Em Peasgood has been the musical director of ‘The Big Sing’, Turner Contemporary’s resident choir, since December 2011. She is currently working on ‘Sounds Like Art’, a project that she initiated because she wanted to explore the connection between art and music. Turner Contemporary have supported her in bringing it to fruition and the first composition as part of this project is a four part song inspired by the exhibition ‘Making Painting: The Paintings of JMW Turner and Helen Frankenthaler.’ Our conversation took place just before one of her weekly rehearsals with ‘The Big Sing.’
“December last year, I didn’t have a clue, I’d never seen a Turner painting or a Frankenthaler painting…” Em confessed, delightedly. She also admitted that she’d never led a choir of this scale before. This hadn’t fazed her. The buoyancy and assurance with which Em spoke meant that it didn’t faze me either. This month, a choir of 80 will sing her ‘Landscapes ‘compositions as part of the ‘Sounds Like Art‘ project. The creative processes that Turner and Frankenthaler use in their paintings will inspire her musical arrangements for the occasion.
Turner Contemporary and ‘The Big Sing’ have marked a change in the course of Em’s career. It isn’t necessarily one that she always envisaged, but it is one that she is relishing: “I didn’t want to be a choir leader […] but it’s the thing that I’m really passionate about now, I’m doing a PHD in it […] I think its partly because of ‘The Big Sing’ Em’s love of music has found a space in which to flourish. She is completely committed to and enthused by her work; Em told me that she has now arranged over 120 songs for ‘The Big Sing’. She will begin her PHD, a study on composing and arranging repertoire for community choirs in September.
When Em took over as musical director of ‘The Big Sing‘, they were rehearsing elsewhere. She, instinctually, fought for a return to Turner Contemporary. It was the place in which the choir had been founded, and is now the place that they come to rehearse every week: “I know that they feel really proud of being in this choir – you know, it’s the Turner’s resident choir”, she said. “It provides them with huge experiences that they wouldn’t normally have […] lots of choir members are from non-art backgrounds, so they come here and they’re singing in the gallery…” Not only this, but Em looked at the view that the space afforded the broad range of participants. The windows were currently rigid blockades of dark sky. She looked beyond them to the summer; “we’ll be able to see the sea, which will be amazing” she said, grinning.
Being at Turner Contemporary and drawing on the exhibitions inside, has dramatically changed Em’s creative processes; “I used to sit at the piano and just sort of plonk around nicely and find something that sounded good and go with that.” Her ‘plonking’ has become richer, and more refined. For the debut performance of ‘Sounds Like Art’, Em researched Turner and Frankenthaler extensively; “Before I even started composing it, I filled up a book just with ideas”. She’s looked to the poetry that Turner read to find symphonies within his strokes. Her versification in his literary influences was an education in itself. She’s also watched videos of Frankenthaler moving paint around her canvases to really understand her work.
It was this discovery, that music can provide a context for, and a means of exploring art that led Em to eventually summarise Turner Contemporary as “an egg”. She said it with such conviction that I knew she wouldn’t be swayed. I laughed, incredulously, “an egg – ok – how?” Her retort; “it’s kind of hard and rigid on the outside but beautiful on the inside.” For Em, the rigidity of the lines outside gave way to shading and contours and colours within. Her compositions inspired by the art that she was still getting to know, reflect the capaciousness of the space. The new beginning she had found at Turner Contemporary was manifest in her sparkling presence. A repository for new life; it is, undeniably, ‘an egg’.
This conversation was conducted and written by Moya Stirrup. To read more of Moya’s conversations for Turner Contemporary, click here.
Moya is an avid conversation conservationist. In April 2013, she initiated a project to capture Margate in conversation. To read her ever expanding archive of distinct voices, each bound by their ties to the town, click here.