Feature

Musical asides

In the lead up to premiere of The Tempest, Nicola Lisle spoke to composer Sally Beamish about some of the more unexpected things she experienced as a result of writing the score.

<p><em>The Tempest: </em>Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet as Spirits of the Feast</p>. Credit: Bill Cooper.

Unconcious classical influences

Although Sally had never written for ballet before, and had no idea about ballet steps or technical terms, she was able to draw on her experiences of playing classical ballet scores during her early career as a violist. 'As a student I played in the pit for Northern Ballet for ballets like Giselle and Coppélia, so I had a feel for that sort of music,' she recalls. 'Every now and again that musical language creeps into The Tempest, which is quite interesting because it’s so unlike my own language. I think sometimes there is a hint of some of the set pieces of the classics, and maybe if I knew more about ballet I wouldn’t have done that! I think that’s something that is only in my head though, because David hasn’t commented on it at all. I was inspired by seeing all those ballets years ago – it has obviously stayed with me'.

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To clap or not to clap

One ballet tradition that Sally hadn’t accounted for was the audience applauding after every dance number – and this came as quite a shock to her. 'One time David said to me, "Do you want applause at the end of that scene? At the moment you’re not going to get it." And I said, "I wasn’t thinking about applause." You don’t think about that unless you’re writing for ballet or music theatre. In contemporary opera you often don’t get applause during the action, and so it hadn’t occurred to me! I thought it would be nice to get some applause, so I asked David what I needed to do to get applause. He was very clear: "You need to tell the audience with your music"'. A bit of rethinking was needed, but happily Sally was able to rise to the challenge. 'It’s a completely different tradition!' she says.

Spin-offs

One of the pleasures of working on The Tempest for Sally has been the opportunities for spin-off pieces. 'I’ve written solo pieces for saxophone, cello, violin, viola, harp and trumpet, all about characters in the ballet. In fact, the first thing I did was a piece called Ariel for solo viola, which was actually about a year before I started work on the ballet. Even though Ariel is a lot more flute, that original viola piece is absolutely there in the music, so it was like a little notebook of different ideas for different characters.'

Earlier this year, Sally’s A Shakespeare Masque was premiered in London and there were, she says, 'a few overlaps in that’. Another recent world premiere was Ring Time, which Sally wrote for Dalcroze UK. 'We decided we would have a Shakespearian theme, so it made sense to have an overlap with that as well. Dalcroze Eurhythmics is interesting because it’s a way of expressing musical phrases through the body, so it’s another form of movement. It’s very different from ballet, but it was working with bodies. So the three pieces – A Shakespeare Masque, The Tempest and Ring Time – all link together, along with all the little solo pieces I’ve done.'

<p><em>The Tempest: </em>Lachlan Monaghan as Neptune, God of the sea, with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet as Sea Nymphs and Strange Fish</p>. Credit: Bill Cooper.