James and Helen explain our creative process.

Have a Go Making Music

Why New Note Orchestra’s creative process is open to all

One question we’re often asked by our audience is ‘how do you write the music?’. The short answer normally describes a collaboration of ideas; each orchestra member contributing musical phrases through improvisation that are eventually shaped by our artistic director Conall Gleeson into the fully-formed piece that you hear at our concerts. Except, it never really is fully-formed, our creative process means that our music is constantly evolving.

It’s Tuesday evening and we’re back in rehearsals, we’ve just played our final scheduled performance of our latest creation, and so after a short reflection on what we’ve achieved after months of hard work, we begin to look forward to our next project – so begins ‘the experimental phase’. This is an opportunity to hone our musical skills; exercises in listening, dynamic balance, rhythmic accuracy and harmonisation underpin the freedom of improvisation. Sometimes it doesn’t work, we’re not ‘feeling it’ as a group and the sound deteriorates into a disconnected jumble. More frequently, what starts as single musical theme, grows into beautiful sonic landscape or an exhilarating pulsing groove. When this happens, we feel connected to each other through the music, there are smiles all round, everyone has contributed their own little part to something wonderful, and someone inevitably says, ‘we should keep that!’.

Many of these improvisations are forgotten, never to be played again. Some are transformed beyond all recognition of the original idea. But the good ones, the ones that stick in our collective memory, keep coming back week after week, in some form or another, and the first foundation of our new piece begins to form. We continue to build on what we have created so far, and throw new ideas into the mix to see what sticks. Conall tests us, encourages us to do more than we think we’re capable of, and when he arrives at rehearsal brandishing a plastic wallet of papers, we know there’s something challenging in there!

Meanwhile, our founder Molly Mathieson is busy working away behind the scenes, attending meetings, forging partnerships, and raising funds in preparation for our next season of concerts. She talks to the group about exciting opportunities she’s uncovered, and proposes a working title for our next project. This sets out the framework for our bite-sized compositions to be placed into. Conall somehow strings his musical exercises, our improvisations, and material he’s been mentally storing (possibly for years), into a loose structure. Free-form improvisation turns into a focussed effort to refine what we have, changes are made weekly but become gradually more subtle as we work on phrasing, timbre and practical technicalities leading up to the debut performance of our new piece.

New Note Orchestra is unique: the first and only recovery orchestra in the world; an orchestra that values community cohesion over musical ability; and an orchestra that writes and performs its own unique style of music, born from the self-expression of its members. There’s a rhythmic theme that runs through our latest piece ‘A Kind Rebellion’ which Conall put words to so we could remember the complicated time signature, and it describes our creative process rather well, “have-a-go, music, have-a-go making music” James Dec 2019.

“After playing the handbells on my first visit to New Note, I vibrated with a new joy inside. I love the syncopated rhythms and the way the sounds produce a completely unique and mesmerising harmony. Our connection with each other is totally respectful and encouraging and so beautiful. I love it and my life has been strengthened by that and I sense that’s what we transmit to our audiences through the music and film projects we openheartedly offer” Helen Dec 2019

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