Who or what inspired you to take up composing and pursue a career in music?
I was surrounded by music from a young age and went to a music school (city of Edinburgh Music school, then St Mary’s Music School) where everyone was encouraged to compose. It’s difficult to put my finger on what exactly inspired me to pursue composing but I think it was this ethos combined with individuals such as the pianist, Peter Evans and ecat (Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust at the time)taking an interest and performing as well as commissioning me.
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career?
Coming to London and studying with Julian Anderson and Edwin Roxburgh made a real shift. They introduced me to so many composers as well as ideas and techniques, and this really instilled me with a desire to always be ambitious with he music I write. Studying in Tanglewood (2008) and working closely with composers Oliver Knussen, Augusta Read Thomas and others was also a very important time for me, not least because I was immersed in the music of Elliott Carter during their celebration of his centenary.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
Having my son, in 2013, has been a real challenge, although not a frustration. I was used to devoting any or all my time to composing and this had to change, I’m much happier for it though!
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
Each commission has its own challenges, this may be linked to a brief. It often feels like you have to learn composing anew for each piece and that’s tough. Another challenge can be the pressure you feel to produce your best work and not to let the commissioner/organiser/individual/performers down, this can be very daunting at the beginning of the composing process.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
Working with musicians for the first time, whether soloists, singers or orchestras can be very exciting but also completely nerve racking. I want so much for them to respond well to what I’m doing and also enjoy learning and performing my music. My music (everyone tell me) is pretty difficult and detailed, even when I fell I’m doing something very simple. I know it takes a huge amount of energy and time to embrace a new sound world and am always incredibly grateful when musicians seem to get what I’m doing and really believe in it.
Which works are you most proud of?
It takes me a long time to feel really comfortable with a piece and it might take several years and different performances for me to let go and enjoy it. For this reason it’s a difficult question, also, how I feel about a piece can be linked to other people’s reactions at the time or the performance. I think I’m most proud of some chamber pieces such as Aviary Sketches for string trio and my Three Whistler Miniatures for Piano trio. I am proud of my Violin Concerto just now, but it’s not receiving its premiere until December so I will have to wait and see! Often I’ve had particular compositional challenges in these works but don’t feel I’ve had to compromise on my language or original vision for the piece.
How would you describe your compositional language?
My language is detailed and intricate. I am drawn to rich harmonies, initially influenced by Messiaen, Takemitsu and Boulez, and long expressive musical lines. I love to create different layers in my music and often slow music exists at the same time as fast music. Clarity and focus, as well as a dedication to always get exactly the right notes, are always paramount for me.
How do you work?
I work in a spare bedroom and spend a lot of time sketching on manuscript and using piano. Once I have developed and discarded a lot of material as well as discovered what I want to try to achieve in a piece, I start using Sibelius software alongside, always moving back and forth manuscript to rework and draft passage. This is usually pretty extensive.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Difficult to say, but Ravel, Stravinsky, Janacek, Byrd, Bach,Ligeti, Knussen feature pretty highly- obviously there are many others, living and dead, but these are composers whose music I love in its entirety.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Berg violin concerto with Christian Tetzlaff when I was an usher at the Usher Hall during the the Edinburgh International Festival.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians and composers?
To always keep a core of self belief and never ever give up, even in really tough times. Keep an open mind but always be true to your musical identity and don’t compromise on that.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Snuggled by an open fire with a good glass of red and a good book on a winter day.
Helen Grime is Wigmore Hall’s first female Composer in Residence. Helen will compose three new pieces as part of the residency, beginning with a piano concerto for Huw Watkins and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and will also contribute to the hall’s Community and Education programme. The first event of the residency will take place on October 15 with a day of concerts devoted to the composer’s music and figures that have influenced her work. Further information here