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(Image courtesy: ASMF)

Composer Eleanor Alberga and Contemporary Dance Inspiration

Born in Jamaica and based in the UK, Alberga has had works featured at the BBC Proms and The Royal Opera

 

An acclaimed mainstream British composer with commissions from the BBC Proms and The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Eleanor Alberga has penned numerous works ranging from solo instrumental pieces to symphonic works and operas, that have been performed internationally. 

Having composed for orchestras, chamber ensembles, vocalists, movies, and plays, one of Alberga’s biggest hits was her 1994 setting of Roald Dahl’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, commissioned by the Roald Dahl Foundation. 

In 2015, she reached millions of people through her commissioned work ARISE, ATHENA! for the opening of the Last Night of the BBC Proms, conducted by Marin Alsop.

Additionally, her early piano music connects deeply to her Jamaican heritage, as do her works for solo voice and for choir; her own experiences as a dancer with an African group to her classical musical training has seen her works stem from various musical influences. 

“I think I’m influenced by everything,” she said in the British Music Collection. “My early life was mostly as a pianist so I did loads of repertoire of old classical stuff, but I really fell in love with Bartók in a big way from very early on, and so 20th-century and now 21st-century music has been my biggest interest. I’m influenced by people like Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky or Messiaen - Messiaen can be quite tonal sometimes, and so can Shostakovich! But I also love Harrison Birtwistle.”

“Dance, as with all the music I grew up with, was part of my inheritance,” Alberga told Guarneri Hall in an interview. “The Jamaica I grew up in certainly had a less self-conscious attitude to moving than I found in London when I arrived there in the early 1970s. Having spent a great deal of time in the world of professional dance in the UK, as my calling to compose grew, I should acknowledge that dance was a big part of my early development as a composer.”

A video of VC Artists Nathan Meltzer and Kevin Zhu, violist Joshua Kail, and cellist Sterling Elliot performing Alberga’s String Quartet No. 1, can be viewed below. 

 

 

Born in 1949 in Kingston, Jamaica, Alberga decided to be a concert pianist at the age of five; at age ten, she was composing her own piano pieces. After it coincidentally opened near her childhood home, she studied at the Jamaica School of Music

“There never was a contradiction in my loving classical music as I grew up,” Alberga added in Guarneri Hall. “It was a natural subset of the cultural inheritance I had. I went to classical concerts, which was relatively easy to do. For what it’s worth, I don’t really hold with the idea of Western classical music being somehow geographically or culturally tied to anywhere. Like all true art it belongs to us all as a manifestation of our humanity, whatever its more specific cultural attachments.”

Gifted as she was, Alberga soon drew the attention of London’s Royal Academy of Music (RAM), and she was granted the school’s biennial West Indian Associated Board Scholarship to pursue further piano studies and singing at RAM.

Arriving in England as a student in 1970, Alberga has remained there permanently. In 1974, she was one of three finalists in the International Piano Concerto Competition in Dudley, UK. 

Her foray into composition began with her arrival in 1978 at The London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT) — then led by its artistic director Robert Cohan. There, she became one of the very few pianists with a deep understanding of modern dance, and her company class improvisations left a lasting legacy.  

Alberga’s time with LCDT soon led to works commissioned and conceived for dance by the company; she later became LCDT’s musical director — conducting, composing, and playing on many of its tours. 

Below is a clip of Alberga from 2021 discussing and conducting her piece Nightscape, which was recorded as part of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields’s (ASMF) “The Beacon Project,” showcasing female contemporary composers. 

 

 

At different times, she was also a member of the famed Jamaican Folk Singers, both singing and playing guitar, plus held a three-year membership with Fontomfrom, an African Dance Company. 

Since pursuing her composition career full-time in 2001, Alberga’s interests in orchestral, chamber, vocal, and music for the stage and screen, has seen the continued expansion of her compositional output. Her works are often distinguished for the use of striking overtones and undertones, and embodying the effervescence of the dramatic arts.

Alongside her husband the violinist Thomas Bowes, Alberga was part of the duo Double Exposure, plus recently founded Arcadia, an original festival in the English countryside where they reside.

Alberga’s many awards include the 2000 NESTA fellowship and the 2019 Paul Hamlyn Award. In 2020, she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music and was awarded an OBE in the 2021 Queen’s Birthday Honors for services to British Music.

Alberga’s British Music Collection records can be found here.

A recent performance by VC Artist Stella Chen of Alberga’s No-Man’s-Land Lullaby for Violin and Piano (1996) can be viewed below. 

 

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