Welcome to the house of fun

Homemade Orchestra (2004) 3

JOE: …small town. I suppose. You have to make your own fun.

ANN: Everybody makes their own fun. F’you don’t make it yourself, it ain’t fun, it’s entertainment.

David Mamet, State and Main, (2000)

It’s night when we arrive, and the darkness is barely relieved by a few scattered street lamps and porch lights. Luckily, the village hall is signposted from the main road; there’s no-one about to ask. It isn’t raining, but it has been, and everything’s damp. The air is March cold; we’re not many miles from the North Sea. The hall lights are ablaze, and the ubiquitous white van stands near the fire door; the musicians are here. The tiny car park is full, and cars line the muddy verges, though there’s a good half hour before the show.

The hall is square and low, dark, with a pitched roof. Inside, there’s a long corridor, then a turn into the main space. The box office is a card table, and one of the promoter’s helpers is there to welcome us. It’s the first show, but all the tickets are gone, so they’re understandably thrilled, if a little anxious about how things will go. The hall itself feels like a social club, not the usual chilly 1950s space, though it’s probably been here as long. There are pictures and wall-lights, and a curtained-off bar area at the far end, with benches and tables. A hundred plastic chairs are ranked in front of a shallow stage littered with mikes and music stands; keyboard, vibraphone and drum kit stand out against a startlingly white backdrop.

The room is already half-full. It’s a local audience – everyone chatting and exchanging news, on first name terms, new layers being added to some very long conversations. Some people have already taken their seats, keen for a good view; they talk amongst themselves, holding pints or balancing coffee cups on their knees. There are lots of children and teenagers. Not allowed in the bar, they’ve colonised the first three rows, deep in discussion; a group has been put in charge of selling raffle tickets. The promoter is on the move, talking, thanking people for coming, answering questions.

Then the lights dim and a handful of spotlight beams bounce off silver stands and cymbals. A saxophonist comes centre stage, and begins a slow looping melody; the audience settles like a dog on a hearthrug. The melody builds, and then there’s a pianist, adding texture to the breathy line; one or two at a time, other musicians take their places from the wings, or through the centre aisle. Soon there’s barely room to move. As well as the jazz instrumentalists, there’s a singer, a violinist and a cellist, and, in front, a conductor: this is the Homemade Orchestra, bringing jazz and contemporary classical music together in unexpected ways. Just how unexpected becomes clear as the saxophonist’s melody, now part of a complex arrangement, mutates into the old Beatles song, ‘Paperback Writer’. From that stunning opening, the Orchestra takes the audience on an unimagined interpretative journey through a 20th century songbook, refreshing the familiar, and introducing the new. Gershwin and Ellington rub along with Peter Gabriel and the Human League, and new work by Tim Whitehead and Colin Riley.

Whatever their age or expectations, taste or experience, people respond to the music, and the virtuosity of individual players, with warmth and enthusiasm. And the musicians, unsure what to expect on the first night of the tour, respond in turn: this is a dialogue, a felt conversation with few words. The mystery of live performance is at play, drawing people in through the unmediated sound, the energy and the infectious enjoyment of the musicians – the present-ness of art experienced.

There’s a palpable buzz in the hall at the interval, as people refill their glasses, exchange impressions and buy the Homemade Orchestra’s CDs; the teenagers are making sure no-one has escaped the raffle tickets. There’s no hurry, and the interval stretches as people stretch their legs: this is a social occasion. Then it’s the second half, even stronger than the first, rousing applause, an encore that seems genuinely to please the musicians, and it’s done. The music hums in the memory, reverberating inside as the raffle is drawn, people get last drinks, or talk to the performers. Slowly, the packing up starts: it’s midweek, and everyone has things to do.

In a matter of hours, the Homemade Orchestra and the audience have encountered each other, shared an unrepeatable moment, and gone their ways. It’s been a brief, but resonant, connection. The evening feels like a triumph on all sides: there will be more shows in this hall, and more halls for the Orchestra to connect with new audiences. The ripples will run far and long, linking people and art. This is rural touring: professional and homemade.

Homemade Orchestra (2004) 1

This is the opening of Only Connect, a study of rural touring based on case studies in England, Wales and France, and published in 2004. That work always seemed to me a conscious attempt to prove I could enact the academy’s idea of research, yet it begins with a piece of writing that belongs naturally to what Regular Marvels has become. The tension between this impressionistic account of a village hall performance and the thorough statistical analyses that follow, reflect my changing interests in what can be known, what need be known and what matters to the people involved.

It took me several years to find a way forward, mainly because of trying to free myself from those powerful academic expectations of conformity, and some of the work I did in looking for it seemed to me transitional even at the time. Where We Dream was the first time I was able to do something different and feel that the result was more successful than not. Each subsequent Regular Marvel has built on that experience.

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