Between a Rock and a Classical Place

IT’S a blue sky sunny Sunday afternoon when everyone who can be outside is outside enjoying the welcome warmth of the spring sunshine.

In Chambers Street, where tourists visiting the Museum of Scotland and the nearby Surgeons’ Hall museum mingle with busy locals going about their business, music wafts through the air: the mellow tones of a horn section, soaring strings, the deep vibe of a double bass and the occasional gentle “ting” from the percussionist’s triangle.

Soothing and calm, it’s distinctively and obviously classical, orchestral, traditional. Or at least it is until a lead guitar butts in, a drum kit is given something of a vicious pounding and bluesy-rock vocals gatecrash. Suddenly the sound that drifts along Chambers Street is an astonishing clash of rich tradition and modern electrics – it’s Mozart meets Hendrix, Mendelssohn on collision course with Bjork, Radiohead on a G string. The music is filtering up to street level from a cellar bar where a group of talented young musicians has gathered. They are perched on the Jazz Bar’s red plastic seats and they’re flexing their musical muscles with one of the country’s most unusual orchestras. For although they form part of what is ultimately a 25-piece classical orchestra, the sound they produce could hardly be further removed from the traditional ensemble.

Jack Nissan, 27, the musical director of The Tinderbox Orchestra, stands beside the bar, arms aloft, preparing to put the young musicians – they range in age from just 15 to 21 – through their own particular rendition of Radiohead’s Paranoid Android. Later the young players relax into one of the most classic of thumping rock songs, Jimi Hendrix’s Fire. Led by local funk and soul guitarist Aki Remally – among a number of professional musicians giving up their time to collaborate with the fledgling youth orchestra – it was one of the numbers that brought the house down at their first ever performance at Pilrig Church Hall in December.

All of which could well be enough to make Beethoven roll over. Instead the result is vibrant, powerful and, grins Jack, incredibly exciting. “A lot of the music I listened to when I was young was not the music I was being told to play,” he says, explaining the roots of a musical project that has blown apart the traditional notion of the word orchestra. I listened to bands like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Radiohead as a kid, but I’d be given classical pieces to learn – the kind of music I’d probably never listen to. It was one of my major gripes that I was never asked what I’d like to play. That kind of approach can put young people off learning music.”

It was 18 months ago and he’d just cut his teeth working with the Hidden Door Festival, a small arts project at the Roxy Art House that brought musicians together with poets, artists with filmmakers. Armed with a fresh boost of confidence, he set about pursuing his idea to merge the contemporary music he loved to listen to with the classical sounds he’d been trained as a youngster to play. He asked around and was encouraged by a positive vibe from local youth orchestras, schools, university music departments and professional classical musicians, all keen to embrace this notion of a youth orchestra that plays modern music.

Auditions attracted talented schoolchildren and students, keen to explore a more modern side to their violin or cello and tutors happy to give up their spare time to a ground-breaking project that merged classical sounds with contemporary music and even opened the door to collaborations with Edinburgh rock, blues and jazz bands.

“An orchestra is such a phenomenal musical beast,” Jack adds with a grin. “It has so much depth and power but it’s stuck in a classical shell for a lot of the time. But you can use an orchestra to play any style of music. And I thought it would be fantastic to apply it to the music that I listen to.”

Toby Mottershead nods in agreement. He didn’t learn to play guitar until he was older, but now the frontman of Edinburgh-based blues and roots band, Black Diamond Express, is passing on a knowledge of the music scene gleaned from the other side of the musical spectrum to young classically-trained musicians who might never otherwise share a stage with him. The result will hit the stage next month, when The Tinderbox Orchestra joins the Black Diamond Express and fellow Edinburgh band Lipsync for a Lullaby for its second public performance. “We work in an entirely different way,” Toby explains. “For example, I don’t work from a score, but that is how these guys are trained to play. So my hope is to encourage them to play like a “normal” band.” He takes to the Jazz Bar stage to perform one of his band’s own songs. It’s only the second time the orchestra has attempted Live Free or Die, a roots, bluesy rock tune, but the result is deep, multi-layered and vibrant.

Later the orchestra test their skills playing a piece they have written themselves – distinctly modern, it has an up-to-date feel but a definite classical mood. For young musicians Amanda Currie, 19, who plays clarinet and is studying music at Napier University, and Edinburgh University music student Maya McCourt, 23, Tinderbox offers a freedom to explore their talent into new areas and network with other musicians. “I play oboe and cello,” explains Maya, “which are such classical instruments. But this means I can have the chance to try something different. I like playing classical music but not so keen on listening to it.”But here I like playing and I like listening.”

Amanda nods: “Classical music has rules, they’re flexible rules but they’re still there. What this does is encourage you to think about music as a whole and not just one denomination. It’s been fantastic.”

The benefits work in the opposite direction for bass guitarist Doug Kemp, 23, a Napier University student, who is learning how his instrument can work within a full orchestra. “It’s different, I’ve got to listen more and, because I’m quite a “busy” player, I’ve got to hold back a bit more.”

And with that, it’s back to rehearsals: countdown is on to May 22 at Pilrig Church Hall, when Tinderbox Orchestra will again challenge its audience to rethink their perception of orchestral music and later in summer when they will appear at Kelburn Garden Party in North Ayrshire.

For Jack, the wall of sound that fills the Jazz Bar is confirmation of his teenage hope that orchestral music could be about more than 19th century composers. “This is very creative and exciting and it’s bringing something modern to Edinburgh,” he says. “To me, it just made a lot of sense to have young people playing the kind of music they want to listen to.”


The Scotsman

Published April 2011

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