errollyn wallen
The Girl In My Alphabet

I like this a great deal. Errollyn Wallen offers yet another convincing proof that technique is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Her music is tonal/consonant and embraces a variety of influences from jazz to gospel to minimalism both by way of Michael Nyman and Gregory Ligeti via Louis Couperin. The results are consistently invigorating, and I look forward to a great deal more from her pen.

Fanfare November/December 2002 - 251

Wallen Disc Poised for Crossover

Composer, pianist and songwriter Errollyn Wallen's artistry is sufficiently agile to allow her to cross musical barriers without offending purist sensibilities or compromising her musical integrity.

The Belize-born, UK-based musician's latest disc reflects the breadth of the Wallen aesthetic, embracing hard-edged contemporary classical chamber pieces, the novelty of Louis' Loops for toy piano, and the blues-based Beehive, part of the eloquent song-cycle Are You Worried About The Rising Cost of Funerals? The latter is performed by Patricia Rozario, taking a break from the music of John Tavener to bring emotional warmth and authority to Wallen's work.

Promotion for The Girl In My Alphabet, released on the new Avie label (AV 0006), is linked to the composer's summer schedule of festival commissions and performances. These dates include the world premiere of La Guarda for guitarist Tom Kerstens and the Brodsky Quartet at the Brighton Festival on May 10 and the Bath International Guitar Festival on July 10.

Andrew Stewart, Music Week 4 May 2002

Independent on Sunday 7 April 2002

Every five to ten years in this business something comes along by someone you've never heard of that leaves you enthralled from start to finish and thirsty to know what else they have out. Errollyn Wallen's "The Girl in My Alphabet" is the first such release of the new millennium for me. And it’s fitting because her music embraces virtually every musical stream of the previous millennium, combining them with a level of sophistication, personal perspective and originality that make every work on this 70-minute release squeak with freshness. Born in Belize, Wallen studied dance at The Dance Theatre of Harlem and won a national poetry competition judged by Ted Hughes before studying composition at London and Cambridge Universities. She is one of the UK's brightest young composers, with commissions from the BBC, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, The Royal Ballet, and The Royal Opera House.

In her group, Ensemble X, which has the motto "We don't break down barriers in music...we don't see any," Wallen has performers capable of doing justice to her eclectic yet immediately emotionally compelling works. And in its makeup (cello, two pianos, soprano and baritone) she has an array of intriguing colors and possibilities at her disposal. The 13 tracks attest to her genius on all fronts. Her lyrics for the five-part song cycle “Are You Worried About the Rising Costs of Funerals” prove as intriguing and original as her music, dealing loosely with the topics of death, temptation and human bondage with striking clarity. The rest of the disc runs the gamut from a dark work for two pianos that resolves into "The Girl From Ipanema" to a "semi-choral" work for baritone and electronics, an impressive four-movement piece for chamber orchestra, and an impish work for toy pianos that references 17th century composer Louis Couperín.

Musically Wallen moves deftly from blues to gospel, minimalism to jazz (in both its American and European “ECM” orms), African music, serialism and the avant garde. Her music unfolds organically, with a clear understanding of orchestration and individual instrumental timbres. And throughout, it manages to transform before our ears, maintaining interest in short and long forms, while inviting both repeated and further listening.

This disc is a masterpiece.

Grade: Scorcher!

Daniel Buckley, Music Critic, Stereophile/Tucson Citizen 11 July 2002

Wallen works in Britain with her own ensemble and sees no barriers in music, yet she's definitely a serious "classical" composer; there is no hint of pop crossover or dumbing-down in these pieces. "Dervish" for cello and piano is that rare work that stops before you are ready - I wanted more of the Sufi-like spinning. "Louis' Loops" is set for Margaret Leng Tan's toy pianos, with fragments of Couperin ("Louis") between the ghostly tinkling. "Horseplay" is a serious ballet made for the Royal Ballet, and "In Our Lifetime" takes Nelson Mandela, the Xhosa language, tape loops and a terrific baritone, Mike Henry, on an intense, multi-tracked assault on South African angst. I usually hate didactic political pieces, but Wallen's "Lifetime" is art first and fascinating... as new music goes, "The Girl in My Alphabet" is a pretty tasty soup.

