Avia Ustanny, Outlook Writer
BORN IN London to Jamaican parents Samuel and Hyacinth Thompson, Shirley Thompson is a composer of opera, symphonic and chamber music, as well as music for film, and a violinist and musical director living in Britain.
Ms. Thompson was the first black woman to compose music for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and was commissioned to do a major chamber music orchestral piece in the year she graduated from Goldsmith's College.
Dr. Olive Lewin, Jamaican musicologist, remembers Thompson as a very humble woman. She recalls going with her group to play at the National Children's Home and being quite surprised when the composer strolled in with her violin, ready to play. Some people would have thought that they were bigger than playing for orphans. She also appreciates Thompson, she says, because they share a similar vision of music for Jamaica.
Although the composer was not born in this island, her roots are just as strong as if she were, because her parents baptised her in the island's culture from very early. Outlook spoke with this accomplished Jamaican recently. After completing a major project with her own orchestra, the Shirley Thompson Ensemble, at London's Royal Albert Hall, she came home for some R&R.
"I had to have a break," she told us.
The composer is not the type to go bungee jumping in Negril. While here, just sitting still and looking at trees, looking at the sun rise and set is an adequate course in rejuvenation. She also loves spending time with Mom and Dad, her brother and sister and the extended family.
Shirley is from an artistic family. Her brother Richard Thompson is a fine artist.
"All my family have a passion for music," she exclaims. They are strong on the country's culture as well. Shirley, who visited Jamaica for the first time at age 21 said, "We were brought up on very strong Jamaican culture. Our Jamaican heritage was very important. (Many of her composition are infused with Reggae.) It is very integral and integrated into what I do."
Her music, her very life is always in a state of evolution. Thompson told Outlook, "I never had a plan for my career. It has been evolving. I never thought I would be a composer or film maker, although I wanted to use the gifts I received from God. You do not learn these things. You develop skills but the gift is given. "
Recently her career took a stratospheric leap with a contract to compose for the Royal Symphonic Orchestra, or the Queen's orchestra.
Contemplating the dizzying accomplishment, she comments, "(for the future) I will try to reach my own potential if I get the opportunities and I also want to encourage others as well. Sometimes just a word said can change somebody's life."
Thompson recalls that, just four years ago, she never would have thought that her royal engagement, or even composing for orchestras, would become a way of life.
It was Dr. Olive Lewin, she said, who suggested that she pursue working with an orchestra and within four years she was doing exactly that. Now she is working with one of the top orchestras in the world, she says.