Oratorio of Hope

The Impact of Art on Community 

South London is a tough place to live. And Croydon demands from its residents – and its visitors of course, too – a heightened need to be streetwise. Savvy, in a word. First up, a potted history of the place: Croydon is first mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, is by the Middle Ages a market town, and with the advent of the railways during the 19thcentury already a commuter town. In the 20th century it expands into a large industrial area and sees during the 1950s a massive redevelopment that is as drastic as it is foolhardy. Swathes of medieaval buildings are torn down only to be replaced by high rise office blocks, shopping precincts and malls such as the Whitgift Centre. The heart of a thronging conurbation has been ripped out. The local population is left to get on with things on its own. The result by the early 21st century is the highest knife crime rate in London. 
Come the year 2023, and Croydon is the London Borough of Culture (LBoC). A grant to the tune of £1.35m is awarded to Croydon Borough by the GLA (Greater London Authority), the office of the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. The launch event – and a “flagship” project – is the “Oratorio of Hope”, an LBoC commission via Croydon Music and Arts for the London Mozart Players (LMP), an ensemble that performs each season in Croydon's best concert space, the Fairfield Halls. The work is funded to £100,000 and comprises eight movements, each of which features particular Croydon-based artists such as Silvastone or performing groups like the theatre company Talawa. They work with three “collaborative composers” – Fiona Brice, Jeff Moore, and Sarah Freestone – who, in turn, allow “performable music” to be created. Add in some local dance companies, song lyrics written by members of the Crisis Croydon choir, and a mass children’s chorus singing about hope for the future, along with films about the creation of the oratorio and life in Croydon, and the result is a heady mix no longer expressed just through classical music, but a multi-media celebration of Croydon and everything that makes Croydon, Croydon. For better or for worse. 
So much for the theory. To understand what happens in practice it is necessary to know two things: First, that local boy made good, the British-American composer Tarik O’Regan, is entrusted by LMP not only to deliver a short overture to the Oratorio of Hope, but also to invent a cogent musical theme, an idée fixe as it were, that is to run like a thread through the warp and weft of the entire oratorio. The demiurgic trio that is Brice, Moore and Freestone is in turn called upon to lead workshops with Croydon arts groups, whose discrete contributions must be seen as a “series of team-written variations” on O’Regan’s theme, to quote Richard Morrison in his review in The Times following the premiere; secondly, that Shaniqua Benjamin, a poet, writer, creative workshop facilitator, and Croydon’s first Poet Laureate, who uses her passion to “make a difference and empower young people through creativity, conversation and writing”, is also assigned a task by LMP, to pen a poem to be set to music and sung by a chorus. 
The entire process is best described by one of the so-called collaborative composers, Fiona Brice. She relates how, working together with Silvastone (a renowned UK based producer/singer whose songs are a creative hybrid of influences from his West African heritage) and Subrang Arts (an Indian classical dance company based in Croydon), she allows music to be assembled that is based on the “fixed idea” by O’Regan and Benjamin's new text. Her role remains that of an arranger. 
Freestone meets up with Silvastone. The general brief is for an oratorio movement that celebrates freedom. The specific intention is to build a rough demo using Tarik O'Regan's theme and Benjamin's text. But as Silvastone explains, any creative process remains unpredictable, and what emerges is his own musical response to the motto of feeling unbounded. He decides, too, he would rather write his own words. After the encounter, they continue to exchange ideas remotely, the result a new song called "There's a Way". Silvastone then produces the final backing track while Freestone orchestrates this material. The singer/songwriter taps into his personal experience of coming from Sierra Leone to Croydon, making a life as an independent musician, and navigating challenges along the way. The refrain of the song is "Where There's a Will, There's a Way", which turns out to be recurring advice given to him by his late father when growing up in West Africa. 
