Shirley J. Thompson Seizes Opportunities to Succeed
By Neil Armstrong
Dr. Shirley J Thompson is a force of nature and determined to maximize every opportunity to accomplish her work as a composer, conductor, academic, teacher, artistic director, filmmaker and violinist.
A Reader in Music at the University of Westminster and a freelance composer of music for TV, films, the theatre, ballet and concert music, she is the first woman in Europe to have composed and conducted a symphony in the last 40 years, and the first woman to compose and musically direct music for a major drama series at the BBC.
New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony performed and recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is an epic musical story celebrating London’s thousand-year history, and one in which the RPO is accompanied by two choirs, solo singers, a rapper and dhol drummers, a total of nearly 200 performers.
Born in England, of Jamaican descent, her journey to these milestones was riddled with challenges but she overcame them, buttressed by the strong support of her parents.
Success for her means feeling that she is doing the best that she can do and being the best that she can be. When that is accomplished, she is happy. “I think it’s about excellence. As long as I feel that I have, in any particular situation, whether I have a few crumbs or several thousand pounds, I’ve done my best. I’m only demanding of myself. “
Thompson says it is advantageous to think positively and describes herself as a glass three-quarters full person.
“I see what my parents and ancestors have accomplished before me and think if they can achieve so much with very little, I need to make the most of any opportunity, as they didn’t have them. For me, it’s a lot about optimizing opportunities and finding opportunities, excavating opportunities and then making the most of those opportunities.”
Dr. Thompson was recently in Toronto – her first visit to the city – to receive the Luminary Award presented at the UWI Toronto Benefit Gala on April 2, 2016 at The Ritz-Carlton.
The award is presented to people of Caribbean heritage who are outstanding achievers on an international scale in their respective fields or people who have brought to prominence issues which affect the Caribbean.
As a creative artist, when she was commissioned by London in 2002 to create a major piece for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and was told that money and resources were no object, she went home and literally sat in front of a blank page to conceptualize the symphony.
Being equally good at history as she was at music, she was persuaded to take music at university having spent many hours practicing the violin, the piano, and performing with various orchestras and choral groups.
With her keen interest in history, she decided to create a symphony of a history of London, specifically East London from 1066, the signing of the Magna Carta right up to the present day, looking at what she saw as the watershed moments in English history.
The London Story in 5 sections, includes London as a pastoral idyll, the Industrial Revolution, World Wars 1 and 2, and the development of London including the integration of people from all around the world, and especially those from the Caribbean that have made London one of the most dynamic cities since the 1970s because of its diversity.
She also decided to insert in each Symphony Movement a universally known musical sample of each period that would be recognized by people anywhere in the world.
The first movement was post-Beethoven and pastoral; the second showcased a waltz; the third had a sample from “We’ll Meet Again” the Gracie Fields anthem that rallied the British during the Wars; the fourth is an orchestral hip-hop movement which speaks of the energy of the popular culture, which Thompson says “comes from Jamaica and all the musical and popular cultural influences from Jamaica which have spread worldwide to America, then to England, then to Japan and all these other places.”
The fifth movement is an anthem to commemorate the history of London as a kind of coda to the whole thing.
She was putting this symphony together while also doing her full time work as a professor in composition and performance.
Dr. Thompson was asked to conduct the Symphony by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – something she was not expecting to do. Having done so, she says it was a “phenomenal experience.”
Ten years later, her concept formed the framework for the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics but she was not publically credited for it.
The composer is interested in getting a wide audience for her work – something that runs opposite to the avant-garde conservatoire where she was trained, which is quite exclusive.
She has always been interested in inclusivity instead of exclusivity and her music reflects that bent. “Audiences enjoy my music and that’s what gives me a thrill. The Contemporary Classical music languages can be particular and obscure. I’m developing a musical language, which I feel, is inclusive.”
