Down to the Bone

Composer Sally Beamish. Promotional images licensed for 3rd Party Editorial and Marketing Use.Composer Sally Beamish
Composer Sally Beamish. Promotional images licensed for 3rd Party Editorial and Marketing Use.Composer Sally Beamish

Composer Sally Beamish writes for a whole variety of instruments, but she tells Bernard Lee, there is a constant thread running through

WHETHER writing music for three flutes (doubling alto flute and piccolo), baroque strings, Scottish fiddle and clarsach (harp), accordion, marimba/ percussion, saxophone and four saxophones or, more regularly, viola, cello and piano, Sally Beamish is a composer who can seemingly do nothing wrong.

“From the earliest age, my connection to music was through song so I think there is strong lyrical thread running through it,” she volunteers as a common denominator, a thread that links the music she writes for such disparate instruments.

“I also like to think it has a feel of chamber music, even my largest orchestral scores, so that individual voices interact with each other,” she adds.

It is chamber music by her, St Andrew’s Bones for horn, violin and piano, that can heard tonight (Thursday) at an Ensemble 360 concert in the Crucible Studio, the St Andrew in question being the patron saint of Scotland where Beamish has lived since 1990.

Describing the 10-minute work penned in 1997, she says: “It was inspired by the ruins of St Andrew’s Cathedral (in Fife) which rise up like a skeleton against the sea and sky. The piece draws on the 13th century Hymn to St Andrew and is angular and spare in texture.”

A more recent work, Reed Stanzas (her third string quartet), was written for the Elias Quartet who premiered it at the 2011 BBC Proms, following a request from Elias second violin Donald Grant – wearing his Scottish fiddler’s cap at one of his traditional music concerts.

“It was the first time I had heard him at one and when he asked me to write a piece for the quartet it made sense to use his skills as a folk musician, so Scottish music is at the centre of it, but it also references Arabic music and birdsong,” says the London-born composer.

“I have always composed, since my mother taught me to read music when I was four, but it didn’t occur to me that it was something I could do as a career so I studied violin and viola at college (RNCM) with intention of playing professionally and composing in my spare time.”

Having joined the highly successful Raphael Ensemble in its early days as a viola player, a series of events eventually lead to her moving to Scotland and becoming a full-time composer.

“I began to be asked to write music by my colleagues and received a few professional commissions. I also had my first baby and touring with the ensemble was proving increasingly difficult,” she says.

“My husband was keen to return to his native Scotland, but I wasn’t sure until my viola was stolen in a burglary and that was the deciding factor.”

Reed Stanzas, commissioned by the BBC for the Elias, won Beamish a coveted Royal Philharmonic Society award and here, perhaps, is the root of her success as a composer, she writes to the strengths of the people who commission works from her.

Not exactly ’unknowns’: cellist Steven Isserlis, violist Tabea Zimmermann, trumpet player Hakan Hardenberger, percussionist Colin Currie, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Fretwork, to name some.

“I like the relationship with performers and being given a detailed brief – to know what’s required. It gives me the freedom to be creative, while knowing the boundaries. It’s always interesting to collaborate in different situations,” says the composer who has also penned music for film, TV and amateur companies.

She has a down to earth retort to the suggestion that a large number of concerto and concertante works for a wide range of instruments in her output shows a partiality, generally, towards works for viola and cello, also percussion and saxophones.

“I respond to commissions, so I write what I’m asked to write. Most of my commissions come directly from players and it sometimes happens that because I‘ve written for a particular instrument, other players of it are interested in a new piece.”

So does she find it easy bridging the seemingly sizeable leap from writing for viola to accordion and, for that matter, period instruments?

“I work closely with performers to find out what works, what’s natural for them. Similarly, with period instruments; I make sure I know exactly what the instruments of the specified period can do and what they sound like.”