Interview: ‘Flip the Stem’

This week we had the pleasure of chatting to Nadim Jauffur and Jenny Espin from new organisation ‘Flip the Stem’ – a brilliant musical initiative launched over the past year and dedicated to popularising the work of marginalised composers.

We chat to them about how the project came about and what they hope to achieve through it!

Hey, thanks for talking to us at AM! Could you start by just explaining to our readers what your organisation does?

NJ: Of course! Our core aim is to popularise marginalised composers, and we work to achieve this by increasing awareness and accessibility to these composers’ works. We find old scores by female composers and composers of colour, and then we create new editions of them and commission freelance musicians to record them so that we can freely distribute them as score videos. We set ourselves up during the pandemic, so our entire operation has been built from remote cooperation.

Where did the inspiration for Flip the Stem come from?

JE: Honestly, a big early factor was frustration with the status quo. It was Nadim’s idea originally and he brought it to me. The more we’d talk about it, the more we wanted to do something about it – I remember us seeing backlash to some YouTube videos that criticised the Western classical canon and it just felt bizarre, because we knew these composers’ music didn’t sound all that different and it was more to do with which composers were already established as respectable.

NJ: Yeah, there were definitely a few things that just made us feel like we had to do something, and I think our day jobs – we both work for orchestras in Manchester – helped us to recognise more of the practical difficulties too. It’s annoying seeing big orchestras and the like program next to no marginalised composers, but we get why it can be difficult for an establishment of that size too. I think realising we had the opportunity to build an organisation that could circumvent those difficulties from the get-go definitely motivated us a lot.

JE: Since we’ve started and actually produced recordings, just hearing the music has been a huge boost for motivation too! We do a lot of unrecorded music and it’s really cool knowing you’ve added something new to the classical music community.

How have you found setting up a project during Covid, has it changed the way you work at all?

NJ: I don’t actually live in Manchester, so I’d work from home regularly before COVID anyway and it’s definitely not been as much of a difference as I would have expected. If the pandemic hadn’t occurred, we’d probably be attending a lot of rehearsals and recordings sessions, regardless of how important our presence really was. It’s good like this – we make sure to be as available as possible to all of our performers, but the set-up lets them get on without us otherwise.

JE: Yeah, I worked from home regularly too, so it’s not been wildly different. I assume the performers we commission would have a lot more to say about it than us though! Not all of them have worked remotely, and from what we’ve heard back, there are definitely pros and cons to either way of working. The weirdest thing for us is probably just not going into an office and working together, but we’ve done that before and not always with the most productive results, so maybe it’s for the best!

NJ: It’s a shame to not always have someone to chat to and work alongside, but we both still get bits and bobs to do from our day jobs, so it’s kind of useful that a lot of our communication is messaging. It allows each of us to get on with stuff, regardless of how busy the other person is – we can always go back and check our chatlogs if we forget minor details, etc.

Could you give us an example of a marginalised composer you have shone a light on?

JE: Repetition and consistency are key, so in that sense I wouldn’t single any composer out just yet – we’ve got a lot of beginnings, but we’re only just starting to cover multiple works by composers we’ve already looked at.

NJ: If you look at our current number of views, effectively we’ve got the equivalent of an established orchestra giving a single performance of an unknown piece in concert. There’s still the upsides of our recordings being permanently available, and the sheet music being freely available so anyone can try and play it, but I think it’s fair to say we’ve got some work to do before we really start accomplishing what we set out to.

JE: If I had to pick one though, I’m really proud of what we managed with Harry Thacker Burleigh’s Southland Sketches – a lot of the original scores we get come from places like IMSLP, but IMSLP didn’t have all of the movements for that, so it was cool to actually have to go and hunt them down. It feels like a step above what we’ve done with other composers.

NJ: I’d say I’m pretty excited about our work on Hedwige Chrétien’s music. It’s just all so lush, and I’m baffled by just how unknown she is. We’ve got quite a bit of content planned around her and I’m looking forward to all of it!

Has there been anything that has surprised you whilst setting up the project? 

JE: The adaptability of our performers. We’ve been so impressed with how enthusiastic they’ve been about the project and how well they’ve worked despite the less-than-ideal conditions. Putting together remote recordings can’t be easy, but they’ve all smashed it.

NJ: I was going to say hidden costs, haha, but yes, I think the biggest surprise has been how pleasant it’s been working with the performers. So many of them have brought something new to the project or helped us to develop our approach moving forward.

What are you currently working on?

NJ: A lot of funding applications. We can’t really thank the National Lottery and Arts Council England enough for giving us the funding to get us off the ground. It’s been such a fun few months and none of it would have been possible without them, but it’s coming to an end in the next couple months and we’re spending a lot of our time trying to look out for other funding opportunities whilst we programme upcoming batches of music.

What’s next for you guys at Flip the Stem- any plans for the future?

NJ: For now, more of the same. We’re taking big steps behind the scenes towards solidifying our operations and making sure we’re here for good – we don’t want to patter out as the pandemic improves and things become more competitive. It’s exciting for us, but perhaps not so much for our followers.

Where can readers find you? (social media links/contact details etc.)

You can find our content at www.youtube.com/flipthestem, and we’re also on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (@flipsthestem).

Words by Hermione Kellow, Nadim Jauffur & Jenny Espin

Photo © Flip The Stem- Facebook profile

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