Red Planet Suite premiere a show of what can be done

THE premiere of The Red Planet Suite at the Queen’s Hall, performed by children with a disability, is a celebration of the possible, writes Ken Walton

Youngsters and adults working together at Drake Music Scotland. Picture: Contributed

Composers nowadays have a much wider brief in society than, say, Mozart in the 18th century, Brahms in the 19th century, or even the altruistic voices of the 20th century, from Schoenberg and Stravinsky to Messiaen or Boulez.

Look at most young composer graduates today, and yes, you’ll find some following traditional paths of the time-honoured profession, from concert commissions to writing for stage and film, and the modern progression of that to TV and video games music. But equally, there’s a whole new field of opportunity opening up in the world of health, therapy, social and educational outreach.

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Sure, you could argue that Vivaldi was doing something along those lines with the female orphans he trained up, and wrote for, as incumbent composer at Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà. But by and large, the idea of unconditional inclusiveness has not been the prime motivation of the classical composer.

It is, however, the raison d’être of Edinburgh-based Drake Music Scotland which, since launching in 1997, has employed composers to work with more than 7,000 children and adults with disabilities, encouraging them to compose and perform music using a mix of technology and traditional methods, in each case under the direction of professional composers.

The last high-profile example involved the composer Oliver Searle, whose Technophonia, commissioned with funds from the Performing Rights Society (PRS) for Music Foundation, was not only a huge public success when it was performed in the Queen’s Hall in 2012, but which went all the way to final nomination stage at the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS) awards.

Drake’s latest project comes to fruition on Monday, when children with disabilities from three of Edinburgh’s special schools will perform alongside members of the Edinburgh Schools Jazz Orchestra in the premiere of a work specifically written for, and with, the youngsters by Scots-based composer Lewis Forbes.

The main work – The Red Planet Suite – takes its inspiration from Holst’s popular Planets Suite, one of BBC Radio 3’s “Ten Pieces”, and will be performed on Monday as one of the opening events in this year’s Resonate Festival, which runs from 9-30 March. “It’s a three-movement work from a composer we’ve worked with in recent years as an associate musician, and who helped us deliver a commission for St Magnus Festival in 2013,” explains Drake’s director, Pete Sparkes. “It’s been great for us now to be able to commission Lewis to write his own piece.”

Anyone who witnessed Searle’s Technophonia will recall the way these pieces utilise technology. Programmes such as Soundbeams and Skoogs – effectively a means of creating musical sounds through impulses as diverse as head movements and brain activity – enable those with a range of disabilities to perform their own musical ideas regardless of physical limitations.

The Red Planet Suite lends itself perfectly to the sounds of electronic technology. “The name wasn’t my own,” says Forbes, who was simply given it as part of the commission. But before long, the idea had inspired a three-movement work with titles of his own creation: Orbit Loops, Surface Rock and Moons’ Song.

What was crucial, he says, was finding a style and structure that would stimulate all the performers. “The music combines fantastic science fiction sounds, technological effects, and is set mostly within a jazz idiom,” he explains. The last element was unavoidable, given the presence of jazz players, but it was also an idiom, he felt, that lent itself naturally to music built around improvised structures.

For Forbes, too, it was a voyage of discovery. “Most of what I’d written till now, and as a masters student at Edinburgh University, was contemporary classical in style, a sort of mix between harmonic and spectral, mixed with traditional Scots elements. Some of it had been influenced by jazz, but I’d never actually written in that genre.”

It takes special skills to make this kind of project work, says Sparkes, himself a trombonist and former education officer with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. “It needs a composer who is happy to build in a certain amount of flexibility, because of the physical challenges that some of the performers face.

“Elements of the music will always be slightly improvisatory, but I think what we are trying to do is to move away from a position where everything is improvised and to an extent slightly directionless, and create pieces that are actually written and composed, and where the composers are happy to work with individual musicians and change things if they don’t work.”

The wonderful thing is that composers are being brought right into the heart of helping develop creative solutions that enable children with disabilities to perform on an even playing field with mainstream performers.

And crowning those efforts with a public performance is an invaluable part of that process, says Sparkes. “Much of that is about getting a profile for what is possible with these children, and being part of Resonate is also about being recognised.

“We want to give them a chance to participate and prove that it’s worth doing, and put pressure on people to say there needs to be more of this; that people in special schools who show a particular talent or interest in music should have the same access to instrumental lessons as anyone else.”

Besides the evening performance of The Red Planet Suite, Drake Music is also mounting an afternoon event called Planetarium, which will also involve around 90 performers from special schools around Edinburgh.

As for composers like Forbes and Searle, these are projects that not only provide them with valuable work, but which actually challenge their creative energies in directions they might never have dreamed of.

Lewis Forbes’ The Red Planet Suite is premiered by Drake Music Scotland at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on 9 March as part of Resonate 2015,