Live review

The Street Music Conference at The Forum in Norwich

The conference’s Musician in Residence Pete Moser

Photo courtesy of Prof. George McKay

Street Music

(University of East Anglia – Arts and Humanities Research Council – Connected Communities. May 14-15, 2019, The Forum, Norwich Conference. Report by Jane Mann)

The speakers and the delegates at the Street Music Conference were academics, including musicologists, anthropologists, social geographers and historians; street arts administrators; music writers; and every sort of musician. There were buskers, various marching band players: klezmer, brass and wedding; and singers, music teachers, choir leaders (and combinations of all these.) A show of hands early on indicated that most of the attendees had busked at some point in their lives.

Professor George McKay (a double bass player) welcomed us all to the conference, followed by a rousing trumpet fanfare from the Musician in Residence for the event, Pete Moser.

Moser is an impressive character, a composer, performer and teacher. He was founder and artistic director of the community music charity More Music from 1993 – 2018. Before that he was music director of the fabulous Welfare State International – “a collective of radical artists and thinkers who explored ideas of celebratory art and spectacle between 1968 and 2006”. If you ever caught one of their amazing outdoor shows, you will know how crucial the music was to that company. He is also a one-man-band – in fact he gave us two totally different one-man-band shows on the square outside The Forum – one a joyful, light-hearted, silver-bell tinkling, pink-outfitted performance on the first evening, and an unsettling, dark, masked, black-clad drum and rattle heavy performance on the second. Look him up – he has done some extraordinary musical work over the years. He also chaired some of the discussions, and at one point, joined by a colleague on saxophone, led the delegates up two flights of stairs from the cavernous auditorium out onto the street like the Pied Piper.

The presentations were incredibly varied. There were niche historical topics, e.g. “The role of music and song in electioneering in the East Midlands 1790-1832”, practical advice about licences and the law for contemporary buskers, a film and some talks about street choirs, and, from Directors of Outdoor Arts Events, some lovely films and slides of spectacular site-specific Street Music Events. The distinction was made between music which just happens to be played outside, like summer festivals, and music which is only ever played outdoors.

For those who want to see the full schedule of events, I have included it below. There was much of interest. I enjoyed hearing Mykaell Riley, formerly of Steel Pulse, now an academic at the Black Music Research Unit at the University of Westminster talk about his research. He showed us photos from what looked like a great show – his exhibition Bass Culture 70/50 (2018) which explored the legacy of the Windrush generation and the impact of Jamaican and Jamaican-inspired music on British popular music.

I learned about the difference between inside and outside instruments at Dr. Tony Lidington’s talk “From Silver Swans to iPods” about the evolution of street instruments over the last 200 years, from aerophones to portable mechanical devices. He had brought several mechanical instruments with him, which he demonstrated and then let us try. It’s not every day you get to have a go on a barrel organ, let alone a barrel piano. Dr. Lidington looked familiar to me – then, prompted by a hat amongst his props, I remembered seeing him as Uncle Tacko, proprietor of a Flea Circus, at an outside event years ago. He also has a traditional seaside concert band called the Pierrotters. Previously he was Artistic Director of the Wakefield Theatre Royal and Opera House, and before that another member of the influential Welfare State International.

I enjoyed hearing buskers talking about their experiences – David Fisher has busked in every country in Europe and was invited to join an Armenian Street Band who happened to need a vocalist when he was visiting that country. He spoke engagingly of the different audiences in various places from Turkey to Czech Republic. An American busker Bob Jacobsen told of the scene in the States – he busks in Baltimore, mainly at Farmers’ Markets, as part of a duo. He began his session with a snatch of Stranger On The Shore on his clarinet – a very popular tune with his audiences, apparently Acker Bilk made no. 1 in the USA in 1964. I discovered that there is a Buskers Festival in Ferrara, Italy. Its director, Stefano Bottone, spoke to us through an interpreter. He is a former blacksmith and teacher, who was inspired to put on buskers in his native city after a trip to Paris. Ferrara has a huge pedestrianised centre, the largest in Italy, which he thought would be ideal for street music, so he set out to organise a festival, against fierce opposition. The festival has now been running for 32 years. The next one is in August (LINK)

