We are the Music

Programming

The fastest-growing section on my bookshelf seems to be the autoethnography corner – researchers turning the lens on themselves and their own tribe. The latest addition to my collection, joining the ranks of Richard Hoggart, Lisa McKenzie, Kate Fox and al., is Marvin HarrisWhy Nothing Works, an “anthropology of daily life” published in 1981, digging deep to retrace the roots of everyday evil in contemporary America.

“This book is about cults, crime, shoddy goods, and the shrinking dollar. It’s about porno parlors, and sex shops, and men kissing on the streets. It’s about daughters shacking up, women on the rampage, marriages postponed, divorces on the rise, and no one having kids. It’s about old ladies getting mugged and raped, people shoved in front of trains, and shoot-outs as gas pumps. And letters that take weeks to get delivered, waiters who throw the food at you, rude sales help, and computers that bill you for things you never bought. It’s about broken benches, waterless fountains, cracked windows, dirty toilets, crater-filled roads, graffiti-covered buildings, slashed paintings, toppled statues, stolen books.”

Marvin Harris, ‘Introduction’, Why Nothing Works

How and why does all of this happen? The underlying causes of all these disparate problems are, according to Harris, centralisation, bureaucracy and oligopoly, the dark side of unfettered capitalism that ends up killing – in the name of maximising shareholder profit – the sense of initiative, quality control and efficiency that led to prosperity and progress in the first place.  

If the cause is centralisation, it would only be logical that the solution should be decentralisation (and Harris’ is always reassuringly logical, even when he turns upside down entrenched myths and rock-solid narratives). Already in 1981, Harris was calling for legislation towards greater local autonomy, “legal barriers against takeovers of new energy technologies (…) by multinational conglomerates” and support for “small business and community-based cooperatives” – an unlikely but necessary scenario that finds many advocates today, such as the partisans of the Transition model.  

The human-scale, everyday damage of capitalism is illustrated in the first two chapters – ‘Why Nothing Works’ and ‘Why the Help Won’t Help You’. Harris introduces up a simple concept that peaked my attention: if your new toaster burns everything it touches, or the shop sales assistant has no idea (and no interest in finding out) when they will restock your size, that’s because the social link between maker and user is broken. In a small-scale economy, the transaction between the person making and the person using the object is much more than monetary: there has to be trust, care and accountability. Objects made for oneself, a family member or next-door neighbour are perfect and durable because there’s a direct relation between the maker and the user: Harris give the examples of a sea canoe and a parka, which failure would be life-threatening on a freezing hunting trek. Inversely, in modern-day manufacturing and service industries, ever-growing layers of bureaucracy and hierarchy fragment the making process and separate each employee both from the product or service and the end-user.

This made me think of “music-making” – a term I’ve come to like for giving music – technically, a series of invisible waves – a physicality that makes it easier to relate to the people at each step of the process, the makers (musicians), users (listeners), but also the enablers, such as producers, promoters… It clearly places music within the frame of a communication process.

Music as a social link between people is an idea that I find helpful to think about activities that fall within the range of education, outreach, engagement and participation: of course, music can be ‘beneficial’ in itself, and the well-being and cognitive benefits associated with playing and listening to music are well documented, but the power of live music is also that it’s created by someone to share with others. Organisations like Live Music Now, as well as many orchestras, take music to people who can’t otherwise access it – inside hospitals, special schools and community centres – and as LMN founder Yehudi Menuhin says in this short extract, it’s about communicating and touching people one by one.

When music is played together, from a duo to an orchestra, a special chemistry happens between players, which, when it ‘works’, becomes a thrilling, enthralling bond between performers and audience. The context is hugely important in creating this connection, as the audience experience is shaped and influenced by a multitude of details that are mostly completely out of the control of the musicians: venue layout, sound quality, interaction with staff or volunteers…

And when thinking about the user-maker relationship, I wonder if we could think of the audience themselves as both creators and receivers of their own experience – that of being part of a crowd, a community of feeling. Then it’s perhaps the social link between listeners that is broken when rules and etiquette are erected to contain emotion and exclude rather than include participants. I’m thinking here of the concert hall experience often associate with classical music, and the stilted attitude to fellow audience members that can come with it – see the baffling episode related by Gillian Moore, Head of Music at Southbank Centre, who was chided by an audience member for moving her head in appreciation of the music.

