Composer Emily Levy on the premiere of her new work, Me Without You

Composer Emily Levy. Picture: Amanda Mango! BensonComposer Emily Levy. Picture: Amanda Mango! Benson
Composer Emily Levy. Picture: Amanda Mango! Benson
It’s three days on from the world premiere of her new work at Aldeburgh Festival, and Emily Levy, the Leeds-based singer and composer, is still buzzing.

“It was a Sunday afternoon slot in the festival, which was great, it was packed,” says of the debut performance of her piece We Without You at Snape Malting in Suffolk.

On Saturday June 22 the collaborative work, which embraces classical music, acting and contemporary dance and was co-developed with theatre and film director Mella Faye, will be staged at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds. It focuses on experiences of love and loss.

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Levy explains that Me Without You began as a small research and development project “a couple of years back”. “That was collecting interviews with people about their experiences of home and belonging because I was really interested in using people’s voices,” she says. “That was all part of a compositional process, the cadence and the words and phrases they use and their stories, obviously.

“Mella is a musician as well but she’s in the capacity of writer and dramaturg on this, so she was like, ‘This is great but what’s it really about?’ and really dug into me. Over a long period we worked out that it was more about me wanting to ask people about their stories with a secret, subliminal desire to tell my story as well. So it became still with the idea of talking to other people, but also sharing my story of losing my brother. It was quite a while ago now but it felt like something I had to make but it’s just taken a long time to be able to get to a place to make it.”

Levy’s brother Gus was only 31 years old when he died and the loss impacted her deeply. “I kind of feel like everything I write in a kind of secret level is nodding towards him,” she says, recalling that when she made her first album Lost and Found in 2012, it was shortly after his death and she “didn’t feel able to talk about that, but the narrative of that was right at the heart”. With time, she says, she is “able to talk about it more and also I feel able to gain understanding from hearing other people’s really varied experiences of losing people at different times in their lives and all the impact that’s had”.

“I think that distance has meant that I can weave in my responses to other people, I think that’s what’s changed with time,” she says.

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Levy and Faye spoke to the outreach groups of the three co-commissioners – Opera North, Britten Pears Arts and Spitalfields Music – to gather people’s stories. “We didn’t know that people would want to talk to two complete strangers, but we were amazed by how much people did, and how eleoquently and happily they would talk for ages with us,” Levy says. “(Opera North Projects) work with two gardening groups in Kirkstall and Burley, so we went to those groups and asked them if anyone would be interested in talking, with the hope that we could create some kind of protective layer afterwards if it had any impact or repercussions from talking they would be able to go to those groups and share with people they already knew.”

The resulting work is, she says, a “complete fusion” of artforms. “I’m performing but there’s five other main performers. Two are much more from the classical contemporary world as instrumentalists but they also sing and move in the piece, and the other three very much move as actors, dancers, players and singers. So it’s a really beautifully varied group of skills on stage. They’re amazing, I have to say.”

Levy, who also wortked with Pilot Theatre on their recent production Song For Ella Gray, adds that she is “so grateful” to the co-commissioners for making such new work possible. “It means that we’ve based the project in all those locations, which for me is good. Not that I would ever do a London-centric project, but it’s nice to do one in several places. So we interviewed people in Ipswich and Hull and Leeds and London. With a project like this, it feels good to speak to lots of different people in different locations.”

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