We salute composer, artistic director, conductor, musician and academic Dr Shirley J. Thompson, whose symphony, New Nation Rising, a 21st Century Symphony was the precursor to the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony

Shirley J. Thompson has so many career highlights, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Currently Reader in Composition and Performance at the University of Westminster she is also an innovative composer, and is known for fusing classical and contemporary genres, as well as integrating dance, spoken word and visual art into many of her works. She has worked across a variety of artistic mediums, including composing and musical direction for television, theatre, opera, ballet and, of course, symphony. As she says, “My music defies all categorisation; my desire is to make classical music relevant to its time. Like everything, music evolves”.

A ground-breaker on so many levels, she was the first woman to compose and musically direct music for a major drama series at the BBC and has been nominated for, and won, a plethora of awards from esteemed organisations including the Arts Council and Southbank Centre. She has several times been named in The Powerlist, a list of the most influential people of African or African Caribbean heritage in the UK, and is there again, in this year’s Top 10. The Metro listed her as “one of the most inspirational Black British Women” and we certainly agree – what an incredible role model for today’s young women. If ever there were an #Artskicker, she is it.  

A native East Londoner, Shirley was born and raised in Stratford, where she still lives. Her musical journey began with playing the violin for youth symphony orchestras in London as well as choral singing with local choirs. She later studied musicology at the University of Liverpool and specialised in composition at Goldsmith’s College. She soon landed her first major commission for her chamber orchestral work, Visions with the Greenwich International Festival, and was nominated for the Woman of the Year award in recognition of her contribution to the arts for her score for the opera, A Child of the Jago. To commemorate 100 days of Barack Obama’s Presidency, Thompson was commissioned by the South Bank Centre to compose the poignant Voice of Change (2009) performed by Principals of the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall.

“If Bach were alive today I’m sure he’d be doing similar things”

A cultural activist by nature, Shirley has been a prolific contributor to East London’s cultural landscape as well as leading on issues of diversity in the music industry over many years, having devised innovative arts education programmes including the Newham Symphony Schools Spectacular, which provided music education for children ranging in ages from 7-17 years, and which laid the groundwork for what eventually became the national education scheme, Every Child A Musician. She has served over the past several years on several national arts institutions including the Arts Council and is a member of BASCA’s Classical Executive Committee.

The story behind New Nations Rising and the Olympic opening ceremony
Originally commissioned for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, Shirley’s symphony, New Nation Rising, a 21st Century Symphony is a celebration of London’s 1,000 year history (sound familiar?) and was performed and recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s also acknowledged by many as the conceptual influence behind the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. In keeping with Shirley’s talent for integrating artistic practices, the symphony encompassed two choirs, solo singers, a rapper and dhol drummers alongside an orchestra. “If Bach were alive today I’m sure he’d be doing similar things” Shirley says. A 2004 Guardian article, Composer tipped for Olympic theme wrote about Shirley “being touted as uniquely qualified to mark what is being sold as the most culturally diverse Olympics ever” adding that Shirley was tipped as the preferred choice to become the composer for the 2012 Olympic Theme. Sadly, this was not to be, and any self-respecting East Londoner would have to wonder why.

Check out Shirley’s website for a more comprehsive view of what she’s accomplished, which is nothing short of amazing: shirleythompson.com

Images courtesy of Dr Shirley J Thompson