November 20, 2014

When I discovered I wasn’t good enough to be a professional footballer (I was eleven – how did I labour under that misapprehension for so long?) I fell into a couple of years of not quite knowing what I was going to do with my life other than to set forth, as soon as I was 17, with a dark blue suit and a name tag as a Mormon missionary. Then music happened. Quickly, a love for the transistor radio pop of Bolan and Bowie grew into buying my own records and discovering the long-defunct Beatles as a gateway drug into weirder, wilder stuff.And somewhere in that muddle of adolescence I fell in love, too, with Warhol, Lichtenstein, Blake, Hamilton, Rauschenberg; the pop artists. I found Dali and Magritte, Mondrian and Christo. I read the First World War poets, the Liverpool Poets and the Beats. And somehow, football didn’t seem so important anymore.I didn’t choose all this, so much as it drifted into view and I grabbed it, excitedly, eyes like dinner-plates.Education secretary Nicky Morgan this month warned young people that choosing to study arts subjects at school could “hold them back for the rest of their lives”. She also said “the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are science, technology, engineering and maths.”And thus is all art reduced to career options, all life to monetary value. That what you choose to do when you’re fourteen or fifteen is not about what you’re interested in, what fascinates you, only what might make you (and naturally the government) the most money. And thus is our entire culture of music, song, literature and ideas brushed aside; Morgan also described maths as “the subject that employers value most” and claimed that pupils who study maths to A level will earn 10% more over their lifetime.Thanks for the careers advice, Nicky. And at the risk of devaluing my lifetime’s income by 10% I’d like to submit the idea that my entire adult life has consisted of an haphazard mess of such fascinations and wonderings as would make Nicky Morgan turn in her grave. (She’s already dead, isn’t she? This cadaver that sees the world as monetary numbers on computer screens?) Actually I wish the Education Secretary had had the space in her diaryful of bland, colourless ledger-entries to have a look round Manchester Museum last weekend. I imagine her turning that corner at the bottom of the stairs leading into the mineralogy gallery and looking left, towards the huge skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex. Standing in front of the dinosaur are thirty primary school children (Morgan must surely know what a school child looks like? Being Education Secretary? Possibly not) dressed in bedtime onesies, hoods pulled up, facing forwards, waiting and grinning. At each side of them are thirty pension-aged men and women, in overcoats and hats, scarves and gloves, some with mobility chairs and walking sticks, all looking outwards and upwards, both them and the children looking for all the big wide world like they’re waiting to watch night-time stars, or a comet, or a firework display. C’mon kids, get out of bed! Look at the skies, see what’s happening out there!Then they begin to sing, filling the huge room with echoing voices, the older folk chanting “tick, tock, tick, tock” as the children sing about time, about life, about our place as humans in the grand, vast scale of the universe. And the kids and the pensioners and the Tyrannosaurus rex suddenly break into three-part harmony, all waving at the gathering crowds in the gallery, singing “Here we are, and here we are, and here we are…”

It’s art, that. Actually it’s art and science mixed together, but you know what I mean. Art that, if you believe the government line, will hold these 8, 9, 10 year-olds back for the rest of their lives.

The Wonderstruck weekend at Manchester Museum grew from a commission proposed by the arts charity People United, whose aim is to support ‘art that creates kindness’, and from that a sense of community and social change. What a grand and beautiful mission statement! Dan Bye and Sarah Punshon decided they wanted to apply. Dan rang me up – we’d worked happily together several years ago on a play for I Love West Leeds Festival – and asked if I’d think about writing music that might happen in a museum. Manchester Museum were co-commissioning the project, inviting artists into their galleries to make work that responded to their vast collections of weird and wonderful stuff. Yes, definitely – I remember feeling excited at the possibilities. Museum! Singing! Science and Art in a big bundle of Freakiness!We were interviewed at the museum. We didn’t have a plan, to speak of. All we knew was that we wanted to use music and theatre to fill the galleries with ideas. Or something like that, I can’t remember – the truth is, we didn’t really know what we intended to do; we just knew we could do something fascinating and strange that would involve lots of people singing.There were a lot of applications, apparently. We got the job. The three of us probably have very different ideas of why we were chosen to do this. Dan has a track record of doing one-man shows about social responsibility and co-operation (ie kindness). Sarah had worked as a creative curator at the Natural History Museum in London. Me, I like to think it’s because I quoted a love of John Muir at the interview. (Please, if you haven’t heard of John Muir, look him up now).

