The Unofficial Countryside

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The small wooden box has the image of a pylon burnt by hand into the top. Inside the lid a photograph of birds roosting on a telegraph pole which rises from a meadow’s unmown grass. The seven 3 inch CDs are housed inside paper sleeves featuring images so close up that it is hard to identify them. Some are plants, others man made structures – some could by either. These images immediately bring to mind Epping Forest, and the Lee Valley marshes which I know so well. But at the bottom of the box six map fragments, when pieced together turn out to be the less familiar Western edge of London- Ealing, Wembley, Twickenham, and at the top Hertfordshire – tantalisingly close to, although not quite reaching Essex. The landscape of the maps is familiar though – built up urban areas, reservoirs, and on the fringe of the city those inbetween places, where there is clearly green – but not wild – space. London has already subsumed some of it, and, on the map, is a constant threat to these delicate edge lands.

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This is ‘The Unofficial Countryside’ – a new release from Wist Rec. In this era of downloading and streaming a physical music release can become a sought after artefact – most obvious in the resurgence of vinyl, but releases like this go way beyond the LP. Packaging, artwork, and concept go hand in hand with the music – and when it works are inseparable from one another.

This release, each 20 minute disc the work of a different artist, has much of interest musically. Electronic and acoustic sounds crossing the same inbetween space as the rural/ urban artwork. It is often impossible to tell where the boundaries lie between a found sound or field recording and a synth or acoustic line, or between composed or improvised, natural or processed sound. It is the sort of release that is best to immerse yourself in, without trying to unpick the artist’s processes – and it certainly wouldn’t be the same as an iTunes download or on Spotify.

The Unofficial Countryside is inspired by Richard Mabey’s book of the same name – and the routes marked on the enclosed maps illustrate the walks he took when writing this study of the space between city and countryside as long ago as 1973. The book was pioneering in this field – an area which continues to be explored by writers, musicians and artists today, and this small box and its contents both continue that journey, encourage a reading of the text which inspired it , and bring a new perspective to past and future Urban Wandering in the edgelands of London.

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It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

In his keynote speech at the Royal Philharmonic Society awards, the people’s conductor Gareth Malone, said ‘I think that classical music is better than the rest. It’s better than folk, it’s better than drum and bass, it’s better than rap.” Tempted though I was to blog vehemently about that at the time, I didn’t. Surrounded by the entire classical music industry, after a good meal and wine, it’s easy enough for such things to slip out. I think that Gareth in all probability would say, in a different context, that there is good and bad music of all types, and that what is good in one context can be entirely wrong in another. Certainly to my mind one of his many gifts is choosing appropriate, and usually ‘good’ music to encourage the people he is working with to take their first tentative steps as musicians. I would be surprised if he were to follow through on his statement and only ever use Western Classical music when working with his choirs, be they of young people, military wives or any other background.

So, I’ve long argued that good music is good music, and my own musical life has reflected this. As someone passionate about music education, and convinced that making music can empower and enfranchise people, bring out undiscovered personal qualities and develop the skills needed for success in any walk of life, I’ve always been unconcerned about what the music that does this should be. There’s not something magic about playing a Beethoven Symphony – in some contexts it will indeed be playing in an orchestra, in others a band in a mates garage, a folk club session or a freeform jazz improvisation. The key thing is it has to be as good as it can be – it’s the commitment and dedication, blood, sweat and tears that it takes to do it well which will truly develop the elusive ‘transferable skills’ and enable individuals to translate musical participation into empowerment. The challenge of those of us setting up and leading music education activity is to ensure the pleasure and satisfaction outweighs the pain caused by the hard work.

On Midsummer’s day, a week long celebration of one of the most extraordinary cultural institutions began in Stirling. I am not going to add much to the many descriptions of El Sistema, Sistema Scotland, or England’s In Harmony programme here, but readers seeking background on this may well want to start with this this Guardian piece and accompanying video. I shared the open air performance in Raploch through BBC4s broadcast. It was very much a display of the commitment, dedication, selflessness, teamwork and sharing that first convinced conductor Jose Antonio Abreu, and later Edinburgh’s former bishop Richard Holloway, that the orchestra was a model which could transform communities. The concert was an extraordinary, and potentially life changing moment for the performers and audience alike.

However I was a little troubled to find a tiny Gareth Malone sat on my shoulder that night saying ‘see, I told you classical music was best’. Of course, it was Purcell that the youngest Scottish players approached with infectious enthusiasm, and Beethoven that stilled a Scottish crowd and overcame unseasonable weather. When the stakes are high – and this programme aims to help whole communities overcome some of the biggest social problems – is it a case of only the best – only classical music, will do?

