Monday, 14 November 2016

Sourcing the Nene

I have a tendency to not sleep very well in hotels. It's 3.30am, and my head is full of little stubs of conversation and snippets of music from the day. I'm dosed up to the nines with cold and 'flu medicine, which must have been full of caffeine, because, I feel a little hot and buzzy!

I'm presently in Lancashire. At least I think I'm in Lancashire. I'm in a place called St Helens, if that helps with the identification process, or at least I would be if I weren't in a Travelodge in some desperate trading estate on the fringes of the town.

I'm here because I'm talking to a group of students in a local university tomorrow. For much of the rest of the day, however, I was in Northamptonshire.

Our mini-odyssey stared with a car journey to a little West Northamptonshire village called Badby. It's a village which creeks with memories from my childhood. My school year stayed in a (now-closed) Youth Hostel there in the early 1980s. It was my first experience of being away from home, and it was hugely formative. We went bat watching and badger watching, and, a year or so later, my Dad and I returned to the village on a more official badger watch, which was quite extraordinary. I seem to remember seeing huge numbers of the beautiful creatures streaming out of a sett on a sandy hillside. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life up to that point.

Anyway, I was in Badby attempting to find the source of the River Nene. As with all rivers, there are a million sources, none of which are that exciting to look at, and most of which are in farmers' fields or down dangerously steep banks. Well that was our experience today in any case!

We did a fair amount of trespassing, but managed to find a few rather charming spots, including a genuine spring, where fresh water seemed to burst out of the ground. The surrealness of this particular location was aided by a pair of cockerels - one with a ludicrously high and ineffectual cock-a-doodle and the other with a low, somewhat meaty call. Neither would shut up and they seemed to take it in turns to screech. The weather was stunning. Crisp and autumnal. And, as the sun set, it created golden paths across the ridges in the fields and painted a pair of rainbow-like coronas in the sky. Rather magical.

I was at the source of the Nene because the good folk at Northamptonshire music school have commissioned me to write a major new work about this particular river. And before anyone asks how to pronounce its name, it's Nene to rhyme with Ben. This Neen business that they go in for in Cambridgeshire, and the Eastern reaches of the river, royally irritates me!

I pretty much grew up on the Nene. It ran through Higham Ferrers, and we must have walked down by the river most Sundays in my childhood. There couldn't be a project about a river which would excite me more, and I'm thrilled to report that the work will receive its premiere at the Albert Hall.

The wait for employment was worth it!

...And just like busses, premieres come in larger numbers, because this evening, the Northamptonshire Youth Choir performed a four-part choral version of I Miss The Music from Brass at the Derngate Theatre and, in doing so, created a really very beautiful moment, which I shall remember for some time. The choir sings exquisitely, from memory, in a very classical style, which suits that particular song. They performed with piano and euphonium at a much slower pace than the show version. This new tempo gave the piece a stillness which I found hugely moving. They also added an element of theatre, which was incredibly simple, but highly effective. The women appeared wearing large poppies and decorated the male singers with flowers throughout the song, almost as though they were pinning medals on their chests. It somehow felt like the poppies were representing the deaths of the Leeds Pals, as one by one they were decorated in this manner.

The song ended and there was absolute silence in the audience. Total silence, for maybe five to ten seconds. It was unnerving and yet curiously beautiful. It felt like the audience was simply taking a moment to digest what they'd just experienced... almost as though applause might cheapen the moment. When the applause started, it didn't seem to want to end. It just carried on and on. Respectful, dignified applause.

The rest of the concert was brilliant. These November "Youth in Music" concerts at the Derngate have been happening for years. I used to play in them when I was a teenager. In fact, Brother Edward and I were founder members of the Northamptonshire Youth Choir and our first gig was at one such concert, all of which are there to promote the work of the senior county youth music ensembles. Northamptonshire remains at the forefront of youth music in the UK, and tonight's concert reminded me why. The quality of those young musicians is really quite remarkable. It's an amazing organisation, one which I feel deeply proud to be associated with.

At the end of the concert, Nathan and I went up to the upper circle to meet the choir, who were deeply charming and seemed really rather excited to meet me, telling me how much they'd enjoyed singing the song. It was such a lovely moment.

Hell, it's been a lovely day all round, and I reckon I was due one of those! Now all I need to do is lose this stinking cold and fall asleep!

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