Sounds Vital is a community music project for instrumentalists and singers of any level of experience and interest based in Liskeard, Cornwall and is run by BSO Associate Patrick Bailey.
The group first met in the summer of 2015 as part of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s iOrchestra project. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra have since sponsored the group’s projects in the winter of 2015/16 (as part of a short BSO residency in Cornwall) and for our latest project in partnership with Loop the Loop – a Heritage Lottery funded project celebrating the small train line that runs from Liskeard down to Looe. Initially an industrial branch line linking the mining industry to the coast, the line then became much-used by day-trippers in the early part of the 20th century, taking people to the coast for the day. Saved from the Beeching cuts at the last minute, it continues to run through some very beautiful countryside to this day.
The group, about 20 members for this project, meet for a planning/inspiring meeting without the BSO leader – to generate ideas, talk around the subject and explore some musical material.
The project organiser had given them a video of various clips of steam and diesel trains in Cornwall but, sadly, all were minus sound so it was only the visual aspects that were of benefit. They talked about that and also looked at key words that both the history and the video brought to mind, with a view to their informing any lyrics they might produce.
In the second half they explored the rhythms of train sounds (one member had taken some video of the local line to help, though many of the older people’s memories of the sounds of steam trains were still very strong). They reported that: “We were hoping to get people to explore how train rhythms could be varied and it was interesting that, in a large group, using percussion instruments most were able to vary a basic train rhythm and come up with some interesting alternatives, but when we worked in small groups, using their own instruments, they stuck rigidly to the basic train rhythm and, rather than getting the sense of train movement, they interpreted the idea very literally.”
They also generated some lyrics in a W H Auden ‘Night Mail’ style.
This was the first session for the BSO leader and we spent time listening the previous week’s ideas. We have some good blocks of sound in the group – 3 ukeleles; 3 guitars; 2 harps and a banjo; a group of singers with hand percussion and also with a tenor sax and a melodica. To get a sense of movement building up we gave each block of colour a major chord – guiatars had C, Ukes – D, Sax/voices – E flat and harps/banjo – F#. Each group then composed a cumulative rhythm starting with one chord every eight beats then gradually building up to a running quaver-based rhythm. The superimposition of the chords gives some real interest to quite a formal structure and allows us to move the focus of the piece around the group very clearly.
The singers composed individual rhythms by imagining one, two and three-syllable words, quite unconnected to each other and mixing up nouns, adjectives etc with onomatopoeic sounds to generate a text-based collage which could convert to a percussion rhythm.
Based on a slightly complex mode suggested by the chords, we also wrote, as a group, a lyrical melody to act as a ‘head’ – each member of group adds a note at a time (a bit like a musical version of ‘my granny went to market’) though each member can, at any time, choose to repeat a line or an idea rather than add something new. The result was a very characterful and beautiful tune. The ukes/guitars used the C,D,Eb, F# chords to come up with a chord progression to accompany. F#, it turns out, is not the Uke’s favourite chord!
A nice light finish was provided by one of the Uke players who had written an entire piece since the first session – Toot, toot! – which we quickly arranged for the whole group.
A lot of re-visiting and polishing. We did a warm-up that really concentrated on ensemble/pulse/listening and that led straight into more work on the cumulative, layered rhythms. Good work, much better.
The singers want/need something more lyrical to sing and had written another set of words which we agreed we were going to set avoiding, at all costs, any sense of de-der-de-der-de-der-de-der Auden-style train recitative. In order to do this we had the idea of finding the word in each line that we would like to stress the most – never, or rarely, the first or second word. We found this really helpful and started to deliberately lengthen this word when we spoke the rhythm. We also ignored all the upbeat words (we can worry about them later):
(We’ll get on the) train and find our seats
(Thinking of) friends we’re going to meet
The underlined words start to become dotted crotchets and we are happy that we are avoiding the mechanized chanting.
Another member was keen to use a 5/4 time signature – quite common in Cornish folk music – and this was a surprisingly easy step to take. The guitars/ukes suggested a new chord sequence based on new chords (they were not allowed to use C, D, Eb or F#!) with a slower harmonic rhythm. We then encourage sax and recorder to improvise to the approximate rhythm of the words but set a rule that the movement from the dotted crotchet should be more down than up (although you are allowed to break the rule with good reason!). After a while two different melodies emerged and we selected the one that sat with the voices best.
It was a lovely and quite spontaneous process and had given us something really interesting (and contrasting) to work with next time….