Photograph by Gary Thomas

Shirley J. Thompson in conversation with Ed Hughes. 1

Shirley J. Thompson is a London based composer with international commissions across many genres, including orchestra, opera, ballet and ensemble. She founded the Shirley Thompson Ensemble in 1994 to develop boundary crossing work and in 2018 was awarded the OBE for services to Music. In this conversation, Shirley spoke to Ed Hughes about her interests in things that connect music, crossing or even demolishing the borders between high/popular music. This is what has motivated her to consciously reference contemporary and historical elements in her music, as well as to absorb and synthesise valuable methods from the western classical tradition. For Shirley Thompson the choral tradition, especially hymns and chorales, conveys ‘universal’, shared experience. But the key to this universality is that the experience is ‘lived’.

Ultimately, what connects musical cultures is far more important to her than divisions and distinctions based on style. In this context we considered the limitations that university training of composers sometimes imposes and associated ambivalent feelings about formal education: yet also acknowledge that experience of music outside one’s chosen field leads to enrichment and innovation. But most importantly, Shirley Thompson’s background and experience, and her interest in broad communication, led her to value and celebrate elements from popular musics, and political and historical topics, that have previously been excluded from western classical music platforms. Because of this Shirley J. Thompson has sometimes encountered resistance and lack of understanding, but has nevertheless developed a unique identity forged from the experience of multiple musics in collision.

Ed Hughes: Shirley, is it fair to say you bridge classical music and the popular? I notice you have many diverse influences, from very recently to long ago, and from popular to classical,  which can be heard in your New Nations Rising: A 21st Century Symphony (2003) 2 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. When you think about how your music relates to existing music does your reaction to music change according to how old it is?

Shirley Thompson: I look for good qualities in all music and am not really concerned about when it was written. With my Symphony, in the opening movement, I was trying to resurrect a kind of universal appeal. So the first movement was deliberately in a Beethovenian ‘Pastoral’ mood. In the second movement I worked the ‘We’ll Meet Again’ 3 song and weaved it into the orchestral texture, to mark the world wars and how they affected London. Then in the third movement, about the industrial revolution – I went back to the Victorian period and tried to recreate the fairground with characteristic music such as the Viennese Waltz.

EH: So you immersed yourself in that kind of material? And then made your own one?

ST: That’s right. And then – in the Hip Hop movement, I was thinking of Lauryn Hill and the like 4.

EH: Is that the fourth movement of your Symphony, called New Nation Rising?

ST: Yes.

EH: Was the Symphony performed in concert as well as for the recording?

ST: Yes – before the Queen 5; and in Romania 6; and by orchestras in America. I even had a Romanian rapper perform the spoken word sections. I find that contemporary audiences really like what I do, audiences that aren’t necessarily classical music audiences. I’m not trying to write for a classical audience specifically – I’m trying to write for people searching for interesting cultural experiences. People, like myself, that like films, literature, a variety of music, and popular culture.

EH: I completely get that directness in your musical language. But I also like the way in which your music can be quite complex – for example in the New Nation Rising movement. And yet, also coherent. You can hear the layers – I really love music that does that – like Bach’s music, for example.

ST: Absolutely – Bach is one of my classical music heroes.

EH: So, sometimes with some tunes moving more slowly or quickly than other melodies. But somehow with your voice you’ve made it coherent and individual.

ST: I strive for coherence – and for musical lines that make sense to me at least.

EH: And hopefully the audience goes on that journey with you.

ST: Absolutely – my music is performed in local festivals, for example in East London, and not necessarily to classical music audiences. I need my audience to understand the music in the first take, and they do.

EH: Do you feel that, because they trust you, you take them on a journey to unexpected musical places, or is that not the point?

ST: Yes, I’d like to think that my audiences trust me. When New Nation Rising was performed in a local music festival, audience members said, ‘Wow! We didn’t know classical music could sound like this!’ Feedback from audiences really encourages me because I don’t get much encouragement from the establishment, necessarily.

EH: Well – who does!

ST: Well, one or two people, yeah!  But I’m very encouraged by my audiences – I get full houses when my music’s performed. Last week at Kings Place I had a packed house. My audience encourages me to write and pursue commissions etc.

