Disabled musicians in tune
Phil Miller meets members of the country’s first digital orchestra featuring disabled musicians
ASKEIN is a name for a flight of wild geese or swans. One takes the strain at the tip of the migrating formation, while the others follow behind. The birds take turns to be the tip of the triangle, suffering the harshest hit of the wind while the others rest in their wake. But they all work as an ever-revolving, evolving team.
Skein is also the name of a remarkable piece of music to be premiered next Saturday by Scotland’s – and indeed the UK’s – first digital orchestra featuring disabled musicians. These dozen musicians and composers have been put together and taught by Drake Music Scotland, the charity based in Craigmillar, Edinburgh. The Digital Orchestra are all disabled, including cerebral palsy and autism, and use various kinds of technology to make music.
Skein, composed by Aidan O’Rourke, of award-winning band Lau, will be played by the orchestra on a glittering constellation of digital technologies: iPads, apps, switch-triggered laptops, sounds triggered by touch and even jaw-clench and a bespoke musical notation system, called Figurenotes.
The concert marks not only the debut of that music but also the 20th anniversary of Drake, and a seminar the day before will bring representatives from around Europe to talk about what Drake and its orchestra are doing. Because it is remarkable.
We meet in a rehearsal room at Drake Music, where some of the orchestra and its leader and artistic director Pete Sparkes have gathered. In the nearby sound booth a band of older Drake musicians are knocking out some rock ‘n’ roll.
Rhona Smith has been coming to Drake Music for nearly all its life. In a wheelchair and with limited digital dexterity, as part of the orchestra she
If I feel a bit upset about something, I listen to music to help bring me up
makes huge sounds – the orchestra has around 70 different instrumental sounds at its disposal – by triggering switches on a keyboard. Her colleague Chris Jacquin, unable to use his hands, instigates sounds by clenching down with his teeth on a similar trigger.
Smith, who has studied musical composition, says: “It has allowed me to do one of my lifelong dreams: I watched orchestras before and I wanted to play. Once I came across Drake, that was an opportunity, and since I’ve been in Drake, we have been trying to get some sort of orchestra and now I am part of what I have always wanted to be part of.”
Every sound from the Digital Orchestra, which is two years old, is created by a Drake musician: there are no experienced musicians playing alongside. The music, performed live, is the result of weekly, three-hour practices. O’Rourke notes: “What was interesting to me is how they work together as a group. They are very good at giving each other space.
“I’ve been with professional musicians who noodle away at practice and drive you crazy – but there is amazing control in the room, they give each other room.”
Joseph Cox, another of the musicians, says of a colleague: “Erin [O’Neill] is a fantastic piano player. If we are having an off day, if we are struggling, music helps us stay calm and know what we are doing.”
“Each person has their part,” Sparkes says. “I think the idea of being in an orchestra is that it is a collection of people who are supporting each other – but also making music that people want to listen to.We are proud of the quality of it, of bringing it to the audience and, really, creating a new genre of music.”
Thursa Sanderson, Drake Music Scotland’s long-time chief executive, says its philosophy is that music making is an aim in itself, rather than a therapy. Drake Music was founded by Adele Drake, whose vision was to use technology to enable disabled people to play, perform and compose. The Digital Orchestra’s existence flows from that.
Sanderson says: “Her vision was to harness technology and she was focused on people who loved music and had this capacity to write and create and perform but who physically weren’t able to. We have broadened it to those with learning difficulties and autism, making it as inclusive as it could be.”
She adds: “The whole ethos is that the musicians here participate in the cultural life of Scotland. And so we’ve always been focused on that, and not on doing music as therapy. There are beneficial effects, of course, but those beneficial effects apply to everybody.
“So we diverge from the medical model and we talk about the social model of disability: it is about people being disabled by the social barriers and attitudes, and it’s not about that person’s disability preventing them taking part, it’s about the wider environment putting barriers in their way – and not just physical things like steps and accessd.”
SKEIN is a work of movements, each following a particular characteristic of birds. Bounding, for example, hops and flaps in 3/4 time. It sounds momentous. Timing is key to the piece. Smith adds: “It is scary for Chris and I, because if we don’t get that absolutely clicked [in time], you can put everybody else off. If we didn’t have help, then we would be just going, ‘Aaagh’.”
Sparkes adds: “We are really interested in the way the sound is presented too. We use an audio system called Dante – there is basically two big brass bands coming from the laptops, the sounds are spread out, and we can present them in all sorts of places. A tiny switch press [such as the one Smith uses] can trigger an enormous brass sound. It can create power.”
Cox adds: “I love the idea of flying. The music feels to me like I have wings. We just want to show the audience that we can play.”
The Figurenotes score is based on colours and shapes, although it contains the same information as a conventional score of bars, clefs and notes. O’Rourke put together all the parts for the piece in this language.
“They are quite complicated parts, with complex chord patterns,” Sparkes notes. “There are four different shapes in the system and several colours. All the Cs are red, for example.” It allows
each member to have a part, as in any orchestra, albeit adapted to their needs.
Instruments such as violins, flutes, pianos, guitars are, after all, just tools for making music. In Drake Music’s view, tools can be changed, abandoned or adapted if they are not right for a particular player. In this regard, digital technology has been a watershed: touch-sensitive screens, apps and programming have opened up access to the musical world in a way unimaginable even 15 years ago.
Sparkes says: “The whole notion of the Digital Orchestra is to take advantage of all the digital technology that we have, all the amazing things that you can do with sound. Notion is a score reading programme, for example, that can play a whole sample for you.
“We can use it in all kinds of ways. For Rhona and Chris, they cannot have enough dexterity in their fingers to trigger a standard instrument, but you can use input devices, like switches.
Chris has very accurate rhythm: he can click in semi-quavers.”
Sparkes adds: “I’ve talked to Rhona about this before. Often people may not expect Rhona to have learned music, they will make presumptions. They can see that physically she finds it difficult to move but actually she is perfectly capable of reading and playing music.”
In the long term, Sanderson says she would like more people to know about the company and the work they do, as well as sharing their experience internationally. Short term, however, the focus is on next week’s concert.
Cox adds: “Drake Music has been so rewarding for me because I am on the autistic spectrum. It is absolutely brilliant. It has helped me to do music more, to listen and it’s helped me... if I feel a little bit upset about something, I listen to music to help bring me up.”
Drake Music Scotland’s 20th anniversary concert, 7pm, May 5, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
Chris Jacquin, who instigates sounds by clenching his teeth on a trigger, with Aidan O’Rourke during Digital Orchestra rehearsals at the Drake Music School in Edinburgh