Behind-the-scenes at Octagon

For the last six weeks we have been working in three of our Neighbourhood Schools on a creative composition project in partnership with the Royal Academy of Music. On Monday 14 March the project will culminate with a performance of a new work by Open Academy Fellow James Moriarty, created and performed in collaboration with Year 5 pupils from Canon Barnett and St Matthias primary schools, the choir of Swanlea School and Open Academy Ensemble, the Stella String Quartet, directed by workshop leader Jessie Maryon Davies.

 Here James Moriarty discusses the inspiration behind the work as well as the composition process.

For many years my work was exclusively as a composer – and a composer of abstract, experimental classical music to boot. In September of last year, however, I began a fellowship with ‘Open Academy’, the Royal Academy of Music’s outreach department. My hope in doing this was to expand my work outwards, working with a greater variety of people and using my skills as a composer to make new music in new ways. I had no particular idea what form this might take and was thus really excited, not to mention flattered, when Open Academy asked me to be the composer for a project in collaboration with Spitalfields Music. The brief was a big one: to write a 30-minute piece of music for school children and a string quartet.

Behind the Scenes- The OctagonFrom the off I knew this wasn’t going to be like any other piece I’d written before. The circumstances were completely new for one. Not only did my piece need to include sections that were performable by school children, I also needed to leave gaps in the score to be filled in by these same school children. How would I go about this? Devising new music with young people is a stimulating experience for all, not least because of the freedom it gives you, but now I had to find a way of harnessing this energy and making it work as part of a large and coherent piece.

The worst thing I could do would be to shackle people. If you’re getting ideas from three different groups of young people then why tell them what to do before you’ve even started? They’ll always come up with something more imaginative than you could have dreamed of. It was these sort of questions I discussed with the composer John Barber, a man well-versed in these sorts of projects, whose mentoring proved invaluable.

Everything’s going to culminate in the Octagon at Queen Mary University and it was decided early on that this unique space should provide the stimulus for the whole piece. I decided to explore poetry – as well as being a library the Octagon is adorned with mighty busts of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and the like – and I was also keen to think about what the building represented, how all of this grand old culture might be relevant to a creative project today.

So the way I went about it was to set myself exactly the same challenge as the participants. I sat at my piano and wrote music inspired by this same poetry and history that we would use for the workshops. It was a testing experience! But I’m really pleased with the music that’s come out of it. The whole process has definitely given me a new way of thinking about composing: when the structure of the project is so demanding it changes the way you prioritise things musically. Judging by how the project’s progressed so far, I’d say that the results will be worth the effort and some.

Join us on 14 March at the Octagon for the performance of this creative singing project.

Open Academy is a Learning and Participation initiative of the Royal Academy of Music. It exists to train students in creative music leadership, and in the development, delivery and evaluation of creative education projects. 

The one-year Fellowship provides a small number of exceptionally committed and talented Academy graduates who are in their first year of professional life with learning and practical development opportunities in the field of creative music leadership.



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