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Building Bridges and Unity Through the Pandemic

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Author Sashwati Mira Sengupta

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The unprecedented global disruption of the pandemic dramatically shaped cultural landscapes across the world. The start of lockdowns coincided with the UK’s Brexit withdrawal from the EU – a time in which feelings about citizenship, migration, borders, connection and isolation were particularly heightened. It was against this backdrop that the Liberty EU programme was in its early stages of producing collaborative work and creative exchanges by young people including marginalised communities across Europe and the UK. 

 

Early in the pandemic the power of music was spotlighted in viral videos showing quarantined populations in Italy singing from their balconies, breaking through the separation and bonding while apart. It illuminated how music connects, unites, and relieves stress during personal and collective crises. This article explores two Liberty EU music projects during 2021 that formed creative pathways, learning and alliances that eclipsed geographical space and boundaries in times of considerable restricted movement and global pressures.

The Liberty Orchestra

The Liberty Orchestra brought together eight young musicians whose backgrounds spanned countries inside and outside Europe: Germany, Georgia, Slovenia, Syria, Nigeria, Lithuania and Denmark. The ten day project was produced by Swinging Europe in Denmark, which had been on extended hiatus with its re-commencement delayed over a year due to the pandemic. The project comprised a two-day intensive residency of rehearsals leading to a series of concerts in locations around Herning, Aarhus and Aalborg, followed by two days recording in a studio. 

 

The new composition, by Kenneth Dahl Knudsen from the Aalborg Conservatory, took the form of an overarching framework created to provide autonomy and responsiveness shaped by the musicians. Each infused their own stylistic approaches, cultural aesthetics, improvisation and techniques into the mix. The project’s rapid pace enhanced the group’s focus and unified them on their shared aim. With almost all participants never meeting before, the compositional structure was also designed to welcome and value each other’s musicality. Project manager Cüneyt Pala commented, “Music was the common language. With the pressure of learning the composed music in just two days they had to open up. They all had a good experience doing the project as fast as possible. They could also add some of their own cultures, which created something they recognise while in a country new to them.” 

 

With some changes due to Covid risks, performance locations were purposefully chosen spaces not usually associated with concerts: a swimming pool, an asylum-seeker departure centre; a library; an art museum; folk high schools (residential schools with a holistic approach for young adults to pursue interests and self-understanding); and a school for Mental health and special educational needs. 

 

Perhaps the most poignant of the venues, was also the most challenging and affecting. Asylum-seeker departure centres are transient enforced settings that embody the direction of lives, impounded hopes, trauma, resilience, colonial histories, and questions about belonging. In their research about music making in detention centres, Donna Weston and Caroline Lenette described people there as “accidental communities”, where individuals are connected not necessarily through shared culture or region, but are brought together more by circumstance – which forms the foundation of their relationships. It was therefore a paradoxical scenario for the Liberty Orchestra performing a project there highlighting freedom in Europe, which was greatly felt by the musicians and prompted deep discussion and soul-searching. Cüneyt reflected that although not a solution, the music offered some alleviation to the environment and connection beyond the barriers of the surroundings: “we talked a lot about whether we are making a difference, but ultimately we are doing what we can via music. Some people sang and danced, some just listened. It resonated with many due to the familiarity of styles and instruments such as the ney, oud…there was something for almost everybody.” 

 

This part of the project is now complete and the Liberty Orchestra musicians will be reconvening for a performance at Journeys Festival International in Leicester, England in August 2022. Another residency and tour with eight new musicians is planned at the end of that month. The artists actively maintain contact through an online group-message app, where they exchange ideas, prepare for their next concert and continue friendships. This has also created a network for potential future collaborations. For Swinging Europe the project revived their original ethos. Cüneyt says of this, “it allowed us to get back to our roots and the whole concept of Swinging Europe, which was all about reaching out across Europe with music.”

Sounds of Sanctuary

The Sounds of Sanctuary project featured twelve musicians with sanctuary seeker backgrounds nominated by the Toverfluit Refugee Foundation in the Netherlands, Arab Music Institute Berlin, and through ArtReach’s network in the UK. The artists collaborated with the ‘Orchestra of Samples’ project, produced by Addictive TV’s Francoise Lamy and Graham Daniels, to create a music and video exploration formed from improvisations and musical styles from Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, China (formerly known as East Turkestan). 

London based Dutar musician, Dilzat Turdi from the Uyghur European Ensemble, describes how the project offered creative personal growth while still unable to meet with his group in Europe: “I had always wanted to collaborate with other instruments around the world. My folk ensemble has instruments from the same place but in this I represented myself rather than my ensemble. I knew it had to be something unique and interesting, and it was my first time improvising to a click track so it was challenging in a good way.”

The project commenced through online meetings while travel restrictions fluctuated. Eventually the decision was made to record in Rotterdam and Berlin using local technicians with remote support via Zoom and Whatsapp, while the UK musicians recorded in person due to relaxation of lockdown rules. The result was a sonic music and video work representing the journeys of newly arrived people.

 

Dilzat described the experience of performing in streamed concerts and recording online. While enhancing technical skills, he felt there was no comparison to in-person environments. He recalls, “for the Sounds of Sanctuary project the real connection happened when I met Francoise and Graham in person. We recorded socially distanced in a college room that had the perfect setup. If I was doing it myself at home it would be difficult to get this result. The experience of recording during the lockdown was strange at first, especially with specific technical requirements of different producers while recording from my bedroom. And when playing in front of a mobile phone for streamed concerts, you don’t have real eye contact with the audience which can affect musical expression. But the alternative is that you don’t participate and become silent.”

Building Bridges During Upheaval

The Liberty Orchestra and Sounds of Sanctuary projects took place at a historic time when the pandemic’s imposed boundaries, from homes to restricted travel, destabilised the world. It simultaneously catalysed the creation of new online music alliances, networks and artistic programmes. Research has shown that digital interactions can be constructive towards developing skills and group affinity, while reducing the sense of distance between musicians. It should be noted though that for many the digital divide deepened: isolating people with low income, reduced technology access, disabilities, and varying levels of IT literacy. 

In these past few years grassroots arts activities have maintained an important function sustaining artists, audiences and communities. The Liberty EU projects show how crucial safe creative spaces are during turmoil. At their heart these were arenas for mutual respect, reciprocity and social empathy, particularly for sanctuary seekers who continue to bear the traumatic brunt of state decisions about asylum and deportation. Although relatively small projects, the artists created unique musical worlds fostering a bigger picture of exchange, internationalism, resilience and solidarity. Dilzat summed up,  “I’ve grown and learnt during this time through music, and met new people. Over the past few years I think there has been a change in terms of our brains – they have seen a lot and events that completely changed the world.”

 

Written by Sashwati Mira Sengupta

 

  1.  Weston, D. and C. Lenette (2016). ‘Performing freedom: The role of music-making in creating a community in asylum seeker detention centres’. International Journal of Community Music, 9, pp. 121-34.
  2.  Sarah-Jane Gibson (2021) Shifting from offline to online collaborative music-making, teaching and learning: perceptions of Ethno artistic mentors, Music Education Research, 23:2, 151-166.

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