Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career?
My grandfather was a composer, so he definitely inspired me. My mum did a music degree when I was about 9 years old so we had a small music studio at home where I learnt to use Cubase. It was around then that I remember writing my first composition, a Morris dance that was used in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (my mum wrote the rest of the music for the production).
As for making it my career, I actually came to it fairly late – 8 years after completing my degree. At the time, I didn’t think it was possible to make a living from composing and I didn’t want to teach, so I took an office job to bring the pennies in. It’s only since getting married and having a baby that I’ve been able to stay at home and write music, but it’s been the best decision I ever made!
Who or what were the most important influences on your composing?
I consider myself to be a self-taught composer, as I don’t recall ever receiving much direct feedback on my work. Even at university, our composing sessions consisted of listening to new music rather than learning compositional techniques and tips. This is my memory of it anyway! So my composing hasn’t been directly influenced by any teachers.
Instead, I would say that my main influence initially was music I had played in orchestras. I used to say that I wanted my music to have the harmonies of Debussy, the rhythms of Stravinsky, the Englishness of Vaughan-Williams, and the passion of Rachmaninov. However, since returning to composition in 2011, I’ve opened my ears to the wealth of new music that has been written since the time of those composers, right up to music being created in the present. As a result, my style has changed a little, I have learned a lot, and my ideas are more creative. I’ve started to look outside of music to find influences, for example ancient history and nature.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
As I left it so long after university, I didn’t have any tutors to promote me, enter me for competitions, or show me how to turn this from a passion into a career. I have had to do a lot of research into how composers get paid, how to be noticed, how to get my music performed, etc. I have also had to find the performers for myself, something which would have been a lot easier had I still been at university and surrounded by musicians. This has actually been a good thing though, as I have made connections with a lot of fantastic performers.
Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?
I’m extremely proud of winning the Yorkshire Late Starters Strings composing competition 2011/12 with my 15 minute piece “Battle of the Winwaed”. The piece was written for the YLSS, who comprise adult string players of grades 2-8. To get round the challenge of writing for mixed abilities, I split the cellos into parts 1 and 2, along with the usual 1st and 2nd violins, violas and basses. I also wrote parts for a solo violin and solo cello, to add more complexity for those players of the highest standard. The orchestra performed the piece twice in 2012.
I’m also very proud of my third string quartet, “Cross Quarter Days”, which was recorded in 2012 and has been released on iTunes, Amazon, and on my website. The piece is in 4 movements, each representing one of the four key dates in the Pagan calendar that divide the year into quarters. It represents a big leap in terms of my development since the second quartet, written just a year earlier, and I feel it’s the work that best represents me as a composer.
Favourite pieces to listen to?
One of my favourite pieces to listen to is Michael Torke’s July for saxophone quartet. It’s so funky, I don’t think I could ever get tired of it! Other favourites include the Rite of Spring, Turangalîla, the Planets, Ravel and Debussy’s string quartets, White Man Sleeps by Kevin Volans, Gabriel Prokofiev’s Jerk Driver… I also listen to a lot of 80s pop music and Steely Dan!
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Performing Turangalîla with the County Youth Orchestra at Snape Maltings, I think it was in 2003. Such an overwhelming piece to perform, and in such a fantastic venue. I feel very privileged to have had that experience. I remember walking off stage with my cello at the end and saying to the conductor, “wow, that was amazing!”.
Regarding performances of my own work, the most memorable is probably when I performed my own concerto for cello and string orchestra at university in 2002. Having my Christmas carol “On A Gentle Winter’s Night” performed in Guildford cathedral in front of 1000 people in 2001, and then its second performance in New Zealand last year, are also very memorable occasions!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Be true to yourself. Don’t give up. Have an open mind. Listen. Network. Take criticism constructively. Make things happen, don’t sit around waiting to be noticed.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently about halfway through my largest commission so far – a 25 minute suite for full symphony orchestra entitled “Legends of the Tor”. The work will be in 5 movements, each referencing a different legend relating to Glastonbury Tor in Somerset. The piece has been commissioned by my local symphony orchestra, after they successfully applied for a highly competitive “Community Music” grant from the BBC Performing Arts Fund. The community element will be the involvement of 5 local schools, who will each have a group of children composing their own music on the theme of “Myth and Legends”, with the help of workshops led by myself and members of the orchestra. The children will perform their pieces at the concert in June when the orchestra will premiere my piece.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
My goal is a commission for the BBC Proms! I’ve set myself a 10 year target, so we’ll see what happens! Failing that, I’d be happy to have my music performed regularly and to continue receiving commissions so that I can carry on writing.
Alison Wrenn’s new work for piano trio Between the Mountains and the Sea receives its premiere at the Halstatt Classics Music and Literature Festival on 17th August. Further details here
Alison Wrenn (b.1981) is a British composer, whose style brings together influences from the English Pastoral Tradition, elements of popular music and media music as well as strains of Celtic and some aspects of American minimalist music.