Saturday, 17 October 2020

A song is a song is a song: composer Errollyn Wallen on her multi-faceted career and her forthcoming EP with King's College Choir

Errollyn Wallen (Photo Cathy Masser)
Errollyn Wallen (Photo Cathy Masser)

Composer Errollyn Wallen has a new EP out next month, Peace on Earth, three choral works recorded by the choir of King's College, Cambridge conducted by the late Sir Stephen Cleobury, on King's College's own label, King's College Recordings. Errollyn was recently in the public eye, thanks to the BBC commission to produce a new version of Hubert Parry's Jerusalem for the 2020 Last Night of the Proms. But there is a remarkable breadth to Errollyn's music which ranges from her songbook, songs written for her own performance to complex large scale works and opera, and we recently met up via Zoom to chat about the new disc, her career and much more.

Errollyn's original intention was for a new disc which comprised here smaller-scale choir and organ works; she has written a lot of large-scale choral pieces and thought it would be good to bring the smaller ones together. She approached King's College initially with a view just to use the chapel for recording, but Stephen Cleobury invited her to bring the disc out on the King's College label. There is a complete CD planned, with both choral works and organ works, but they have yet to record the organ pieces and as these three choral pieces are some of the last music that Stephen Cleobury recorded, issuing them as an EP seemed appropriate.

The three choral works on the new disc are not necessarily linked. See that I am God, setting a text by the 14th century visionary Julian of Norwich, was an occasional work, written for a service at St Paul's Cathedral in 2014 as a rather moving celebration the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England. As such it has only been performed once (by the St Paul's Cathedral Consort) so it is fantastic to have a recording. She describes it as a challenging work and says that she was amazed by the choir's performance on the disc. Pace, the most recent work on the disc, sets the single word 'pace' (the Latin for peace) was commissioned for an anthology.  Peace on Earth was originally written as a song for Errollyn herself to sing, and she still sings it quote often, though it has been done by choirs. It is a relatively straightforward piece, themed on Winter and Christmas, about the darkness of Winter and the yearning for light.

Errollyn Wallen, Sir Stephen Cleobury, choir of King's College, Cambridge (Photo Benjamin Sheen)
Errollyn Wallen, Sir Stephen Cleobury, choir of King's College, Cambridge
(Photo Benjamin Sheen)

So the works all have diverse origins, but for each commission she receives Errollyn thinks deeply about what music is for, and even for something like the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar she was able to find something that struck a chord.

Errollyn has developed quite a multi-faceted career ranging from writing large-scale complex commissions to more popular and jazz-inspired songs, often for herself to sing. When I ask how this came about, she laughs and says that she does not know how it happened, she just feels that she loves music in all its forms. For Errollyn, a song is a song is a song.

Errollyn Wallen: Peace on Earth - Choir of King's College, Cambridge - King's College Recordings
At BBC Radio 3's recent New Generation Artist weekend, the soprano Ema Nikolovska sang one of Errollyn's songs (About Here, at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday 10 October 2020, available on BBC Sounds) she found it lovely to hear someone else performing one of her songs. And she has written songs in a variety of genres, and sometimes they migrate, one she mentions started out as a song for herself to sing at the piano, then was arranged for voice and string quartet, and finally ended up as part of an opera. And she loves what voices of different types and from different backgrounds bring to a song. Write a setting of a text, she always starts from the text and does not have preconceived ideas about style; she tries not to limit herself and tries to find the correct expressive form for the situations.  

Some of Errollyn's larger-scale works and operas also address quite strong subjects, so her operatic project Another America is an exploration of the black condition, past, present and future (the first part was premiered at the Royal Opera's Linbury Studio, the second at Sadler's Wells Theatre, and the third at Abbotsholme Arts Society), whilst The Silent Twins, commissioned by Almeida Opera, is about the love-hate relationship of black girl twins.

Her opera Anon, a re-working of the Manon story, deals with the exploitation of women though this was actually part of the commission. Anon premiered in 2014 by Welsh National Opera at Tête à Tête Opera Festival [a video of the performance is on Vimeo] and was recently performed at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. Errollyn describes it as a practical piece, written for just three sopranos, two singing actors and a band of five. With Anon she wrote the libretto herself, but she often works with other writers too.

Overall, she says, there is no plan. She has been lucky enough not to have been without a commission for ages, and she takes each one as a way of expanding what she does and she loves being asked to write music for specific groups. She finds that the work brings out the different sides to her personality. She feels that, at the moment, there is something of a trend for composers to limit themselves, but this is not for her. Errollyn wants to push on and broaden her horizons. The composers that she admires did just that, turning their hand to most things. She points out that to become a composer requires a long training to get the right facility and technique and that you should not restrict yourself when using it. 

She has always been eclectic, and when she was younger, she did not call herself a composer, she simply had fun! But people said that her music had an identity. As a child she wrote songs for herself and her sister to sing, songs for her class at school to sing. But her parents were not pushy, and she was able to simple follow her nose and perform in different situations. She was around nine when she was walking down the road with her uncle, she was hearing a sound in her head which she could not explain. She described it to him (she now knows it was the sound of strings and electronics), and he said that she might be a composer. It took her quite some time to admit it.

She loved her undergraduate degree at Goldsmiths College, though this was not aimed at composers. It concentrated on analysis and technical stuff, but there was a lot of contemporary music which Errollyn loved, and she went to lots of contemporary concerts. Her own music, however, was very different to what she was listening to, but she also read a lot and this helped her understand and she was comfortable that she was not writing what she heard around her. Her Masters' degree at King's College, London concentrated on the Second Viennese School and Olivier Messiaen, and she loved doing it though never felt constrained in her own writing.

