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.
Originally posted on Tony’s blog on March 30 2016