Barbara Ellington, Public Affairs Editor
To describe Shirley Thompson as an enormously talented composer/conductor is an understatement. She was born and raised in London, England, to Jamaican parents, who are now retired in Jamaica. Thompson who recently was a guest conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO), in Jamaica, is a graduate of Liverpool University where she majored in music and Goldsmith's College where she majored in composition.
Upon listening to Thompson's CD, New Nation Rising, one immediately hears the fusion of contemporary classical orchestrations with myriad popular and world music styles ranging from pop to R&B and even African-inspired rhythms.
The CD is a 21st century symphony that celebrates 1000 years of London's history. The RPO plays alongside two choirs, solo singers, a rapper and dhol drummers.
But of most importance to Jamaica, is that Thompson was instrumental in getting the prestigious RPO to perform in Jamaica last month. In an interview with The Gleaner, Thompson tells how that came about and more.
The talented and pioneering composer/conductor has come a long way from the days when as a four year-old she tinkled on a piano stored in the neighbour's attic. She developed a trained ear from early too as she was interested in the sounds that emanated from all instruments. After years of training, working and touring the world, Thompson wanted to share some of the wealth of the music she loves with the land of her parents' birth.
Over the years, she developed a friendship with Nigel Clarke, founding chairman of the National Youth Orchestra of Jamaica (NYOJ). Thompson says two years ago on a visit, they were having a conversation when Clarke told her of his desire to have the RPO perform in Jamaica. Having shared the same dream and because of her relationship with the RPO, she gladly made the necessary introductions.
"I introduced Nigel Clarke to the RPO's management," she told The Gleaner from her relaxed position in the gardens of Devon House. The rest is history but following the captivating performance at the historic North Street Cathedral, she is extremely proud that her initial introduction made it happen. But just how did Thompson become so influential? She tells her story.
Thompson first met the RPO several years ago while she was working on a series of education workshops in schools in London. She is also an accomplished director and film-maker who is usually commissioned for major works. Since the initial meeting, she has toured and worked extensively with the RPO.
Her formal introduction to music came while in primary school at age 10. Having played the piano since the age of four, in school she also played the recorder until a famous violin teacher visited the class and she got an opportunity to play that instrument. She played it till she got the chance to take serious piano lessons age 14.
"I used to make up melodies and tunes and I had the opportunity to play with various orchestras during my teens. No other people of colour in my environment were doing that (playing in an orchestra), and I got a deep understanding of the music from playing with various orchestras such as: string, chamber, brass and the London Youth Orchestra. I also sang with big choirs and while in university I played with the choir and orchestra," she shared.
"Having studied music to that degree, I pursued a career as a composer and started writing music for television shows. I was one of three female composers in the '90s when I started." She wrote the theme and incidental music for The Londoners, said the woman who now holds PhD. in music. She has also written music for several documentaries.
It became the source of her income and continues to be, and she has received much admiration for her pioneering attitude. She had no precedent and continues to be a forerunner for women in composing music for television to this day. She earned her reputation in film-making while being a successful composer.
Another tour Last month
Following her departure from the island last month (she returns home up to three times a year), Thompson was off on yet another tour. Stops include Buenos Aries, the Kennedy Centre in the United States and then South Africa next February. For the immediate future, she will also be working on an opera for the Royal Opera House. With all her achievements, Thompson still yearns to put aspects of the fantastic tapestry of the Jamaican story to classical music.
"I want to write the Jamaican story; to see an opera to show how we use music to tell our stories and inform people. It will have dance, singers, the spoken word and more," she said, becoming obviously animated and thrilled at the prospect. She is not ruling out the use of reggae, hip-hop in the classic either.
But that's in the future. There have been many high points in her life to date. "I am thrilled and exceedingly proud of what I have achieved against all odds. I was expected to be a factory worker but now look at me! I have composed ballets. In 40 years I am the first woman of any race to have composed a symphony in Europe and I had the honour of writing the music for The Queen's 50th jubilee celebrations," she noted.
In 2007, Thompson was commissioned to compose music for the opening of the Parliamentary exhibition, "The British Slave Trade: Abolition, Parliament and People"
Spirit of the Middle Passage for three solo singers, spoken word artiste and chamber orchestra was performed by The Philharmonic Orchestra in the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the Freedom & Culture International Creative Forum. The work featured three heroines, including Nanny of the Maroons.
In 2009 Thompson was commissioned by Southbank Centre to compose a piece to commemorate 100 days of Barack Obama's presidency. Thompson was the first woman to compose and direct music for a major drama series at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
Having trained as a television programme maker at the BBC and Carlton Television she directed the film, Memories in Mind, with an award from the Arts Council, which was broadcast by the BBC in 1998.
In 2010 Thompson was announced in the Evening Standard's "Power List of Britain's 100 Most Influential Black People 2010". Thompson is Reader in Music at the University of Westminster. Her body of solo and instrumental ensemble works for concert hall as well as working as a freelance composer of music for TV, films and the theatre, is well documented.
The Shirley Thompson Ensemble was formed in 1994 and has been the main vehicle for her instrumental and vocal works.