On art to make your soul grow
It’s a bright, clear day in Manchester’s Media City where I meet Gary and Gemma, not far from where they both work as orchestral musicians for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. However we’re not here to talk about their day job, but their passion project which introduces brand new music and improvisation to new audiences and musical collaborators alike. From bike shops to museums to concert halls they perform everywhere and anywhere.
The Vonnegut Collective truly brings new music into the heart of the community, whether that’s through one of their performances or one of their many creative education projects. I spoke to them about the beginnings of the group, their love of creating new music, and where you can catch them next.
How did you meet and how was the ensemble formed?
Gary: We both have positions in BBC philharmonic. We started in the orchestra at a really similar time. Fast forward a few more months, we were on tour in Spain with the orchestra. We were just having a chat over a post-concert beer and talking about how, even though it’s wonderful to have these new jobs in this amazing orchestra playing at such a high level, there were certain things about both our musical pasts that we missed. For me, I played in a new music group called the Remix Ensemble in Portugal for thirteen years before I got my job in the BBC.
Gemma: I had been really involved in new music in University as well. Having always been a bit frightened of it, Manchester University felt like a really exciting place to discover a love for new music. There’s so much being made there and so many people connecting through that kind of work that it really sparked a passion in me.
We’re really lucky at the BBC that we do a lot of new music and we’re both grateful that’s a part of that work, but there was a chamber music element that I was missing, and a creative element that I was missing. Being orchestral musicians these felt like sort of secret passions and they only came out after a few beers! Gradually everyone else left and went to bed and we were like, ‘what about this piece, and this piece!’. That felt like a really significant moment.
Gemma: We are named after Kurt Vonnegut, but neither of us had actually read anything by him other than this one letter.
Gary: I remember the day Gemma sent it to me. I was actually coming out of hospital, I’d had an accident and so I had my arm in plaster, I was miserable because I couldn’t play. But here was such a wonderful letter to school children about doing art, doing it for the rest of your life.
Gemma: We try to keep that ethos at the core of everything we do. We do a lot of community composition and improvisation projects and it’s just getting people – anybody and everybody – to do art, to make music. Contemporary western art music is something that a lot of people feel that they can’t do or can’t access and so we just try to find creative ways for people to experience it from the inside out.
You do a huge variety of outreach projects, can you describe what they are like?
Gary: We’ve come across such a wide range of people, from schools, older education establishments, universities. At the end of last year we finished our second quite large scale project with Seed Studios. They did beautiful graphic scores, incredible work, and most of them have never composed a note in their life.
Gemma: Both projects there were over a four-month period, so we could really take time and care and support the composition process. And it’s also a more realistic time frame for them to compose a piece – we weren’t just in and out in a couple of days to give them a taster.
How do you choose or create the repertoire you perform?
Gemma: We work on a project by project basis, and every project is different in some way but we really hold the ethos of Kurt’s letter at the heart of it. We try to go with whatever is going to keep people engaged and whatever is going to be a deeply creative process.
If we are working with composers we try to make sure that they’re part of the ensemble as much as possible. We like them to become part of the group and make the music from the inside out, where everybody is involved in that journey.
How do you like to communicate with your audiences?
Gary: We love to do Q&As, where we finish a concert and say, ‘right, let’s chat about what’s just happened’. Sometimes it’s really made the performance for me – like I’ve experienced the concert in one way but then I’ve talked to the audience more and got lots of different perspectives.
Gemma: We try to put the audience at the centre of what we do, so everybody is a participant and is engaged in what’s happening in the space. We are all just sharing an experience and that can be really powerful.
Gary: We like to play in the round, people can come amongst us, trying to give them the trust to cross that boundary and experience it with us.
Do you always play brand new music as opposed to ‘contemporary’ classical music?
Gemma: It’s almost exclusively brand new music
Gary: We’ve done some older works, we did some John Cage and some Messiaen, but we took those pieces as a starting point and thought, ‘how can we create something new to go with them?’. So for example, we got composers to make responses to that piece –
Gemma: – or to come up with something that documented approaching that piece.
You don’t seem to have a typical venue – tell me about the places you have performed in?
Gary: It’s lovely to perform in venues which aren’t traditionally classical music venues. In fact, we haven’t done that many concerts in traditional venues! It’s often galleries, open creative spaces, bike shops… That certainly opens it up to new audiences.
Gemma: Because so much of our work is in collaboration with an organisation, whether that’s a community group or a professional organisation, we often end up piggybacking on their audience or venue. So it can sometimes feel like we don’t have our own audience – but you notice the people popping up, you start to recognise faces and you sort of think, ‘oh you have just come because you’re on board with this’. Gary’s actually been recognised in the street –
Gary: – twice now!
You do a lot of improvisation in your own performances and in your outreach projects. How do you find the people who you work with approach the creative process?
Gemma: What we’re noticing is that we often get more from the people who are less highly trained as classical musicians. It feels like the more structured your training is, the further there is to fall. So much of classical training is based on this notion of perfectionism, very self-critical and boxed in.
Our mantra is, ‘leave your ego at the door, and respond to what you hear’. Shutting down that critical analytical voice that doesn’t trust your instincts – there’s something so nice about allowing and trusting your own impulses and that being worth something.
Do you feel like working in this way affects the way you view your orchestral playing?
Gemma: I really feel like doing one helps the other. I feel like with a lot of what we do we’re learning from both ways of working, and learning new ways of working all the time. Like the importance of story-telling in music making, whether you’re learning a concerto or sitting in the orchestra, it can only enhance your own experience.
Gary: I feel more secure in what I can offer as a classical musician. As a trumpet player you might have to count bars rest for twenty minutes, but now I feel more immersed and when I do come in there’s more character to my playing.
Can you describe your upcoming performance with Kinetic?
Gemma: It’s on the 3rd of July, and it’s going to be a string trio plus trumpet, clarinet and percussion. Kinetic have organised the composers and we have organised the players.
Gary: We’re performing in Victoria baths, so we’re going to be spread around that space.
Gemma: It’s all a bit of a surprise! What’s so nice about these projects is that, everything we’re doing we’ve never done before. It might work, it might not, but that’s ok! If you really commit to the concept of a project and really believe in it then it’s worth exploring.
Gary: We will be improvising but within parameters we will be given on the night in a very interesting and mysterious way…
Despite their own love of orchestral and western classical art music, Vonnegut Collective are boldly facing up to the fact that many people currently feel that the concert hall is not a place for them. The reasons behind this are often socially deep-rooted and complex, however this is a group determined to include everyone in the creative conversation. Whether you have knowledge or experience of ‘classical’ music is irrelevant here, and they invite each person to have their own unique experience as a listener or contributor.
It is refreshing to speak to classically trained musicians who work in this way – where they are not attempting to educate people about a higher art form or continuing the trajectory of critique and discipline encouraged during conservatoire education, but engaging in a sincerely open creative (and literal) dialogue with listeners and participants alike. Ego is replaced with musical and artistic curiosity, and this recipe is proving to be a big hit with their growing fanbase.
The Vonnegut Collective’s next performance on the 27th & 28th of June will be as part of Making Manchester, a collaboration with the Olympias foundation which is exploring the impact that refugees have had on building the city and the making of the city physically and culturally over the last few generations. Following that they will perform with Kinetic at Manchester’s Victoria Baths on the 3rd of July. For more details see their website.
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