A couple of months later and we were at the museum, scuttling around in its bowels, meeting the curators, asking questions, in awe at their knowledge and enthusiasm. We had a week of looking around, getting to know the museum, thinking up ideas, holding huge spiders and singing about cockroaches. At the end of that week we had a plan. The plan wasn’t fool-proof, wasn’t fail-safe. It was a plan that might result in chaos, in a glorious mess. Wendy Earle of the Arts & Society Forum says:

‘The arts have a complex relationship with society. But arts lovers need to make a case for arts education that doesn’t harness it to contemporary moral, civic, social or economic priorities.’

In short, art shouldn’t have to make a profit, make a societal change, or even (and I hate this current catch-all term), ‘make a difference’. Art should take risks, should hold its breath, jump in and see what happens. This is the spirit with which ‘Wonderstruck’ was created. This was the spirit with which ‘Wonderstruck’ was accepted and encouraged by both People United and Manchester Museum. Bless ‘em.

So we, and the museum, gathered a bunch of local Manchester community choirs who were willing to be involved in this wonderfully unknown project. We ended up with four – Golden Voices, a pensioners’ choir, Network Choir, made up of primary school children, Ordsall Acapella, established local singers, and She, an all-woman choir. Added to this, we created a so-called ‘guerrilla choir’ made up of volunteers.

We had a week with the choirs in September. We gathered and sat down together and talked about the project. We sent choirfuls of people into the galleries to write down their impressions, to listen in to conversations, to observe how museum visitors acted and talked, to scuttle around the museum eavesdropping. Then we gathered the comments and words and information into a big bagful of post-it notes; Dan took it away and made poetic sense of it all, and all I had to do was tidy up Dan’s words and fit them to a tune. With harmonies. And rhythm. And huge choruses. We all chipped in, changed lyrics, added tunes, kept on planning, aware that it was all getting bigger and bigger, like the Hulk bursting out of his clothes. (Imagine Dan Bye, green and raging, wearing torn purple trunks).

I’ve always loved the idea of art outside its ‘normal’ context. Paintings, plays and music taken outside the art galleries, theatres and concert halls. Steve Byrne from Interplay Theatre told me that on a visit to Italy he’d gone with his brother to watch the big Milan football derby – AC versus Inter – and that at half time the playwrights Dario Fo and Franca Rama (‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’, ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’) had walked onto the pitch and performed a short sketch. The crowd hushed, applauding wildly at its conclusion. That was what we wanted to do – to take the idea of ‘Wonder’ and make it surprising, recreate the feeling of coming across something you didn’t expect or know, the feeling I think we got when we were looking round the museum the first time – a flock of paper cranes that burst out of the frame of their glass cabinet, a handwritten sign telling of how Manchester’s Peppered Moth explains evolution, the skeleton of an elephant, a 4 billion-year-old meteorite.

We plotted excitedly. Every room in the museum would have its own song, its own choir. Actors would wear animal masks and tell stories, linking the choirs, creating a journey. All we had to do now was shape all that imagining into a workable, ordered whole. That’s where Sarah came in, arms waving, collecting all the loose thoughts and tying them together, shaping them. That’s where Josh came in, too, tall as a fir tree, invaluable, jumping headlong into all the nooks and crannies of the project.

