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19 July 2006
‘They look brilliant. There should be a book of them.’
This conversation took place last Monday up in Norwich. John Hirst had just shown me the rough layouts he had done of the 59 SCORES written by pupils in the seven schools I had been working with in Sunderland and County Durham. So now I am writing the above mentioned text. Yesterday I wrote the introduction.
An Introduction to a wee book containing 59 SCORES by pupils
This small book contains 59 SCORES daydreamed, made up and composed by pupils from seven schools in Sunderland and County Durham in the northeast of England in May 2006.
We explored their ideas about music
All known music has run its course.
Dispense with all previous forms of music and
Year zero now
The17 is a choir.
The17 struggle with the dark
This may have gone over their heads but I did not want to patronise them by explaining it further or asking them if they understood what it was about.
Then I asked them to imagine waking up one day and all music had disappeared.
All of the schools took part in the performance of one of these SCORES, it was called COLLABORATE.
The last of the SCORES that I wrote for The17 to perform was called SCORE.
SCORE your own composition to be performed by The17.
I asked them to respond to this SCORE.
The rest of the text in this book tells the story of the time I spent working with these pupils and explores the ideas that working with them threw up. It will also form a chapter in a more comprehensive book about The17 to be published in late 2007 or early 2008
This is the background to why I came up to these schools.
I have gone on record on more than one occasion stating how suspicious I am of any art that is state-sponsored. However independent the artist claims to be, I have always felt the work they produce will in some way be compromised, if they accept money from any government. This is naive thinking on my part: all art down through the centuries has been sponsored by someone or something whether it is the church, wealthy patrons or a government, even Vincent had his brother sending him handouts down to Arles. I also know I have been able to hold on to such lofty, if misguided, ideals because the loot that I made from pop music has given me a temporary safety net.
They asked me if I had any new projects that might work with school children. The only thing that was brewing away in my head at the time, that I thought might work in this context, was The17. I told them about it. They seemed to be open to whatever I wanted to do.
I did, and it could, well almost. And that felt good. Was I compromising myself? Was this the beginning of a slippery slope? Will I spend my days from now on filling out forms to apply for grants from government bodies to make government-friendly art? Last month I applied to the British Council for a grant to cover my travel costs to Moscow. I was turned down.
It was after the meeting with Gráinne and Lorna that I put together the SCORE that is now named COLLABORATE.
Dates were agreed so that doing this work with a bunch of schools would tie in with the whole 17 exhibition and public introductions that I had been planning to do at the Hatton Gallery at Newcastle University.
They sent me a schedule with times, dates, addresses, contact names and numbers. I had no excuses for being at the wrong place at the right time or … well, you know. The first school on the list was Broadway Juniors in Sunderland. We were to be there at 10.00 in the morning on 26 April. The contact name was John McCabe.
John Hirst and I set off from our digs in Newcastle at about 9.00. Although on our schedule it reckoned we would only need 25 minutes, it took us the full hour.
Just walking past a school still makes me uncomfortable, I hated every aspect of my education and have yet to take it on board that things have changed. For 15 years I have done my duty and have regularly attended parents’ evenings at the various schools my children have attended. On every one of these occasions, however friendly and warm the teacher I may be talking to about one of my children, I cannot help but think of them as the enemy.
It’s a sunny day. We find the school; it’s on a 1960s council estate. We drive through the gates. Cherry trees are in full blossom. We park up and ring the bell. An attractive woman with a friendly face and a decidedly local accent opens the door for us. We explain who we are. She offers to make us a cup of tea. I assume she is the school secretary. She is the head teacher. She tells us how good it is to be working with Creative Partnerships. And about all the interesting and inspiring artists they have had in the school and the work they have done. And she tells me how honoured they are to have me and how John McCabe, the teacher we are going to be working with, is very excited about it all. I have to remind myself that she is the enemy – doubly so as she is a head teacher – her friendliness is obviously a front.
We are taken down to the school hall where we are supposed to be doing our stuff. John McCabe turns up. A pleasant and eager-looking man in his mid-30s with a neatly pressed shirt. He tells us how the kids are so excited about working with me and he tells us about the musical he has written with the children based on The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. He tells us he plays in a band himself and he used to be into the Bunnymen. He tells us he has no idea what we are going to be doing but is sure it will be great.
I don’t tell him I haven’t got a clue and I’m sure that the children would rather be putting together a musical that they could perform for the rest of the school and their families. At least with the musical they will get cheers and claps and shouts for more at the end of their performance on the big night and then be told by everybody for the next few weeks how great it was. What they don’t need is some bloke turning up and telling them that all music has been done, it’s rubbish and by the way I want you to stand around and make a noise with your mouth for the next seven minutes.
The kids start to turn up. John McCabe gets them to give us a hand bringing our stuff in from the back of the Land Rover. The children, all 29 of them, are sat in two rows in front of me looking up at my face expectantly. My head is empty. There is nothing up there that is of any use for them to know about. They have got all their lives in front of them. Pop music must seem like this incredibly exciting thing. Something from another universe where everything sparkles and if you lived there, you’d have enough money to buy whatever they want and go on holiday wherever you want. And you don’t have to go to school or even work and nobody bullies you and everybody likes you.
