Adopt a Composer blog: Subtle textures and attentive playing

Carmel Smickersgill describes preparing for the premiere with the Junior Leeds Conservatoire Ensemble Creative as part of their Adopt a Composer 2019/20 collaboration.

After a great time recording the piece in February, I was really excited to return to the Junior Leeds Conservatoire to help out with a live performance of the new piece. The creative collective were performing it as part of a day festival where ensembles, individuals and bands from the junior conservatoire showcased what they’d been working on. 

As per usual, the ensemble were really quick to put the piece together and really committed to the ideas behind it. The sensitivity in listening to each other as well as the ideas members put forward were a brilliant addition to a piece of music which will shift and evolve with every incarnation. It’s really rewarding working with young people who are so open to just giving stuff a go and putting care and attention into a new piece of music. It also helps when they’re all clearly committed to their instruments and creativity. 

'Having the ability to express yourself through your own music is an essential skill for all musicians. When you add to that the opportunity to work collaboratively in creating new music, you have a project that will have huge positive impact on the people involved.' - Karen Gourlay, Head of Leeds Junior Conservatoire

Every time I’ve gone into the centre I come away feeling full of energy and feeling really inspired to make more pieces like this. The distribution of ownership on the material makes performing the piece feel like a truly communal experience. I had so much fun combining the group’s ideas along with my own. One particular highlight was the lyric 'we’re not looking for approval, we’re just looking for a way to make you bounce'. This was offered up by vocalist Joe and was such a perfect summary of the piece’s message.  

We performed the piece in The Venue at Leeds Conservatoire fairly early on a Saturday morning. I think it was a loud and bright start to the audience’s weekend with moments of subtle textures and attentive playing throughout. As it was with the recording session back in February, the venue staff and the tutors were super helpful, encouraging and fun to work with. Big thanks again to Ben Gaunt, who I think was running several performances throughout the morning, but really put time aside to focus on the piece amidst the business. Much appreciated. 

As a final thought, I’ve enjoyed working with this group immensely, I hope they all keep writing and creating music in whatever genre they find (which I don’t doubt they will). 

Ben Gaunt working the keyboard

Ben Gaunt, Junior Leeds Conservatoire composition teacher, offers his thoughts on the collaboration:

It has been a wild, unpredictable, wonderful project and I am deeply indebted to Carmel for her incredible music, and her unflappable attitude. I first met Carmel at the Adopt a Creator Group Day, back in February 2020. We had a chat about what she might want to write and how the collaboration might work. I felt so confident that my ensemble would be able to offer her an amazing experience... and then Covid-19 happened.

Whilst I think every ensemble, whether professional or leisure-time, has been deeply impacted by the pandemic, our project was completely derailed. Carmel works in a truly collaborative manner, incorporating ideas from the ensemble members into her compositional process. However, because we are based in an education institution, we had to shut down for a long period of time. And because the ensemble members are made up of students, by the time the first lockdown had ended, many of the musicians Carmel had worked with had graduated. And just as we started getting going again, we experienced another lockdown. When we finally managed to resume in 2021, the members of the ensemble were almost entirely different. 

Recording day at the conservatoire

It is a testament to Carmel’s flexibility and talent that she was able to create something that was simultaneously tailored to our ever-changing ensemble, and musically exciting. We recorded and filmed the piece a few months prior to the concert, and it was such a fun experience - I think that is evident by the energy and power of the performance. 

When it came to the first public performance, as is often the case with student-based ensembles, the line-up had changed again. This kind of last-minute problem would have thrown me for a loop, if I were in charge. Fortunately, Carmel is a lot more level-headed than I am and she was able to collaborate with the ensemble in creating a new version (on the day of the concert!). The performance was brilliant!

Follow Carmel on Twitter / Instagram and Ben on Twitter / Facebook

Follow Junior Leeds Conservatoire Ensemble Creative on Twitter Facebook / Instagram

Read the students' blog post on the Leeds Conservatoire website

The Adopt a Composer project matches vocal and instrumental leisure-time music groups with some of the UK’s most promising composers to collaborate on creating a new piece of music. The project leads to a premiere performance and broadcast on BBC Radio 3. If you’re a music group or composer and you’d like to take part, find out more.