Last week City of London Sinfonia travelled to Luton to perform in the final culminatory concert as part of Aiming Higher, an exciting project that aimed to give young musicians in Luton the chance to progress their musical skills and ambition. Building on the success of First Time Live 2 in July 2014, the project provided the opportunity for an even wider range of young music groups to work collaboratively with the musicians at CLS and composer John K Miles as they performed Carnival Variations, a brand new piece composed especially for the project. In this blog post, John gives an overview of his favourite moments throughout the project, his thoughts on why the project was so important and what he, as a composer and animateur, gained personally from the experience.
Hi John! So, tell us a bit more about the project – we hear it was gargantuan…
Aiming Higher was superbly ambitious. It was conceived as a follow up project to Carnival Suite – a piece commissioned by Orchestras Live for City of London Sinfonia and beginner instrumentalists in July last year – now published by Charanga/Music Sales. The project centred on a sequel commission, Carnival Variations, which was a set of five variations based on the original suite, for City of London Sinfonia, Luton Youth Jazz Orchestra, Luton Youth Concert Band, Cantores (Luton female youth choir), and Lady Zia Wernher (special school). The final programme also included two movements from the original Carnival Suite with students from Foxdell Junior School in Luton.
We understand you were in charge of the commission… how did you go about composing it?
All the material took its starting point from the Brazilian rhythm Afoxe as taught to me by my good friend Adriano Adewale, a master Brazilian drummer living in London.
The variation for City of London Sinfonia was a straightforward commission produced in the traditional way – composer tearing hair out, drinking tea, questioning, singing, problem solving and eventually notating…
The four subsequent variations for the Youth Ensembles were written and built through a creative workshop process with the young musicians in Luton; I made several visits to each group with CLS’s wonderful Projects Coordinator, Pia Luck and up to four musicians from the orchestra, all over the space of three months.
“The variation for City of London Sinfonia [involved me] tearing my hair out, drinking tea, questioning, singing, problem solving and eventually notating…”
And what did the different creative sessions involve?
The first sessions with the different groups were mainly creative; introducing the material to the young musicians and then composing collaboratively. I then took all the ideas the kids suggested on board went away and wrote most of the music, again in the traditional way (tea… hair…)
The second sessions consisted mainly of tweaking; playing the music I’d composed back to them and taking on any feedback. I then took away the music and added, expanded, modified and wrote the orchestral parts for CLS. I also, where possible, connected the groups. The choir, for example, was written into the piece for Luton Youth Jazz Orchestra.
The third session was essentially a rehearsal for everyone to play the piece. We then had one final rehearsal ahead of the concert day with all the groups together in the same room.
And why, in your opinion, do you think the project was so successful?
The fantastic thing about this way of working, is that it allowed me to get to know the groups in an organic way – what they did well, what might challenge them, and what they might enjoy. It facilitated a set of bespoke variations that had a connection to all the performers (including young musicians and members of CLS) and that also the groups (hopefully) felt some ownership of.
“The fantastic thing about this way of working, is that it allowed me to get to know the groups in an organic way – what they did well, what might challenge them, and what they might enjoy.”
It also allowed the participants to work alongside top professional orchestral musicians, not only in the final concert but throughout the process. This fostered a meaningful connection between the orchestra and participants and created a rare learning context for all concerned. The rich mix of participants, genres, ages and experience was very special (and at this point I’d like to mention the fantastic tutors at Luton Music Hub, Kerry Watson, Julia Fraser, Nick Ridout, Simon Router and Adam Cowburn who have brought these ensembles up to such a high standard!). One of the key components of this project has been the connection to meaningful pathways to young musicians during/post project and it is inspirational to see such dedication, expertise and continuity in a music service!
What do you feel that you have gained on a personal level from this project?
On a personal level this was a unique opportunity to write bespoke pieces for ensembles across a variety of genres, bound together by the aesthetic of a world class classical chamber orchestra. The resulting music drew on Classical, Jazz and World Music – shaped by a world where information and access to global music are at the touch of a button. Ironically the musical landscape can (at times) feel stylistically and demographically fragmented and this project was a golden opportunity to bring different genres, styles and a huge range of musicians together.
Apart from ‘traditional’ ensembles, we also worked with the students at Lady Zia Werner special school, and I learnt a lot from this experience. Their variation ended up being programmed as the final ’showstopper’ and a great way to bring all the ensembles together. It highlighted not only the educational value these projects have but also the deeper way music can connect and inspire people across generations, experiences and communities.
“[Our work with Lady Zia Werner special school] highlighted not only the educational value these projects have but the deeper way music can connect and inspire people across generations, experiences and communities.”
A huge thank you to Orchestras Live, Royal Opera House Bridge, The Mix, and The UK Centre for Carnival Arts for supporting this ambitious far-reaching project.