Interview with Shirley Ly: ‘My personal motto is to compose music from the heart.’

Shirley Ly - Classical Composer

Shirley Ly is an up-and-coming contemporary classical music composer from Greenwich, London in the UK, with Chinese and Vietnamese heritage. Her music is described to be a bridge between traditional classical, romantic, and minimalist music, with Eastern and jazz elements. We gave her an interview recently covering her musical background, inspirations and future projects. Please read!

Links to her music below:

Website, Spotify, Soundcloud, Youtube, Instagram.

What are you about?

    I am a contemporary classical music composer from Greenwich, London in the UK, with Chinese and Vietnamese heritage. I was classically trained as a pianist since around 5 years old and got into composition when I was a teenager. Note that I am not a full-time musician. My main day job is in financial services, so I compose on either weekday evenings / weekends – composing helps me wind down and relax!

    I have produced two albums, ‘Blossom’ and ‘Impetus’, which feature 21 pieces composed for piano, violin and cello, including solos, duets, trios and quartets. The pieces capture my reflections on nature (i.e., swallows’ journeys to their nests, the seasons), living in London, dance, relationships with family and other loved ones, travel (i.e. to Berlin and Amsterdam), and dreams. My personal motto in respect of music, is to compose music from the heart. I am not driven by considerations related to theory or trying to be different. My heritage is important for me, as it does influence me when I compose – some of my music features Eastern melodies e.g., my piece, Easterly Winds, which is inspired by my grandfather, Tian Chen, who was a distinguished painter, poet and photographer.

    My music has been played around half a million times around more than 100 countries around the world spanning six continents, and I have performed my music across a variety of venues, including various churches and bars, and the Palace of Westminster in London. I will be performing in many more venues going forward so keep an eye out for more details.

    Can you tell us a story about when and how you got started in music?

      I loved playing the piano when I was a kid in nursery – I was constantly playing tunes like ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’ and so my teacher prompted my mum to get me a piano, and lessons. Note that my parents do not have any musical background – they’re both in the food industry (lucky for me as I get free yummy food)!

      I started learning the piano at a young age, however, my fascination with classical music skyrocketed during my teenage years after watching the film, the Pianist, which follows a Polish Jewish pianist’s journey to survival during World War II. I was moved to tears when I watched the scene where the pianist (who was clearly malnourished and weak), plays Chopin’s Ballade in G Minor after being discovered by an empathising Nazi officer in his hiding place. As he was playing, I felt humanity flash right before my eyes, and in the film, the Nazi officer was frozen in a contemplative state. Sorrow, devastation, pain, tragedy, rage, redemption – captured in the piece of music. How powerful classical music can be, and the level of catharsis it can bring! All I wanted to do after was to immerse myself into the world of classical music – listening to various composers (amongst my favourites are Bach, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Rachmaninoff, and Ennio Morricone), attending performances, playing pieces like the Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique and Chopin’s nocturnes, and composing pieces inspired by my own reflections of the world. I also studied GCSE and A-Level Music, courses which were taught by a very passionate teacher, Michael Humphrey – those courses were my favourite at school.

      How would you describe your music to a first-time listener?

        My music is described to be a bridge between traditional classical, romantic, and minimalist music, with Eastern and jazz elements. I compose for traditional classical instruments e.g. the violin, cello and piano – relatively minimalist in the grand scheme of things, however I believe there is so much one can do with these instruments! Most of the music being played at the large venues i.e. the Royal Festival Hall and Royal Albert Hall in London, feature large ensembles like symphony orchestras – I hope to also be able to showcase the power of small ensembles, or just the solo instrument.

        My music features melodic lines, tonal harmonies, and compared to a lot of contemporary classical music out there, it is not experimental. For this, I have been continuously criticised for not being remarkable. I appreciate this criticism, however, I choose not to pay too much attention to it, as I am simply composing music from the heart, that I enjoy doing and listening to.

        In the future, I will be looking to incorporate electronic music soon with my pieces – I absolutely love listening to electronic music, mostly melodic techno, and draw lots of inspiration from this genre. I am particularly fascinated how accessible this genre of music is, in comparison to classical music, as it is played in many more variety of venues, and arguably at larger scales.

        What do you hope listeners get out of your music?

          When listening to a piece I composed, I hope listeners will be able to visualise or feel what I visualise or feel at the time of composing that piece i.e. experiencing heart break and recovery following a relationship breakdown, walking through Berlin at dawn, admiring the canals of Amsterdam, being taught Chinese art and calligraphy by my grandfather, walking through scenic countryside. To help with this, I make sure to always give a description of the piece – whether online, or verbally before performing each piece.

          What projects are you working on right now?

            I am working on two new albums, ‘Paradise’ and ‘9 Pieces About Cats’ to be released in 2023. Paradise focuses on the sheer beauty, power, vastness and mysteriousness of the ocean. I absolutely love swimming, surfing, diving, and sailing in the ocean so through doing these activities, I get a lot of inspiration from the ocean. I have fortunately been able to visit some of the most beautiful places in the world i.e. Barbados, the Red Sea in Egypt, where you get to see a lot of wonderful sea life. The album features works for piano, violin and cello, where many of the pieces are solo pieces. I find that it is relatively rare these days to be able to see solo performances of piano, violin and cello, and I really want to showcase the beauty and power which can be created through these instruments alone.

            ‘9 Pieces About Cats’ as obvious in the name, is about cats! I absolutely adore cats, and animals in general. A charming pregnant cat adopted me during lockdown, and she gave birth to 4 adorable kitties – I kept all of them, and they are so loving and fun. They all have unique personalities. My album is inspired by them for sure, and I hope to raise awareness about how loving and fun cats are – they are often perceived as cold and lonely animals, but absolutely that’s not the case.

            In 2024, I plan to compose orchestral works inspired by my travels in South-East Asia. I recently travelled to Vietnam and felt very emotional about its history and the resilience of its people. I was also mesmerised by its natural beauty – various limestone mountains, singing forests, and the many colours of birds and butterflies. I hope to capture my reflections of Vietnam in orchestral works.

            Anything your fans need to know? Upcoming shows, releases, etc?

              Please visit my website, or follow me on my social media to keep an eye out for exactly when my new albums, Paradise and 9 Pieces About Cats will be released. Paradise will be released in the Summer of 2023. 9 Pieces About Cats will be released in the Autumn of 2023. You will also be able to see when I will be performing in London. I perform in concerts mainly in London for now but will also be performing overseas in the near future.  

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