There has been much done recently to allow the audience to develop and express a collective emotion while listening to classical music, by playing in more informal venues, from pubs to clubs and car parks, playing with presentation format, like the annual festival La Folle Journée in Nantes, or even making it a multi-sensory experience, like in the experiment below by BitterSuite.  

As I revisit these initiatives to reinvent the classical music experience and constantly discover new ones, it strikes me that I just can’t find the same type of information for jazz, another once-popular genre now soul-searching for new audiences. There are plenty of innovative jazz promoters out there inventing news ways to be with live music, but they just don’t get shared the same way that classical music case studies do – for example, I don’t know any jazz equivalent to this photo-heavy collection of 40 innovative live classical music case studies from around the world compiled by audience specialist Johan Idema. One for the to-do list? In the meantime, I take this call for responsible listeners that concludes Aaron Copland’s “preparation for listening” manual as a reminder that not all responsibility lies with the promoter:

“Take seriously your responsibility as listener. (…) Since it is our combined reaction as listeners that most profoundly influences both the art of composition and interpretation, it may be truthful to say that the future of music is in our hands.

Music can only really be alive when there are listeners who are really alive. To listen intently, to listen consciously, to listen with one’s whole intelligence is the least we can do in the furtherance of an art that is one of the glory of mankind.”

Aaron Copland, What to Listen for in Music (1939)

Children’s Corner

Spotlight

The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception.
– Albert Einstein

I’ve been playing the piano from the age of 5 and haven’t discovered anything yet – but I can certainly feel everyday the benefits of having studied music. Growing up in a musical family made it easy not just to pick up an instrument, but also to stick with it: my parents and older siblings were there to help me understand and accept that the road to perfection, or at least to being able to play to satisfactory standards, is paved with hours of practice.

To follow up from my previous post about music and the brain, and more specifically the Royal Conservatory of Music’s advocacy for early years music education, I’m looking now at a few schemes that introduce children to music. The examples below are actually only about classical music, mainly because being hosted by large institutions means that they come with structured learning programmes, nice videos and evaluation reports – and also that they’re easier to find.

 

El Sistema / In Harmony / Big Noise

Back in 2009, I got to spend a full day at a primary school in West Everton to observe musicians from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra teaching pupils (and their teachers) for several hours a day, from singing at the morning assembly to practicing their tiny violins in small classes then rehearsing as a full ensemble in preparation for their performance at the Royal Festival Hall. This was the very first year of In Harmony Liverpool, a learning scheme inspired by El Sistema, the Venezuelan “system” based on intensive instrumental practice and orchestral performance embedded into the daily life of underprivileged children with an overt goal to promote individual and collective change. Or in the words of its founder, musician and politician José Antonio Abreu:

An orchestra is a community where the essential and exclusive feature is that it is the only community that comes together with the fundamental objective of agreeing with itself. Therefore the person who plays in an orchestra begins to live the experience of agreement. And what does the experience of agreement mean? Team practice – the practice of the group that recognizes itself as interdependent, where everyone is responsible for others and the others are responsible for oneself. Agree on what? To create beauty.

El Sistema has attracted its share of praise over the years, but also criticism – most recently by British academic Geoff Baker, who has just published El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth (previewed by Baker in the Guardian, and reviewed pretty much everywhere – I especially like the responses from El Sistema-specialists Tricia Tunstall in Classical Music Magazine and Jonathan Govias on his own blog – watch out for the aggressive comments by the reviewed author himself!).

Wile the debate is raging, El Sistema-inspired schemes are still going strong in the UK and have grown to 6 official programmes in England, where they are called In Harmony, and two in Scotland, where they are known as Big Noise.

