Composer Spotlight: Emily Crossland
Interview conducted by Jessie Bosworth, 3rd August 2021 . We caught up with Emily Crossland to hear about her work as a community musician, a lecturer, an ensemble facilitator, mentor, composer, fundraiser and project manager.
Emily Crossland is a composer, facilitator and educator based in York, UK. Her work is shaped by a passion for collaboration: with amateurs and professionals, across genres, and with other art forms. She is particularly interested in the theatricality of music, the musicality of words, and the creation of shared experiences for music-makers and audiences. Her compositions have received performances across the UK, including a BBC Performing Arts Fund project as part of Hull City of Culture 2017, and broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 as part of Adopt A Composer 2010. She creates music as composer-in-residence with Engine Room Theatre and also works as a mentor on the Adopt a Music Creator Scheme run by Sound & Music and Making Music. Emily is an avid gamelan player, directing community, youth and student ensembles in York and working as a facilitator in criminal justice settings with national charity Good Vibrations. She also works at the University of York as an Associate Community Musician.
Thank you so much for being willing to chat to us about yourself. I thought perhaps we could start off with you telling us a bit about yourself, who you are? Well, I’m Emily. I’m a musician, facilitator, educator and all sorts of things really but all based around music and getting people involved in music. I’m based in York and have been for nearly half my life, I realised the other day. Came up here from Portsmouth to come to uni and am still here. I work as a community musician, a lecturer, an ensemble facilitator, mentor, composer, fundraiser and project manager. Other than that, I like music, being outdoors, growing vegetables, and eating cake. All of these things! You mentioned a few interests there but as a musician, are there any areas that you’re particularly interested in? Yeah, I think I’m most interested in the social and personal impact of music and music-making. I’m big into Central Javanese Gamelan, and I’m always looking to learn more about that. I really like things that involve a sense of improvisation, playfulness and games between the performers or players. I like theatrical music, though I’m not very good at musicals (I’ve never quite bought into the form). Music that is in some way theatrical or dramatic but perhaps in an abstract way. Things that involve collaboration and interaction. Different viewpoints, different experiences of the world coming together and things that involve the audience as well, which comes back to the social and personal side of it. That seems to be the thing that grabs me most. Not that the sound isn’t important, but the people are always most important I think. That’s my main focus in music. Do you find yourself starting a project purely from people and building up from that? Usually, yeah. Sometimes I’ll come in with some musical ideas that interest me, but I just don’t enjoy it if I don’t know what the other people are there for, what it is that they can do. In some cases, thinking of my work as a composer, I might be working with a group where the singers might find pitching quite difficult or they might have quite a limited range. I kind of want to know what’s in their toolbox, to know what I can pick from to allow them to showcase what they can do. I’ll sometimes work with performers that can do things that you have no idea an instrument or a voice can do. I get more excited by what the people bring to it, what’s their inspiration and skill set, what do they know or what do they want to express that I couldn’t possibly think of myself. I think that’s the excitement of the collaboration, really. Definitely. Everyone is facilitating each other almost. Yeah. That kind of co-facilitation and play. It’s that playfulness thing again. Why did you become a musician? Did it stem from people? You know I find that such a hard question. It sounds terribly corny but I feel like I didn’t really choose this path, so much as got chosen by it. Ever since I was small, music made a lot of sense to me. I didn’t have any formal music lessons until I was about 8 or 9, but there was always a guitar in the house, an old electric keyboard and things. Whatever I could find to make music on, I would. I remember with my brother and sister, we used to put on Beatles records and act out fake Beatles concerts! We were always kind of imagining the musician's life. It was always there and it turned into a more formal study at GCSE and A-Level, then deciding I wanted to go to university and do music.
