Shirley J Thompson, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I have always composed music for fun, starting at school where I wrote short pieces for friends (yes, we the ‘A’ Level Music nerds) to perform. I continued writing for fun while studying for my first degree in musicology at university and was encouraged to pursue a career by my professors when I composed several pieces outside of the remit of the course. My professors told that my compositions showed a lot of promise.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

My mother always encouraged me to keep my mind and options open. This meant becoming good at many things and subjects in case I decided to pursue a particular area. A pivotal moment in determining my move towards a life in music happened inadvertently. I had just finished my first degree & was gutted by my reported results, especially as I suspected unfair play. In addition, I had entered a composition competition & the professional quartet had not taken the time to look at my piece before playing it, assuming it would be easy, I guess. The ‘performance’ was ghastly! During the performance, I sunk into my seat in the large music room of the music department at university in a state of great shame, thinking it was my lack of talent!

However, on graduation day, to my surprise, my composition and orchestration tutor told me that he thought I had a special talent for writing music & should pursue it! That was all I needed to hear, a few words of encouragement from a tutor. I had faith in his comments as he was a world expert in contemporary French music, a great piano improviser, arranger & composer. When I got on to the Master’s course in composition at Goldsmiths’ College, London, I felt that I was on my way as a composer. However, I found out shortly afterwards that I was barely off the starting block!

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

To develop your skill as a composer, you need to get performances of your compositions. These can be hard to obtain and I spend much of my time in the business needed to sustain a career as a professional composer, while I’d prefer to concentrate on the art of composition and orchestration.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

I find it very exciting & challenging to work on new commissions. I begin the process of a creating a new work by first researching the subject of my composition, if required, and then exploring potential sound worlds. In the 21st century there are so many options of how one can express oneself musically. Much depends on who will perform the piece, be they amateur or professional, child or international artist. I aim to find a level of performance by which the performer will feel challenged but also enjoy making the music.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Every commission poses its own distinct challenges. The greatest joy on earth for me is when a performer feeds back to me their enjoyment of performing my work. One of the biggest challenges I faced was in preparing for the recording of my symphony, New Nation Rising: A 21st Century Symphony. I obtained the amazing opportunity of working with the RPO. After much anticipation of conducting this world renown ensemble, they were fabulous musicians to work with, and ever so helpful. The recording of the work involved nearly 200 performers and some of these were amateur singers and musicians, who did not read music. I had to find a method of working with all levels of musicianship for the project and then bring them together for the recording. I found this process to be quite a learning curve. I’ve worked with the Philharmonia, the Southbank Sinfonia, the BBC Concert Orchestra Principals, the Oltenia Fhilharmonic, the AACM, various chamber ensembles and choirs, including the BBC Singers and with my own ensemble, The Shirley Thompson Ensemble. Each experience has brought distinct challenges but mostly joys.

Of which works are you most proud?

Each work has served as a building block for the next. For example, years of writing for my own instrumental ensemble helped my understanding of what might work when composing for larger ensembles, such as the orchestra.

I am proud of all my innovations in the classical music genre. With my ensemble I developed a musical language that I perceive to be universal but challenging. I aimed to reach out to an audience that was not necessarily accustomed to attending classical concerts and especially contemporary classical music events. I am proud that I brought hundreds and perhaps thousands of new persons to the concert hall and to the opera house.

I’ve challenged myself by working with a range of musicians from what’s perceived to be differing styles of music but I have integrated diverse styles of music to produce something fresh to the concert hall and to the opera house.

With New Nation Rising: A 21st Century Symphony, which I perceive to be a ground-breaking work in many ways, I convey the story of the history of London through music, mapped onto the form of the symphony. I developed a musical language for this work as required of the commission that, ‘the person on the street should be able to sing something from it!’ However, I perceive the work to be progressive and accessible at the same time. I pushed the boundaries of the genre by introducing the kit drum, the bass guitar, dhol drummers, soul singers and a spoken word artist into the orchestral mix. I am particularly proud that the concept for the work formed the framework for the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics which became a catalyst for a plethora of productions for the stage and for television, employing historical events.

I co-scored the music for the multi-award-winning contemporary ballet, PUSH, a production that is perceived to have achieved the consummate integration of music, dance & lighting and that toured for 15 years to over 40 countries including City Center, New York, the Mariinsky Theatre and Sydney Opera House.

I also perceive my opera series, Heroines of Opera, to be ground-breaking in several ways. With this series of chamber operas, I push the limits of the solo voice that is required to sustain a narratological as well as a lyrical line for throughout the work. I purposefully devised the opera series to fly in the face of the practice of employing a femme fatale in the narrative, the usual role of female characters in opera, hereto. Another of my innovations is to I introduce the spoken word artist, from popular music, into the classical music mix.

