Bach & The Cosmos: a partnership with CLS

Last month saw the second of our collaborations with the City of London Sinfonia (CLS) - exploring the music of Bach and its link with the Cosmos. We caught up with Music Co-ordinator James to ask him a little about the project....

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Bach & The Cosmos sounds like an interesting concept! Can you tell us a little bit about the project and what the group did?

Well Bach was obsessed with numbers; his music is very sorted, logical, and balanced with call and response. So it started with exploring that. Each day we created a "planet" sound installation, the theme of which was created during a process of improvising music with two musicians from the CLS. We would discover a word somewhere down the line that would be the spirit of that planet (for example one day it was "forest"), and we would explore music in a very free improvisational way. The idea being that by the end of the week we would have a five-planet galaxy of sound!

The method changed every day, depending on who was in the room. Some days by the time everyone was sitting down they’d already grabbed instruments, on other days we’d have to hand them out and encourage them, give them a starting structure. On the day that it seemed to not immediately catch fire, the music that came out at the end was some of the nicest, so it wasn’t always about sheer enthusiasm! It was a bit more introverted and reflective, but lovely.

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Theresa & Gawain in session
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What appealed to me was that it also had artistic content which would appeal to different members too - as in the afternoon we all decorated the planets in the art studio. And then it had a technical side, of how we record it, how we play it back, as each planet had a loud speaker and an mp3 player inside. Some people were just interested in the technical side but got sucked into playing and art; so that was nice too! We’ve even been asked by the CEO of the orchestra if they can display our galaxy at a concert they’re doing at the Southbank Centre at the end of next month, which is a great outcome!

Why do you think these external partnerships are so important to the group? 

People are going to get bored of what I can do, there's only so much I can change. I have a repertoire, which I try and shift all the time, but I also learnt a lot of techniques from watching people like Gawain (the CLS group leader) when they come in. With one person trying to encourage people there are limited tools at your disposal, but being able to say, "this is a completely unique opportunity with two professional musicians and we're going to make music together" – that’s exciting! The idea is a fresh injection of enthusiasm and a different angle on the whole thing which is good. CLS in particular have a tremendous reputation with so a host of talented musicians, so it's very exciting to be working alongside them again. It also opens us up to new audiences who may go on to listen to the results of these collaborations through different means.

The technical side of the music-making seems to be quite significant too (and something new for us)? 

Definitely - that's been so important to us for engaging more members! One particularly physically challenged member was using the sound beam (an instrument controlled by tiny movement) and I looked up at one point and he was consciously moving; he knew he was participating and that’s a massive achievement, from being a passive receiver to be able to go "I'm going to make a song now".

With the iPad too you can sound like an instrument that would normally take ten years to play. Something Gawain said that I've adopted is that we as musicians we lend our musicianship to the group, so we can take away all the bum notes and just allow people to be totally creative. So that’s still a creative process and you just don’t have to have twenty-five years' experience to be able to use your breath or hands.

It seems like the musicians from CLS got a lot from the experience too?  

Definitely! A couple of them had been involved in our previous project last year (including group leader Gawain), so they said it was quite emotional coming back to people they knew. They were very fondly recognised and embraced, which is nice that there’s continuity there, and I’m very keen for it to continue. It was interesting to see some of the members ask questions about some of the instruments the professionals were using too, and you could see them going "Oh, I’ve never thought about it like that". So it was actually educational for them too. And they all got stuck in with decorating the planets in the afternoon, so they were involved all the way through and were very very supportive with the members.

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Painting our "planets" in the afternoon
How do you think this particular project reflects your approach to music at Headway? 

The thing that I try to do with the music groups is just try to engage people. So for someone who never wants to sing I might ask them what their first record was and we’ll play it and have a chat about that. Sometimes it's just thinking about music, not necessarily making it. I’m very happy if I can just get people to enjoy that moment. A lot of our music making is about enthusiasm, breathing, smiling, thinking and listening and that’s the wonderful thing. Every now and then when you get to make something that sounds really fantastic because you’ve got two or three professional musicians in the room it's a real gift. But it shouldn’t be about making ‘excellent’ music it should be about the participation, collaboration, the mental exercise you get when you’re doing it.

One of my big rules about music is the word ‘wrong’ is banned. It’s much more important that people clap or bang something or suggest Donny Osmond, that’s fine, you’re participating, and at the end of it we have some musical content where you feel you have contributed to. Even if you were too embarrassed to play a musical instrument, it can just be coming up with a whacky idea. A conductor doesn’t play an instrument but they’re critical to how an orchestra play. So, there are many different roles.

Any future plans for collaborations? 

Yes! We have a couple more planned in January or February next year, to be confirmed... there are some wild ideas going around, but it might be musical boats for the canal! It’s going to be something that’s not just an off the shelf idea, it’s going to be very Headway, as they all have been! I’m hoping this is an ongoing relationship which is good for both parties.

You can listen to two of our sound installations from Bach & The Cosmos over on Headway's Soundcloud page.