A few moments with Tom Coult

Our next concert will take place on 2 August, when Riot will be appearing at West Sussex’s Petworth Festival. On the programme will be works by Klaus Huber, Cassandra Miller, Gabriella Smith, Paul Burnell, and Siemens Music Prize-winner Ann Cleare, as well as a new work by Petworth composer Terence Allbright. Also featured will be a new set of piano miniatures, Inventions (For Heath Robinson), by rising star Tom Coult, which will be played by our very own Adam Swayne. Tim Rutherford-Johnson caught up with Tom to talk about his piece, his love of contraptions, and his forthcoming opera.

Tom Coult portait by Timothy Lutton

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Going right back to your piano trio The Chronophage of 2011, you seem to have been drawn to eccentric machineries – contraptions whose workings are perhaps more elegant and meaningful than their solutions. What is the attraction of objects like this for you?

Tom Coult: I find some kind of analogue between extravagantly over-designed machines with little to no function, and pieces of music – musical scores are incredibly complex things, containing vast amounts of information, meticulously crafted by the composer. Perhaps perversely, I enjoy the strange collision between the immense amount of work and technical craft that goes into a musical score and the generally short durations. And of course the fact that there is sometimes very little practical or commercial demand for this work to be done. I find it funny, in a way, but there’s also something beautiful and inspiring in a composer/inventor spending lots of time and effort and intellect on something that is simply designed to be wonderful as possible, or as enjoyable, or as strange. I enjoy beautiful answers to questions nobody asked.

Machines, traditionally, find a solution to a problem, or execute that solution more efficiently than other means.  If a piece of music is a ‘solution’, what tangible problem is it attempting to solve, and to what extent, realistically, does it constitute a meaningful solution? I find musical works, however ‘precise’ their composition and notation, a very imprecise tool for addressing problems – sometimes beautifully or productively imprecise of course. 

The Chronophage (‘time eater’) is the insect escapement on the Corpus Clock in Cambridge (I wrote the piece in 2011, having never spent any time in Cambridge and only having seen it on YouTube). Not all of the clock’s seconds are equal, so it’s a (deliberately) very poor attempt at telling time. But it is stunningly beautiful and compelling, and the craft and intricacy of it is amazing.

TR-J: I’m fascinated also by Frank L. Warrin’s French translation of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, which provides the title of your 2012 ensemble piece Enmîmés sont les gougebosqueux. Translating nonsense from one language into another strikes me as a similarly quotidian endeavour. Is there something about that sense of ‘uselessness’ (in the best, Wildean sense) that appeals to you?

TC: Uselessness is a glorious thing once you embrace it … it’s provocative, and exciting – a translation of an English nonsense poem into nonsense French is pure play of language … there’s an ecstatic quality to using translation (which traditionally makes something useful) for sheer pleasure and creativity. 

I find it incredibly exciting when the brief for a commission is ‘fill these fifteen minutes of time with some music’. How do you make those minutes as wonderful as possible? The Wildean uselessness of art is effectively an assertion that pleasure and beauty are intrinsically worthwhile, maybe more worthwhile than anything else in the world. (Parenthetically – pleasure and beauty needn’t mean ‘prettiness’, though there’s nothing wrong with prettiness …)

There’s also a post-Adornian argument for uselessness – ‘insofar as a social function can be predicted for artworks, it is their functionlessness’ … he found there to be a subversive quality to art that exists outside capitalism’s desire for labour to result in profit (because ours is sure as hell not a profitable industry …). I’d probably align my work more with the flamboyant, Wildean form of aestheticism, and would never claim that my stuff is a meaningful critique of capitalism or anything (imprecise solutions to tangible problems and all that …), but I definitely feel that Adorno kind of aestheticism. A (probably doomed) attempt to create for its own sake in a crassly utilitarian world. I think that’s a worthwhile aim.

