Student spotlight: Erin Thomson, Kimie Composition Prize winner

Erin Thomson is this year’s recipient of the Kimie Composition Prize, which offers composers an opportunity to write for a variety of non-concert environments.

The award is part of a collaboration with Live Music Now Scotland, which has a policy of commissioning brand new classical music, and giving an emerging composer an opportunity to have their work heard. Previous winners include recent BMUs Composition graduates Electra Perivolaris, Matthew Grouse, Rylan Gleave and Gillian Walker.

Erin studied composition under the tutelage of Dr. Linda Buckley where she earned a first-class honours degree with an endorsement of Music Education with Distinction. Erin is currently studying her Masters in Music, specialising in composition under the tutelage of Dr Colin Broom.

Here, we find out what winning means to Erin, some of her RCS highlights and what sparked her love of the arts.

You’re the 2022 recipient of the Kimie Composition Prize at RCS, what does it mean to you?

It’s an honour to be selected for the Kimie Composition Prize and gain the opportunity to work with Live Music Now. They do some incredible work making music accessible to a wide range of audiences, particularly to communities who may not normally have these experiences. I believe it is incredibly valuable to welcome all groups of people into the world of music, particularly post-pandemic.

The prize is an opportunity to write for a variety of non-concert environments, can you tell us about your piece?

The Graceful Art of Walking on Stilts is composed for an audience of children with additional support needs. It has been composed for Campus Trio (Richard Scholfield, John Craig and Maria Urian) and working alongside them has made this experience all the more rewarding. 

I am excited to eventually have the work performed in front of the intended audience and see their reaction.

What was the inspiration behind it?

The inspiration comes from a framed picture that has hung in my mum’s kitchen for as long as I can remember. The drawing, dated 1909, shows eight frames that depict an innocent character attempting to master the stilts, and failing hilariously. The music is split into eight micro-movements, each drawing inspiration from an aspect of its corresponding sketch.

When I was awarded the Kimie Prize, I knew that this had to be the inspiration for the piece. I thought the music would be a great accompaniment to the unique drawing and carry on its legacy. Alongside the visual aid, I feel the pairing of these two art forms will enhance the audience experience and support my vision for this piece.

You’re also part of the Engaged Composer Professional Development initiative. Can you offer an insight into the experience?

The Engaged Composer has been an incredibly rewarding experience, providing insight into the administrative and practical aspects of delivering projects within community groups. I worked alongside BMus 3 composer Amy Stewart and we went into four schools to deliver a one-off workshop, in total we worked with 13 classes ranging from Primary years 3-7. 

The workshop aimed to challenge the pupils’ perception of the music and broaden their imaginations to hear music everywhere in the world, with a focus on the natural environment. It was incredible to see the influence that the workshop had on each class, particularly in the students with additional support needs. The Kimie Composition Prize is an excellent next step as it allows me to take all the experience I learnt in the Engaged Composer and apply it to a new composition for this specific audience. 

How important is it for students to have opportunities like these?

I believe it is incredibly valuable for students to have opportunities in a wide range of settings. These schemes provide rewarding experiences within community groups but also working with professional musicians and organisations, such as Live Music Now Scotland and Sound Scotland who are both renowned for their inclusive performance opportunities for emerging performers, and composers. 

Within RCS, the PLUG festival is always the highlight of the year, particularly for a composer as it’s an essential experience that is both rewarding and challenging. For some composers, it’s the first time they’ll hear their music live or get feedback from professional musicians and this experience will stay with them into their professional careers. It’s also an enriching week where you get to listen to what your peers have been working on. 

Erin Thomson rests her right arm on a ledge and looks off to the left.
Erin Thomson photographed by Robert McFadzean

Your work Pentimentum was performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra recently in a concert to celebrate the orchestra’s 30-year relationship with conductor Martyn Brabbins (a Visiting Professor of Conducting at RCS). How did it all unfold?

As soon as Martyn Brabbins raised his baton and the first note in the trumpet rang out in the rehearsal, my breath was taken away from me. Martyn was invaluable to the experience and provided me with thoughts, opinions and feedback, which was very interactive and we would discuss slight changes which could elevate the music. It was an experience I’ll never forget, and of course, none of this would have been possible without the talented musicians performing the music.

How did it feel to hear your work performed in such a special setting?

It’s difficult to put into words, the whole day was incredibly overwhelming and I was wracked with nerves and excitement from the rehearsal to the concert. It’s almost unfathomable being in such a beautiful space and the music just surrounds and envelops you. The whole afternoon was made so much more special by having my family there to support me.

Listen to Erin talk about the experience on BBC Radio 3.

What sparked your love of the arts?

I honestly can’t remember a specific moment that sparked my passion for music and the arts, I think there were a lot of small moments that accumulated over time. I went to GAMTA and did Irish dancing from a young age, I started to learn saxophone and then guitar and piano, and music just became part of my identity. I remember playing my grandparents’ wedding song on guitar for their 50th anniversary, Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers, and later playing my first ever composition on piano for them. I think that these moments and the connections they form are the spark and I’m lucky that it happens every time I get to do what I love. 

What made you decide to study at RCS?

RCS became my goal when I attended the music open day and decided that if I wanted to practice composition and gain experience, this is where I needed to be. I never had the passion to travel for my studies and staying close to my family is important to me, so I had to choose between Glasgow colleges, university or conservatoire and I was adamant this is where I was going to study. 

I am naturally a very determined person and once I set my mind on something, I will put all my effort into making it happen, so I applied a year early so that I could receive feedback on my scores and hoped the panel would remember me the next year. And I’m still studying five years later. 

Any RCS highlights/favourite memories?

Working with Martyn Brabbins and the BBC SSO to bring my orchestra composition to life has to be the highlight of my composition career to date, and it’s thanks to RCS and their partnerships that I was granted this opportunity. Referring back to the PLUG festival, I have worked in rehearsals with RCS students and professional ensembles before and it all felt like it was leading up to that moment in the City Halls, sitting amongst one of Scotland’s professional orchestras and conductors and hearing them play one of my scores. 

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