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Instruments of Change: Community Sounds in Contemporary Classical New Music

November 4, 2017

Street Beats Band 2016. Photo: Jan Gates

For years, I have longed to make music but I had missed the opportunity to learn as a child.  Earlier this year, as I sat with a musician friend watching videos of new world music, I spotted a percussionist playing some grooves on a bottle.  “I could play the bottle!” I declared.  My friend laughed and we thought no more about it.

The next week, while looking for a woodworking class, I happened upon an advertisement to join the Street Beats Band, at the Roundhouse Community Centre, in Vancouver.  Street Beats Band is an urban percussion community band that makes grooves on found objects.  I remembered that street musician playing the bottle and decided to take the leap.

Street Beats  is a 2 year project produced by Instruments of Change, a not for profit organization founded by flutist and activist Laura Barron.  The project was commissioned by David Pay of Music on Main for the International Contemporary Music Society’s World Music Days in Vancouver, this week.

The mission of Instruments of Change, is to use “the arts as an educational tool to empower individuals to become instruments of transformative change in their own lives.  By expanding community access to cultural activities, we allow diverse populations to make and experience music and art.”

We asked Laura Barron to reflect on the inspiration for creating this platform and project:

I’ve always been a social activist but mostly not in a music capacity.  I worked as a phone crisis worker for Vancouver rape relief and women’s shelter and I taught yoga at a downtown East women’s shelter and in a women’s prison.  I did some music as a performer in hospice, doing therapeutic music, not music therapy,  but I was not finding a way to really intersect my musical expertise with the kind of empowering work that I wanted to do in a social engaged way.

Instruments of Change was born out of that interest and I took a class at SFU on exploring art for social change for mid career professional both from the arts sectors and from the social sectors: artists wanting to find a way to apply their work in social contexts and social service workers wanting to infuse their work with more art.

It’s a really great meeting of minds and I got tremendous inspiration and ideas from that course but also met probably a dozen collaborators that I’ve since done many of the projects that are Instruments of Change initiatives.

Among the initiatives are the Women Rock programme, Artist in School programmes locally and internationally, the Stick Together programme and Street Beats, amongst others.

This (Street Beats) project was born out of my constant interest to find the most accessible ways for anyone and everyone to make music.  

Surely we can all find objects and surely we all have a heartbeat and we can stick together with a groove and so it is, in my opinion, the most democratic kind of music making that I could think of.

My board member and good friend Dave Pay who runs Music on Main got the bid for Vancouver to be the host city of the International Society of Contemporary Music World New Music conference three years ago, and once he knew this big conference was going to happen here, he knew that he wanted one community engaged piece in this rather challenging, complex, avant garde music context which is not unheard of but not that common.

Community music often you know takes its form in choirs, in drum circles and other kinds of music but has very rarely intersected with this more esoteric classical new music context.

A resourceful, multi-talented musician with a multi-disciplinary team and a network of community partners, Laura Barron set about creating a transformational community music experience.

I’d already been doing some found object drumming and thought this very democratic music making form could work extremely well and of course be fused with any number of composed classical elements.

We had first just a Street Beats band to learn what community was capable of doing, what kind of rhythms were possible, how we were going to teach those, learn those together, strategies for working with the community, what sounds were possible out of these instruments.

James Maxwell, our composer, whom David Pay selected, observed that process (in the first year and a half) and let that inform the piece that he wrote for us to play collectively.

As a community band, Street Beats Band plays percussion on found objects from the city streets.  Aside from the affordability issues involved in equipping a band with instruments, we wondered about the appeal of found objects:

Duke Ellington said “You gotta work with what you got.”

Anyone…at any time…with whats available to them…can be musical and creative and artistic.

And we’re doing some pretty complex rhythms right? Look at this really complicated piece that many of you who have not played an instrument or certainly not played a drum before are able to do right?  And that’s something over my years of leading community ensembles I’ve realized is that there’s just a greater, faster learning curve when you’re just paring it down to one music element which is rhythm.  Though some people say ‘I can’t keep a beat’ or some people say ‘I’m tone deaf.’  I don’t really believe it.  I think we can all eventually connect to our own inner pulse in the inner ear.

 

Photo: Allef Vinicius

 

Teaching those who have not traditionally had the opportunity to make music can sometimes present unique challenges, particularly for a diverse and inclusive group of community members.  Through the use of pneumonics, and music theory which is stated in everyday language. Laura Barron and fellow musicians and facilitators Martin Fisk and Robin Reid, have managed to take a group of individuals who might not have made music and who did not know one another and turn them into a cohesive band.

It’s always my job to find the most skilled, multifaceted musicians who can play those roles because that does not just require that you’re a good performer or require that you’re a good teacher but requires that you have you know true facilitation skills and understand how to work with a broad demographic, understand how to work with people who might have language challenges – we have a few people in the group that are ESL – and in the first iteration we had some people with mental illness.  And those are things that when you open your doors that are possible and we really want to be as inclusive as we can so I’ve built a great team over the years for all our projects of these multi-talented artists who have the sensitivity and the skills within their disciplines to do this work well.  

