Tell us about your professional life since leaving the Academy.
I’ve done a lot of collaborative work and that’s where I really light up. One of my highlights was a collaboration with Ayanna Witter-Johnson while I was a young artist at St John’s Smith Square. She created a piece with reggae, jazz and classical influences for a small ensemble and a large number of schoolchildren – that was really fun! I’ve also been involved in commissioning works for new composers. My strong connection with composition was inspired by my teacher at the Academy, Joanna MacGregor, who does a lot of work with composers, and my previous teacher, Douglas Finch, who’s also a composer. I love creating interesting programmes and integrating new compositions is part of that. My first album, Pinks and Blue, was released in 2015 and that was a mix of jazz, blues, classical and contemporary influences. It featured a couple of Academy composers – Freya Waley-Cohen wrote a piece influenced by Nina Simone and Richard Bullen wrote a very cool piece called Scenes from a Deserted Jazz Club for trumpet, percussion, piano and double bass. Collaboration and new composition have always been a thread throughout my career and I hope to continue with this.
Your Lie Down + Listen events combine music, meditation and yoga. How did you come up with the concept and how has it developed over time?
About three years ago, I was in New York doing some concerts, and one day while I was at the MoMA, I happened to meet Professor Sir John Strang, Head of the National Addiction Centre at King’s College London. By this point I’d already been exploring all sorts of collaborations with actors, rappers and fashion designers but I’d never worked with a scientist. The meeting evolved into a project exploring the mental health benefits of a certain combination of music and visuals. The aim was to show that you can recreate altered states of mind. We used the music of Terry Riley as a starting point and the participants were lying down as that helps with relaxation. The project was really good fun, and we had a great team of people working on it.
At that time, I was really into meditation and yoga, using it to calm myself and learn ways to be present and focused. At the end of a yoga class one day, it hit me that I wanted my audience to feel what I was feeling then at the end of a concert, and that evolved into Lie down + Listen. It attracted a new audience, which I was really happy to see. The audience are the kind of people that I go to the yoga studio with who come from a range of backgrounds - creative and curious people - who might not have been to a classical concert before but they were intrigued and the meditation/relaxed vibe broke down that barrier. On the other hand, I’ve found that some classical music goers find it a bit uncomfortable to lie down during a concert – they feel self-conscious because it’s unusual to them.
A lot of people have been turning to classical music during the pandemic. Why do you think that is?
I think classical music offers the substance many of us are searching for and we have the space to seek that out at the moment. Music is also very good for people’s mental wellbeing. For example, I find Bach very cleansing. When I play or listen to Bach there’s a sense of clarity and opening. It’s like mindfulness, because from a performance perspective every single note has to be perfected and leads to the next phrase.
Have you managed to carry on working during the pandemic and, if so, what have you been working on?
I moved Lie down + Listen online and it worked much better than I had expected, so I’ve done quite a few sessions over the past year. Obviously, it’s so much better in person though! I did actually manage to play some concerts last year, too. I did a couple of ‘Culture Clinics’ at Kings Place, which was a brilliant series devised by their Artistic Director, Helen Wallace. The concept was to make a ‘prescription’ of music for the individuals who came in. You could attend by yourself or with a group (it was the rule of six at the time), and we’d have a chat and I’d prescribe a piece of music based on the conversation. I loved it – it was quite intense mentally because I had to be really on the ball, listening to people and reading between the lines or listening between their words, and then responding to that with music. It was a great experience to do something that connects so immediately with the audience. I’ve also recorded a new album and I’m working on the artwork for that now, which has taken on a life of its own. I think it's so important to make sure the visuals really communicate the message behind the music so I’m working with artists, designers and animators. I'm excited to eventually share the results of this project.
Do you have any wellbeing tips for musicians to help during this period of lockdown?
Recently I was reading about pilgrimages and their associated rituals. When pilgrims arrive at their destination, they will walk around the church to mark that this is the arrival point. I think that for musicians, creating a special ritual around your practice could be really beneficial at the moment. That might be walking around your instrument before you start or something else. Just doing something to mark the importance of the moment, to mark that this is what I love doing, and this is me adding my unique voice to the world.
What have you got coming up?
I’m really excited about my next concert – it has already been pushed back but I’m hoping it will go ahead in May. It’s with an organisation called NW Live and it’s all about bringing communities together, so it’s right up my street! The lineup is fascinating: piano, lute, oud and percussion and we’re working with some refugee poets. The programme is really interesting - it includes Bach, Lully, Ligeti and collaborative versions of Arabic influenced music.
Lie down and Listen will be hosting three days of meditation lying down concerts from 19-21 March. Find out more here: liedownandlisten.com
Photo by Carlos Lumiere