‘We need to tell the unskewed history of music’ – classical composer writes new work for disabled-led ensemble

17 June 2021, 12:06 | Updated: 12 July 2021, 15:29

Composer Shirley J Thompson writes new work for BSO Resound
Composer Shirley J Thompson writes new work for BSO Resound. Picture: Joy Gregory

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

As two forces for positive change in classical music unite, composer Shirley J Thompson speaks to Classic FM about inclusion, Black history and the variety of voices we need to hear in the arts.

On 17 June, BSO Resound, the world’s first professional disabled-led ensemble that is core to a major symphony orchestra, will perform a world premiere by a trailblazing Black British composer.

Shirley J Thompson, who is a classical composer, virtuoso conductor and violinist, has written a new work, Emanation, which reflects on 60 years of the Independent Living Movement (ILM) and its impact on the lives of disabled people.

“I believe that the commissioning of a new work of art for a special occasion is a glorious way to celebrate,” Thompson said of her new work, commissioned by Allianz Musical Insurance. “I hope that Emanation will draw attention to this dynamic community and the changes that it has brought about in transforming many lives.”

BSO Resound adopts the Social Model of Disability, which is rooted in the ILM and the premise that it is not the person who is disabled, but society and the environment around them which is disabling. The revolutionary model has empowered people with disabilities to be key players in the decision-making affecting their lives.

Read more: More about BSO Resound, the disabled ensemble changing the classical music world

Classic FM meets BSO Resound

A core arm of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Classic FM’s Orchestra in the South of England, this brilliant ensemble has spent more than three years challenging expectations of what disabled musicians can do.

Adapted instruments, including the expressive MIDI controller coined the ‘LinnStrument’, play a crucial part in their music-making. Thompson’s commission presented an opportunity to broaden her compositional scope, and write for the orchestra’s dedicated LinnStrument player.

“I found in using the LinnStrument for the first time that it gave me the opportunity to enhance the instrumental textures of the music in a way that I had not previously,” Thompson said.

“The versatility of the instrument to be a soloist, or proffer cohesion to the texture, became pivotal in my creation of the work.”

Shirley J Thompson meets BSO Resound LinnStrument player Sally
Shirley J Thompson meets BSO Resound LinnStrument player Sally. Picture: BSO

As audiences return to concert halls, BSO Resound is using this world premiere to call for inclusion to remain a core focus for the sector, even as arts venues struggle through the aftermath of COVID-19.

Thompson agrees, and highlights the incredible work the ensemble is doing to promote inclusion in the music industry. “BSO Resound is a terrific example of how disabled musicians may be facilitated to produce world class performances on the finest stages,” she says.

“The ensemble is inspirational to disabled people that wish to reach the highest echelons of performance as well as being inspirational to us all.”

Over the past year, classical music and other sectors have also been forced to confront historic issues of racial prejudice and representation. While Thompson herself has spent her career highlighting ethnically diverse composers’ music, it is only in the last year that the wider industry has seen the same movement.

“I am encouraged to see that after 30 years of me highlighting the great works of composers from a range of cultural backgrounds, that artistic leaders are seeing the endless possibilities of staging great productions with these works,” Thompson said.

BSO Resound performs Copland's Simple Gifts

“Highlighting splendid composers, such as Florence Price, has ignited the excavation of many such composers. Although there’s much to be done in telling the unskewed history of music, there are now publishers and researchers keen to find these potentially historical gems as well as extolling the new.”

For Thompson, it’s about exploring every voice to offer every perspective.

“It is critical to facilitate as many voices to create as is possible,” she says. “The space to be creative should be paramount for young children through to centenarians and beyond.

“Creativity is the driving force of humanity and the more we facilitate the voices of all, the more cohesive our various communities will be.”

BSO Resound performs Emanation on Thursday 17 June. The concert will be available to watch for 30 days online. See bsolive.com for tickets and further information.