When I heard the composer Sally Beamish talk about her composition for the Cultural Olympiad several weeks ago I took inspiration from the way she had responded to the theme of sports. The composition Spinal Chords, commissioned by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, expresses the slow recovery process of journalist Melanie Reid who broke her neck in a horse-riding accident. To express this, the music is static a lot of the time. To reinforce this, the orchestra was deconstructed into small groups of soloist who were gradually put back together again.
Sally Beamish often takes inspiration from the world around her. In her composition Bridging the Day for cello and piano, for example, she reflects the different experiences of light from sunrise to sunset around her Scottish home. The Seafarer Trio is a composition for narrator and piano trio which in life performances is accompanied by prints by Jila Peacock. The Seafarer is an Anglo-Saxon poem that speaks of the pull of the sea and the loneliness of a sea voyage. In her music, Sally Beamish communicates the atmosphere of a sea journey, and reinforces this occasionally with the cries of gulls.
What I find inspiring in the work of Sally Beamish is that she shows a range of ways in which a composer can respond to his or her source of inspiration. Until several decades ago most classical composers did so by either expressing the atmosphere found in, for example, a poem or painting, or by imitating the sounds suggested. Cuckoo calls in pastoral music are known examples. Other composers have taken classical forms like the sonata form to express storylines in tone poems. When Debussy impersonated the faun in Stéphane Mallarmè’s poem L’Après-Midi d’un Faune that inspired his prelude with the same name, he broke new ground.
But in Spinal Chords Sally Beamish has gone a step further. Rather than focusing on the sound world created in a composition by imitating sounds or suggesting atmospheres, she has reflected her source of inspiration by deconstructing and reconstructing the chord as the backbone of music. Though serialist and minimalist composers have experimented with organising and reorganising the raw materials of music in different ways before her, this has to my knowledge mostly been done in an abstract manner. To me, Sally Beamish has gone beyond this in both the way she organises the raw materials of her music and the way in which she uses this to reflect her source of inspiration.
Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst