in conversation with Emily Shapiro

With the festive season approaching what more could you want than to read a refreshing Women of Noise Women Write Now interview?

For our first December interview we got to ask some questions to a very vibrant artist who lives and creates in London– Emily Shapiro. Originally from Canada, Emily has asserted herself as a stellar clarinettist (with a special love for the bass clarinet), composer and improviser in the London music scene. She has made appearances with the London Improvisers Orchestra, the Corner Quartet, Lila Cita and with her ensemble Duo Arasari at venues all over London, including Iklectik, Café Oto, Hundred Years Gallery, LSO St Luke’s, the Vaults festival, and the Barbican. Emily also founded and manages the Mellifera arts platform, a monthly interdisciplinary arts performance event in London. Composing and improvising are central to her career, and she has been an active performer of Balinese Gamelan for 10 years whilst also exploring Jazz, Klezmer, rock and electroacoustics. She is always seeking out new artistic experiences to enrich and motivate her work and we’re stoked be featuring her for this Women Write Now interview.

Phoebe from Women of Noise: How do you define yourself as a musician and person? 

Emily Shapiro: I’m not a huge lover of the word define- it gives me imposter syndrome! But describe I can do.

Genre-flexible musician loosely focussed on contemporary classical music and free improvisation.  Lover of many folk and world music traditions.  Composer. Queer, feminist.  Lover of animals, nature, moving around, good food and good friends. Improviser, composer, searcher, teacher, small activist, creator.  I like to think my job in this world is to make it better with art, music specifically, by bringing it to people who would benefit from it, make more of it.

Phoebe: What are the key issues at the forefront of your creative discourse?

Emily: One of the things I love about music and one of the reasons I respond to it they way I do is because it’s fundamentally an abstract form, so I can’t really say that much in the way of activism or even concepts from the outside world make in into my work.  I really like the idea of bringing real world issues into an artistic practice but it doesn’t feel genuine for me.  I do enjoy experiencing art by others and even participating in realising creative work of others that does this, but it doesn’t feel like a big part of my work at this time.  I certainly wouldn’t rule it out in the future though, if how I feel shifts.  

In my mind, we are all islands, all so different, with our own filters of our experience of the world, extremely unique perspectives and we don’t really have a way of knowing how any other person experiences their life- in superficial ways, sure, but not intimately. One of the strengths of something abstract is that something can be deeply meaningful and/or beautiful to me in one way, and be experienced by someone else as completely different but no less significant.

Phoebe: Is music a vehicle for you to express these issues, confront them and/or to empower/inform others?

Emily: Not really.  I’m impressed by people who do do that and I love the idea but it doesn’t feel authentic to me. Music and a lot of art feels a bit like a parallel universe to me, that’s free from the stuff we have going on in this one.  I like playing in that world.

Phoebe: In what ways does your identity impact your creative output?

Emily: I’ve got a few answers to this- first, it doesn’t feel like it, not in any obvious way, as per my answer above on the abstract nature of music.  I don’t feel that anything about how I am as a person is expressed in any literal way in my music.

But second- how could it not?  If I’d grown up and lived in a different environment I have no doubt I’d make different choices so I’m sure it would affect my work, but I don’t really know how that manifests. It’s a mystery!
I think to think maybe my personality comes out in my music, but it’s not deliberate and I couldn’t point to a specific way that it does.

Credit: Pierre Bouvier Patron

Phoebe: When you made the move from Canada to the United Kingdom what were the differences you noticed about the musical community? 

Emily: The musical and wider artistic community in Europe was really the reason behind my move.  I did some studying in improvised music in Amsterdam in 2009 and just found the musical community more engaged, bigger, broader- I remember being surprised how reliably audiences turned up for improvised music performances and paid for them.  I came away from that trip with the impression that Europe broadly was just a more active and rewarding place to be as an artist.  

Amsterdam was the original plan for the move but I’ve wound up in London and I think the main difference can be attributed to the sheer size of the city rather than only the country.  I enjoyed playing in clarinet choirs previously but in Canada you mostly only find them at festivals or if you’re very lucky at some universities. 

In London there were three regular amateur groups to choose from.  I play in the London Improvisers Orchestra which meets and performs to an engaged audience once a month and when guests visit from other places (including Canada) and I ask them about the improvising ensembles in their own cities, they generally report that those groups are much less active.  I’ve been playing Balinese gamelan for a long time and I’m member of Lila Cita, group in London that performs an average of about once every two months and meets to rehearse at least once a week, and there are several ensembles like this- in cities in Canada that I know, you might have a group like this if you’re lucky but more often you don’t. I could keep giving more examples of similar groups and initiatives!