Incidentally, you’re very precise and correct to say it provided a title for that piece. A lot of the time these kind of inspirations provide me with titles for a piece, rather than the piece being quantifiably about this or that artist/work/machine. Using the title signals (performs?) an allegiance or alignment with something, or it’s drawing a link to shape how a listener might think of the piece and my motivations.

TR-J: In this context, Heath Robinson’s drawings would seem to be a perfect fit with your aesthetic. Where did you first encounter them, and what drew you to them in relation to your Inventions?

TC: I’ve always been interested in the word ‘Inventions’ as a generic title … it signals compositional craft, but also flights of fancy … the rigour of Bach’s Inventions as well as the imaginative conjuring of worlds that don’t exist yet. I sort of had the idea that these pieces would be ‘inventions’, then it made me think of the third suggestion of what ‘inventions’ can mean – mad inventors working on eccentric contraptions: Leonardo da Vinci, Nikola Tesla, Jacques de Vaucanson. The stereotype of mad hair and mad ideas and no sleep … the goggles and the apron.

Heath Robinson is all the detail and ingeniousness of a ‘productive’ inventor, with the productiveness surgically removed. A revered inventor – Edison, say – is revered for finding brilliant and carefully-considered answers to retrospectively important questions we didn’t know we were asking. But Heath Robinson’s inventions are brilliant and carefully considered answers to questions we would have been silly to ask in the first place. I love that.

TR-J: Robinson’s drawings – full of machinery and movement – always seem to me full of sound as well: the clackety-clack of wheels, the hiss of steam, the firing of pistols and so on. Does any of that sound world influence your Inventions? To what extent is there a musical relationship?

TC: There is a mechanical quality to parts of it – cogs in a machine move at different rates … you crank a wheel, the little cogs spin round at a certain rate, the medium ones they’re connected to move slower, the larger ones slower still … all going round doing their own little jobs at their own pace, like the planets in an orrery. That definitely happens in a few movements (‘Skeleton’, ‘Swing’). Then there are sewing machine-like, fast pieces, like ‘Stomp’ and ‘Staircase’, where the notes come thick and fast as if spurted out by a machine.

The other thing is that the piano itself is a machine – there are movements that play on specific characteristics of this huge, mad, music-making machine – how the pedals work, how the hands can and can’t behave and what that means for how the machine responds. 

TR-J: I’m conscious also that although we’ve been talking in terms of machinery the titles of many of your Inventions are actually quite human and/or bodily, rather than mechanical – stomp, shadow, sinews, skeleton, sing, etc. Could you say a little about where those titles come from and how they relate to one another?

TC: Most of them came after the movement took shape, or part-way through, as an evocative descriptor. Some are simple – ‘Sing’ is for one hand only, almost all in single notes, like it was written for an oboe or something … ‘Shadow’ has some loud notes that are constantly casting shadows, the same notes sounding a little later but very quietly. The shadows get longer as the movement/day goes on. Others are more oblique.

There’s a banal but satisfying thing (at least for me) about these titles – I recently noticed that of my acknowledged pieces, 40 per cent of them had titles beginning with the letter ‘S’. It started to irk me, so I’m trying not to do it anymore. But I thought this piece, though its title doesn’t, could be a sort of purge of lots of juicy words that begin with ’S’. So they all do … all single words as well. I decided that early on as well, so in some of them I even thought of the word first – ‘Spool is an interesting word, what would a movement with that title sound like?’. 

TR-J: I first spoke to you about your work a couple of years ago, for a composer profile for the BBC. Even then your career was moving fast; and since then you’ve had a First Night of the Proms premiere (St John’s Dance, 2017), and you have been working on an opera with Alice Birch for the Aldeburgh Festival and Music Theatre Wales. Where are things now, and how are you handling the demands of full-time composer-dom?

After this and alongside the opera you mention, I’m writing some music for the BBC Philharmonic in the coming years, starting with a violin concerto for Daniel Pioro. It has to be to do with gardens in some way – gardens, certainly the more decorative ones, are also arguably things that are subversively functionless … they exist for their own sake, to be wonderful on their own terms. 