T. Hashimoto, San Francisco Examiner 16 July 2002

This is the first commercial CD to be devoted to the music of Errollyn Wallen and I very much hope it will not be the last. She is a wholly original and remarkable musician, whose talent ranges far and wide, from Courtney Pine, Des'ree, Eternal, heavy metal bands, BBC 1998 Proms (Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra), the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, The Royal ballet, and so on. She's also a lovely girl, but more importantly for us she is a spectacular composer.

Born in Belize, but long resident in London, Errollyn Wallen has a fearless and brilliant compositional technique that makes the long-passé minimalism and navel gazing attributes of more famous younger composers pale into insignificance. In her music we are confronted by a compelling, free-spirited and sometimes exasperating artist, and if you might think the inherent danger in such an all-encompassing approach is that her judgement tends to become obscured, then that is a risk that I as a mere listener am more than willing to take.

There is some marvellous stuff on this disc, especially the song cycle Are You Worried About the Rising Cost of Funerals?, the ballet Horseplay and the title track (for two pianos). I was not wholly convinced by Louis' Loops (the Louis being both Louis Couperin and Errollyn's godson, Louis Wallen), played here on two toy pianos, for I am not sure it really works as sound, but I'll continue to give it a go. The recordings are outstanding technically, and the texts of all the songs are printed. The performances are superb.

Wallen is that rare kind of composer: genuinely new, a breath of fresh air, someone who takes all of our preconceptions and stands them on their heads in kindly, loving fashion. If she carries on like this, we are in for some great things. I can't wait to hear her new community opera, commissioned for the Walton Centenary in Oldham this October, among other works in the pipeline. What about a genuine, wholly orchestral non-programmatic Symphony? I hope she's up for it, and that Avie brings out her album of songs - 'Meet Me At Harold Moores' - stunning material, stunningly performed. Do yourself a favour - buy this CD and make contact with a genuine composer in our midst.

Robert Matthew-Walker, International Record Review July 2002

There's something in a beautiful voice that lifts the spirit like nothing else. And though pop stars can transform their physical appearance through surgery, they can't yet do that with their singing tackle. Great voices transcend or make irrelevant the ageing process. Take Asha Bhosle (who outsells Madonna), for example, or Miriam Makeba. Or the venerable Manhattan Brothers, who appear on several tracks of Southern Grooves (MBDR) by Mbawula, a UK-based big band with a South African agenda. Another vocal talent, Pinese Saul, lights up the groove of Mra Khali, which features the drums/percussion team of Nic France and Francis Fuster.

There's also a South African connection in Errollyn Wallen's In Our Lifetime, composed in 1990 as a tribute to Nelson Mandela and performed by a multitracked, a cappella choir sung by British baritone Mike Henry. It's one of six substantial Wallen compositions in The Girl In My Alphabet (Avie). Wallen's previous album, Meet Me at Harold Moore's, was a collection of quirky pop songs such as Don't Panic and What's Up Doc, performed by a small team of jazz sessioneers, including Tim Harries, Courtney Pine and Errollyn's brother, Byron Wallen. The new set is a proper "classical" album, the sort you would expect to find at Harold Moore's legendary West End record shop. The title track is a vigorous workout for two pianos, based loosely on The Girl from Ipanema. Horseplay is one of Wallen's satisfyingly dense dance scores, performed by The Continuum Ensemble, a four-movement array of melodic and textural delights. This is not an album that establishes a single mood. It's more like a boxed set of novels: there's a huge amount of detail throughout, everything the product of a rigorous and lively musical intellect. Other pieces include Dervish, for cello and piano, and a song cycle for soprano and string quartet. The oddest track is a live recording of Margaret Leng Tan playing Louis' Loops on toy piano. Like some of John Cage's prepared-piano pieces, it feels a bit like world music from another planet.

John L Walters, The Guardian 19 April 2002

A first recording from a young composer rarely brings this amount of enjoyment but Errollyn Wallen knows how to entertain. As a creative debut this rivals Zadie Smith’s White Teeth for sheer gutsiness; a collage of high and pop culture assembled by a very smart mind indeed. There’s a great deal of humour here: from Louis’ Loops – a ‘what if’ fantasy that brings the mannerisms of French Baroque to the tinky-tonk of Margaret Leng Tans’ toy pianos – to the half-arch, half naïve characters in Are You Worried About the Rising Cost of Funerals? Wallen has good ears –the only low point is the Take Six-lite In Our Lifetime – and her references are skillfully mixed. But will she be the next Judith Weir or the next Nina Simone? Dervish and Horseplay would indicate the former but her Ravel-meets Jobim riff for two pianos, The Girl in My Alphabet, is nothing if not jazz.
Four Stars

Anna Picard, Independent on Sunday 17 April 2002

The first commercially available recording devoted entirely to the music of one of Britain’s most exciting young composers.

