Creating a sense of place with folk music

Over the past 17 weeks, we’ve been working on The Bow I Know, a project where professional musicians have been engaging children at Phoenix School with folk musics and encouraging them to create their own compositions. The school specialises in teaching children with special educational needs and who have communication difficulties which lie within the autistic spectrum.

We’ve been working with the school for over ten years, and this term we invited workshop leaders Julian West and Rus Pearson, and specialist folk musicians Emily Askew and Vivien Ellis to deliver music-making sessions focused on folk music. Children were encouraged to create their own compositions using graphic notation, which they performed to a public audience as part of our Summer Festival.

This is the score that they performed from at Shoreditch Church on Monday 17 June, and is an example of how music-making activities can be designed to engage those with various levels of musical experience.

platform score

We asked workshop leader Julian West to discuss the project and how they tried to create a sense of place with folk music (including the Cockneyisation of a 25o year old song!):

A clear theme of folk music seemed present in this year’s Platform event, with young musicians in Tower Hamlets coming together to celebrate their love of (and skill in) music making. On the programme were Vaughan Williams’s Folk Song Suite, and the oldest known surviving notated song, Sumer Is Icumen In.

I was intrigued as to how the young people studying at Phoenix School would respond to the idea of folk music – music that comes out of the sense of place, history and identity. Would it have a relevance for them? Would they feel connected to this music? What music could we create together that would represent them, their connection to the local area, and their sense of who they are?

It was a very enlightening eight week process, which included the re-birth of a 250 year old ballad, Bow Fair, not heard or performed in modern times, until we breathed it back into life, and performed it with a new chorus written by the Phoenix students using Cockney Rhyming Slang. We arranged a local jig Bow Bells, for our ensemble, and everyone experienced its irresistible rhythmic drive.

Alongside our live performance, we also developed a digital soundscape. This reflected ideas and thoughts that we had during the project, and consisted of sounds that were carefully chosen by the students. Some of the sounds are long, sustained (drones), and come from natural sources. These reflect the timeless quality of folk music, it’s links to our land and sense of history, connecting us with all the people who have heard and enjoyed them over centuries.  At the other end of the spectrum are the short, percussive sounds that represent the here and now.  These are taken from the immediate environment in and around Phoenix School, bringing our music bang up to date.

The resulting piece was The Bow I Know – our own suite of folk music both ancient and brand new – represented by this graphic score.  Along the bottom of the score is the digital material or “dronescape”; beginning with sounds of the wind and birdsong, before returning later in the piece with the sounds of Bow Road as it is today – and also a horse which cantered (sonically!) through the performing space.  Above are the live elements of the piece – times when we sat to play instruments, a solo on bagpipes, stood to sing, before finishing our piece with the jig. Putting the material together visually like this really helped everyone to understand the process of curating our work into a coherent piece.

Huge thanks to the fabulous, dedicated and inspiring team of musicians who worked with me on this project – Vivien Ellis, Emily Askew, Rus Pearson and Kat Tinkler.  Also, thanks to Clare Hanney at Phoenix school, who encouraged and pushed us to aim high and be ever more ambitious; she was right to do so, of course. Lastly, I’d like to express my deep appreciation of the Phoenix students themselves for their commitment, trust, and energy throughout the project.

And in case you couldn’t make it to the performance, here are some photos of their rehearsal:

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