It was probably at uni that I found the people side of it and found the kind of musician that I wanted to be. Gamelan, which I’d heard of at school and completely misunderstood and thought I didn’t like, became important. I got the chance to play and finally understood some of the principles and the attitude. Some of that playfulness, not quite improvisation, but interaction, and that was really exciting. And then I discovered this wonderful field called community music which again, I didn’t know it was a thing until I came to York and met Bruce Cole and took his module. It just started to fall into place, this idea of interactive music, where it’s really about the people. I think uni was the point where I discovered those things and found places where value was put in playing by ear, listening to cues, interaction, communication, teamwork and also the experience being either as important as or more important than the end point, than the product. It all started to get deeply exciting and somehow I managed to find people that would pay me to have a roof over my head while also doing these things, so I thought I’ll continue to do this. *laughs* but they absolutely should pay you to do that. Indeed. It has unfolded beautifully and while it continues to unfold beautifully, I’ll continue to do it. When you came to uni and discovered gamelan, you were a violinist beforehand, how did you find that influence and relationship between the violin and the gamelan? Did that interact? You know I think it probably did. This is my classic young musician story - I pretended that I could read music for a really long time when I was learning the violin. I was in school, must have been about 8 or 9, and I was too embarrassed to admit that I really didn’t understand what all the dots on the page meant so I was doing it all by ear. Looking at it now I think that’s probably quite a skill but at the time it wasn’t treated like that. It was treated like if you can’t read the dots you aren’t a musician. So I think in a way, playing the gamelan helped me look at what I do on the violin and realise that I don’t necessarily need to read the dots.
What I’m working on in gamelan all the time is trying to move further and further from notation. I will use it for some pieces but a lot of what I’m learning now I’m trying to learn it all, not necessarily by memory, but through the comprehension of what’s happening in the music, so that I can be making quick decisions, getting used to the feel of it and whatever else I’m listening for. It’s applying that back to the violin. After playing the gamelan, I returned to a lot more folk music and ended up playing folk fiddle in a band and applying that same thing of just listening. You know how to do this. Just listen. Don’t worry about writing it down. I think it’s reinforced my confidence in the validation of non-notated music. I can read music now, I worked hard to do it, but it’s not my natural language. I think there’s been some crossover but never in terms, for me personally, of playing violin with gamelan but I know that you’ve played violin with gamelan in one of my folk arrangements. It was fun. Yeah I love tuning the violin to the gamelan. It’s so great! It was great. And I get it, it’s the difference of language use, moving away from these rigid rules to “Ah, this is the language, let’s just speak it and see what comes out of that”. Yeah. I was probably 17 by the time I realised that there’s more than one kind of tuning system. “Ah! There’s not just in-tune and out-of-tune. I see”. There’s a whole wide world of music. I’m still ignorant to the whole wide world of music that’s out there but there’s an awful lot that perhaps wasn’t valued in the music education circles I came out through and I suspect that’s probably not that rare either. Yeah definitely. I think our education system in general likes to simplify things to impose all these rules to make things approachable but in doing so takes away all the freedom and accessibility of music. Yeah I think it’s very hard to be simultaneously thinking about meeting targets and checking off all the boxes and actually really responding to people. You can’t cover all the knowledge in the world but it’d be nice if there was a little bit more breadth of topic and openness. I think that’s what I like about gamelan actually. It’s that sense that someone can teach you something and it might be like this or it could be like this but also it could be that you play it in a different way. I think people have a sense that some things are more appropriate for certain pieces but there’s not this hard right or wrong and it depends on what kind of style you’re going for and what kind of feel. It’s not “Oh no, don’t do that”. We had this session with Pak Prasad in York and I was playing some bonang imbal and sekaran, the interlocking and flourishing patterns. And he said “Oh yeah you could do that or what about this one”, and gave me a different pattern, he then went “Oh what about this one?” so I was just storing away all these different patterns. I really like that approach of it could be like this, it could be like that. You start to lend your voice to it. Moving on slightly from the journey but not leaving the journey behind. What has your involvement been with The Arc Project and what has the experience been like? Aww I feel this warmth in my heart when I think of The Arc Project. I was around at the very start. I remember Jake talking about this exciting new project he had in mind which was pairing up 10 performers and 10 composers to work together in pairs. I seem to remember the working title “Apples in Pears” which was hilarious and moved thankfully into “The Arc Project”. I can remember him talking about that and inviting me to be involved just to compose, which was very exciting and a massive honour. I also supported early fundraising plans and just bouncing ideas really with Jake as it took shape. The piece that I wrote for the first Arc gig is probably one of my favourite things that I’ve ever written. It let me work really closely with the performer, Rosa Juritz on bassoon and spoken voice. It let me tackle the audience interaction thing which has been really interesting to me, in a way that I hadn’t, or perhaps in a depth that I hadn’t done before and in ways that I would have been too scared to do on my own. I remember I wrote down all these ideas, ready to go to this meeting with Rosa, and by the time I got there I had to say to her “I’ve lost all of my confidence in this. We can’t do this, this is not realistic,” and she went “Just tell me, tell me”. I told her and she said “Yeah, I can see why that wouldn’t work but what about this?” and really gave support to the ideas. It was lovely having that collaboration and I suppose it always depends on the person but it felt like such a good pairing considering we’d just been put together, dropped into this ocean of music together. It was so strengthening and encouraging. It ended up being really meaningful.