I have indeed had the luxury of writing music largely full-time recently, which is a great privilege … I’m trying to not squander it and be productive, but I also sometimes wonder whether I could be equally or more productive if I was dodging my composition time around more other commitments. I don’t know the answer to that. 

Of course ‘full-time composer-dom’, at least in concert music, should always invite the important question, ‘Who Funds You?’ – the luxury of time is always built on something: institutional or academic support, prizes, private wealth and so on. In my case in the last two years I have been being paid as a ‘Visiting Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts’ by Trinity College Cambridge, which has allowed me to work mostly full time on composition. Between 2013 and 2015 I had an AHRC scholarship to do a PhD so was similarly supported. Above this the largest sum of money is commission fees, topped by bits and pieces of teaching, some money from royalties and hire fees, the odd bit of talking here and there. My Cambridge post ends soon and while I have a bit of a buffer because of some decent commission fees of late, ‘full-time composer-dom’ is not a condition which I expect to be continuous.

TR-J: The opera features another eccentric machine of a sort – a village that begins losing an hour from its day, every day, until after 24 days time stops completely. Are you able to say any more about how that story develops? And how have you found the process of moving up from mechanisms on the scale of your Inventions or even your ensemble pieces, up to the demands of a full-blown opera?

As you mention, it has a built-in structural process: the story is 24 days long, but those days get shorter and shorter, so Day 1 is 23 hours long, Day 2 is 22 hours long etc. There is no Day 24. 

I can say that the process can’t end … the character’s aren’t in a ‘race against time’ to try and solve this problem (in any case, in some otherwise brilliant ‘time going wrong’ stories – Russian Doll, Groundhog Day, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and so on – the rules of the game have such compelling weight that no resolution can hold its own … the solution is less interesting than the problem). I guess ours is closer to something like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia in that way. 

It’s basically about Violet, our main character – she’s bored, in an unfulfilling life and domestic situation, in a parochial town where nobody leaves or arrives. Unlike everyone else, she’s elated … she’s the only one that finds this thrilling, that something is finally happening to her. The story follows her really – what does she do over twenty-four increasingly short days that seem to be the last of her and her town’s existence? 

I think, left to my own devices (even, god forbid, writing the text myself), the clocks/time thing would have attracted me anyway, but what is so rewarding about working with Alice is she’s found such complexity in the characters and how they react to this … that’s ultimately what it’s about, and she’s also found very evocative imagery in ideas of boats, leaving the village etc that make the whole thing richer. She’s also sprung an almighty formal challenge to me and the director towards the end which I won’t talk about, but this kind of provocation is the joy of collaborating …

Having words, especially such potent ones, helps a lot with the scaling-up process – I’m never starting with blank pages: scenes have shapes, there are in-built forms and structures in Alice’s writing that I can respond to, and characters and scenes have motivations. I’ve worked quicker with this than in other pieces, although it has still been a long process simply because of the length of time to fill for a slow composer!

TR-J: Thank you Tom – we’re really looking forward to giving the world premiere of these new piano pieces; they look a lot of fun!

For more details about this concert, and the Petworth Festival in general (there’s loads on, from 17 July to 3 August), please visit the festival website.

Speak, Be Silent: A Testament to Riot Ensemble’s Vision and Artistry

Jarret Goodchild reviewed our latest album Speak, Be Silent for the new music blog I Care If You Listen, declaring it “a testament to Riot Ensemble’s vision and artistry.” Read the review below or check out it out here.

Since 2012, the London-based Riot Ensemble has given over 200 world and UK premieres and has become a spearhead at the forefront of new music. Forward thinking and creative, their Artistic Board members are also some of the top musicians and soloists in Europe. They are in constant motion, acting as curators, composers, performers, and commissioners for Riot Ensemble. The group’s latest album, Speak, Be Silent (HCR), is a collection of pieces that shows off the outstanding capabilities of the ensemble as well as the powerful voices of the composers they help to promote.

