Errollyn Wallen. Image: Dominic Harris

29 June 2018

The "renaissance woman of contemporary British music" talks about her work and influences, and her new piece for NYCGB.

Categories like 'composer' and 'singer-songwriter' aren't especially helpful in the case of Errollyn Wallen, whose creativity is best summed up in the motto of her own Ensemble X: "We don’t break down barriers in music… we don’t see any." She has written music for all kinds of ensembles and settings, from jazz songs to mass performance works, and created multimedia installations, stage pieces and film. Her new work for NYCGB, 'My Granny Sarah', will be premiered by the National Youth Choir at the Snape Proms this August.

How did you come to write this piece for NYCGB?

I was approached by Ben Parry to compose a work for NYCGB and the theme - ‘Created out of mind’ - offered rich inspiration. It is both an honour and a privilege to be commissioned to compose for NYCGB.  

Why did you choose to write about your granny Sarah, and what did you want to capture in the piece?

I wanted to remember my Granny Sarah at the time when I was very small and when she came from Belize to live with us in Tottenham. Granny Sarah was suffering from dementia but to a three-year-old she was just hugely interesting; I loved hearing her vivid stories about burning in hell fire! My work, called 'My Granny Sarah', is about remembering Granny Sarah who in turn was sharing her tangled memories with a little girl who, without judgement, was just beginning to store her own memories.

You have written the words to the piece yourself, do you often write your own words?

I do often write my own words — I write many songs for myself to sing and I have written my own libretti and have written a  lot of poetry. I enjoy working with other writers too but 'My Granny Sarah' needed my own direct thoughts and ways of expressing them.

How do you go about setting words to music?

There are so many ways I go about working with text and music and I don’t always start at the beginning. In the case of 'My Granny Sarah' I simply sat down and wrote what I could remember, there were so many striking scenes, all intact in my memory. 

Before I start work on a piece I spend quite a lot of time thinking about what I want to achieve in terms of form and atmosphere. Sometimes the music comes first, often both words and music arrive together. In the case of 'My Granny Sarah' I can still hear the sound of Granny Sarah’s  voice and the sound of Belize. I needed to capture that first and the words came tumbling out and I had very little shaping to do to them before finding the right notes to set the text.

What are your musical influences and inspirations?

I feel strongly connected to a wide range of composers. Bach and Stravinsky are my touchstone composers. Their technique and musicality combined with their expresssivity and vision always inspire me. What is so fascinating about composing is that it’s always an adventure — and hopefully each work will sound like something fresh and new.

What is special about writing for a choir?

I love composing for voices and have had the pleasure and privilege of composing for all sorts of voices — trained and untrained. Perhaps the biggest occasion was the performance of my work 'PRINCIPIA' for a 430-strong massed choir and the London Symphony Orchestra for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. That work was televised to a billion people around the world. But I always try and compose for the sound of the specific voices who will be premiering the work. In the case of 'My Granny Sarah', I can’t wait to hear NYCGB sing it. I have tried to present a variety of textures within this work which is one of the marvellous things of working with a large choir.

What is your favourite piece of choral music and why? 

That’s a difficult question! I do remember that as a fresher at university we sang Stravinsky’s 'Symphony of Psalms'. I adored the harmonies and sense of awe in that work. Before I knew I was going to be a composer I remember wishing I could have composed that work.

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