Creative Spotlight: Jemma Jeffery on composing music for the climate crisis

Hans Zimmer, you better watch your back


Jemma Jeffery, a first year music student at Christ’s, has been composing music since she was only nine years old. The music she composes is varied and vibrant, quite literally – because Jemma has synesthesia, she associates certain musical keys with certain colours, and specific colours with specific moods creating a piece uniquely based on the particular tonal palette of emotions she is feeling on a particular day. 

As well as creating personally evocative music, Jemma also focusses on portraying current global issues, such as the impact of plastic pollution or seismic drilling, through a combination of music and spoken word, aiming to mobilise her composition as a force for social good.

The Tab Cambridge spoke to Jemma about a life spent immersed in music, discussing both the emotional significance it has for her, as well as how she hopes to develop and take her composition further in the future.

Deep in thought

Starting as a composer: ‘I enjoyed playing the piano and learning works, but I would always prefer to just make up my own pieces’

Jemma started piano lessons at nine years old and even from that young age, she loved to explore musical composition, often preferring to follow her own interests and do her own thing: “I enjoyed playing the piano and learning works, but I would always prefer to just make up my own pieces.” 

As a child, Jemma would often video herself improvising, a habit she has continued into the present day. She reflects, amused, on her childhood improvised pieces: “None of these [pieces] were particularly good, but it’s highly amusing to look back at them now and cringe at myself!” 

She talks fondly of a childhood spent absorbed in music, and the nostalgia of being able to look back on her past pieces has remained important to her. It seems music has held great personal significance for her from the beginning: “Lots of my pieces seem like small journal entries, providing insight into how I might have been feeling one day and this is really cool to look back on.”

Jemma’s artistic style: ‘I particularly like to compose a lot of film-music and music with a strong narrative or evocative element’

Jemma likes to compose “music with a strong narrative or evocative element” and likes to potray a story through composition. She has a particular love for composing film-music, something she would like to do professionally in future.

What is particularly fascinating about her method though is how influenced her improvisation is by her mood that day: “I have synesthesia and associate all musical keys and chords with different colours; these colours also all then correlate to different moods and if I am feeling in a particular mood, I will tend to centre a piece around that key.” 

Her music is personal and emotional, richly coloured by her own feelings: “For example, if I come to the piano in a happy, merry mood, I would start improvising in the key of E flat major.”

We love an intellectual black and white photo

Trying different styles: ‘I think remaining open-minded to different creative innovations is super important for any artist’

Just as she doesn’t limit herself with the range of moods and musical techniques she uses to create her music, Jemma also doesn’t limit herself in terms of her sources of creative inspiration: “I draw a lot of inspiration from various sources: notably, listening to lots of other music from all different genres, the natural world, and from the conversations I have with people.”

She draws particular attention to the music of Jacob Collier, admiring his ability to push boundaries in music and “the ways he consistently creates such unique sonic palettes and challenges years of convention.” His attitude to music seems similar to Jemma’s, representing a willingness to try different, varied and unconventional ways of composing. 

Indeed, like Collier, Jemma is looking to experiment more with her composition in future: “I would love to write more microtonal music and explore a greater harmonic colour palette.

She looks forward to exploring techniques outside of the conventions of typical Western musical tastes: “I believe there is so much scope in these areas that, in the Western listening world, has barely been touched upon.”

Jemma is consistently curious and experimental, emphasising the importance of pushing herself to try new ideas: “I think remaining open-minded to different creative innovations is super important for any artist. Continually letting yourself experiment and try new ideas (even if they are super wacky) can be really beneficial and fun. 

“Experimenting with different, crazy ideas has allowed me to be more imaginative and unique with my music and it is through this experimentation that I have a better idea of the music I like (and do not like) to compose.”

Music for today: ‘Music can definitely help to raise awareness of social issues, often functioning as an epistemic and moral force for good’

As well as capturing her personal mood in her compositions, Jemma also represents broader social issues in her music, another innovative and original way of utilising composition: “These days, a lot of my music touches on current topical world issues – with recent pieces written on climate change, the impact of seismic drilling on marine life, and with one being currently written on plastic pollution.” 