Errollyn Wallen is unsettingly versatile. Her works range from jazz songs (a highly successful sideline which she has toured as singer-songwriter) to opera, instrumental pieces to ballet. Her music is directly communicative, tonally based, recognizably turn-of-the-twenty-first-century. Although with one foot in the popular camp, she sees herself unequivocally as a composer in the modern classical tradition. Her facility for a good tune is evinced in her alternately quirky and sad cycle Are You Worried about the Rising Cost of Funerals? (1994) for which Wallen wrote her own texts, here beautifully sung by Patricia Rozario. Another side to her vocal style is provided by In Our Lifetime (1990), a tribute for baritone and tape to Nelson Mandela on his then impending release from prison.

Wallen’s instrumental works are richly diverse, with dance often a prominent feature. Dervish (2001) for cello and piano captures the Sufi whirling’s "rapt and still devotion" as well as the "passion that is in speed". The four dances of the ballet Horseplay (1998) are vivacious studies in motion. The delightful miniature Louis’ Loops (1999—named for a young cousin and the composer Couperin), given here in Margaret Leng Tan’s world premiere performance, includes ‘snippets’ of Couperin dances. Wallen herself is heard as pianist in the title track, The Girl in my Alphabet (1990), a blockbuster piano duo in which The Girl from Ipanema is used as the basis for what amounts to a compositional CV.

This then is a brilliant portrait disc of a composer with a very clear focus yet still expanding her range. The performances are uniformly excellent and Andrew Keener’s sound is rich if a touch bright. I cannot commend this disc strongly enough.

Guy Rickards, Gramophone July 2002

When people say they love music that is ‘sincere’, it is very likely that they are talking about the sort of thing that Errollyn Wallen writes. Her solo disc is full of tunes, catchy rhythmic ideas and a notion that ‘everything’ is music. This is a composer who has a distinctly personal voice - uncluttered with artificial ‘hipness’ or academic agendas - and a powerful voice it is.

The disc opens with Dervish, a moody piece for cello and piano that’s warmly executed by Matthew Sharp and Dominic Harlan. They take the music seriously, tapping its many moods with sophistication and flowing ease. The cycle of five songs for soprano and string quartet titled Are You Worried about the Rising Cost of Funerals? (with poems by the composer) runs the gamut of influences from traditional African to Michael Nyman and it’s a sharp, tuneful, well-heard piece. Soprano Patricia Rozario assays her challenging part effortlessly.

Less successful is the piece for toy piano titled Louis’ Loops though it’s wonderfully executed by Margaret Leng Tan (who Wallen calls ‘New York’s Kinky Dinky Diva’.) It has nice sections, especially the incorporated baroque dances but it’s simply too busy for the instrument. The same is true of the disc’s final opus, which leans a little too heavily on a gag: the whole thing swirls to a quotation of the song ‘Girl from Ipanema’—cute, but not enough payoff despite the interesting piano textures Wallen creates.

Horseplay, a multi-movement work for ensemble is the disc’s highpoint. It is an energetic, ebullient flight of fancy, wonderfully scored. Philip Headlam conducts The Continuum Ensemble with precision but also the perfect willingness to be a little rough around the edges when necessary. In Our Lifetime, a piece for baritone and tape, is a tribute to Nelson Mandela that beautifully and skilfully incorporates some South African music. This is the sort of release that a young composer dreams about---a thoughtful sample of her work, well-recorded and performed and attractively packaged.

Artistic Quality, Sound Quality: 9/10

Daniel Felsenfeld July 2002,

New York Times Feature

Allan Kozinn September 2002, The New York Times Online

Errollyn's forthcoming book Becoming a Composer will be published Faber by November 2nd

Musical Masterpieces is a new 3 part series for Sky Arts presented by Myleene Klass and Errollyn Wallen ( Sep 25; Oct 2; Oct 9 at 8pm)
Errollyn Wallen gives a rare solo performance of her internationally acclaimed songs — her Wigmore Hall debut as a performer.

After the concert Errollyn will sign copies of her forthcoming book Becoming a Composer.

The concert starts at 1pm and lasts an hour.
The report, carried out by online classical music magazine Bachtrack, is based on 27,124 listings for performances of living composers, which took place in 2022.
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