Song of Contagion: The Background

TONY HAYNES TELLS HOW IT ALL BEGAN...

One Saturday evening in late autumn 2014, an epidemiologist found herself at a loose end in Hackney. On a whim, she decided to drop into a show at the Hackney Empire that looked intriguing. The show was Undream'd Shores, and a few days later I received this email:

It was from Elizabeth Pisani, and she went on “I am constantly frustrated by 1) the mismatch between health needs and health spending and 2) the public health establishment’s unshakeable belief that this mismatch will be solved simply by generating more (epidemiological) evidence. For a while now, I’ve been thinking about using music to look at these issues… It’s a very long shot, but I wondered if you might be interested in collaborating on such a project, or at least having a coffee or pint and discussing the possibilities.”

For a lifelong addict of long shots – not just on the turf, but having virtually founded a professional career on backing long shots! – it was impossible to resist. A few days before Christmas, I met Elizabeth for a coffee in the Empire café.

I was very taken with Elizabeth’s ideas. In spite of her protestations that she has “not a musical bone in my body”, she has a remarkable imagination and an instinctive grasp of how music works. Her notion was to characterise different diseases, through statistics that measured how widely they were spread, the demographic they affected or geographical area they covered, the amount of publicity they received, and whether or not treatment was well funded.

What if each of these factors could be attached to appropriate musical elements – like melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, volume? Through variations in these ‘parameters’ she imagined you would get a series of pieces where AIDS, Ebola, malaria, cholera and so on would sound very different from each other. Then you might arouse public awareness of inequality, touching people directly in a way that – as she put it – PowerPoint presentations cannot.

Putting these ideas into practice

The first step was clearly to start raising money. Elizabeth suggested this project might appeal to the Wellcome Trust, which has an unrivalled reputation for supporting arts projects explaining or inspired by science. We had a great conversation with one of their officers, who immediately saw the potential of the project, and offered very encouraging advice; slightly to Elizabeth’s chagrin, he suggested we should not dwell too much on the statistics – what they really wanted to come out of their funding was new, imaginative art!

So we put in an application, and were delighted to hear in the New Year that it had been successful.

What appealed to the Trust was not only the quality of the artistic ideas, but that built into the project was a participatory programme. From the very beginning young people, students and adults interested in health issues and/or music would be involved in initial discussions and the continued development of the material. It was also clear that there was great potential for music technology to play a part – exploring the parameters digitally, sampling and treating the acoustic instruments and so on. So we enlisted CM, who work extensively with young producers and creators in this field, as partners.

We also wanted to focus activity on East London. Grand Union is based in Bethnal Green, CM in Whitechapel, most members of our Youth Orchestra and World Choir live nearby, and many of our events take place in local venues like Rich Mix, Wilton’s Music Hall and the Hackney Empire. But more importantly, because of the extraordinarily diverse demographic of the East End, this would mean that there would be people involved with a direct connection to countries and communities around the world who experience disease and how it is treated. This would give the impact of the project further authenticity.

Tony gives a full account of what happened next and how the project got underway here in his  regular monthly blog.

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