UK composer Alison Wrenn had some time to speak with The Glass about her life thus far as a composer and her CD Cross Quarter Days (about to drop September 10th), which features the piece of the same name, a string quartet, along with a stand alone piece titled “Footsteps Through The Forest”. Be sure to check it out here or on the link on the bottom. It will eventually be available through iTunes and Amazon, and the CDs will be on her website.
CM: How long had you been composing?
Alison: I started when I was about 9. My mum decided to do a music technology degree at that time, so we had a small music studio in the house. I started using Cubase and I wrote a short piece which was used in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mum still has the newspaper clipping!
Carried on from there, had a piece called “Medieval” performed at school when I was 12.
CM: Was “Medieval” like an early music-style piece?
Alison: Yeah I guess–lots of parallel 5ths! It was for flute, clarinet, violin, trumpet, cello, lasted about a minute and a half!
I stopped composing when I finished university and only started again last year. So after taking a 4-day composing course with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, I went looking for more opportunities and discovered the Yorkshire Late Starters String Orchestra were running a competition for composer to write a piece for them between 10-15 minutes long. The prize was a performance and a bit of cash but the main incentive for me was that 4 shortlisted pieces would be workshopped with Sally Beamish. I was chosen for the shortlist and had an hour of the orchestra rehearsing my piece and I sat next to Sally. She gave helpful comments!
Then I got an email the next day saying I’d been unanimously chosen as the winner–it was voted by the orchestra and there was a panel which included Sally.
They performed the piece twice in Leeds this summer (June and July). The premiere was at the Headingley Music Festival in Leeds. The piece is called “Battle of the Winwaed” and it’s inspired by a historical battle that took place in Leeds.
CM: Why did you want to write the string quartet?
Alison: I wanted to write something new that could really showcase my ability as a composer. As a cellist, I’m most comfortable writing for strings–this is actually my third string quartet! However, the first was written when I was 16 and the second was written during the 4-day course with Max, so it was a little bit rushed. This was something I took my time over (it took me 2 months to write) and it was important to get it recorded so that people can finally hear my music!
CM: Are you already thinking about follow-up quartets or other kinds of chamber works?
Alison: As I’m still at the early stages of my career I’m trying to write for as many different ensembles as possible–to show diversity and to learn about the different instruments and combinations in more details. So I’m not planning to write another string quartet for a while!
I’ve written a commission for TwtrSymphony called “Doves”. It’s part of their chamber project, so it’s for flute, harp and cello.
I think that will be released at some point of the next month or so but best to ask Chip [Michael] about that! Recordings are in but I know he wants to release the full orchestra stuff first.
I’m also working on a suite for full orchestra called “Legends of the Tor”, which is being commissioned by my local symphony orchestra. The London Contemporary Chamber Orchestra is also premiering a piece I wrote for them called “Rough Diamond” in London on 6th October.
CM: Can I ask you about “Chemistry”–Beautiful piece! You wrote it for some friends as a wedding gift?
Alison: Thank you! That’s right, one of my cello students is from South Africa and she was getting married there earlier this year and had invited me to go to the wedding. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to, although I would’ve loved to, so instead I decided to write them a piece of music as a wedding gift!
They are a really sweet, romantic couple, so I knew they would appreciate it. He actually organised the cello lessons for her as a surprise christmas present because she’d always wanted to learn!
CM: Is she still playing?
Alison: Yes she is, she’s been learning for around 18 months now and is working towards grade 3!
I’m lucky that Catherine Wilmers who recorded the cello part for me lives just up the road. She played in the London Philharmonic Orchestra for 25 years!
CM: Who was your biggest inspiration?
Alison: Probably Stravinsky–Rite of Spring has to be up there, it’s the greatest piece ever written in my opinion.
CM: What was it about that piece that you loved?
Alison: It sounds unlike anything else. Incredible rhythms, the folk-inspired melodies, use of horns to do those power chords, just everything about it!
Apparently my granddad, who was a composer, used to play it at full volume to scare my mum when she was little!
CM: Who was your granddad?
Alison: Dennis Berry. A lot of his music gets used in tv programmes, adverts, and foreign films. It’s been in Spongebob Squarepants!
CM: Wow!! Cool! And of course you had mentioned to me that the great producer Eddie Kramer was related to you as well!
Alison: Yes, Eddie Kramer is my dad’s first cousin, so that makes him my 1st cousin once removed!
Alison Wrenn’s Facebook fan page (please press “like” ;))