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Composers Sally Beamish sits on the steps of a stairwell smiling. She is wearing a blue jacket and has short red hair.

Interview with Sally Beamish

Sally Beamish discusses her work Distans ahead of it’s UK premiere at the Barbican on 20 June.


3-minute read

Sally Beamish’s Distans: Concerto for Violin and Clarinet recieves its long awaited UK Premiere at the Barbican on 20 June with violinist Janine Jansen and clarinetist Martin Fröst. Ahead of this event we caught up with Sally to ask her a few questions about the work and her inspiration.

The great appeal of Beamish’s music is the space it finds between softness and steel. Gramaphone

Quickfire Questions

Favourite season?
Autumn – new pencils, new starts, a new academic year. The weather closing in and the cosiness of being indoors. Guy Fawkes and the promise of Christmas and family reunions.

Non-musical hobbies?
Writing, painting, gardening.

What luxury possession would you take to a desert island?
My piano. I could play for hours and nobody would hear me.

Favourite artist outside of orchestral?
Novelist Kate Atkinson

Composer Sally Beamish rests her head on her arm smiling toward the camera. She is wearing a blue jacket and has short red hair.

© Ashely Coombes

In Depth

When starting a new piece what are the first steps you take?

As my music is generally commissioned, I already have a starting point. I know what the forces are, who the musicians will be, the duration of the piece, and the venue of the premiere. This all acts as a catalyst for ideas, and I listen to the performers play, and talk to them about the kind of piece they might like. In this case, I then wrote a short piece for violin and clarinet as a preparation for the concerto. I called it The Flittin’ — a reference to my return from Scotland to England in 2018.

What inspired you to write the work?

Janine Jansen approached me in 2017 about writing a concerto for her, with the Concertgebouw. We met to discuss it, and she suggested a double concerto with Martin Fröst. I was excited about the idea of putting these two fantastic soloists together, and had the idea of drawing on the folk music of their two homelands, and of my adopted home, Scotland.

Why were Janine Jansen and Martin Fröst an inspiration to write for?

They both have exceptional stage presence. Janine’s playing is commanding, sensitive and expressive; Martin inspires with his physicality and rhythmic drive. Both are supremely musical beings.

Violinist Janine Jansen

Janine Jansen performing with the LSO

You’ve mentioned it draws on Scottish and Scandinavian connections, how does this sound within the work?

Dance lies at the heart of folk music, and in many countries is an integral part of everyday life. Two of my children live in Sweden, and my younger son recently moved from Scotland to Denmark. I myself returned to England six years ago, and felt the separation keenly. During the lockdown I learned Swedish, in order to feel closer to my ‘Swedish’ children and grandson.

I wrote the piece in 2020, when the world felt strange, with my family scattered and far away. This is expressed in the first movement with references to Swedish herding calls and to the nyckelharpa (a bowed, keyed fiddle). The second movement draws on the short duo I mentioned earlier – a wistful look back at Scotland. The third quotes a Dutch troubadour song and uses early Dutch dance rhythms, with a triumphant climax followed by a wistful, reflective ending.

What would you like audiences to take away from the piece?

Distans (Swedish for ‘distance’) is about separation, but also about the common language of music, and its ancient origins in bells, stones, horns, bones — and dance. There is a sense of longing for connection, which is resolved through the piece with playful and expressive duets between the soloists, who ultimately go their separate ways as the piece ends. The work expresses my own experience of lockdown, exploring ideas of both isolation and connection.

The piece has been rescheduled for us to perform a couple times, how does it feel for it to finally be happening with the LSO?

All the initially scheduled performances were cancelled and postponed, and in a way this uncertain journey seemed apt, given the subject matter. But we are in a very different place now, compared to the premiere, which was performed to cameras in an empty concert hall in Stockholm. This had its own poignancy. These performances by the LSO signify the resolution of a long and challenging journey. I am thrilled that the piece will at last be performed by the LSO, with its superb soloists and the marvellous Gianandrea Noseda. It will be a celebration!

In Concert