Classical: How to blow your own hypertrumpet

This year, Dartington summer school celebrates its 50th anniversary. Time to go back to see what makes it tick
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The Independent Culture
Two summers ago, to see what I was musically made of, I enrolled as a student at Dartington, and these were my findings: a terrible pianist, with a singing voice in ruins. Moreover, the first of these discoveries was traumatic. Budding virtuosi are an unforgiving breed, and to crash in flames under the beady gaze of a roomful of such folk is not good for one's amour propre. But I still succumbed to the spell of the place, which seemed to dissolve all barriers between amateurs and professionals, and where a wonderful miasma of musics contended in the air. This year Dartington summer school celebrates its 50th anniversary. Time to go back, to see what makes it tick.

History has a lot to do with it, as has the sheer beauty of this bosky Devon manor which a pair of rich American visionaries called Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst bought in the Twenties, welcoming artists from all over Europe. Their educational thrust came from the German pianist, Artur Schnabel, who brought to the Elmhirsts his idea for a school. From the Jewish musicians who flocked there in the Thirties, to the Serbs and Croats who mingle there now, Dartington has always attracted refugees.

Thus did Dartington come to inject Continental energy into the somnolent British music scene, and it has remained at the forefront. As its current director, Gavin Henderson, is at pains to point out, the goal is not mere talent-spotting. However, an extraordinary amount of talent has been spotted there. One class contained Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle and Richard Rodney Bennett; Jacqueline du Pre was the table tennis ace of her year. Hindemith, Britten, Poulenc and Stravinsky taught there; conductors of the choir have included Andrew Davis, Mark Elder and John Eliot Gardiner; and the 13-year-old Simon Rattle came here as a fledgling conductor.

This year I hear the school before I see it; medieval German "tower music", composed to be played from rooftops at moments of terror or triumph, emanates from a posse of trumpeters on Dartington tower. And this year's keynote - the mingling of musics from East and West - is to be found all over. While the flamenco tutor extracts an Andalusian thrum from his Asian pupils, the oudh specialist tries to make his English students sing in quarter-tones.

In one room an intense circle of women are reviving Hildegard of Bingen; in the next room a cross-legged group intone rag scales. "For a year of my training," says their tutor, "I was made to sing just one single note, but it was enough. If you get caught up in the intricacies of music, you can't focus on your body." This goes down well with her students, who are all in a beatific trance.

In the general throng four young Indians in immaculate dark suits stand out as inseparable: a string quartet brought from a Calcutta orphanage by an English patron who hovers round them like a hen. "Jesus Careth For You," proclaims the day-glo sticker on one boy's violin case, though he turns out to be Muslim. Their Haydn and Mozart has a discernibly Asian "slide", but their Tagore songs (for which the second violinist moves to the tabla) are charm incarnate.

And there are more inseparable figures. Two identically petite Polish twins whirl through Paderewski duets on a piano which that pianist/prime minister bequeathed to the school. And one is constantly aware of four English schoolgirls - including another pair of twins - who follow their mother like ducklings and are ferociously good on period instruments. They too are a string quartet, who have earned their Dartington fees by busking in the street.

If this is sweetly old-fashioned, others are pushing avant-gardery to the limit. A composer and director are turning a Max Ernst graphic novel into a series of mini-operas, which they plan to put out on the Internet. "A separate opera for every page. That means 149 operas, some just five seconds long, others a minute and a half." Freaky or what?

I watch Jonathan Impett play his hypertrumpet, extracting a weird variety of synthesised sounds - in addition to acoustic ones - by scooping and jabbing the air with his instrument. It is equipped with sensors for pressure, inclination, position and acceleration, so presumably even I could make some kind of mad music out of it. If I wanted to. But what is this? A lady playing the cello with two bows? "This is not a trick," insists Frances-Marie Uitti. "It's a way of extending the polyphonic possibilities of a basically melodic instrument. You can orchestrate it. Nobody else in the world uses this technique." Not yet, anyway. "I've had many requests to teach it, but I won't do that till my book is published. Then it will belong to everyone." Moreover she, like Impett, is about to go on stage and improvise with a plethora of electronic aids. "It's a huge experiment," she says. "We don't know what we're going to get." I watch with admiration as she juggles, but when it's over I'm not sure what we got.

We're on firmer ground with cellist Philip Sheppard, whose instrument consists of a fingerboard without a belly. But this really is some fingerboard: custom-made from a 200-year-old piece of maple and equipped with a battery of sensors, it feeds its sound through a synthesiser which allows him to do instantly beguiling things. With a single bow stroke he can evoke a marimba or a sitar and tabla plus the cello's natural sound; he's contemptuous of his synthesiser's built-in rock effects and is creating new ones to replace them. His long-term goal, by attaching syllables to notes, is literally to make his instrument talk, which would transform his accompaniment of silent films.

"I'm basically a Luddite," he explains, "but I do jazz improvisations, and it didn't feel honest to be pushing an acoustic cello in directions it wasn't built for. The basic problem is the chocolatey fatness of its normal sound, which puts you into a character before you've started. I like to start with a blank canvas. I want to get back to the sinew in music."

There is also a ghost at this feast, in the form of the Hackney Youth Orchestra, which has come to Dartington every year since 1992: ordinary inner-city teenagers with an inspirational teacher, but needing financial help for such a jaunt. Henderson regards their absence this year as an indictment of local authority priorities.

Help, however, may be at hand. Henderson has just been appointed chairman of Chris Smith's new Youth Music Trust. And Hackney's dilemma, he says, is exactly the kind of thing the trust should be addressing. Its pounds 10m per annum will be spent "helping people do things they would otherwise not be able to dream of doing". Which brings us back to the real world with a vengeance.