Children & the Arts: Start & Quests

Children & the Arts is a national charity backed up by the Prince’s Foundation with a mission to introduce children who are least likely to discover the arts to high-quality artistic experiences. Their approach is based on long-term partnerships between venues and schools to develop year-round engagement programmes, with regular visits, participatory activities and embedded learning. I found out about them through the Relaxed Performance Project that they piloted a few years ago, enabling children with special needs and their families to enjoy live theatre together.

They offer two main types of programmes: Start, fostering partnerships between primary schools in deprived areas and cultural venues that are geographically local to them yet a whole world apart; and a series of year-long Quests focusing on one area and one single art form at a time and structured around teacher support, workshops with professional artists, access to free performances and opportunities to create and perform. Quests have so far explored architecture, poetry, theatre, orchestral music, dance, opera and visual art.

They also run Start Hospices, work with children’s hospices to enable children with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions to enjoy a cultural outing with their family in a welcoming, friendly and very supporting environment.

Evaluation reports, case studies and free teaching resources are available on their website.

Orchestras Live: First Time Live

I came across Orchestras Live recently via their new music scheme Beyond the Premiere through my ongoing research on new music commissioning. They also run a large-scale national outreach initiative, First Time Live, a touring programme that not only brings orchestral music to young people, but also involves them in repertoire selection, production and presentation of the concert.

In 2013 and 2014, First Time Live – Youth brought 20 concerts by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the City of London Sinfonia to young people aged between 10 and 14 years living in 10 locations in the bottom 20% for arts engagement across England (Hull, Scunthorpe, Doncaster, Grimsby, Luton, Harlow, March, Peterborough, Thurrock and Mansfield).

Here are a few selected quotes taken from the evaluation report of the project’s first phase, from both Young Producers and teachers.

‘It just felt like it wasn’t something we were ‘allowed’ to experience but we were the ones creating the experience’. Young Producer 

‘I’ve learnt that I definitely want to be a music teacher, because the [project] experience has shown me how really accessible music is to children, no matter what age and I want to support and encourage that’. Young Producer

‘The children were very impressed and gave standing ovations – which took us teachers by surprise. I think this demonstrates the strength of their feelings towards the concert. They chatted about it for days afterwards too’. Teacher

The project has now entered a ‘legacy‘ phase, building on the success of the first tour to develop and consolidate new outreach and participation models. In Barrow-in-Furness, 30 young producers aged 12-15 organised two concerts by the Manchester Camerata for their school peers; in Spalding, young people devised their own collaborative concept for a concert with the City of London Sinfonia and young local musicians; in Harlow, a group of students worked with composer John K Mile and the City of London Sinfonia to commission and promote a collaborative piece with young musicians; and in Luton, young musicians created and performed a new orchestral piece with the City of London Sinfonia on the theme of Carnival (work-in-progress documentary below).

Music on the Brain

Spotlight

It’s been nearly 15 years, but I finally have a piano back in my life, and I’m enjoying playing again so much that I’ve even taken up the ukelele to have a second instrument I can carry with me everywhere.

I played music for several hours daily from an early age – first piano, then also violin and guitar –  until I moved away from home to start university and it all became a bit too much. In my early teens, I was seriously considering a career as a piano teacher, and I often remind myself that what I do as an arts administrator and producer is very much along the same lines of sharing my passion for music and the arts and trying to get people to appreciate them from within.

As I continue to research what art is and does, I like to organise my findings into more-or-less structured lists, so here are a few resources I’ve recently come across about the effects of music on the brain. Nothing exhaustive here, just a few starting points for further enquiry that can perhaps support advocacy efforts.

