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Red Note Ensemble: Ten years of the international, virtuoso ensemble with a social mission

This year, the remarkable Red Note Ensemble turns ten.

Known for performing and developing an extensive programme of new music, Scotland’s Contemporary Music Ensemble has gone from strength to strength over the last decade.

"The original, prototype Red Note Ensemble was formed to perform and record Eddie McGuire’s Carrochan Suite in 2008," explains Artistic Co-Director and Chief Executive John Harris, "a piece which was commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Trossachs National Park."

We perform with the same musicians, the same commitment, the same standards whether we’re in front of a class of 7 year-olds in Easterhouse or on the stage of the Bruges Concertgebouw- John Harris, Red Note Ensemble

Scottish cellist Robert Irvine convened a group of musicians for the project. Harris explains that Irvine was "casting around for a name for the group he had brought together for this, and Red Note was suggested by, I think, the violinist Greg Lawson."

It's partly in reference to Blue Note (jazz), "but also because the music notation software Sibelius marks any notes that the computer thinks are out of an instrument’s range (and therefore unplayable) in red."

The name stuck around, with as Harris says, "Red Note being the ensemble that plays the notes that everyone else thinks are impossible."

The Ensemble has a strong sense of identity beyond this. "From the outset," says Harris, "and from the moment of its naming, Red Note was conceived as an international, virtuoso ensemble with a social mission.

"We perform with the same musicians, the same commitment, the same standards whether we’re in front of a class of seven year-olds in Easterhouse or on the stage of the Bruges Concertgebouw."

So, with ten years of strong work behind them, we're curious: which projects from the last decade stick out for Harris? "Heavens," he says. "What an impossible question to answer!"

"Given that we run probably 15-20 different projects a year, often with multiple performances in each, that’s trying to choose from a lot of stuff.

"For pure, mad spectacle, I think that Philip Glass’s 1000 Airplanes on the Roof underneath Concorde at the Museum of Flight, as part of the Lammermuir Festival, is the defining event in that regard.

"But also seeing Red Note open Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival's 40th year in 2017 with a major (and subsequently award-winning) new work by James Dillon - a Scottish ensemble commissioning and performing a Scottish composer’s work at the UK’s major new music festival - was a big highlight."

"Then again," Harris says, "it’s often out of the spotlights that some of the really game-changing work takes place, and the Oakwood Songbook at Oakwood Primary School last year, working with Brian Irvine to create songs by the school kids that they belted out to a packed audience of parents one sweltering summer afternoon in an Easterhouse school hall, really proved to me - and confirmed all the research that we’ve done over the years - that what we do is for everyone.

"On a personal, working-with-your-heroes level, I got a massive thrill from Dutch uber-composer Louis Andriessen turning up to hear our live broadcast from the aforementioned Bruges Concertgebouw of his masterwork de Staat, which we did in collaboration - and on tour - with the Antwerp ensemble I Solisti three years ago.

"Come to think of it, Louis has always had a just-go-and-play-your-music-on-street-corners-and-get-everyone-to-hear-it attitude: perhaps there’s a connection there..."

Considering this impressive history, where does Harris see Red Note within Scotland's musical landscape? "Well, on street corners, obviously."

But in all seriousness, Harris reckons "the 'international, virtuoso Scottish ensemble with a social mission' description pretty much covers us."

"We’ve become very aware, both through simply doing it, and also through researching in to our potential audiences and participants within Scotland, of just how much contemporary music (and, actually, classical music in general) has over the past century become stuck in a ghetto of its own making - not for musical reasons, but for social ones.

"We’ve become stuck inside aloof buildings and institutions, the thresholds of which the vast majority of people either never think of crossing, or feel that they are not welcomed to enter for who they are.

"We know from research that there’s a very significant amount of interest in even the most extreme and edgy music we do - but it’s our job to go out and find our audiences and welcome them in: to cross their threshold rather than expect them to cross ours."

As for the big tenth anniversary, there's plenty to celebrate, not least "international touring, Scottish touring, performances and new commissions at festivals including at our long-term friend and allies Sound Festival in Aberdeen and the Lammermuir Festival, New Music Makers projects for composing in schools, the development of our long-term community engagement 5 Places projects, new commissions, and a lot of thinking and planning for the next ten years of Red Note.

Phew. Here's to the next ten.

Red Note Ensemble is one of Creative Scotland's Regularly Funded Organisations for 2018-21. Find out more about their work at rednoteensemble.com.

This article was published on 19 Jul 2019