Prof Shirley Thompson

Prof Shirley Thompson

Dr Shirley J. Thompson OBE  - BA, MMus, PhD, DLitt, DMus, PGCE, fHEA, FRSA

Composer, Conductor, Artistic Director, Educator, Violinist

“A pioneering and wonderfully dramatic composer…” BBC Radio 3

“ A leading voice in the world of contemporary classical music…” Classic FM

“Shirley J. Thompson's extraordinary symphony work, New Nation Rising, should be heard by as wide an audience as possible...It's a vibrant, exciting and totally original work by a composer with breath-taking vision.” WHPK FM– Chicago 


The music of composer Shirley J. Thompson is performed and screened worldwide and often described as “superbe” (Le Figaro). A visionary artist and cultural activist, Thompson is the first woman in Europe to have composed and conducted a symphony within the last 40 years. New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony performed and recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is an epic musical story celebrating London’s thousand-year history, and one in which the RPO is accompanied by two choirs, solo singers, a rapper and dhol drummers, a total of nearly 200 performers. This extraordinary work was originally commissioned to celebrate Her Majesty the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002 and the concept was latterly assumed as a framework for the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. She has also composed extensively for TV/film, theatre, dance and opera production, always driven by the belief in the transformative power of music to affect social, cultural and political change an approach that has been unique in the genre.

 Thompson’s musical experience began with her playing the violin for various youth symphony orchestras in London, as well as choral singing with local choirs in Newham. After studying Musicology at the University of Liverpool and then specialising in Composition at Goldsmiths’ College, her first major commission came from the Greenwich International Festival, when she composed a chamber orchestral work entitled Visions, performed by the Greenwich Ensemble.


After writing several instrumental and vocal ensemble pieces, Thompson started writing for film and television. She is considered to be the first woman to compose and musically direct music in the BBC Lime Grove Studios. Her music for the major BBC drama series, South of the Border was selected as a Top 20 BBC TV Theme and her score for the film, Dreaming Rivers, earned a prize at the Mannheim Film Festival in that year. She subsequently composed music for a number of television documentaries and drama programmes.


In 1994 she launched and directed The Shirley Thompson Ensemble at London’s South Bank Centre, her own ensemble of instrumental soloists, singers, dancers, visual artists and poets. It was with this group that she created ground-breaking compositions which seamlessly integrated contemporary classical music orchestration with improvisation, pop, world music, dance and the spoken word. With her love of reggae, dub, soul, township and afro-beat, her concerts featured her arrangements of music by popular artists such as Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Fela Kuti and many more.


She also developed compositions that integrated video imagery and contemporary dance for the concert stage subsequently becoming a leading exponent of inter-disciplinary music composition and performance. Thompson also works extensively with multi-media, devising innovative arts education programmes. The exemplary, Newham Symphony Schools Spectacular for children ranging in ages from 7-17 years is one such scheme. The latter programme, devised in 2002, led to the introduction of the national education scheme, Every Child A Musician, being adopted in the London borough in 2010.


An aficionado of dance, Thompson has created music for contemporary choreographers, including commissions for the Royal Ballet School’s choreographic workshops. Her most famous dance score for solo cello and string orchestra for the choreographer, Russell Maliphant, Shift, forms a part of the multiple-award-winning ballet, PUSH starring Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant. Their international tour has led to performances at major venues in over 40 countries including: Sadler’s Wells and London Coliseum, England; Theater Heilbronn, Germany; Athens Arena, Greece; Le Metropole, Lausanne, Switzerland; Opera de Lyon, Theater Champs-Elysees, Odyssud Theatre (Toulouse) France; Teatro Comunale, (Modena); Teatro Arcimboldi (Milan); Auditorium Conciliazone di Roma (Rome); Teatro alla Fenice (Venice); San Carlo (Naples) Italy; Teatro Real (Madrid) Spain; Moscow State Opera House (Russia); St George’s Theatre, New Zealand; Sydney Opera House, Australia, City Center, New York, USA and Marinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, Russia.

 Music for the theatrical stage includes her score for the play, The Lodger (Theatre Royal, Stratford East) and A Child of the Jago, an opera in two acts presented by the South Bank Centre with sponsorship from the Arts Council. A Child of the Jago earned her a nomination for the Woman of the Year award in recognition of her contribution to the Arts in 1997.


