When Helen Grime wrote her first work for large orchestra a few years ago, she ended up with a piece lasting just five minutes. Recently, she wrote her second: it lasted 10. “I like to see how much you can say in a really short time,” she says. “I’m always going for different layers but with a sense of goal. My music is not about grand gestures.”
That artistic credo, as succinct as her music, provides the clue to Grime’s emergence as one of the most promising younger-generation composers in the UK. This week she was appointed associate composer of the Manchester-based Hallé Orchestra, a position that will not only make her better known internationally but is bound to shape the kind of music she writes over the next few years.
Announcing her appointment, Sir Mark Elder, the Hallé’s music director, said he was struck by the emotional journey contained within each of her pieces, and by her “very acute ear” for orchestral colour. In coming months Grime will spend time listening to and getting to know the Hallé before starting to write for it. She hopes to complete her first new piece for the orchestra in time for the 2012-13 season. Before then it will programme some of her existing works.
For a composer of only 29, landing such a job is almost like winning the lottery – previous holders of the post include Thomas Adès and Colin Matthews. The Hallé takes music by its associate composers on tour and records it on its own label. Grime will have the opportunity to workshop her music and undertake projects with the orchestra’s education department.
What her Hallé appointment underlines is that a new generation of composers is emerging with the gift and enthusiasm to write for conventional symphony orchestra. Grime has never dabbled in electronics or played for experimental effect. Her music is subtle, multi-layered, full of pungent ideas and melodic motifs that lead the ear while challenging the imagination.
“I set out to please myself and hope that if [the work] has integrity, it will come across,” she muses, her unflamboyant exterior masking a quiet determination. “I don’t write something wondering ‘Will people like it?’ It’s great to hear a piece you’ve written being played for the first time, but I’m very self-critical.”
The daughter of musical parents from the Welsh borders who settled in Edinburgh, Grime took her first composition classes aged 12. She swept all the composition prizes at the Royal College of Music in London and won a fellowship to Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer residence in upstate Massachusetts.
All this sounds as traditional as her music. Grime doesn’t demur. “I’ve never been trendy. What I’ve always tried to do is write “me” music – to have my own sound world, to say new things in my own voice, not to make headlines.”
So how does she generate ideas? You would have thought that with two creative minds in the household – Grime lives in south London with her partner Huw Watkins, a flourishing composer-pianist – there would be no lack of sparks. But they keep their compositional worlds apart. “It’s hard enough to think of your own ideas, so if one of you is having problems, it can be distracting.”
Grime says she works slowly, often starting “quite spontaneously” with some chords or a melodic fragment. “The character and shape of a piece usually come from that initial idea. Sometimes it can be an extra-musical idea, like a poem, that sparks shapes, a rhythm or a gesture.”
It is no surprise to find Sibelius, Carter and Kurtág, all masters of subtlety and concision, cropping up in conversation. Like them, she believes in “taking material, living with it and working with it. I’m very rigorous in that way, but I don’t use any processes to generate notes” – a reference to the software programmes some composers adopt to create material.
“So, yes, I suppose you could say the way I work is traditional, though I don’t see any distinction between what people regard as traditional and something more contemporary.”
Why, then, did she go against tradition by giving her latest orchestral essay a celebratory title, Everyone Sang (inspired by a Siegfried Sassoon poem), while finishing it on a decidedly un-celebratory note? The work was premiered in November by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and is likely to feature early in her Manchester residency. “To be that direct is not natural to me,” she says.
Such expressive economy will doubtless underscore the string of chamber works Grime will be writing in coming months, for which she received commissions before the Hallé appointment was mooted. But her growing confidence suggests larger works will follow, and she is already enthusing about the Hallé’s “particularly lustrous string sound and the woodwinds – they’re a collection of individuals who blend as a section. The chance to get to know the players, listen to them in rehearsal and hear how they respond soloistically will shape the colouring [of the sounds I write] and the way I feel about harmony and melody.
“I can’t believe my luck: having a top quality orchestra to play with can only be inspiring.”