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Later that week, I watched BBC3s Project Hackney in which Plan B, Labrinth, and Leona Lewis worked with young people who had been excluded from mainstream education. The programme finished with scenes of their performance of music they had produced themselves. The pivotal scene for me was Plan B telling the group words to the effect that ‘it’s only going to be good if it’s good, people won’t make allowances for who you are’. In the end it was good. Despite my initial suspicions of the intentions behind this project, it had integrity – my only concern is to know how committed the BBC are to ensuring it has a legacy, and that the young people are enabled to continue on this course which may just have got them back on the rails.

This week, in a Hackney Community centre, some of the 150 young people who regularly work on the Barbican and Guildhall school’s drumming project have been collaborating with young Brazilian musicians from the Pracatum school to develop new material which will be performed in their communities, and at this weekend’s Back2Black festival at Old Billingsgate market. The Pracatum school bring their own take on Samba and other Brazilian music – the Barbican project has, for over four years, been built on the premise that the young musicians build material from the sounds they relate to as young twenty first century East Londoners. Beats lifted from Grime and Hip Hop are woven into their powerful performances – and they will be a key part of this November’s major performances Unleashed which will explore their dreams and the realities of their East London. Evident in the rehearsal room this week, and sure to resonate with audiences at the weekend, are the same qualities – commitment, sharing, selflessness, dedication – that were present in Raploch a week ago, and the evidence and testimonies from people that have been part of this project over the years show substantial impacts on the individual and on the wider life of their school communities.

I’m not going to make a judgement that any of the projects I’ve talked about here are better than the others, but I finish these thoughts more confident than ever that making music together does have the power to impact communities and change individuals lives; pleased, that on this evidence, good project design, inspiring leadership and integrity are more important to the success of this area of work than the musical medium chosen, and happy to continue my genre crossing musical existence, whatever Gareth says.

Where’s our music service gone?

A bit of arts education news which doesn’t seem to have filtered through to local level yet, is that Waltham Forest Music Service is, to all intents and purposes, no more. Given some quite vocal protest when the music service was threatened during the borough council cuts, this may seem surprising. However, my opening sentence was deliberately flippant, and I, along with others working in this field am generally optimistic about the new landscape for music education.

Historically, music services have existed for most local authority areas. They have received government funding via local councils, and have provided services including local youth orchestras and ensembles, peripatetic music lessons in schools, and instrument loan services for children. London had one music service for each borough, ranging from the extraordinary to the sub standard. Waltham Forest was not among the best.

Last year the government commissioned Darren Henley, the Managing Director of Classic FM to undertake a national review of music educationof Music education. Henley consulted widely across the sector and produced a report which contained a survey of the state of music education, and a number of recommendations. He found a very diverse landscape, with pockets of good practice, and a number of serious gaps in provision. His primary recommendation was that the government produce a National Plan for music education, to set and ensure high standards of provision across the country. To their credit, after numerous delays, the National Plan for Music Education emerged last autumn, and was generally well received by the music education sector.

The Plan enshrined another of Henley’s key recommendations – that music education should be led by Hubs, each Hub serving a geographical area and being composed of a consortium of organisations working in partnership. Most hubs therefore would include music services, along with arts organisations and other service providers. It was widely envisaged that there would be many less hubs than there were music services, with organisations joining together and forming new partnerships. Generally speaking, when the hubs were announced a couple of weeks ago, that did not happen – there remains a hub, mostly led by the music service, in pretty much every London borough. Not Waltham Forest however – it was conspicuously absent from the listof organisations awarded funding.

Fortunately that does not mean there will be no music education provision for the young people of Waltham Forest – whether the existing music service put in a bid to continue existing I do not know, but in the event a new hub has been formed, led by Redbridge music service, to deliver across both boroughs. It is a shame this type of merger doesn’t seem to have happened more widely – maintaining over 30 organisations in London, all doing the same job for relatively small geographical areas must surely divert resources away from providing children with amazing musical opportunities and towards management, overheads and other running costs. It will be very interesting to see how this new North East London hub’s delivery compares to the single borough hubs going forward.

The other key change is that hubs are funded and monitored by the Arts Council of England unlike music services which received funding via local councils. This is definitely a good thing – the arts council will have an overview of the national picture, will help share good practice and make links between hubs and other arts organisations, and if it does it’s job properly will push for the highest standards and quickly challenge those which are not performing.

So, from September, Waltham Forest music service is no more, and I am looking forward to seeing how music education provision in the borough develops in this new landscape. Why is all this politics important to me? Simply because I do believe every child deserves access to quality music education and musical opportunities, that it can transform lives and impact on all areas of development and that access to, understanding of and participation in the arts makes all of us better individuals, and builds better communities. More on that later, maybe.