Profile: Helen Grime

Throughout 2017, Casa da Música, Porto, presents a year-long season of UK classical music, in partnership with the British Council and the GREAT Campaign. The Year of British Music includes around 30 concerts and over 1,000 educational activities, with a particular focus on new classical music.

To complement the programme, we have worked with Casa da Música to showcase talented composers from the UK. Helen Grime is the latest of those composers in focus, whose detailed, dynamic music has won many admirers ever since she first came to public attention in 2003 with her award-winning Oboe Concerto. In 2008 she was awarded a Leonard Bernstein Fellowship to attend the Tanglewood Music Center where she studied with John Harbison, Michael Gandolfi, Shulamit Ran and Augusta Read Thomas. She was Associate Composer to the Hallé Orchestra between 2011 and 2015. In 2016 her Two Eardley Pictures were premiered at the BBC Proms and in Glasgow, winning the prize for large-scale composition in the Scottish Awards for New Music the following year. Grime is Composer in Residence at the Wigmore Hall for the 16/17 and 17/18 seasons. The first commissioned work of her tenure was a Piano Concerto for her husband and fellow composer, Huw Watkins.


Above: Helen Grime’s Violin Concerto (2016, premiere)


You come from a musical family; was moving into a life of music inevitable?

No not really. My mother and grandparents were music teachers and not professional musicians. They did however instil a love of music, and a wide range of classical music at a young age. Getting into music felt natural but they were supportive of everything I did. My great love was art when I was very young.

The theme of nature often seems to crop up in your pieces. Is this inspired by your upbringing in Scotland?

The theme of nature [in my work] is usually linked to another art form such as poetry or the visual arts. So it is important but usually filtered through another artist, their work and process. These are the things that are important to me early in the composition process. After that the piece often (and I hope) takes on a life of its own. The Scottish countryside is of course wonderful though!

Is there something about Scotland that lies at the heart of why great songwriters and composers come from that part of the world?

I’m not sure … certainly I was very lucky to be nurtured though the City of Edinburgh Music School –part of the state system and free to attend for all – and later St Mary’s Music School. There is a great folk tradition [in Scotland] which is important.

You’ve spoken previously of the “struggle” of working on any new piece – a feeling of being a beginner composer again every time. Can you rationalise those feelings as being part of the process now and is there anything you do to try and get past that stage?

This is always part of the process for me and always very difficult to accept. The beginning of a piece or movement always feels painful and very very slow. It’s a leap of faith in the material and in myself. I have to let it emerge at its own pace and gradually things begin to get clearer and come in to focus. However, this can be rather stressful when constantly dealing with deadlines! It’s important for me to keep working and coming to things from different directions and also to hold on to that tiny thread of hope.

Does living with a fellow composer help in any way; are you able to lend a critical ear to each other’s work or is composing necessarily a solitary pursuit?

Difficult to know because it’s been this way for me for so long! I do find it helpful to talk things through and show what I’m doing. It can be exhausting for the other person when they are dealing with the same struggles though so it’s also important to leave composing to one side too.

What do you want an audience to take away after having heard your music for the first time?

I want the audience to be engaged and transported for the duration of the piece. I hope very much that my music rewards further listening so not everything might be revealed on a first hearing. But direct expression is also very important.