Congratulations on the release of “Simple Gifts”, how does it feel?
Thank you! It’s a strange mix of feelings to be honest. Pride and joy at the finished product and that people are reacting to it so strongly – we’re getting lots of email & facebook messages from all around the world saying how it’s touched them, made them cry, made them feel less alone.
Sadness that it’s now over, (although I’m sure that this is the start and not the end) relief that the idea worked, exhaustion from the work involved in pulling it off and great solace and connection with this new family of musicians, some whom are thousands of miles away.
How did the project come about?
I had the idea in the summer when I was personally feeling quite adrift. The Dionysus Ensemble is the Ensemble in Residence for the Commonwealth Resounds, the first time that the Commonwealth as had a professional musical group officially attached to it. We had just come back from delivering a Music For Social Change project in Solomon Islands when Covid started to hit, and all of our planned projects were immediately cancelled of course. As international travel will, I think, still be some time before it’s easily available, it seemed like our music outreach work in Commonwealth countries would be stopped for the foreseeable future.
I felt that we were all retreating into how Covid was affecting our own country only, and as musicians, we’re so used to being connected internationally and seeing the world without so many barriers and differences. I wanted to reach out to music lovers around the Commonwealth to share our experiences, join together and remind each other that we’re not alone, as an individual or as a nation.
I contacted the Commonwealth Secretariat about my idea and they loved it and wanted it to happen, so we were off!
This wasn’t about choosing “the best” person from each country to create something elitist or “professional”, my feeling was that whether people were in a village playing for no other reason than that they love it, or in a city singing at the end of a long day’s work, we wanted to hear it and get everyone involved.
What were the challenges and triumphs that you faced in putting it together?
One of the major challenges was trying to reach everyone. Internet access was a concern, especially in more rural places and in less developed nations. I used social media to spread the word along side email, talking to government and musical organisations, news outlets and schools – and just asked people to help get the news of this project to as many people as possible.
COVID has affected the creative industry in a big way, what has kept you motivated?
I think that I’m naturally quite optimistic, and boy, have we all had to be this year! I’m sure that the music industry will come out of this and thrive again and I’m determined to be a part of it still. In the mean time, I am trying to be creative, inventive and entrepreneurial. I’m learning new skills, diversifying & investigating how I can continue at the moment and I’m trying to not get bored 😉
“Simple Gifts” features so many different instruments and voices, a spine tingling combination. What was your favourite part of it?
There are so many bits that I love. The moment where the brass instruments come in near the start always makes my hairs prickle, the polyphonic singer from Rwanda blows my mind every time and the shot of the whole team joyfully giving it everything they’ve got in the middle is truly wonderful.
I wanted typically unusual combinations to join forces: western classical instruments with traditional folk instruments, singers of all ages – truly cross generational, as well as the mix of standards, levels, peoples and backgrounds.
Michael Higgins (composer) has done an amazing job of realising my ideas into this incredible arrangement.
The video was filmed all around the world, featuring all the talent involved, what gave you the idea for this?
At the very beginning of lockdown in March, lots of choirs and orchestras were putting out online or virtual performances, and this gave me the idea of doing it but on an international scale in order to continue our Commonwealth work. I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming at this point, but having received the answer that it was doable, I thought – well let’s do it then. I knew that trying to mesh together people who’d never met let alone performed together before was going to be a tall order, but I was sure that we could do it – and the goodwill, perseverance and enthusiastic nature of the people involved has made it possible.
What have you learned while putting this together?
Diversity sits at the heart of this, what is one thing that you’ve learned about each other’s culture that’s surprised you?
I asked the participants to film both their 30 second interviews, and if possible their music videos, outside so that we could get not only an introduction to the person, but a snapshot of the country as well. The 30 second interviews (all available to view on our youtube) gave me an opportunity to showcase and promote each person, but also a moment for everyone else around the world to learn a little about each place and the impact that this pandemic has had there. I found this really fascinating, each person telling an interesting fact about their country and a little bit about how their lives have changed this year. Young or old, from Papua New Guinea to Uganda to Belize, the stories all told of loss, anxiety and disorientation through this year.
What is next for the project?
I’m not sure yet, I’ve had a bit of a break over Christmas but watch this space for new ideas and projects in 2021……