Guest of the Month: Errollyn Wallen CBE
Errollyn Wallen CBE, composer, pianist and singer-songwriter, publishes her own music, has worked as a tap dancer, lives in a lighthouse and has co-written a song with an astronaut who took her music to outer space!
With New Music Biennial 2022 on the horizon, we talk Wallen’s 2017 NMB piece The Mighty River and more…
PRS Foundation: Your music has been to outer space! That’s got to be one of the coolest things we’ve heard about any of our grantees so far. Tell us more?!
Errollyn Wallen: Well I’ve done so many different things in my life, from the moment I said ‘I am a professional composer, I will take whatever work comes my way.’ That’s when life got very exciting, you know?
I mean, I could have gone down a route which was – I’ll teach and do composing on the side. And I’m so pleased that I didn’t. Once I decided, it took a while to have the confidence to say I was a composer. But once I did, it’s really a fabulous life because there’s so many unexpected adventures. The people I’ve met, people I’ve worked with, the things you see, situations I’ve been in. I was a keyboard player and I saw lots that really inspired my songwriting – working with bands, touring bands, seeing the different set ups, the different ways of working in music, you know, without notation and working on arrangements. So I find I have this great curiosity for how music is made and I am always thinking, how I can learn more and often you learn most by being around music itself, by being in different situations.
I’ve just come back from rehearsal and performance for Dido’s Ghost Festival (Buxton Opera Festival), and it had its premiere at the Barbican, which was on the stage with the musicians, almost everybody on stage together. And in Buxton, the orchestra was in the pit and the performers and singers on stage. And it made me think about how you present work in different spaces. That also has a big impact on the work. So I’m constantly thinking about, the possibilities, how things work and experiences I’ve had. It’s a really fantastic life. Not without it’s stresses, but it’s fantastic.
PRS Foundation: And you can’t get a bigger space than outer space!?
Errollyn Wallen: Oh that was incredible. So I was in Houston having some music performed and I was also at the same time beginning to write an Opera, called Another America: Fire. I made up this story myself, about an astronaut going to Mars. So this is back in 2006/2007, maybe earlier and I was thinking ‘oh, my God, I’m here, I’m in Houston, which means there will be astronauts around who can help me in my research.’ And the guy organising the whole thing, his name was Robert Avalon. Sadly, he’s passed away. He said ‘oh, yes, I’m working on a project to do with the moon. And I know the very astronaut who could come and talk to us.’ And his name was Steve McQueen. And so Steve came and gave us a presentation with photographs he’d taken himself in outer space. And the more he spoke, the more Robert and I, our mouths fell open. And we were so emotional to see these see these images from space and to hear about Steve’s experiences there. He had been to space once and he was getting ready to go on a second mission. And then on the second mission, he was going to be doing a spacewalk. But Steve and I became the best of friends and he loved talking about being in space.
One thing he said to me, which stuck in my mind, was that ‘in space, I hear the perfect music’ and I’ll always remember that. And so during our friendship – I felt my mind expanding and we would have these long telephone conversations. But at the same time, it was as if I could imagine being in space, just through his words, the way he described things. He’s both a scientist and very, very sensitive to music and literature. So that combination in one person, I found very intriguing, and after he’d done his spacewalk, he said he was able to email to selected friends his diary describing that spacewalk and what it felt like to look down at the earth. And the writing is so beautiful because it’s both very practical and scientific and then also full of the wonders. So awe inspiring. And so I made a film out of that called Falling with Channel four.
And Steve is narrating a little bit of that diary that he wrote, it was wonderful. And I taught Steve the bass line of one of my songs so that he could impress his children – he said “my children laugh at me when I play the piano” so I said “I’ll teach you a song. If you just play this little ostinato and just muck around at the top, they’ll be impressed.” And they were!
PRS Foundation: Tell us about where you are right now? You live and work in a lighthouse (which is where you are right now) what inspiration do you find there?
Errollyn Wallen: Oh, I think… I look out at the sea and it is the most wonderful thing for a composer or musician because you’re looking at a multiplicity of rhythms and movement and patterns.
So I literally I look out, I see rocks, sea and sky and due north for me is the North Pole, so I’m really super super north, which means in summer the days are very long. I’ve just come out from Buxton and it was boiling there. And actually it’s quite cool and overcast here. So we never have the hot, hot weather. Occasionally we have glorious days, but not the same. But I don’t mind, because I just feel something very special here. The rocks that are up here, are some of the oldest in Europe. I don’t know, this place has a very good effect on anybody who comes up here. I’ve always thought the best way to be a composer is to be very practical, not to be pretentious, and that you should be able to compose anywhere. But what’s special for me in practical terms, is that it’s so utterly quiet and you really need that to work. And I live in London too, but it’s a different thing. It’s never quiet. Well, where I was, was never quiet.
