Friday, 20 November 2015

Making the Link

Back in May we introduced Link Ensemble: a new creative group, led by Duncan Chapman, integrating students with special education needs at Comberton Village College with their GCSE peers through workshops with Britten Sinfonia musicians. As this project draws to a close, with the final performance taking place on Saturday 21 November in a pre-concert event at Saffron Hall, Jen House (Creative Learning Director) and Duncan Chapman (workshop leader) look back on this unique initiative...

Alexia is blind. She makes her slow, careful way to the centre of a haphazard circle of ambient sound; to her left the spidery jangle of an acoustic guitar, a D7 chord with an unexpected jangling G at the piano behind her and a sudden croak of feedback from an electric bass on her right. Taking a deep breath, she brings the microphone close until she feels it’s cool brush on her chin and speaks quietly into the noisy void.

“Can we start with Jack, please? A low E on the bass clarinet.” She hesitates for a moment, “Is that the lowest note you can play?”

The note, rich and deep curls its way through the room and like a heavy fog, obscures the other sounds as the tinkering dies away.

“Sarah” her voice is clearer, more confident as the sound palate clears and like a painter in sound, she pauses, aural brush poised.

“Sarah, a low seventh above … a little less … and articulate in a slow pulse.”

There is an expectant hush, the room is not still, there is a restless energy but wherever the eyes may look or whatever the hands may fidget with, the ears are focused on the unfurling beauty as Alexia, slowly and ever so precisely, reveals her composition.

The name ‘Link Ensemble’ was given to Britten Sinfonia’s integrated music-making initiative in the very early stages of its conception and long before my arrival in Britten Sinfonia’s Creative Learning office. The name may well, in fact, have been the very twinkle in the proverbial eye which, (a very protracted gestation period of three years later) eventually brought this unexpected, unconventional, unapologetic ensemble into being. As the name so aptly suggests, Link Ensemble is about bringing people and creative impulses together; partnership between a visionary school and a ground-breaking orchestra; connections between young people with special educational needs and disabilities and their non-disabled GCSE Music contemporaries and collaboration between professionals and amateurs linked by a common creativity.

With twenty five members including SEND students from Comberton Village College (CVC) Cabin, GCSE Music students from CVC and professional musicians from Britten Sinfonia, Link Ensemble has met for a series of three, intensive, two-day workshop and rehearsal sessions led by composer and sound artist Duncan Chapman. At each stage, the ensemble has explored and created new music to record and perform.

“So, what’s it going to be?” I asked my predecessor in a hand-over session just months before the first phase. “I’ve no idea!” She shrugged, “How can we describe something which hasn’t been done yet?”  

And that, in a nutshell, is it. Forget everything you think you know about music, musical ability, disability. Leave them at the door when you arrive at Saffron Hall tomorrow and prepare yourself for something you didn’t know music could be….

Jen House (Creative Learning Director)

Integration is about leveling the playing field and one way of doing this is to focus not on what we think music is but on what music could be. We explore outside the frame of genre, working with what’s right there in front of us in the moment; using what we hear as a guide rather than an idea of music that is in our heads. What gives Britten Sinfonia it's unique sound is the relationships between the particular musicians, their own particular sounds and the way in which these are nurtured over many hours of playing music together. So what is significant isn't that a piece might have four violins, oboe, horn and double bass but it's the specific violins, oboe, horn and bass with the particular players. In Link Ensemble this focus on the particular characters of the group is where we start from rather than a 'pick and mix' approach to style or genre.

Making music from 'what's in front of us' could be a recipe for chaos and clutter, but with careful thought about how we construct the music we are able to create space for everyone to have a contribution. Starting from the position of treating music-making as a social sonic activity means that the music we make has to belong to us and not be a pastiche of something that other musicians would do better.

Within a conventional musical framework the difference between Adam - GCSE music student, jazz keys player and composer - and Matthew - who has never played an instrument, is registered blind and has difficulties with fine and gross motor skills - is pronounced. Beyond this frame, in the environment of what music could be they are equal, and equally inspired by and inspiring to, each other.

In practical terms, we are separating music-making from technique. Most of us are used to associating skill in music with the ability to rattle off Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto or play complex chord changes. Once you move away from this preoccupation with playing 'difficult' music and focus on understanding something of the context of the music 'in the room', the field is leveled and we are all starting from a point of making something as a social collective and not as a vehicle for individual display. Technique is important - it's important for us to develop skills on our instruments to enable us to play with fluency and conviction - but more important in an ensemble context are the listening and imagination techniques that are often overlooked in a headlong dash for demonstrable and flashy skills. 

My job as a workshop leader is to co-ordinate and guide the creation. Sometimes this is about setting frameworks that are by their nature inclusive and recognise moments of unexpected beauty (“Beauty is underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look” said John Cage). Jak, one of our Link Ensemble players once asked if “cheese can be an instrument?” My challenge is to take this concept and work with it!

The role of the professional musicians from Britten Sinfonia has many facets but whether they are the glue holding a compositional structure together, or providing a spotlight on a particular sound, idea or technique, they are there to ensure that no idea a young musician has ever fails – they make every idea, even musical cheese, fly! We are lucky to have these players who are not only capable of tremendous instrumental skill but able to instantly match this with the needs of the music and the group.

There is a reason we talk about “playing” music as opposed to “working” it. In Link Ensemble we all dare to play: to play with what music is and what music could be.

Duncan Chapman (Leader) 

Come and experience Link Ensemble for yourself, as they perform in the pre-concert event on Saturday 21 November, 6.15pm at Saffron Hall, ahead of the evening concert featuring Britten Sinfonia and Eddie Gomez. Find out more.

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