To represent these issues in music, Jemma does so more overtly through lyrics and spoken word but also tries to weave her message into the music itself: “In my composition on climate change, I incorporated extracts from powerful activist speeches, but simultaneously used synthesisers that I created out of sounds from the natural world. 

She managed to think of innovative ways to turn these natural sounds into musical tools: “I attached these sounds to pitches and hence created my own instruments out of things like ‘rain’ and ‘wind’.”

Jemma has a strong belief in the power of music to impact social change: “Music is so embedded within our culture that I think music can definitely help to raise awareness of social issues, often functioning as an epistemic and moral force for good. 

“I believe music can mediate empathy and action in societies and can be a powerful tool in fostering an acknowledgment of different social issues.”

John Williams who?

Composing in lockdown: ‘Whenever the world can feel a bit heavy, I can just turn to the piano, improvise some music, and instantly feel better’

During the global challenges of the past year, Jemma has found composing to be a really essential tool in helping her cope: “Composing plays such a huge role in my life. It has been so wonderful, especially this past year to have such an expressive creative outlet I can always turn to.”

Composing has not only been a way for her to reflect and capture her mood, but also to lift her mood amidst considerable global challenge : “It has been such a release to know that whenever the world can feel a bit heavy, I can just turn to the piano, improvise some music, and instantly feel better.”

Jemma talks about how fulfilling it is to work with other performers too: “Whilst the act of composing can be quite solitary, getting to work with performers (when I’ve been fortunate enough to have a piece performed) has always given me such joy.” 

Composing music is something that really brings her joy, an invaluable thing to have in the current climate: “I think composition has just always been the way I love to express myself. I love the endless possibilities of creation and the way the world just continually inspires me to write music.”

Dealing with self-criticism: ‘I constantly have to remind myself not to get too frustrated and self-critical and to just enjoy the process of creating’

Jemma finds she can often be her own worst critic when it comes to composing: “Sometimes it can just get so hard to think of any good ideas that I am happy with; there can be a lot of self-doubt which at times can be a real barrier to getting anything done.” 

However, she tries not to let this hold her back from maintaining her experimental attitude and letting herself enjoy the process: “I constantly have to remind myself not to get too frustrated and self-critical and to just enjoy the process of creating – rather than constantly comparing myself to others and judging whether what I am doing is good enough.” 

She reflects on the similar personal difficulties faced by her younger self when she was just starting out as a composer: “I would tell myself to stop comparing myself to others. It is so much easier said than done, but it can be such a hindrance to creativity if you are constantly comparing the stuff you write to someone else’s music. 

“Music is so subjective that there is not really a right/wrong or good/bad polarity to what you write – and I still have to remind myself of this and just enjoy the process.”

Live music? Concerts? 2020 doesn’t know her

Creative challenges of the past, present and future: ‘Hopefully, at some point, we will all be able to listen to music concerts together again’

Jemma is enthusiastic and determined as a composer, reflecting fondly on an impressive musical challenge she undertook in November 2018: “I was commissioned to write a work for an interactive story-telling experience. I ended up becoming the Musical Director for the project which meant I ended up not only writing all the music but conducting and arranging all the music too. 

“I was particularly proud that I managed to complete everything within such a short time frame (a week!) and in the end, I was happy with the music I wrote for it.” 

She speaks with similar positivity on her next steps as a composer: “I am hoping to continue writing more film music and pushing myself creatively.”

Jemma looks forward to a time when this collective experience of music can be more than a cherished memory: “I’m hoping to get involved with more student projects and new music concerts this year when hopefully, at some point, we will all be able to listen to music concerts together again.” 

I think that hope is something we all share – a time when we can again return to the concerts we all so love. 

You can listen to Jemma’s music on YouTube (Jemma Jeffery). 

If you’re a creative from the University of Cambridge and you would like to be featured in the Creative Spotlight column, please email The Tab Cambridge at [email protected] 

Featured image credit: Jemma Jeffery 

All image credits to Jemma Jeffery 

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