What do we fear then? Alex Campkin on Writing for a Breakthrough Ensemble



The composer’s new work for the National Open Youth Orchestra depicts a journey between non-disability and disability

I had been an avid violist for over a decade when my musical journey was suddenly transformed by medical symptoms and the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis at the age of 17. This happened just a few months before I was scheduled to perform with the Arad Philharmonic Orchestra in Romania as a violist.

One of the reasons for the difficulty of my journey was that initially I had told almost no one about my diagnosis. Keeping this secret until very recently was in itself an additional barrier. Why had it been so hard for me to be open? Was my concern unnecessary, or was I afraid of exposing myself to a very real bias that exists in our society?

When I was diagnosed 20 years ago, the barriers for musicians with disabilities seemed insurmountable. It was extremely rare that enabling features were suggested, such as simple instrument modifications or new technology, as options to facilitate a musician’s inclusion. Fortunately, today a hugely positive transformation is underway, and the practical use of these options heralds a new era in which musicians with disabilities can be included in concerts rather than excluded. There are now real possibilities for the full integration of disabled musicians, and I am proud to be part of this change.

Members of the National Open Youth Orchestra, for whom Alex Campkin composed his new work, What do we fear then?

The National Open Youth Orchestra (NOYO) is a groundbreaking national youth orchestra where talented young musicians with and without disabilities play together. I was delighted when they co-commissioned me and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra to write a new piece for them. The resulting piece – What do we fear then? – is a composition that depicts a journey between non-disability and disability, and reflects, to some extent, my own personal journey.

I chose the title What do we fear then? explore the question of why musicians with disabilities might not have the same opportunities in the musical world. Does society judge before hearing us? The recording of my piece clearly highlights the sparkling abilities of the disabled and able-bodied musicians in these combined orchestras.

The composition process began when I attended rehearsals at NOYO’s three centers in Bournemouth, Bristol and London. I met the players, heard their musical talents and discovered exciting new instruments such as the Clarion. This amazing instrument is played on a computer or iPad, with musical notes represented by on-screen shapes that musicians can arrange as needed. Some musicians play the Clarion with their fingers, others with head movements using headtracker technology to control which notes to play, for how long, at what volume and with what timbre.

“Composing this piece took me on a journey of discovery, of questioning myself and my own journey”

I wrote some musical sketches which we then tested, and went back to them several times to refine certain elements. Rather than a traditionally composed composition, this piece is constructed in a modular form. I wrote a number of individual building blocks, but some decisions are left to the performers. This random style makes it harder to imagine how it will sound without hearing it live.

What do we fear then?The heart-pounding opening of reflects my teenage optimism and positivity, which was followed by a period of questioning and uncertainty, also expressed through the beat of the music. Watching Ashleigh, the Bristol NOYO Center pianist is what inspired the cadenza. She just sat and played and it was so beautifully free and open. It reminded me of the scary moment when I decided to tell everyone I had multiple sclerosis and the liberating feeling that followed.

I believe passionately that everyone should have the opportunities they want in music, and that music should be totally inclusive. There is so much we can do to level the playing field and give everyone the opportunity to play music where traditional acoustic instruments may not be possible for some performers. It is inspiring to see how NOYO so deliberately overcomes all the obstacles musicians might otherwise face, to empower them to play instruments and achieve their artistic visions.

The composition of this piece took me on a journey of discovery, of questioning myself and my own journey. For me, this piece represents an opportunity to explore what we can do, not what we can’t. So, What do we fear then?

What do we fear then? will be performed by NOYO on their first-ever tour featuring four relaxed concerts performed by BSL with live digital tickets also available for their joint performance with BSO Resound. Box office: noyo.org.uk/concerts

Dates: Milton Court Concert Hall in London on April 24, 2022; St George’s Bristol on May 15; Poole Lighthouse on May 22; Birmingham Town Hall on June 5.

NOYO is delivered in partnership with Barbican, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Bristol Beacon, B:Music, Midlands Arts Center and Services For Education.

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