Talking Heads: Errollyn Wallen

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Errollyn Wallen is a positive force to be reckoned with in music. One of the primary reasons for this is her refusal to be restricted or compromised on a number of fronts, chief among them musical style and diversity. Both have presented lasting historical problems within classical music, but a chat with Errollyn makes anything seem possible through collaboration, flexibility and inclusivity. All these qualities and more have led to an MBE, awarded in June 2007 for services to music.

One of her passions and major achievements – as well getting her music played in space (of which more later!) is her involvement with Snape Maltings’ Friday Afternoons project, inspired by Benjamin Britten but taking on a new lease of life since the composer’s centenary year in 2013. Wallen is the composer of a dozen new songs for this year’s project, which she has entitled MAP: Songs For Children Everywhere. The collection is inspired by her travels around the world, from her native Belize to Suffolk and from Palestine to Scotland, and received its premiere in May at Hull’s Albermarle Centre. For performances as part of Friday Afternoons, which takes place on Friday 16 November, choirs can download the music directly from the website, where there are guides to difficulty, duration and availability.

When Arcana calls to discuss the new cycle Wallen is jetlagged after a trip to Nebraska, but she proves an engaging and passionate interviewee. She talks enthusiastically about her early meetings with the team performing MAP. “It was really inspiring with the school children, and part of the joy of the experience has been accompanying them myself. I was up there as far back as February, and I also tried some songs with local children in Suffolk which went well. It’s been so inspiring, we enjoyed hearing their response and they enjoyed it early on in the process.”

Her approach was one of freedom. “I tried not to write too much down, and I tried to put myself into my child’s self, which is why I included the song It’s Quarter To Nine:

Children find everything interesting. For instance Lonely Dog was about how there was a dog just mooching around at a bus stop:

… while A Sweet Shop in Jenin was about a shop full of amazing sweets in Palestine:

The Baby came about through working with Mahogany Opera, asked a boy if there’s a baby in the house. In some ways I knew children would get the idea and feel of the songs and use them to make vivid pictures, and that they would love the sound of words. All the texts are my own except for this one, it was a lovely, bouncy rhythm:

She considers the musical advantages of working with children. “They don’t have the barriers that adults might do, and also the voices I was writing for were untamed so I had to think about that too. I don’t go too much below middle ‘C’ in the songs, but I was still trying out the ranges of things. Some would be stretching difficulty but I also included an unaccompanied song, so that it gets across the freshness of children’s voices. In Rice and Beans – and Plantain too! I was using a song I admire called Old Abraham Brown. The song was modelled on it, using the words “I like rice and beans”, and using canons to create counterpoints. He’s a person that’s always been on my mind, and it was thinking back to the singing we did at school.”

Wallen is a passionate advocate of choirs in schools. “It’s a way in for children. You’ve got the words, stories and atmospheres, and you have security of singing in a larger group. A good example is that at one of the schools we went to there was a girl who couldn’t sit still, but by the end the kids were focussed on learning and she joined in with all the singing.”

It was important to her that Hull, last year’s City of Culture, should be part of the project. “I particularly asked to go back”, she says. “I was involved in the PRS Foundation biennial, and I also worked with a residency with refugees and primary school children. I was made aware of just how much singing they didn’t do. Together we made a piece about water and Hull, a companion piece to The Mighty River. I said let’s go back to Hull to continue that legacy. There will be lots of schools performing at the Albemarle Centre, we had a workshop with works for solo cello. The youngest was three and the eldest was 70.”

The composer continues to be a frequent traveller. “You store up impressions,” she says. For MAP I thought I’ve been to so many different places that I wanted to share some of those moments. One of the songs, Star, came from a memorable drive in the highlands of Scotland where I saw nobody for a long time but then came across a group of 20 or so deer. I was thinking about how would I remember the moment, and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed composing it and am so pleased to have written it!”

While her travelling has so far remained Earth-bound, Wallen’s music has gone ahead of her into space – including her self-titled solo album ERROLLYN. “This happened because I met an astronaut in Houston called Steve MacLean”, she recalls. “He gave a talk to two of us which was great fun. He said he had always wanted to learn piano, but his children laughed at him. I taught him the bass line of my song Guru, so that he could improvise over it. He was about to go on to the Space Shuttle STS-115. We became very good friends, and later I made a short film with him called Falling. He took all three of my CDs to space with him, and NASA framed one of them for me. It was wonderful hearing his stories.”

FALLING by Errollyn Wallen and Dan Farberoff. Music performed live by Errollyn Wallen at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank, London from Errollyn Wallen on Vimeo.

Errollyn’s Ensemble X has a stirring motto: ‘We don’t break down barriers in music… we don’t see any’. Does she feel we are starting to get there in music across the board, or is there still much work to be done? “I think we’ve still got a long way to go”, she says with a hint of weariness, “but it can only be economics. It doesn’t make sense because I’ll go somewhere like Venezuela that has so much poverty and rich diversity in its music. We’ve got a perception problem with the wider public. The musicians know that’s not true. The funding cuts in schools do not help. We need to avoid losing generations of children who are talented and missing out. I do worry a lot, but when I see what Chineke! are doing the response is fabulous. Yet some people have been uncomfortable with them and that’s not the way to do it.

The positives are very clear, however. “It’s a joyfulness too”, she says. “I love playing with Chineke!, and Chi-chi Nwanoku, their founder, creates an atmosphere of true collaboration. It hasn’t been that easy with a lot of people, because when I started I was told what not to do. Everybody’s got to do what they want to do, and it’s wrong to hold them back.”

Chineke! and the emerging cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason are of course closely linked, and while Wallen welcomes his prominence there is a guarded warning too. “The world is ready for Sheku and it’s brilliant that he is there, but there have been Shekus before him. I think it’s a good time that people are waking up to the importance of diversity. What I have learned is that you cannot expect things to change unless you are taking part in them yourself. If you have grown up without seeing a person of colour you might have prejudices that are wrong. It’s not your fault but it’s important to recognise it.”

As regards writing for those of a much younger age, the importance of this task is not lost on her. “I still think composers and institutions think writing for children isn’t important, but it’s the future and sets what they remember. I wanted to be close to the action and see if I’d judged this right.”

For more information on Errollyn Wallen, you can visit her website

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