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British Composer Award for Inspiration – Sally Beamish

As part of this year’s British Composer Awards, hosted by BBC Radio 3 presenters Andrew McGregor and Sara Mohr-Pietsch, we were delighted to present two composers with Gift of BASCA Awards. These were given in recognition of contributions to new music throughout their careers.

Sally Beamish was presented with the British Composer Award for Inspiration, presented in association with the Music Publishers Association, in recognition of her long and distinguished career as a composer, violist and pianist. Sally is a multi-award-winning composer, who has composed a huge volume of music throughout her career, including for orchestra, chamber, film, theatre, ballet, and compositions for amateurs. She is currently composer-in-residence at the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, and co-directs the St. Magnus Composers’ Course in Orkney, where her wisdom and experience as a mentor has supported dozens of composers.

Ahead of the ceremony, we had a chat with Sally to find out about her career to date and what advice she can offer to composers.

How do you feel about receiving the British Composer Award for Inspiration from the composer community?

“This means so much to me – I am absolutely delighted and honoured to be considered an inspiration – having gained so much from the composers who generously gave me their time, support and advice when I was starting out. I’d like to mention in particular Martin Dalby, Oliver Knussen and Peter Maxwell-Davies, who have all recently died, and who were hugely important and inspirational to me.”

What has been the most pivotal moment in your career to date?

“Moving to Scotland. Being in a smaller, but vibrant, cultural scene opened up many possibilities in terms of collaborations and projects. And above all, the music and landscape were a revelation.”

What sparked your decision to develop a career as a composer, in addition to your existing profession as a violist?

“I always considered myself a composer, but two things combined to galvanise me into composing full-time – the theft of my viola in a burglary in 1989, and the birth of my first child in the same year. Composing is the perfect career for a parent as it is flexible. An Arts Council Composers Bursary gave me that extra encouragement to start a new life as a composer in Scotland.”

You’ve said the concerto is a continuing inspiration, what is it about this form of composition that you find so fascinating?

“When I was about 9, my mother, who taught me violin, gave me a Vivaldi concerto to learn and explained what a concerto was. I loved the idea of a soloist telling a story and interacting with orchestra and audience. I still do. The form has given me many opportunities to create work for specific performers, who often come with their own ideas for what kind of piece it might be.”

You have co-directed the annual St Magnus Composers’ Course in Orkney for a number of years. What drew you to be involved and why do you feel this setting in particular is so special?

“I have loved Orkney since I went there as Peter Maxwell Davies’ assistant for his courses on Hoy in the 90s. It became a special place for my family and hardly a year has gone by when I haven’t visited. The islands have a kind of magic which is hard to describe. When Alasdair Nicolson invited me to co-direct the composers’ course, I jumped at the chance – though with some trepidation, as I hadn’t done any regular teaching, and had never studied composition myself. But I have loved meeting the composers who come on the course – all ages and all backgrounds – and they always have something to give back.”

What advice would you give to an aspiring composer starting out today?

“Stick around performers – and perform yourself. If you don’t play an instrument, sing, or conduct your own work. I am learning a great deal about my own writing now I am playing again. And my commissions still often come via musicians I worked with when I was a full time viola player.”

Where do you personally find creative inspiration?

“From performers; and also from literature, art, theatre, and the natural world. Scottish traditional music has been very important in developing my voice, as has jazz. But sometimes, it just feels as if it’s the deadline (and fear!) that drives me on. Being creative doesn’t always feel creative – often it feels as if you’re just churning out notes – but afterwards you find that something else has been happening at a deeper level.”

A BBC Radio 3 exclusive broadcast of The British Composer Awards 2018 is available to listen to on BBC Sounds here.

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