Identity is a difficult thing to describe.
I like to think of it as the way you understand yourself and others. Understanding yourself is important because it gives you a sense of belonging and community, that there’s a continuity between people before you and after. When we learn about other identities, it is an amazing opportunity to enrich our understanding of the people around us, and in turn learn more about ourselves in the process.
But identity is a complicated, often fuzzy, concept which is hard to put into words. That’s why art has always been a great way to outwardly express and explore identity, because it can avoid too many words and instead appeal directly to our senses, emotions, and memories.
Growing up, I always knew that I was gay.
But, since I had almost no access to positive depictions of LGBTQ+ identities in books, films, or music, I had no way of understanding this aspect of myself. This lead me to hide who I was, lying to myself and others about a core part of who I am, in order to stay safe.
Since I had no queer role-models to look up to, and no LGBTQ+ stories to relate to, coming out was an incredibly daunting prospect that I delayed for a long time. Even five years on, I find it difficult to talk about, yet alone explore it in my music. But, joining the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain's Young Composers' Scheme in 2021 changed everything for the better.
The NYCGB’s two themes this year are identity and environment. After some very supportive chats with both the NYCGB staff and my colleagues on the Young Composers’ and Fellowship Schemes, I knew that I wanted to explore explore aspects of my LGBTQ+ identity through my music for the first time.
It was an opportunity to share my story through art, depicting the emotions and memories in music in order to spark conversations about acceptance.
It was a process which was both exhilarating and terrifying, but the two pieces that emerged - Something Exciting and Softly - feel like milestones in my creative journey that I am immensely proud of. The idea for Something Exciting appeared after our first in-person meeting as the 2021 NYCGB cohort, as Anna Disley-Simpson and I walked back to the station across Hyde Park in London. I had been struggling to think of an existing poem that accurately reflected my own experience of coming out.
That’s when the lightbulb moment struck.
I scrolled way back on my phone to 2017, when I came out to my Dad via WhatsApp. I was too scared to tell him in person, so instead I wrote to him over text:
…I have something exciting to tell you.
I didn’t know how to say it, but thought I should say…
This was a moment of both elation and nervousness, something that I wanted to capture in my piece for the NYCGB. Writing the piece was an intensely moving process — reflecting about this massive time of change was difficult, but I felt energised to share my story.
From the get-go, I knew that I wanted to open up my creative process, to collaborate with the brilliant young singers of the National Youth Choir by writing a piece with them, rather than for them. During our workshops on the NYC Summer Residency in Oxfordshire — amidst the sweltering August heat! — I shared the initial fragments of Something Exciting.
There was only about a minute of music to sing through, but straight away I felt an immediate buzz that, for the first time, I was reflecting this important part of who I am through my music. And it began to feel like I better understood myself too. I invited the singers to give feedback on the music and make suggestions for what they wanted to happen next, and we opened up the floor for them to share their own stories about coming out with the group. It was an incredibly powerful session, a chance for the choir to learn from each other’s experiences, but also to take ownership of the piece as a collective.
Writing Something Exciting felt like a breakthrough moment for me, the first time really exploring my identity through music. The piece has sparked lots of incredible conversations with other musicians, helping me better understand who I am by listening to other people’s experiences.
The result is a work brimming with energy, capturing the electric feeling of sharing good news whilst at the same time being incredibly nervous. Something Exciting is an explosion of these two feelings: ecstatic repetitions give way to quieter echoes, creating that strange, adrenaline-induced feeling of time passing both slowly and quickly at once.
During the group workshops with the NYC, in which we discussed coming out, a recurring idea that emerged was the idea of coming out not just to those around you, but also to yourself. This might be a hard idea to understand, but I remember that moment for me very clearly.
Growing up as a young LGBTQ+ person can mean hiding aspects of your identity, and projecting a false image of yourself, in order to stay safe. It can even mean lying to yourself to the extent that you convince yourself you are straight. It is no surprise then that so much of early adulthood — in my case, when I flew the nest as a student — involves untangling these contradicting facets of identity.
Softly is a distillation of my own experience coming out to myself. It was a lonely evening; lots of deep breaths, quiet humming, and speaking softly to calm myself down. The music is very still and very quiet. It’s an intimate sound that lets you get to know the musicians; the unique qualities of each voice, and the individual sounds of their breath.
The journey towards writing and recording Something Exciting and Softly has been fundamentally life-changing. I feel a much deeper connection between my creativity and my identity, a change that I’m incredibly proud of. I can’t imagine what a positive impact works like these would have had on my younger, closeted self. I'm so very grateful to the NYC, Fellows, and Ben Parry for bringing my music to life with such energy and dedication.
And I can’t wait to share the two pieces with the world on NMC Recordings’ upcoming NYCGB Young Composers 3 disc, which is out on 28th January 2022.