In 2017 when Janet Arms and I were running the 20/20 chamber ensemble at the Hartt School, I contacted Eleanor Alberga (1949- ) to see if we could do the U.S. premiere of her work “Animal Banter” for flute, guitar, and bass. She is a delightful composer of Jamaican heritage who also consented to stream an interview during the stage change of the concert, and I was thrilled to learn more about her. Her string quartets are really fantastic-here is an excerpt of one of them, and an interview with her (not ours) from crosseyedpianist.com. #blackcomposers
Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
At the age of 5, having heard classical music on the radio and piano lessons at my mother’s school, I asked my parents if I could have piano lessons. After piano lessons started I decided I wanted to be a concert pianist and a few years later I began writing pieces for myself.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Contemporary dance. People, songs, dance and the landscapes of my native Jamaica. The music of Bela Bartok. Later also the music of J S Bach, Birtwistle, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Schoenberg, Robert Cohan.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
Two things: issues of race and gender in as much as they have defined me in the minds of others.
Not having had what is considered a thorough and proper university education as a composer.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
Deadlines; they are as energising as they are terrifying.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
Finding out and knowing about the special strengths of particular soloists or groups. I found that working with, for instance, Mary Plazas whilst writing my opera was a big influence in how that role was shaped. Ditto writing my first violin concerto for my violinist husband, Thomas Bowes.
Of which works are you most proud?
‘Snow White’ as it was my first piece for that size of orchestra. Far from being intimidated I felt instantly at home.
My three String Quartets I can now look back on with great pride. I managed three quite substantial pieces I feel, and that they are all very different from each other pleases me especially now that they have been recorded.
The Opera ‘Letters of a Love Betrayed’ because it so clearly moved people when they saw and heard it.
I was also proud of ‘Arise, Athena!’ which I wrote for the last night of the BBC Proms.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
I have a language which ranges from things clearly derived from my Jamaican childhood and heritage through to the sort of sounds people more often associate with modernism. There always seems to be a sliding scale of the proportions of these two extremities. This has been a problem for some people – even me – at times. But I’m now quite relaxed about this. I write to be me.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
There are those I’ve admired from afar; composers Schoenberg, Berg, Bartok, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Messiaen, JS Bach; pianists Martha Agerich, Sviatoslav Richter, conductors Kleiber and Furtwangler amongst others.
And then those who I’ve actually had the pleasure of hearing or getting to know or working with – Jeremy Huw Williams, Mary Plazas, Thomas Bowes, Joseph Swensen, Joanna MacGregor, Peter Ash, Harrison Birtwistle to name a few.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Sensing an audience has been moved or thrilled or for whom one senses time has stood still during a performance. All three at once is good.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Be serious about what you are doing. Be persistent, dedicated, disciplined and passionate. Be yourself – that’s the tricky bit.
With her 2015 Last Night of the Proms opener ARISE ATHENA! Eleanor Alberga cemented a reputation as a composer of international stature. Performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Chorus and conducted by Marin Alsop, the work was heard and seen by millions.
Her music is not easy to pigeon-hole. The musical language of her opera LETTERS OF A LOVE BETRAYED (2009), premiered at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury stage, has drawn comparisons with Berg’s Wozzeck and Debussy’s Pelleas, while her lighter works draw more obviously on her Jamaican heritage and time as a singer with the Jamaican Folk Singers and as a member of an African Dance company. But the emotional range of her language, her structural clarity and a fabulously assured technique as an orchestrator have always drawn high praise.