Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
There were several triggers — playing the piano, hearing Chopin in my ballet class, twiddling the knobs on the radio and discovering the range of classical music, a history teacher at school suggesting it as a possible career. My uncle told me I was a composer when I told him about the sounds in my head.
Eventually it became an inner necessity to compose.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
J S Bach is my greatest inspiration. Gemini (founded by Ian Mitchell) gave me my first commission and I am continually learning from the musicians, collaborators and institutions I work with.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The greatest challenge is always how to manage one’s time —and finances — in order to do the work.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
The challenge is to create a work which extends my range of musical thinking whilst also satisfying the brief of the commission.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
I relish composing for specific performers — it always shapes the music. Every performer is unique and the challenge is to compose a work which lets the performer/s shine whilst bringing them something fresh and new.
Which works are you most proud of?
I have composed so much music. I am fond of all my works and am constantly surprised how the circumstances in which they were composed can have no influence on the finished work. I also favour some of my simple songs which I perform at the piano myself. What’s up Doc? is a one-off and composed in a matter of minutes. I love performing it.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Ella Fitzgerald, Daniil Trifonov, J.S.Bach, Stravinsky, Ravel. So many more..!
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Hearing my works performed at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, knowing that they were being broadcast simultaneously to a billion people around the world was overwhelming. The work which also provided total concert experience was the première of Carbon 12 : A Choral Symphony for Welsh National Opera at the Millennium Centre, Cardiff. Carbon 12 is an oratorio about the history of coal mining in South Wales. The librettist, John Binias and I felt that we had achieved something bigger than ourselves. Everyone in that concert hall was somehow part of the story we were telling onstage.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
When you think you’re done, give it 10 per cent more.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
In sensational health after representing Belize in the 100m at the Olympics
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being by the sea or in the sea. Preferably with family and friends.
What is your most treasured possession?
I’m not very good at treasuring possessions. I do always need a piano however and I have a very nice Steinway upright. I also love my copy of the CD, ERROLLYN, framed by NASA. It orbited the earth 186 times.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Thinking, composing, playing the piano, singing, eating. I ADORE recording too!
Errollyn Wallen is a multi award-winning Belize-born British composer and performer. Her prolific output includes twenty-two operas and a large catalogue of orchestral, chamber and vocal works which are performed and broadcast throughout the world. She was the first black woman to have a work featured in the Proms. Errollyn composed for the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games 2012, for the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees, a specially commissioned song for the climate change conference, COP 26, 2021, and a re-imagining of Jerusalem for BBC’s Last Night of the Proms 2020.
(This interview first appeared on The Cross-Eyed Pianist in 2015)