Hearing Colour, Seeing Music – A Reflection
Morag Galloway – June 2022
Helen Madden is committed to community. Specifically, she is committed to enriching and helping the lives of those in her local community in Barnsley. Since I have known her, she has realised many large-scale musical projects embedded in the area she calls home, making the lives of others more magical and meaningful.
Hearing Colour, Seeing Music is a project which drew together many different strands. Musicians were employed to play, artists were engaged to respond, three community groups were encouraged to create, many other people facilitated. Helen’s own synaesthesia was a starting point for the project—how she ‘hears’ the colours in a picture by Robert Smith—and this was the point of departure for us, the musicians.
I play viola and was employed to be part of the music ensemble tasked to interpret both Smith’s painting and the artwork of the people involved. In a recording session in late December, we took direction from Helen and rehearsed an improvised piece which accurately (as far as Helen was concerned) musically described the painting. This process was an early indication of success; the fluidity, humour and intuitive responsiveness of the ensemble meant a beautiful, sensitive, mysterious piece was created, without (it seemed) much effort. This is testament to community and experience. Helen knows everyone in the group and knew from these relationships that the team would work. This depth of understanding is a skill Helen has which enables her to programme events through careful choice of personnel. Paying attention to people, almost above content, is Helen’s genius. She knows people—and strong relationships—resides in the centre of successful endeavour.
Our improvisation was then shared with a group of synaesthetic artists, who created pieces to represent our music, and three community groups who did the same. The community groups—Project14, Creative Recovery, and Heartspace—all developed their responsive art in conjunction with Helen Madden and Chiomah Akanwa Dey, an art therapist. It was this art that we then responded to musically, in turn.
The workshops with the community members were incredible experiences. Firstly, we went to ‘Heartspace’, the SEND unit within Penistone Grammar School. A warm, friendly, environment met us, with eager, curious children. They had made art in response to our original piece, but the outcomes were so wide-ranging it was astonishing. In discussion with each child about their work we sonically crafted musical maps of the art. They were blown away by the extravagance of having real, live, musicians there, creating in real-time what they asked for. Old, mouldy houses, reinterpretations of pop-songs, starry nights and surrealist environments were all recreated through sound to the children’s—and our—delight.
Formula 1 soundscape - Evan - Penistone HeartSpace.
Project14 came next and it opened up our hearts. Founded by Beth Deakin, this charity aims to help prevent and reduce the high levels of suicide in the Dearne, particularly in young men. Beth talked to us about the project, and we got to know her, through her honesty and humour, very quickly. Sheila, the other participant on the day, contributed sound ideas and a remote participant, Carol, sent words. Their art response had taken the form of a map, articulating a joint representation of their combined lives and their community. In response to this our piece became three-fold: a river winding through everything; a triumphant march against adversity; a soothing, enclosing lullaby. In performance both Beth and Carol joined us. Beth spoke words about difficulty, community and hope and Carol sang, using—for the first ever time in public—her natural singing voice. Pain, and wounds, were addressed and tended through these sessions and Helen now plans to continue our work with Project14 into the future.
Creative Recovery was the closest experience of playing a visual, graphic score, created by the participants. Both Gavin and Siannie had produced fully formed, detailed, varied responses to our initial piece and we had a lot of extremely complex material to work with. Gavin wove towns, maps of his bike journeys, and emotionally charged uses of text into vast canvases of bold, impasto colour. Siannie’s sculpted hands, eyes, and animals blended a pastel palette and incredibly detailed modelling in with dark, brooding themes representing
complex and contrasting articulations of self. Our work to recreate the sounds the artists wanted felt very embodied in this session and I, personally, found a performance space articulating my own griefs through expressive playing I had not reached before.
The final performance of all the pieces created, in the Civic in Barnsley in May, was a huge success, but we had little rehearsal time beforehand in the space. Ordinarily this would have been problematic. However, due to the way the ensemble, and the musical material, had evolved over the course of the project, we were able to play confidently and accurately. The whole event was committed and presenting all the work as a series of pieces—with corresponding artwork projected behind—lent the project the summative sheen associated with presentations of music in a concert hall setting. Back-to-back the pieces showed their diversity and broad expressive range, and artists able to attend were thrilled with the results. The artwork created in the project was hung in the adjacent gallery and so direct appraisal of these was possible for audience members (and the general public thereafter).
And now what? Important relationships have been forged within the local community that Helen intends to nurture. We know, as an ensemble, there is life in our collaboration and a future playing together. The people who contributed artwork and engaged in the workshop have been emboldened and nourished by the love and attention paid them through time spent together making art. They feel included in musicking practices beforehand understood as excluding. They understand art is for them.
I am profoundly grateful to count Helen as a friend and collaborator and cannot wait to get involved in the next iteration of this project. Art for art’s sake feeds my soul, but art for a wider community’s sake helps us feed the souls of others, too.