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NYO interviews composer Errollyn Wallen

In this digital summer residency, we are excited to rehearse and perform Mighty River by Belize-born British composer, Errollyn Wallen, a magnificent piece which explores the history of the slave trade in Britain, with spirituals at its core. Ahead of our digital performance, we were thrilled to listen to Errollyn in a webinar talk, where we asked her a few questions about her work as a composer and songwriter.


What role did music play in your early life and musical education?  


Music was just a natural part of life. I never intended to be a musician, but a ballet dancer or a writer. Without knowing it, music was actually the very core of my being. Music is the safest place to me, it’s my home and I can be anywhere in the world.  


Did you always feel welcomed as a composer of classical music? 


Early on, I was playing in a little school orchestra and I don’t know why, but a teacher came up to me and said, ‘You know little girl, this music isn’t for you’. I didn’t know what she meant then, but I understood later. But I also had another great teacher, Miss Beale, who’d encourage me to write music for my class at only nine or ten years old. But I’d say, looking back I think people have often tried to put me off pursuing the study of classical music.


You also write a lot of songs, where did that start? Did the songwriting come first or did the two intertwine with each other?  


Songwriting came much later. I’d been playing in a band, in a comedy group, PULSE,  in pubs and clubs and then one day the main composer for this group, said ‘Your songs are really good; you should keep writing songs’. Songs always sprang from my heart, and it’s a fantastic way of keeping a diary. What I love about songs is that you don’t have to follow strict rules; the combination of words and music to me, is a never-ending fascination. I love being a composer, but you can get cut off from performing and I really love performing. So songwriting means  a private conversation with myself followed by me then being able to sing and play the piano – nothing gives me greater pleasure! 


Having that creative stimulus as you’ve developed as a composer, how much did you bring of your past experiences as a musician into how you write today? How do your upbringing and family life influence you as a writer today? 


I think that it is our childhood and our background that is the real treasure trove for really tapping into emotions, really knowing first-hand human situations. Going through life, even now, I will tell somebody I’m a composer, and they won’t believe it, or they won’t believe that I can write for instruments or have had such a thorough training. I remember being at a party in Berlin some years ago  and a  lecturer I met there couldn’t actually believe I was a composer and asked four or five times: ‘Are you saying that  you know how to write for every instrument of an orchestra? Are you saying you know how to write notes?’. It’s a thing that people have struggled with, understanding what a composer is, and that a composer can look like me.


When you’re composing now, what do you think it is that stimulates your creativity?  


There is so much inspiration outside of us. I really love the sound of instruments, that alone could produce a piece.  I’m so curious about music and I let that curiosity drive me. I really feel it’s important to tell new stories – not keep telling the same old stories. With my operas, I want to see the whole world on stage. I went to the Royal Opera House to see a brand-new opera a couple of years ago and every single person in the thousands that were there, apart from me, was white. And I thought ‘That’s naughty! This place is just another club! That won’t happen if you go see a film, or if you went to the theatre’, so I’m very keen to represent the world as it actually is. I feel if I have an opportunity to write something, I must really take that responsibility seriously and think about stories that somebody else would have passed over. My background means I don’t take anything for granted.


We are working on your piece, Mighty River. Can you tell us how that commission came about, and how you felt writing that piece?  


The wife of Reverend John Wates, the commissioner, is a direct descendant of William Wilberforce, who was part of this group of people called the Abolitionists, responsible for the abolishing of the Slave Trade Act. John Wates wanted a piece for the Philarmonia Orchestra to play, to mark the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. The piece was going to be performed at the  very church, the Trinity Church in Clapham, where the Abolitionists would meet. So, I knew this was not going to be a normal concert, it would really be a gathering of people together, to remember this historic event —  a historical occasion for reflection.
For me that was a huge impression, and it took me ages to come up with. How can you write about something like that? It’s so painful for anybody. So, I thought while thinking about slavery, let me think about being a human being. Let me think about how every human being wants to be free. And in thinking about that and because I love water so much, I got to think about rivers and the feeling of water, always pushing out in the sea, that’s just nature, the feeling, the striving to be free. This piece wasn’t a piece about other composers, it was just music for people to understand that concept and to feel the relentlessness of the pursuit of freedom, which we have today still. 


How do you embody the political and racial charge into your music? Do you feel that it changes how you write?  


When growing up, I was told by my uncle, ‘You can’t just be good, you have to be twice as good to do anything’. And that’s a terrible burden for a child. But I have this sense of responsibility which every musician has, that everything you do, you’ve got to try and embody the highest values. To do the best you can, but also to question what you are doing with your place in the world. The events that happened in the States with police brutality are so shocking, but I know that they happen every single day. The stories are so shocking but somehow for me as a composer I have to find a way of knowing that and not be broken down by it. I feel like I have to try and do my best because my music is the thing that people are going to know about me; it’s a responsibility and I’m happy to take it. 


How do you think orchestral music can make a difference in these challenging times? 


I feel like people need music more and more and more. It’s what keeps us sane and in touch with humanity.  


What gives you hope at the moment?  


Young people give me hope! The way they think about things, they seem much more connected to the true essence of things. When you’re little, things are very clear and simple, and sometimes as you get older, people say Oh, it’s very complicated’. But actually, some things are not complicated, they’re just plain wrong. 



Photograph by © Azzurra Primavera.

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