Dis­abled mu­si­cians in tune

Phil Miller meets mem­bers of the coun­try’s first dig­i­tal orchestra fea­tur­ing dis­abled mu­si­cians

The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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