Many of my works are inter-disciplinary, because of my passion for all art forms. I suppose I’ve always wanted to be an impresario that brings all kinds of stage performance onto one stage. The operatic form meets this desire for me, as its possible to integrate art forms seamlessly.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

My musical language may change according to the territory in which I’m working, to follow the analogy. Underlying my music is my wish to communicate to the listener through a sound world which often employs strong lyricism and robust orchestral textures. I aim to write idiosyncratically for each instrument or voice, and I particularly enjoy working closely with artistes and ensembles to make new music.

How do you work?

I have to clear my mind of as much mental clutter as possible before I can begin writing. This means getting into a serene state of mind, however this perceived. I work in the concrete jungle of Stratford in east London, so there is always a lot of physical noise around but I have learned to block this from my mind. However, musical noise, such as when the neighbour who washes his car blasting dance music at the highest decibel possible from his car stereo system, is absolute anathema.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I’m inspired by many performers and composers for different reasons. I grew up in a Jamaican household where my father played lots of music in the house, so Blue Beat, Ska, Rock Steady, Reggae and Gospel as well as Tchaikovsky and highly melodic classical music! My brothers are all DJs and they played Dance Music, Soul, House, Dub etc

Classical music was an ‘external music’ outside of the house experience that I gained at school and church. In music classes learned the components of music and how to put this magical entity together. I loved this. Composers that particularly influenced me through my childhood and beyond include Bach, Mozart, Purcell, Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, Stravinsky, Barber, Bernstein, Gerswhin, Martland, Taverner, Coleridge-Taylor, Copland, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Marley, Simone, Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Eryka Badu, Fela Kuti, etc etc I have an infinite list.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

As a musician, I feel that I have succeeded when a performer enjoys performing my piece and takes ownership of it. I feel ecstatic when after all the hard work and stress, a major production goes well and is well-received by the audience.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

As a professional teacher, I have many students and I aim to impart to them the need to work consistently at their art and craft to develop their skills optimally. I also advise the need to know the business of music and how the industry works. Possibly above all, I try to impart the need to keep things in perspective and stay balanced as life in the creative industries is possibly the hardest to navigate.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I’m so taken up with what I’m trying to achieve in the present that I barely have time to think of the future.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Dancing with abandon; sitting with my feet up by the Caribbean Sea with a tipple and watching the waves ripple out to the expansive ocean; driving through the beautifully lush terrain of the Jamaican hinterland; a superb performance of one of my works.

What is your most treasured possession?

My violin and piano (keyboard). My home and that of my parents.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Dining/partying with friends.

What is your present state of mind?

Grateful.
2018 commemorates the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the MV Empire Windrush in 1948 at Tilbury Docks.

Fresh from her music having been performed at the official Windrush commemoration service at Westminster Abbey earlier in the year, composer Shirley J. Thompson turns her attention here to Windrush women in particular with music composed in their honour to be performed as part of the Equator Festival’s ‘Women and Words’ event on 22nd September 2018 at 7pm at Kings Place, London.

Passengers from the West Indies arriving on the SS Windrush were seeking a new life in Great Britain and planning to help rebuild a broken nation in those bleak post-war years. Through instrumental music, spoken word and video, British-Jamaican composer and artistic director Shirley J Thompson, together with guest musicians and composers, will showcase narratives and memories that inspired them with a uniquely female perspective on the Windrush experience, featuring performances by an array of outstanding women artists themselves descended from the Windrush generation. This multi-media event will showcase a unique mix of music, including classical, electronic, mbira and reggae together with a spoken word element, thus exemplifying the diverse culture of the Windrush communities. An integral part of the event will be the film ‘Memories in Mind: Women of the Windrush Tell Their Stories’, which originally inspired Shirley J. Thompson to stage this event. Her film features a cricketer’s wife, a student nurse, a concert pianist and a new bride, all relating their experiences of arriving and settling in England. The new compositions by the performer/composers reflect on these experiences. Psalm to Windrush: to the Brave & Ingenious by Shirley J. Thompson which was commissioned for the Windrush memorial service and premiered at Westminster Abbey has been specially arranged here for Soprano and opens the concert.

Between 1948 and 1973, some 524,000 people from the Commonwealth became residents in the UK and Caribbean people currently comprise 3% of Britain’s population.

Noted Thompson: “I am thrilled that people from the Windrush Generation are at last being recognised for their phenomenal achievements. They helped to build the UK and changed the face of Britain so that it is now the culturally dynamic centre of the world. I pay tribute here to the Windrush women in particular and their own bravery and ingenuity that I witnessed first hand”.


Shirley J. Thompson is an English composer, conductor and violinist of Jamaican descent. Her output as a composer encompasses symphonies, ballets, operas, concertos and works for ensembles, as well as music for TV, film, and theatre. With her New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony, composed in 2002 and debuted in 2004, Thompson became the first woman in Europe to have composed and conducted a symphony within the past 40 years. Also an academic, she is currently Reader and Head of Composition and Performance at the University of Westminster.

shirleythompsonmusic.com
(Photo credit Winston Sill)

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