'If red jelly is in the same room as me I can’t relax.' An interview with Kirsty Devaney

‘If red jelly is in the same room as me I can’t relax.’ An interview with Kirsty Devaney

Kirsty Devaney is a composer based in Birmingham where she completed her studies at Birmingham Conservatoire with Joe Cutler, Ed Bennett and Howard Skempton. She runs the Young Composer’s Project which supports new generations of composers and creative music makers.

Sunday 26 March sees the Conservatoire’s LEAP Ensemble showcase the huge range of music that has been produced as part of the project. We caught up with irsty to find out more about what is in store…

Please tell us a little about the Young Composers Project.

The Young Composers Project works with students in the local area aged 14-19, who have a passion for creating their own music. I set the scheme set up in 2013 after I graduated from the Conservatoire. Throughout my undergraduate I had been involved in a lot of education work, however I noticed a lack of continued support for young people with an interest in composition. I felt that most composing projects were based around one-off workshops where young people got the opportunity to write for professional musicians. Although this was a fantastic and vital opportunity for young people, I felt it followed a very traditional and hierarchical approach to composing. I wanted YCP to take a different approach. The YCP students collaborate closely with current Conservatoire performers and composers over a period of 6 months in a much more ‘messy’ but creative way; trying out ideas, making mistakes, starting again, pushing themselves, discovering new thing. Each student has a composition mentor who helps guide them through this ‘messy’ process, but instead of the old ‘master-apprentice’ model of composition teaching, we aim to create an environment where we all learn from each other.

What should we expect from the works being performed on 26 Mar?

We never dictate what, or how, students compose at YCP but we do encourage each student to push himself or herself. This means that we get a huge range of musical styles and approaches in the final concert. Sometime students use YCP as an ‘experimentation lab’ and do something they have never done before, or could never do in school. This year we have some students exploring freedom and improvisation in their composition, and we also have one student working with a dancer! We are very fortunately to be working with the LEAP ensemble; this has allowed students to compose for large ensemble for the first time ever – a huge challenge for any composer!

This year’s festival’s theme is ‘breaking down barriers with music’ – How do you think music helps to break down barriers?

Sometimes music can actually help to create barriers. Think of how people align themselves with certain genres of music and disregard other types: e.g. ‘I hate classical music’. For young people musical taste is incredibly important, it helps to form our identity and put us into social groups. Music education can help us open our ears and minds to embrace all musical genres across and in-between cultural and social barriers. At YCP we never teach specific genres of music but instead encourage all students to take what they are interested in, learn more about what they are less familiar with, and make their own music without trying to label it or fit it into a narrow ‘box’. This is why things like the Frontiers Festival and education project help to diminish those barriers and stereotyping.

Please name someone you admire artistically and in what ways do you think their work has broken barriers?

There are many but Liz Viggers and Nic Briggs from quench arts do incredible work in the local community using music to break down barriers. I have been involved in some of their schemes including ‘musical connections’ that work with isolated and vulnerable adults using song writing as a tool to create positive change and a sense of belonging.

As a composer in 2017, do you feel a responsibility or particular impetus to represent or reflect current social or political issues?

I think as an artist it is hard to not be influenced in some way by the events happening in the world and in our daily life.

Apparently you are a jangelaphobe i.e. you have a phobia of jelly, specifically red jelly – erm, why? Did you have an unpleasant experience as a child? Are you fine with green jelly?

Yes! So as a kid I was very a very fussy eater. When I was at nursery they gave me red jelly for pudding, however I didn’t like jelly. I think they got so fed up that they said I had to sit there until I had eaten it before I could go out to play! I was sad as I couldn’t go in the sandpit that day! Over time I just started to not like the look of jelly, the way it wobbles about, the colour…then in school when ‘friends’ found out about this they thought it was funny to start flicking jelly at me (I’m looking at you Adam…). This in turn made things worse so now I really can’t stand the sight of it. If red jelly is in the same room as me I can’t relax for fear if might end up on my head! Green jelly is not as bad, I still couldn’t eat or touch it but I wouldn’t have quite the same reaction!

The Young Composers Project takes place on Sunday 26 March at 6.30pm in the Recital Hall at Birmingham Conservatoire.