Best of the verse: Orchestras for All
Thursday, November 1, 2018
Tyrone Lewis tells us about his experience of working with Orchestras For All, combining poetry with music, and widening the reach of both.
It's hard to deny that music and poetry are connected. Both are forms of storytelling and communication that have been present for centuries, and there are multiple artists who have been playing around within the artforms. Focusing on a more modern-day connection between the two, you can look at artists like Kate Tempest and Scroobius Pip and see how they've worked with both; either independently of each other or linked. Similarly, looking at the musical duo Harry and Chris, with Harry Baker being a former World Slam Champion, he's now taken his poetry skills and brought them into a more music-focused world. As such, it came as no surprise to me when I found out that Orchestras For All had decided to programme its latest season around the theme of WordPlay.
For a little background, Orchestras For All is a charity that believes in music without boundaries. In practice, it provides opportunities for as many 11- to 18-year olds as possible, from whatever background, to take part in ensemble music-making. This July saw the launch of its new season, WordPlay, which explores the interconnectedness between music and words, and how music can communicate, tell stories and convey meaning. To kick off this season they had a launch event in Leeds, which brought together around 100 young people from all over the UK to form a youth orchestra. For the launch event, the young people learned arrangements of existing pieces as well as working on creating new arrangements – the latter is where I came in.
The artistic programme manager at Orchestras For All, Jack McNeill, reached out to me around April this year to ask if I wanted to be involved in a commission that the organisation was working on. The commission had two parts to it, the first being to perform Benjamin Britten's 1936 piece ‘Night Mail’ with full orchestral backing; the second, to write a new piece in response to both ‘Night Mail’ as well as McNeill's new arrangement of the piece.
The biggest challenge with this commission was the orchestra or, rather, my lack of one. While I worked on learning both Britten's original as well as creating my own piece in tandem with Jack, I was unable to ever listen to or experience the orchestra perform. My first exposure to them was the day before the performance while we were rehearsing. For retelling Britten's piece, this meant I relied heavily on the Spotify version of the music (which quickly became my most-played track during those months). Coming from a spoken word background, the idea of performing to a crowd was fine for me, in theory. The main struggle I had was learning someone else's words.
The launch event also saw performances from instrumentalists and singers © BOTH PHOTOS © ORCHESTRAS FOR ALL
In terms of memorising my own pieces, I am aided by the fact that I wrote them, so I'm remembering my own creativity. It's a different beast when trying to remember someone else's words, especially as I have no form of acting or performance training outside of being a spoken word poet. I'm glad that I had such easy access to the song as it quickly became the foundation of my commission. The track itself presented a couple of problems as its use of tempo is brilliant, but challenging to get to grips with. Nevertheless, this was – in some ways – the easier half of the commission. The harder part came with creating a response to it.
McNeill wrote a great arrangement as his response to Britten's piece. It was an honour to be able to write for it, but the process leading up to it was difficult. As previously mentioned, I was unable to hear the orchestral version of this until rehearsals, so for much of the writing process I was working with a MIDI arrangement that McNeill had made for me. It was a great guide but obviously differed from the real thing. Ultimately, in not knowing exactly what the finished piece would sound like, it meant I left myself a lot of room for improvisation in the piece I eventually wrote for the performance. While Britten's original tackled the idea of an actual train crossing Scotland to deliver mail between people, I instead chose to focus on the modern methods of messaging, and the idea that we can communicate instantly via our phones with people halfway across the world. With a few references to the original piece, it seemed like Orchestras For All were behind the approach I had chosen to take – thankfully!
Writing to music in and of itself has its own challenges, especially from a spoken word perspective. Are you writing as if it's a song and you're doing lyrics? How much of your own style can you put into it? How much do you clash?
Ultimately for me I found comfort in the fact that I had been approached because of my spoken word work – it was why I was brought onto the commission. While being aware of the musicality of the piece – and taking what I could from that – was important, I was still doing spoken word. Once I had figured out that side of the commission, the rest was able to flow very naturally while still providing interesting challenges.
The rehearsals themselves were brilliant. Finally getting to hear the orchestra was incredible and the talent on display was unreal, especially with the knowledge that some of the young people had only been playing together for, at best, a month. After figuring out the technical arrangements, the actual performance rehearsal went down fairly well, as everyone just got to know each other and became accustomed to playing together. What aided this immensely was the inclusion of a performance night in the evening where the young people and the guests were able to just share some of the work they did away from the orchestra, including singing and other musical disciplines.
Overall, it was a great experience seeing such talented people of all ages and backgrounds. Orchestras For All was great in bringing them together in celebration of music. The sense of unity this gave to the musicians was present both during and after the performances. You could see the pride on their faces once they'd finished performing and the joy in their continued interactions long after the music stopped. I'm glad to have been asked to work with musicians in this way and it is something that I would encourage any conductor working with young people to consider.