RNS Moves: In Conversation with Tristan Gurney and Clarence Adoo MBE
RNS Moves is a unique, inclusive ensemble of disabled and non-disabled musicians, featuring members of Royal Northern Sinfonia and friends.
Here, leader Tristan Gurney and Clarence Adoo MBE take us back to the where it all began, share some of the practical challenges of being part of this unique ensemble, as well as revealing some exciting plans for the future.
Tristan: It feels like we’ve come a very long way but when you look back it’s only a matter of a few years that we’ve been doing RNS Moves. In the beginning we asked Candoco Dance Company, an inclusive dance company that works with disabled and non-disabled dancers, to help us. They’ve got a very simple mantra of excellence which attracted us to working with them because it’s what we were aiming to do – to create a chamber ensemble that provides excellent music-making. From that early step, we were just seeking their advice, to learn about the way they worked and see if they could help us get off the ground. We learned a great deal and it was great to work with them. I think one of the biggest things we took away from them was the freedom that Candoco had, but that they also worked with a structure.
Clarence: That was the first time I had the opportunity to come and play with this ensemble and what I hadn’t realised (I’d been away for 20 or so years after my accident working with different people) was how often we work in a way where we discuss what we do. When the ensemble came together, I was talking away and after about 15 minutes I realised that’s not always the way these things work. Very quickly it became apparent that there are different needs and different ways we needed to think about. I enjoyed that form of working where people could be creative.
Tristan: It’s a democratic and supportive environment where everybody feels comfortable putting their views and suggestions forward. Quite a lot of the pieces that we play now have a lot of flexibility and room for interpretation in them and there’s a lot of space for suggestions, creating something that we all feel proud of.
There’s a powerful vision for RNS Moves that propels us that bit further each time. We’re always trying new things and pioneering new ways of working.
Clarence: I remember after one of the very first concerts there were a lot of very interested people because this is a unique ensemble. I remember Thorben Dittes [Director of RNS and Classical Music Programme] asking whether we thought this thing had a future. There were people queueing up to speak to him after the concert – he couldn’t ignore their response; they were interested and curious.
Tristan: We’ve grown more comfortable with different ways of making music. There are certain practices and techniques of playing that are very much out of the day-to-day comfort zone for full-time orchestral musicians. One such element is improvisation which really isn’t in the portfolio of a classically trained musician. We’re used to having a stand with music on it, we prepare and practise and come along to a rehearsal and play it. When it comes to RNS Moves, the music stand doesn’t have much on it at all and that is very challenging and quite a scary thing to do.
After the Candoco project, we came up with a programme of varied types of repertoire which had different challenges and ideas about them. For one, we reworked Vivaldi’s Four Seasons; we played some of the original material and used selected moments to explore different colours and experimented with free improvisation. The audience response was overwhelming.
Clarence: Some of the people who come to these shows know these scores. When we come along and put a blues trumpet solo in it, it’s different. But it’s great and very unique. When we push out in new directions, it’s accepted. It’s made a lot of music accessible.
Tristan: One of the big strengths of the group is that we have a talented pool of guest players and an eclectic mix of colours and instruments including piano, recorder, clarinet, harp, saxophone, electric guitar and more besides. Clarence is a key member with his electronic Headspace instrument. The group line-up changes according to the project but there’s a close-knit core membership and the chemistry works so well.
For a chamber orchestra like RNS, there’s 100s of years worth of established repertoire. For RNS Moves and the eclectic group of instruments that we’re working with, there’s very little. One of the biggest challenges is finding music that can work really well, come alive, and embrace our eclectic mix and propel it forward, rather than be hampered by it. We are building a portfolio and a repertoire of our own. Quite often we’ve found that there’s a lot of freedom with Baroque music as it lends itself very nicely to passages where there’s an opportunity to be creative and add to or perhaps stray from the score. It’s such powerful music that it translates to being manipulated by Clarence’s Headspace or me playing on an amplified violin for example.
RNS Moves is such a creative process that there’s so much room for exploration in the performance and in the interpretation that the feeling of doing a concert is exhilarating. You’re not quite sure what’s going to happen, so you get quite a rush. With the audience and the rapport in the room, you can really feel the engagement.
Clarence: For me, I was fortunate that a few years after my accident I had the opportunity to play with smaller groups but none really, at first, with the precision, accuracy and professionalism that you get with a classically trained orchestra. So, RNS Moves has been very enjoyable – to be up there thinking like a musician again and being able to have a voice and an expression through music, which has been my life. I missed it for a long time. But I am still keen and enthusiastic to go to Royal Northern Sinfonia rehearsals and concerts as well. So, to come and play and be thinking about music is very enriching.
We’re looking forward to RNS Moves’ next concert in March 2022!
In March 2020, RNS Moves performed what was to be their last concert to an audience in Sage Two before the Covid-19 pandemic. The ensemble returned later that year to perform their first livestreamed concert, in an empty Sage One.
Clarence: When the pandemic hit, we all had that feeling of not being in control anymore and it made you appreciate what you were doing and realise that you loved what you were doing. I had gone through this experience previously when I had been in hospital for a year and during that time, I didn’t hear any live instruments. Afterwards, I went to a Royal Northern Sinfonia rehearsal, but just listening to the orchestra warm up – every note sounded so beautiful. Whatever they were playing, every little note was beautiful.
Tristan: The pandemic made me think about what it was going to be like when we returned. It felt wonderful to be back and any apprehensions I had [about returning to playing after such a long break] melted away. I’d missed that rapport of playing with other people and it was incredibly rewarding to play together again. I’d also missed rich and resonant acoustics of a concert hall which are simply not available at home. Sage Gateshead is a wonderful building and as a violinist, that space is your instrument because you play into the hall which acts like a speaker and amplifies the sound. We hadn’t had that freedom for months and so going back into that space was brilliant. It felt immediately reassuring and familiar.
The livestream has enabled us to access a wide audience, anywhere in the world. I had the most messages I’ve ever had after a concert from people who were listening in, including Sally Beamish and Joe Cutler whose pieces we were playing.
RNS Moves recently performed an eclectic programme to a live audience again in Sage Two.
Clarence: I think there was something there for everyone and audiences could enjoy an incredibly broad selection of styles and music-making. We played music spanning hundreds of years.
Tristan: I think people can expect the unexpected at an RNS Moves concert. For example, we played a triptych of three movements of Bach; one absolutely as written as a prelude, we then took some of Bach’s three-part inventions and Clarence sampled and manipulated that sound electronically and finally improvised on and re-worked a Bach chorale. So, it’s three takes on Bach, from original to zany, which in a snapshot of what RNS Moves is all about.
The next stage is for RNS Moves to perform more regularly as part of Sage Gateshead’s programme, and to work on larger collaborations and commissions.
Tristan: Earlier this year we had a week where we could experiment, develop, and explore different elements and techniques of music making. For example, we often improvise, but we thought with a bit of expert guidance we could really refine it. Similarly, we worked a little bit with memory and what sort of freedom that might give us as a group. One of the key things that we did during this time, however, was to introduce our work to the full orchestra and in June we played to them for the first time. The next ambitious step is to merge the two, where we’ll perform together to a live audience.
Clarence: I think this group could go in any direction. We don’t have to be constrained. We don’t have to look at what other people are doing, we can take some risks and we’ve already stepped out the box. So far so good! Since the pandemic, the whole world has turned around and people are exploring how they can be more inclusive. We’re a light that started before the pandemic and we’re showing that these things are possible. People are interested to learn and hear how rewarding it is and there’s an audience who love it.
Photo credits: Tynesight Photographic