Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background?
Errollyn Wallen: I was born in Belize a came to England when I was two. I grew up in London and was educated in Tottenham, London, before going to a boarding school in Sussex. I studied dance seriously and spent some time at the Dance Theater of Harlem before going to Goldsmiths’ to read music. I did a Masters in Composition at King’s College, London and an M. Phil at King’s College, Cambridge. Before becoming a full-time composer I worked as a keyboard player with various bands, ran my own recording studio and was tap dancing musical hostess/composer on a tv game show including Anthony H Wilson and Caroline Aherne.
SC: Can you describe your new work to us?
EW: The Negro Speaks of Rivers is a setting of Langston Hughes’ poem of that name. I remember that starting The Negro Speaks of Rivers came easily, as the vivid imagery of the poem is so inspiring. I have drawn on a variety of techniques and textures, all imbued with the language of the blues. I was guided by the knowledge that Langston Hughes’ own work was imbued with folk and jazz rhythms.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
EW: I work in a variety of ways. Some works start at the piano and some start away from it. I am always thinking about music so pre-planning and problem solving are going on all the time in my subconscious. I always use the piano to check every note; for me, every note in a work has to earn its place.
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
EW: It is very important to know who I am composing for so that I have their sound in my mind. Atmosphere in music can be created in many ways and the sound of voices are uniquely expressive. It was most important for me to hear The Ebor Singers before I composed The Negro Speaks of Rivers.
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
EW: I am not very good at describing my music but the attitude behind it is that I want the listener to feel what I feel and to hear what I hear and to come along on a marvellous adventure with me.
SC: What motivates you to compose?
EW: Composing is and has always been part of my physiology. As a little girl I composed before I knew what composing was. Composing is my default mode.
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
EW: This is a very rich time in composing with composers working in a multitude of ways. There is a greater sense of freedom than when I was studying — which is healthy and to be encouraged.
I am great friends and admirers of Joe Cutler, Andrew Poppy, Jonathan Cole and Charles Amirkhanian. Through Charles I met Alvin Lucier and Pauline Oliveros who have utterly original ways of looking at the world. I miss Pauline — she died last year.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
EW: I would love to have a whiskey with Stravinsky! Evidently he said, “My God, so much I like to drink Scotch that sometimes I think my name is Igor Stra-whiskey.” I would like to talk with Stravinsky about life. He was such a hustler.
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
EW: Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, 48 Preludes and Fugues (which I play at the piano most days), Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Ella Fitzgerald singing anything, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Ravel’s String Quartet, Puccini’s Tosca, Earth Wind and Fire’s rendition of Gotta Get You Into my Life. I will never ever get bored of the 48, so that has to be my ultimate selection.
SC: …and a book?
EW: That is almost too tough. However, I would like to take the time to re-read Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the Latin and English.
SC: …a film?
EW: Am I allowed the boxed set of The Sopranos..? A TV series that is truly Shakespearian in its scope.
SC: … and a luxury item?
EW: A Steinway grand piano, Model D.