Here’s the opening of Errollyn Wallen’s official biography:
Born in Belize, Errollyn Wallen gave up her training at the Dance Theater of Harlem, New York to study composition at the universities of London and Cambridge.
The life of one of the world’s foremost female composers is as eclectic as her music. She has no fear of combining multiple influences from pop to Purcell, and is certainly no musical snob, realising that inspiration can come from anywhere:
To be honest, everything I hear influences what I compose — even the sound of the washing machine! I feel that I can work in any form now, short or extended… I know my craft.
It is expressed in the motto of her music group, Ensemble X:
“We don’t break down barriers in music… we don’t see any.”
This attitude has led her into diverse projects: composing inspirational pieces for the Olympics, works for The Royal Opera House, a choral piece for the Tallis Scholars and a score for a BBC drama.
Ensemble X’s concerts often include songs by Wallen which fuse together elements from a wide range of musical genres.
Most music-lovers listen to a vast range of music and, as a music-lover myself who grew up in a household where all kinds of music was played, I want to have access to all those techniques in my composing in order to achieve the widest range of expressivity.
When I sit down to compose I am never sure what will come out and I need to approach a new work with a sense of adventure and to explore roads less travelled.
Let me talk about the two works I composed for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games…
I wrote both the words and music for PRINCIPIA and Spirit in Motion, my two works for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. I was absolutely thrilled to be asked by directors Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings to compose the works for specific moments in the ceremony. I was the only contemporary classical composer who had been commissioned in either ceremony so I decided to push the boat out with PRINCIPIA.
The title of the piece is borrowed from Isaac Newton’s landmark treatise and it concluded the breath-taking spectacle that opened the ceremony. It was performed after Stephen Hawking’s speech synthesizer said his words, some of which Wallen had included in her text for PRINCIPIA:
“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet… Be curious.”
Wallen’s curiosity has rewarded her with a broad palette to work from.
The forces were huge — the London Symphony Orchestra with 430 singers from eight choirs around London. I wanted to compose something majestic and awe-inspiring — well, the brief was to conflate the Age of Enlightenment, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and human rights into a four-minute work! A few weeks before the Paralympic opening ceremony the Higgs boson was discovered so I had to pop that into the text too.
My other work for London 2012 was Spirit in Motion for soprano and orchestra, again the LSO.
“Spirit in Motion” has been the Paralympic motto since 2004, and Wallen’s second piece of the evening was performed after all the athletes had entered the Olympic stadium. It featured soprano Denise Leigh, who is blind.
I had Denise’s voice in my mind as I composed, which was crucial to the sound of the work. I composed a piece which was saluting the athletes after they had paraded into the stadium. In composing this I was trying to write something that my father, with his eclectic tastes and profound love of music and singing, would have liked. I know he would have been so proud of me having my music being on the world stage.
The event was broadcast to a billion people around the world!
I was actually quite ill during the early stages of composing these works for the opening ceremony. I would sit at my piano in my pyjamas trying to imagine the stadium and the atmosphere. I remember being able to sit upright for only five minutes before sweat would pour down me and the fever took hold again.
It took much longer than their actual composition. Orchestration requires a lot of physical energy I find.
On 29 August 2012, the rain miraculously stopped shortly before the ceremony, and all went smoothly.
I was relieved to find I had imagined the stadium and atmosphere right. Although my composing-self felt overwhelmed and strangely dislocated — I was sick with worry about all the technical glitches that could occur — I felt very proud to be a Londoner and to be part of such a magnificent and joyous event. In my text for Spirit in Motion I had written:
“You hear the crowd calling your name;
this great city is at your side.”
The Queen was in attendance to open the Games, as she had been in a few months before in April for the reopening of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich for which Wallen had been commissioned to compose a cantata, Diamond Greenwich, for orchestras and massed choirs.
Sitting in the Olympic Stadium in August 2012, it occurred to me that the Queen had listened patiently to twenty-five minutes of my music that year.
