Making a Splash with Trad Music in Cross-arts

Collaborative art is like skimming a stone across a pond. A ‘pebble’ catches your eye you weigh it in your hand and give it your best shot. You hold your breath as you count the bounces and as the pebble sinks the ripples form.

Guest blog by Jan Bee Brown

Yellow Isle of Harris - Image Ian PatersonCollaborative art is like skimming a stone across a pond. A ‘pebble’ catches your eye you weigh it in your hand and give it your best shot. You hold your breath as you count the bounces and as the pebble sinks the ripples form.

In 2012 I found a ‘pebble of a project’ as I stood alone in a gallery in North Yorkshire looking at an image of an abandoned croft house kitchen in the Outer Hebrides. Little did I know that 3 years later it would inspire a new Trad commission and be played in front of 150 guests and a dog in a former government archive building in Edinburgh.

The image haunted me – it was 13 years since I left Scotland and there and then I determined to return ‘home’ with my teenage son. My son Max plays the double bass so the first thing I did was to Google ‘Trad/youth/music’ and the Edinburgh Youth Gaitherin popped up.

I am a visual storyteller. Having worked as a theatre designer, a curator, an artist and a lecturer I was really excited that my son would be mixing music with art and performance within the new Expressive Art strand of the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland. A week into supply teaching I realised that at secondary level this was regretfully still a pipe dream.

However out of school Max was loving playing with EYG Big Band and at their Easter Gaitherin I saw cross art and cross cultural practice in action as their young musicians fused Trad with Bhangra workshops with Glasgow-based Tigerstyle as we made metres of Bhangra Bunting out of recycled kilts and sari fabric before going on to play at the Edinburgh Mela in August.

Earlier in the year I had watched the band play at Remembered/Imagined – an event organised by Distil, Mr McFall’s Chamber and Amble Skuse in collaboration with the School of Scottish Studies that mixed music, poetry and stories, a beautiful, memorable event but one devoid of visual imagery. I closed my eyes and remembered the photograph. 

Bringing Charlotte Hathaway (Edinburgh Youth Gaitherin/Unroofed Records), Mike Vass (trad composer/Unroofed Records) and VJ Mettje Hunneman together with photographer Ian Paterson one evening I showed them the original image. Ian and former punk rocker John Maher had since opened the Leaving Home exhibition at An Lanntair in Stornoway. As a result of that show some wonderful stories had come out of the community about the former residents of the croft houses on display.

I heard the stories and imagined a flash mob performance, a loan teenager busking outside the Usher Hall joined one by one by a crowd of young musicians as these images of domestic decay and fragments of text were projected onto the harsh urban architecture behind them.

Giving it our best shot an application to Enterprise Music Scotland resulted in a commission for Mike Vass to write a new piece of music in response to the theme together with a plan that he would develop this with EYG Big Band over the autumn term of 2014. Some of the young musicians were voting for the first time in the referendum so I posed three questions: what does coming home mean to you? How does leaving home make you feel and what makes Scotland feel like home? The questions in turn inspired a series of postcards, and envelope-art from the band and the community. Mike’s music then inspired a new series of photographs by both amateur and professional artists. I invited these artists to join me in ‘Away Being’ – a pop- up exhibition at St Margaret’s House with the help of Edinburgh Palette – to celebrate Mike’s new commission and as a pilot project for the newly formed ripple in the cultural pond: The Thrive Archive.

The Thrive Archive is a pioneering creative collaborative arts consultancy, offering a practical template for community groups and their local artists to create their own innovative and sustainable cross-arts projects that tell their story in unusual ways, helping their community to thrive. 

I have had some great experiences in my life and I rank hearing the Coming Home commission at our Away Being gaitherin on Sunday 4th January 2015 in my top 5. Collaborative art practice isn’t easy; there are always egos and logos that demand centre-stage. However the process or the journey can be as creative and rewarding as the ultimate performance or exhibition. I held my breath with each leap of our pebble.

Singer Roxana Vilk, VJ Mettje Hunneman, storyteller Allison Gallbraith including myself as curator of The Thrive Archive all invested in kind in the project. The generosity of each and every individual involved (including the band and their families) gave our pebble an extra bounce.  Without the funding of EMS this would never have happened so thank you all for believing in the project. But – and there is always a but – this is not the end of the journey but the start of the adventure.

When I asked the Big Band where they wanted to flash mob it, their suggestions included on top of Arthurs Seat, on a beach, The Usher Hall, somewhere people don’t get to hear us, in New York City and …on the moon! So if you can help make any of these ripples happen or if you have a pebble of a story you are wanting told please contact The Thrive Archive.

Jan Bee Brown is a collaborative artist and curator of The Thrive Archive