As part of New Art West Midlands 2018, five artists and alumni of the exhibition were awarded coveted residencies with the National Trust. The residencies are part of an ongoing dialogue that aims to support West Midlands artists as part of Trust New Art, the National Trust’s programme of contemporary arts.

Larissa E Shaw was awarded a residency at The Firs, the birthplace of Sir Edward Elgar. Set in sight of the beautiful rolling Malvern Hills, he took great inspiration from the area. We spoke to Larissa about her experience.


How did you go about this residency? Did the National Trust wish you to explore anything in particular? Did they expect a final outcome?

I spent the mornings researching in the archives located at the back of the cottage, and during the afternoon I would be talking with the volunteers and visitors at The Firs.

I found communicating with the volunteers particularly important. Some of the volunteers are, what I and most others would classify as, ‘Elgar experts’. Many had a keen interest in composers across the globe, and have established their own well known societies, so the fluidity between Elgar and the rest of the musical world has been invaluable to me.

I attended talks in the visitor centre were rich in information, and allowed me to see how visitors were educated about Elgar, and more specifically, what they were most interested in.

I also spent a long weekend hiking and camping in the Malvern Hills, where it is believed Elgar often visited to gain inspiration for his works. Interestingly, I have been told by a few different sources that Elgar would have his driver take him to the top of the Hills so he could feed the birds. He would throw the feed up into the air, wait for the birds to land, and then write his scores and manuscripts where the birds landed.

There is a style of music called Aleatoric music, or ‘chance music’. This music, in some element of the composition, is left to chance. It is most associated with procedures in which the chance element involved a limited number of possibilities. An example of this would be to write a stave (the lines which illustrate sheet music) on paper, and hold the paper to the light against a window. The illuminated paper would show blotches of pigments which could be converted into a movement of musical notes ascending (going up), and descending (going down) throughout the score, as well as the rest of the paper. Well known composers of Aleatoric music are Stravinsky (early 1900s) and Henry Cowell (1930s). This method was also was used by visual artists such as Duchamp (1913-1915, interestingly living at the same time as Elgar) and John Cage’s Music of Changes (1951).

The National Trust wanted me to explore what it was about Elgar that sparked his ‘genius’, and how that may spark genius in visitors too. My residency has investigated key moments and events in Elgar’s life that shaped him into one of Britain’s greatest composers. Although The Firs did not expect an outcome (which allowed me enough mental and physical room to do whatever I wished) I plan to write a lot about my time at the property, and hopefully reveal some unknown things about Elgar. I hope in time this will manifest in physical works that will become a dialogue of ongoing investigations in the music world.

What did you think of the house? What inspired you?

I think that it is important for the National Trust to keep the house as it would have been in Elgar’s time for the ongoing education to visitors and for the rest of the music world. I have been to other composers houses such as Eric Satie in Honfleur, Northern France; Johannes Brahms in Baden-Baden, South-West Germany, and M.K. Čiurlionis in Vilnius, Lithuania – all of which are unique in style and showcase the composers’ lives.

What was important and of interest to me, was that The Firs have their own archives, a large part which is now in the British Library.

Is there anything you have learned on this residency that you will take with you into other projects?

I have learned how to interact with public visitors, and how to tailor my approach to different visitors too. I have learnt a lot about the National Trust, how an artist can work within the organisation and how an artist’s work can be useful as a means of delivering information to their visitors.

Within my practice itself, I have research that keenly interests me and has built a bridge connecting my musical education and art practice; something I have been struggling to do for a few years. The work and research made during the residency is definitely something that will occupy me for some time and see me through a number of projects.

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