It must be a unique sensation to listen to hundreds of musicians performing your music when only months before not even a note had existed.
When I hear a work performed I always try to remember the beginning stages where I may have just a scrap of an idea and have to slowly chisel out the notes.
Wallen’s music is remarkably visual, at least for this listener; programme music conjuring up mental pictures and stories.
A lot of people say that to me. Images and atmosphere are important stimuli for my music. I love looking at visual art, watching films and dance. I get so many ideas from simply being in the world. I try to remember and conjure up atmospheres.
As a black woman she has touched on racial themes: in Another America for The Royal Opera House and her opera for Almeida Opera, The Silent Twins, was about the love-hate relationship of black twin girls. Wallen is also the first black woman to have her music performed at the Proms, yet she says that her racial background doesn’t have any influence on her music.
When I compose I am not Errollyn — I am an anonymous explorer, swimming in the sea of sound. All of us are affected by our backgrounds however but composers should be able to leap out of their limits and imagine the unimagined.
Wallen is also a performer, an aspect of her life as a musician that she values greatly.
Playing the piano and singing give me tremendous joy and have informed how I work with performers and musicians. Performing is incredibly exciting and keeps me on my toes as a musician.
A new album of Errollyn Wallen’s work, called PHOTOGRAPHY, contains music composed during the past ten years. It is a beautiful disc, a collection for which that overused adjective ‘haunting’ is entirely appropriate.
There is a Cello Concerto, with fiendishly difficult passages, written for and masterfully performed by Matthew Sharp; a seductive four-movement work for strings called Photography; and a twenty-minute symphonic work called Hunger, which cries out to be choreographed with its insistent Rite of Spring rhythms and dramatic aural contrasts. The disc concludes with an audacious final piece called In Earth, where from primordial percussive chaos – random, unformed – emerges Dido’s Lament, sung by Wallen herself in a simple, inevitable way: birth, maturity, death… remember me. Extraordinarily touching.
Ever since reading Virgil’s Aeneid at school I have been obsessed by the story of Dido, Queen of Carthage. My poem Of Crumpling Rocks is a meditation on Dido’s last hours. I set this poem to music in a song of the same name and alluded, in a variety of ways, to one of the world’s most affecting arias — When I am laid in earth from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. Inspired by the extraordinary playing of Tim Harries on electric bass guitar, In Earth aims to further explore both Dido’s psychological state and to capture through sound a sense of the physical terrain of the ground on which she stood.
Wallen is not afraid of melody. While her compositions are certainly not foot-tapping show-tunes, they have rhythms and themes that speak directly to the heart. Her appreciation and fondness of music’s past is expressed not only in her tribute to Purcell, but she also uses pays homage to Bach, “my hero”, in Photography. What does she think of much of classical music in the second half of the 20th century when the post-war avant-garde atonality and experimentation moved music away from humanity: was the baby was thrown out with the bathwater?
I think it was a time of rebellion generally and composers needed to explore the outer edges of sonority. However, many composers got trapped by an either/or way of thinking which meant that they became in the end reactionary. There should be room for everything, everyone — and every kind of expression.
Giving room for everything has led Wallen to a remarkable number of fields, composing for television and film, writing operas and ballets, producing large-scale orchestral pieces and intimate chamber works.
These different fields that I have worked in have enriched my understanding of the different and varying roles and contexts of music. I always try to be clear about what it is I am saying and what story I am telling. Where do I shine the light so that the listener can follow me? I relish illuminating a character through music and I also relish working with notes for their own sake in an orchestral piece.
PHOTOGRAPHY, will be released on 18 March by NMC Recordings.
There is a lot of love in it. Everyone working on it gave their all and two of the works – Cello Concerto and Photography – were gifts to my friends who are playing the works dedicated to them. I am very lucky to know and to work with such wonderful musicians.
And they, in turn, are lucky to have a such a talented composer writing especially for them. A woman of warmth — a quality which pervades her music — who is blessed with an optimism which draws her gaze towards the stars and a curiosity which keeps her exploring roads less travelled.