EH: Could you tell me a little about the way you made the New Nation Rising? For example, with the rapper I hear on the recording – did you write all of that?

ST: I gave him a brief. I had to write and to realise the whole movement on audio before performance, because he didn’t read music. I recorded everything. The rapper created the spoken word to my brief – it was about a vision of altruism for our future, about optimism, about a progressive new leader coming over the horizon. What you hear in the track is what he came up with further to that discussion.

EH: Who was the new leader?

ST: Well, I was thinking of someone like Barack Obama.

EH: It was a really optimistic time!

ST: Well, at the time we were in the middle of the Iraq war. So I had no idea what would happen in 2009 – because I finished this composition in 2003.

EH: So it was more like a vision?

ST: Yes. I had a vision of progressive leadership from a strong, connected leader. At the time we had Bush, and I felt like we were on a precipice going to War, which we did.

EH: How very strong of you to write something optimistic in those times. And also that’s what you are doing now too.

ST: I think it is my duty as an artist. And now, we have Trump! I aim to lift spirits with my music and create optimism. With a tonal-ish language, I feel that my musical language connects universally. In my earlier years, at university, I was being encouraged to write like Birtwistle. If you wrote in that style you would be taken more seriously and get a good grade.

EH: The university environment has got some things to answer for.

ST: Yeah, the university environment was very much like that. I don’t think it’s like that so much, now. In my department, in the University of Westminster School of Arts, I teach composition, often in commercial contexts.

EH: I’m sure your department is very forward looking. My personal philosophy is if students want to write like Birtwistle they should, but there also needs to be space for all kinds of other styles. You’ve got to encourage great work and recognise it in whatever the style.

ST: Was Jonathan Harvey at Sussex?

EH: Yes – I knew Jonathan but that was after he left Sussex in the 1990s to devote himself full time to composition. Then, he got ill in c. 2010. I helped him write out his last, choral, composition, Plainsongs for Peace and Light (2012).

ST: I really like his work. Multilayered, very contrapuntal.

EH: Somehow Jonathan manages to be a visionary modernist. Also direct, and yet complex.

ST: I met him briefly with Peter Wiegold. Jonathan gave a talk at Brunel. Peter was my tutor for my PhD. I chose him because of his work in improvisation, which really interested me. I had an ensemble that improvised a lot.

EH: I also know Martin Butler – a colleague of mine at Sussex, and a collaborator with Peter Wiegold.

ST: I was right there at the beginning when notes inégales started in the Purcell Room.

So – I’ve been moving between improv, classical, film, popular musics, all these different styles and drawing on all of these having been immersed in them.

EH: Is it fair to say that you have been using these styles fluently, unconsciously – you don’t put things into big quotation marks?

ST: Yes, I think I have been immersed in all these musical languages. I’m not trying to put musical material in as an add-on. I think when people try to integrate popular music into what they do, and they haven’t lived it, it doesn’t necessarily work. In my case, I used to go to clubs, and so understood that whole vibe.

EH: I read your brothers are DJs. So you really know – from the inside – there’s a whole authenticity that counts. And it’s different from just lifting an artefact.

ST: I think so, that’s right. It’s all a lived experience, which makes the difference. Because I do feel authentic in my writing. I really have lived through these cultural experiences in some way or another and translated them into music. That’s what makes for me what I do resonate. It has to feel right, and be coherent.

EH: That comes over very clearly. Can I ask about the singer who sings “We want what is right for the world” in New Nation Rising. Did you write the words?

ST: Yes.

EH: So this is again a vision for a better world? More equality?

ST: Yes – we were in the middle of the Iraq war, so it’s an appeal for peace. It looked and felt like the world was going over a precipice and I felt I just had to say something, in music. Music can be very powerful in making change, or bringing attention to things.

EH: There’s a very interesting mix of elements including those purely coming from within, and music you are reaching out to, to evoke diversity.

ST: Yes, I used a kit drum which was unusual in a classical context at the time. I brought in a drummer who could play popular music to the recording. The recording was organised by the Royal Philharmonic CEO. I was working with the RPO on a project in Newham. I was also working with schools’ choirs in Newham at the time. I wrote specifically for that skill level of voice, as well as for classes from 7 to 17 year olds.

