My personal Groundhog Day is the biennial AIDS conference, bustling with passionate activits, hopeful researchers, singing orphans. This year’s conference (held in Durban in July) had a greater sense of deja vu than most. After a brief blip of “End of AIDS” optimism at the 2014 conference, even Bill Gates was brought back down to earth: biomedical solutions alone won’t work.
Actually, with 17 million people on effective treatment, we’re much closer to the end of AIDS than we imagined when the AIDS circus last came to Durban 16 years ago. We’re just not any nearer to the end of HIV. As deaths drop off, the number of people living with the virus rises. If you take a squint at the graphs that the musicians are “playing” in the video below, you can see the shape of AIDS deaths (dramatic peak, steep decline — the data are for the US) but also the steep and continuing rise in cost of treatment. Not shown, but even more dramatic, is the rise in the number people who have HIV and are sexually active. So despite the fact that effective treatment reduces the chance of passing on the virus, the number of new HIV infections added to the global pool each year is not falling: around 2.1 million new infections in 2015.
The video comes from Song of Contagion’s very first music workshop; we’ve moved on a bit since then but it does look like HIV will be one of the disease stories we’ll be taking on. (By “we”, I mean the talented musicians shown in this introduction to the incomparable Grand Union Orchestra.)
You can see from their final performances how much work composer Tony Haynes puts in to each piece. Here, with a cast that includes public health nerds and some fine HIV researchers, you can see the very first seeds of what I hope will eventually turn in to one of those classic Grand Union performances:
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:
The first exploratory music workshop took place on Saturday 7th May at St Margaret’s House, Bethnal Green. It was run by GUO composer/director Tony Haynes with three Grand Union Orchestra musicians: Claude Deppa, South African trumpeter and percussionist; Yousuf Ali Khan, tabla player and singer from Bangladesh; and Carlos Fuentes from Chile, exponent both of Andean and Brazilian folk instruments and Latin-American music. This group of musicians was specially chosen to reflect the intended global span of Song of Contagion
As well as musicians, many students and global health professionals who participated in the launch workshop on April 23rd returned, and – whether they regarded themselves and musical or not! – joined in all the activities with grace and enthusiasm.
Elizabeth began the day by profiling various diseases and isolating the parameters by which they can be defined (and the relative importance we attach to treating and funding them). Tony then identified ‘musical parameters’ in a similar way; and with the aid of the musicians, demonstrated how variations of a piece of music can be achieved, while the separate elements of which it is comprised – melody, harmony, rhythm and so on – still remain recognisable.
To kick off the practical exploration, joining the disease parameters to the musical ones, Elizabeth produced some very vivid graphs, turning statistical data effectively into pictures, which the group proceeded interpret through music, turning them into some very dramatic and colourful musical pieces. or ‘vignettes’. As a result, we now have some emergent ‘repertoire’, but more importantly a number of creative strategies for generating further musical material.