In 2008 Ella and Royal Ballet dancer Pietra Mello-Pittman founded Sisters Grimm, a production company which organises and promotes major new dance and ballet projects.
For the last four years Ella has been collaborating with Grammy Award-winning South African choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the music for Inala, a cross-cultural ballet created with Sisters Grimm and Mark Baldwin, artistic director of Rambert Dance Company.
The show has just entered a five week rehearsal period and will receive its premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival on 10 August.
It will later decamp to Sadler’s Wells in London for a four-day stint in September before going on a regional tour of the UK in the autumn.
We spoke to Ella ahead of the Inala rehearsals to find out more about her musical history and the ground breaking cross-cultural project that has been her four-year obsession.
What’s your musical background?
Music and art are very much in my family. Both my parents are visual artists and my grandfather on my mum’s side was a composer, pianist and conductor on a small level but he was in a very interesting circle. He was the last student of [Austrian composer] Webern, until Webern passed away.
How did you first get into composing?
By the age of 13 I knew I wanted to do something in music and I’d been having piano lessons since I was seven. I went to a comprehensive school that had a really good music department and the music teacher there was amazing – she’s probably the reason I realised I wanted to write. We did our first composition lesson at 14 and I came in with what I’d done. She sat me down and said, ‘You’re going to go to university and study song composition'. And that’s when I realised it was what I wanted to do.
I didn’t go to university but I carved my own path. I had private tuition, learned about orchestrating, and did courses on conducting. I had harmony and counterpoint lessons from an amazing woman called Helena Brown for years. I still have piano lessons to keep the technique up.
It was all really informative for me – I learned a lot in the space of eight months with him. He invited me along to some of his sessions. He’s so modest – he found it surprising that I took so much from my time with him. I went along to several different sets of recording sessions he was doing and he’d explain what he was doing. It was really informative for me.
I saw him recently and he didn’t really realise how helpful he’d been. He tells me not to worry about what the critics are saying and make sure I feel good about what I’m doing. He was a good force.
What’s the most important thing you learned from him?
I think his manner is really good. He speaks nicely to musicians and his team. Above everything else, I really noticed his conduct. There are a lot of people who write very good music, but what makes David very different is his manner. He’s not pretentious at all.
The other things I learned were more obvious – like knowing how cues were referred to, knowing how you’d record the different layers of a track, mixing… things like that. There are a ton of things you can’t really be prepared for until you’ve actually worked in a studio.
Do you cellotape a score together, are the page turns ok? There are all these little things that are really quite important and can make things run a lot more smoothly. There is so much that you have to be ready for.
Do you feel pressure as the composer in a recording studio?
Well, as the composer, everyone looks to you for answer! It’s important to delegate and have the right team around you but you have to feel confident in what you’re doing. I learned a lot from David in that respect. He was very good at delegating and never felt undermined by asking other people their opinion.
You’ve composed for dance, written film scores, worked on arrangements for contemporary acts, and more – how does your approach to all these disciplines differ?
You have to write it for the purpose it’s intended. I don’t write concert hall music. I’d never be someone who would write a symphony that can stand on its own. I very much admire these amazing pieces of music. Probably from the background I come from – with parents who are visual artists, and having been surrounded by art – I’ve always needed that collaboration with someone who’s a visual person. I quite like to have somebody who directs you a bit. With a choreographer they might ask you to extend a sequence or feed back about a particular sound – it’s that collaborative effort that I thrive on. It’s also about getting the sound palette right, and knowing your strengths and also getting the right people involved.
It’s been a five year marathon project. It feels very strange to be getting to the point where it will open and exist. I’ve known quite a few African musicians and always listened to quite a lot of world music. My business partner and Royal Ballet dancer Pietra Mello-Pittman and I were thinking about things that would be interesting to do together and we came up with this idea of joining both of these very different worlds. You’ve got two art forms which are made to feel quite separate – ballet and African music – because they come from different cultures. But there is no reason why the two can’t come together. That way you’d expose the ballet audience to some incredible new music and then also the people who are more into the music would be exposed to dance. It’s a mutual benefit for everybody.
What has that experience been like?
We went through various stages of development and went through things that didn’t really work and then found the right path. It feels like in the last year it’s gone from strength to strength. The music has developed a lot and now we’ve got this amazing artistically great fusion of stuff. I hope it’s not too arrogant to say that! Everyone involved in it is so high calibre and they know what they’re doing – myself and Petra are probably the least experienced out of everyone!
Ballet has traditional movements and rhythms – was it a real challenge to marry it with the music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo?
Interestingly, the music side came together pretty quickly. I did so much preparation before we went to South Africa the first time in 2010. I’d spent hours and hours listening to anything I could get my hands on. And I’d sit and play along to their CDs on piano and have a think about what was working. Sometimes I’d write my own phrases or chords to go with them – and I took a lot of notes. So, musically, it came together really quickly.
What were they like to work with?
They hadn’t done a collaboration for quite a long time and I found out that they were a bit nervous about the whole thing too! They’d never worked with a piano or co-written with a woman – there were a lot of firsts. But it was lovely, because we slotted together really well.
Then last year, because we already had this relationship for four years, we were able to push it a bit further. So we’ve got the existing stuff which is a bit more in line with what they do already and then we have this new stuff which is completely different.
How about the ballet side?
Movement-wise it took some time to find the right way in. Then as soon as we went to Mark Baldwin, we found he had the right language for it. Maybe it was because he’s from Fiji, where there is more of a tribal culture. We’d tried the classical ballet route at first and it didn’t work. It was too far away and we couldn’t find that middle ground. But Mark is more contemporary, which happened to be more in line with their African movement.
Find out more about Inala at http://www.eif.co.uk/2014/inala#.U7wDcYetydc
Top photo by Giulietta Verdon-Roe.