Emily Crossland and Rosa Juritz - In the Sand for The Arc Project (2019)
The piece was this remembrance ritual which ended up being in honour of, dedicated to two people that had really impacted us but weren’t with us anymore. It invited the audience to get involved by writing their thoughts, streams of consciousness, about people that they’d lost. The piece was called “In the Sand” and it was all about the footprints left in the sand by someone that’s not with you anymore. The audience read out their thoughts if they wanted to as part of the music and it was sort of this little ritual. It worked far better than I had expected, way better than I could’ve dreamed even. I remember in the performance feeling really nervous about if this is gonna work, is this gonna really flop? Then people started reading their thoughts out and then I went “Oops, I forgot to prepare for if it did work, now I’m crying”. It was such generosity and I get all tingly just thinking about the performance. It felt really like it hit that need about music being about people and connections. I can’t see how I would’ve done that, how I would’ve got the bits I was scared of pushed through, without being paired up with a performer, particularly someone like Rosa, who was just like “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s try it. These are the things that I think will work”. It’s great that she’s a composer as well and having that experience to bounce off each other with was so powerful. It’s been really exciting to watch Arc go from strength to strength. There’s nothing else that I’m aware of that’s quite like it. This is just turning into why I love Arc now, isn’t it? *laughs* *laughs* Keep on going, it’s great! *laughs* I’ll just sit here and make you blush you know. I feel like Arc is about people as well. I think that’s why I have enjoyed watching it grow because it’s about connections, there’s a lot of care for the humans involved. Amazing music comes out of it. Really fascinating, interesting, beautiful pieces but it’s not just about what it sounds or what it looks like, it’s about the experience as well. I think that’s been what keeps me orbiting close to Arc hoping to do something again at some point. It’s enjoying the journey as much as ending it, isn’t it? Yeah definitely and it being about all the aspects of making music not only about getting a recording and a performance at the end though there’s great opportunities for that. Hats off to you all for making that happen in the last year or so as well. It’s lovely to watch the online things popping out. So thinking about the journey and development, could you name some musicians that have influenced perspective on music or your style? I don’t know. I probably answer this really differently on different days. It made me realise that it’s often the people I’m working with who will really influence my perspective. There’s also conversations you have with somebody. I suppose Engine Room Theatre, which is a multi-arts theatre company I worked with for quite a few years. All the members of the Engine Room ensemble, the main company, came from different perspectives. There’s people with disabilities, physical disabilities, learning disabilities and neurodivergent people. That was hugely influential to me in understanding how other people’s experiences of music and the world work. That was a big step change in terms of my perspective.
One of the moments that sprung to mind is a gig at the National Centre for Early Music (NCEM) of Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat, performers of Persian vocal music. They’re these amazing strong advocates for freedom of expression. I went to this gig and I can remember being really moved by the risks they’d taken in order to keep making their art and keep pushing this artistic freedom. It was so powerful. Another sign of how sentimental I am, I was tidying up afterwards and there were a couple of little links, from their frame drum, that had just fallen off on the floor. I’ve still got them and they’re this little reminder of what it’s worth to have this freedom of expression and a reminder of those people who don’t as well. The privilege of it all.
