Music as an adventure playground

A talk on the nature and value of music given yesterday at a community music event in Gateshead

Parliament of dreams

Music: What is it good for?

In the 1970s, at a time when we were less anxious about many things than we are today, there was a vogue for adventure playgrounds in which young people could scramble about, get dirty, build dens and invent games with only minimal adult supervision. It was a good idea, I think: we all need a bit of freedom and wildness, if we are to grow. Most of the adventure playgrounds have gone or been sanitised to meet the standards of today’s more fearful culture. Music, though, cannot be tamed. It is one of our very best adventure playgrounds. Music. What is good for? Playing.

To read the full text of this talk, given at the 2014 Sage Gateshead and Sound Sense community music event, click on the link below.

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Back to rural touring

Yesterday afternoon, I met three people who promote the arts at Hindolveston Village Hall, in Norfolk. They mentioned, in passing, that 65 people had come to watch a satellite broadcast of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake on Easter Sunday. They would, I sensed, have liked a few more in the audience, but I was so impressed that over 10% of the residents had chosen to spend their bank holiday afternoon watching classical ballet.

Rural touring is full of surprises. What doesn’t surprise me, ten years after I first researched the schemes that bring professional live art to rural communities across the UK, is that the promoters so often underestimate their achievement. They worry about those they don’t reach—typically teenagers and young families — and sometimes don’t see just how much they do achieve, not just in bringing first-rate arts experiences to rural residents but also, in doing so, strengthening the social bonds that make a community of a village.

CAE Westacre Theatre2We met at the lovely volunteer-run Westacre Theatre, which combines great art with great hospitality in a way professional venues don’t always achieve. The occasion was Creative Arts East’s annual showcase at which village hall promoters get to see extracts from some of the shows on offer over the coming months. This time, the artists were Scary Little Girls, Norwich Puppet Theatre, the Keeper’s Daughter, Something Happened, Badapple Theatre, Gavin Robertson, Stuff of Dreams and the Gramophones – as rich and varied a range of small scale touring work as might be imagined. The only disappointment was being caught up in a story that ended after 10 minutes to make way for the next performers. But that’s theatre: keep ‘em wanting more…

Rosie and I had gone to begin the next phase of A Wider Horizon. Over the summer, I’ll be spending more time in Norfolk and Suffolk, meeting promoters, audience members and other local people to explore the place of the arts today and in the past. At the same time, Rosie will be looking to catch some of that in her drawing; she’ll be going to sketch Stuff of Dreams’s play about the Burston Strike School shortly. There is a wonderfully rich story to be told here, about continuity, change and how the artistic life of a place reflects its concerns over time. If you’re involved with Creative Arts East’s rural touring programme and we’ve not yet spoken, so get in touch with Karen Kidman to see how we can include your experience in the project.

Oh, and if you’re anywhere near Hindolveston (or Thornham or Tittleshall) on Thursday 1 May, you can enjoy the National Theatre’s King Lear live, by satellite, for £12. Thank goodness for rural promoters.

Misguided visionaries and rigid minds

From My Life is the most ambitious Regular Marvel so far, and it is already testing some aspects of the model. The issue, as so often in the arts, is money. My other projects have averaged about £10,000 including production costs, though Where we Dream cost more. It was possible because there was just me and the artist: I couldn’t pay either of us much, but the work’s interest (and ties of friendship) made people generous with their time when I couldn’t be with cash. The independence and freedom this brought has been central to the whole idea and more than compensated for the rocky parts of the road.

But From My Life is conceived on a much larger scale. It involves musicians, composers and other artists who need to be paid the normal rates (though they aren’t much to get excited about). Working between London, the Midlands and rural Aberdeenshire imposes unavoidable costs. So the budget is about £30,000, and, for the first time with a Regular Marvel, I’ve had to apply for funding. Three applications were submitted and now all have been refused. Of course, the lack of interest is disappointing, but it raises larger questions about From My Life and the Regular Marvels concept itself.

