Thursday, December 30, 2010

Errollyn Wallen, 4: 'My great hero is Bach, a composer who I feel never wrote more than he had to'

[The Errollyn Wallen Song Club as Featured in The Times (of London) Thursday November 25th 8.00PM]

This is a series based on our December 24, 2010 interview by phone with the composer, pianist and vocal artist Errollyn Wallen. She was born in the Central American country of Belize, but moved to London at age 2 and considers herself “practically an English national.” In Part 3 we learned about two major events in her life this year, the Errollyn Wallen Song Club and Errollyn's 8-day climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro with a roll-up piano, to raise money for charity. Part 1 is Dec. 27, Part 2 is Dec. 28 and Part 3 is Dec. 29, 2010. Part 4 follows:

I see you have some operas commissioned?
Yes, I do. Now I'm working on two. I'm working on an opera for Cautionary Tales, which is a short opera aimed at children but it's eminently suitable for grown-ups! It is by Hilaire Belloc, one of those Victorian/Edwardian writers. And they are very tongue-in-cheek moral fables about children that come to terrible ends. For instance, there's a story about Rebecca Who Slammed Doors, And Perished Miserably! So things happen! Children do things and, you know, Jim Gets Eaten By A Lion When He Runs Away From His Nurse! Things like that! It's a bizarre and implausible moral, but it's great fun to write! I'm just orchestrating that now. That will go on in March at Opera North, which is based in the North of England.
That's very soon!
Very soon!
Then you have another one you're working on?
Yes, I'm working on an opera called YES and it's with a librettrist called Bonnie Greer, who is actually an American living in the U.K. That is set very much in our time now in the United Kingdom, and looks at what it is to live in multicultural Britain at this time, and all the tensions that that involves. That's a much more political piece, based on a real incident that happened in the U.K. Just before the elections.
Is it dealing with immigration issues?
Yes, that's part of it, but we're broadening it out to address issues: What is History? Who are the English? And so on...
Yes, it's big philosophical questions, but my challenge is to keep it dramatic and still have sympathy in rounded characters. And then, there's another one that's in the pipeline that I'm discussing at the moment. So the next few years will see a lot of stage works.
Are you really enjoying this stage of your career?
Yes, very much, because I know I've worked hard to acquire technique that enables me to express what I need to, in any instrument and in any voice. My great hero is Bach, a composer who I feel never wrote more than he had to, and yet was able to bring his craft to bear on moments where he wanted to impart something – a sense of magnificence, of living, really! The point of being a composer is to really get to the point where your craft can serve the expression. You start to realize that often the most powerful moments in music are the simplest, but you have to be able to understand the motion and energy of time moving in space and sound. It's quite a profound thing, but it takes years to get to the point where you keep on top of your technique in a way.
Right! It must be quite a sense of accomplishment to be able to do that, to be able to feel like you're doing something like what Bach was doing as far as achieving a sense of magnificence?
Well, I understand what you have to aim to, and I feel like, to be honest, it's a constant, daily thing. So it's only by looking back at, say, 20 years ago that I can see how far I've come. But I still feel there's further to go. I do know that I have worked very hard to achieve, and it's not just on technique, but it's trying to ask yourself questions about how you can be most truthful and honest in music, and accept the gift you have, but yet really marshal all your talent to try and say something worth saying! It's a subtle thing in a way, so it's not that you have a sense of accomplishment. It's more that you realize you are able to ask the right questions! It's all that!

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