Paint to Canvas, Notes to Sky: Interview with Composer Helen Grime

Principal Guest Conductor Thomas Dausgaard will lead the U.S. premiere of Helen Grime’s Snow from Two Eardley Pictures on June 8–10.

By Andrew Stiefel

Painting has fascinated Scottish composer Helen Grime since she was a young girl taking art lessons at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. It was there that she first encountered the work of artist Joan Eardley.

“I was about 10 or 11,” recalls Grime. “I really liked her art at that age and then we studied it in school. Her paintings have stayed with me ever since.”

Eardley is known for her portraits of street children in Glasgow and her landscapes of the countryside around Catterline, a small coastal village in the northeast of Scotland.

“There’s a real bleakness that I think Eardley brings across beautifully in her paintings,” says Grime. “You immediately get a strong feeling of the landscape, of the place, and of being there.”

Grime’s early interest in painting blends seamlessly into her music. Although she is not yet well known in the United States, Grime has gained a reputation for her poetic and meticulously crafted music. She uses flurries of orchestral color to shape her musical landscapes — not unlike a painter scraping and shaping the paint on a canvas.

When Grime was asked to write a double commission for the BBC Proms, she immediately turned to two of her favorite Eardley paintings: Catterline in Winter and Snow.

“Her use of color is amazing,” says Grime. “They’re not abstract paintings but they’re almost bordering on that.”

The complete work, Two Eardley Pictures, was premiered by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in August 2016.

Principal Guest Conductor Thomas Dausgaard conducted the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for the premiere of Catterline in Winter. This weekend he leads the second piece of the diptych, Snow, in its U.S. premiere with the Seattle Symphony.

“I love how she explores a striking sound-world of whirling, jubilant energy as well as reflective, tender passages stretching out like a snow-clad landscape in the horizon,” says Dausgaard. “Her virtuoso handling of the orchestra has clarity and line, as well as atmosphere and mystery.”

Part of Grime’s interest in the work of Joan Eardley stems from her own early childhood on the coast of the North Sea.

“I actually lived for awhile in the northeast of Scotland where she painted the piece Snow is based on,” says Grime. “It is a very striking landscape and its something that has really stayed with me even though I haven’t lived there for a long time.”

But how does a composer turn a painting into a piece of music?

Grime says she was intrigued by the idea of imagining the same scene in different ways, the same approach that Eardley used when painting her landscapes.

“They’re very beautiful and very evocative and that’s sort of what I wanted to capture in the music,” says Grime, referring to the two Eardley landscapes. “I wasn’t trying to re-create them as musical pictures. I wanted it to be like you were imagining the same scene in different ways.”

In Snow that takes the form of a fiery, bright sun in a dark sky. Catterline in Winter is much darker, an almost leaden grey. Musically, Grime knew she needed to find something to unify the two works. That prompted her to dig further into the musical history of the area’s landscape.

Grime eventually unearthed an old folk song from the area, sometimes referred to as a bothy ballad. The ballads originated with farm laborers in the northeast of Scotland. They would gather in their shacks (called bothies) at night to sing and entertain each other.

“The melody is quite raw,” says Grime. “It has these sharp tones that give it a very distinct character.”

Grime never quotes the ballad directly in her music. Instead, she uses elements from the melody and harmony to unite her musical portraits of the landscape. The result is a feeling of continually returning to a place that changes from moment to moment.

“Dausgaard seemed to instinctively understand what the music was about right from the first rehearsal,” says Grime. “He has a real gift for understanding long melodies and an amazing ear for detail. It’s a real joy to work with someone like that.”

Thomas Dausgaard conducts the Seattle Symphony for the U.S. premiere of Helen Grime’s Snow from Two Eardley Pictures on June 8–10.

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Helen Grime's Snow is presented as part of the Seattle Symphony's New Music WORKS initiative, which is supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. New Music WORKS features commissions, concerts and educational activities that use composition as a catalyst for collaboration and engagement in music.

Posted on June 8, 2017

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