Interview with Composer Sally Beamish

Category: Classical Interviews Jazz Saxophone | Date posted: 7 February 2015

Author: William Upton

Article by William Upton
First published in Clarinet & Saxophone magazine, Autumn 2012 

Two years ago jazz was an alien language to composer Sally Beamish, who admits to having been unsure of the meaning of solo in jazz parlance. Today the preeminent British composer is collaborating with Branford Marsalis, the world’s most famous living saxophonist, on his upcoming project for string orchestra and jazz quartet. I spoke to Sally in St Andrews after Branford’s premiere of Albatross, her sonata for soprano saxophone and piano, at the World Saxophone Congress 2012.

Photo by Ashley Coombes

At first Sally and Branford seem an unlikely pair, the outspoken and controversial jazz musician from New Orleans, and the reflective composer from Stirlingshire with a genius for evocation, but it is soon apparent that they share the same rare drive for creativity and learning. In 2006 Sally won The Scotsman and Orange Short Story Award for her drama Housework. She paints, writes poetry and is always on the lookout for new inspiration, from folk music and bird song to sport and jazz. Branford made his name as a wunderkind working with Art Blakey and Lionel Hampton before performances with Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis led to his collaboration with the artist known as Sting. He has since risked much, exchanging dimly lit bars for bright auditoria to become one of the most high profile names in classical music, recently appearing as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic. They met when Branford performed Sally’s The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2006. When the unassuming composer introduced herself as Sally she took Branford by surprise, and since then their relationship has become one of most consistently fruitful in contemporary music, culminating in today’s premiere.

‘When I met Branford I was working on my third viola concerto (Under the Wing of the Rock)’, says Sally of the work she was inspired to rearrange for saxophone. ‘Just hearing Branford and getting hold of his CDs really influenced my writing so that when he performed Under the Wing of the Rock it already had his voice in it – it’s creeping into a lot of the things I do.’ she admits. After Branford asked her to compose string music to complement his own works for his quartet of piano, bass, drums and saxophone Sally surreptitiously enrolled in a course for jazz piano. After conquering the urge to run away during the first coffee break she discovered a new freedom. ‘At first I was mortified – improvising is so much against how classical musicians are trained – but gradually you just let go and it becomes about composing in real time. Now I’m composing about ten times as fast because I’m thinking "Yes, the first idea is very often the best one."’ During the writing for Albatross Sally even removed herself from her construct of systems, grids and techniques, transforming the language of jazz into her own inimitable style, the use of silence and juxtaposition permeating the work.

Sally’s point of departure for Albatross was not a flash of musical inspiration but a book of golfing terminology. For those who have not recently spent a week in St Andrews where golfing slang is de rigueur, an albatross is the name for achieving three shots under par – Branford is a keen golfer. In the first movement, 'Albatross', a motif curls around a single note like a ball dropping into a hole. The next, 'The Souls of Lost Sailors', is a nod to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and is a ghostly ‘sea lullaby’ in 6/8. 'Dance' is a duet in contrary motion, a response to the choreographed courtship ritual of the albatross, and the final movement, 'Bird Bone Whistle', opens with a flute like monologue for soprano, mimicking birdsong. Sally’s music has always been strongly programmatic and she recalls how in her first major composition, No, I’m Not Afraid for spoken word and chamber orchestra, she discovered that weaving poems through a piece gave her an overarching structure that had until then been missing from her work. ‘The word has always been very important to me and my very earliest attempts at composition were songs from age four or five. I was always linking notes to words.’

Sally’s mother was a violinist and taught her to read and write music from the age of four. Sally began 'composing' that year, drawing pictures of flowers and faces in a little book of manuscript which her mother played back to her. Since then she has taken inspiration from unlikely places. Since her move from London to Scotland, traditional Scottish pibroch music, grace notes and bird song have all entered her unique sound world. She embraces the Internet in her working process, dispelling the vision of composers as technophobic recluses scribbling away in sheds. ‘I used to be held up endlessly when I had ideas for pieces and had to go and research them’, says Sally. ‘I remember writing to the BBC to get recordings of bird song, but now of course it’s all there online - I love it.’ The third movement of Albatross, 'Dance', was inspire by a YouTube video, Black Footed Albatrosses Dancing In The Sunset (see below). ‘I think a lot of my music is very visual, because I tend to translate what I see into sound.’ The video is set to Sting's When we Dance. ‘It really influenced the harmonic language of Albatross - there’s a sharpened 11th in the Sting track and I just had to put it in, and I used the same key, E Major.’ Branford’s presence was just a happy coincidence.

The mention of a key centre might seem unlikely for 'contemporary' music, but Sally’s musical language has always been tonal and communicative. ‘You can go against it but it’s always there in people’s ears’, she tells me. Sally’s music shares the same dramatic intensity as that of fellow Scottish composer James MacMillan. She credits a third British composer, Oliver Knussen, as her biggest influence although she never studied composition. ‘I was listening to his Ophelia Dances the other day and I thought "Oh my goodness, I’m still visiting that piece and using those kinds of voicing."’ When Sally was writing her first commission she remembers seeking guidance from his music as ‘someone who knows what he’s doing.’ William Walton was another key figure in her development and his spirit is tangible in the viola writing for The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone. Before becoming a composer Sally was a violist so it is no surprise that Walton, who wrote one of the greatest pieces in the instrument’s repertoire, should have such a marked influence on her, but it was his Second Symphony to which she became addicted. British music on the continent is growing in reputation, but Sally remembers applying to study in both the UK and Italy in the 70s and being rejected for the tonality of her work. The Boulez effect is lessening and British composers such as Brian Ferneyhough have broken the Franco-German stranglehold on contemporary music – there is now a sense there that anything goes.

As nerves set in two weeks prior to the premiere of Albatross Sally, also an accomplished pianist, wanted to pull out of her first public performance for twelve years. Fortunately she persevered and her authoritative performance earlier this week was a highlight of the World Saxophone Congress. She gave up playing the viola in 1989 when her instrument was stolen, an event which encouraged her to focus on composing, but the tragedy was a catalyst – her success at composition had been a double-edged sword and she could already feel her playing slipping from time constraints. ‘I miss performing terribly. Having to learn the piano part for Albatross was a new thing, fitting it into my day, and I’m thinking that performing on the piano is something I would like to do more of.’ Having the laid-back Branford Marsalis as a duo partner eased her return to the platform, his innate sense of time and unique persona bringing something quite different to classical music. The two of them certainly seem to share a musical understanding, rehearsing out of each other’s line of sight and not concerning themselves with a run through on the day. ‘There’s a presence about him, and as long as you’re rhythmic yourself it’s going to be right because he just doesn’t play anything that’s not absolutely on the nail.’

The Clarinet and Saxophone Society of Great Britain was delighted to fund Albatross along with Creative Scotland and WSCXVI. For such a composer to have written three major works for our instrument is unprecedented and I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy of Albatross when Norsk Musikforlag complete its publication. Perhaps she will be present at the next World Saxophone Congress but in the meantime I look forward to the results of her on-going collaboration with Branford Marsalis and her continued success on the international stage.

About William Upton

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