Helen Grime is one of the most striking compositional voices to emerge in British classical music in the 21st century. Alongside works written and concerts curated by fellow Britons Thomas Adès, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, and Oliver Knussen, Helen and her music play an integral role in opening the new classical season.
We spoke to the composer about her early aspirations in music to being commissioned by the LSO and curating a programme for the Britten Sinfonia.
‘No-one said ‘it’s actually quite unusual that girls should be doing this’…’
Why does a schoolkid in Edinburgh in the 1990s choose to become a classical composer?
‘Music was just so much a part of my family life. I heard classical music from a really young age, my grandparents were music teachers – it was all I really knew. But I loved art as well, and I was also really interested in archaeology. I was just lucky to be offered composition lessons at school from quite a young age. I had my first lesson when I was about 12 with Sally Beamish. It didn’t occur to me that it was odd or even that it would be difficult. No-one said ‘it’s actually quite unusual that girls should be doing this’.’
How do you feel about your fanfare launching Simon Rattle’s first LSO concert?
‘I’m trying not to think too closely about it or I’d start having a panic attack! Of course it’s a great honour. It’s daunting as well, obviously, to be the only new piece in the programme. But it’s also a wonderful, wonderful opportunity and for a concert of new or newish music to be sold out like this is, is a fabulous thing – a great statement to make.’
Will it have any relationship to your other LSO commission?
‘Yes – it’s going to be the first part of the longer piece. So as well as being the opening of this concert, the germs of all the other movements are included in it as well. I was thinking of something that’s sparkling, that’s celebratory, but which also has darker undertones and hints of the piece which is to come.’
How far advanced is the longer piece?
‘I’m working on the second and third movements at the moment. It’ll change a lot, I’m sure – it’s a very organic process. The section that we’ll hear in September has a huge bearing on what happens in the rest of the piece, though. There’s a visual artist whose work has inspired me – but I won’t say who it is until I’ve had a chance to tell them myself!’
Is this the first time that Rattle’s conducted your music?
‘It is. But actually, the first orchestral piece I ever wrote, Virga in 2007, was for the LSO, and the LSO played it again in a presentation concert for Pierre Boulez in about 2010. So writing another piece for them 10 years on feels like a nice connection.’
Did Boulez react to your music?
‘He did actually – he conducted it in Paris the following year, which was really amazing! His agent spoke to me and said ‘he actually thought it was quite good’ and then he programmed it!’
Your personally curated Britten Sinfonia programme is anchored by the music of Purcell. Is he important to you?
‘They very much wanted it to be about British music, so I decided to take it further back than Elgar. I love Purcell; he’s a composer to whom I feel very close and who I was actually listening to a lot when I wrote my piece Into the Faded Air. Then there was this piece A Purcell Garland, which seemed a nice way of including three composers with whom I have a close personal connection, and whose music I admire very much: Colin Matthew, Oliver Knussen and George Benjamin.’
There’ve clearly been many influences in your career so far: have they helped or hindered the emergence of your own voice?
‘Sally Beamish taught me a long time ago now, but she was so supportive about me finding my own voice. With Boulez, by the time he conducted my piece it was three years after I’d written it – I’d moved on. I’ve always had quite a clear idea about what I want my music to be and how I want it to evolve, and hopefully it’ll eventually get to where I want it to be. But at the moment I have a very clear idea of where I am.’
Hear the world premiere of Helen Grime’s Fanfares in the 2017-2018 season opening concert with Sir Simon Rattle and LSO on Thursday 14 September, her personally curated programme as part of This is Rattle on Wednesday 20 September, and the world premiere of her new work for the LSO commissioned by the Barbican on Thursday 19 April.