Since her 2-Act opera, A Child of the Jago, Thompson has composed a number of music theatre works. The Woman Who Refused to Dance (2007) was specially commissioned for the opening of the Parliamentary exhibition, British Slave Trade: Abolition, Parliament and People. Spirit Songs (2007) an orchestral song-trilogy was performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre and to commemorate 100 days of Barack Obama’s presidency, Thompson was commissioned by South Bank Centre to compose Voice of Change (2009). The BBC Concert Orchestra Principals and vocal soloists performed this work.

 In February 2012 Thompson’s Mandela Tales, was premiered in the Purcell Room at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The work features a number of stories from a variety of regions and traditions across Africa with storytelling, original live music, video projection and dance. Shirley J. Thompson had a successful South African premiere of Mandela Tales, performed by the Gordonstoun School in Cape Town, for the GREAT British Week of Culture in February 2013.

 In January 2014, Shirley J. Thompson conducted the premiere of her new choral commission, Westminster Anthem at Westminster Abbey, to commemorate 175 years of the University of Westminster. Performers included the Westminster Abbey Organist, Daniel Cock, Westminster Chorus and Westminster Brass. 

In February she was Composer-in-Residence, for the Lynn Conservatory, New Music Festival in Florida where the Lynn Philharmonia gave a number of orchestral performances of her works. She returned to present a showcase performance of Heroines of Opera, a new chamber opera trilogy begun in 2006 with the Spirit Songs orchestral trilogy for solo voice and chamber orchestra, at the Women of the World Festival 2014, staged at the South Bank Centre. The AACO performed her works in Los Angeles at MOMA for IWD as well as the Latin American Museum.


Thompson has been developing a series of chamber operas for solo voice, speaker and orchestra that feature iconic women in history that have been mostly overlooked in mainstream historical narratives, entitled Heroines of Opera. This innovative project where female leads have heroic identities, flies in the face of the operatic convention where women are most often drawn as the femme fatale.  As well as developing previously submerged narratives into stage performances, she has created lecture/performances, presenting the heroines in the series at a variety of universities and venues such as the South Bank Centre, the Maritime Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museums.


She is currently working with the Minerva Scientifica/Franklin Effect project (since 2015) with the Electric Voice Theatre and Judith Weir, Master of the Queen’s Music as mentor. Here four women composers and four women scientists collaborate to produce musical artworks that integrate scientific research, composition and performance. The resulting pieces have been performed at venues including the Science Museum, the Anatomy Museum, Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. A CD of the works, The Franklin Effect, is now available on First Hand records and has garnered significant media attention.

 Concurrently, Thompson created the work, Sun Beam (Ilanga) as a result of her residency at Rambert with the Fidelio Trio and dancer/choreographer, Dane Hurst, in January 2015.  The opera Sacred Mountain: Incidents in the Life of Queen Nanny of the Maroons was premiered at Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival in that same year.

 Work on the Scientifica Project continued through 2016 with a number of significant performances. The Oltenia Philharmonic gave the Romanian premiere of her symphony, New Nation Rising in the Craiova Contemporary Music Festival under the baton of maestro Alexandru Iosub. She also received a number of accolades including the UWI Luminary Award, the University of Westminster Chancellor’s Award, and made No.8 on the Thomson/Reuter Powerlist.

 Shirley J. Thompson PhD is Reader and Head of Composition and Performance at the University of Westminster. She has served for over 20 years on several national arts institutions, including the London Arts Board, the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Newham Council Cultural Forum. She was the first female executive of the Association of Professional Composers and now serves as an elected member of the Classical Music Executive for the British Academy of Song Writers, Composers and Authors. She has been named in the Evening Standard’s ‘Power List of Britain’s Top 100 Most Influential African and African Caribbean People from 2010 to 2017.


