Red letter day for innovative Red Note Ensemble

The Red Note Ensemble celebrates its 10th birthday this year, and it strikes me that, in all that time, and almost an hour into our latest interview, I’ve never asked either of its co-directors composer John Harris or cellist Robert Irvine an obvious question: why “Red Note”?

Red Note Ensemble
Red Note Ensemble

“Well, blue note would suggest super cool,” Irvine ventures. “We’re certainly that. But ‘red’ hints at more of a left wing bias.” Ah, so it’s political? “That’s another hour’s interview,” says Harris. “Let’s just say we’re socially aware.”

Red Note has, during its first decade, become a household name among lovers of progressive classical music. They are an ensemble on a mission to champion music by living composers. “When we started, not much interesting was happening in that field. Something was missing in Scotland,” says Irvine. “The Paragon Ensemble [at one point the country’s foremost contemporary chamber ensemble] had changed direction. The scene needed a shake up.”

The pair head up an outfit that is doing seriously cutting-edge music, and bringing it with equal relevance to kids in Easterhouse, those with severe disabilities in Bonnyrigg’s Cherry Road Centre, or contemporary music audiences at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, to name a few recent examples.

“That’s the real challenge,” says Harris. “To take the same stuff – music by Lutoslawski, say – and make it just as engaging to Paisley’s Ferguslie Park as to the highbrow of Huddersfield.”

In short, Red Note won’t apologise for the difficulty of the repertoire it programmes, only for the fact that everyone deserves to feel the exhilaration of experiencing new music, no matter how challenging their background.

Which is why, besides high profile concerts at the recent Lammermuir Festival, dates at Aberdeen’s forthcoming Sound Festival and across Europe, its trademark Noisy Nights in Glasgow and Edinburgh (“open mic” sessions where composers bring along new scores for performance and scrutiny) and the reinstatement of a Spring Tour in 2020, you’ll also find the ensemble engaged in a community access programme in areas of multiple deprivation throughout Scotland.


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It’s called the 5 Places project, and has evolved out of Red Note’s previous work with young and vulnerable groups. “One thing we’ve discovered is that if you go in and do a one-off workshop then disappear, the long-term impact is zero,” says Harris. “For this programme we’ll be nurturing longer-term relationships with five specific communities – Easterhouse in Glasgow, Ferguslie Park in Paisley, Kilmarnock, North Edinburgh and Methil in Fife – and expanding our reach out to local asylum seekers and other ethnicities.”

It will be a rolling programme, Irvine adds. “Once it’s up and running, a new area will come on stream each year, while one will drop out. The feedback we’re already getting from Easterhouse schools is so encouraging. The kids know our names, and off-the-wall creative music is now considered normal. When we got them to write their own music, and performed it in front of parents, one headmaster told us that more family members had attended that event than ever came to the Christmas show.”

The project is a central part of Red Note’s ambitions to establish itself more firmly on home soil, especially for its mainstream concert work. “Ironically, we’ve found more opportunities coming from overseas than here in Scotland,” says Harris. “What we really need is a headquarter base, so that while we have all these opportunities around the world, from Canada and Australia, we can still keep the engine running at home.”

A number of options are currently under discussion. In the meantime upcoming performances include Spin at Glasgow’s Tramway (14 October), music improvised as a reactive soundscape to the current Nick Cave exhibition Until, where the ensemble will roam freely around the exhibit, the audience invited to experience it lying on mats; and three programmes at Aberdeen’s Sound Festival, one of which (1 November) sees Red Note team up with oboist Nicholas Daniel and the local new music ensemble Any Enemy in three new works by Luke Styles, Tansy Davies and Linda Buckley.

This weekend’s 10th Birthday party is a private affair at Edinburgh’s Summerhall, where Red Note will invite music industry attendees to join in an impromptu performance of Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union, an openly political work which the composer himself described as “a combination of individual freedom and severe discipline”. Ken Walton

Red Note Ensemble perform Spin at Tramway, Glasgow, on 14 October. They also feature in the sound festival, Aberdeen, 26 October to 1 November,