Thursday, 6 December 2012

We'll Keep a Welcome in the Hillsides - A week in the Valleys

I've just returned from a packed and fascinating week in Treorchy, our first Cerdd/Ed location. 

Nestling in the valleys, Treorchy is a town which popped up in the space of 40 or so years from the 1870's through to 1910's. Rival collieries built different sections of the town for their workers, so around one colliery, you see Scottish place names as streets Dumfries Street, Stuart Street etc. These streets are wider than those at the other end of town, as the other colliery had different ideas about how to build houses. Each bunch of miners clubbed together to pay for their own local services, social clubs, theatres, libraries, even health care - they put a penny in each week from their meagre wages to make it happen. It was with the miner's federation of South Wales that the idea for the NHS was born - you pay when you can so that you are looked after when you can't work. It's this sense of community that built the brass bands of the valleys too, where a sense of discipline, focus and passion for the music has maintained bands for over 150 years. 

Dydd Iau / Thursday 

My first stop was to meet with Caio, Ty Cerdd's web genius, sporting a marvellous movember moustache. We plan how we will share this work via Ty Cerdd's website, mapping, blogging, recording. Then it's a speedy cross town jaunt to pick up Mentor David Horne from the station in Cardiff and then wind our way through the rush hour madness to the valleys for a rehearsal of the Cory Band. 

Valleys directions give you a sense of how the towns have changed, of the people struggling to work with a new identity for a place which has gone through so much in such a short period of time. We are told that the rehearsal is "in the old Burberry factory" and when that draws a blank on our iMaps we are told to look for the corner where the post box used to be. The collieries are all gone now and the valleys have struggled over the last 40 years to reinvent an industry and economy. 

We find a warm welcome in the band room, a sparkling playground for noise lovers, there's all sorts of things which go parp and crash. We meet John, who joined the band at the age of 11 in 1937. He tells us about his first concert, with a stage built on the railway sleepers. The bands kept going strong thoughout the Second World War as the colliery men were essential to the war effort, providing coal to the services. 

The bands of the valleys are numerous. Each colliery had it's band and they are still fiercely competitive, hundreds of brass players regularly meet 2 or 3 times a week to practice, paying subs for the upkeep of the band, travelling across the country and to Europe to compete. Such a huge number of talented musicians keep this cultural phenomenon going with their love and devotion to banding. 

The Cory band have won everything, and they keep on winning. This is no ordinary 'amateur' band. The skill level is phenomenal. Listening in to the rehearsals gives me a sense of arranging, which instruments pair well, how layers of sound might be built. Kindly the band have sent me a number of scores and mp3s to study to get to grips with banding arrangements. 

Dydd Gwener / Friday

So to explore Treorchy's local history. The library is a mine of fascinating information as I trawl through looking for stories, local characters and events which will give the foundations for my Treorchy Walkie (I'm sorry). The pressure is on as I have to conduct this walk, complete with a social history and composing workshop for 31, 7 year olds, in Welsh on Tuesday! I listen to oral history recordings from the 1940's and call up some leads, some of the 'mums' of the Treorchy band and local councillor Cennard Davies. Cennard has made a walking tour of Treorchy which proves invaluable in my research. 

Dydd Sadwrn / Saturday

I set off on Cennard's history walk of Treorchy, exploring some lost places, abandoned industrial estates, rusty railway bridges, the Eisteddfod stones now surrounded by executive housing ... there is so much to explore here. Old Treorchy layers itself under new Treorchy. As I read Cennard's notes I see a man in Lidl buying 10 bags of frozen chips and 3 loaves (Rugby isn't it see?) a small boy with a picked egg jar, holding a fish which he tells me he caught on the railway, and a very satisfied cat polishing off fish chips and beans on someone's front step.

It's soon apparent that Cennard's walk will be too demanding for my troupe of young troubadors. It's large and rich and fascinating, I would recommend anyone to do it, but find yourself a good 3 hours on a sunny day. My evening is spent trying to cut down the walk to something manageable for young legs, allowing time to stop, look, listen, think, feel, and really experience being out and about. This is the main challenge for the project I think. I want to take the kids on my process, of mapping, walking and discovering, but the places I go would be too far, (and possibly too boring) for little legs and minds. So I compromise with a town walk taking in 6 locations of interest. 