BLACK SOUND EXHIBITION, Black cultural Archives, 7 April – 4 November 2017 Featured artiste

VENICE BIENNALE – DIASPORA PAVILLION 13 May – 26 November 2017 All the World is Better Meets The Woman Who Refused to Dance

HEROINES OF OPERA PERFORMANCE at Tete A Tete: the Opera Festival, 27 July 2017

PEGASUS OPERA GALA– Alison Buchanon sings St Paul’s Church, 5 October 2017

LONDON SONG FESTIVAL – Nadine Benjamin sings at Hinde Methodist Church

WOW Equator Festival – King’s Place – Women & Words – Poetry & Music 20 October 2017 poems by Phyllis Wheatley and Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, 21 October 2017


‘LOST’ WOMEN COMPOSERS BROADCAST BBC International Women’s Day March 2018



South Bank Awards 2005, PUSH contemporary ballet

Olivier Awards 2005, PUSH contemporary ballet

University of the West Indies Luminary Award 2016

Chancellor’s Award, University of Westminster 2016/7

Powerlist Top 100 Most Influential African and Caribbean People 2010 – 2017

The Metro's Most Inspiring British Women of Colour, No.3​*​


Arts Council of England

PRS Foundation

Newham Council, Department of Culture

South Bank Centre

Strategic Funds, University of Westminster 2016 and 2017

Pot 1, University of Westminster - Visit to Grahamstown International Arts Festival. Contributed to BBC Free Thinking Festival  - Singing and Dancing for a Socially Cohesive Society

Dr Shirley J. Thompson creates, produces, artistically directs and conducts large-scale stage works including opera, contemporary ballet and orchestral productions for the concert hall, contemporary dance spaces and music theatre/opera opera houses that push the boundaries of traditional classical music forms and content, with the intention of creating diversity in contemporary classical composition and strengthening its audience reach.


HEROINES OF OPERA trilogy for solo female voice, speaker, orchestra and video projection

The series of operas examines the lives of historical female icons that have been submerged in historical narratives through music composition for solo Soprano, Speaker, Chamber Orchestra, Dancers & Multi-media. The works break with the operatic convention of femme fatales by creating female characters that are triumphant and heroic.

Few operatic works for solo voice exist, and mostly these are confined to the 20th Century (including Monodrome by Harrison Birtwistle, Three Songs of a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies and Twice Through the Heart by Mark Anthony Turnage). All have faced similar challenges, centering principally upon the sustaining of a narrative involving many characters implicit in the narrative but only one explicitly visible in the performance space. The multi-media opera, Dido Elizabeth Belle adds significantly to this repertoire, by devolving some of the narratological impact of the singer to other narrative agents: the Speaker in on/off-stage narration; on-stage dancers and so on, and by mixing elements more commonly found in popular music genres with those more traditionally associated with the genre of opera.


Queen Nanny of the Maroons - for solo voice, speaker, orchestra and video projection 60 minutes


Dido Elizabeth Belle - for solo voice, speaker, orchestra and video projection 50 minutes


The Woman Who Refused to Dance  - for solo voice, speaker, orchestra and video projection - 50 minutes

§        What are the challenges to sustaining and developing a single vocal line embodying the narration within a music theatre context?

§        To what extent can the dance/movement and spoken word elements of the production amplify the narrative?

§        What are the challenges to sustaining and developing a single vocal line embodying the narration within a music theatre context?

§        To what extent can the dance/movement and spoken word elements of the production amplify the narrative?

In 2006 Shirley J. Thompson was commissioned to commemorate the 250 year anniversary of the Act of Abolition of the trade in enslaved African persons that was made law in 1807. With a very wide brief, she researched extensively and decided to represent the three continents involved in the trans-Atlantic trade by featuring three iconic women during the period in history. She thereby created an operatic trilogy after being inspired by images of three individual women. These include, The Woman Who Refused to Dance (Africa), Queen Nanny of the Maroons (the West Indies) and after coming across the enchanting painting at Kenwood House attributed to Johann Zoffany (1779), Dido Elizabeth Belle. Intrigued by the painting, Thompson aimed to portray the Goddess-like beauty of her subject in parallel with the potential double life that she could have led in London …

The works have been performed at a number of key venues including: the South Bank Centre, the Victoria & Albert museum, The Maritime Museum, the Edna Manley Concert Hall, Tete A Tete Contemporary Opera Festival, Women of the World Fetival, St Pauls, Cathedral, Westminster Palace, Parliament, Diaspora Pavilion - Venice Biennale      

1. Sacred Mountain – opera composition, opera performance and workshops, vimeo


2. Franklin Effect – Choral composition, choral performances, CD,


3. Superwomen of Science – Opera composition for solo voice, performances


4. Women in Music Series, BBC Radio 3


5. New Nation Rising – Orchestral Composition and performances


6. The Woman Who Refused to Dance – opera commission, performance, CD recording, vimeo, Diaspora Pavilion/Venice Biennale 2017


  • Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media