Another one that came to mind, Gaelynn Lea. She does a lot with loop pedals and I love loop pedals, although I’ve never tried to master one myself. Kerry Andrew is another master of the loop pedal and another one I love! Gaelynn Lea is folky and her voice is like nothing else I’ve ever heard. Getting to know her work was part of my journey in breaking away from that one-size-fits-all approach to music that we were talking about earlier. She’s just wonderful. Look her up! There’s probably people who have written for gamelan that I’ve completely overlooked. And I remember as a kid growing up, I just loved Vanessa-Mae because of the idea that you could be a female classical violinist and also this kick-ass pop musician. That was really very exciting. All sorts, all the time, I just get over-excited by people. Don’t we all? Just thinking about the Engine Room Theatre, which is a really cool organisation, are there any other organisations that have influenced you when you’ve worked with them? Definitely Good Vibrations. They do a lot of work with gamelan, which is their main means of expression but they do stuff with music technology as well. Their work started off and is still primarily in prisons and that was another big step change in my perspective. I did my Masters placement with Good Vibrations and it was the first time I’d been in a prison and it shifted everything I knew about prisons and who the people in them are. Big shift in mindset. Now, I work with Good Vibrations and am still on that journey of growing and understanding. A lot of what we do is facilitated composition and that has been a big part of the journey in understanding how to create space for other people to be expressive, especially to be expressive in a group as a team, particularly in an environment where being a team is kind of tough. So Good Vibrations definitely have been a big part of it. There’s such a beautiful vulnerability to collaborating in a group. Yeah it is tough. You often see those tricky moments. Thinking of the Engine Room process as well, there’s been these really challenging moments where everybody’s got such different ideas and something’s got to move, and then it does. As long as you’ve got that trust in the relationship, it does, it kinda shifts and just clicks into place. There’s a lot of trust and vulnerability to it I think.
Just thinking about your own works, if you had to pick one that has come out of all the many projects that you’re particularly proud of, which would you choose and why? It’s so tricky because often I’m quite in the moment with my pieces and when they're done it’s like “That was a lovely experience, what’s the next experience?” I want to say “In The Sand”, the Arc piece I was talking about before because I’ve been dabbling in audience interaction for years and I’ve never quite managed to make it smooth. It was either a little bit obvious like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, when we did it with Castaway Theatre and Engine Room, we had Puck dancing on stage and queueing the audience to play bells, which was great fun but it was more of a theatrical moment than a coherent musical piece. Or in another composition, “1v4(v)”, I had things where the audience joined in with chimes improvisation but again it felt a little bit less successful than “In The Sand.” Having people write and contribute if they wanted to and having a performer like Rosa who would hold the space and judge the space so well to facilitate while performing, just made it really work. So I kinda want to say that but I feel like I’m just talking about that piece.
Emily Crossland - 1v4(v) premiered by the late music ensemble
It’s often about being in the moment as well. One of my favourite memories of a performance of one of my pieces was, I set 5 poems, a piece called “Wander” - it’s the poems by John Wedgewood Clarke that are on benches along the Wolds Way - and I wrote it for Castaway Goole which is a community arts and theatre organisation. We took it round to different villages in the East Riding and at one of the performances, I can't even remember where it was now, but the high point of the piece, this thoughtful moment, the bells of the church just started going. Totally unplanned but it just tied up so beautifully. I love it when it all comes together. So my favourite things about my music is stuff that happens by chance that I have nothing to do with basically! The spontaneity in general of having a musical experience is great, isn’t it? Yeah it’s the spontaneous bits that appeal the most. The fun of it. Obviously you love that people experience and the interaction between performer and audience but are there any areas you’d like to explore more in the future? I think I still am interested in this audience involvement because I think there’s more there that I want to understand, want to crack. It’s how to make it feel organic and like an invitation. That’s something we looked at a lot with Engine Room, audience experience. How you facilitate it in a performance. I really want to keep understanding that. I want to write for gamelan again as well. It feels so odd that in all my love for gamelan, I’ve written one major piece for it and that was a long time ago. I’ve done arrangements and things but more recently I’ve been far more interested in playing other people’s compositions than my own. Maybe that might be upcoming, there may be new gamelan pieces coming out. I’ve been getting back into that. I’ve also got this sort of ongoing wish to do, I’m writing it slowly, probably over several decades, of songs that are just for me to perform and it’s just voice and another instrument. I’ve got one that’s voice and guitar, voice and piano, voice and body percussion, one that is slowly unfolding - voice and gender. I’d quite like to one day get around to maybe finishing and recording that but really it’s the interaction thing that is most fascinating to me. I increasingly want to understand the psychology and the science behind it as well. I’ve been developing my awareness in counselling skills and some of the psychological thinking behind that and just seeing a way if that can link up with my music making again, but it’s people again. Thinking about people, who would you like to collaborate with in the future? Everyone. I could sit there and go, I really admire that artist and I want to work with them but I just really enjoy the unexpected collaborations. Part of the power of what Arc does, where it might match up people you’ve never even met, or you’ve heard of each other but certainly never had a conversation with, and seeing what you find in those moments. In a way, I want to collaborate with anyone who brings a kind of playfulness, humility and encouragement, leaving judgement at the door. Genuineness. Anyone that brings that.