Dydd Sul / Sunday

It's my Uncle's wedding anniversary so the valleys clan come together to eat as much food as we possibly can. 

Later that afternoon, whilst digesting a whale of a sunday roast, I pour through my local history books, scanning in useful information and images, noting down poetry and quotes to use with the lesson on Tuesday. I've also got a DVD of Rhondda history, which gives me more context. It was made in the 90's and a younger version of Cennard pops up as a talking head. The valleys are a small place!

Dydd Llun / Monday

Charlotte, (Ty Cerdd's marvellous Education Manager) and I get our admin superhero suits on to prepare materials, print images and maps for tomorrow's session. I'm then off again, in my boots up to the Cemetery to find interesting dead people (Fergus Armstrong was the Colliery surgeon and went into collapsed mines with the job of amputating trapped limbs to free miners). Across to the old Abergorki Colliery site to find remains of industry amongst the hillsides. I'm then on to the Parc and Dare Theatre to see if Manager Simon Davies will show us around tomorrow, and on to the Library to search local poet Ben Bowen's writing for useful snippets. Amazingly, I find this poem, which fits the project perfectly:

Adgofian / Memories

Llygad welai dduw ar wên mewn blodyn
Meinglust glywai'r nef yn nghân aderyn
Meddwl fynai natur yn addoldy
Adgof ydyw'r cwbl erbyn heddy

An eye saw the smile of god in a flower
A keen ear heard heaven in birdsong
A mind took nature as a temple
All is but memory today

It's these moments of serendipity which often frame a piece, and pull together the research and searching into an idea. 

Monday night I'm back at the Band room, listening once more, wondering what I will do with this incredible set of players. There are decisions to be made about the use of sound, how much will I use the 'traditional' use of a brass band, and how much I will write 'my' sound using the tools they provide? This brings into question who the piece is for. 

My sense is that I want to blend in some 'traditional' snippets of banding, with the poetry of Ben Bowen, with the sounds that the children make, with a sense of Treorchy local history to create a piece which celebrates all these aspects of Treorchy and it's people and heritage. 

Charlotte and I talk to Austin the chairman about writing a piece for the band which would allow young players from Treorchy to sit in with the band. We're all excited about this idea, to make the experience for a young player to sit next to Tom Hutchinson, Owen Farr, Steve Stewart (I could go on, they're all amazing!) and be enveloped in that wall of Cory sound. 

Dydd Mawrth / Tuesday

It's school day. Here we go!

I've never led a classroom session before, certainly not in Welsh! Luckily the teachers are all incredible and helpful. We play some clapping games with the groups and introduce the idea that to be composer you need to EDRYCH (look) GWRANDO (listen) MEDDWL (think) and TEIMLO (feel). Ben Bowen's poem ties this up nicely for us. 

The class help me with my Welsh by translating composing terms for me, we write them on the board. 

Fast & Slow
Loud & Quiet
Short & Long
Spikey & Smooth
Noisy & Silent

These introduce basic concepts of composing to the group, we leave them on the board for later. 

Right then, boots on. We explore Treorchy, stopping to EDRYCH, GWRANDO, MEDDWL & TEIMLO everything around us. We write notes about the miners, the cemetery, we listen to the river and the railway and visit the old fair ground. The best bit by far is the visit to the theatre, which Simon runs wonderfully, telling us about how the miners paid for it to be built and pointing out interesting architectural features (the fruit freeze on the right side of the proscenium arch is upside down as they forgot to change the mould over!).

After lunch we reflect on all the things we have learnt about the locations and then think what kind of sounds and music would fit each location. 

BOOM CRASH BANG. This is what happens when you give 31 7 year olds percussion instruments.

We slowly shape the pieces for each location using the concepts on the board until we have small pieces which reflect the sense of each place.

I've recorded these pieces and will try to use some of the ideas and rhythms in my piece about Treorchy. 

Dydd Mercher / Wednesday
Returning Home

So, returning to Edinburgh full of history, characters, sounds, improvisations, textures and ideas, my next step is to roll this together to make a piece in which any player of any standard can sit in and perform. I plan to create levels of parts, cornet, level 1, 2, 3, baritone, level 1, 2, 3 etc. so hopefully there will be something for everyone. I hope that this joins together the notion of top class banding with the sense of community inspired by the miners of Treorchy.