EH:  And were they used to any particular choral tradition?

ST: Yes, hymns, some from the basic choral tradition. It had to be a musical language they could learn very quickly as well. I like to reach out with a universal language that most people will understand from wherever they come from.

EH: Does that descend from Bach? Just thinking about the chords/notes you might use?

ST: I love Bach’s chorales; I love the Passions; Palestrina; Mozart’s operas…

EH: So that’s what you mean by a universal language – one that draws on all those elements?

ST: Yes and synthesising them. It comes out through me, as a 21st century person. And all those experiences I’ve lived, going to opera and so on.

EH: So you said Beethoven. Does Beethoven provide you with a compositional model, even though your music is new?

ST: Yes.

EH: There was an interview on a special channel 7 and you were talking about a symphony; you brilliantly summarised what a symphony is – the guy didn’t know and you explained that it is like ‘mixing your tracks’.

Shirley Thompson interview on VoxAfrica UK 11.3.2013

It starts with a pastoral feel, and then there’s an energetic section, and then there’s a dance, and then you’ve got the ‘height of the story’, you said, and then it finishes with an anthem with singing. It sounded like a really cogent summary of symphonic form! It reminded me of Beethoven’s Ninth.

ST: Yes – well that was my model for this. You’re absolutely right! A striving towards Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

EH: Why – why Beethoven’s Ninth?

ST: I see it as a kind of ultimate in symphonic writing, yeah, still. I find it a very very moving experience. Especially the choral movement. I think it was the first symphony I was really exposed to. And I performed it in youth orchestra. I was with the Newham Youth Orchestra from the age of 11 until 18, I led it, in fact, for two years. We played all the romantic repertoire, the classical repertoire, Haydn, Brahms through to late 19th century. I had a lot of my orchestral experience through playing with the youth orchestra. We played the St Matthew Passion every year and the Bach B minor mass.

EH: These were formative?

ST: Entirely formative. And we did French orchestral music too. After that period I didn’t get back into orchestral music – at university it was more about musicology than about performance.

EH: So that period was difficult, was it, being told what to write?

ST: Well, I felt I was really going over what I’d already done – up to A level. We had studied the history of western music from medieval music up to the present day. That’s what we did again, for my first degree. I suppose we were going over it in more depth, with specialisms. So our specialisms were Mozart; we also had a Debussy specialist, and a Vivaldi specialist – so, like you, it’s all to do with who’s there. From the micro comes the macro – it’s transferable. Three years of Palestrina hasn’t done me any harm in my composition! Total immersion.

EH: One more question about the Symphony. I was struck by your loyalty to London – even though in your TEDx talk 8 I heard you saying you had very mixed experiences growing up.

ST: Well, it’s my home. I was born here and have lived here all my life. And, having left London and gone to other places, I just see all the positives. So London has achieved a lot, culturally, because of the melting pot of cultures here. So I do see it as a sort of global place because of all the other cultures that are here and that you can be yourself, really, in London. Whereas you can’t in many other spaces around the world.

EH: So the piece is fundamentally celebratory?

ST: Very much, celebratory. Even with the experiences I’ve had, but that’s life. My challenging experiences have pushed me to be who I am.

EH: You really made me think when you spoke about your 10 year old self and having your grades suppressed by your teachers.

ST: Yes, apparently, I was being prepared for a factory life at school! The teachers supposedly thought that, because I was from a Caribbean family, I could not achieve very much in life. They didn’t say that, in so many words, but when my mother enquired why I wasn’t being sent to the same school as all my friends with a solely European culture (I happened to be the only person in my school from a Caribbean family) they said – oh she’ll be much better off in the lower ability school and hereby sealing my destiny, even though I was always obtaining A grades.

EH: Terrible. But yours was a really compelling talk.

ST: Thank you. And I made it up on the spot! The TED talk before mine was so heart-felt and I had prepared a musicological look at my symphony! I quickly changed my talk to make it more personal. It was totally and utterly improvised!

