5 Questions for Composer Sally Beamish

It would be easier to list the genres of music that Sally Beamish doesn’t work in than all the ones she does. The prolific and British composer has received much acclaim for her concertos, operas, ballets, film scores and choral and orchestral music, and that’s when she’s not performing as a violist. When Elias String Quartet takes the stage with Da Camera on March 19—the second of two consecutive nights of music from the group—they will perform the U.S. premiere of “Nine Fragments,” Beamish’s fourth string quartet and her second commissioned by Elias.

To mark the occasion, Da Camera asked Beamish about her inspiration for the work, her identity as a performer and her advice for young composers.

I’m amazed at the breadth of musical genres that you work in and that inspire you. What are the similarities between jazz and traditional Scottish music? What are the qualities that draw you to each of them?

I love the element of improvisation in both, and the directness of communication. There is also a strong link to dance and movement. All this has led me to express myself more freely and un-self-consciously.

What inspired you when it came to writing for the Elias String Quartet? 

Nine Fragments is a response to the Elias Quartet’s request that I write something relating to Schumann’s first quartet in A minor. As a child, I identified with his wife Clara, as she was the only female composer I had heard of. I think I have retained that rapport a little, and I was moved to discover that the quartets were first performed as a birthday present for her, when she was 23 years old. The quartet expresses the struggle and sadness that accompanied their married life, as well as great love. I have represented Clara with my own instrument, the viola, and each ‘fragment’ presents a different mood, referring to the rollercoaster of Robert Schumann’s illness.

You wear a lot of hats: composer, pianist, violist, presenter, educator—which is most rewarding to you?

It wasn’t until I began playing viola again, after a gap of 20 years, that I realized the huge importance of performing in my life. Performance (my own, and that of other musicians) has always been my starting point, and it has gone hand in hand with composing. I love the alchemy between composer and performer, and the unexpected elements that surface as a performer embodies a new work and colors it with their own insights.

What did it mean to you to receive the Award for Inspiration at the British Composer Awards? Do you think that cultural institutions are doing a better job of recognizing the contributions of women?

It meant a great deal to me to be honored in this way, especially as I owe so much to the inspiration of others—composers, performers, commissioners and artists in other disciplines such as writers and choreographers. My work with David Bintley on “The Tempest” was a true collaboration, and I am delighted that there is inspiration to be found in my own work.

I think there is now recognition of the reasons why women’s work has been less visible. There is a long way to go, but it’s exciting to see a real shift in attitudes and opportunities.

What advice do you give young musicians and/or composers?

I always advise them to stick around performers. I wrote a lot of my early pieces for friends, so the relationship with performers has been very important indeed. And I think performers also grow and develop through exploring new work. Composers should keep performing themselves, whether as instrumentalists, conductors, or by joining a choir. There is so much to be learned from being on the concert platform and communicating directly with an audience.

Elias String Quartet performs at the Menil Collection on March 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $60 and are available here. Purchase tickets to both March 18 and March 19 and save 50% on the second concert.