Distil has been offered in the first instance to musicians who work extensively in the field of traditional music. As professional musicians, however, many of those who have taken part have the skills to work in other genres of music. Indeed for some their initial training may have been in other genres, but their current practice is informed by a deep knowledge and love of traditional music. It is a key part of their musical imagination.
That musical imagination has led an increasing number of musicians, aided by initiatives like Celtic Connections’ ‘New Voices’ programme and other commissioning opportunities, to experiment with forms more usually associated with classical music and its offshoots (suites, oratorios, requiems etc). Moreover the content of this longer work will often involve dialogue between British traditional music forms and sounds, and those drawn from contemporary music and baroque, from classical and jazz and indeed from traditions from other parts of the world. Clearly there is something innovative and exciting taking shape in our musical life.
The Distil initiative recognises this wave of curiosity and willingness to explore in the contemporary generation of folk musicians, and aims to make available to already open musical imaginations the experience, ideas and practice of established composers in other fields. There is also a craft element to the project as composers share their experience of the graft of developing ideas, expressing these in notation, communicating with other musicians, and getting the work ready for performance.
What follows is an evaluation of the first two Distil sessions, held in October 2002 and March 2003.
The four day sessions were organised to allow every participant to have a one-to-one session with each of the leaders, and for each leader to take two plenary sessions. Sessions start with a plenary at 11am, with lunch at 1pm. The first part of the afternoon is given over to one-to-ones, with the second plenary running from 3.15 to 5.15. Another group of one-to-ones takes us up to 6.30 when everyone re-convenes to discuss the business of the day or any other points that need addressed. We generally break around 7.30 for dinner at 8.
For Distil 1 the plenary sessions included space to explore pieces that participants had brought. (We had asked them to prepare short sketches using some or all of the other instruments available.) For Distil 2 we scaled this request down, and participants were asked to write an eight bar melody. One use for these fragments at Distil 2 was the illustration of the possibilities of Sibelius. In both cases these pieces of work could form a useful basis for discussion in the one-to-ones, although in some cases participants may have preferred to discuss general issues or work in progress.
The main logistical problem is organising the timetable to be able to fit everything in. Anything less than two hours for a plenary session would not be useful, and one hour seems about the right length of time for the one-to-one contact. We have found that keeping to a fairly strict timetable helps to keep things moving and enables everyone to have a fair share of the available contact time.
Individuals not engaged with one-to-ones at any point can use the time to relax (it can get a bit intense), work on their own, or work with others. (At Distil 1, for example, Dave Milligan used this time to offer a short tutorial in reading chord symbols for those who wanted to brush up on that.) At Distil 2 we had a late call-off, which meant that the leaders had a spare hour when they might have expected to be in a one-to-one. This spare hour was in fact much appreciated, so we took the decision to confine the number of participants for Distil 3 to eight.
The request to write a sketch piece for Distil 1 caused some problems in that, although some of the pieces arrived in good time for distribution to the others, not all did, and some participants had not prepared anything at all. There was also a feeling that time for proper consideration of the pieces was at a premium, and although some got due consideration as part of the plenaries, others did not get so much attention as time began to run out. There were also one or two comments that the request felt like something of an empty exercise.
The request to prepare an eight bar melody for Distil 2 was certainly easier to administer and easier for the participants to prepare. These snatches of melody were also more useful in a way, because they could form the basis of improvisations, were fairly quick to load into Sibelius, and were capable of being developed in many different ways.
Distil 1 and 2 have featured 3 pianists, 3 pipers (one each of Highland, Northumbrian and Border), 3 fiddlers (2 of whom are also accomplished viola players), 5 clarsach players, one cellist, one guitarist and one double bassist. (Distil 3 will feature 2 fiddlers, 2 accordionists, a guitarist, a cellist, a concertina player and a bassoonist.) Of the 17 participants so far (see appendix), 6 are also acknowledged as excellent singers. Their training ranges from conservatoire and college (including three graduates of RSAMD’s Scottish Music course) to self-taught. Their experience covers symphony orchestras, choirs, jazz bands, rock bands and pipe bands; theatre and television; free improvisation and electro-acoustic music; playing WOMAD to 50,000 people and folk clubs to ten.