EH: Are there any other pieces of yours that I could look at that consciously use existing music? Robin Holloway’s music 9 is haunted by earlier music, quite often. And recently I have done this too – so that’s why I was interested in the way you were responding to different texts. And consciously incorporating different musical traditions.

ST: With the Symphony I consciously employed direct musical samples that are known universally. I wanted the audience to relate to specific moments in history. But usually I integrate known music style, i.e. English folk, South African Township, Blue Beat, etc, subtly. Unrecognisably, in most instances. In my opera, Sacred Mountain: Incidents in the Life of Queen Nanny of the Maroons 10 I employed the technique of signifying musically. Queen Nanny was a Jamaican warrior queen who defeated the English militia in Jamaica over a 20-year period. I try to set the scene with my music depicting a 17th century Jamaica when enslaved African people were working on the plantations and many escaped to the hinterlands of Jamaica forming their own enclaves. Queen Nanny was a famed leader of one of these enclaves – Maroon Town – and the British were always trying to capture her village. They had guns and gunpower to use against the enslaved – but without weaponry Queen Nanny was able to use guerilla tactics and ingenious strategy to defeat the English militia. The maroon soldiers would use camouflage to make themselves look like trees and then pounce on the [English] soldiers. They would create deep pits that looked like even ground, then the soldiers would fall in. They created all kinds of strategy to defeat the army, which they did. I employ several musical signifiers in the predominantly contemporary classical orchestral texture. These include the Abeng (cow horn), which was employed by the enslaved persons to send messages in code for miles across the land. I use the fife whistle to represent the presence of the English militia. I sometimes add a layer of reggae to capture the spirit of Jamaica etc etc

EH: And just curious again, are you quoting them, or are you living them and then composing them yourself?

ST: I would say that I’m employing compositional techniques to create musical textures that create an atmosphere; to create multiple layers musically and aurally and signposts with musical signifiers. 

EH: Any particular artists that were influential in respect of the reggae in your opera?

ST: I sometimes refer to a sub-genre of reggae from a period called Dub which was dominated by the sound-system period of the 1970s and 1980s. Sound systems playing Dub music were huge in particular communities and the bass line was everything. People would speak of having to ‘feel’ the reverberation of the bass line before the music could be authentic to them. In the opera, I integrate a Dub bass-line.

EH: Just using classical instruments?

ST: Yes, I use a double bass. Actually, I use both – electronic bass and acoustic double bass to emulate the sound and feel of a reggae bass-line.

EH: So innovation in opera is being driven by the knowledge of other music?

ST: That’s right, yes.

EH: A great reason for this kind of work. Without being able to refer to other music you don’t actually drive the innovation in [one’s own] classical music.

ST: That’s right. Yeah – I’m doing this as I go along but now you’re rationalising it for me – ha ha – it’s great!

EH: One thing I’m quite interested to do is ask why? The why. A personal reason for me to do this is actually what I’m really trying to do I realised before we met, I am really trying to work out what I am. Where I’m coming from. Because I was interested in early music at university and am still returning to it now.

ST: The thing is when we went to study musicology at our various universities, we weren’t encouraged to be ourselves, creatively. Whereas with my students it’s all about artistic persona – they know exactly who they are. But without the skills as yet!

EH: Often very true!

ST: You know they enter my class and say ‘I’m a composer’ – they know exactly who they are – and I’m writing in this style and doing this – they are very articulate. But we went in, wide-eyed, we’re learning about Mozart, Penderecki, Ligeti, the classical ‘canon’, without question. 11 It was a while after I completed my Masters degree in Composition, that I began to explore my own musical voice.

EH: I can certainly relate to that.

ST: That’s why I think a lot of contemporary music is really lost because it’s not steeped in anything. It’s not grounded in anything.

EH: I think that’s shared with other composers. I think Robin Holloway might say something similar from his perspective – he sees some modern music as intellectually frozen and dogmatic 12.

ST: I felt that. How was Penderecki relating to me? How was Ligeti relevant?  Although I could admire what was being written, as a composer I was looking for a cultural ‘in’ as well. The culture of Eastern Europe, and how this music came out of this culture, was not discussed – it was all about the sound. We did not discuss cultural context. And that’s why I think now looking back, oh my gosh, I could admire all the music – and I did – but we weren’t taught it in a way that told the whole story.

