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Sally Beamish Interviewed by Christopher Thomas 2004

Despite the apparent suddenness of Sally Beamish’s arrival on the musical scene around fifteen years ago composition has been a part of her life since childhood. An early career as a professional viola player followed studies at the Royal Northern College of Music and led to work with numerous ensembles, several of whom, such as Lontano and the London Sinfonietta, provided opportunities to work closely with new music.

It was at the end of the 1980s that two events came together, resulting in her taking the decision to concentrate on composition. The first was the theft of her viola, the second a move to Scotland that was to have an immediate impact on her work. A steady flow of commissions followed and her catalogue has grown at an impressive rate to encompass every major genre including opera, orchestral (there are two symphonies to date), chamber, scores for television and radio, choral music and a number of pieces for non-professional performers, an area in which she has a keen interest.

Several high profile commissions have been instrumental in placing Beamish’s name before a wider public. Notable amongst these are her 2001 Proms commission, the oratorio Knotgrass Elegy and a further work heard at the Proms in 2003, the Trumpet Concerto written for Håkan Hardenberger. There have also been concertos for several other prominent musicians including a Violin Concerto for Anthony Marwood, two concertos for her own instrument, the viola, a Cello Concerto for Robert Cohen and The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone, for saxophonist John Harle. This latter work has been recorded on the BIS label as have several others of her works (see reviews on Musicweb). Three discs have been issued so far with plans for further recordings on the same label.

In recent years Sally Beamish has participated in a joint composer in residency scheme with the Scottish and Swedish chamber orchestras, a post shared with Swedish composer Karin Rehnqvist. This has generated four major commissions over a four-year period. Current projects include an orchestral score commissioned by BBC Scotland for the television series "Writing Scotland" as well as a Double Concerto for clarinettist Michael Collins and violinist Isabelle van Keulen and a Flute Concerto for Sharon Bezaly. The coming months will see the premiere of a Percussion Concerto for Evelyn Glennie and a tango based work, Takes Two, for accordionist James Crabb and cellist Robert Irvine.

A complete list of Sally Beamish’s works can be found on her web pages at the Scottish Music Centre

CT Were you exposed to music very early in life?

SB Yes, my mother is a violinist and my father an amateur flautist. His family are very musical and there was a lot of singing and chamber music in the house.

CT At what age did you start to play the viola and compose?

SB My mother taught me to read and write music when I was 4, and that was when I started composing. I began piano at 5 and violin at 9, changing to viola when I was 15 (and joining the NYO), but returning to violin for my first year at the Royal Northern College of Music.

CT You have stated on numerous occasions that you consider yourself first and foremost a composer rather than a violist. Was this a conscious decision and if so when was it made?

SB I always knew composing was my true means of expression and I always intended to play the viola as a means to support myself while composing. But after studying viola with Bruno Giuranna in Germany I became much more interested in the viola and started doing very stimulating work, including the Raphael Ensemble, Academy of St Martins, and most importantly London Sinfonietta and Lontano, which was where I learnt a lot of compositional skill. But it became harder and harder to devote time to composition and in the end I had to make a definite decision and cut right back on playing. This was made easier by the fact that the viola on generous loan to me was stolen in 1989.

CT What and whom were the principal musical influences on you during your formative years and musical education?

SB My father worked for Philips record company and used to bring back records for technical checks. I would listen to some of these over and over again – in particular Malcolm Arnold’s Tam O' Shanter, and the Walton Viola Concerto played by Primrose. My mother played in an early production of Peter Grimes at Sadler’s Wells and took me along to rehearsals. When I was 15 I was introduced to Lennox Berkeley, who gave me enormous encouragement right into my twenties.

CT During your early years as a professional violist what do you feel you were able to draw from your experiences of playing with ensembles such as Lontano and the London Sinfonietta?

SB Some of the music was conducted by the composer, so I was working with people like Oliver Knussen and Berio, both of whom agreed to look at my scores. Knussen gave me a series of lessons on train journeys between concerts and these were the only regular tuition I ever had. I also learnt what it means to play a new piece of music and how important it is that the material is well prepared and well written for the instruments.

CT You have said that your decision to concentrate on composition came about as a result of your viola being stolen. At the time did you feel that fate was playing a part here?

SB I decided to put it down to fate. I knew I had to start composing seriously, and this seemed to be a good moment. I was shattered by the loss of the viola and I wanted to make something good come of it.

CT Stylistically, your music can cover a remarkably wide range with elements of jazz, folk and world music all rubbing shoulders with your "classical" voice. Has this integration been a naturally evolving process for you?

SB I have always been rather a ‘sponge’ when it comes to outside influences and this includes all kinds of music as well as art, film and literature. I started to paint in 1992 and this was very enriching for my composing. In 2002 I also started to write seriously and I am now beginning to incorporate my own texts into my music.

CT How do works usually start for you and what is your process of composition?

SB My works nearly always start with a commission, so to some extent the form and content is dictated. I often enjoy a close working relationship with the player for whom I’m writing, and sometimes they might even suggest an idea for the piece, as in the case of Anthony Marwood, who suggested I base his violin concerto on Remarque’s novel ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’.

I start with a plan, in words, like a programme note, then invent the themes and chord structures I need for it. Once I have this outline, I can start to ‘colour’, and that’s where the creative bit really starts.

CT Following your move to Scotland in 1989 did you feel that your new surroundings had an immediate impact on your music?

SB Culturally I immediately found Scotland very stimulating – there is a strong sense of heritage in the arts, and this is linked to the incredible surroundings, and the feeling of community and mutual support. And there are far more opportunities in a small country – one is immediately more ‘visible’.

CT Are there any particular works that you consider to be pivotal in your output?

SB Certainly ‘No, I’m not Afraid’ (1989), which was my first large-scale work (for narrator, strings, oboe and harp). That piece gave me the confidence to become much more ambitious in my forms and structures. I continue to use words as a starting point for many of my pieces, even if they are not spoken or sung – sometimes they simply serve as a template. And then the Violin Concerto (1995), which marked a freeing up of my harmonic style. I had a lesson with Birtwistle on this piece, which was a life-changing experience.

CT In what way was it life changing?

SB Birtwistle opened my eyes to the possibilities of layering in orchestration - before that I had been quite conservative and cautious. Since that lesson I have taken a more dramatic approach to orchestration, creating energy and tension by using instrumental colour and more adventurous rhythms.

CT Your Prom commission Knotgrass Elegy raised the question of environmental issues. Have such issues always been a preoccupation for you?

SB Yes, but it was Graham Harvey’s book ‘The Killing of the Countryside’ that moved me to build an oratorio on the theme. In the book he tells the powerful story of a humble weed, whose destruction sets off a chain of loss, causing untold damage. I then commissioned a text from poet Donald Saunders, which is a kind of modern-day parable.

CT Amongst other composers whom do you particularly admire?

SB Amongst living composers, I think the ones that have influenced me most have been Mark Anthony Turnage and Oliver Knussen. But I admire lots of others too.

CT Given that you lead a busy life as a mother as well as a composer do you have to discipline yourself to particular work patterns?

SB Yes, when the children were small I booked a babysitter for 4 hours every morning. That was a good discipline. In fact I find it harder to be focused now that I have more time and I’m not paying anyone!

CT How would you succinctly sum your music up?

SB I think it is pictorial, but also based on established forms. It is always tonal, but sometimes dissonant in an expressionistic kind of way. There is a lot of jazz and a lot of Celtic influence. Eclectic?

CT Looking to the future, are there any works that you have a burning desire to write given the right opportunity?

SB I’d love to write a ballet.

Christopher Thomas



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