Guest of the Month January 2012: Sally Beamish
Scottish-based composer Sally Beamish’s work embraces chamber, vocal, choral and orchestral music, and is commissioned, performed and broadcast worldwide.
The beginning of her career centred on the viola: she was a member of the Raphael Ensemble, and a large part of her music-making was in the field of chamber music. Although her main output is orchestral, including two symphonies and an opera (Monster), much of her work is informed by the intimate experience of interaction between players, and the creation of colours by placing solo instruments in different relationships.
She has written many critcally acclaimed orchestral works and in 2006, in honour of her 50th birthday, the Cheltenham Festival staged a major retrospective on Beamish’s work.
Her open approach leads to many diverse collaborations. She has recently embarked on a recording project with the Branford Marsalis Quartet, and Marsalis has already performed two of her concertos. Currently she is collaborating with The Times columnist Melanie Reid on a commission for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for our New Music 20×12 programme, of which Sally writes below.
Sally Beamish travels widely lecturing about her music, and giving tuition and workshops to young composers. She is co-director of the St Magnus Composers’ Course in Orkney, and also regularly collaborates on projects with local communities and schools. She was awarded an honorary doctorate by Glasgow University in 2001.
Here’s what Sally has been listening to recently…
Gabriel Jackson ‘Not no faceless angel’, Polyphony/Stephen Layton, (Hyperion CDA67708)
I discovered this CD just before Christmas. The vocal writing is exquisite, and the title track, with cello and flute, is particularly inspired in the seamless way the instruments entwine with the voices. Makes me realize that singing is what all musicians are aiming to emulate.
Elias Quartet ‘Britten Quartets’ (Sonimage SON10903)
This recording was the starting point for my own third quartet, written for the Elias. The subtlety and mystery of Britten’s writing is reflected in beautifully paced performances. The music takes me back to my days at Aldeburgh as a young viola player.
The Impossible Gentlemen – Gwilym Simcock, Mike Walker, Steve Swallow, Adam Nussbaum (Basho CRCD36-2)
This CD features the brilliant British jazz guitarist Mike Walker. I love his thoughtful, sensitive approach; particularly the originality of Wallenda’s Last Stand, with visionary pianist Gwilym Simcock, unusually, playing melodica. The lullaby When You Hold Her is perfectly understated, building to a heartfelt climax, with Simcock and Walker on stunning, expressive form.
Schoenberg ‘Verklaerte Nacht’ (Hyperion/Raphael Ensemble)
I hadn’t heard this for years, and it ambushed me in a concert in Sweden by the Uppsala Kammarsolister. I found I still knew my part by heart, having recorded it with the Raphael Ensemble some twenty years ago – another life. This extraordinary, redemptive work constantly pushes its boundaries, straining at the edges of tonality.
Sting ‘Live in Berlin’ (Deutsche Grammophon)
I recently read Sting’s vivid autobiography ‘Broken Music’, which made me curious about the many songs I didn’t know, having totally missed it all first time round as a somewhat narrow classical muso. If I’d only known what I could have been learning! My current favourite – Shape of My Heart… the counter melody on guitar, the lyrics – and a fabulous orchestration by Rob Mathes.
About New Music 20×12 commission ‘Spinal Chords’
My relationship with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment goes back to an experimental afternoon when I asked them to try through some of my string music. I had an instinct that the sound of Baroque instruments would get me closer to the string sound in my head, which is often informed by traditional Scottish fiddle playing. Instinct proved correct, and I longed to write for them.
But when they asked me to come up with an idea for the PRS for Music Foundation’s New Music 20×12 Cultural Olympiad programme, I was stumped – until I remembered my friend Melanie Reid – a journalist who broke her neck and back last year in a riding accident. Her ‘Spinal Column’ in the Times is unsettling, thought provoking, and brave.
When she sent me the text I was unsure how I could add to it. Then I happened to attend a concert by Bang on the Can with the Red Note Ensemble in Glasgow, and they played Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, with a hugely slowed-down film of people in an airport. I suddenly realized that I needed to create scenery for an agonisingly slow drama – the journey of Melanie’s recovery. By its very nature, the piece is static a lot of the time. I deconstructed the orchestra into small groups of soloists, then gradually put it together again. Melanie’s title ‘Spinal Chords’ was the starting point for the music – the chord as the backbone of the piece.