I’m concluding this overview of the music in Song of Contagion with two excerpts from the final section of the show. They also encapsulate two extremes of the key musical features: first, the edge-of-your-seat excitement generated by the exchanges between jazz soloists…
…and secondly the solace and beauty of the spine-tingling textures created by the ensemble of glorious voices:
This week the hope, the aspirations and all the hard work invested in the show will become manifest! It has been a challenging and ultimately deeply rewarding journey, and I hope it receives a generous and open-hearted response.
As I write this latest preview, I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in to final rehearsals this weekend, working with GUO’s sublime ensemble of singers from all over the world…
…and incomparable jazz soloists (Chris Biscoe and Tony Kofi, alto saxophoones)…
…as we make the final preparations for this extraordinary show. Don’t miss next week’s final instalment in this series of previews before Song of Contagion actually hits the stage – a dramatic and deeply moving coda!
The story of dengue fever and the Zika virus – and how the first has eluded public attention for decades, while the latter hit the headlines over the Rio Olympics – is narrated by a mischievous mosquito who dances her way across Africa and the West Indies to Brazil, following the spread of the diseases. Here she is in the Caribbean:
As you can see, when it comes to dance rhythms, Grand Union has many wonderful drummers from around the world to call on. They all feature in the show, and here they are in full cry on the typical African rhythm that sets the mosquito on her way:
The most harrowing episode in the show describes the experience of different people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or ‘shell-shock’. They include a refugee mother and child, a conscript soldier in Africa, and here combatants in the Pakistan/Bangladesh war:
Their experiences are first described in song, woven together, and then – as is often my practice in my music for Grand Union – dramatised instrumentally, with jazz soloists embodying the characters:
One of the compositional challenges I faced in this project was how to translate statistical data into music. I describe in the scenario how I wanted to tell the story of HIV/AIDS by converting a graph into a musical score. Here is a fascinating example in reverse: as the score moves across the screen, it looks a bit like a graph! There are three groups of three instruments (trumpets, saxes, trombones), playing identifiably different lines, which you can see and hear quite clearly:
I also wanted to find a way of expressing in music a more abstract idea that characterised our early workshops – debate or discussion. Here is an example: a soprano saxophone (Chris Biscoe) converses with trumpet (Claude Deppa) and alto saxophone (Tony Kofi); perhaps you can also hear vox pop (tuba) rumbling underneath?
The final section of Song of Contagion is about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – ‘shell-shock’. It begins with a brief evocation of a devastated city in a war-torn region, anywhere from Eastern Europe to Central Asia in the last 60 years:
PTSD affects civilians and combatants alike. One of our stories is based on the experience of a refugee and her daughter, and will be sung by Maja Rivić, seen here performing a song from Undream’d Shores:
Wilton’s Music Hall is in Cable Street, in the heart of London’s East End, the setting for the show and home of many of its performers. Cholera, the first of our subject-diseases, was rampant here in the early to mid-nineteenth century. This is how singer Davina Wright introduces the evening:
Interwoven with the story of London – where the construction of sewers eradicated the disease – is a parallel narrative set in Kolkata, where cholera is still rampant, and Indian voices clamour for fresh water:
“Turn the corner into Cable Street – a sharp breeze from the river catches you, sometimes the scent of the sea…the street remembers”
So begins Song of Contagion, in the atmospheric setting of a classic Victorian music hall, taking you to the very heart of East London, where cholera raged 150 years ago. The cause unknown, wild theories abound, but eventually the problem is solved: fresh water and an effective sewage system are the answer. Meanwhile Indian voices and instruments describe an equally virulent epidemic gripping Kolkata, in West Bengal; but no such steps are taken there, and thousands continue to die from the disease.
If only all diseases were so simply eradicated. Take the story of HIV/AIDS, told here in a piece I developed from one of the original music workshops described here, using this graph:
GUO musicians animate the lines on this graph, projected behind them. Strings buzz away over drums and bass – the activism of mainly gay men; saxophones portray growing public awareness and media attention, and trombones the initially reluctant government funding for treatment, while a menacing bass drum marks the ever-increasing death rate. Then the trumpets announce a treatment has been found – an expensive one, but the drum beats fade.
Meanwhile, millions of families living with the disease in Africa can’t all be treated until medication is cheaper. Against an African rhythm now, the strings, saxophones and trombones again get to work and the trumpets mellow as the price falls. In some parts of the world, the disease is now being treated, thanks to public awareness and action, but there is still much to be done; as the choir warns us, “easy to turn our backs now – but silence is consent”.
