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Gerry Godley, Principal of Leeds College of Music.
John Robert Brown
Gerry Godley took up the post of Principal of Leeds College of Music in September 2014. "I'm a saxophonist, and a Dubliner," he says. "Prior to music, for a long time I was a chef in the restaurant business. I have all the cuts and callouses to prove it! Compared to the job I do now it was a useful career to be in, certainly regarding quality and consistency.
"Growing up, I always had an interest in music," he says. "But I came to music late. I bought a tenor saxophone out of Buy and Sell Magazine on my twenty-first birthday. I completed a Jazz Diploma from the Guildhall which, in Ireland at that time, was the only qualification available. My true north is as a jazz musician, but my interests are eclectic. Apart from that, mine was a largely autodidactic route, studying privately with good players in Dublin and elsewhere.
"A turning point came in my mid-to-late twenties. One of the great things about the restaurant business is that you work a lot at night, which creates a great amount of time during the day for practice. I went through a period of intensive practice, with a missionary zeal, over about five or six years. Despite my age, I got myself up to a respectable level as a player.
"Then I went to the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, to audition as a mature student. The Conservatory had a great jazz programme, and a teacher I greatly admired, the American saxophonist John Ruocco, with whom I really wanted to study. I was accepted. The only difficulty was that at the time I didn't have the money to support full-time education in another country. So I returned to Ireland to explore all the possibilities around grant aid, support and bursaries. What I discovered was that there was little opportunity for a mature student to work in the jazz area. That was a politicising moment for me. I was doing what lots of other aspiring young jazz players were doing - lots of gigs. And I was also fixing gigs. Circuitously, that led me to a fledgling organisation of the time called Improvised Music Company, which was a modestly funded Arts Council organisation for the development of jazz, being your typical pro bono setup.
"Over time, and under my leadership from the mid-nineties onwards, Improvised Music Company grew significantly, to the point where now it would probably be the largest provider of niche music in Ireland, active in jazz, world music, folk music, concert promotion, record labels and festivals, being a little bit like Serious, in London, but more modest in scale. Then, in 2007, we started a festival called Twelve Points. The title was a pun on the Eurovision Song Contest, the old days of the telephone voting and Douze Points. Whatever the actual quality of the music at Eurovision - which, to be charitable, varies greatly - the actual aspiration is something terrific; I liked the idea of that.
"At the time I was also recognising the challenges for young artists in all genres around mobility within Europe. Of course, in a country like Ireland, which is both geographically and culturally peripheral, those problems were present, as they were in places like Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, a lot of those places that had joined the European Union in 2004.
"One of the aspects that I have enjoyed most about coming into this role in Leeds is to be freed from being associated with a specific genre, to have an opportunity to take a helicopter view of what's happening in the Conservatoire. The most gratifying aspect of the job to date has been when I've experienced one of those precious opportunities to re-engage with students, through watching them perform. It has been the opportunity to re-engage with the music I associated with the formative experiences of my youth, like pop music, and to broaden my understanding in areas where I was less fluent, like classical music.
"All of the work around that festival was positioning me in a very interesting developmental place, which was just downriver from the output of conservatoires right across Europe. In fact, one of the reasons I was aware of what was happening in Leeds at that time was through young musicians like Matthew Bourne, and groups like Trio VD, both of whom are alumni of the College. In fact, Leeds is a great case study in terms of how the Twelve Points model could focus on a less obvious centre of creative activity and bring that out. Twelve Points was very interesting. We were programming the festival through an open call. It's still ongoing. This year it received in excess of 400 applications, mostly coming from the output of recognized institutions, not just in the UK but from right across Europe."
Leeds College of Music (LCoM) is a relatively young institution, not founded until 1965; Godley is only its fourth Principal. Large by the standards of British conservatoires, currently LCoM has around 1,000 full-time-equivalent students, including about 75 international students from around 40 countries.
"What's really interesting about LCoM now is its pluralism," says Godley. "There are new pathways we are offering in 2016, in New Music, and Film Music, adding to our existing offerings in classical, jazz, pop, production and music business, and combined options of all the above . When you place that alongside our Masters and FE provision, short courses and community engagement, it paints a holistic picture. The design of our curriculum will continue to evolve. We are doing that for a number of reasons, to respond to what young people want from the education system, and to equip them with the tools to flourish in a world where the cultural sands will continue to shift beneath our feet."
Godley says that he's in the process of uncoupling himself from any kind of hierarchical stylistic view about what's happening within the Conservatoire. "It's fantastic to be in an environment that allows for huge potential in terms of collaboration and an interdisciplinary approach," he says.