Classical Music: Tapping the roots: Traditional music has turned creative, and it's reaching a new public. Robert Maycock reports
Saturday 07 May 1994
The hurdy-gurdy signals another stage in the creative rediscovery of traditional music that is spreading across the south of England. Last Thursday, for instance, the village hall in Hale, near Salisbury, saw the climax of the Avon Valley Music Week. Local and professional singers and players, aged from 11 to as high as you like, of all abilities, had worked out their own song arrangements and presented them to their friends and neighbours. Not for showing off, or career-making, just for fun: a modern version of a kind of music-making that exists in everybody's memory but hadn't happened for years. They shared the programme with the One World Band, an alliance of steel-pan, didgeridoo and tabla players, among others, who had hit on ways of working together that they felt were worth sharing.
There have been plenty of revivals of folk music before, notably the collecting mania at the time of Vaughan Williams and Holst and the club circuit that established itself later in the 20th century. What is happening now is different. Roger Watson, a musician at the front line, likes to distinguish it from 'back rooms of pubs and people with tankards and dusty Arran sweaters' on the one hand, and 'the songs the collectors pickled' on the other. Instead, it is about restoring a living tradition.
Traditional Arts Projects, the Bracknell-based agency that Watson runs (which everybody calls TAPS), promotes music that is of today, but rooted. Anyone can join in. The only qualification is that you 'put the ego away at the door'. You play, or sing, with the instruments and materials to hand. You may make music alongside professionals, but it's yours rather than something imposed by outside experts who fly in like missionaries to tell you what to do.
A down-to-earth, expansive, pony- tailed enthusiast and long-time performer, Watson is untiring and eloquent about philosophy and practice. You don't try to do a historical reconstruction of a village band out of Thomas Hardy. Instead, you create it again in contemporary terms. This means that in contemporary Britain you can have folk and concert singers, classical and jazz players, Indian drums and Caribbean pans, people used to improvising and others who find it a great adventure, all working out their own mix of the strict and the free for specific events on their home ground. TAPS works with dancers and entertainers, and turns up in local festivals and schools from the Thames to the Solent. In an age when most arts provision is urban in character it is a practical resource for rural areas, though some of its biggest projects have brought it into alliance with the orchestras of Bournemouth, and the Basingstoke projects that run through next week have been several years in the making.
Howard Skempton, a familiar name on the experimental scene, recently reached a wider public with the subtle simplicity of his Adagio for orchestra. He didn't know the hurdy- gurdy intimately but liked the approach to write for it straight away. A singular device in which strings are scraped by a rotating wheel and stopped by keys, it had a brief classical vogue in the 18th century: there's a Vivaldi concerto also on the programme. It buzzes and rattles distinctively, and has a constant drone. It also sings like a hard-edged cello. Skempton had a lively session with Nigel Eaton, the soloist, trying to develop a feel for the instrument and the performer, so that he could write, as he prefers, in an 'unmediated' rather than a contrived way. He is particularly pleased with the idiomatic feeling of his long opening melody, giving it - without irony - the Elgarian marking 'Nobilmente'. In the end, he says, the hurdy-gurdy worried him less than the percussion, though he soon responded to Glennie's way with quiet, organ-like sounds on the marimba.
This is only part of the Anvil's 'Music Matters' week. On Wednesday, in Flame and Flower, Irish, Indian and English singers and dancers celebrate their respective spring festivals with another cross-cultural band, telling the story of how successive waves of incomers had shaped the new town of Basingstoke. Then the Bournemouth Sinfonietta plays for choreographed versions of Vaughan Williams, Warlock, Copland and Holst, with the accent on dance traditions that connect to the musical sources.
For many in the orchestral world it will seem a crazy way to celebrate the centenary of the Bournemouth orchestras. But of all the season's activities this is the one with the most realistic eye on the future. As the world begins to feel that orchestras in their old, unreconstructed guise are cash- hungry dinosaurs, as much contemporary 'high art' seems to be atrophying for lack of roots, the rediscovery of a living tradition through the small, the diverse and the local offers a way to renew vitality. If it's that or museum culture, the creative choice has a strong pull.
Anvil box office: 0256 844244. TAPS is based at South Hill Park, Bracknell
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