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Microscopic Dances: Drake Music Scotland's Digital Orchestra premiere bold new work

Participants in Microscopic Dances

Microscopic Dances is a collaboration between Drake Music Scotland, the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland (NYOS) and the Scottish composer Oliver Searle.

Drake Music Scotland’s renowned Digital Orchestra is an ensemble of young disabled musicians, who create and perform a unique new repertoire using digital music technology, controlled by tiny head and hand movements, eye control and brainwaves. In this performance, musicians use iPads and vibraphones to create pieces with titles such as Jimp Jitterbug, Peerie Passacaglia, Molecular Hornpipe and Miniscule Mosh.

We caught up with the organisers to find out more about the performance, which is taking place on Saturday 12 August.

Drake Music Scotland is one of Creative Scotland's Regularly Funded Organisations 2015-2018.

How did the commission come about?

We always wanted to work with Olly (composer Oliver Searle) after Technophonia, which he wrote for us in 2012. This amazing work was part of the PRS for Music New Music 20x12 initiative, performed in Scotland and then at the Southbank in London as part of the Cultural Olympiad. It triggered all sorts of ideas about how conventional orchestral instruments and our new technologies can work together to make an amazing new sound.

A more integrated, diverse workforce is fairer and healthier for everyone in music, the arts, and society in general- Drake Music Scotland

We always aim to add to the repertoire of music written especially for this technology, as we are having to create it from scratch! This collaboration with the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland worked so well, we approached their Chief Executive Joan Gibson (now retired) about another co-commission to celebrate our 20th anniversary and it all developed from there.

In the meantime, accessible technology for music making has moved on. We are now using different things, such as iPads with expressive apps like Thumbjam, touch controllers, more advanced brainfingers controllers, digital drum pads linked to looping sample libraries, that we didn’t have back then. The instrumentation is different.

What are we hoping the performers will take away from the piece?

For our Digital Orchestra musicians, it’s about collaborating with other musicians in a larger ensemble, working on a brand new piece with the composer conducting, learning how to balance their sounds and play their part in the overall piece, playing both solo passages and as part of the full orchestra. The Digital Orchestra is relatively small in terms of individual players but because we use technology we can present well over 80 channels of musical sound.

For Digital Orchestra musicians, rehearsing and performing with members of NYOS really helps with their musicality and development, as they are able to experience how acoustic orchestral instruments work together. Olly’s orchestration of this huge variety of sounds is brilliantly thought through and so engaging.


We have big plans for this group (including a possible trip to the Pacifica Festival of Disabled Artistes in Singapore) so the more experience they can have the better. For the NYOS Futures musicians - who are the most experienced players from the NYOS Symphony Orchestra of contemporary music - this experience of playing with disabled young people is exciting and presents different technical and artistic challenges.

What are you hoping that audiences will take away?

We aim to raise the visibility of disabled musicians and performers - equalities issues are quite a theme at the Fringe this year but more focused on theatre and dance and not so much on music. So we’re making a big noise and demonstrating to the public that disabled people are making high-quality, enjoyable music which is well worth hearing.

What are the rewards and challenges of orchestrating a project like this?

We’ve been doing these sorts of collaborations for a while (10 years) and have 20 years of experience to draw on. Partnership is the key, but they don’t always go smoothly and have to be worked at over time. The rewards are great in terms of the artistic work, and mean we can aspire to make new partnerships and collaborate with all sorts of people.

We really want our musicians to develop as much as possible and hope to increase their possibilities for future careers in music. This can be challenging, even for non-disabled composers and musicians. Now we’ve been doing projects like this for a while we are finding that young disabled musicians are coming through and going on to further training and potentially careers in music.

Also there are huge benefits on the social side all round. Not just our Drake musicians, but for all the young musicians we work with. A more integrated, diverse workforce is fairer and healthier for everyone in music, the arts, and society in general.

Microscopic Dances takes place on Saturday 12 August, Tom Fleming Centre, Erskine Stewart’s Melville School, Edinburgh.

This article was published on 10 Aug 2017