Composer Jay Capperauld on creating The Great Grumpy Gaboon for the SCO

The Great Grumpy Gaboon, as imagined by illustrator Corrina CampbellThe Great Grumpy Gaboon, as imagined by illustrator Corrina Campbell
The Great Grumpy Gaboon, as imagined by illustrator Corrina Campbell
Tasked with composing a piece of classical music for children, Jay Capperauld drew on the real-life experiences of Scottish Chamber Orchestra musicians for inspiration, writes David Kettle

For many people of a certain age, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra may well bring back fond

childhood memories – they’re pieces specifically conceived to introduce kids to classical music (in Britten’s case, in quite a lot of detail), and to provide plenty of entertainment and fun while doing so.

Those winning (and distinctly Reithian) values of informing, educating and entertaining are the guiding principles, too, behind a brand new addition to kids’ musical repertoire soon to be unveiled by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. There’s one crucial difference with The Great Grumpy Gaboon, however: rather than music playing second fiddle to a more prominent story, the music here becomes the story, and one that’s drawn directly from the SCO musicians themselves.

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“It’s part of the SCO’s 50th anniversary celebrations,” explains the Gaboon’s composer Jay Capperauld, currently SCO associate composer, and one of the driving forces behind the project. “So we wanted to orchestra to be at the heart of it all.” SCO creative learning director Laura Baxter continues: “The idea actually came from conversations with orchestral players on how they might get more involved in the development of new music, especially for children.”

You can’t get more involved than seven key SCO musicians became. Through a series of workshops, they were gently probed about their musical memories, passions, challenges and more. “We were asking them: what piece of music do you think reflects your innermost personality?” Capperauld explains. “Or: what’s your secret talent? We ended up using some of those…”

The players’ responses were later woven together and adapted into what became the Gaboon’s storyline. Chiefly responsible for that was Nairn-based children’s writer and illustrator Corrina Campbell, Capperauld’s creative collaborator on the project. “I’d not even worked in classical music before,” she admits, “so I went into it with absolutely nothing – well, probably with imposter syndrome! But I tried to take in as much about the musicians and the inner workings of the orchestra as I could. I usually write stories based on real experiences or events, so that felt very natural.”

And behind what Baxter remembers as “some very funny stories, all sorts of hilarity” were insights into the musicians’ lives – and, digging more deeply, themes of community, friendship and mutual support that proved key to Campbell’s developing storyline.

Capperauld and Campbell knew they’d found their title character, however, after a story from Cerys Ambrose-Evans, the SCO’s principal bassoonist. “Cerys remembered doing some workshops with young children,” Capperauld recalls, “and one boy kept coming up to her and asking her about her gaboon, rather than a bassoon. Corrina and I said to each other: that’s our lead character.”

Jay Capperauld PIC: Euan RobertsonJay Capperauld PIC: Euan Robertson
Jay Capperauld PIC: Euan Robertson

But there was more to decide. What, for example, has made the Gaboon grumpy? And what does the mysterious Screature (SCO principal bassist Nikita Naumov) have to do with it? How will the Gaboon’s friends help make it happy again – and, more importantly, ensure a return to harmony within the group? “The overall story is based around a journey from sad to happy,” continues Campbell, “but it was a case of figuring out what that journey was, and why it’s a musical one.”

Indeed, ensuring music was fundamental, not just an add-on, was one of Capperauld’s priorities. An early decision was to create individual musical themes for each of the story’s characters. But from there, he threw his inspirational net wide. “I went on a massive nostalgia trip – theme tunes to children’s programmes I loved growing up, Looney Tunes, folk music, jazz, old-school Hollywood. There are a lot of different genres in the mix – but that also helps keep the story alive.”

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SCO violinist Gordon Bragg was enlisted as conductor – “he’s almost a character in his own right in the story,” Capperauld adds – and CBeebies’ Chris Jarvis (a regular collaborator on past SCO children’s projects) joined the crew as director. “Chris also brought in Daniel Todd as movement director,” adds Baxter. “We’re not exactly asking the performers to dance, but maybe just move around the stage a little bit differently.”

Indeed, anyone more familiar with seeing SCO musicians sitting politely behind their music stands might be somewhat surprised by the – well, let’s say rather more active roles they’ll be taking in The Great Grumpy Gaboon. That’s maybe a big ask of an orchestral musician: how have they taken to these new performing expectations? “They’ve really gone for it,” laughs Baxter. “And although we’re not exactly expecting them to act, they’re still playing slightly enhanced versions of themselves. After all, nobody wants kids to think that being an orchestral musician is super serious – we have fun, and we’re funny, energetic, slightly bizarre people!”

The first audiences to catch a glimpse of the Gaboon will be in Edinburgh and Glasgow in February. But that’s only the beginning of the creature’s journey. For a start, Capperauld has composed two versions of his score: one with orchestra, the other with piano accompaniment, to enable touring. “We’re planning to perform it right across Scotland over the next three years,” explains Baxter. A broad geographical reach is something that Campbell feels particularly passionate about. “As I’m based in the north myself, I like to fly the flag for creativity in the Highlands. We always see a lot going on in the Central Belt, but being able to see the show in the Highlands will be great.”

But let’s go back to where we started. Alongside children’s classical classics like Peter and the Wolf and the Young Person’s Guide, what’s the purpose of a project like The Great Grumpy Gaboon? According to Campbell, it serves several functions. “My background is in teaching, so there’s definitely a sense of expanding children’s knowledge of music, and also embedding that understanding within something they love. After the pandemic years, too, there’s been a gap in children being able to enjoy performances. We really wanted to embed something within them that makes them excited about something they’re learning about.”

“We’ve all had to take quite a leap of faith,” admits Baxter. “It’s been a hugely ambitious project. But in terms of creating an ambitious work for young people, and in involving our musicians in developing it, I think we’ve really risen to that challenge.”

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra will premiere The Great Grumpy Gaboon at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, on 10 February, with a performance in Glasgow’s City Halls on 11 February www.sco.org.uk The Scotsman is the official media partner of the SCO’s 50th Anniversary Season.