Almost two years ago LSO Discovery was approached by a team from Big Mountain Productions who were developing a programme working with a number of recovering addicts, using music. Big Mountain Productions had encountered LSO Discovery’s work and wondered whether its inclusive way of working could be used to inspire and support the participants throughout the project, culminating in an orchestral performance with the London Symphony Orchestra.
The project, Addicts’ Symphony, was the brainchild of the composer and musician James McConnel, whose 18-year-old son Freddy, an aspiring and talented musician, died of a heroin overdose in 2011 at the age of 18. James, himself a recovering alcoholic, was inspired to create the project by a determination to save others like Freddy from a similar fate, and a firm belief in the transformative power of music.
After a summer of recruitment, the ten participants came together for the first time at the beginning of October 2013. Led by workshop leader and composer Paul Rissmann and supported by LSO members Bindi McFarlane (violin) and Matthew Gibson (double bass), the group were reunited with their instruments; some having not played for 20 years, and some just beginning. All they were told at this point was that they needed to put together a performance.
Once the project began it became clear that some of the participants had been heavily involved in the musical world and had encountered severe performance nerves which led them to addiction. This meant that they had a more complicated relationship with music, since it was the cause of their addiction. Others saw music as a tool that had previously helped them through difficult times. Though a shared passion for music was prevalent through the entire group, they were extremely varied in terms of their stories and relationship with music, and this led to some interesting and enlightening sessions.
Paul and the LSO musicians began creating new music with the participants using different techniques and activities, each designed to focus on different musical aspects. Every participant had a voice throughout the process and, although overwhelming for some, they were each asked to provide their own individual musical moment. These beautiful moments were intertwined and enhanced throughout the sessions, creating an original piece of music Rhapsodie de l’apprivoisé (Rhapsodie for the Tamed). This incredible piece was then orchestrated by Paul to enable the group to perform its premiere with the LSO during the final concert.
Many challenges were faced throughout the project. For some, playing standard orchestral repertoire was the most daunting and evoked the most difficult memories. The participants overcame these and went on to perform Beethoven Symphony No 7 (mvt 2), with a smaller group also joining the LSO for a performance of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, renowned for being one of the most exposed pieces of string music.
Paul, James and the LSO musicians supported the group every step of the way through this process which was often difficult for everyone and in addition to the music sessions, the participants also regularly met with Action on Addiction, a charity which helps and supports people through addiction. In this comfortable and open forum space they could sit together as a group, and talk through their thoughts and feelings and their own highs and lows, both regarding the project and their own personal lives.
The group showed enormous commitment and strength throughout these intensive sessions working towards a climactic and moving concert in front of their families and friends at LSO St Luke’s, the Orchestra’s music education centre on London’s Old Street. By the end of the two months, they had formed a bond and shared understanding with each other and the LSO team, which was palpable throughout the concert. They performed their piece last and the audience watched while it reached a moving climax before ending on one vulnerable and beautiful single note. The atmosphere following this notes was electric. Not only for the participants, but also for the LSO musicians and the audience.
The project took place from October–December 2013, and since then the director Dollan Cannell and his team, who took hundreds of hours of footage, have been editing the process down to a 60 minute film. This will air on Channel 4 at 11pm on Wednesday 27 August (tonight).
Throughout the film the ten musicians’ daily battles are revealed as they struggle against the grip of their addictions. From Rachael, whose career as a cellist was nearly destroyed by her drink and drug problem, to Andy whose heroin addiction has had a devastating effect on his relationship with his daughter Lea, each musician hopes to recover their love of music and, more significantly, retrieve their trust and pride in themselves.
‘I am lost in admiration for each member’s courage, honesty and creativity. Uniting ten people from diverse musical genres and in different stages of recovery was a considerable challenge, but over the course of eight weeks each member of the orchestra found a distinctive and highly personal voice. The performance at LSO St Luke’s was one of the most musically rewarding and emotional concerts I have witnessed. It is a testament as to how music not only touches us, but can also transform lives.’
Paul Rissmann, LSO Discovery animateur/Addicts’ Symphony music director
‘Working with the Addicts Symphony was an insight and an inspiration. To be able to assist musicians in pushing their boundaries to the limits and see them overcome their personal demons in performance was one of the most satisfying aspects of this project. Having been challenged, guided and inspired by what can only be described as the genius leadership of Paul Rissmann, we developed a strong group bond where all the participants relied so much on each other for mutual support – the aspect of music making which makes it such a fundamental and life enhancing human experience. The resulting performance in LSO St Luke’s was one of the most rewarding and emotional of my music making career. It was an experience I will never forget. ‘
Matthew Gibson, double bass
‘Being involved with the Addicts Symphony was a truly unique and rewarding experience. Starting with a blank canvas it was fascinating to watch Paul lead each musician to unleash their own individual and extremely personal artistry. It then became a process of collective musical collaboration and inspiration. As the LSO musicians, Matt and I were mentors and facilitators, but more meaningfully we became part of the fabric of this special ‘orchestra’ the experience as meaningful to us as it was the participants. The culminating concert alongside the LSO was an outstanding musical success, with each musician achieving a collective musical ‘high’. The added emotional level, fuelled by the collective experience of these people, added an almost celestial dimension to the performance. A rare and treasured experience.’
Bindi McFarlane, violin
Addicts’ Symphony is produced by Big Mountain Productions, directed by Dollan Cannell and executive produced by Philip McGovern and Jane Kelly.
> Follow Addicts’ Symphony on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AddictsSymphony #addictssymphony
> Watch the programme on demand on the Channel 4 website (available until end of September)
> Watch a full performance of Rhapsody for the Tamed, written by the participants (not featured in full in the programme)