Having forged her own cross-genre path back in the eighties, Errollyn understands more than most the rut that modern classical music must work hard to avoid.
Since emerging on the scene straight from college, she’s penned operas, choral symphonies, pop songs, piano solos, pieces for string quartet and more.
Her music has been performed all over the world and in myriad settings, from the grandest concert halls to the London 2012 Paralympic Games and Latitude Festival.
She also teaches students at Trinity Laban and Birmingham Conservatoire and is known throughout the contemporary classical world for her challenging opinions and unique insight.
‘“Music lovers” doesn’t necessarily mean only the people who are academics or musicologists or specialists,’ Errollyn continues. ‘Things are changing, partly because they have to, but I still hear from young students who worry about being dismissed if they admit to trying to connect to an audience made up of the full range of different types of people.
‘It’s hard being a composer because you often write music all alone. While you don’t have the pressure of commercial dictates, you may also have little support.’
Here, Errollyn speaks frankly about her own experiences as a black female classical composer and discusses the shape of the wider genre. Learn her views on racism, classism and sexism in the industry, and hear the pearls of wisdom she’s gleaned from four decades as a creator at the cutting edge.
You come from a musical family – that must’ve been a great support for you when you were young…
We were musical but nobody was in the industry. My family all loved music but I was the first one to get composer training and conservatoire level piano lessons. I was quite responsible for finding that myself. My family didn’t know how to help me in that way – I had to figure it out myself. I’m not sure they really knew what I was doing!
What was that like?
I was devoted to music but I had no idea, even after my degrees, how you could break into the industry. It was hard to get help. So now I like to share my experiences with my students and to actively help and encourage them.
Which early musical experiences have you learned the most from?
When I first left college I played in various bands as a keyboard player. Being around people and seeing the different ways of music-making helped me make up my mind about what I really wanted to do. I was exposed to different musical set-ups – from classical to heavy metal, jazz and pop – and I started to see where my strengths were. I started to organise concerts too, and it was from those that I first broke through as a composer.
The concept of DIY seems to be quite new in the classical sphere – would you agree?
It’s fairly new but I know there’s no way I would have made my name without organising concerts and recordings myself. I remember another composer saying that I shouldn’t do things that way; I should wait until somebody else endorsed me. But I knew that if I didn’t make things happen for myself my music wouldn’t be heard. Also, I did it in the spirit of having fun, I really love performing. We got a brilliant review for my first Ensemble X concert and it led to other things including my first classical commission from Gemini for a work called It All Depends on You. I honestly believe if I hadn’t put the performance on myself, I’d still be waiting for a break!
Well, you’ve got to remember that in the 19th and the early 20th century, composers including Paganini, Liszt, Chopin, Busoni regularly put on their own performances. Berg and Webern helped Schoenberg run his concert series dedicated to contemporary music (Society for Private Musical Performances), which were quite small but highly influential. Steve Reich and Philip Glass both started out with their own bands.
Hardly any composers are plucked out and become successful overnight. I’m frequently a judge for competitions and you see great talent, but sustaining a career is a different matter to winning a competition. The composer has to take charge of their own path. You’ve got to work out what it is you really want to do. It doesn’t stop being difficult and you need to keep making things happen for yourself. Only you will believe in your music 100 percent. Other people in organisations will have many composers they are working with and divide their time between each.
It’s interesting you mention a DIY aesthetic from the late 19th and early 20th century – is there a point in the 20th century when classical music became institutionalised?
Yes, I think so. It was when it became a subject of study at university. Before then it had mainly been taught at conservatoires or privately (and we mustn’t forget how many composers have been self-taught). But from the fifties onwards music composition as a subject became available in universities. Now it’s possible to be a composer but earn your main living through higher education teaching. Teaching is important but I think if you have to earn a living solely from composing, your attitude is completely different and your professional relationships are very different.
What’s been good about the university environment is that campuses are a thriving place for events and performances. I teach at Trinity Laban and at Birmingham Conservatoire and the festivals that the students put on, such as the Rude Health concerts at Trinity Laban and the Frontiers festival at Birmingham Conservatoire, are really inspiring. But there’s still the danger that academic music activity is disconnected and shut away. How do we get new works performed on stages that are accessible to people who aren’t in the academic world? How do we get wider audiences into the academic world?