But after she left college, Errollyn found herself in different musical situations, she played keyboard in bands and she needed to write songs. Playing in a band meant that she understood how a song was put together, but when she started writing them herself she thought 'where did that come from?'. It was only gradually that she started to sing her own songs as well. Whilst she tried not to take herself too seriously as a singer, she takes herself seriously as a composer.

Her composition teacher at university was the composer Nicola Lefanu, who studied with Egon Wellesz who studied with Schoenberg; an impeccable pedigree based on a very rich tradition. Yet Errollyn was also playing songs in care homes, and she learned that there was another, very different yet equally rich tradition. She feels that it is important that in every country the tradition of folk and popular music is not forgotten, performing this music should be part of your language. 

It is clear, that for Errollyn there is no hierarchy in music, good music in one particular style is certainly not the whole story. She also feels that your background is an important part of your make up too, including the popular music you heard. She played for the hymns in a Methodist chapel when she was young, which is important to her. And she points out that writers routinely draw on their own personal experience, so why should not composers do the same by using the music from their own experience. And she does feel that we have lost a lot of composers, people have dropped by the wayside; to be a composer isn't easy, and it is particularly difficult to write music against the prevailing trends.

Errollyn Wallen in Madrid 2018 (Photo Gaby Merz)
Errollyn Wallen in Madrid 2018 (Photo Gaby Merz)
When she was studying, there were few Black women composers, but she did not really look for role models. And she did not feel put off, sometimes being the only Black composer, she had too much to do being a good composer.  She started her own ensemble partly because it is a wonderful way of writing for people you like working with. But she also wanted to bring a bit of life and joy back to contemporary classical music, as she felt that it had become too serious.

In society there is a lot of pretentiousness about composing, Errollyn feels that it is a natural inclination. Classical music puts great weight on being rarefied, but Errollyn points out that to produce music is actually rather a humdrum activity, it takes a great deal of drudgery. You have to be prepared to sit down and be frustrated 90% of the time. 

The composers that she admires, such as JS Bach, Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel, are ones where we find so much joy and inventiveness in their music, and something so physical in their music making, she feels that there is so much for her to learn across their music. Yet, she points out that she grew up loving early Baroque music and that her first opera was Cavalli's La Calisto!

Looking ahead, she has her new opera Dido's Ghost which is being written for the Dunedin Consort and Mahogany Opera Group to be premiered at the Barbican. The production has a fantastic team and will feature soprano Golda Schultz (who sang Errollyn's arrangement of Jerusalem at the BBC Proms), directed by Frederic Wake-Walker and conducted by John Butt. The work looks at what happens after Dido's death, and is based on the writings of Ovid, and Errollyn confesses that she is surprised that no-one has done it before. The new work folds Purcell's opera into it, all of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas is performed, sometimes separate and sometimes blended into Errollyn's music. When we spoke, she had just attended a workshop and was very excited. 

Errollyn loves the idea of having a conversation with other composers; she sees the music from other centuries as being vividly alive, and another composer comes along and engages with it. She missed a lot of the on-line chatter about this year's Last Night of the Proms, but feels that a lot of the fuss was due to the climate of our times, and she regrets that in all the discussions about this aspect of the evening, Andrea Tarrodi's new commission, Solus, rather got lost. Parry's Jerusalem is a work that Errollyn loves, but she points out that we generally know it in Elgar's orchestral arrangement. When she was asked to create a new version of Jerusalem she knew exactly what to do and went back to William Blake's text but kept Parry's original. Parry originally intended the first verse to be sung solo, and because of social distancing Errollyn was not able to use lots of musicians, and in fact requirements changed regularly due to changing restrictions. 

She is also writing a new opera for Graeae, to be performed by people with different physical abilities, and she is also finishing a new piano concerto. She admits that she is incredibly busy, but feels that she has to take opportunities as the come along.

Errollyn Wallen - Peace on Earth - Choir of King's College, Cambridge, Sir Stephen Cleobury - Available on King's College Recordings from 13 November 2020.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • From early Schubert to late Geoffry Bush: Robin Tritschler and Graham Johnson at the Oxford Lieder Festival - concert review
  • Author of Light: The Sixteen in an engaging and uplifting programme of Tudor music at Temple Church - concert review
  • Glyndebourne's outdoor Offenbach comes indoors with a terrific ensemble cast - opera review
  • Their job is to be advocates for the music: Rakhi Singh of Manchester Collective on the group's recent EP Recreation  - interview
  • Rarity & intensity: Ermonela Jaho's debut recital, Anima Rara, explores repertoire associated with her great predecessor Rosina Storchio - CD review
  • Intimacy, grandeur, a new work and a new edition: Purcell odes and more from the English Concert - concert review
  • Haydn, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky from the Mithras Trio at Conway Hall - concert review
  • Illuminating with wit what it is to be an accompanist: Helmut Deutsch's memoirs translated by Richard Stokes  - book review
  • Bach, contentment and our perception of time: the OAE and Dr Fay Dowker at Kings Place  - concert review
  • The Passing of the Year: Voces8 in Jonathan Dove and Alec Roth at Kings Place - concert review
  • Surrender to the craziness of it all: Poulenc's Aubade and Le Bal masqué at St John's Smith Square - concert review
  • Home

 

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