Joining us in this conversation in a boardroom at The Ritz-Carlton are Kimya Hypolite, a third-year music student at Humber College; Korin Thomas-Smith, who is in the first year of a music degree (vocal-opera) at University of Toronto; and Trevor Massey, Chair of the Lifelong Leadership Institute.
Hypolite enquired about how possible it is to succeed in the Classical Music industry. Thomas-Smith commended Thompson for being inclusive in the classical music genre, which is considered “high class” and is perceived to push people of colour away from it.
“Well, what we don’t know is that from the earliest times of the evolution of the human race, there has been travel of persons around the world. What hasn’t been written into music history is the contribution of its development from the African continent. I believe that Africa has influenced classical hugely. This significant contribution just hasn’t been written into any of our syllabi in schools and universities.”
ADVICE TO YOUNG MUSICIANS
Her advice to young musicians pursuing classical music is: “You have to hang in there and just be the best you can be. Enjoy it, be yourselves, and you’ll achieve what you want to achieve.”
“I think as Caribbean people we’re very gifted with a great deal of talent. We need to own this fact,” she says, noting that her forefathers survived the trans-Atlantic crossing and then survived enslavement.
Thompson says much of her work has been about telling significant stories in music that have been overlooked or submerged.
“I see myself as a bit of a storyteller, a bit of a griot that’s telling these stories. We need to keep telling these stories about our heritage and our current lives to inspire others.”
She has written many large-scale works that she views as a build-up to New Nation Rising.
In July 2015, her new opera, Sacred Mountain: Incidents in the Life of Queen Nanny of the Maroons, premiered on the opening night of Tête à Tête: Opera Festival, the biggest opera festival in Europe.
“With my current operatic work, I’m creating iconic heroes out of ‘the other.’ I created Queen Nanny of the Maroons into an operatic hero that bucks the operatic tradition of women as femmes fatales.”
THE ARTS AND LEADERSHIP
Dr. Thompson believes that the best leaders have a cultural background from the creative arts.
“Quite often when you find out about the background of leaders, you find that they have been strongly schooled in music and the arts. As someone that respects the philosophy of the Renaissance person, I perceive that I should know about literature, learning, the arts, science, sport, etc.”
CHALLENGES IN THE SCHOOL SYSTEM
At the age of 10 or 11, although Thompson was always in the A-stream at school, she was selected by the British school system to attend a school that was way below the average.
“But all my friends went to the best school and I was sent to a school that was perceived to be for the rejects, basically. I was the only child of colour in my class, by the way. I was given a very big blow to my confidence at the age of 10 or 11 that could have maimed me for life.”
But her mother, whom she described as “4 ft. 11 inches and a very tallawah (strong) woman” would not accept that decision.
Her mother went to the educational council and demanded that her daughter be sent to the better school.
It did not happen right away and after being in the school for one year, Thompson gradually accepted her status there.
That soon changed however when her report showed straight A-stars for every subject in the school.
“My mother demanded a meeting with the head of education for the borough and made many phone calls. ‘Can my daughter be sent to the proper school now?’ And they went and found my report and said, well, ‘what’s she doing at this school in the first place!’”
Thompson subsequently reflected that her primary school teacher had systematically downgraded her school-work from the beginning of Year 10 so that she would be demoralized by her grades and not contest the decision he had made with the headmaster to send her to the non-academic school.
Scarred, but undaunted by this early childhood experience, Thompson charted a pathway to excel in life.
“When you enjoy learning, it’s play so it wasn’t hard work to me. When I was given homework, I had to do my house work first, which was much harder, so school homework was my play time,” she says.
ON BECOMING A COMPOSER
Dr. Thompson says there is no track to becoming a composer, unlike being a performer, where there is one.
There were no role models in classical music. Her violin teacher, a Jamaican man, Edmund Reid, who led the English National Opera Orchestra for 20 years, was a highly inspirational person.
Reid began studying the violin at the age of 8 in Jamaica and while attending Kingston College won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, London.
“As black people we are accepted more easily in the Classical music industry if we sing or perform the work of the ‘great’ composers. We are easily accepted as writers and originators of ideas,” Thompson says.
