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Composer Shirley makes her mark on the power list

PICTURED: Dr Shirley Thompson

DR SHIRLEY Thompson credentials appear to be indelibly inscribed in the annals of the Power List of Britain’s 100 Most Influential Black People.

Over the last eight years, from 2010 to 2017, the innovative composer’s achievements have been recognised on the annual compilation, this year marked at number nine.

While many laypersons may not have been familiar with the prolific composer’s achievements, before reading the Power List, her status within the field of classical music is legendary.

Over the past 40 years Thompson was the first woman in Europe to have composed and conducted a symphony; New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony.

Speaking exclusively to the Voice following her nomination to the Power List the composer said: “I am surprised and very honoured to have consistently been nominated. It’s very encouraging to know that people appreciate the work I do.

“I tell stories and narratives using images, orchestra and dancers to feast the senses on the big stage and to inspire.”

The composer of Jamaican descent has been inspiring art lovers for decades. Shortly after graduating with a composition degree from Goldsmith’s College in …., she began working on major BBC drama series, including South of the Border and Dreaming Rivers.

During a career spanning almost three decades Music by Shirley J. Thompson has been commissioned to write for contemporary ballet for pieces including Push and Opera. She wrote the music for Sacred Mountain: Incidents in the Life of Queen Nanny of the Maroons. The work premiered on the opening night of Tete a Tete; the Opera Festival in 2015.

The east- London based artist has also been commissioned for several royal engagements, including the Commonwealth Day performing for HM Queen Elizabeth at Westminster Abbey, in 1999.

Describing here initial work as a composer Thompson said: “There have been so many major breaks I have enjoyed during my career. Having my work enjoyed on TV and major stages including the Royal Festival Hall and the Royal Albert Hall, all straight out of university and in my early 20s was been remarkable.”

When referring to her favourite composition the musician automatically refers to New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony performed and recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

The musical epic which tells the story of London’s history from 1066 to the present, was originally commissioned for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. During the performance the Orchestra was accompanied by two choirs, solo singers, a rapper and dhal drummers, a total of nearly 200 performers.

The recollection of Thompson’s favourite symphony is a bitter sweet experience for the accomplished musician. She recalls her agony viewing the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony in 2012.

She said: “I remembered sitting and watching my work being portrayed on TV and was in shock. The framework of my symphony, the history of London, was copied for the ceremony. Billions of people are unaware that it was my concept that was used; I couldn’t sleep for a year.

“I received no credit from the organisers of the Olympics. I consulted with lawyers for years, but after realising the amount of work required to present a case I decided to drop a law suit. I did not want the injustice to take over my life.

“I had been in dialogue with the Olympic Committee, but then there was this over-sight.”

When Thompson discusses her most challenging experience during her career she doesn’t relate the use of New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony by the Olympic organisers. Instead she recalls the classical music world’s initial difficulty in accepting her style of composition.

She recalls: “When I started writing my classical music style was not in vogue. At the time there was an emphasis on avant garde styles, which were very complex and incomprehensible to many people.

“The music I was interested in was more lyrical and the audiences loved what I was doing and that really inspired me. Fortunately, I stuck to my guns and believed in my work.”

Thompson continues to be a prolific composer. One of her ground-breaking operas will be shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum from December, The Woman Who Refused to Dance.

The opera portrays the courage of a historical character, the ‘unknown woman’, who refused to dance on a boat heading for the island of Grenada from Calabar (Nigeria), in 1792.

The ‘unknown woman’ was accused of insubordination, by Captain Kimber. She was subsequently beaten and hung as punishment for her act of defiance, and as an example to the other enslaved persons.

Her defiance was widely reported, and William Wilberforce employed the case to argue for the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic trade in Parliament. Thompson serves as an elected member of the Classical Music Executive for the British Academy of Song Writers, Composers and Authors.

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