Sally Beamish: collaborative artistry Jump to main content

Sally Beamish: collaborative artistry

Sally’s first music lessons were from her mother, the violinist Ursula Snow, when she was four years old. Her mother started her off reading and writing music just for fun, and she began to write her own tunes, populating the staves with images which made sense to her - flowers and little people for instance. As a young child, Sally learnt both the piano and the violin and was lucky enough to attend Camden School for Girls in London where the Head of Music, Peter Morgan, created plenty of opportunities for budding composers. Sally had already been attracted to the word ‘concerto’ and the special relationship between soloist, conductor, orchestra and audience. Indeed, her first orchestral work was a ‘piano concerto’ which lasted all of two minutes and was performed in an end-of-term concert when she was just twelve years old.

Sally says of her desire to compose, ‘I always knew that I would become a composer in the end. I am naturally very creative and have to create things myself, whether it is cooking, baking, writing or painting. For me, composing has always been about communicating - telling stories through music and expressing emotions.’ Sally’s time at Camden School for Girls enabled her to borrow instruments from school. Whenever a new instrumental teacher was engaged, she begged to sign up for the class. In those days, instrumental lessons were free and Sally had harpsichord lessons from Nicholas Kraemer and percussion with Heather Corbett, who is now Principal Percussionist in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. ‘Playing all these different instruments was a very good way in which to gain experience and has helped me enormously in my composing.’

Nicholas Kraemer has remained a big inspiration for Sally, and indeed they have kept in touch. ‘He has conducted several pieces of mine, and my recent concerto for the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet and Strings harks back to the Brandenburgs, to which he introduced me when I was fourteen.’ Following on from school, Sally attended the RNCM, and while studying the piano and viola, also continued her composing. Eventually, Sally joined the Raphael Ensemble and several contemporary music groups, including Lontano, and the London Sinfonietta. ‘I was still composing - not much - about a piece a year, usually at the suggestion of a player friend. But I was learning all the time from the music I was playing, and from the composers I worked with. Some of them agreed to look at my work including John Woolrich and Luciano Berio. Oliver Knussen gave me a whole course of lessons on train journeys between Sinfonietta concerts, and helped me to forge my own language. Looking back on it, there’s no better way to learn about composing, than by playing what other people have written. I played with the Philharmonia as a freelance extra and that was a real eye-opener - the oboists were just behind me, and I found myself fascinated by eavesdropping on grumbles about reeds and about oboe parts unsympathetically written.’

Up until the end of the eighties, Sally says she was having trouble writing anything longer than ten minutes or so. The turning point came in 1989 when a cellist in the Philharmonia, Mark Stephenson, Director of the London Musici, asked Sally to write background music for readings from the collection of poems No, I’m not Afraid by Ukrainian poet Irina Ratushinskaya. Sally decided to integrate the poems like spoken ‘songs’. She found that the structure of the six poems gave her a framework and the piece lasted twenty minutes. It gave her great confidence. Following the premiere of No, I’m not Afraid her viola was stolen and she took this as a sign that now was the time finally to concentrate on composition. With the backing of an Arts Council bursary, which enabled Sally to obtain childcare and a move to her husband’s native Scotland in 1990, Sally was set to pursue composing on a full-time basis.

Interestingly, Sally cites the move to Scotland as being fundamental in providing her with a springboard for her work as a composer. ‘Scotland provided fertile ground for music, possibly more so than England. Music is well enmeshed in the fabric of the culture.’ Her first commission was a symphony for the Iceland Symphony Orchestra as part of a Scottish-Icelandic exchange. They were looking for someone who had never written for an orchestra before, and apart from her two minute concerto when she was aged twelve, Sally had not done this. She says that it was terrifying. ‘I had never even written for brass or percussion. But from the first rehearsal I was hooked. Now I had the whole spectrum of colours.’

