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Shirley J Thompson: A very modern maestro

From rebelling against the avant-garde to blurring musical genres, composer Shirley J Thompson likes to do things differently

When Shirley J Thompson OBE (BA Hons Music 1979) was asked to compose for the King’s Coronation, it was the royal seal on a glittering career. But London-born Shirley had no idea her natural talent would ever take her to such heights. If it had not been for the encouraging words of her tutor, she may never have pursued music at all.

“By the end of my time at Liverpool, I had produced a major composition which was entered for an important competition,” Shirley explains. “However, the string quartet assumed they wouldn’t need to practise, so it was an abysmal performance. I felt like a laughing stock.”

Thankfully her professor, Robert Orledge (now Emeritus Professor at Liverpool), spoke with Shirley at graduation. He had seen her talent while teaching her orchestration and wanted to make sure the world didn’t miss out. “I remember him saying, ‘Gosh, yes, you need to take this further.’ We’re still friends today - he really supported and encouraged my fledgling music.”

Professor Orledge had recognised a rare gift and passion within Shirley – one that she had discovered in herself at the age of three, when she would sneak off to her neighbour’s attic to tinker on a piano she’d found. “I hit that first key, heard the sound and thought, ‘Oh, it’s magical’. My parents then bought me an old-fashioned casette recorder that played a tune – Brahms famous Lullaby. I would play it over and over again, entranced.”

man meeting a line of people at an event
Shirley meeting with King Charles after receiving her OBE Photo copyright Shutterstock/Stuart C Wilson

An eclectic education

One of five children, Shirley grew up in a house full of music. “My family is music mad,” she laughs. “My mum sang in choirs and played the piano growing up, and dad dedicated every Sunday to music. He’d play classical, gospel, blues, reggae, all kinds. It’s no surprise my brothers are all DJs!”

At school, Shirley took up the violin, joining Newham Youth Orchestra at the age of 10. “I played Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Haydn, all the major orchestral works in the canon, but I didn’t take up the piano until I was 14. I had no hopes of studying Music as I assumed you’d have to be a great pianist, but I always excelled in music harmony, counterpoint and orchestration.”

It was this natural aptitude, and her professor’s words of encouragement, which led Shirley to study composition at Goldsmiths in London. But she quickly realised her approach to music lay outside the elitist trend which prevailed at the time. “It was a very small bubble of experimental classical music that you were expected to write,” expands Shirley, “But what I discovered is that nobody was listening to it.”

Perhaps influenced by her father’s open-armed approach to music, Shirley took more of an inclusive view. She wanted people to hear her music, so she went out to find an audience. “I put on a series of concerts at the Southbank Centre with my own, Shirley Thompson Ensemble,” she recalls. “That was really the beginning of my career. Afterwards, I was the flavour of the month. I was on BBC television, I was asked to join the Arts Council, and The Association of Professional Composers as the first female Executive. I went on to write music for BBC TV, one of the first women to do so.”

A stellar career

Shirley’s star continues to rise. For the Coronation Service at Westminster Abbey, she composed the finale in a spectacular three-part composition of King Charles’ favourite hymn Be Thou My Vision. But this was not her first royal commission. Perhaps her best-known work is New Nation Rising: a 21st Century Symphony. Commissioned for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, the genre-defying piece is scored for two choirs, solo singers, a rapper and dhol drummers.

Man and woman in televsion studio 
Shirley taking part in the BBC's Coronation coverage. Image copyright of Shutterstock.

Her award-winning ballet PUSH has toured the world’s biggest dance venues, from Sadler’s Wells to the Sydney Opera House. And she is currently touring once again – this time, with Women of the Windrush, a multi-media opera inspired by two previous creations – an award-winning film broadcast to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the landing of HMT Empire Windrush; and a composition commissioned for a 70th anniversary performance at Westminster Abbey.

“I made the film originally because I thought my parents’ generation needed to be celebrated and highlighted,” she explains. “Then recently, I decided to make a fictional story around the lives of the women in the film and set it to music.

“I don’t think any other composer has ever done anything like this,” she concludes, almost as a question. But of course, there is no question – the work is ground-breaking, much like everything Shirley does. ●

My mum sang in choirs and played the piano growing up, and dad dedicated every Sunday to music. He’d play classical, gospel, blues, reggae, all kinds.

Shirley J Thompson OBE

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