 

Musicophilia

Like all other books by the neurologist Oliver SacksMusicophilia (2007is a surprisingly entertaining and enlightening dive into the mysteries of the brain, looking at the biochemistry of music perception through case studies based on clinical observations of Sacks’ own patients and correspondents. A keen amateur pianist himself, Sacks probes into the musical phenomenon with a rigorously scientific and deeply empathic mind, sharing fascinating insights into the role of music in people’s life: sometimes a burden, for example when it takes the form of intrusive auditive hallucinations, most often enriching and transformative.

The video below is a 90 minutes’ talk that Sacks gave at the Cambridge Forum about the book, where his personable storytelling style shines.

The Benefits of Music Education

The Toronto-based Royal Conservatory of Music has recently published a pamphlet on The Benefits of Music Education, using neuroscience research to convince parents to sign up their children for formal instrumental lessons (another publication details how Structured Music Education is the Pathway to Success).

Promised benefits include:

  • speeding the development of speech and reading skills;
  • training children to focus their attention for sustained periods;
  • and helping children to gain a sense of empathy for others.

It’s also peppered with quotes from successful people who studies music in their youth, such as writer Annabel Lyon:

Music study made me disciplined, and it’s helped me to understand that you don’t need to feel brilliant or inspired all the time to know that you’re moving forward.

Or Olympic champion and motivational speaker Jeremiah Brown:

…piano lessons were my first experience sticking with something over a long period of time. This set me up for being able to pursue goals that did not come with quick rewards.

I also found on their website a nice animated video conceived by music educator Anita Collins about what happens in the brain when we are playing an instrument.

Neurosymphonie

Meanwhile, back on this side of the Atlantic, the French public broadcaster Radio France is organising a series of conferences on music and the brain entitled Neurosymphonie between March and October 2015.

Gathering prominent neuroscientists and musicians and aimed at an audience of music, health and science professionals, the conferences examine questions ranging from the differences between the brains of musicians and non-musicians, the links between music and memory and between music and health. Video highlights will be made available soon.

musique-et-cerveau-3-bd-article-585-x-390

How Music Works

The first instalment of this series of conferences featured a discussion on amusia, a congenital or acquired condition whose sufferers can’t ‘hear’ music. Amusics have difficulties in processing pitch, rhythm and melody; depending on the severity of their condition, they can be keen amateurs but a little tone-deaf, rather indifferent to music or downright hostile to it: for some people, music is an unpleasant or even painful experience.

What makes music music rather than noise? That’s one of the many questions that classical composer and physics professor John Powell set out to answer in his 2010 book How Music WorksIt’s quite simple really: a sound is a ripple travelling through the air that hits the eardrums with a certain pattern; the eardrums then translate the information to the brain. The difference between a musical note and a noise is that notes have a regular pattern – whereas noises are erratic ripples.

Powell goes on to explain why the minor mode sounds sad and the major mode triumphant (or rather why we think so), why harmony sounds good and other historical, psychological and scientific musical facts. It’s an entertaining book that covers a lot of ground to help readers become better listeners.

Here’s a trailer that gives a good sample of the questions explored in the book:

 

(featured image by Matt Kish – from his awe-inspiring Moby Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page project).

5 Questions to… Eleanor & Rosie, The Brick Box Ladies

5 questions to...

I recently had the great personal and professional pleasure to work with The Brick Box, a Community Interest Company currently working across London and in Bradford but constantly expanding their reach thanks to their determination to spread “art, love and magic” all over the world.

Ruling the roost, the Brick Box Ladies – a.k.a. co-directors Eleanor Barrett and Rosie Freeman – preside over a small army of artists of all denominations and project managers – like myself – who work collaboratively to infuse under-used public spaces with a new lease of life. Their latest projects include the A13 Green in Canning Town (a village green complete with fairy-lit bandstand under a concrete flyover), the Light Fantastic in Thamesmead and the Electric Fireside in Little Germany, Bradford – and most recently the event I contributed to, the Big Draw by the River in Nine Elms. There are tons of photos and videos on their website (they’ve got their marketing priorities nailed down and always employ top-notch photographers and videographers) so I’ve pinched a few to include in between each question and show off their fantastic work.