Without feedback, I can only wonder why three different bodies concerned with funding classical music saw no value in an idea that everyone I’ve spoken to about it has thought original and worthwhile. It is in the nature of artistic innovation to believe in the importance of what you’re doing, just as it is to be expected that others may not recognise that importance precisely because it is new. The problem is that you can’t tell whose judgement is right. Do you press forward in the face of indifference or opposition? Or do you listen and change tack? There are far, far more artists who have doggedly stuck to their vision and been proved wrong than there are visionaries, like Van Gogh, whose worth has finally been recognised. It’s just that no one has heard of the millions who thought they were the next Van Gogh, but weren’t.

I still love the ideas that From My Life explores. Like most people, I’d prefer to do what I believe in even if no one else does, than cut my ideas to suit the fashion of the times (especially these times). But I might need to rethink how I work on them and find a way that’s not so dependent on external funding.

Food for thought, but while I think, The Light Ships is progressing well: its dedicated website will launch on 1 May. So here’s a May Day painting in anticipation…

Whitelands College May Day Procession, 1902 by Anna Richards Brewster
Whitelands College May Day Procession, 1902
by Anna Richards Brewster


Filming creation

Each Regular Marvel is the result of conversations, reflection and shared creativity. They only exist because of many people’s willingness to join a trip across unknown land. Their different voices and observations, experiences and perspectives, shape what story is told and how. I’ve also involved artists and friends like Bill Ming, Rosie RedziaMik GodleyBen Wigley and the Ligeti Quartet whose work has greatly enriched both past and current projects.

The Light Ships follows the same pattern, but this time the artist working alongside me is my son, Laurence, a young filmmaker who has just completed his first big commission. Looking for Melody is a 50 minute documentary about the recording of Sine Qua Non, an album of Serge Gainsbourg songs recast in a jazz idiom. Filmed mainly at Abbey Road Studios in London, it captures the evolution of musical creation in the hands and minds of a diverse group of musicians, engineers, and producer. It’s a process of exploration and discussion, trying things out, abandoning things that don’t work, arguing for what you hear or hope to hear, starting, stopping and starting again.

Laurence and I have worked together before, but The Light Ships, with its focus on the village church in artistic and social life, is a more open, exploratory project. The short film we’ll make, alongside the book and other activities, will take shape only as the conversations that are the heart of the project begin to take place. All that will begin in June, once the website is live and we’ve been able to do more of the background research. In the meantime, although the subject is very different, we hope you will enjoy Looking for Melody.


The Light Ships

This summer, a new regular marvel will unfold in the ancient and distinctive fenlands of south east Lincolnshire. The Light Ships, which I’m doing in partnership with Transported, is:

  • A revaluation of Fenland churches as historic works of art and as sites of contemporary creativity;
  • An exploration of the village church’s layered meanings in community life now; and
  • A celebration of the stories, memories and associations bound up in every church.

The Light Ships revolves around the Fenland’s ancient churches. Each one is unique, its form, treasures and meanings built up over centuries by the people who have lived alongside, used and owned it. Each one is an ark of creativity and memory, carrying a community’s life across oceans of time, continually refitted during the voyage to meet changing needs in changing times.

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The Light Ships focuses on 14 Lincolnshire villages, prioritised by Transported, an arts initiative working across Boston and South Holland Districts. It welcomes anyone and everyone with an interest to be involved – parishioners, vicars and volunteers; masons, cleaners and gardeners; choirs, bell-ringers, musicians, needleworkers and other artists; schools, clubs and community associations. We’ll share stories, insights and knowledge of each unique place, looking and talking and listening until a collective image of ‘church-ness’ begins to form.

Words, film and photography will portray the buildings as lived-in spaces not just architectural wonders – sites of meaning and local spirit of place. A separate website will record progress, collect research materials and enable online conversation. The Light Ships will end with a book and a short film that are both documents of a summer’s work and a millennium of life in Fenland Lincolnshire.

The Light Ships website will go live on 1 May and the project will be completed with some celebratory events in September.