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New star remains perfectly composed

One way or another it has been a big year for composer Helen Grime.

Only last Sunday one of her new pieces for flute and harp, being toured around Scotland by the duo Hoot, was played at the RSAMD.

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A fortnight ago, her stunning orchestral work Virga, which has been reaping international acclaim for the 29-year-old, was played to huge effect in Edinburgh and Glasgow by Stephane Deneve and the RSNO. Earlier in the year, this writer sat gobsmacked by another of her new pieces, Seven Pierrot Miniatures, a series of near-aphoristic miniatures commissioned and performed by the Hebrides Ensemble, and demonstrating the quintessence of Grime’s distinctive art: her ability to condense an enormous amount of music into a very small space yet characterise it by translucence of texture, with clarity of thought and expression. She has been commissioned by Glasgow University to write the prestigious McEwan commission for next year and has a number of American commissions, including one for the Santa Fe Music Festival in 2012. Rather sooner than that, a week tomorrow, her latest piece, Everyone Sang, will receive its world premiere in Glasgow’s City Halls, as part of a blockbuster 75th birthday concert by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra that will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. It is no exaggeration to say that the keenest eyes and ears in the music business are on Grime. She is a top-drawer, major composer, tough and uncompromising in her musical language, yet not remote or inaccessible, as audiences who listened to her spoken introductions to Virga at its recent Scottish premiere performances will have noted. Internationally, she has been well spotted. Virga has been played at the London Proms. Pierre Boulez heard it, met the composer and took her music to France where he conducted it with the Orchestre de Paris. Conductors Yan Pascal Tortelier, Daniel Harding and Oliver Knusse -- a big influence and a composer with whose gleaming, jewelled clarity of orchestration Grime feels a natural affinity --have all been drawn to her work. But it’s not just the interest of major league conductors, the calibre and quality of new commissions, or the increasing volume of performances that make 2010 a significant year for this pleasant young woman, who appears to eschew sensationalism, and is matter of fact and understated in her expression. Just recently it was announced that Grime, raised and educated in Scotland by a family with very strong Scottish connections, has been signed up by Chester Music, one of the most prestigious UK publishing houses, and a company with influential global connections through its international arm, Music Sales. Despite the excitement of performances and commissions, this contract, signed in September, is presumably a highly significant development in the career of Grime, who first came to our attention seven years ago when she was soloist in the first performance (in Edinburgh) of her Oboe Concerto, a new work that announced the arrival of an individual, potent young voice on the composition scene. “This is a major step forward for me,” she says of her new contract, which will see 14 of her compositions published by Chester. “Because they are such an international group -- Music Sales has sister companies all over the world -- it’s a very good contract for getting more performances and becoming more known abroad.” But, characteristically, it’s not the kudos and prestige of having the contract, with all of its ramifications, that particularly engages Grime’s interest. It’s much more basic, more practical. “It’s immediately a lot less pressure on me. Chester will take over my scores once I’ve finished them. They’ll deal with the parts, the hire materials and promoting the piece, selling it and getting performances: all those stressful and time-consuming things that go along with writing the music. “They’ll also deal with the commission fees and every aspect of the administrative tasks that were actually becoming quite a pressure. They will do the proof-reading and the editing. They’re in contact with the orchestra, arranging all the little but essential things, like travel fees. They will retrieve the rest of the commission fee for me. They’ll be in contact with the conductor; they’ll be the contact with the orchestra, and they will deal with the hire and distribution of the parts.” Listening to that list, one realises just how much work and effort falls on composers themselves if they don’t have an agent or a publisher, as Grime well knows. “Until September, when I got this contract, I had to do most of it myself.” As with many composers, she had help from other agencies, such as the British Music Information Centre, The Society for the Promotion of New Music and New Voices. “I gave them my scores, they put nice covers on them, distributed them and did a bit with the sending of parts. But I still paid for my own scores, still dealt with all those contractual things, like commission fees.” The business of proof-reading, she says, was a nightmare, and a millstone now blessedly relieved by the publishing contract. “I had to do it all, the whole editing side,” she reflected. “You just cannot do it all sufficiently on your own. You need other pairs of eyes. You just don’t have the time: it can take two months to do it.” And now? The sense of relief and near-elation in Grime’s voice is almost tangible. “I produce the score, get it to a certain standard and send it to them. They tidy it up; they edit it; they come back with lots of questions. They proof-read it two or three times and then send it out to the conductor.” And all this gives Grime time and space: time to write the music, time to write her lectures for the Royal Holloway University in London, where she is in her first year as lecturer and teacher in composition; and time to talk to people like me, who nose their way into her life to ask about her latest composition. It’s called Everyone Sang, draws its title from the war poem by Siegfried Sassoon, and is a short orchestral piece which, she says, is “very different” to Virga. The title, she says, followed the composition (not uncommon with this composer). “I had been thinking a lot about melody; and this is all my own melody. I imagined the orchestra to be made up of many voices, and melody was very much the central idea. I wanted them to be one voice that could then break into many voices. “It’s quite a celebratory piece, though not an obvious ‘birthday’ piece. It’s quite joyful at the beginning, and towards the end some ecstatic parts are juxtaposed with more melancholic, muted sections. It opens with a very long melody in violins, passed between the first and second violins. “This is the source of all the other melody in the piece. At times it becomes very wild, unpredictable and fast, with lots of flourishes; and at other times it’s very slow-moving, distant and quite sad. I did feel that the central themes of the poem were quite close to what I was trying to say in the music: a sense of an out-flowing of song, with a fine line between hope and futility.”   BBC SSO 75th anniversary concert, City Halls, Glasgow, December 2, 7pm.

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