I think somehow, somewhere, we lost sight of writing music for music lovers. And that doesn’t necessarily mean only people who are academics or musicologists or specialists. Things are changing, partly because they have to, but I still hear from young students who worry about being dismissed if they admit to trying to connect to an audience made up of the full range of different types of people.
It’s hard being a composer because you often write music all alone. While you don’t have the pressure of commercial dictates, you may also have little support. Then you’ve got to get the music out into the world – to get it performed, usually without advances from a record company or publisher. The life has its own pressures and you have to be single-minded and tough-skinned but the freedom is fantastic and the intellectual stimulation is thrilling.
A commission simply means I am paid for being me. I try to put everything into any work, however large or small, whether I am paid or not. I try to consider human as well as intellectual values. I am working on my fourteenth opera – Sabina Spielrein (libretto by David Pountney) and I’ve just composed an aria for Einstein! I’ve never met Einstein and, of course, never will, but in composing that aria I had to be Einstein. I love being able to talk about myself very personally in a song, but many other songs are about imagined characters. I enjoy imagining I am someone else.
I really feel it’s a composer’s duty to try to write music that is genuinely truthful emotionally. We don’t talk about that much, but it’s the only reason, I think, that music survives.
There has been a lot of debate recently about gender roles within classical music. What’s life like for you as a female composer?
As a black girl growing up in Tottenham it was harder to get access to the specialist and intensive training required and I was often dissuaded from doing it. One teacher said that it wasn’t really the music for me - there was a perception that classical music was just for certain people. I hate to say it, but across the general public there still is a perception that classical composers are white, male and mostly dead. But that’s not the reality of music today - just listen to the wealth of variety being composed by a variety of women and men. I was the first black woman to have a work performed in The Proms and am, so far, the only woman recipient of the Ivor Novello Award for Classical Music. In a way, that is a shocking statistic for the representation of race and gender in classical music today but it’s a thrillingly diverse time in music generally and so much has changed in the last 20 years. I love all the new voices we have today.
I’m a teacher too and I see that more students want to really express themselves through music. They don’t feel that they have to write in a particular style to be accepted. The overriding desire and passion to write music is there – and that’s what I find exciting. There is a greater sense of freedom now. I think there was a time, maybe 20 years ago, when classical composers felt they had to write in a certain kind of style to be taken seriously.
There was a time when Steve Reich and Philip Glass weren’t even taken seriously in this country– I know because I’ve spoken to ensembles that wouldn’t play their music. Look how things have changed there!
The tradition of the composer’s calling is to write the music that you just have to write – I’ve always done that. I want to make a difference. I want to bear witness to our time and to tell untold stories. But, you know, you take your chances and not everyone will agree with what you are doing. That is the lot of every musician.
Can I ask, does classical music seem really hidden away to you?
It seems to be a hermetically sealed world, doesn’t it? There has been rather too much music written by composers who say they don’t care about their audience, and I find that shocking personally.
The other issue is the education system. When you’ve got your GCSEs and A Levels you go to university, but it’s too expensive for many. And, the system being what it is, most of those people are white, middle class or just plain wealthy. Many of our most talented musicians are from poorer families and they go into the commercial music world instead, because they think they can earn more money, and they’ll be noticed.
There’s still a class issue in classical music, which seems even more marked than in other art forms, so in that respect classical music is way behind. I’d love things to change. They’ve changed a lot slower than I thought. We need to hurry up a bit more!
What more can be done to address this imbalance?
I think it’s important for a broader range of people to get involved in classical music. There’s no way round it. A few years ago the Royal Opera House commissioned three operas by three black composers (Nitro at the Opera). It was thought that no one would come but the truth is, people had to be turned away. And the audience was 90 percent black. There was a perception that people wouldn’t come but because of the composers, and the subject matter and because of the many nationalities of opera singers on stage (not just white), it proved hugely popular and all the operas were revived and broadcast on television. It opened my eyes to what can happen when you change the programming and commissioning to reflect what’s truly out there. There will always be an appetite for new work – across the entire population.
We seem to see contemporary classical music as a very specialist subject and it doesn’t feel open to everyone. Time to open up!
We interviewed Errollyn Wallen for the feature Free Range, which appeared in issue M54 of M magazine