Interview with Shirley J. Thompson OBE

Posted on: 08 July 2020

Composer of our special 60th anniversary celebration commission in collaboration with BSO Resound


Shirley J. Thompson OBE is a celebrated composer, cultural activist, academic, violinist and film maker. Fusing musical elements of modern Britain her compositions have featured at national events in a series of high-profile commissions, and have been described as ‘beautiful and powerful’ (Le Figaro).

We've commissioned a new work to mark our 60th anniversary partnering two radical figures in modern British music: composer Shirley J. Thompson and disabled-led ensemble BSO Resound. The commission brief is to celebrate how far society has evolved since the emergence of the Independent Living Movement in the 1960s, which was established to empower lives of disabled people worldwide.

We spoke with Shirley to find out more about her life as a composer.

What inspired you to get into composing?

I started composing at school for fun, and composed a piano trio, (described latterly in the style of Mozart!) for my A Level Music group. We gave a public performance of this piece at the local music academy summer concert and I received a very warm response. I felt great about my music being liked and spoken of highly by the audience.

What would you say your style of music is as a composer? Who or what are your main influences?

The nearest reference to an aspect of my style is possibly – post-Stravinky’s Rite of Spring.  I find this work profoundly moving and compelling. However, I’m equally influenced by tens of composers from the Baroque period, including Bach, to the present day.

Which works are you most proud of?  You have quite a history of being commissioned for some very high-profile anniversaries. Tell is about them.

Several of my works have gained notice, possibly when I Ieast expected it! I am very proud of the fact that my co-scored ballet PUSH toured to every major opera house worldwide, including Sydney Opera House, the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, and the New York City Center, as well as the major European houses from London’s Royal Opera House and Théâtre des Champs-Elysées to Teatro Real in Madrid. I’m also very proud of my work, New Nation Rising: A 21st Century Symphony for full orchestra, youth and adult choirs, solo singers & spoken word artist composed for HRH The Queen to commemorate her Golden Jubilee. I met HRH The Queen and HRH Prince Phillip on their visit to east London when my London Symphony Anthem from the symphony, was performed in her presence and featured on BBC News that day! In addition, the concept for the work, a 1,000-year history of London from 1066 featuring pivotal periods such as the Industrial Revolution, provided the framework for the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony.

Shirley started composing at school for fun © Joy Gregory

Over the last 10 years I have been concentrating on my Heroines of Opera series of chamber operas for solo singer/s, speaker/s, dance, video and orchestra that feature iconic women in history that have been mostly overlooked in mainstream historical narratives. This innovative series overturns the operatic convention of women in morally weaker roles or as femme fatales.  The series includes: The Woman Who Refused to Dance; Dido Elizabeth Belle; Sacred Mountain: Incidents in the Life of Queen Nanny of the Maroons; and Women of the Windrush.

Is your approach to the creative process of composition the mysterious product of instinct and intuition, or the consequence of a structured process? How do you harness your creativity? What compositional stages do you typically go through (reflection, inspiration, thematic, exploration)?

I certainly find the creative process intriguing. Every work requires a different approach and process. Quite often, the stimulus for a piece comes from an image I see or create in my mind’s eye. Often for me the hardest part of the creative journey is deciding on the ‘right’ materials to begin and then structure the work, in an analogous way that an architect might create.  Once I have these in place, I begin to develop the material that emerges through instinct and intuition. My creative process is a constant refinement of a selection of concepts from which the best fit emerges.

Describe your approach to this commission, how you start the creative journey?

I am very excited about this commission for BSO Resound and celebrating 60 years of the Independent Living Movement. I am presently researching the history of the movement, including the founders. I am looking at its strong relation to Allianz Musical Insurance. I will concentrate on the unique performance of each instrumentalist in BSO Resound. 

What conditions are conducive to your creativity as a composer? When are you most likely to have that flash of inspiration that takes you down a musical journey?

My ideas come from my imagination mostly: textures, resonances, motifs etc. I measure the strength of my ideas by the feeling of excitement I get when ideas are working. I like schedules and aim to do my creative work first thing in the morning, up until the early afternoon, if this is possible. The rest of the work day is usually taken up with meetings and varying kinds of bureaucracy.

What is the artistic challenge presented by the commission when composing for a specific theme and the specific palette of instruments presented by BSO Resound and of course during a pandemic?

I have always worked very well to the idea of specific themes, instruments and structures. I worked for several years composing music to picture and would compose to film and documentary briefs.  With this commission, some of the artistic issues have been decided for me so that I can concentrate on the musical aspects.

Shirley will concentrate on the unique performance of each instrumentalist in BSO Resound. © Kevin Clifford

What legacy do you hope to achieve for this new work?

I hope that the work will strongly highlight the history and impact of the Independent Living Movement as well as showcasing the fantastic instrumentalists in BSO Resound. I was totally unaware that it took a group, such as the Independent Living Movement, to make us more aware of issues faced by disabled people. We now have many facilities to empower disabled people in the UK enshrined in our legal framework and this is terrific.

Definitions concerned with mastery argue that creativity should be a daily habit, a skill that can be worked on and improved. All it takes is effort and persistence. On the other hand, the ‘mystery’ approach suggests creativity is a gift. What is your advice to would-be composers? Any tips or tricks of the trade you would like to share?

Yes, I believe that creativity is a daily habit and a skill that you improve on constantly. I believe you need to be gifted with the talent to compose music in the first instance. I tutor many student composers and I strongly advocate them finding their own artistic and music voice, rather than trying to sound like other artists.

Composing sounds like it could be an isolated and insular occupation. What do you do when not composing and how important this is to you as a composer?

I like to live a balanced life and believe that you need to feed the mind, body and spirit to create a good balance. I often meet up with friends for lunch, dinner or drinks, outside of our present social distancing environment! I also love to watch the major tennis tournaments, dramatic films and see productions at the theatre. I tend to be a fair-weather tennis-player!



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