As a violin pupil of Reid who was also the Co-Leader of the Welsh National Opera and Principal at Royal Opera House, she was able to go to the opera twice a week so she learnt a lot.
Upon graduating with her first degree, one of her professors told her that he thought she could excel as a composer and that she should take a master’s in composition.
PROUD OF JAMAICAN HERITAGE
She draws on her Jamaican heritage quite often. She is very inspired by it, and wants to tell the world about it.
“I think we’re inspirational people. My forefathers survived the near impossible. I think I owe it to them to follow on. I’m standing on the backs of them and I’m very proud of their achievement.”
Thompson visited Jamaica for the first time with her first month’s salary when she was working in a job that involved publishing classical music.
“I was very excited because from the age of 4 or 5 my mom has said ‘when I go home’ and ‘when I go back home.’ I kept thinking, where is this home? I was in Stratford thinking where is this home and she kept talking about Jamaica.”
She was always excited about the idea of the magical Jamaica that she heard her mother talking about.
Her parents did not visit Jamaica at all because they were working hard and providing for their children in the UK and did not have the wherewithal to travel so she took herself to the island in her 20s.
When Thompson arrived and her feet touched the tarmac at the airport she felt that she was home.
“When I visited Jamaica for the first time, I was just in awe of listening to people speak about family and hearing all the stories. That veranda culture is just beautiful. It’s all about the village coming together and speaking about what’s happening to them in the current moment and also what happened to them in the past.
At the age of 10 or 11, she discovered the Jamaican folk hero, Anansi, and folk stories from Jamaica, as well, which was the closest thing she had to the kind of Jamaican psyche and the storytelling.
“I already had that love of the storytelling and the folklore from reading Anansi stories and European fairytales such as Hansel and Gretel. These fantasy tales took me into magical worlds.”
ADVICE FOR CAREER SUCCESS
“I do remember hearing from somebody, ‘if you enjoy what you do it doesn’t become work’ and I increasingly love what I do. That would be my advice to any young person – find something that you really enjoy doing and love it. If you have a love for it that will be something that will possibly earn you a living as well.
“To be an artist you have to be a really good businessperson to succeed in it. You have to be on top of your game to know all facets of the industry. Importantly, you need the right networks around you.”
After ten years at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) she went into academia She wanted to be able to address any academic platform. “It’s that very Jamaican thing about always being qualified to do whatever comes your way.”
Some of Thompson’s compositions and performances include The Woman Who Refused to Dance (2007) for the opening of the Parliamentary exhibition, British Slave Trade: Abolition, Parliament and People; and Spirit Songs (2007) performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre.
To commemorate 100 days of Barack Obama’s Presidency, she was commissioned by South Bank Centre to compose Voice of Change (2009).
In February 2012, Thompson’s Mandela Tales, premiered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, featuring a number of stories from a variety of regions and traditions across Africa with storytelling, original live music, video projection and dance.
It had a successful South African premiere and was performed by the Gordonstoun School in Cape Town, for the GREAT British Week of Culture in February 2013.
She also conducted the premiere of her new choral commission, Westminster Anthem at Westminster Abbey, to commemorate 175 years of the University of Westminster in January 2014.
Dr. Thompson has served for over 20 years on several national arts institutions, including the London Arts Board, the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Newham Council Cultural Forum.
She was the first female executive of the Association of Professional Composers and now serves as an elected member of the Classical Music Executive for the British Academy of Song Writers, Composers and Authors as well as several other panels and organisations.
She has been named in the Evening Standard’s ‘Power List of Britain’s Top 100 Most Influential Black People in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016’.
Neil Armstrong is a freelance broadcast and print journalist in Toronto who writes for the Jamaican Weekly Gleaner and Pride News Magazine and interviews African Canadian and Caribbean newsmakers for Caribbean Headline News, aired on Rogers TV. He also edits books, dissertations, and print and online communications.