The album borrows its name from Liza Lim’s Speak, Be Silent. The piece features violinist Sarah Saviet, one of Riot Ensemble’s principal artists and Artistic Directors. Throughout the work, there are multiple moments where the instruments of the ensemble cascade over each other like waves. The effect is like the aural version of colored lights gradually changing hues, while at other times, it is like fireworks outshining each other. Frenetic bursts give way to feelings of melancholy, and eventually, Lim takes the listener to a new, more sparse sonic landscape. During these exposed moments, the solo violin is predominantly featured with long swaths of color, emerging intermittently from the rest of the ensemble. Saviet’s performance is fantastic–Lim’s writing demands extreme agility and precision, and Saviet delivers.

Liza Lim--Photo by Jim Rolon
Liza Lim–Photo by Jim Rolon

Chaya Czernowin’s Ayre: Towed through plumes, thicket, asphalt, sawdust and hazardous air I shall not forget the sound of opens the album. The poetic title is an excellent reflection of the music. The sounds Czernowin creates seem familiar and foreign at the same time. The repeated musical material seems to be dragged through the different hazards of the title. All movement is slow and compressed down to a miniscule range for much of the piece, with tones climbing over each other like rungs on a ladder.

In contrast, Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy is fun, playful, and often erratic. Mirela Ivičevićachieves this feeling with percussive notes and sliding gestures across the ensemble. As this piece progresses, the tension mounts with an explosive texture. The sounds Ivičević is able to pull out of the ensemble are marvelous!

 by Anna Thorvaldsdóttir takes the listener in the opposite direction with long, dark, undulating tones that support eerie motives. The music is slow, methodical, and phrased in one long, gentle arc. Everything feels very carefully placed and deliberately moves through its paces. The interwoven rhythmic intricacy in Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy coupled with the care to tone, nuance, and balance in  exemplifies the caliber of the performers and displays what makes Riot Ensemble so special.

Riot Ensemble
Riot Ensemble

The last track on the album is not an exclamation point, but rather more like a question mark. Rebecca Saunders’ Stirrings Still II slinks along in a similar way to , but is more sparse and extremely intimate. The dialogues Saunders has created sound either like whispers or guttural growls. The string effects give this sonic construction a silvery exterior, and the mood is a reflective one. Saunders does an amazing job of pulling the listener in and suspending all sense of time.

You can order the album here

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic: Close Up Concert

Date: Mon 25th Nov, 2019
Time: 8pm
Venue: Music Room, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (L1 9BP)

Riot Ensemble feature in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s Close Up Concerts series, giving you the chance to experience works by Rebecca Saunders, Lee Hyla, Bernhard Gander, Marc Mellits, and Isabel Mundry in an intimate and relaxed setting in the Liverpool Philharmonic Music Room.

Continue reading

Couch to Sequenza XII: An interview with Ruth Rosales

The great Italian composer Luciano Berio (1925–2003) wrote thirteen Sequenzas for solo instruments, from voice to accordion (fourteen if you count his arrangement of the clarinet’s Sequenza IX for alto saxophone). They are among the pinnacles of the repertory for solo musicians – contemporary equivalents to Bach’s cello suites, or Liszt’s piano études. They also happen to match pretty closely the make-up of our artistic board (although no Sequenza for solo writer, alas). What better project for Riot, then, to record new versions of as many of them as we can?

Well, of course, we’re going one further than that. Over a few days in August we will be working with Four/Ten Media to film nearly all fourteen Sequenzas, as well as a few other pieces for members of our artistic board for whom Berio didn’t plan.

One of the newest members of our board, bassoonist Ruth Rosales, is in at the deep end with the legendarily difficult Sequenza XII, twenty minutes of non-stop circular breathing, flutter-tonguing, ‘Berio trills’, glissandi and other distinctly unusual bassoon techniques. I spoke to her at the end of April 2019 about how her preparations – by this stage she had been working on the piece for around nine months …

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: This is supposed to be the hardest of the Sequenzas

Ruth Rosales: This is what people say, which fills me with absolute fear! It’s definitely the longest and you’re meant to circular breathe for twenty minutes. I think I’ve got to five minutes of the total so far but usually I go wrong at that point so … Circular breathing [a way of breathing out continuously, by blowing out from your cheeks while you breathe in through your nose] is something I’d never tried before, and I am finding it really tricky.