Because Sally has not been trained perhaps in the traditional sense as a composer, her composition does capture some unusual ideas. ‘My first symphony was wacky. It was simply not by the book.’ However, while Sally may feel a little undereducated when it comes to composition, because she has not studied the usual techniques, structure and orchestration and has learnt all these things by listening and doing, learning on her feet has enabled her to be very open to the inspiration that she draws from the world around her, including the performer. When writing, she has been influenced by a wide variety of composers, Oliver Knussen, John Woolrich, Luciano Berio, William Walton and Malcolm Arnold. She is also inspired by the players who frequently commission work from her. She builds up a sound picture of the player from spending time with him or her. For instance, when she wrote Tam Lin an oboe concerto for Douglas Boyd, she spent a day with him discussing what kind of piece it might be, and his input was very important on how it developed. ‘This became a pattern: an approach from a player I had worked with before, a dialogue about ideas, gaps in the repertoire, favourite techniques, what to avoid, and so on. We would brainstorm as to which orchestra might commission the work, pooling connections, useful contacts. When violinist Andrew Marwood commissioned a concerto, he sent me a novel - All Quiet on the Western Front - as a starting point. I know that other soloists like Philip Dukes for instance, like playing high up in the stratosphere on their instrument. When I write for singers, I need to know where they are comfortable, where their voices sit. When I worked with Sharon Bezaly, she showed me her new bass flute which was both inspiring to her and to myself. I really enjoy the collaborative approach. Sometimes when I have written a piece for a soloist, they ask if I can write some more into their part because they need to be more active. It is a truly collaborative process.’ Sally says that when she wrote The Lion and the Deer for Michael Chance, he wanted to be more challenged. Following discussion, more ornamentation was added to the score, inspired by Chance’s drawing her attention to the florid lines of Monteverdi.

Interestingly, Sally comments that she is tougher on the challenges that she sets string instruments, than instruments where she does not have first-hand experience of playing. She never plays the viola music which she has composed because she does not want to be limited by her own technique. She is also cautious about software - in her words ‘it can take you over.’ She tells the software what she wants: whether using a pencil or a mouse, the vision must come from the head, not from what the software does easily. For her, inspiration comes in everything around her. Colours are easier to hear, and can be imagined very readily. However, pitches are harder to capture.

One of the most important connections for Sally came from her playing days with the oboist Gregor Zubicky. They had met at Prussia Cove in 1987 and kept in touch. ‘He asked me for a piece for his group shortly afterwards. Later he became the Artistic Manager of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Through coincidence, the Swedish record label, BIS, also knew Sally’s work and this relationship has led to seven further recordings, with more planned. Gregor went on to appoint Sally as Resident Composer in a joint post with Swedish composer, Karin Rehnqvist, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

When asked which work is most important to her, Sally cites the second Viola Concerto (2002), which she composed for Tabea Zimmermann, and is based on the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer. The piece has special meaning since it was dedicated to the memory of Zimmermann’s husband, the conductor David Shallon, who was to have conducted the premiere, but died in 2001. Sally says ‘the rapport with the players and the inspiration I draw from their artistry is at the centre of everything I do. My music is player led.’

It is not just the soloist which inspires the composer. Sally comments that the landscape in Scotland is also inspiring and provides her with plenty of sound shapes. There is also the very strong musical tradition to draw on in Scotland. Recently, she has been writing for local schools, a full-length musical for the village theatre company, and film music which is a very

different experience again. For the composer working in film music, the work needs to be produced very fast. Indeed, Sally commented that the time pressure actually helps, and it is a really enjoyable experience.

Like many composers, Sally acknowledges that the second performance of a work is a problem. Press and marketing is all geared to the first performance making composing extremely challenging in the 21st century. In Sally’s view it is very difficult to make a living out of composing and feels that you should only consider music as a career if you cannot think of doing something else instead. For the budding composer, she firmly believes that the best way to become proficient is to experience and be active in every sphere of music making from singing to conducting and performing. The transition from score to performance is of ultimate importance. And Sally concludes this interview by referring back to her first child hood experiences of composing. ‘Maybe those little people I drew on the staves aged four, were significant - bringing sound from the silent score.’

For further details about Sally and her work, including a concert schedule and discography, visit