‘Good morning. My name is Bill Drummond and his name is John Hirst and we are artists. But we are not the sort of artists who paint pictures. Although sometimes I do. Sometimes the art I do involves going on a journey. And sometimes it involves me asking people questions. And sometimes it involves me writing books. And sometimes it involves me making music or at least thinking about how music is made and why.’
I’m losing my way already and I can see their minds beginning to wander. I tell them how they, along with seven other schools, are going to be taking part in the making of a piece of music with me. That the music has no words and no tune and no beat. Their minds are wandering further. I wonder where their minds are wandering and I remember how my mind used to wander further and further and further at school. That was the only thing that was good about school when I was a kid. It was a place where you could be where your mind could wander further than anywhere else. Maybe in my version of the perfect school you would have mind-wandering lessons where you could just sit at your desk with your arms folded on it and your head resting on them and for a full 40 minutes you could let your mind wander. I was going to say then that you would be marked by how far you let your mind wander in that 40 minutes but maybe bringing competition into mind-wandering would undermine its special qualities.
‘So when we’ve been to all seven schools you will all come into Newcastle to where I’ve got this exhibition on, and you will hear it played back – what you have done.’
This mention of a trip to Newcastle seemed to bring their wandering minds back.
What do they think I’m doing with them here? What have they been told? I’d better try and explain before the mind-wandering begins again.
We then get down to the business of recording them for seven minutes going ‘Aaaaaaaaahhhh’ on the note of C. There is one of those school pianos on hand for me to get them to pitch to. We have a few short trial runs for them to get the idea and we are off. It must be the longest seven minutes of their lives, it’s certainly one of the longest of mine. But they get there and most of them hold the note pretty well all the way through.
When I had been trying out the same SCORE in Sweden I had been encouraging the kids to express themselves by using their voices. I had been taking on the role of the conductor, getting them to build things up and then take it down to a whisper. But in the end it was just a racket and there was no note being held. And with each school that I went to, although I had been indicating a note for them to pitch to, it had just ended up with us layering track upon track of racket. When we did the final playback over there, there was no way, even for the most trained of ears, that you could hear anything of the seven individual notes in the scale of C. It had qualities, it had a wildness, but there was nothing there to hold it together.
This time I wanted to get something of the harmonic structure coming through. Not that I wanted to suppress whatever individuality each child has. But – and maybe this is one of the areas where what I am trying to do is flawed – choral music, by definition, is about voices working together, not competing with each other. In Stockholm we ended up getting all the classroom show-offs trying to make the most stupid sounds they could, trying to make the others laugh.
Most artists brought in to work with school children are, I assume, there with projects that will encourage the kids to explore their own ideas and to express them with confidence. Was I just using them as pawns, each one a mere semi-quaver on my giant stave?
After we had done the seven minutes we discussed things a bit further and then we got packed. You could tell some of them got more out of helping us take things back out to the Land Rover than they had from what we had been doing in the hall. The plan was that we would come back in a couple of weeks to try something else with them.
We drove back into Newcastle to the Hatton Gallery and back to the various problems we were having there. I will leave out of this story what those problems were and let them appear elsewhere.
Back to the present day, as in late June 2006, when I’m not actually up in Newcastle. This morning I emailed Fiona Lockwood at Creative Partnerships telling her that I was planning on doing this small book with all the children’s SCORES in it. She emailed me back almost immediately telling me she thought it was an exciting idea but could we credit Creative Partnerships Durham Sunderland and include a logo which could be downloaded from www.creativepartnerships.com/aboutcp/financelogos and an Arts Council logo. She also added that she was sure I was averse to logos, but it was a condition of their funding and they get shouted at, if they don’t include them. She was right. The last thing I want on anything I do is logos from anyone who might be partly sponsoring it. For me it makes the work look like it’s just part of somebody else’s PR campaign, whether that be big business or government. The trouble is, I know if it wasn’t for the generous wodge of cash I got from Creative Partnerships Durham Sunderland I would never have got to do whatever it was I was doing in Newcastle, the schools, or the proposed wee book of SCORES.
This morning I had a meeting at the ICA about something that had nothing to do with The17. The subject of funding came up. An artist they were working with was building a giant demonstration robot. This giant robot was to stand in Trafalgar Square. Members of the public could type in what they wanted the robot to chant as in ‘Maggie Maggie Maggie Out Out Out’ or ‘Make Tea Not War’ or whatever you wanted. The trouble is giant robots don’t come cheap and those at the ICA whose job it is to make ends meet, balance budgets and in the end keep the place open, were wondering if the robot could be sponsored by Nokia and have Nokia’s logo big and bold across his chest (androids are maybe female but robots are always male). I think this would be the perfect example of logos of sponsors undermining what the art is about.
