Free choice, vetoed b sharps and Tilikum the whale

Sabrina Pathan of the London Medical Orchestra on working with composer Martin Humphries

The London Medical Orchestra have had the very great pleasure of working with Martin Humphries under the ‘Adopt a Composer’ project, run by Making Music and supported by the PRS for Music Foundation.

The scheme pairs up a composer with an amateur music group who then work together to produce a new work to be performed by the group.

It’s a really exciting concept and has felt, from the get-go, genuinely collaborative. On our first meeting with Martin, he explained that he would tailor the work to the tastes, preferences and standard of the orchestra – so if the violins had an abiding hatred of b sharps, they would be vetoed in the final work. Having just played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, with its hideous key signature that blew my brain, and upset my fingers, this was great to hear!

In mid-January, Martin came to one of our rehearsals for our first working session together. We didn’t have a clue what to expect, and it definitely wasn’t a typical rehearsal.

The work we’re producing is based on the story of Tilikum, the magnificent and tragic Seaworld Orca who died very recently. If you haven’t already, watch Blackfish for the full story, but briefly, Tilikum was an orca who was pulled from his home and family in his infancy, and taken to the SeaWorld amusement park to perform tricks. He was kept in appalling conditions, and ended up killing one of his trainers. It is a moving and enraging story.

Our session was interesting for the alarming degree of free choice we were given – for an orchestra used to being lovingly directed every step of the way, this was a bit of a shocker. There was a choice of notes, rhythms and chords, and for the most part, we were permitted to play what we wanted within some pretty broad parameters. What this *did* force me to do was make me mindful of the ‘sound’ as opposed to just playing the notes.

The pulling together of the piece was fascinating. Martin had a set of riffs, which he ‘gave’ to sections, and by alternating them, changed the feel of the music. Different instruments took different, repeating phrases, which the composer changed and moved at regular intervals. Each constituent part was simple, however put together in varying combinations, became something much bigger.

There was a real sense of drama and discovery, which was belied by the simplicity of the phrases we were given. What I found very stirring was how the simplicity of the phrases lent themselves to a much more percussive sound from the brass, such that you could almost feel it underfoot. It might just have been a dodgy floor, but I think more likely that it was the exhilarating sound of the brass driving us.

Disquiet in the ranks only occurred when we were asked to get up and move to a different section, such that we would be sitting with another instrument.

For a second violin, committed to blending in and never being heard in solo form, this was terrifying. I made a special effort to play as quietly as physically possible, and as string players will know, the line from ‘quiet’ to ‘scratchy squeak’ is pretty fine, and I fear I may have crossed it.

It’s going to be an amazing work, and I can’t wait to play it!