These might be unprecedented times but neither the power of music, nor the internet – have gone away. The Nevis Ensemble, a Scottish street orchestra, has taken full advantage of both media forms by setting up the Nevis Living Room Ensemble.
This project invites musicians from all over the UK to submit videos of themselves performing specific songs from their homes. Its aim is to create a feel-good vibe during this difficult period and showcase the imaginative ways we interpret music. We speak to Jon Hargreaves, the ensemble’s Co-Artistic Director, to find out more about the project.
What led to the creation of the Nevis Ensemble and who were the driving forces behind it?
The Nevis Ensemble was inspired by the Ricciotti Ensemble in Amsterdam – a street orchestra which was set up back in the 1970s. They came to tour Scotland, and Jamie Munn (our Chief Executive) alongside Judith Walsh (one of our Trustees) were involved in facilitating the tour.
They were inspired by Dutch group and saw that there was a definite need for a Scottish group to take music out to communities. Hence, the Nevis Ensemble was born. Jamie contacted Holly and I (we’re Co-Artistic Directors, and also husband and wife), and then Duncan Sutherland came in as Tour Manager. Then, in August 2018, we set off on tour. That was it!
What have you found to be the most rewarding aspect(s) of your role as Co-Artistic Director so far?
There are so many! Put simply, it’s seeing the value that music can have for people. We’ve played to so many audiences in different places and we’ve seen so many different responses to music. From singing and dancing, to crying and hugging, there’s been a bit of everything.
But it’s less the reaction per se than knowing how important music is to people. Not everything we do is tear-jerking or sky-high jubilant but seeing what music means to people (and, sometimes, hearing what people say), is the most rewarding aspect. We may have help brightened their day, inspired them to buy their kids a violin, or helped unlock certain emotions.
Another side of this coin has been seeing various players develop though the orchestra. There are limits, of course, but we have set things up to try and give the young players as much responsibility and ownership of the project as possible. It’s amazing what happens when you give people responsibility – they shine!
What inspired you to invite musicians to submit videos of themselves performing specific songs?
Readers may have seen some of the fantastic online videos made by various orchestras, where individual players have sent in videos of just their part, and someone puts them all together to make the full orchestral sound. There’s a great one of Swan Lake by the English National Ballet Philharmonic, in which you see the trombone player reading the paper until he comes in. Like real life! There’s some great stuff out there – some impressive and some funny performances.
The essence of Nevis, though, is to bring people together through music. Whether you want to clap your hands, dance around, hit a few pans in the kitchen or sing and play in full glorious effect, we want you to get involved. We’re trying to choose songs that will mean something to people; songs they’ll know that will lead to a decent result.
The first song, I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) is synonymous with Scottish culture. Is this indicative of a wider theme over the coming weeks?
Ha! If there’s one thing we’ve learned so far, it’s that Scottish music never fails! To be honest, the Living Room Ensemble project wasn’t intended as a definitively Scottish project. Like the Nevis Ensemble, though, it’s Scottish at heart. This includes that innate ability of Scots to incorporate and welcome people, and indeed music from all over.
In fact, we’ve had people send in recordings from as far afield as Kenya, Spain and even Australia! All that said, the choice of a Scots classic like I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) was easy – how else could we launch the project?! We’re so grateful that The Proclaimers have given us their blessing.
What are the deadlines for submissions?
At the moment, we just have the deadline as 8th April. As it’s the first time round, we’re seeing what kind of response we get so we know how long it takes to put it all together!
It won’t be the last time round, though. We have various other projects in the offing, including ’Scottish postcards’. This involves people sending in a Scottish image or memory of the Scots landscape, and we are commissioning six composers to write pieces for one of our musicians.
In such a difficult and unprecedented time, how do you assess the power of the internet as a medium for creativity and artistic expression? Also, generally, what have you made of the response of the musical community to this situation?
One thing that’s clear while we’re all locked down is that the internet is going to be essential for any form of expression, never mind artistic. For some people, it’s literally a real lifeline because feeling connected is such an intrinsic part of the human experience. Thank goodness we have the internet these days!
But the question is about artistic expression and these times have brought into focus the need for the arts – live music in particular – to adapt. It’s a difficult one: music can be so specialist, with training directed towards being part of a tiny ‘elite’ in a very narrow field. For example, playing the cello.
Conversely, the great advantage of the internet is that it opens things up and makes everything available to everyone, everywhere. So, the way we think, as both musicians and artists, is bound to change.
In turn, this demands more and more creative approaches. As I say, plenty of performance videos are uploaded every day and there are some great ones! But the artist in me thinks that there’s a need for the arts (well, music anyway) to work more directly with the medium.
To simply upload something is only taking advantage of a tiny fraction of what the internet has to offer in terms of, say, collaborative design/composition, distributed decision making, modelling, and so on. But social media is best set up for showing the bits in between, not the end product – ‘showing the making’.
Have you got examples of any interesting videos you’ve come across via social media?
For me, those videos where artists show something other than their performance are the interesting ones. They might explain the challenge of playing an instrument, why they’ve have taken a certain approach, or what it means to them to be playing in a given town.
The internet offers us a chance to bring the elite and the ‘everyday’ closer together. With its help, we can break down the barriers between people through the arts. This is, to my mind, what the arts exist for. We see it in Nevis a lot – the thing that matters about the arts and creativity is that, like the internet, they connect people.
What does an initiative like this – at a time like this – say about the ingenuity within your team?
We’re lucky to be living at a time when the technology we need for this sort of project is quite readily available. In terms of putting everything together, this can facilitated by a basic laptop set up.
In terms of the people involved, like so much about the whole ‘Nevis project’, we’re lucky to have a team that has complementary skills and a can-do attitude. This goes for the current online project much as for packing the bus in Hebridean storms or carrying ‘cellos up Ben Nevis!
We’ve done so well in terms of designing and promoting the project, thanks to our intrepid Chief Exec, and general Nevis mastermind Jamie. And I must mention our in-house arranger Joey O’Neill, who made up the parts. Now we have to deliver it!
Anyone who wants to record a video of themselves performing I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) has until Wednesday April 8 to make their submissions. You can send your recording to firstname.lastname@example.org either by email, WeTransfer or Dropbox. Alternatively, you can upload your submission to the Nevis Ensemble Dropbox here.