 

Rosie (centre) and Eleanor (right) at the Toast Temple, Wandsworth Arts Festival 2014. Photo: Hannah Maule-ffinch.

Rosie (centre) and Eleanor (right) at the Toast Temple, Wandsworth Arts Festival 2014. Photo: Hannah Maule-ffinch.

1. Your next event is Light Night Canning Town on 29 November 2014. What’s a typical day right now?

Busy! We’re ramping up marketing and press, trying to get the word out far and wide. We’ve got such a fantastic programme we want to make sure lots of people come and enjoy it. We’re also making daily prayers for good weather!

The Light Fantastic on The Moorings estate in Thamesmead. Photo: Roxanne Grant.

The Light Fantastic on The Moorings estate in Thamesmead. Photo: Roxanne Grant.

2. You’ve been organising events for several years now. What gets easier with time? And what doesn’t?

It’s been 4 and a half years as The Brick Box, far longer in different incarnations. It’s easier to work out budgets, have an idea of what an event might be like, and pack gaffer tape! What doesn’t get easier? Worrying that no one will come!

Half Moon Theatre's Punch and Judy on the Royal Victoria Beach. Photo: Kevin Ricks.

Half Moon Theatre’s Punch and Judy on the Royal Victoria Beach. Photo: Kevin Ricks.

3. Before, during or after an event – what’s your favourite moment, the one that makes it all worth it?

Definitely during an event – it’s great to see people enjoying themselves and taking part in the things we hoped they would.

The Toast Temple on The Moorings estate in Thamesmead. Photo: Roxanne Grant.

The Toast Temple on The Moorings estate in Thamesmead. Photo: Roxanne Grant.

4. What other event(s) would you love to attend as audience member?

Eleanor: Shambala Festival
Rosie: another Bruce Springsteen gig!

10-piece drum and brassband, Old Dirty Brasstards, at the launch of the A13 Green 2014. Photo: Matt Badenoch.

10-piece drum and brassband, Old Dirty Brasstards, at the launch of the A13 Green 2014. Photo: Matt Badenoch.

5. Who would be your dream artist(s) to collaborate with?

Eleanor – Grayson Perry and Mae West
Rosie – William Blake and my friend Lisa!

And finally, hot off the editing bench, here’s a little film of the Big Draw day by Tomo Brody.

Virtual Street Art 2: Promenade Nocturne in Marseille

Spotlight

Google have collaborated with French sound artist and urban storyteller Julie de Muer to create an immersive night walk through the back streets of Marseille using the Google Street technology.

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Promenade Nocturne / Night Walk takes the virtual walker in Julie’s footsteps, through the narrow, graffiti-covered ruelles of the Cours Julien neighbourhood in Marseille. The walk is guided by Christophe Perruchi, musician and street art enthusiast, who shares his personal insights. A map shows the recommended route, but also some off-track options in dotted lines, and the location of the 34 “secret” landmarks to check out.

Walk start

The Marseille-by-night atmosphere is conveyed by field recordings – echoing footsteps, music spilling out of bars, buzzing conversations on terraces – and a soundtrack composed by Perruchi.

Artworks and other points of interest to explore are signaled by icons to be clicked on.

Snapshot with secrets

Selected artworks can be explored in more details, with a mini-gallery and a few words about the individual artists.

Blaze - papier

It’s not all about street art: historical and cultural facts are part of the visit, such as this quote by Schopenhauer on Marseille.

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A stunning scrolling panorama of the city at night, with clickable points of interests, is also one of the ‘secret’ treasures to unlock.

Panorama with click points

A few 1-minute films – a timelapse video of a mural painting (below), street musicians, a chef describing his favourite dish, an elderly Marseillais recalling a personal story – are interspersed in the walk like as many chance encounters.

Part immersive virtual urban walk with great sound and visual effects, part video game with a territory to explore and treasures to discover, part interactive tourism trailer for Marseille, this first Promenade Nocturne is a captivating experience with many layers to explore.

The walk is available in French and English