TR-J: Is it a stamina thing?

RR: Initially it was just keeping the airflow going. There would always be this break in the sound – at first there was a huge break, and then it was getting smaller as I was used to blowing the air out of my cheeks and then going back to blowing air out of my lungs. Then that got smaller and smaller – which I was delighted with because I wasn’t sure if that was ever going to happen – and now I’ve got a consistent sound, which I’m just relieved has happened. My current problem is that forcing the air out of your cheeks makes the pitch go up a little bit, I suppose because the airflow gets faster, and I feel like I don’t have as much control over that.

The thing I found really interesting when I was learning to circular breathe was that you have to breathe all the excess air out as well. You have to blow the air out of your cheeks and get rid of all the air that you have in your lungs so that you get fresh breaths, otherwise you start to hyperventilate and you just get the top of your lungs filling up.

Something I’m finding really tricky is the flutter-tonguing. I have to make sure I’ve cleared my lungs and taken a few fresh breaths so I’ve got enough power to get through five crotchets-worth of flutter-tonguing.

TR-J: When you were learning did you go straight onto the instrument? People do all these exercises with straws in drinks and so on…

RR: Yeah, I went round to Philip [Haworth]’s house and spent a couple of hours in hysterics trying to learn. We started with just a reed, and then a crook as well. It was a bit ridiculous because you’re having to maintain this sound that is hilariously awful, like a ship coming in, honking away!

After that I just did it against my hand, breathing out and feeling the air continuously on my hand. That was a useful way to feel how that was working. But putting a reed in your mouth – obviously then you’ve got an embouchure that you need to maintain, and the airflow is so different. It took me absolutely ages, and hopefully by August I’m going to be fabulous!

The Sequenza is incredibly far from finished, and it’s insane how much work has gone into it for it to sound as unfinished as it does. But what is cool is … something like circular breathing you can’t do it, you can’t do it, you can nearly do it, you can’t do it, you can nearly do it, and then all of a sudden you can do it. And it’s an incredible sense of achievement, even if it’s not great – I can do something that I couldn’t do before. That’s been really amazing.

My sister ran the London Marathon yesterday, and it involved a lot of training and she got to the end and she’s a dream woman. This is my marathon! I’ve got so much more training to do, and I need a running coach and I need lessons, but then it’s going to be my marathon day on 26 August. That’s how I feel about it.

TR-J: Is this the hardest thing you’ve ever done, physically?

RR: With regards to bassoon playing, yes. Maintaining the embouchure through flutter-tonguing, circular breathing and everything like that – I didn’t realise that every breath you take gives you a little break on your embouchure, but in this piece you’re having to keep it, keep it, keep it whilst you’re changing air pressure and your tongue and all these things, and you’re having to maintain this strength. That’s definitely a challenge for my lips.

I also used to be asthmatic, and I have this thing where I panic and I stop breathing. Like if I’m doing a sporting event that I think I’m not going to be able to complete I start breathing at the top of my breath – and I started having that feeling with the circular breathing. Which again is why I needed to learn to breathe out as well. It’s going to be a bit of a mental game.

TR-J: As well as the breathing, the rest of the music is not exactly straightforward. How are you putting it together – the stamina, the circular breathing, the fingering?

RR: The really cool thing, which is something that a friend said to me, is that once you’ve got the first page down, the rest of it links on. You’ve learnt that first bit and it links to the other bits. So that’s a relief!

TR-J: In the face of all that, are you enjoying it?

RR: If I’m honest, while I was learning to circular breathe, no. Because I was panicked. I was really aware that I could not even do the breathing, let alone play the notes. But about 10 days ago I started to really enjoy it, and I felt there was a strong possibility that I will be able to do this. I feel like I’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do, but I feel like this is something I can do. And it’s so cool to be learning something so different and so difficult. To be learning so many new techniques at the age of 33 – that’s amazing. I wonder how I’ll sound in August when it’s the month, whether I’ll sound as positive!

