Saturday 12 January 2019

Finding an identity in classical music: composer Shirley Thompson on her career and recent projects

Shirley Thompson in performance
Shirley Thompson in performance
Shirley Thompson is an English composer, conductor and violinist of Jamaican descent. Her output as a composer encompasses symphonies, ballets, operas, concertos, and other works for ensembles, as well as music for TV, film, and theatre, and she recently made an OBE in the Queen's New Year Honours. With her New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony, composed in 2002 and debuted in 2004, Thompson became the first woman in Europe to have composed and conducted a symphony within the past 40 years. And her work has been much in evidence during 2018 through its links to the Windrush commemorations. Shirley is someone who's work I have followed with interest over the years, and we have met casually on occasion but late last year I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with her properly and talk about being a composer, a woman and a person of colour in modern Britain.

Shirley's career has included a remarkable range of performance, composition, along with work with multimedia and activism, but she feels that music has always been central to her work. That said, she was always interested in film and the stage,  and in fact trained as a film maker and worked for the BBC for 10 years making documentaries. Training which gave her a feel for narrative that she transferred to her music practice. And whilst she is interested in poetry, literature and history, she performed in orchestras from the age of 10 and this gave her a familiarity with the classical canon which has informed a lot of what she does.

Passengers disembarking from the
Empire Windrush at Tilbury Dock, June 1948
In her recent piece Women of Windrush Tell Their Stories she combines all her interests. It was initially a solo dance piece which told a story and it developed into a film with four talking heads telling four fictional stories, providing different perspectives on Caribbean people coming to London in the 1950s and 1960s and making their lives, a story which has previously tended to be told from the male point of view. Shirley very much likes to uncover stories and histories that people do not know about. It so happens that Windrush was very much in the news this Summer because of the anniversary, but it is something that Shirley has long been interested.

In fact, she studied Modern History at University, covering a period from Russia in 1918 to the Cold War, and could not decide between a life in History or Music. But she spend so much time in music, practising and performing that her whole life was in music and this rather tipped the scales. But the love of history has remained and informs her music and the subjects she looks at, informing her mission to tell stories that have not otherwise been aired.

Her parents came to London from Jamaica ten years after Windrush, and music at home was a mixture of Blue Beat, Reggae and classical. Her father heard the music of Tchaikovsky on the radio in Jamaica and used to sing it around the house. Shirley points out that Jamaica had a lot of classical and English folk music on the radio as so many elements of Jamaican musical culture were based on British culture. She feels that this is something that is often forgotten in the UK, Jamaica might be hot but the systems are very much the same.

Shirley was always fascinated by her parents' migration experience, why they left, how they left and what they thought they were coming to. And it was these questions which informed Women of Windrush Tell Their Stories.

Portrait of William Grant Still by Carl Van Vechten
Portrait of William Grant Still by Carl Van Vechten
It was at University that Shirley really became aware of being a woman of colour in the UK. She came across student politicians conducting a lot of campaigns about South Africa (this was the era of Apartheid), found lots of Black literature from America and Africa which she had never read before. But there was no parallel in the classical music being taught at University. Unlike her friends who could find elements of themselves in their subjects, she could find no element of herself in classical music or music history. There was no reference to African influence on classical music; she has three degrees, and in none of them was there a mention of Black composers. It was as if the continent did not exist, so her development as a musician was very much about her finding an identity in classical music.

It was only later that she discovered composers like William Grant Still (whose music she first came across in Victoria Music Library) or Samuel Coleridge Taylor. She first got to know this latter composer when she was asked to arrange two of his spirituals. Even now, though William Grant Still is mentioned in schools, he is rarely referenced in higher education.

She has been working on the composer Florence Beatrice Price for the BBC, and also working on a programme for International Women's Day. This is something which is relatively new for her, to be working on composers of African origin for the BBC, and she has produced a timeline of composers and musicians of colour for Radio 3, from 1400 to the present day.

Composers such as these give you a heritage that you did not know you had. It has been a journey on which she has discovered some fantastic music, and found out that some real innovators were Black. She would have felt more part of University if these composers had been present when she was being taught, as it was she did not feel that she belonged.

Florence Beatrice Price
Florence Beatrice Price
In her own music she is more inclined to Minimalism than to the complex. But at University she was encouraged to sound more like composers such as Harrison Birtwistle, and she was always trying to find herself in other composers. When I ask when she thinks she developed her own voice as a composer she comments that she is still finding it. But after she left Goldsmiths in 1984 the music that she wrote was very lyrical and she feels that she was beginning to find her own voice.