The idea of inviting more experienced participants (most of whom knew each other) to Distil 1 meant that the group cohered quickly and had some experience in common. The group for Distil 2 had less compositional activity under its belt, and people were less familiar to each other, which initially made for a different dynamic. It is likely that as the project continues the distinction between more and less experienced practitioners will be harder to sustain. Due to availability it is likely that future sessions will contain a mix of participants with different degrees of experience – not necessarily a bad thing.
In the plenaries, the use of improvisation has been a key area for the generation of new ideas and new sounds. Keith Tippett (D1) demonstrated, by getting participants to play some of his own pieces, how a work can be constantly renewed through the use of improvisation. Keith encouraged an approach to improvisation which was impulsive and intuitive, while Tom Bancroft and Dick Lee (D2) explored the relationship between improvisation and structure, the former showing how, in a piece that features extensive soloing, the composer can, in Tom’s terminology, set up the killer pass that allows the soloist the best opportunity to score.
Eddie Maguire (D1) talked about ‘capturing the idea’ and working out from the basic idea to beginnings and endings, with recorded illustrations from some of his work. Eddie also had copies of scores of many of his pieces available for consultation. Dave Heath (D2) showed, again using his own work, how two or three ideas can be combined and developed. He contrasted an approach he favours, which is to have the overall architecture of the piece worked out before filling in the detail, with the (equally valid) approach of digging out what Tom Bancroft called ‘nuggets’ and working from there.
Paul Rissmann (D1) demonstrated some ideas on form, using work he had done with young people when working for the RSNO. He had everyone perform a piece, using voice and ‘body percussion’, and featuring content based on the young people’s own lives and interests (references to Pop Idol, the Simpsons etc). Afterwards Paul revealed that the piece, despite its deceptive content, was in classic sonata form. Paul also did an exercise in which small groups were required to improvise a musical response to concepts like ‘frightening’, ‘mysterious’, and ‘peaceful’, and to put them together in a prescribed order. What the groups were actually doing was ‘reconstructing’ elements of Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’. The idea behind this is that when an audience of, for example, young people comes to hear the actual piece, they are familiar with the ideas and elements it comprises. Rissmann calls this technique ‘comprehension through practical participation’.
Distil 1 also featured a guest session from composer Sally Beamish – she was scheduled to be one of the original leaders, but had to withdraw due to family commitments – who talked about her own approaches to composition, and her relationship with traditional music.
The wide range of backgrounds and approaches from the group leaders has been a key element of the idea of Distil. The mix of hands-on, talk, and discussion (leaders played to their strengths) seems to have been of benefit to the participants. The leaders also appreciate the opportunity to hear their peers (and join in with the music making).
Pre-meetings between organisers and group leaders have been useful, if not essential. For Distil 1 we had one pre-meeting the evening before. For Distil 2, because all of the group leaders were based in Edinburgh, we were able to have a first meeting about a month before the event, and a subsequent meeting the evening before.
To stage an event like Distil we identified certain logistical requirements: a large plenary room where up to 12 musicians could play comfortably; two additional break-out rooms for one to one sessions; a supply of meeting paraphernalia (flip charts, projectors etc); comfortable lodgings; pleasant surroundings. Since we intended to work ‘musicians’ hours’ (i.e. late start in the morning, and working on into the evening) we needed a place which was willing to accommodate these non-standard hours without fuss.
A number of different venues was looked at in the initial stages of the project, including The Gillis Centre in Edinburgh, the Roman Camp in Callander, Perthshire, Cromarty Fieldwork Centre in the Black Isle, Cove Park in Helensburgh and Hospitalfields near Arbroath. All of these were not quite suitable, usually due to lack of space or quality of accommodation. We were fortunate to discover that the conference business at The Mill Hotel in New Lanark was being managed by a graduate of the Scottish Music course at RSAMD, who understood our requirements perfectly. The hotel, which has been converted from one of Robert Owen’s original mill buildings, is situated by the Falls of Clyde, with river walks, and pleasant views, and is very congenial for creative work. The staff has been happy to meet our requirements for late meals and coffee breaks at odd times.
