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Congratulations on getting an offer to study with us – we hope we'll get to meet you soon! In the meantime, we wanted to give you a chance to learn more about our staff.

We sat down with Stef Conner who is a lecturer in composition, an award-winning composer and professional singer in multiple genres. Stef has composed new works for leading ensembles including the London Philharmonic and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestras and is currently writing for the London Symphony Orchestra. She's also a former student of the Department of Music.

It wasn't ever really a question

I was about three years old when I started playing my parents' piano. Some things in life you struggle to motivate yourself to do and other things you seem to need to do all the time. Music was one of those things. It wasn’t ever really a question that I'd pursue it.

By the time I was looking around universities, I’d already finished my A levels. I didn’t know what I wanted to do at that point. I knew I wanted to do something with music, but not if I wanted to go to university. I didn’t really see myself as academic. Then I came to visit York and the daffodils were out and I was inspired by ethnomusicology – thinking about music through social and cultural contexts – and this department in general. It wasn’t university and the idea of studying, it was this place that made me want to learn.

Making things happen for yourself

I came here and fell in love with contemporary music and collaborating on projects with like-minded people. It’s a great introduction to the professional music world.

York is full of amazing opportunities. The preparation I got here was solid. I was given a good foundation to go out and take responsibility for organising my own projects, which is necessary in the music world. You have to be quite self sufficient. That’s how I built a career for myself – creating new opportunities where none existed.

I'm a person that excels in working in the imaginary

Ever since I was a kid I was obsessed with ancient things. Studying ancient music involves a lot of imagination. There will always be questions we can’t answer when we’re dealing with ancient evidence. I’m personally very drawn to that. I like unanswerable questions and finding temporary, individual ‘working answers’ to those questions – hypotheses, which aren’t really answers at all.

I'm inspired by ancient poetry: poetry that was written down when writing was a new concept and still shared characteristics with oral traditions. I’m not a very tidy person and I’m interested in the untidiness of memory. In this respect, oral poetry from the ancient world feels a bit more human than highly structured approaches to composition and music creation.

Watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZRAbcE7aqE on YouTube

The Lyre Ensemble perform The Flood, part of the Epic of Gilgamesh in Babylonian with the Golden Lyre of Ur.

Trying to reimagine music from the ancient world

My research involves studying music from antiquity and the very early medieval period and finding ways to make intelligent guesses about how non-notated music might have sounded. All you can ever do is guess, but we’re trying to find more and more nuanced ways of coming up with evidence-based hypotheses and then building performances and new compositions on the basis of them.

My creative practice and research have become amalgamated now. When I’m composing music, I’m dealing with my research questions, and the two strands – composition and research – enhance and complement each other.

I'm proud of my collaborations

I've figured out how to be myself in the way I write music and sing, and found a way to integrate the different parts of my personality. This is very important. I don't think we necessarily realise how much time most of us spend not being ourselves.

I’m also really proud of the ensembles I’ve been able to work with. I played with a wonderful folk music ensemble for several years, The Unthanks, which was a formative experience. We performed at Glastonbury, the Mercury Music Awards, the BBC Folk awards, and we even supported Adele at Camden Roundhouse. I learned so much about English traditional music along the way. I had to learn to embrace it and adapt to it because my training was different to the people I was playing with. I’m really proud to be working with Sequentia right now; they're a medieval music ensemble that I’ve admired for a long time. To have the chance to join an ensemble that I’m a fan of is an amazing thing.

Music students recording in the Trevor Jones Studio

By being yourself, you can be original

I teach on our introductory Composition module. For me, helping students to develop technique is really important; talking about notation and the practicalities of how to notate different ideas. But, more important than that, is helping students to access their creative voice and feel able to express themselves honestly through their music. We want to avoid worrying too much about expectations and thoughts that cause blocks like “my writing isn’t complex enough”. Trying to help people to do that is challenging, interesting and very enjoyable.

I also teach on the module Voice, Language and Emotion. It’s about how the musicalisation of text can generate an emotional response in the listener; we examine how music and language interact to induce affect. We also tackle non-verbal vocal expression and whether it's possible to strip emotion from the voice entirely.

The most interesting thing about the department is the people that are in it

I’m excited every day to work with my colleagues because their research is so fascinating. They are intelligent and exciting people. I get to see my colleagues perform, to hear their compositions and read their articles; but even sitting in the staff room can be exciting because people talk about their work and it opens your mind and introduces you to new things.

But it’s not just the staff, it’s the students as well. They’re amazing – some of them are thinking about music in such mature ways and a lot of them are very unconventional because I think this place attracts people with a bit of edge. It’s always, always interesting because of the people who are here.

If you have any questions about music at York then please feel free to get in touch. We’re always happy to discuss your course, our research or anything else you want to know about.

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