Often only when the media take up the cause is a disease taken seriously; but they are capricious, and need a story – preferably a sensational one…
A mosquito begins to dance over a lilting rhythm from central Africa, where dengue fever is endemic and has been killing tens of thousands for years. However “it’s not going to play if it’s too far away – get lost, I’ve got papers to sell!” is a newspaper editor’s cynical response. Next, with soca and steel pans, she spreads the disease to the Caribbean, but “if the rum is still flowing and tourists keep going, where’s the drama?” the editor says.
Trying a different tack, she sambas off to Brazil, where “…Zika may spoil the Olympics: there’s babies being born with small heads” – “now you’re talking!” the editor said. The mosquito dances off to an exuberant big-band number featuring drums and percussion from all over Africa, the Caribbean and Latin-America.
Now the sound of a heart beat fills the Hall, and its graphic wave fills the screen, a portent of CHD – Coronary Heart Disease. Against this pulse, performers press sweets on the audience, muttering fragments of old music hall songs – “when my sugar walks down the street…”, “I’ll be your sweetheart…”, “a little of what you fancy does you good…”. A ghost of Wilton’s past – an old music hall comedian – appears, hymning a lifestyle promoted by the junk food industry. The heartbeat on the screen begins to stutter, the band becomes ragged and the pulse erratic – “a little … of what you fancy … does you … in”.
Three dramatic stories now follow, vividly brought to life in a series of flashbacks. This is the experience of people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
A survivor of the Bangladesh/Pakistan war recalls being hunted down in the mountains “jolche shorbanash / everything is burning”, while a villager fears for the future of her family; in Angola, a Portuguese conscript soldier wearied of the relentless jungle warfare “as colunas partiam a madrugada / the platoons set off every morning” attempts suicide and is attended by a medical orderly; a refugee from the war in Syria tries to console her child, haunted by the loss of her father and husband.
Their stories are interwoven, and then taken up by four jazz soloists – two trumpets and two saxophones – with the other musicians providing an eloquent instrumental commentary. Overlapping and colliding with increasing frequency, the musical images build to a powerful climax, in which all the singers also give voice: “Horror of war, beyond what words can tell, or a picture-graph…”
The nightmares dissolve into a poignant epilogue – “If music could bind up the silent wound, we would do that; if music could, we would…” Each of the singers ponders on the grudging support society offers survivors of conflict, especially innocent victims, and the limited power of artists to intervene. The audience leaves the Hall and steps back out to Cable Street; they are asked to reflect on what they’ve heard, the need for action, the power of unity and activism, and the positive effects of intervention.
(Phrases in italics are excerpts from some of the lyrics in the show.)
A more detailed version of this scenario, and information about the performers, can be found here on the Grand Union Orchestra website.
Tuesday 13th June to Saturday 17th June at 7:30 in the evening
Saturday 17th June 2:30pm family show
Evening performances run 2 hours 20 minutes including interval;
Saturday Matinee runs 60 minutes without interval
Full Price £10 to £17.50;
Concessions £7.50 to £15;
Family matinee prices: £12.50 adults, £7.50 children.
Family offer £30 for 4 tickets (must include 1 adult and 1 child)
On May 22nd, a Sunday, an extraordinarily diverse range of musicians dragged themselves untimely from their beds to keep playing with the Contagion concepts, this time electronically. The workshop was run by Sam Johnson , presiding genius of CM.
It continued to develop the ideas explored by acoustic instruments in the first workshop, developing and applying the musical parameters through digital means and music technology.
Sam began with a fascinating account (lavishly illustrated with familiar and unfamiliar tracks) of the development of recording techniques from the 19th century up to the present day, demonstrating the effect records have on the making of music.
Then, focussing on the role that technology can play in the creative process, Sam took participants – many of whom had limited experience of working with technology to record and edit music – through some of the incredible range of creative options available in processing sound, applying effects, editing and arranging. Some instruments, and some of the musical ideas, associated with the previous workshop were then recorded. This material was then manipulated in response to suggestions form the group to create characteristic profiles of diseases; and finally each participant was given their own workstation to try things out for themselves.
Here’s a grainy video of our discussions around distorting a sitar and a trombone to represent diarrhoea:
Every baby has a conception story. Here’s Song of Contagion’s according to composer Tony Haynes:
One Saturday evening in late autumn 2014, a distinguished epidemiologist found herself at a loose end in Hackney. On a whim, she decided to drop into a show at the Hackney Empire that looked intriguing. This is what she saw:
A few days later, I received this email:
It was from Elizabeth Pisani, and she went on “I am constantly frustrated by 1) the mismatch between health needs and health spending and 2) the public health establishment’s unshakeable belief that this mismatch will be solved simply by generating more (epidemiological) evidence. For a while now, I’ve been thinking about using music to look at these issues… It’s a very long shot, but I wondered if you might be interested in collaborating on such a project, or at least having a coffee or pint and discussing the possibilities.”