Dan Sarah and Josh








Sarah, Dan, Josh (seated) write a nice letter to Nicky Morgan.
Now it was November, and we were gearing up for the final performances. I could barely believe we’d managed to worm our way into a major museum, install five choirs, and have them singing whatever it was we came up with – about not only the stuff in the galleries but about the world we live in. It was far, far too good to be true. Our main contact at the museum – Anna Bunney – was so delightfully involved, helpful and enthusiastic that it felt like we’d had all our wishes granted at once. “D’you think we could have someone in a fox mask wheeling one of the museum’s stuffed foxes through this gallery? How about if we have a flash-mob choir in that gallery? Can we bring the choirs in to rehearse after the museum is closed at night?”

Anna said yes to everything. It felt like the whole museum was given to us as a playspace for a weekend. What we ended up with was (to cut a very long description very short) a one-hour walk that took the visitor from the entrance hall to the depths of the museum and back again, via songs, spoken words, theatre, the expected and the unexpected. It could have gone woefully wrong, but didn’t. Mainly because the choirs were so enthusiastic, and so willing to be a part of something unusual and fascinating.

And yes, it worked. Art outside its usual context, music filling rooms that were normally quiet and still. The choirs performed beautifully. The journey through the museum made sense, and the glitches were just a lovely part of the chaos of wonderment.

There’s a lovely blog by Jo Bell, in the form of an open letter replying to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s speech. It talks of the value of the arts and refutes the idea that studying stuff like Shakespeare, Mozart and the Brontes might “hold students back for the rest of their lives.” It ends by saying,

“Science and art are not mutually exclusive. Both are vital to a safe, fulfilled and interesting life. Science and technology are what we live by, on the whole. But what we live for? That’s art.”

Maybe now is the time for me to declare, loudly, that studying the arts – and spending a lifetime as an artist, in fact – hasn’t held me back. Apart from one hit single, I never made anything that made much money. The publishing royalties from that one song (split between ten members of a band) keep coming in (in diminishing numbers) but the money’s not the important bit. What’s important is the day-to-day excitement of wrestling with beauty, with ideas, with communication, with stories and connections and histories.

What was important, and exciting, about the ‘Wonderstruck’ project wasn’t just in the success of the final performances, it was also in the summer-long process of experimenting, gathering, playing, and, yes, wondering. The choirs, the choir leaders, the story-tellers, the museum staff and the People United folk threw themselves into our weird ideas with an enthusiasm I couldn’t have predicted.

I’ll always look back with pride at the way the museum was transformed for a weekend; but I’ll remember more clearly what Nicky Morgan will always fail to understand, the moments during rehearsal when we made connections between people, when we laughed and joked, when we realised what we were all part of. The Golden Voices choir singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to their gorgeous 88 year-old soprano. The kids in their onesies scampering up the stairs after having sung their hearts out in the dinosaur gallery, excitedly asking if they’d ‘done good’. The choir leaders Jools and Jeff, constantly full to the brim with a real joy for the project. The so-called ‘guerrilla choir’, volunteers who, in the space of two weeks, learned how to sing harmony with each other, beautifully. The museum’s staff, who slowly and smilingly over the weeks begun to see the scale and scope of the whole thing. The 70 year-old woman who “jumped out of her skin” when the group of museum visitors next to her revealed themselves by suddenly breaking into song (that was my Mum. She’s recovering). The She Choir, swapping leadership roles and taking it in turns to invent warm-ups (a rousing version of ‘The Lonely Goatherd’ notwithstanding). And the four of us, as artists, working our collective arses off (collective arses? Really?) and loving every minute of it, proud to be part of a worldful of culture and ideas that Nicky Morgan deems irrelevant.

I do wish the Education Secretary could have come along and seen the finale on the Sunday afternoon, 100+ singers filling the grand steps of the Living Worlds gallery and singing of our connection to, and our part within, the natural world (for not even a government minister could have sucked the joy and energy out of that room). But she didn’t. So we’ll have to do it all again, won’t we?

Cover photograph Copyright Joel Fildes

Leave a Comment