As Scotland’s contemporary music ensemble, Red Note is renowned not only for its virtuosity but also for its voracious enthusiasm for challenging work. As part of its quest to reach underserved audiences, Red Note recently collaborated with Artlink, Edinburgh’s ongoing programme ‘The Ideas Team’, established in 2005. The Ideas Team projects support unique arts practices shaped by the interests and lived experiences of people with profound learning disabilities. By positively challenging the often very limited expectations of individuals, it seeks to bring together families, musicians, care workers, artists, engineers, designers and people with profound learning disabilities to share their knowledge and shape high quality work which is both thought-provoking and relevant. As a result of delving into the minutiae of individual responses, from the sound of a coke machine to the blink of an eye to the thrum of a cello, the work started to uncover a view of the world probably never experienced before. Artist Miriam Walsh already had an established relationship with Cherry Road, and explains the inception of the project: “I started working on Artlink‘s Ideas Team just over a year ago, supporting American artist Wendy Jacobs’ to work with care staff to collate sounds on her Sound project. My remit was to encourage care staff to observe, describe and collate sounds which drew the attention of the people they worked with. We called this work ‘Sound Diaries’. Our aim was to create a landscape of sounds informed by the individuals responses to incredibly detailed and fluctuating sounds which formed their everyday. Over time, we explored sounds which might have seemed small or even insignificant, and as a result all of our understanding evolved. We began to learn from each other, through sharing this detail and a whole new sensory world filled with unending detail has been revealed. Using the Sound Diaries approach as a springboard, Artlink Edinburgh invited Red Note Ensemble to Cherry Road to take part in and deliver individual performances informed by the individuals’ existing relationship with sound.
It was a bit of an experiment to see what would happen over a series of four visits. Key to Red Note involvement was the preparation and the material gathered by Miriam, quite simply, they had to ‘hit the ground running’. She explains how this worked in practice: “to prepare for the musicians I worked with staff at the day centre creating personal sound profiles gathering information about the types of sounds (pitch, tone, tempo, rhythm etc.) which seemed to have some resonance with the individual. “I shared these sound profiles with Red Note to give them some insight into the people with whom they’d be sharing their music. The intention was to ask the musicians to look at the detail of how they play sounds with the possibility that they might be able to uncover new sounds or ways of playing that become an interactive rather than passive experience for both musician and audience. As the sessions evolved the sounds have become conversation pieces, gestures and improvisations – the click of a tongue, the swirl of the flute in response – the start of an intimate conversation through sound.” The musicians quickly recognised that a heightened awareness of an audience changes the way in which a performer engages with them; and a willingness to respond to this musically makes the beginnings of an active collaboration, rather than simply a passive listening experience. This acute attention can ideally offer both parties the opportunity to uncover perspectives they may never have experienced before. Red Note flautist Ruth Morley found the process of consciously tuning in to and responding to their audience made the sessions deeply affecting: “Sharing music and sounds in the sessions at Cherry Road has been moving, funny, perplexing and at moments bizarre. Playing a ‘personal concert’, improvising, moving around rhythms and melodies and trying to connect, changing what we play depending on the response, playing to people whose response is always fully available, unmediated by social politeness and convention we are trying to read responses and create a dialogue. We’re trying to read a facial expression, a head movement, the level of body tension, a vocal sound, and play something that connects. The response to our playing has been euphoric, angry, contented, confused, surprised, excited, relaxed…and more. “Some memorable moments have been watching Donald’s response to our first ‘performance’. He seemed to travel with the music, following the shapes of the phrases and the shifts in harmony. His face was a picture of emotions as he listened, it was amazing. The first time we played to Joe he was quite agitated, he was not having a good day, but as we played his movement slowed and he became quite still and calm. When we stopped playing his movement began again. The second time we played to him he danced in circles, giggling as he span around. After we stopped playing, he stopped spinning and sat down (probably to let his dizziness subside!) For Red Note cellist and Artistic Co-Director Robert Irvine, the experience was one which stripped away the conventions of a standard performance and engendered a direct link between performer and audience. He reflects: “This is a music-making experience for us that is completely without any of the nonsense surrounding the strange world of classical contemporary music. It feels very, very direct to have the opportunity to play music to people in an environment of total honesty. This opportunity to play from the heart to the heart is such a good experience for me on lots of levels. We know the music is being ‘heard’ without any other layers of context getting in the way. Sometimes the music is loved and enjoyed and sometimes it is rejected. There is no pretence at Cherry Road. We should all learn from that”. For both Ruth and Robert, playing at Cherry Road is raising fundamental questions about how they communicate and relate to music, why musicians play and why we all need music; how we listen and respond to it and why live music has such an effect compared to recorded music. As Ruth says: “It’s big…! Life can get in the way of communication – we’re busy, tired, stressed, scared of what will happen if we let ourselves connect. We’ve all experienced those times when music seems to bypass all conscious systems and get straight to the core of us. We need to be ‘available’ for this to happen” So how can Red Note’s musicians carry what they’ve learned through these collaborations into performing work elsewhere? For Robert, the questions raised and lessons learned will sit at the core of his performance practice: “The experience for me at Cherry Rd feeds into my approach to performing in all contexts. As musicians we must always be sure to question the validity of every concert, workshop and lesson we give. This project reinforces the core values of music as a human interaction that is beyond and irrelevant to words”.