I’d like to work with dance again. I really enjoyed that through Engine Room. Also, recently I had some of my work, a Gamelan Playground that I made which is lots of different sound samples and videos that anyone can go and kind of click and make their own piece by layering up these samples - that was taken by electronic artist Eternity Bleeps and they made a piece out of it. It was so fun and humbling just to see “Wow you made me sound really good!” It would be great fun to do something more with them. I’d kinda like to be surprised by who I collaborate with. Someone who has a really different perception to me but a willingness to respect what each other brings. I feel like I’ve just made a dating profile for collaboration. “Good sense of humour” *laughs*
*laughs* Well that’s basically what Arc is, isn’t it?
Thinking again along the lines of future projects, if you could perform anywhere in the world, where would you go? I was thinking I would quite like to go to Solo, Central Java. Just to experience all the various gamelan activities and events. I’d love to go to the Mangkunegaran Palace and see the gamelan there and watch the dance, get some wayangs (shadow puppetry). I’d also love to get to the surrounding village and experience the village style, bonang playing. Their playing there would be really quite different. Just to absorb a lot of this. A little tour around Central Java would be great, please. Get some other styles in there like dangdut. There seems to be a really big punk and metal scene in Indonesia that I’m really intrigued by. So I’d quite like to combine the classical gamelan, village style, dangdut, punk, metal. Little tour would be great with some scenery, food and people. So Central Java, I’ll do a little tour around there and that’d be great. One day. You’ve sort of mentioned quite a lot of projects already but what projects have you recently been involved in that you’d like to talk about? Largely, trying to stay sane in a pandemic has been my main project. *laughs* I’ve been trying to keep things going like the student gamelan at the university, and the youth gamelan, Sound of Bronze project, that’s super close to my heart. We haven’t been able to do the residencies, schools and partnership projects that we would do in other circumstances but we’ve kept our regular group going and that has been so much fun and such a relief. Some of it has been online but actually the kids have made that wonderful. We’ve done some composing, some recordings of bits and pieces on Zoom and mashing it together into a bizarre gamelan piece I think called, Gameloctopus, after a beautiful piece of art by Helen Bell who is gamelan-er and a visual artist. (Actually talking about wonderful folky inspirations - Helen Bell!So with youth gamelan we’ve kept bits and pieces going and it has been quite expressive, quite composition-based and perhaps trying to process the strangeness of the times through sound, as well as learning karawitan, more classical gamelan techniques and repertoire. Like everybody, I’ve learnt how to make films. I’ve made some films specifically tailored towards introducing gamelan to D/deaf/F young children. I’ve been working with Sean Chandler and the “I Can Play” project to make an introduction to gamelan and another video focusing more on the gong cycle. I’ve done a few for Good Vibrations as well. Teaching on the Community Music MA, that’s been very nice, online but very very nice. Especially the bits in person, that’s been quite magic.