PRS Foundation: How did you find your lighthouse? How did you end up there?
Errollyn Wallen: It was a website called lighthousesforsale.co.uk (laughs). And I don’t have the whole house. I have half of it and I don’t own the tower. But I’m right next to the tower site. Where I live and work is the engine room, which really is an apt place to me. And I always have so much music to write and I’m always thinking about music and there’s always a level of stress really and pressure to produce piece after piece. So being here reminds me, that there’s a different sort of busy. The sea is busy. The birds are busy, everybody’s doing their thing. But they’re just doing it. They’re not stressing about it. They’re just doing it. And I like to be reminded of that, that being alive has a purpose before we put anything on it. Errollyn’s piano
PRS Foundation: So you’re now a famous composer, living the dream in your lighthouse. But can you take us back to the beginning? Can you tell us a little bit about how your journey as a composer began and how you started out?
Errollyn Wallen: Yes, that’s a very good question. Recently I was talking to some children at London Fields Primary School and they were about nine years old and it was around about nine that I was definitely hearing musical sounds in my head. I was definitely making up music for the class, but I think what I liked about my childhood was that I was surrounded by all sorts of music. But the music making to me was always very natural. It wasn’t necessarily commented on in the family. It was just something that I did, making up a tune and through that, I got more and more curious. I would get music from the library, just random stuff.
I went to boarding school from ages 13 to 17 and what was good about that school was that nobody cared if I didn’t do any work, so I could just play the piano. And I really was just absorbing music all the time, listening, looking at scores. And I couldn’t see where that road was leading me. And it was incredibly hard to really think of how I could get a good education. It wasn’t easy because I don’t know, it just seemed really hard to find my way. But I must have been incredibly determined because something in me said, “I want to have the best musical education I can in order to really know about music, the history and everything to do with it” – you know how it’s made and technically made. So I think that has always driven me in a way, just trying to become more skilled.
I love playing the piano. So, of course, I thought that’s what I was, a pianist. And of course, I’m just not good enough to be a pianist. But the piano was my way into music. I love to play the piano – but my sadness now is I don’t get as much chance to practise as I did as a kid, because I had to be stopped. People would beg me to stop playing. That’s how much playing I was doing, it was just so natural. So for me, music has always been this natural thing, and then that developed into sort of a fire inside me. There’s this fire that needed to be expressed in some way. And the problem with that is that writing music is incredibly slow, laborious, and frankly, painful sometimes. So it’s always reconciling the vision you have with how to then get that onto the page to musicians.
And at the beginning, it wasn’t that easy. And when I left University – I went to Goldsmiths – and what was good about being at Goldsmiths was that I went to lots of concerts. And then I went to Kings, did a masters there – but now I think there’s much more help. My students – I introduce them to people. I bring them to things. I bring them to rehearsals and with the Internet, things are so much easier. But it felt back in that time, that even though you’ve done a Masters, nobody expected you to actually… I wasn’t one of the chosen ones, let’s put it that way. I didn’t have a mentor. You know, I liked my teacher but I had no idea I would have, this level of success. There was nothing to indicate that to me other than, I don’t mind taking risks. That’s the number one thing I would say. And I like being with people. I like performing. I like being around that. But I played with bands. I played with them a lot on the comedy circuit. I’ve done TV game shows. I’ve played in Care Homes, I’ve worked in psychiatric units, adult education and that part of my life is very important to me too – to be out in the world, because as a musician, you do have to spend a lot of time practising and your world can become quite small. I mean, it has to be, you have to be totally dedicated. And being Black as well, you have another perspective on life.
And one thing I wanted to say is that – I was just talking to a friend today – I think what makes a career possible is a combination of complete dedication and the ability to sort of know when you’ve got an opportunity. But that nothing happens without somebody else, someone sticking their neck quite far out for you, and you must always be mindful of that. Things don’t just happen. Somebody is giving you an opportunity and it’s so important to remember that. To remember there’s so many people I’m grateful to, for just really sticking up for me. My music wasn’t always that fashionable. I wasn’t ever running with the current trends. But I felt it was important to develop my own potential, of what it was that I was imagining.
PRS Foundation: Can you tell us a little bit about how PRS Foundation’s support has helped in your career (Errollyn Wallen has received support from Composers Fund, New Music Biennial, Women Make Music, Resonate and Open Fund)?