As for working with Subrang Arts, Freestone is given sheet music and feels that her first step into the dance world is somehow to put across the contents of the pages to the company. Communication remains remote: she videos herself playing through the theme at the piano and records mp3 files, the material destined for her collaborative group. Under her auspices the second movement, seven minutes in duration, comes into being. During a workshop this musical kernel is developed. Now, Indian classical music is largely an improvised medium and the musicians of Subrang Arts must somehow feel free to flex in compositional terms their wings yet remain harnessed to a preordained musical form. The key to musical success in this case is to use a “raga”. So let me digress a tad . . .
Melodies in Indian music are classified by an ancient system known as “ragas”. These are collections of pitches, ones which resemble a scale or mode in Western music. But each raga is defined not only by the pitch steps themselves, but also by prescriptive rules for using them, e.g. how players are to ascend a scale or descend it during an improvisation. Moreover, the word “raga” in Sanskrit means colour, be it chromatic or emotional, and hence is also cognate with mood. Ragas in Indian classical music originate as part of ancient dance drama recitals in which a story is told, the main idea being that melodies stemming from each raga aid the emotions and act as vehicles for the actors, ones on which they can project their emotions. Brice chooses a raga the steps of which correspond well to the musical motto provided by O’Regan, based as it is on a series of rising perfect fourth intervals.
At both a societal and musical level then, the “Oratorio of Hope” brings people together. A collaborative composer like Fiona Brice is seen as an enabler, one who inculcates a sense of respect and cooperation in participating artists and who engenders joint creativity. By exploring such diverse genres of music – hers is indeed a broad palette – she manages simultaneously to be experimental and to combine cultural backgrounds into a synergistic fertile output. The relationships with figures such as Lata Desai (Producer Subrang Arts) and Saleel Tamba (tabla) e.g., are symbiotic. (Brice subsequently notates the workshop results and scores these for orchestra.) Desai describes Croydon as a “vibrant place to live and work”, opining that the big takeaway for the audience is a newfound enthusiasm for both Western and Indian classical music. For her part, Brice adds how this would simply “be a great thing”.
In conversation with Sarah Freestone, who is responsible for three of the eight movements that comprise the Oratorio of Hope, it is abundantly clear how once more the community is involved. For one movement, “All We Are”, she works with pupils from Riddlesdown Collegiate, holding a number of workshops to “generate material”. All musical ideas come from the young musicians. Every theme, each idea for instrumentation, along with overall musical form can be traced back to these players. She captures the material by voice memo on her smartphone, or jots down melodies and rhythms in MS, going on to orchestrate these, again first in MS then in Sibelius. Welcome news. For Freestone wishes to use every idea the players have. As we chat, the word “ostinato” crops up from time to time; she clearly sets great store that musical form is understood as new material is generated, and how this must then be communicated to the audience. She shuns the “I word” – improvisation –, preferring to use the “G word”: generation. Well to the fore is the word “cell”, and how to write a good tune in this, an educational context. Her vocabulary is as interesting as it is innovative. We are to avoid a “noodle” – a kind of endless mobius strip of a tune, as well as “waffle”, which she understands as simply blathering on with no clear melodic aim, i.e. a base on which to land.
Pupils studying art as well as music take part, and the impact of art on community takes centre stage. Some of the ideas are quite visual she notes. In a video released by the school it becomes patently obvious how youngsters make sense of the world through art and then feel able to address society at large. The workshops are safe spaces in which they can identify with their own culture. These musicians are from Croydon and are proud to be from Croydon, regardless of their different ethnicities, or alternate religious beliefs. They have respect for each other, and hope others will want to “come to Croydon to experience the richness that is there”.
In another movement, “The One I See”, dance is the chosen main medium of expression. And Freestone works with the company Agudo Dance. There is but one dancer, Kenny Wing Tao Ho. This was the decision of the choreographer, Jose Agudo, founder of the ensemble, who wishes to concentrate our attention on a lone figure in motion. He sends the collaborative composer a video, and she advises on how the music should come into being. This is a “story of inner strength and empowerment” aimed at “improving one’s life and the lives of others”, he says. At the premiere in the Fairfield Halls, some of the LMP players stand in a circle around the dancer, while the remains of the full orchestra remain in situ, this to encourage the feeling that the music is not a mere backing track.