For a lifelong addict of long shots – not just on the turf, but having virtually founded a professional career on backing long shots! – it was impossible to resist. A few days before Christmas, I met Elizabeth for a coffee in the Empire café.
I was very taken with Elizabeth’s ideas. In spite of her protestations that she has “not a musical bone in my body”, she has a remarkable imagination and an instinctive grasp of how music works. Her notion was to characterise different diseases, through statistics that measured how widely they were spread, the demographic they affected or geographical area they covered, the amount of publicity they received, and whether or not treatment was well funded.
What if each of these factors could be attached to appropriate musical elements – like melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, volume? Through variations in these ‘parameters’ she imagined you would get a series of pieces where AIDS, Ebola, malaria, cholera and so on would sound very different from each other. Then you might arouse public awareness of inequality, touching people directly in a way that – as she put it – PowerPoint presentations cannot.
Putting these ideas into practice
The first step was clearly to start raising money. Elizabeth suggested this project might appeal to the Wellcome Trust, which has an unrivalled reputation for supporting arts projects explaining or inspired by science. We had a great conversation with one of their officers, who immediately saw the potential of the project, and offered very encouraging advice; slightly to Elizabeth’s chagrin, he suggested we should not dwell too much on the statistics – what they really wanted to come out of their funding was new, imaginative art!
So we put in an application, and were delighted to hear in the New Year that it had been successful.
What appealed to the Trust was not only the quality of the artistic ideas, but that built into the project was a participatory programme. From the very beginning young people, students and adults interested in health issues and/or music would be involved in initial discussions and the continued development of the material. It was also clear that there was great potential for music technology to play a part – exploring the parameters digitally, sampling and treating the acoustic instruments and so on. So we enlisted CM Sounds, who work extensively with young producers and creators in this field, as partners.
We also wanted to focus activity on East London. Grand Union is based in Bethnal Green, CM in Whitechapel, most members of our Youth Orchestra and World Choir live nearby, and many of our events take place in local venues like Rich Mix, Wilton’s Music Hall and the Hackney Empire. But more importantly, because of the extraordinarily diverse demographic of the East End, this would mean that there would be people involved with a direct connection to countries and communities around the world who experience disease and how it is treated. This would give the impact of the project further authenticity.
At the first workshop (April 23rd in Graeae Theatre studios) Elizabeth introduces the project, questioning why some diseases capture public attention and funding, while others are ignored. Using statistics to illustrate her points, she leads a discussion about fashion, politics, money and other factors that influence decision-making in health. Participants then split into smaller groups to identify what diseases they think are most important, which factors distinguish them; and, if they don’t get the attention they deserve, which factors are getting in the way.
I then show, with the help of Grand Union musicians, how all music is a combination of separate elements – melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, dynamics etc – which different forms of music combine with varying degrees of emphasis. The core of this project is to attach musical features to the statistical factors, so participants again split into smaller groups to discuss which parameters in the profile of a disease might correspond with an appropriate musical parameter, and how a musical ‘picture’ of a disease might emerge.
At the end of the day, we discuss suggestions that have arisen, which diseases it might be most instructive or fruitful to address, the most significant scientific parameters and their musical expression. Elizabeth then goes away to compile appropriate statistical data.
The next workshop (May 7th, St Margaret’s House) is < a href="http://songofcontagion.com/what-do-diseases-sound-like-first-soundings/">entirely musical. Musicians bring their instruments, or they are provided for those who don’t have one. We begin to explore the way the statistical data can be realised through music. This will be mostly improvisational, at first combining and varying the musical elements in different ways, then more rigorously applying them to the disease parameters. The third workshop (May 22nd, CM, Brady Centre) follows a similar process through music technology, transferring some of the ideas and material created acoustically and experimenting with the same ideas digitally
What happens next?
Elizabeth and myself reflect on and digest all the material generated – from discussion points to musical themes – and decide how best to develop it into a coherent and gripping public performance. Grand Union and CM run a series of workshops during the autumn with the GU Youth Orchestra and World Choir and the students from CM. It is likely that some narrative material will be needed, including lyrics, to which workshop participants can contribute; and I shall write some new songs and begin to organise the material into a coherent, large-scale musical structure.
Early in 2017 a show will emerge, and we intend the performance to include also contributions from Elizabeth herself (here is a sample of her performance skills!) and the CM musicians alongside the full Grand Union Orchestra, Youth Orchestra and Choir. This – the latest in a long and impressive line of Grand Union shows – will be presented at the Hackney Empire.
Meanwhile, I shall use my Blog to report from time to time on how the project is developing, with my usual notated musical examples, video and recordings. I’ll cross-post blogs here to Song of Contagion, so do sign up for e-mail alerts.