Her natural voice is lyrical, with smooth lines and fragments of melody to latch on to, and people around her were not doing that so that she was not being promoted. So this was why she founded her own ensemble, and whilst publishers were keen for her to perform the music of her contemporaries she concentrated on her own music. Once or twice a year the ensemble would perform at the Purcell Room on the South Bank, and Shirley did everything from programming to promotion and finance.

Shirley is a big fan of Orson Welles, and his struggle to make projects happen outside the framework of Hollywood inspired her. If your voice is different then it can be hard, and people like Orson Wells inspired her along with the support from her friends, and her professors.  And audiences came to their concerts, but she is not sure how much of this was taken on board by the classical music industry.

When I ask about her musical heroes, she first of all names Stravinsky and Bach, adding that she loves hymns (she has a love of simple melodies), and the music of Tchaikovsky with its tuneful orchestration. And she enjoys the way Copland's music evokes a big landscape.

After University, her first job was writing music for television and her ability to write in different styles meant that she sat happily in this role. But she made a conscious choice to do more concert music. In 2002 she was invited to write a piece for the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth becoming queen, and she wrote a symphony about London, become the first woman to write and conduct a symphony in Europe for forty years.

David Martin: Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray
David Martin: Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray
She has been working on a series called Heroines of Opera, about women of colour that we do not know about. This came about because since the 1990s she has been setting poetry by Afro-Caribbean writers telling the stories that we are not always told (something that was not really happening in the classical world).  So she experimented with the idea of using a single voice to tell an epic story. She started with The Woman who needs to Dance about an enslaved person being transported from Africa to Grenada who would not dance to keep herself fit and so was beaten and hung by her ankle. This was something portrayed in a political cartoon by Cruikshank in 1792 and William Wilberforce took the illustration to Parliament during his fight for the abolition of the slave trade. All this is portrayed in the opera by one woman with piano or orchestra, one person telling a story and going on a psychological journey.

Another on of these heroines, is Dido Belle,  which arose when Shirley first came across David Martin's painting which triggered a story which developed into another one-woman opera from the Heroines of Opera series. Little is in fact known about Dido Belle, so most of the piece was invented. It was first performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2007 for the 250th anniversary of the Act of Abolition.

Coming up she has a piece being performed by the Orchestra of St John's in their programme Displaced Voices at Somerville College, Oxford on 18 January, and at Kings Place on 19 January. This is a work for soprano, mezzo-soprano and strings, setting poetry about war and refugees, including texts written by refugees. Then in February 2019 she has a commission as part of Hear Her Song's project commemorating the UN's initiative focusing on women. 20 composers around the world have been match with 20 well known people to produce musical portraits, so Shirley will be creating a musical character portrayal of the Ambassador Ruth Davis of the USA (Davis is the 24th Director General of the United States Foreign Service, and the first woman of color to be appointed as Director General of the Foreign Service and the first African-American Director of the Foreign Service Institute).

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Unwrapping Venus: the music of Barbara Strozzi at Kings Place (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Oper Köln delivers a colourful account of Ralph Benatsky? & Robert Stolz’ The White Horse Inn (★★★★) - operetta review 
  • A year at Lincoln: Aric Prentice and the choir of Lincoln Cathedral on Regent Records (★★★) - Cd review
  • Handel at Cannons: Chandos Te Deum and Chandos Anthem No. 8 from Adrian Butterfield, London Handel Orchestra and soloists (★★★★★)  - CD review
  • Seeing out the old year and seeing in the new: Tony Cooper at the Tiroler Festspiele, Erl (★★★★) - concert review
  • Ancient and modern: Liam Byrne, a viola da gamba and a laptop at Baroque at the Edge (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Diverse tapestry: Clare Norburn's Burying the Dead at Baroque at the Edge (★★★★) - music theatre review
  • Rediscovering her Polish musical roots: violinist Jennifer Pike on the personal connections in her latest disc, The Polish Violin - interview 
  • Strong and vibrant: Tallis masses and motets from the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bach's Goldberg Variations - CD review
  • 2018 in opera and concert reviews - article
  • Concerto for silent soloists: my encounter with Gavin Sutherland, music director of English National Ballet - interview
  • That Old Thing: remembering Covent Garden's revivals of historic productions in the 1980s - article
  • The Medieval Tendency - article
  • Home

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