EH: To be fair to Birtwistle I think there are some of his pieces which have a very personal sense. Soundworld of colliery bands and so on. I know what you mean – as well as teaching through analytical terms, you also need to give an indication that this is what drives the music which brings it alive…

ST: …So it becomes alive – yes – that’s all it needed. There was almost a fear of going into that in the teaching of it. I’m not sure how classical music is taught now because I’m in a music department where all music is given its cultural context.

EH: Yes, I was at a university in the late 1980s doing a first degree and (although composition teaching was more nuanced) the education itself was quite formal.

I was trying to remind myself why did I start this project of interviewing composers about sources outside their chosen genres? It’s because of my own recent Sinfonia, which you heard, which basically uses five different pieces as starting points: Agincourt Carol, Stella Celi by Cooke, Veni Sancte Spiritus by Dunstable, In iejunio et fletu by Tallis, Silver Swan by Gibbons. You said after the performance of this piece something really interesting. You said it was ‘very English’, which is great, because it’s true, because I’m English and because of all the references it builds on –

ST: Which I like – it’s very grounded.

EH: But then you said it’s magical, or surreal…

ST: Yes, because my favourite books are in that magical realist tradition where you’ve got all these layers of stories going on in different time spaces, in literature. A lot of my reference points are in literature and in film.

EH: Which authors are we talking about here?

ST: Mainly Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia, 1927-2014). One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) – one of my favourite all time books.

EH: Multiple simultaneous narratives?

ST: Yes – I love this style of literature. Marquez explores the minutae of his culture. Thinking of it – there are a lot of very successful Scottish composers – James Macmillan, Judith Weir, Thea Musgrave, Anna Meredith. There’s something about their grounding in their Scottish culture that affords them a distinct, confident voice. There doesn’t seem to be as strong an English identity. However, what strikes me about your work is its quintessential Englishness. You’re really creating this English identity in music. The French seem to have it, the Scottish seem to have it, the Irish seem to have it. But is there such a strong English identity? We seem to look towards Europe more than we do our own English culture.

EH: Perhaps there is an unconscious worry about the imperialist/colonialist past?

ST: Ah! Could be. Is that a recent thing? Did that affect early 20th century composers like Vaughan Williams and all those early composers – they seemed to have more of an English voice.

EH: They did, and they were certainly very culturally rooted in the sense that Holst and Vaughan Williams went round the countryside on their bicycles with wax cylinders recording traditional English folksingers in pubs. Or so I learnt from a BBC2 programme13! But it fits in with what you’re saying about rootedness in the culture and with what we’re saying about this project and the impulse to compose out of earlier music.

ST: You’re really successful in what you are doing and it makes a lot of sense. Especially that whole reference to what happened at Agincourt, and all these spaces, because that’s what I was trying to do in my Symphony – recreate comparable historical scenes with a 21st century sensibility.

EH: Yes – perhaps we’re both saying that the present is vivid, exciting and complex, precisely because it’s still full of these voices from all different places including these distant voices from the past.

ST: Yes! Which is the magical realism. Because you’ve got all these voices coming in and out from the different spaces. All coherent somehow.

EH: So are you going to compose another symphony?

ST: Yes – I’ve had one on my mind for some time but not had a chance to compose it. I’ve been concentrating on the operatic work. I thought, I should have written another symphony by now though! I’d like to compose a comparable work to New Nation Rising, using a historical narrative. You’re doing something very comparable, with your stories. I love telling stories with music. That’s why I write operas as well. Music can really depict and deepen aspects of storytelling.

EH: So, for you, Bach is lived because the music was on the LPs that your parents played at home in childhood?

ST: Yes, and of course singing Bach every Easter. I also played a lot of his piano, violin and chamber music. I feel greatly formed by singing those Passions, and studying them too. Really going deep into the musicology and analysis. Ultimately, for me, composing music is about drawing on multiple experiences; including the lived experience, including the use of the narrative as well as being abstract. The imagination, is everything in creating new work. As long as I communicate effectively to my audience, I’m happy.