'Every day involves thinking, dreaming, playing and singing'

Being a professional composer requires real mental and physical stamina, says British composer and musician Errollyn Wallen

There still persists the stereotype of the languid (always male) composer in an ivory tower. But being a professional composer is the same as running your own company as an entrepreneur and it requires real mental and physical stamina.

There are day-to-day and long-term business decisions to be made everyday — and you still have to allow for enough dreaming and composing time, to create new works from thin air.

Music seemed to yank me towards it. Looking back, composing was always what I was going to do — I was already doing it without realising. At home I was often begged to stop practicing but at the piano I became so engrossed in music I just couldn’t stop.

My Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra was performed twice and televised in the 1998 BBC Proms. It was only after the event that I realised I was the first black woman to have a work performed in the Proms.

I have been responsible for a lot of ‘firsts’ when my primary intention has been only ever been to let the light of my music shine. It actually feels embarrassing to have to draw attention to the fact that there are still so few people of colour in the classical music industry.

I grew up in Tottenham and my family sent me to various local piano teachers including lovely Mrs Lepley. My family didn’t know how to help me in getting the serious music education that is required for being a composer so I had to work out what skills were needed by reading about other composers and studying their scores.

There were times when I despaired of being able to break into the world of being a professional musician — it seemed impenetrable. I held my nerve and wouldn’t give up.

I was so proud of the oratorio Carbon 12 for Welsh National Opera about the history of coal mining in south Wales. I worked with librettist John Binias and neither of us are Welsh but being outsiders actually helped us approach the subject in a fresh way. The first performance at Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff was one of the most moving occasions of my life. The work toured around Wales and at every performance men in the audience would come up to me in tears telling me of their connection to coal mining. It shows a composer can serve any community.

The best part of my job is the absolute freedom; I can usually compose what I want in the time I want (until the deadline ). I love how I am learning about all sorts of things all the time. The worst part of my job is the fact that whatever you do it never seems to be enough. The job of a composer is never done. Being a freelance composer means that sometimes there are several exciting projects which come in at the same time. Rather than turn down these opportunities I have to work as hard and as efficiently as possible.

Every day involves thinking, listening, dreaming, playing, singing. So whatever I’m doing, or wherever I am, it can be a little hard for me not to be slightly distracted by thinking about the music which I’m currently composing or the music about to be composed.

I start work after breakfast (bypassing emails until later) and make a cafetière of coffee to see me through to midday. The aim is to get five or six hours of composing work done per day. I set the stopwatch so that any interruptions don’t impinge on the amount of work I need to do.

There is a point in composing where, after six hours, the brain zones out. I try to break up the hours with other activities. When I’m working intensely, washing up becomes a joy.

Sometimes I do ‘drudge work’ — more mechanical work — in front of the telly in the evening. So much of composing is actually drudge work. The good ideas occur in a split second; it’s translating these into a score, where every detail is there for each performer, that can take months or even years of work.

Errollyn Wallen’s new orchestral album ‘Photography’is released on 18 March 2016

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Errollyn Wallen

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