Born in 1949 in Kingston, Jamaica, composer Eleanor Alberga began her musical training at the age of five when she decided to become a concert pianist. Her studies led her to the Royal Academy of Music in 1970, and later to the London Contemporary Dance Theatre, where she became music director. We talk to her about working with musicians, revising compositions, and musical influences. On Saturday 12 September, her choral work Arise Athena! will receive its world premiere at the Last Night of the Proms. We ask her a little about it…
Arise Athena! was commissioned especially for the BBC Proms. Have you written for the Proms before?
No I haven’t, but I have been asked before to do something at the Proms and it just wasn’t the right time. I was too busy! But this year everything seemed to work out.
And you’ve gone in right at the top, at the Last Night…
That’s right. I’m looking forward to working with [conductor] Marin Alsop, because I know she has been interested in my work and has approached me for things in the past, but this is the first time I’ve managed to work with her.
Have you involved yourself in any of the rehearsals for it?
They don’t rehearse until the actual week of the concert. I’ll probably go along to rehearsals three days before the concert. I like to give wonderful musicians and conductors like the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Marin a free rein. If there are any comments that need to be made then I will make them, but the idea is to make music for other people to interpret in their own way.
Arise, Athena! is a striking title. Tell us a little bit about the piece.
It’s for orchestra and chorus, and the organ is used as well – I thought I might as well make use of it if I’ve got it! The piece itself is about three minutes long, which was very tough – a lot of the time spent on it towards the end was cutting it down because it wanted to be a much bigger piece. But I have written short pieces before. I have a string quartet which is about five minutes long and my pieces for the ABRSM exams are short pieces: two, three minutes long. But, when given the chance to work with huge forces like a symphony orchestra, one would like to explore it for a longer time!
Does Arise, Athena! sound like the rest of your body of work, or have you gone in a different direction to celebrate the atmosphere of the evening?
That’s a very good question. I have gone in a slightly different direction, though it’s difficult to explain. I have a very light side of music that I write which is tonal and rhythmic and can have more obviously African and Caribbean influences. I wasn’t going to do that for the Proms, but I also couldn’t go completely the other way. So I have used a more tonal brushstroke than I would normally with a 20-minute piece for a huge orchestra – because it’s a party night, I thought that it has to be accessible to a large number of people from all different walks of life.
It’s interesting you took that route, as the first half of the Last Night is more of a ‘normal’ Prom while the second half is the party…
The word ‘tonal’ was not mentioned [in the commission], but ‘party’ was and I just put those things together. I think that the vast majority of people in the world, those who are not particularly interested in classical music, tend to choose to listen to tonal pieces. Popularity goes with tonal.
So when you are going in a slightly different direction, where do your influences come from? Do you look to any composers or styles in particular?
I can never answer this! I think I’m influenced by everything. My early life was mostly as a pianist so I did loads of repertoire of old classical stuff, but I really fell in love with Bartók in a big way from very early on, and so 20th-century and now 21st-century music has been my biggest interest. I’m influenced by people like Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky or Messiaen – Messiaen can be quite tonal sometimes, and so can Shostakovich! But I also love Harrison Birtwistle.
That’s a very different direction!
That’s the thing: I don’t have a fixed style. Every time I start a piece I like to feel as if I’ve wiped everything clean, with an approach of ‘where on earth am I going to go from here?’, rather than me forcing anything on it. I might have a form or I might eventually come to some small idea and then that expands. But I like the feeling. It’s scary – it’s very scary – but somehow that’s the way I seem to work.
Now that Arise, Athena! is completed, what plans have you got coming up?
I’m in the middle of mentoring a pilot course with choreographers and composers at the moment. So there’s no time to think about much else! But after that, I’m immediately back to writing my Second Violin Concerto, and a touch of conducting as well. I haven’t conducted for several years and I’m sure I’m very bad at it, but I’m conducting one of my own pieces at my own festival. It’s a small festival: we only do chamber music and this is an ensemble piece for ten players, called Langvad.
You can have a chat with Marin Alsop next week and get some tips!
Yes, maybe I could!
The Last Night of the Proms will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (in full), BBC Two (first half) and BBC One (second half) from 7.15pm on Saturday 12 September. For more information, performers and listings, visit the BBC Proms website. There are also Proms in the Park events held across the UK on the same evening.