The next morning we are back in the loaded Land Rover crossing the Tyne and heading south towards Belmont, on the outskirts of the city of Durham. John Hirst is talking.
Thirty-odd minutes later.
After spending some more time getting them talking about what music they were into I steer the conversation to how it was when I was their age that I first got properly into music, but then at some point over the last few years I had started becoming disillusioned with music. All music. And how I started to imagine what it would be like if we woke up one morning and all music had disappeared. It was about then that I started to notice that their minds were beginning to wander. And I wished mine could wander too. But I stopped it and somehow explained what I wanted to do, the SCORE COLLABORATE and them going ‘Aaaaaaahhhh’ for seven minutes on the note of D.
This seven minutes was definitely the longest to date in my life, some of the kids started to giggle halfway through. I tried to look at them severely, which made them giggle even more. But all in all, the note was held for seven minutes without too many problems.
What I haven’t mentioned was that this was all happening in a proper music lesson in the music block of the school. Their teacher, whose name was Laura Boyle, sat there for the whole duration of the lesson, watching me struggle my way through the ordeal. At the end she thanked me, not for the quality of my effort or ideas but for being able to keep them under control for an hour. Is this a depressing fact that I have to acknowledge that teaching secondary school kids in these modern times is more about struggling to keep them contained and under control for the period you have them than about any sparks of inspiration you can ignite in them or wisdom you can impart to them?
The next school was a few days later. In between I had my 53rd birthday so I had been having all these thoughts about time running out and settling down and cottages in the country and anyway … It’s 2nd of May and John Hirst and I are back in the Land Rover crossing the Tyne, heading south. We have to be at Easington Colliery Primary by 9.30. I remember when I was at school learning about these coal mines in the northeast that are right on the edge of the sea, that the mineshafts are hundreds of feet down and then they go miles out under the North Sea. Somehow the idea of going down a mineshaft has never filled me with fear but going down one that then goes out a few miles under the sea is about as scary as it gets.
Anyway that is what Easington Colliery was before Maggie put a stop to it. Now it is just the name of a village. It took some time for us to find the school. We did.
This lot did the note of E and it worked and John and I were getting slicker at what we were doing.
Over the next few days we did the other four schools that we were supposed to be doing. The next one was called Wearhead. It was a tiny village primary up in the hills. It took us almost two hours to get to. There was Bexhill and Southwick, both urban schools and what some might term rough areas. These three were also junior schools.
When all this was still in the planning stages with Creative Partnerships I had been asking for all the schools to be secondary. My thinking was that the pupils in junior schools would be too young to understand any of what I was trying to get over. But as I worked my way through the list of schools that I was scheduled to visit, things started to click in. I don’t know if it was just that I was learning how to communicate to them or what, but they were responding, taking on board the idea of music disappearing or how it first started. Every one that I went to did the full seven minutes. Sadly I was learning how to keep mind-wandering to a minimum.
Mind you, I’ve just remembered, there was one school where John Hirst called a stop to the proceedings because of kids chattering and giggling while they were supposed to be aaaahhh-ing for seven minutes.
The last of the seven schools was a secondary school called Shotton Hall. It was a massive comprehensive on a huge council estate. We were in the arts block. These kids were 15 or 16. They were all doing music and drama for GCSE. They were totally up for it and delivered the goods perfectly.
As I think I indicated earlier I had been booked into each of these schools for another session in a couple of weeks. This was because if I had followed the original draft of COLLABORATE I would have had to visit each school twice. On the second visit I was to have done a mix of all the tracks from the seven schools. I would have had seven different versions of the combined performance. One was to be selected at random. Then all the school children from all seven schools were to be brought together and a randomly selected mix would be used as a template, to base a performance by all 119 (17 x 7) children. At some point over the couple of weeks leading up to me coming to the northeast, I thought this whole SCORE, as it then stood, would be too unwieldy. No sodding way was I going to be able to keep 119 kids under control, let alone conduct them through a performance of a choral masterpiece. And anyway there was going to be a lot more than the 119, as I had agreed to work with as many kids as there were in each of the classes and not just a selected 17. Even so my ambitions had run away with themselves. So I simplified the SCORE of COLLABORATE to the way it now is without the different mixes from each of the seven schools. In fact there is no real mixing done at all. The plan is just to get all the children at the Hatton and play them back the recording of the seven schools at the same time. All the notes from the scale of C major, playing at the same time with no tampering whatsoever.
But here lies a problem. I’ve got it arranged with all seven schools that I’m to be coming back in a couple of weeks time and now there is nothing I need to be doing with them. John Hirst thinks I should just cancel them. He doesn’t like getting up early in the morning after he has been down the pub the night before and then spend the afternoon working in the gallery space and then us do a performance in the evening.
This evening – as in when I am actually writing this, as in the same day I had the meeting with the ICA – I am supposed to be going to see the new Superman film. It starts at 7.00. I gave myself until 6.00 to get the text covering our first visit to the schools done. It is now 6.10. I was planning to be going into more depth about each of the school visits but I skipped stuff to try and get to this bit faster and try not to be late for the film.