Her work is noted for its emotional impact, depth of craft and brilliant colouring and orchestration. Born and raised in Jamaica, her cultural inheritance is wide. She boasts a rich catalogue of works in all genres: opera, string quartets, a growing sequence of chamber music nocturnes featuring horn and oboe, and orchestral music, including two violin concertos. Eleanor now lives in the English countryside with her husband, the violinist Thomas Bowes, and together they founded Arcadia Music Festival.
This month Eleanor will celebrate her 70th birthday. We caught up with her to hear about her remarkable career and find out what more is to come.
What are your earliest musical memories?
Jamaica’s culture is steeped in music and dance, so I grew up listening to all genres of music on the radio and record player. I spent my childhood in a middle-class neighbourhood of Kingston, where my mother had founded her own school, so I heard lots of classical music. At the same time, the streets were alive with pop and folk of all sorts, most of it home-grown. Having overheard piano lessons at the school, I asked to learn the piano at the age of five, and shortly after that I knew I wanted to be a concert pianist.
The first ‘serious’ composer whose music I fell in love with was Bartók when I was around 12.
You attended the Academy in the early 70s. Can you tell us about your experience? What are your favourite memories of studying in London?
I arrived in January (my parents being rather cautious of letting me loose in the world until the last possible moment) to take up my scholarship. The damp and cold hit me straight away. Having grown up in the tropics, nothing could have prepared me for this climate shock, and my first encounter with the then Director of Studies was not a very happy one – I struggled to move my frozen fingers at all when he asked me to play. In exasperation he then asked me to sing – I had two principal studies. ‘Well, at least you can sing,’ was his rather tepid response. Oh dear!
As I acclimatised to the housing, geography, weather and other nuances of this huge new experience, I began to explore. I found that I could go to endless concerts and operas – I became a Friend of the ROH Covent Garden. My piano teacher was the late Dennis Murdoch. Dennis was married to a Jamaican pianist, Sue, and I was delighted to be welcomed almost as a member of the family. One nice memory is playing a Mozart concerto with the Academy Symphony Orchestra. I hated the idea of arriving with too much time to kill before going on stage, so I timed things perfectly (or so I thought), arriving on my motorbike (!) 10 minutes before I was due to play. I was met by a very anxious crowd of staff, who had convinced themselves that I had come to some grief and was not going to show up.
I forged some wonderful friendships, and one in particular was very important to me – the late and much-lamented violinist David Angel. We formed a piano trio, and for years I was invited to spend Christmas with David’s family in Tunbridge Wells.
I also have memories of climbing endless stairs to reach a tiny room at the very top of the building for keyboard harmony lessons with Richard Stoker. He would be smoking his pipe and he’d look at my work in a kindly way. I showed him some of my early compositions. I was still miles away from thinking of myself as a composer, but he was the first authority figure to show me genuine interest and encouragement.
You studied piano at the Academy – what drove you to compose?
Yes, I worked with conscious effort only at my piano playing during my Academy years. I think I had no idea that I was already a composer, even though I had been writing pieces for the piano since childhood. On leaving the Academy, like everyone I needed work and found myself at The Place, where I was introduced to the great Robert Cohan and the world of contemporary dance. I began playing for his classes, which I instantly loved. (Later, I became the company pianist and, finally, Music Director of London Contemporary Dance Theatre). The choreographers started asking me to write music for their new work, and that’s when the penny finally dropped. I found I was already a composer, and had been all along. So my first pieces were written for dance – pieces such as Resolution and the piano quintet Clouds. This meant that everything I wrote got lots of performances because productions often went on tour.
Tell us more about your love of dance.
Anyone growing up in Jamaica finds that they just dance. Don’t ask me how – it just happens. It is so much part of the culture, nobody expects to have to learn. As a student I got involved with an African Dance group led by a wonderful man from Ghana. We would meet in Harlow New Town and I had a great time learning all kinds of African dance. Later, I developed a deep relationship with the world of contemporary dance. Playing for company class at LCDT was part of my life for many years – I even appeared on stage as a dancer in one production. At The Place I also joined in with contemporary dance classes – as a dancer –whenever I could.
Where do you get your inspiration?
This is such a tricky question. I wonder if any artist has ever been able to give a really truthful answer to this, but let me try. I get a lot of inspiration from my sleep and dreams; I get a great deal from nature and the wild, but also from what I read and see. Once an idea gets moving my main concern is not to rush things, not to commit things to paper too early. I suppose I feel I ought to be a more craft-orientated composer, but mostly (not always), I need something to get me going and I wait to let things grow without examining them too closely or getting too stressed about them as written music. Later, of course, I work very hard to make sure what I write reflects as closely as possible the vividness of my imagination.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m finishing off a movement for a big Piano Sonata, Seraph, which I will premiere at our Arcadia festival in rural Herefordshire this autumn; a second violin concerto for my husband, Thomas Bowes, which will be premiered in Wrocław, Poland, next spring. I’m thinking about other pieces, too – a trumpet concerto and a symphony. I’ve got a lot on my plate as my husband and I are also going on a big tour of China as a violin and piano duo in November.
What advice would you give to a student or recent graduate?
Stick at it. Learn to be your true self – not as easy as it sounds, but so much better than being someone else! It can take a while.
Photo by Ben Ealovega