Reeling them in
A flute and a guitar, a saxophone and a bassoon, keyboards, a trumpet and a violin. It is not a run-of-the-mill ensemble which has collected in this music studio at St Joseph's Academy in Kilmarnock. The piece they are playing is equally out of the ordinary. There is no sign of a score, just a few notes on scrap paper. "I'm running out of things to do," complains the young trumpeter. The bassoonist is unperturbed. "You have four notes you know will fit anywhere. Just pick one and do something rhythmic with it."
This is New Directions Lottery funding in action. Fifteen Higher and Sixth Year Studies music students from seven secondary schools in East Ayrshire are composing a piece for a concert to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Cumnock Music Club.
The programme includes "Cumnock Fair", a piece commissioned from James MacMillan to be performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Joseph Swensen.
MacMillan is here, leading these composition workshops alongside four members of the SCO. But the original inspiration for these pieces, both MacMillan's and the pupils', is present only in spirit. John French was a Cumnock musician and composer who probably played the fiddle when Robert Burns went reluctantly to dancing classes in Mauchline. MacMillan, who was brought up in Cumnock and whose early musical influences were partly shaped by Cumnock Music Club, lighted on this local worthy and has used French's strathspeys, reels and jigs as the starting point for his piece.
Standing in the corner while the ensemble plays, MacMillan explains what the workshops aim to achieve. "They're looking at some of the devices in my piece and changing them, reharmonising melodies, making a new synthesis of the materials."
One group even turned the strathspey music upside down. This group improvisation and composition may not be a true reflection of how a contemporary composer works, but, says MacMillan, "they are getting an insider's view, getting their hands dirty. And they absorb the techniques and devices into their own work for Higher and SYS. The individual is catered for."
In the school hall, another group of instrumentalists is trying to evoke the end of a long day of revelry. "The gala day is terrible. The polis lift everybody," says the Cumnock-bred pianist. "Good pint; good fight: that's how it goes." The SCO cellist starts them off with long, groaning notes, then the percussionist adds stumbling scales. The piano weaves drunkenly in and out, and the two trumpeters squeak and slide like girls on fizzy alcopops.
"It's totally different from the composition we do at school," says Andrew Morson, from Grange Academy, Kilmarnock.
"Usually it's 'These are the rules of music', but here you just put in whatever you think will fit, and if it doesn't fit, even better because that's interesting."
The pupils have very different musical backgrounds. Some are in jazz bands and are used to improvising, others were rigid with horror at the prospect of playing without music in front of them. But after three sessions everyone has loosened up and is contributing ideas.
Combining the youth and enthusiasm of these students with the classical establishment, as embodied in the Cumnock Music Club, is an inspired idea. Like many music clubs in Scotland, Cumnock's has a small and ageing membership. This project aims to catalyse a longterm relationship, providing a platform for young musicians and rejuvenating the music club.
"It's breaking completely new boundaries for Cumnock Music Club," says Fiona Vacher of the SCO. "Marketing a big concert is a whole new world for them. It's given them more ambition in terms of what they can achieve."