A mix-up over bookings (not our error) meant that we had to move from New Lanark for Distil 2. Recollection of a good experience at an SAC/ Scottish Tourist Board conference at the Kingsmills Hotel in Inverness (now the Marriott) led us to enquire there. Again they were willing and able to meet all of our requirements, with a high level of service and co-operation.
One small problem occurred at New Lanark with late night music making in the plenary room, but we were able to iron that out. Another minor difficulty was the reluctance of the piano hire company to take a baby grand, which would not fit in the lift, up the hotel stairs. In the end we used an upright. This will not always be a problem, as not every tutor will specify a grand. (Keith Tippett had asked for this as he uses a lot of ‘prepared piano’ in his work.) On the whole, however, both venues were very good.
Both Distil 1 and Distil 2 attracted useful media coverage. Rob Adams, a freelance journalist who covers folk and jazz for The Herald (the Scottish broadsheet with the widest circulation), visited on the Saturday of Distil 1 and had a piece published the following week. A longer version of this piece also appeared in fRoots magazine early in 2003. Participants at Distil 2 included Mary Ann Kennedy, who presents BBC Radio Scotland’s Celtic Connections programme, and she arranged for a reporter to record some of the sessions, and interview participants, leaders and organisers. The resulting package was broadcast the following week. A short article about Distil also appeared in SAC’s Information Bulletin, and another written by David Francis (our one) is due to appear in a forthcoming issue of the Musicians’ Union’s Folk, Roots and Traditional Section Newsletter.
Two developments are proposed to further the work of Distil outside of the main sessions. We have looked at the London Sinfonietta’s ‘Blue Touch Paper’ scheme which, although very different, offers some useful pointers.
The Angel’s Share
(The name is a combination of the idea of the angel in the theatre, one who provides the means to make something happen, and the term in the whisky industry which refers to the evaporation that takes place as part of the distilling process.)
Each Distil participant receives 4 vouchers worth £100 to ‘spend’ working with the tutor of their choice (from the roster who have been Distil group leaders). £100 will cover one three hour session.
Distil will hold the funds. We will be able to monitor the uptake of the scheme, because participants will have to let us know when a session happens to allow us to pay the tutor.
We propose to make some funds available to allow composers to workshop, test and rehearse work in progress in a live context. The options we are currently looking at are:
” take a work in progress by one composer and allow a day working with forces specified by their composition
” give a composer the opportunity to work with (and write for) a specific group, e.g Scottish Ensemble, or Paragon
” hire freelance musicians and give more than one composer the opportunity to workshop pieces, sketches, fragments (the difficulty with this is that one person might be working on a string quartet, another a piece for bagpipes and samba band and so on)
Distil would pay for the rehearsal space. In order to select composers we would in the first place canvass Distil participants to ascertain who had, or would have, work ready to workshop by a certain date, and who would be interested in taking part.
The three options for recruitment are
The likelihood is that we will soon have to move beyond the policy of invitation only. Although the organisers’ have a wide network of contacts and good awareness of what is going on, it is inevitable that there will be people who would be interested in Distil whom we don’t know about. It seems unfair to exclude them because of deficiencies in our radar.
One option is to network with other folk and traditional music organisations (Caroline Hewat of the Traditional Music and Song Association visited Distil 2, and Steve Heap of the Folk Arts Network will attend Distil 3) and seek nominations from them, with the organisation acting as guarantor for their suitability. The range of organisations could be widened beyond Scotland.
Such an option would address the difficulty in seeking applications, where assessment of suitability for participation would be harder to ascertain.
The other aspect of recruitment that we will have to consider is the extent to which we restrict participants to musicians from the traditional music community. Open-minded musicians who mainly work in other genres could also have much to contribute, and, as we pointed out in our introduction, those musicians who have participated so far have been the kind who do not readily pigeon-hole themselves. Distil 3 will test the water in this respect with the participation of Ursula Leveaux, the principal bassoonist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
We have been much encouraged by the positive response of Distil participants to the experience, and look forward to working on future ideas. We are delighted to have the opportunity to provide the space for the development of this source of energy in Scotland’s (and Britain’s) musical life.