Also I’ve decided that in order to circular breathe you need to be fit, so I need to get on it with my running and my swimming and all of my exercise. And I’m not allowed to get ill because you need to have a clear nasal passage! This is going to be an ordeal if I’ve got a cold – I have to be well.

TR-J: Stock up on the Sudafed.

RR: Or have someone come in with a conductor’s baton with a tissue on the end to wipe my nose.

TR-J: At least your marathon is over in 20 minutes, there is that …

RR: Hopefully – unless I have to do it over and over to get it right! I’ve got a three-hour slot, so it could be a three-hour marathon!

A few moments with Play for Progress’s Alyson Frazier

On 8th April we invite you to the Crypt on the Green to celebrate the launch of our third CD, Speak, Be Silent, our first release on Huddersfield Contemporary Records. You can pre-order the CD here.

Riot Ensemble artists will play solo works by each of the composers represented on the CD: Rebecca SaundersLiza LimAnna ThorvaldsdottirMirela Ivičevič, and Chaya Czernowin. Doors at 7:00pm, music from 7:30pm. Please stay afterwards for drinks (there will be a cash bar) and conversation.

The concert will be free (but please RSVP here). In lieu of tickets we will be collecting donations to support Play for Progress, a charity that delivers therapeutic and educational music programmes for traumatized and socially isolated unaccompanied minor refugees. Flautist Alyson Frazier, a Play for Progress co-founder, took time out from her demanding work to talk to us about what the charity does and why its work is so important.

Frazier, working with children in Thailand, 2015

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Hi Alyson, and thank you for taking the time to answer our questions! To begin with, can you briefly outline what Play for Progress is all about?

Alyson Frazier: Play for Progress offers a programme of creative music and arts activities complemented by therapeutic, educational, and practical support. In partnership with the Refugee Council Children’s Section our work seeks to combat refugees’ isolation, develop their confidence, self-expression and sense of community, and deepen and extend the webs of support they have to rely upon so as to improve their social and emotional well-being.

We are tirelessly working to build a community of mutually trusting and resilient citizens of the world (kids, tutors and support staff, Allies in Art, donors, and volunteers alike) who learn from, celebrate, and support one another at every opportunity, especially through music, learning, creative play, and sharing.

Ours is a service delivery organization that incorporates well-being support and advocacy that is based on the strong trust and relationships that we build with individual young people during our weekly activities. Every week we run group instrumental jam sessions, 1-on-1 private lessons, recording/arranging/writing (RAW) classes, creative arts therapy, 1-on-1 therapy sessions, and voice expression classes. Several times a term we also host our #AlliesInArt series, external performances (catch us at the V&A on June 16th!), outings to cultural events in London, half-term projects, and holiday residentials.

TR-J: Why is a charity like this needed?

AF: All of these teens endured harrowing experiences as they journeyed to get here, and upon arriving discovered that this land of ‘safety’ is not yet open to them, and that the process of gaining asylum is itself lengthy, unpredictable, traumatic, and not even guaranteed. While their applications are evaluated many of these young people are placed in ill-equipped, over prescribed, and impermanent accommodation in and around Croydon/South London. Only some are given access to formal education and mental health provision.

We have discovered through our work with this exceedingly vulnerable community that the systems presently in place are insufficient to care for their varied and rightfully demanding needs. We want to be there for them, to help them connect with and build trusting relationships with peers and adults alike and offer ways for them to healthily and safely release tensions and process trauma so that they can begin to transition from surviving to thriving. We want to offer them a place of respite, safety, and care; a holding place while we work to inform care systems of gaps in their services, and help to develop solutions.

TR-J: Where does music fit in? What benefits can it offer to young people within the asylum system?