Norwich also has a largely pedestrianised centre, and there are many top-quality buskers, all year round. One of them, Peter Turrell, a classical guitarist, spoke to us about his move from research chemist to busker several years ago. He slipped away after the day’s business and set up on the street so that delegates (and the people of Norwich) would hear him play on their stroll to the conference dinner, a charming touch.

There were loads of thought-provoking presentations, including those which at first appeared a little obscure or distant, but turned out to be fascinating, including the East Midlands electioneering one I mentioned earlier by Dr. Hannah Nicholson. She raised the most laughs of the conference with her witty and informative piece.

Here are some more of my highlights. There was a brilliant discussion between Trevor Herbert, trombonist and Professor of Music Research at the Royal College of Music, Alex Gibson, trumpeter and Regional Music Specialist for the Salvation Army, and Dr. Jaime Rollins, anthropologist (and nurse) from Belfast, about the shared history of brass bands. It covered a lot of ground, including the place of women in brass bands (fine from the beginning with the Salvation Army, but they were only allowed into mill and pit brass bands in the 1960s), and samba bands in Northern Ireland. These are a new cross-community musical endeavour, the samba was chosen because the instrumentation is as far away from Protestant or Republican Marching Bands as possible. There is so much to say about Marching, Brass and Parade Bands, on so many levels, and the speakers were so erudite and articulate, that I was left wanting to hear more.

I enjoyed an entertaining strand on Resistance and Reclamation, first with a tale about squatters and pop musicians taking over the streets in Thessaloniki in the mid-2000s, and then a wry piece from former rock journalist Dr. Gina Arnold. She is currently a teacher at the university of San Francisco but is also co-editing The Oxford Handbook of Punk Rock with Prof. George McKay. She talked about Drum Circles, and their history, with reference to the Occupy Wall Street Drum Circle of 2011 which lasted for 60 cacophonous continuous days. She described these modern Drum Circles as a group act which allows individual expression, in that everyone seems to be soloing like mad but the whole thing is a collective act. She concludes that modern protest drum circles, “unchained from melody, unchained from history” have become a pointless and antisocial form of protest. There was a significant political strand in the conference, as so much street music is protest music. I heard about “Yiddish Song as Radical Street Protest”, from Dr Vivi Lachs, an academic specialising in British Jewish History, also a fine Klezmer clarinettist, and Dr. Nadia Valman, Reader in English Literature at Queen Mary, University of London. I heard about Choral Activism and the popularity of both Street and Community Choirs from various choir members. I was left with the impression that, like much amateur music making, these choirs exist largely for the well-being of the singers, rather than the declared aim of effecting social or political change – and yes I did enjoy singing four-part harmony with the other delegates at the end of one of the choir presentations.

For LJN readers who might ask about the jazz content, it has to be said that was very little jazz mentioned at the conference, apart from historical references – New Orleans Funeral Bands, historic drum circles (New Orleans again), end of the pier concert bands, and some busking jazz musicians. One might surmise that jazz is well enough established to have made it off the street and into indoor performance spaces.

The Street Music Conference was a stimulating, edifying and entertaining couple of days and the musical diversions were a treat. Thanks very much to Professor McKay, Dr Bennett and team for organising it. As is usual at these events, it was also lovely to spend time chatting and comparing notes with the speakers and other delegates, and the catering was jolly good too.

A report: From Brass Bands to Buskers: Street Music in the UK by Dr. Elizabeth Bennett and Professor George McKay of the University of East Anglia, part of the Public Culture and Creative Spaces project was launched at the conference.

LINKS: Free download of the Report
Pete Moser’s Website

Categories: Live review

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s