The sounds of science
There’s art and there’s science, but the magic that happens when the two work together is another thing altogether. In Zakiya Leeming’s current project the beauty of chamber opera pays homage to the development of the modern vaccine. Leeming has also recently been selected for the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Young Composer Program.
The thing that jumps out of Zakiya Leeming’s CV is the inspiration of science behind her many commissions and performances. One thing stands out in particular – her work with health data scientists and doctors to create Dawn, on the Morning After the Storm, a piece encapsulating the contribution of an international consortium of researchers and doctors who were critical to informing the UK government during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Leeming is now undertaking a post-doctoral position at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, where she completed her PhD. Her current project is a collaboration with the Oxford University Immunology Professor Paul Klenerman. It follows the experiences of English writer and aristocrat of Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu, who advocated for inoculation in England in the 1700s. The collaboration will culminate in a chamber opera about the science and history of immune memory which will premiere in Manchester in 2025.
What excites you most about the path you have taken?
Composing music has always been my first love, and, I think, also something of a primal instinct. It’s one of my first memories, and the thing I do when I’m not intentionally doing anything at all. And this is what excites me most about the path I’ve taken – it’s that I would be doing it anyway. Turning an innate predisposition into a profession is creating a life in accordance with your natural state. That also leads to challenges, because like any creative or entrepreneurial pathway, it’s entirely self-driven, and that can test you, because lots of things can be outside of your control. But I think a large amount of finding the right path is finding out who you are and what you need to thrive, and that includes challenges that drive growth.
"But I think a large amount of finding the right path is finding out who you are and what you need to thrive, and that includes challenges that drive growth".
What is your best memory from your time at the University or from your time in Tasmania?
I played with many ensembles during my undergrad, but one that stands out is the one we formed together, ‘The University of Tasmania Funk Band’, which is possibly the un-funkiest name ever! (which we found amusing). We spent so much time together, both in the course and in all the ensembles, that we had developed a heightened awareness of each other’s musicianship – we were ‘tight’ as they say! We played gigs, radio appearances, and generally had a lot of fun together. It was special, because as a small department, we all knew each other really well, so a lot of memories are folded into and surround that time.
Are there particular places or experiences that have stayed with you?
There are so many places and experiences that continue to inform my daily life, it’s hard to narrow it down. It was such a formative time, every experience both academically and socially was so valuable. I was determined to get the most out of my degree, even doing an overload in Mandarin just because I could! That took me to China the next year, so it was well worth the extra study. But I think that those years were so important to my future growth. Doing the hard grind at the time meant I had a secure foundation from which to grow, and I’ve been able to get more out of the opportunities I’ve had since as a result.
What are your career hopes for the future?
I have been fortunate to work with performers and ensembles from a variety of places, having spent the year in China directly after my degree and working with ensembles in Germany and all over the UK, as well as meeting lots of other amazing composers and artists of different disciplines – from poetry, filmmaking and ballet to circus arts. My hope for the future is that I am as continually surprised by the experiences I’ll have as I have been to-date, because it’s not a path I could have plotted, or even believed possible when I was in my undergrad.
What would be your advice to newly graduating alumni?
My advice would be to first appreciate how far you’ve come and what you’ve accomplished. Think about the challenges you faced and how you overcame them – this is the foundation you will continue to build on for all challenges you meet in the future – no matter the scale. Then, take the time to really interrogate your plans and expectations. Consider these alongside what you’ve learned about yourself during this time. What did you most enjoy doing (however trivial)? What did you discover were your natural affinities, and what did you come to dread? My experience has taught me not to try to follow a path just because it already exists, and therefore seems the only way to get where you think you’re going, but to go for opportunities (life and career) that you are being drawn to, however far-fetched, unconventional, or outright implausible they seem. So go with the current of your natural predispositions and fortify your strengths, but then add challenges (as extreme as you can weather) that lead to new experiences and unexpected places.
Above image: Dr Zakiya Leeming
First published in Alumni and Friends eNews.
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