voice for me.

What inspires you?
I’m often inspired by extra-musical ideas so for instance landscape, words or maybe a poem. My violin concerto is based on ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, a First World War novel and often paintings and dance have come into my music. Also, what I find very inspiring is other types of music, and living in Scotland has very often influenced my music because the culture of Scottish music is so strong and you’re so aware of it all the time.

Please tell us more about music in Scotland.

The first thing I noticed when I moved to Scotland is how strong the culture is, you’re surrounded by Scottish music in a way that I was never aware of in England. It’s a living form in Scotland. It’s quite cool for a teenager to go to a ceilidh for instance. Everyone’s there and it’s not something that defines your age at all. The forms of Scottish music are very strong as well and instantly recognisable and a very good basis. The variation form pibroch with the Scottish bagpipes is something I’ve used a lot in my work.

Does knowing the musician who will perform your piece affect your writing at all?
It’s great to know the players beforehand because then I immediately have their individual sound in my head. For instance, I’ve known Jackie Shave’s playing for years and years and years, and immediately I start to hear her playing when I start thinking about the piece I think of Jackie playing the piece. So that’s very exciting and very inspiring.

If you hadn’t been a musician and composer, what would you have been?
I don’t remember a time when composing wasn’t what I was going to do, but I do a lot of other things as well. I write short stories and poems and I’ve learned a lot from going to writers groups. Showing a poem to a group of people immediately generates lots of ideas because everyone feels comfortable with words. Whereas as a composer it’s much more difficult because you can’t really show your work to anyone in the same way until it’s in front of the players and then it’s too late to change it. So it’s quite an isolated way to work. I paint as well, and when I’m starting a new piece of music I very often think in terms of making a pencil sketch or an architect’s drawing of the shape of the piece before I start to colour it. Those sort of parallels are quite helpful.

What is your musical guilty pleasure?

I’m interested in all sorts of music, my sons are both involved in rock and pop music and we’ve done some projects together. I have huge admiration for those genres because the creators of it use their ears so much and everything is so immediate. That’s helped me a lot in my own workings out because as a classical composer you spend a lot of time looking at a page and working your systems out and actually just to let go of that and to improvise is a wonderful feeling.

Who would you like to work with?
I’ve been working a lot with Brandford Marsalis, a jazz saxophone player, and I’ve learned a lot from him and his way of working. And he also works with my classical music, so he’s played two of my saxophone concertos, which he calls songs, which I think is lovely!

What do you want to achieve within the next five years?
The thing that I’ve always wanted to do is to write for dance, and that’s something that hasn’t really happened until just recently. I was commissioned to write a ballet for the Birmingham Royal Ballet so that’s something I’ll be doing in 2016 and I’m looking forward to that hugely. I think all the music I write up to then is likely to be related to that feeling of dance. So I think the string trio will definitely be something that links in with that beginning to think about movement and drama as well.

On Commissioning
I think it’s fantastic that Britten Sinfonia has such a lively approach to commissioning new music through it's Musically Gifted programme. Of course, new music has to be part of the musical spectrum; the composers of today are the classics of tomorrow. As a composer, the more that you’re given to work with, the less scary it is. If a commissioner comes to you with an idea that’s a real challenge it’s very inspiring.

On New Music
It’s always nice when there’s something new in a concert, I’d always be more inclined to go to a concert if there’s a new piece. After all, 200 years ago people more or less only heard new music. They would go to concerts and hear the latest thing that had been written. Maybe it was The Magic Flute, and that would be the pantomime to take the kids to. We go to the latest music theatre piece, but with classical music there’s a little reticence from audiences that they may not understand. But actually I think that you can hugely engage with a new piece of music. Young people in particular seem to engage more readily with new music than perhaps they might do with Eine Kleine Nacht Musik where it doesn’t speak to them directly.

At Lunch 1 takes place on 11 December at Wigmore Hall, on 13 December at the Assembly House, Norwich and on 17 December in West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge. For more information and to book tickets, click here.

For more information on Britten Sinfonia's Musically Gifted campaign click here

This blog is a transcript of an interview by Gabrielle Deschamps (Britten Sinfonia Development Assitant) with Sally Beamish.

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