The found objects that Street Beats band members play range from buckets to frying pans, thanks to the Vancouver binners’ community.

The involvement of the binners came in the nascent stages because I’ve always been super interested in trash and concerned about trash.  Since I was a little kid.  I used to have nightmares that we’d have nowhere left to put the trash, that we’d be living in piles of trash and then I went to India and realized that some places people live like that.

The binners are our foremost repurposers and recyclers in our city.  They hear and see and think in ways very different from most of the rest of us and I knew of their work and I knew of the Binners’ Project which is a non-profit which supports them was really trying to raise their profile in the city, legitimize what they’re doing, provide better income opportunities for them and I thought wouldn’t it be great if we could actually hire them and pay them to be the curators of our instruments?  So that’s what they did to create this whole inventory that we’ve held onto throughout the whole two years of the project.

 

Photo: Lakerain Snake

 

The Binners’ Project was on my radar as a passion and interest of mine and I approached them and they were thrilled to be involved, right in the early days of the project.  I walked their routes with them and went to their meetings.  You know when you build these community partnerships its all about trust, and building connection.  

And I’ve since hired them for other projects.

One of my school projects was a kind of found object project and I brought the binners in to talk about being responsible, non wasteful citizens and that was fantastic for the kids and those adults who said they have often not been made to feel welcome in those spaces.  So to be paid and asked to come in and be an expert on something in a school environment was super confidence-building for them.

 

The Street Beats project has evolved over the two years, with the first year’s performance of Street Beats Band being solely urban percussion composed by 4 community groups.

 

A sample of the 2016 grooves:

 

 

In 2017, Street Beats Band will be accompanied by professional musicians, Music On Main All-Star Band to collectively play a classical score married with a sonic landscape of the built/urban environment composed for the festival by James Maxwell entitled Eight or nine, six or seven.

 

Photo: Dayne Topkin

 

Music on Main is a fluid group of musicians that have known each other and played together for years.  It was always the concept that they would be featured in the piece.

We’ve had City funding for two years, Instruments of Change funding, partnerships with the Roundhouse who lets us have our space for free, the Binners’ Project the UBC Learning Exchange that is also in the downtown east side and let us store the instruments for free so all in all this is probably a $50,000 project so we had to work towards success.  

We never use volunteer facilitators.  One of the things that drives this is how much I value the arts and want to impart a value of the arts in everyone we reach and so by allowing participants to make and do art, of course that increase the value in their lives but paying artists commensurate professional rates is one of the most important ways I can demonstrate value for the arts.  

 Certainly there seems to be some interest in having a community found object band so we don’t know what the future might hold but this was a two-year project.  We‘ve asked for nine 3-hour sessions from you all and that’s already quite a lot for people’s busy lives.

Barron hopes that her work will encourage people to participate and support her programmes.  The more people that participate, the more it proves to funders that arts are  worth funding.

Having worked so hard for a successful performance this weekend, we wondered how Barron will know if this has been achieved:

I really hope that it inspires other people to realize that there’s music around them everywhere.  There’s the possibility to make music with things you might not have considered instruments before so that might happen to some of our audience members or participants.  

And then I think that probably all of us underestimated what would be possible merging a community ensemble and a contemporary new music classical ensemble and so all of those composer that are in the room – hundreds at least, from around the world – I imagine are going to be quite impressed and inspired not necessarily to write a piece for found object drum ensemble but to have confidence in what non-traditional music makers are capable of.  

That’s what I really hope to see.

 

Photo: Marcos Luiz

 

We asked Barron to consider that which brings her the greatest joy and for which she is most grateful:

My greatest joy in life is allowing people to find their true voices while I find my own.  And, as a passionate connector, I am most grateful for my relationships with family, friends and community.

 

Of course, you may be wondering: Has Instruments of Change and my participation in Street Beats Band transformed my life?

Making music together is a one of a kind bonding experience.  People I considered strangers just weeks ago have become a part of me and I will miss playing with them, come Monday.  Playing in Street Beats has given me the confidence to seek out new and varied ways of making music.  I have joined a community harmony workshop, joined the Vancouver folk society to attend sing alongs, as well as the Pacific Bluegrass society that hosts jam sessions for Old Time and Bluegrass players.  I am set to pick up my new ukulele – which I am told is an easy first string instrument to play –  this week.  My preference is for world music and jazz, and my bandmates  have even talked about continuing our grooves together in informal jam sessions.  Whatever the future holds, I have become a musician through this process, and I don’t intend to stop.

It has been an empowering transformation to participate in the band.

I hope that you, too, will find a way to engage with this wonderful work.

 

James Maxwell’s Eight or nine, six or seven will be performed (free) by Instruments of Change Street Beats Band and the Music on Main All-Star Band on Saturday 4 November and Sunday 5 November at 11 AM at the Roundhouse Community Centre, at the corner of Davie & Pacific, Vancouver, BC.