tue 29/11/2022

First Person: composer and co-founder of The Multi-Story Orchestra Kate Whitley on car-park creativity | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: composer and co-founder of The Multi-Story Orchestra Kate Whitley on car-park creativity

First Person: composer and co-founder of The Multi-Story Orchestra Kate Whitley on car-park creativity

Enabling young people from all walks of life to be themselves in a wonderful environment

Kate Whitley at work on a Multi-Story Orchestra projectAll images by Ambra Vernuccio

We started The Multi-Story Orchestra back in 2011 with a group of friends when we’d left university. Conductor Christopher Stark and I basically wanted to find new ways to play orchestral music that would escape formal concert halls and be more exciting and more accessible.

We thought car parks might be good places to try – they’re big, they’re open, and people don’t really associate them with anything in particular. We started off playing in a car park in Peckham, run by Bold Tendencies, and we now play there every summer. We’ve also played in other car parks around the country – in Gloucester, Ipswich, Birmingham, Portsmouth and more.

We basically did it because car parks are more fun than formal concert halls. It gives you so much more flexibility in the atmosphere you can make. The audience can be much closer to the musicians and the atmosphere is more creative and more open. I also love the fact that you are aware of what is going on in the outside world in the car park. We’re one level below the roof, which means we’re covered from the weather, but you get a great view out the sides. You can hear things like the trains going by and traffic, but it never really gets in the way. People always say they find it moving and that it adds to it. Multi-Story Orchestra event in Peckham I never imagined I would spend my life running an orchestra that plays in car parks! And although playing in car parks is probably something we’ll always do, some of the most amazing things we’ve discovered and experienced along the way go beyond the fact that it’s in a car park– what it’s really about is finding new and better ways to create music. The core of what we do is going into schools to create big ensembles of choirs and instrumentalists who then perform with our professional orchestra. We don't do this as an "education" project – we do it because those young people bring the most amazing creative and musical energy. It means we can create incredibly moving musical experiences that also celebrate the beauty and diversity of the local community.

This is incredibly important to us, and I’m really proud that some of the young people we’ve known for many years are now key members of the team and leaders in our creative work.

In response to the death a few years ago of Malcolm Mide-Madariola – an ex pupil from their school – some of our young people asked us to help them create a piece called The Endz as a tribute and to give their perspective on gang culture through music.

This developed into an incredibly powerful piece – it’s mad how many people who came to see it said it was one of the best things they’d ever seen, and so many people cried. There’s a highlights film of it here:

I think the really amazing thing about The Endz was how much ownership everyone in it had, and how much it mattered to tell that story. That’s what made it different from what the orchestra had done before, because it really gave it a purpose. It led us into a new way of making music where we develop young people into artists and leaders and enable them to tell their own stories through music. I believe that the most moving art is created through this authenticity: these are powerful, radical voices that are vitally needed to make something good. So much of what we think of as "art" tends to uphold social inequalities and prejudices and exclude huge parts of our society. This is not ok.

For me, the most powerful, meaningful artistic experiences are the ones that break that – and tell stories that might not be heard otherwise. In a society where inequality and discrimination are so widespread it’s really important to question what’s there, and to break the structures around us. Art at its best is an opportunity to bring people together and imagine a different world. I’m not saying that we at Multi-Story Orchestra have completely cracked that yet but it’s something to aim for. Multi-Story event in actionI think this is one of the reasons why music is so important for young people – particularly when music education is declining in schools. Music – and especially creative music making – can be a way for people to feel powerful, to relate to others, and to be celebrated for things that the normal world might not see or celebrate. We now have a group of 11 Young Creatives in the orchestra, and I am constantly amazed by their dedication, insight, and creativity. It’s amazing to see and consistently inspiring.

Part of this, I think, is because we’ve enabled them to be part of something where they can be themselves. Rapper and drummer Toni, whom we’ve known since he sang with the orchestra in primary schools, said “Multi-Story is a place where you can be your creative self – you can be whatever you want to be” – which I think really sums up what it should be about. Being able to create, especially with other people, has helped me through all kinds of difficult times, and I think it’s really important for everyone.

Another of our young people – 18-year-old Flame – is an incredible performer and I was really surprised when she told me that she really struggled with confidence before. She told me being able to be on stage and perform something that was hers “made me feel invincible, and I never want to let go of that feeling, regardless of what I do with my life.” I don’t think there are many things more important than that.

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