AF: In order to answer that question I have to lay out the context:

Children caught in war and violence are traumatized. Their education has been interrupted, was limited or non-existent, and their emotional and intellectual growth during crucial years of development have been impacted devastatingly by the traumas they have experienced. When they arrive they are wary, face extreme challenges with language, and feel extremely isolated and under threat.

Music has an exceptional ability to get to the core of a human. By engaging in group music making and movement you can bypass (and harness the benefits of) language barriers and social anxieties in a way that simply isn’t possible outside of the medium. You can rally a room into working together to express itself, create a united vision, give voice to individuals, and more, faster and more deeply than by using any other art form.

It’s also an exceedingly bonding experience, and in this world of difference, sharing and passing on our cultural traditions through oral traditions is a precious thing. It’s all about subtext: if someone offers to teach you their Kurdish dance, they are not just saying ‘want to dance?’; they are welcoming you into their cultural space, offering you a connection to their home (which will surely be filled with tension and deep, complex emotions), their self. Further, they have identified you as someone with whom they feel safe, and with whom they want to share this often hidden part of themselves. There is nothing more precious and deeply meaningful than the intimate sharing of the self through those elements that make you you.

Music provides an outlet for creative thinking, a means for emotional processing and release, and a method of encouraging positive challenges of the self (a rare experience for these vulnerable young people who tend encounter exclusively threatening challenges). Making music, developing your creative languages, and practising group art-making in its many forms unlocks the gates to self-appreciation, self-exploration, and self-expression, and enhances communal appreciation, expression, and development. PFP programmes are designed to encourage and enable these children to find enjoyment and respite from trauma in making music, exploring cultural traditions, collaborating with peers, and exploring their own creative and musical voices.

TR-J: What takes place in your classes? How do you see the musical and therapeutic sides interacting?

AF: Our students can choose to learn the flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, guitar, violin, cello, piano, drums, voice, and music production. They also engage with varied art forms through our creative arts therapy classes, which continue to work with rap, poetry, shadow puppetry, dance, beatboxing, and visual arts.

Everything we do incorporates musicianship games, improvisation, sharing, jamming, different methods of learning and reading music, and a lot of work by ear. Further, the practice of being an audience member is vitally important. These young people are very rarely (if ever) given the space to be heard, really listened to, by a group of sympathetic and caring humans. As such, a huge part of our classes is the ‘sharing’ portion, in which every young person has the opportunity to share what they’ve learned that day, whether that be performing a piece they’ve been working on for weeks, or showing they’ve learned how to hold a bow and allow an open string to ring. We all celebrate their achievement with whoops and hollers, and it has a magical effect on that young person – you can visibly see stress build and release, you can see a change in their confidence, and you can see them feeling something special and different about that experience. It deeply bonds the group and identifies the space as something beyond the norm.

It’s so important to have friends and allies appreciate and acknowledge your accomplishments, especially when your family can’t be there. For this reason we also put on end-of-term  showcases to celebrate out incredible students. July 24th is this year’s and all are welcome! Send an email to a.frazier@playforprogress.com with RSVP Showcase in the title and we will be glad to have you join us for the evening.

TR-J: Do you have any particular experiences you can share of sessions – any good stories?

AF: I think it’s best to let the kids speak for themselves. So here are some soundbites they’ve offered at various points of working with us.

Thank you so much. That is why I came to day. Today I do not forget the people who is love me. And I have to grow up my flower on top of stone some time. Anyway thank you so much for make me happy, you all such a wonderful doctors not musicians. I proud of you. To change people life from bad story from the past. The meaning of Play for Progress is start creative life with good consequences to live.

A violin student

I love everything [about PFP]. When I come to class I learning with the teacher so after that everyone do together. I love this because makes me happy. I’m very interested in everything.

A piano student about our weekly Friday sessions

Today was great!! And performance of music in front of people was excited and a moment I thought I’m Tom Cruise! And dreams something like that. So thank you for all that you’ve done for us. 

