Sunday, 27 May 2018

The for-Wards project

40 Wards 10 Districts 10 Composers 40 Community Groups 10 public performances... One person's vision

I'm sitting in Moseley's Maison Mayci with Bobbie-Jane Gardner. Her project, for-Wards, is about to shift up a gear, with tangible (and audible) results. This is an impressive and complex programme which will have generated ten specific works of music, each one inspired and in many ways powered by ten districts in Birmingham.

Bobbie-Jane deserves huge respect for nurturing such a project into life. Long-term, complex projects are always tricky to set up, and it's always tougher than ever to secure enough funding to support the work.

Seven years ago, I worked with a tiny and dedicated team to deliver the West Midlands Pilot Project for the British Library, documenting local online music available at the time, the whole curated by local music boosters. It was a sweetly idealistic project which everybody loved, but even then many of us could see where Arts Funding was going. We failed to get follow-on funding, and so, somewhat bruised, everyone moved on to other areas.

But this is a much more complex project. It calls for an awful lot more project management, and especially, it involves collaborative creative work. It was dreamed up by Bobbie-Jane, some time after graduating from Birmingham Conservatoire.

"As I child, I was classically trained, played Piano, Clarinet, was in the CBSO Youth Chorus. Then I studied Classical music to degree level. But I didn't see a way on from there - I struggled to be my true self. My ambition was to be an Arts Administrator..."
This led Bobbie up a number of blind alleys, each more frustrating than the last, so she switched away from music, moving into TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) both here and abroad.

Simon Duggall... with keyboards
"I had the idea... I was living in London, in Stoke Newington, doing community music, facilitation. But I was really skint, so I cycled everywhere. And I became aware of all the 32 London boroughs. And I realised I knew very little of how Birmingham was pieced together. I did some research, and realised there were forty wards. 
"And that felt like an interesting compositional starting point. But almost a vanity project, if you like, as I intended to single-handedly compose 40 pieces of music, one for each Ward. Then I realised that would be impossible - what if I got bored midway?"
I wouldn't call for-Wards a vanity project, not when it means persuading vastly different musicians to work on projects that often sit way outside their comfort zones! That's an awfully long stretch from the initial idea to the present reality.
"Because I'd led workshops in Schools - Special Educational Need settings - with vulnerable adults, I was given some commissions. I wrote some music for Dance pieces, and Film... and after a while, because the fees started to get better, I felt I wanted to up-skill a bit more. I got onto a course at the Conservatoire. And around this time, the idea for for-Wards started to take shape."
But getting all this into a workable, fundable, shape so you could get over the barriers must have been tough.
"Oh my goodness yes! The forty wards made for a huge number to try to cover. I zoomed out a bit and saw that there were ten constituencies, with four wards to each constituency."
Encouraged by a community of artistic friends, tutors at the Conservatoire, and colleagues, Bobbie ran a trial project, whilst still completing her Masters Degree and working full-time. 

In each area, the goal was to involve local people, bringing musically qualified people to work with them. 

The people Bobbie Jane called in make for a roll-call of some of the finest most experimental musicians in town. And the all worked with local people and sounds specific to each area.

All of this means administration, legwork, conversations upon conversation... I'm full of admiration that you managed to pull all this together.
“Aaaah... I'm surprised I'm not looking more like Cruella DeVille, with a grey streak at the front! But there has been support. It's my baby, definitely, but there's been a team of people working with me, keeping me going.”
Your baby, of course – but you've had to let go and trust your colleagues...
“It's getting easier. With the pilot in 2014, I just didn't sleep – up at 3 in the morning worrying about things...”
… know that feeling...
“... but now I'm sleeping better, and I trust. That's been the best lesson I've learned. How to encourage and trust. To know that 80% will be great. With the other 20 percent? If there are hiccups, that's fine! We're all human beings, we're not automatons.
So we're coming to the end of Year Two, correct?
"Yes. Year One had Pram in Edgbaston, with a wonderful outdoor performance. In Northfield, jazz composer Percy Pursglove; in Hodge Hill district local lad Justin K Broderick was there – it was packed, right next to the football ground. My collaborators and I performed in Bournville Junior School.
Grandmaster Gareth on the line with a bit of sampling
Now, Year two is upon us. From June 16th, events will take place In Erdington (with Scott Johansen), Yardley (with Annie Mahtani), Ladywood (with Xhosa Cole), Edgbaston (with Grandmaster Gareth), Handsworth (with Simon Duggal) and Sutton Coldfield (with Chris Eddowes aka Pogman). Each event has a huge team of collaborators working with the designated musicians. If you want full details, you can dig into the details on

This represents a huge amount of work. It has to stay in some kind of archival form?

“The website has that; the sound map has that. Photos, short video footage, some audio. But the lion's share of the funding has gone into the work itself.”
It's interesting that many funded projects devote a lot of their funds to self-perpetuation, rather than the performance concept that launched the original idea. That's how it should be.
"There is much more to check out. Go to the performances! Investigate the sound maps!"
I find it encouraging that Birmingham institutions like the Conservatoire are actively engaging with all sorts of different music projects, like yours.
“The Conservatoire is a great environment. It is about musical excellence. But it is trying to embrace the right sort of change. I've had a lot of support from them – and so many other people.”
I suspect the best support you could give right now would be to go to one or more of for-Wards' events.


Vast amounts of information - be sure to check out the gorgeous interactive sound maps for each Ward, two of which are shown above - are to be found on the for-Wards site; see also Bobbie-Janes' website
Dates and locations for the June and July performances are here.


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