Composer Caroline Leisegang brings music from the heart to Joburg concert
The award-winning classical composer is preparing to launch her third album after a difficult hiatus, writes Eugene Yiga
She has overcome adversity to prepare another album, and Joburg composer Caroline Leisegang has huge plans for the future.
She has been out of sight for more than a year, spending much of it in hospital.
As a child growing up on a street arched by trees in Saxonwold, Leisegang’s main interests were using her imagination to create whatever she could with her mind. She wasn’t particularly sporty, nor was she very musical even though she started learning piano at the age of six, picked up the cello at 14 and had music as a matric subject.
"My musical training is at best quite sketchy," she admits. "I’ve never been an exceptional performer but I’ve always had the encouragement of my parents to stick with music.
"Instead of film school, I studied music at Wits but dropped out in my third year because I was feeling stuck. The degree was beginning to make me lose my love for music and I wanted so much more."
She wanted to write music and one of her close friends gave her an opportunity to compose. She sent in a portfolio of compositions along with an application to Trinity College of Music in London — as a joke, mostly — but she got an audition, was accepted and studied for two years at the prestigious institution.
"That’s where I really learned to compose," Leisegang says. "I had two supervisors [Irish composer Deirdre Gribbin and film composer and orchestrator John Ashton Thomas] who were complete contrasts to each another, but they taught me how to think, how to take [in] my surroundings and emotions, and how to speak in music rather than words."
Leisegang wrote and recorded her first piano album, Øyeblikk, in 2015. It was the first time she realised what she wanted to do with her life, what she was capable of and how she could take criticism and adapt.
"That’s the moment you become a musician," she says. "The moment when you have something tangible for which you can feel complete pride. Sometimes I look back at the scores and listen to the beautiful recording Jude Harpstar performed and think ‘did I really write this? Couldn’t have!"
What surprised her most was how well her music was received by listeners. Hearing encouraging responses from people who never listened to or liked classical music made her realise that if people were exposed to different genres of music, composers could have impact on their lives. The album’s launch at Circa Gallery in Johannesburg remains a highlight of her career.
"When I started writing the album I always had this firm vision of how I’d have the album performed there and for two years that was all I could think about," she says. "So when I was lucky enough to have that dream come true it was one of the most magical and memorable moments of my life. And to be able to perform my first concert there this May after a long hiatus is something that just adds to that moment."
Another professional highlight was her second album, Come Full Circle, which won the iTunes Award for Best Classical Album in SA in 2015.
Leisegang is preparing to launch her third album, My Body of Preludes, in September. What made this one particularly challenging is that she composed it while popping in and out of hospital due to severe health issues that have kept her out of sight for more than a year.
"I first got sick when I was 12 and was diagnosed with what was called benign intracranial hypertension and I guess it’s been unravelling and evolving ever since," she says.
"The simplest diagnosis I can give you now is that I have a multisystemic auto-immune disease that involves my immunity, brain and heart. I’m on an assortment of cardiac medications, a chemotherapy agent I take weekly and various neurological medications."
She’s had a few surgeries (none of them invasive) and needles stuck into her spinal cord. While her health is a sensitive subject, having supportive family and friends helps.
"I wouldn’t say it’s affected my ability to write, record or perform," she says. "Granted, the last 14 months have involved a series of hospital admissions and convalescence, but that goes with the territory.
"That’s why this concert in May is so important to me. I’ve been quiet but I’m far from a quiet person. And when there’s music and the ability to share that music, you just do it."
Leisegang, who is 27 years old, jokes that she has no intention of joining the infamous club of musicians who die at that age — Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and others.
"Everyone has something in their life that they think makes them defective in some way and so I’m just as ordinary as anyone else. Yes, having health issues from a young age has shaped me and aged me but I’m still a vivacious, ambitious woman."
Over the past 14 months, Leisegang has met other incredible women and has learned so much from them. Some have died, which is something she struggles with more than her own health. But the best she can do is to accept it for what it is.
"Adversity is a tricky subject because my adversity might not be on the same level as another’s," she admits.
"But for anyone who is going through anything that causes the body or the mind to hurt, from a break-up to cancer, the only thing you can do is be you. When you fall, you must get up because the world doesn’t stop for anyone or anything."
• Leisegang is performing at Circa in Johannesburg on May 10. Book at Computicket.