In the past three months I have been welcomed into a new family.
Street Orchestra Live, (or ‘SOL’ as it is affectionately known by the players) was established just over three years ago with its guiding mantra ‘music for everyone, anywhere’.
This summer we have had two short weekend tours in London and Oxford and a week-long tour to Colchester in Essex. All three were linked to festivals - Sound Unbound, Oxford Arts Festival and Roman River Festival respectively. But concerts for the festivals were only part of SOL’s gig output. At the heart of the orchestra is a desire to push boundaries and welcome unsuspecting communities into its unique way of making music. The schedules, therefore, included many planned and unplanned pop-up concerts and flash-mobs in unusual and unused concert locations. In Colchester, this meant memorising the first movement of Beethoven 5 so we could play ad-hoc concerts, including on a beach, in a car park, at a race-for-life, outside a leisure centre and even at a naked cycle ride (although we the orchestra were able to keep our clothes on thankfully!).
But “Music for everyone, anywhere”?
It’s a big claim. For starters, do we believe music is for everyone? All types of music? And can it work anywhere? Should it? Is this important?
Over the past year, I’ve had the time and headspace to observe the music world, consider it’s workings and my place within it, and to evaluate what I want to see happen. A recurring theme and desire is to see orchestral music used to bring about transformation lives, communities and culture. In many ways, concerts do this already as the music moves us and gives us space for reflection. However, I’m interested in exploring the other ways in which music, particularly music played by orchestras, can impact and transform.
In the last century we have seen a shift away from orchestras being the centre of popular music culture as concert halls have been swapped for arenas, and conductors and soloists for pop-stars. Music is fast, often free, entertainment, available to us all the time. There are many positives from this change. The accessibility of music has brought about new cultural growth, inspiration and a new diversity of ideas. Recording has transformed how we listen and, indeed the meaning of listening itself, in terms of location, time, breadth, depth and chronology.
So, music is for everyone, anywhere?
Often, however, the vast quantity of music buzzing around us may not be a positive addition to our lives. As it fills our daily walks, both when we want it to and when we don’t, the free entertainment often becomes forced entertainment. Use of familiar and popular songs in shops and shopping centres encourage us to stay and spend more. In television adverts catchy songs plague our minds with brain-worms that subtly lead us to purchase that which is unnecessary. Mozart is played late at night in fast-food chains to deter people from bad behaviour. I wonder whether this fast, free, accessible music is being used for everyone. Is it actually doing something for people or is it used to take from them?
During my undergraduate degree I remember researching and writing about the concept of sound and space. In particular, I read about the digitisation of music, the takeover of headphones and portable music devices, the idea that we have ‘soundtracked’ our lives. Our walks, work and workouts are accompanied by tailor-made beats of tailor-made playlists, tailor-made by us.
We are accompanied… and yet we are alone.
Whilst London is quite possibly the noisiest place I have ever been, both in terms of the actual sound and sensory overload, it is also the loneliest. Both from conversations with people I encounter and observations each day, I sense a feeling of isolation runs through veins of the vast constructed jungle. Though we are surrounded by people, we are living our lives independently and in loneliness.
Though we are busy and filling our days with productive and informative conversations, we lack meaningful interaction.
Though we have created music playlists to forge identity and community, this same personalisation and individualism has also pushed out an obvious source of interaction and fellowship. As we listen and enjoy music in solitude, we lose one of the best parts of listening. Community.
To me, ensembles like SOL (and its relatives the Scottish 'Nevis' and Dutch 'Ricciotti' Ensembles) seem to be providing a solution.
Internally, the orchestra is a vibrant community. Like-minded people and musicians who love to come together and share life together, and express this joy by collective music-making. They share stories and experiences, support each other as family members, and encourage each other in the ups and downs of life.
Concerts are a genuine celebration and musical feast, an outpouring of this family joy. Audience members at different points have commented that the orchestra seem to be having so much fun it wouldn’t matter if the audience weren’t there. Now, of course, it would matter, but there is some truth here. SOL’s concerts are parties hosted, experienced and enjoyed by the orchestra, but crafted to benefit anyone willing to listen and join in.
It is in sharing of their party universally that SOL are pushing against the culture of individualism and isolation.
The orchestra enters the lives of people going about daily life and fill it with a fresh perspective of joy. The concerts create space for conversations and communication as unwitting pedestrians become audience members who, for that moment, are sharing a part of life together. As all who enter the party experience joy and an unconditional welcome, so do they experience community.
Those who choose to stay and listen leave the comfort of their personal bubble but gain a snapshot of unity and family.
To me, one of the most inspiring attributes of orchestral music is the thing we rarely discuss. Yet it is also the thing our world so desperately needs. Unity. It displays a group of people putting their all behind a common goal. Sounds simple, but more and more we see in the news how leaders in the world are struggling to do this and slowly culture is being broken by polarising divisions.
An orchestra demonstrates that unity is possible amidst great diversity.
Each instrument makes a different sound and takes a different journey through a piece of music, but the combination of the whole creates something vibrant and beautiful. It is a poignant metaphor for what this world could be.
SOL brings joy, inviting people to join and experience the party. SOL encourages community as strangers become neighbours. SOL leaves a mark on lives, as people experience a taste of the beauty of unity amidst diversity.
Music out of a concert hall and into the everyday lives of people in the street. Music that gives life and does not take. Music for people. Music for everyone, anywhere.
Street Orchestra Live: https://streetorchestra.co.uk Twitter/Instagram @streetorch