Errollyn Wallen: Well for example, Resonate – that’s had a massive impact. I wrote this work called Concerto Grosso in 2008 and it had one performance and that was it. And then Chichi of CHINEKE! said ‘did I have a piece featuring double and strings?’ And I did! And then they loved it so much that they championed it and with Resonate support performed it. We’ve recorded it now and since their recording other groups are playing that work because of CHINEKE! but also because of the Resonate scheme. And it’s absolutely been one of the hugest things that has happened to me.
And then the Composers Fund – I’m still working on the album – which is going to be for organ and choral works. A lot of people will be unaware how many choral works I’ve written. And a lot of commissions I’ve had, I’m not the one that necessarily applied but the commissioners have. I’d say PRS Foundation has been a major source of my development, and I’ve been happy to sit on panels too. The schemes are very in touch with what’s happening. And I love the fact that it’s not just about classical music. PRS Foundation are I think one of the first organisations to realise just how these hybrid forms are emerging amongst the community of musicians. And I love the way the schemes make it possible for everybody to apply for help and support.
I was part of the New Music Biennial 2017 with my piece The Mighty River. That was an incredible experience. It was incredible. I wrote a work which was about commemorating the abolition of slavery and for it to be performed in Hull, the birth of William Wilberforce was a great thing. Also I was able to put together my own orchestra, which I handpicked, some were young, some were still at college, one had actually just left school, truly, truly representing London really. All nationalities, but also putting professional players alongside very talented young players. That was great. It was a lot of work to get that together. But PRS Foundation supported us and it made for a very special concert.
PRS Foundation: Can you tell our audience a little bit about CHINEKE! and why they are such an important orchestra?
Errollyn Wallen: I think that through the years, there have been other groups, for example, way back in 2003 or 2004, I had an opera Another America: Fire and there was this incredible festival celebrating Black talent in Britain. And in fact, we put an orchestra together for my opera, which was predominantly Black.
But the time was ready for CHINEKE! There’s a lot of talent that’s gone to waste because of being outside certain circles – that’s how it works with musicians, you know, you work within certain circles and they don’t necessarily mean to be prejudiced – but people aren’t thinking beyond people they know. And I think CHINEKE! have faced that problem head on.
And I was with CHINEKE! when we all went to the Netherlands for Classical:NEXT where people come from all over the world for that. They played my Concerto Grosso there and afterwards there were a few people who were very unhappy about seeing an all predominantly Black orchestra, because they felt it was a step too far. But the fact is, we’ve been waiting for a long, long time and things were not changing. Chichi said, “look, right I have just got to make this change.” And as I said before, the time is right now. And Chichi is a dear friend, we just want to open up possibilities for young people who would otherwise not have them. And it’s really shocking that there still is a lot of prejudice because well, we all know that now, we talk about being our own bubble, and there is still this perception that classical music is – certainly in this country – it’s predominantly White. It’s not like that everywhere. If you look at New York Philharmonic Orchestra, it’s not. But there are a lot of us working quite hard just to make people aware that there’s talent, that talent is everywhere and that’s the importance of Chineke. Plus they’re commissioning music, emerging composers. And that’s very exciting. And, of course, the junior orchestra too. So they’re already thinking of people coming up from school age.
PRS Foundation: What advice would you give to other artists and composers considering applying for funding from PRS Foundation?
Errollyn Wallen: Be passionate, be clear, and actually the third thing I would say is try to make a realistic budget. Don’t hedge your bets. Make a budget that represents what you want to do. It happens so often that you say, “OK, nobody is able to afford it.” But all that means is, if the project does come about everybody is short changed. So I would say really think through your project, make sure it is something you are absolutely passionate about, because any kind of event takes a huge amount of work. So take advice from people who have done it and applied before.
Another thing I would say is sometimes students of mine might say, I have applied for this thing two or three times and I haven’t got anywhere. What I say is the advice I myself was given, is that in applying your name is beginning to come forward to panel members. I have sat on panels myself and somebody might not get an award, but you remember them and think ‘that’s really promising’. So I hope that that’s good advice I’ve given. But be clear, be passionate. Do make a good realistic budget.
PRS Foundation: And what’s next for Errollyn Wallen?
Errollyn Wallen: My twentieth Opera (Dido’s Ghost) has just premiered at The Barbican, just finished Buxton and it’s gone to Edinburgh Festival. Now I’m home just for a little bit because I’ve got to finish off another Opera for Graeae which will go on tour next spring. I’m also writing an opera for Chicago Opera Theatre, which will go next spring, too. And then I’m also writing a book on composing and then a few smaller pieces. Actually, you need a lot of energy to be a composer!