Review of “Becoming a Composer” by Errollyn Wallen – A Journey from Belize to the Proms.
Carolyn Wallen is a prolific composer, having created 22 operas and numerous works for concerts, symphonies, songs, and chamber music. Her pieces have been showcased at notable events such as the late Queen’s golden and diamond jubilees as well as the 2012 Paralympic Games. In 2022, she was recognized as one of the top 20 most frequently performed living composers worldwide. Her first commissioned orchestral piece, a concerto for percussion and orchestra, was debuted at the Proms in 1998. This marked the first time in the festival’s history, which began in 1895, that a Black woman’s music was featured. Wallen’s achievements have continued to be recognized, with her work being premiered during the Last Night of the Proms in 2021, including her reimagining of “Jerusalem.”
The idea of a book that gives us a glimpse into the inner workings of such artistic achievement is appealing. However, the format and arrangement of Becoming a Composer is atypical. Instead of a typical autobiography, we are presented with a mixture of brief essays, diary entries, program notes, and poems. The author encourages readers to read as they please, but this fragmented approach only leaves us wanting a more cohesive account of her journey.
One of the reasons the book is so attractive is because Wallen effortlessly showcases her talent. She states, “I am a classical music composer.” As she reflects on this statement, she is amazed that this path led her, a Belize-born and Tottenham-raised girl.
The following shows that her success was achieved through a powerful mix of determination, skill, charisma, and persistence, despite not conforming to the traditional image of a composer. She states, “I didn’t fit the mold of being white, male, deceased, wearing a wig, or displayed on a wall.” At one point, a highly regarded music director questions, “Are there even any female composers?!” and invites her to his office to review her scores with the intention of mocking them.
Wallen acknowledges her uncle Arthur for having faith in her musical talent from a young age, despite their complex dynamic. She also praises his love for literature and art. However, her childhood at home was not ideal. When she was two years old, her family relocated from Belize to London. As a result, Wallen and her siblings were placed under the care of Arthur and his wife, Renee, while their parents moved to New York. At the time, Wallen thought this would only be temporary and longed for her parents to return for her.
During her childhood, her uncle’s anger was a constant presence. In a particularly poignant moment, she recalls a time when he accidentally spilled hot coffee on her leg while pouring her a cup. Too scared to speak up, she silently endured the pain and allowed the liquid to burn her. Some of these difficult memories are recounted in third person, perhaps as a way to distance herself from them. Wallen notes that she both loved and endured her family.
The most valuable aspects of Becoming a Composer focus on the small details of music creation. Wallen is highly skilled at describing her composition process in detail. She openly shares her methods, from finding inspiration in her environment to her tendency to wait until the last minute before writing any music, which can make her collaborators anxious. She begins her pieces by improvising on the piano and is most productive when she is still half asleep. Her early works were created before digital composition tools existed, and she once lost an entire score when her car, which contained the only handwritten copy, was stolen.
The entries in the diary successfully capture a blend of grandeur and normalcy. On one occasion, the music flows effortlessly, while on another, the entry simply states “jury service”. These mundane details add complexity and depth to her music. As I listen to my preferred Wallen composition – her rendition of “In Earth”, a reinterpretation of a Purcell aria – I feel like I have a deeper understanding of the voice that soars with both beauty and sorrow.