Composition-wise it’s been a bit more quiet because it’s been harder to work with people in the way that’s really fulfilling but I’ve done bits of songwriting, done a few things for Good Vibrations like Gamelan Playground. It’s a tough time in a way. You’re working at home, you’re in a small flat with thin walls with understanding but still quite close neighbours. A lot of my creativity has been poetry and prose things, not rather than music, because the whole musicality of words thing is quite interesting to me. I’m looking forward to getting back to being in a room with people. I’ve just been talking to a friend who I‘m hoping to do some creative stuff with, probably me doing some music and her doing some film, just inviting her to have a playdate. I’m looking forward to that kind of way of making again where you just sit and play, get into the child-state and just go for it. And see what comes out of it. Absolutely. That fun of collaboration where you take ingredients in and you work with another chef to cook something. See what kind of flavours you can concoct. Exactly. Besides this wonderful playdate, do you have other exciting things coming up? Yeah, hopefully all being well, it’s going to be an exciting year next year because it’s Gamelan Sekar Petak’s 40th birthday. November will mark the 40th anniversary of when it was first assembled and played, which is quite an important occasion for a gamelan, so we’ve got various events going on throughout the year. One of those things is going to be a musical and theatrical telling of Ragnarok from Norse mythology so I’m going to be writing hopefully a vocal and gamelan piece as part of that, set around extracts of the prophetic poem that mentions Ragnarok - Voluspa from the Poetic Edda.
Sound of Bronze Youth Gamelan is going to have a busy year. We have residencies coming up with kids in York and East Riding of Yorkshire as well. We’re hoping that’s going to be hands-on creativity. A lot of improvisation and facilitated composition because I think kids are just really starved of opportunities to get together in groups and be playful, be creative so we’re going to try to build that into part of our learning about gamelan. It’s going to be quite a big gamelan-y sort of year, next year. I’m mostly looking forward to getting back to being with real humans again and that feels like it’s the most exciting thing coming up. I can see people and we might be able to meet in groups of more than six and have a full gamelan sound back again and go and see choirs and work with choirs again. I'm tentatively hopeful that these things will happen. It’ll be just so great to be in the same room as other people and playing together. Completely. We’ve done some fun interactions online. I don’t know if you’ve played with Soundtrap at all. It’s quite fun. There’s a lot you can do with it. It's an online collaboration where you essentially lay down tracks and someone else could be laying down tracks in the same project, and you can both see it. It’s almost collaborating in real time. I’m just ready for the immediacy of playing music with people and responding. That’s the most exciting thing I have coming up and whatever goes from there I’ll gladly take. Well that’s all of my serious questions. I have got a bit of a silly question though. If you won the lottery tomorrow, what would you do with the money? I have to say that my absolute gut response was “Ooo buy a gamelan”. I’d love a mini one actually.
Things like making sure friends and family are all sorted out. Probably buy a house although that sounds like a lot of responsibility. My child response there was that I want a mini gamelan. A beautifully made bronze one but small enough that you can get the whole lot in the back of a normal transit van and take it around and take it to places where their nearest gamelan is miles and miles away, and folks have maybe never heard of it. Portable gamelan. My gut response is that’s the most important thing in the world! After that, I might pay off my student loan. I feel like I’m supposed to say I don’t want to work, or only work on the things I want, but as I try to say it I realise I do work on the things I want, and I can’t think of what I wouldn’t still want to do! I think maybe it would then be funding projects. I can often see projects that I would love to happen but either I’m not the right person to make them happen or there’s only so many hours in the day. I’d like to fund projects and set them up for other people to run and other people are getting the work done, people are getting paid for their work and things are happening. I’d set a trust maybe for community project funding once I’ve got my gamelan.
That sounds incredible.
Can I have the lottery money now please? This sounds great! I’d probably go to Java as well; see previous answer. I’m going to spend my lottery money in seconds, aren’t I, by getting over-excited? I’d probably do something really indulgent as well, I’m not that selfless. I’d probably go for a massive lunch at Betty’s or just spend the whole day in Betty’s, eating.
Get the full afternoon tea experience with the pianist.
Yes. That would be great. I’ll probably think of other things afterwards as well. I’m just going to be spending all this money. That’s a good question, I like it.