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Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The UFQ and 650 kids blow the lid off the Albert Hall

The mind boggled. The project sounded like fun though: most of The Urban Folk Quartet and several hundred kids were going to be making a helluva racket in the Albert Hall. Now I love The UFQ, who deserve a much wider audience than they currently command. And I love the Albert Hall - for that moment when you enter the sonic cathedral and your head involuntarily flicks backwards while your pupils widen; it's a space that produces a physiological reaction. Plus kids in great numbers cease to be kids really and simply become a super-impressionable crowd, something to be bent to one's will. At least, that's what a totalitarian dictator would say and all my favourite teachers had a touch of Stalin about them.

That's Joe Broughton, though, for the sake of clarity.

So it was pretty exciting that this particular group of 650 kids from the Bradford area had been roped in to take part in the Music For Youth Schools' Prom. Not that much corralling had been necessary, judging by the alacrity with which they were throwing themselves into the proceedings, their purple and orange T-shirts a riot of pointillism in secondary colours - and that was before the music even started.

The concept was familiar to me because I'd seen Broughton, Paloma Trigas (above) and Tom Chapman with The Stamp Collective at the Vortex in Dalston about two years ago - although that stage of this idea's evolution there were about 30 music students involved, instead of 650 11 to 21-year-olds.

"Yes," said Broughton. "This is the biggest group we've ever worked with. And lots of them had never played a musical instrument before - that's why we're a bit drum-heavy."

The concept was born back in 1997, when Broughton (above) left the Birmingham Conservatoire to join the Albion Band - but was invited back to the college that autumn to run The Folk Ensemble, a group that performed by ear, its numbers expanding and contracting depending on who was available. The results impressed - try and imagine the level of energy required to organise 30 musicians using only your voice and your body, let alone 650 - and a similar invitation followed from the Barbican; then a series of commissions including The Stamp Collective, Wildfire Folk and Music for Youth. Alumni have included Jim Moray, The Old Dance School and McNeill and Heys.

Here's a short video explaining what was going on in Bradford that also catches, in some small measure, the excitement of Monday's prom, which was the only performance by the Vivendi Sounds Bradford Massed Ensemble.

Though the logistics of getting so many people from one end of the country to the other for a one-off gig were daunting, the result was jaw-dropping.

Around 250 of the kids were also in two of the evening's featured orchestras - the Vivendi Youth Orchestra or the Kirklees Youth Symphony Orchestra -  and therefore had cellos to swirl on the spot where they stood or flutes to wave in the air, like a field of silver reeds.

There were also a surprising number of electric guitars, which made me suspect the influence of the Wii game Guitar Hero: I've never seen massed electric guitars before. But there were also a great many young people involved who had never had a musical experience. It was a heady combination of melody, rhythm, dance and atmospherics and I particularly liked the serious-faced young ladies in their saris twirling in unison at the beginning of the show. Those are their shoes (the photographer, David Firn, and I were invited to attend a dress rehearsal, as well as the show).

Broughton explained that the approach had been entirely predicated on the strengths of the kids, that it had taken nine months to pull together - 20 hours rehearsal for each participant, bringing it to a total of 13,000 hours - and that none of the performers had used written-down music. "What a lot of people would do in this situation is say 'Well, you need to get some tabla players and and some English folk players and that'll do the trick. But what you'd end up with would not be fusion, just a lot of things happening simultaneously. We didn't audition anyone and my 'composition' was the result of collaboration and finding tunes that were memorable and simple but which would allow us to build around them."

"It was totally inclusive," explained Paloma. 'We had some people who don't usually get that level of attention or support, including some with concentration issues. But it was all about a burst of positivity." Something she's uniquely suited to. "We saw some people literally switch on and lots of them are talking about what they're going to do next musically."

Tom Chapman - one of the subtlest percussionists I've seen - was highly visible at the front of the stage, on this occasion keeping the hundreds of tabla and other drummers pinned to the rhythm through the use of a cow bell (with Tom, above) and exaggerated arm movements. But, boy, did it work. "I'm now known by Music For Youth as Cowbell Tom," he grinned. "For months they had no idea I did anything else - they thought I was a professional cow bell player. Then the other day some of the organisers came to an Urban Folk Quartet gig and realised that I play other stuff as well... The triangle, for instance."

It's hard to do justice to the scale of what was achieved at the Albert Hall on Monday night. It was in tune, it was in time, it was beautiful and it used the sheer number of people standing on stage to its advantage by combining movement with sound. It was breath-taking in its ambition and awesome in its accomplishment. And that's before you even begin to think what the experience meant for the 650 young people performing on the best stage in the world and how they'll carry it and its ramifications with them for the rest of their lives.

Also, Tom's mum and dad came to see it.

* The Urban Folk Quartet are also - unbelievably - doing a UK tour at the moment and will be playing Kings Place in London on November 30 if you'd like to see the musical equivalent of a contained nuclear explosion. Here's a taste.

* And here's a blog post about their performance at Cropredy last year.

* If you would like to contact David Firn about any of these photos or other projects you think he may be interested in you can do so here.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook news feed you could *like* its Facebook page. Or follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

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