I find that in London adults seem to get up to more outside the home on a regular basis- meet ups and drinking, sure, but also taking classes, learning stuff for pleasure, going to see performances and exhibitions.  
It’s super, super important to stress that my perspective is affected by my own environment and I in no way think Canada is inferior artistically.  I’m sure other factors are contributing to this- time, the fact that I was always a university student in Canada.  I know a huge factor is size and population/ city density.  London is a massive city and by extension comes with a huge artistic community and it’s within easy traveling distance of many other cities both in the UK and Europe.  The artistic community within London is extremely diverse, coming from many different places and there’s always people moving here, moving away, or visiting.  

Phoebe: Tell us about some of your past and current projects. 

Emily; I have my project Mellifera, which is an informal interdisciplinary arts performance platform, which has been going for about half a year now.  There’s my ensemble, Duo Arasari, with Laura Beardsmore, a flute player friend of mine.  We focus on contemporary music and both play the soprano versions of our instruments as well as the bass/alto ones.  I enjoy learning and performing Balinese gamelan with the group Lila Cita.  I’m pushing myself to compose more and grow as a composer

Alisa Kolot performing at Mellifera.
Credit: Emily Shapiro

Phoebe: Your project Mellifera has gained traction since its launch. What was you vision behind the platform. How has it been received by the community and how do you envision it growing?

Emily: Mellifera was inspired by a similar event in Vancouver I attended in 2007–2008.  People would meet once a month in a book store after hours and perform primarily music and poetry/spoken word.  It was a place I felt comfortable and happy bringing stuff in progress, and it was a great community, I met a lot of interesting people there that I maintained contact with for a long time, in some cases even collaborated with. Mellifera came about strictly because around this time last year I was feeling nostalgic for it, and had the thought “I wish someone would do that here… wait.”
It’s mostly populated by musicians right now, but we have some poets and performance artists and dancers.  I get regulars coming back every month which really makes me happy and I hope to get more of that.  Recently one of my regulars told me about how he connected with another one of my regulars, how well they get on and how they’re going to collaborate together and it made me quite emotional to hear that because that is a part of exactly what my goals are.  

Fundamentally my vision is to have a relaxed and friendly environment for people to come present and experience whatever it is that they love as far as art goes, and experience new things.  As part of that, I want to build community and connections.  Because it’s so open to different styles and a welcoming place to experiment, I also envision it as a place where you can come and experience something you might not have ever imagined before.  
The community has been very receptive.  I run it through Hundred Years Gallery, which already has a nice artistic community around it and Mellifera fit right in there.  As for the future, my fondest hope is to keep making it bigger and bringing in more and more people from diverse artistic perspectives.

Ayanna Allen performing at Mellifera.
Credit: Emily Shapiro

Phoebe: Who are some figures in your career that have inspired creativity, empowered you as an artist you and reinforced your goals?

Emily: Mostly obviously, certainly all of the teachers I’ve had.  They’ve all had profound effects on me in different ways.  The people I play with, the people who come to events and talk with me.  Particularly thoughtful and articulate audience members! Even students- the process and adventure of teaching is so useful for my own work as well- particularly in composition! Having to work with someone else on their work helped teach me how to get out of my own head and work with the material in front of me without overthinking it.

Phoebe: Previously, how has your music been received? What reactions have been elicited?

Emily: One of the first times I improvised solo for people one person commented it was a soundtrack to an old black and white surreal film featuring one of those old hot dog steamers you see in gas stations in America. Before you wonder, yes it was meant as a compliment.

Duo Arasari– Laura Beardsmore and Emily Shapiro
Credit: Chaundra Crouch

For more on Emily like her Facebook page, hear her on Soundcloud, and stay up to date with Mellifera via Facebook and Instagram.

Don’t forget to ‘follow’ Women Write Now to be the first to read about creative women and non-binaries around the world.  Twice a month we’ll be in conversation creatives across the globe, and taking a deeper look into their perspectives and the work they are doing in their communities and beyond.

Are you a ‘Woman of Noise?‘ We are welcome to suggestions for who you might like to see featured in Women Write Now interviews. This could be you, someone you know, an artist you admire, anyone! Drop us a line and we’ll be in touch!

Header image credit: Pierre Bouvier Patron

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