In her third movement for the oratorio, Freestone collaborates with the Crisis Skylight Croydon choir. Now, Crisis is a centre in Croydon where individuals feeling the stress and strain of life in the city can access education, get help when needing to interact with local government bureaucracy, and surmount language issues. Here, the homeless or those at risk of homelessness, can get a hot shower and a hot cup of tea. Society can be cold, just like the weather. The centre has founded a small choir, but it turns out tough for singers to commit every week, as their lives can change quickly and drastically. Sarah Freestone does not give up lightly, and she manages to retain numbers from the outset to the first performance.
In a process like the one employed at Riddlesdown, the singers from Crisis, who wish to speak and be heard, are given a voice. It is she who gives them this voice and a chance to be listened to. For these are, she claims, “quite eloquent people” who are capable of generating (the “G word” again) on paper the “lyrics to be used and a melody to be sung”. For it is the singers who create their own words and music. Finally, she selects a final most singable version of the tune and provides the group with a brass and percussion backing track, but just as a midi track rehearsal guide. Her orchestration for this movement is quintessentially brass, like an English brass band. At the premiere the Crisis Skylight choir teams up with Croydon Voices Community Choir – a canny move. Safety in numbers. And, we hope, in society as a whole.
We reach the grand finale. Jeff Moore, the last of the triumvirate of collaborative composers, supplies by way of his seventh movement “Faces and Places” the last one of the Oratorio of Hope, “For Us and We”. He describes it as “a celebration of Croydon becoming London’s borough of culture in 2023”. As for the workshop environment, he thinks it best to “just get on with it” if one is “dealing with an orchestra”. Let them play, don't talk too much, as it were. He divides the young players at his disposal into two groups: the “dominants” and the “subdominants”, according to their instrumental training bis dato, and the concomitant level reached. A cunning plan. We discuss the ins and outs of getting the best out of those still at school and quickly agree that the avowed aim must be to have simple (not simplistic, or worse still, simple minded) music done well as opposed to complex music rendered badly. For “simple” one could read “direct”. These players need to feel secure on stage and have to know what they are being called upon to do; and it is their very security that is to come across to the audience in the concert hall.
According to the Develop Croydon Forum – an ostensibly not-for-profit community interest company comprising “businesses that collectively work together to promote Croydon as a location to invest, work and live” –, over 250 pupils from schools across the borough, musicians from Subrang Arts (a voluntary organisation dedicated to the promotion and development of Asian Art and Culture), players from Croydon Music & Arts (CMA) ensembles, along with a full orchestra that is the London Mozart Players and a mass children’s chorus “create and perform” this “spectacular finale”. Moore recounts how some audience members approach him right after the premiere, saying just how “vibrant a place Croydon is”, and that an evening like this makes one actually “want to live in the borough”.
To understand the sentiments of what Jeff Moore sees more as “an opening ceremony akin to that of the Olympic Games” than a fully fledged composition per se, one needs to read and ponder on the eponymous poem he was given and upon which his music rests: “For Us and We”, penned by Croydon’s very own Poet Laureate, Shaniqua Benjamin. We reproduce the lyrics by kind permission.
For you and me, for us and we. For who we are and who that we can be. Rise up to celebrate all we are, And sing with voices always to be free. Step into my kind of beautiful. We glimpse the world each day. For this is Croydon, the one I see, We need, for you and me, for us and we. For you and me, for us and we. For who we are and who that we can be. Rise up to celebrate all we are, And sing with voices always to be free. Step into my kind of beautiful. We glimpse the world each day. For this is Croydon, the one I see, We need, for you and me, for us and we! Celebrate our neighbourhood! Proud to call it home. For this is Croydon, the one I see, We need, for you and me, for us and we! This is Croydon, for you and me, for us and we! This is Croydon, for you and me, for us and we! This is Croydon, for you and me, for us and we! This is Croydon, for you and me, And this is Croydon, for us and we, For you and me and us! For us and we!