A clarinet student after performing at the V&A (June 2018)

Your class makes me feel safe and part of something good. I can forget my missing of my home, my mother. I can forget feeling alone and scared. I thank you, each of you, you make me happy, you make me forget, with you I feel safe, it is so good what you do for us, for me, I thank you. 

A violin and piano student (2017)

TR-J What sorts of music and artists do you engage with? Are there certain types of music that work better than others?

AF: We work with all sorts! From a Congolese fusion band, a Ghanaian afro jazz/funk band, and a 5-piece swing band complete with dancers, to a Flamenco pair, and a Caribbean carnival band. We encourage musicians and artists who want to engage with the community but don’t know how to participate in our #AlliesInArt series: our once-monthly set for external musicians to perform at the Refugee Council and engage with the young people as they would with any other audience. Whether it’s traditional Kurdish music that gets the kids up and dancing, or some smooth jazz that soothes them, it’s a great way to break the ice, groove, and get to know one another.

When it comes to our own performances, the kids bring tunes that they love (whether folk from home, or pop tunes from abroad), and we arrange it specifically for our ensemble make up. Sometimes kids will write their own works too, which we help them to devise. At a recent performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, we performed a work by a student who built a composition around a poem he’d written. It yielded some astoundingly beautiful moments of unity and trust when he encouraged younger participants to engage in the free-form improv section and add their voice to his own, which seamlessly transitioned into our raucous arrangement of a Hindi tune that it turned out a huge number of our kids knew already, despite being from incredibly disparate parts of the world (Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq). Go figure! But it tickled me completely that we all united with this Bollywood tune, presenting our own composite joy in music making and in each other.

TR-J: How open are the young people to what you are doing?

AF: Brilliantly, our kids are exceedingly vocal about what they want, and we find that once they feel comfortable in our sessions, the requests and recommendations flow, and we just have to keep up with them!

How and when we expand what activities deliver is dependent upon what the kids say they want. We noticed that many organisations have been set up, and this vulnerable group is expected to slot into it. But the reality is that that structure leaves many young people out on a limb and without sufficient support. Thanks to our smaller size and relative newness, we are able to adapt swiftly and directly to their needs and wants, and achieve high consistency of attendance.

TRJ: Finally, do you follow what happens to the young people after they leave the asylum system? How do you think music benefits them in their future lives?

AF: Our oldest participants are only just now turning 18 and facing the trials and traumas that come with the unacceptably young leaving care age of 18. We are learning with them the numerous and varied challenges and triggers that arise at this time, and we are swiftly working to develop and formalise the advocacy sides of our work so that we can 1) provide support to young people as they ‘age-out’ of the traditional care system 2) influence policy change (including changing the leaving care age) and improve the status quo through compiled documentation of the experiences of our community and guidance on best practices. This community is very much underserved and under researched, having been entered into the normal care system without additional provisions for their ‘asylum-seeker specific’ needs.

In terms of following what happens to our young people, once we develop a relationship with them, we will sustain it. Thus far, young people who have gone on to prepare to sit uni entrance exams will still attend external performances and cheer our younger kids on. They will come to sessions occasionally and bring friends who are new to the country so that they can also begin to build a community, and they grow into leadership positions within our organisation. Learning from and discussing with them about the roles they might want to take on, and how we could support that by developing roles within our organisation for them is something we are working on now.

Click to learn more about Play for Progress. If you can’t make it on 8th April you can donate to the charity directly.

November Music: Saunders & Osborn

Date: Sun 3rd Nov, 2019
Venue: ‘s-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands

From their new album Speak, Be Silent, Riot Ensemble perform Rebecca Saunders’ Stirrings Still III which continues her longstanding fascination with the writings of Samuel Beckett, sharing its title with Beckett’s final work of prose. Through its fragile and haunting soundworld, the piece’s brittle textures and distant keening explore minute musical activities on the edge of extinction.

Alongside this Laurence Osborn’s Ctrl which was premiered by Riot Ensemble at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2017. Ctrl is a three movement song-cycle about masculinity written from the fragmented perspective of a male character and sung by a female singer.  

Continue reading