Going For Gold

As Olympic fever begins to grip the country, songwriters, composers and arts organisations around the country prepare to seize the limelight. Anita Awbi hears from those who will make it happen for UK music next year.

Paul Nichols
  • By Paul Nichols
  • 26 Dec 2011
  • min read
As Olympic fever begins to grip the country, songwriters, composers and arts organisations around the country prepare to seize the limelight. Anita Awbi hears from those who will make it happen for UK music next year.

‘There is just so much talent. It appears to come from something deep within the British spirit. It’s almost as though we need to be heard in a different way, in a way that defies people’s expectations,’ enthuses David Arnold, film composer, producer, songwriter and music director of the 2012 Olympic Games closing ceremony.

There are still seven months to go until millions of visitors descend on London and more than a billion people around the world switch on their TVs to watch an event that’s been hailed ‘the greatest show on earth’. But all over the UK, songwriters, composers, arts organisations and charities are labouring hard on countless projects, ready to seize the limelight that the Games will bring.
Culturally, music is the one great export that we’ve got

‘I think culturally, music is the one great export that we’ve got,’ Arnold continues. ‘We’ve got such an incredible resource creatively – the musicians, the designers, the choreographers, the writers, the actors, the singers, the instrument makers, the people who run studios, the people who polish the floors at the dance studios, it’s incredible,’ he says, and he should know.

The Grammy and BAFTA award-winning composer has scored numerous blockbusters such as Godzilla and Stargate, replaced the legendary John Barry on the James Bond films, has co-written with Björk and produced the likes of Iggy Pop, Chrissie Hynde, George Michael and Shirley Bassey.

It was shortly after working with Bassey on her 2009 album The Performance, and associated Electric Proms gig, that Arnold first hatched the idea for a ‘super-concert’ and, within months, was invited to visit the Olympic Arena, which was still under construction at a wasteland in the East London district of Stratford.

He’s now hard at work with the closing ceremony creative team, which comprises Kim Gavin, Martin Green, Es Devlin and Patrick Woodward, and says there is an intimacy and inclusiveness within the group he hopes will spill over into the event. Although most details are still under wraps, he confirms that the very best of British music will be championed, covering all genres and key cultural movements.

‘The instinct for communication that we have, and the fact that you can be so effortlessly understood if you do it right, makes British music hugely attractive for a lot of people. The Olympics will be a celebration of that,’ he says.

For most, music and sport sit in very different silos; one thrives on sponsorship, competition and extreme physical exertion, while the other relies on creativity, communication and collaboration. But what both disciplines share is a thirst for ingenuity. LOCOG, the organising committee of London 2012, is keen to build bridges between the two, referring to the Games as a ‘festival of mind, body and spirit’. This notion was instrumental back in 2005 when the London bidding team pipped New York, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Moscow and Madrid to the post.

Most Olympics-related music activity is associated with either the opening and closing ceremonies or the expansive London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, which LOCOG says will be the largest ‘cultural celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic Games.’ Spread over four years, it has been designed to offer communities across Britain the chance to  be part of the Games, with a specific focus on young people.
Bring together leading UK and international artists and musicians

The culmination of the Cultural Olympiad will be the London 2012 Festival, which runs from 21 June next year and will bring together leading UK and international artists and musicians. The BBC, PRS for Music Foundation, Arts Council and Youth Music, to name a few, are all involved to some degree, as are community groups and local arts initiatives up and down the country.

Susannah Simons is the BBC’s London 2012 Project Executive, and she is closely linked to the PRS for Music Foundation’s New Music 20x12 project, as well as overseeing some of the corporation’s main music events such as Music Nation. She champions the links between music and sport. ‘On the surface the two may seem unrelated but they are about similar things. They are about skill, expertise, participation and about sharing things together,’ she says.

‘There are an awful lot of similarities in terms of the shared experience and understanding and appreciating the skills it’s taken to get somebody to a different level. It’s also about participating at your own level. Those similarities are in all of us.’

For Simons, the Olympiad is first and foremost an opportunity to celebrate British cultural life and raise the profile of the work that so many organisations and individuals are involved in. She hopes that this will help to foster an audience that remains long after the Games are over.

There is huge potential in the new alliances that have been formed under the Olympics banner, which could go on to nourish the music industry long after 2012. Noteworthy partnerships include the one between the BBC Concert Orchestra and Mercury Prize nominee and Radio 2 Folk Award winner Seth Lakeman. They are preparing for an innovative and much- anticipated concert at the Plymouth Pavilions in March. Meanwhile, folk band Bellowhead will work with Wiltshire’s Super Strings young musicians group for the Music Nation initiative.

‘There are several examples of those occasions where singer-songwriters can work together in a different way with some of the people who are already there [in the classical sector] doing things. With Music Nation, it’s about thinking about doing things another way,’ Simons explains. The project, which runs across the first weekend in March, is fuelled by the entire UK orchestral community – large, small, professional and amateur – and is one of the largest classical events associated with London 2012. Its primary aim is to foster new relationships across the sector.

In a similar vein, New Music 20x12 is a UK-wide commissioning programme for the Cultural Olympiad, consisting of twenty new pieces of music 12 minutes in length, that have been selected for their community outreach potential and cultural diversity. The project was initiated by private patrons Jillian Barker and David Cohen and is being organised by PRS for Music Foundation in partnership with the BBC, LOCOG, NMC Recordings and Sound and Music.

The programme, which features some leading lights in contemporary classical, jazz and folk music such as Mark-Anthony Turnage, Gavin Higgins, Sally Beamish, Julian Joseph and Sheema Mukherjee, will span prisons, ping pong clubs, church steeples and art spaces across the country. Each will receive a world premiere in a different location before coming together at the Southbank Centre, London, for a weekend in July.

The project will kick off on New Year’s Eve with Howard Skempton and the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. They will perform Five Rings Triples at All Saints Church in Kingston-upon-Thames and three other churches across the UK.
The initiative celebrates the breadth and originality of our musical life in Britain

Vanessa Reed, Executive Director of PRS for Music Foundation, believes that the initiative celebrates the breadth and originality of our musical life in Britain. ‘We have a wealth of talented composers in the UK who are creating a vast range of innovative classical, folk and jazz music that a lot of people won’t be aware of,’ she says.

‘This programme invites audiences in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be curious, to get involved and to enjoy unfamiliar music as part of an international celebration of what we’re so good at.’

Five Rings Triples will be followed by five showcases in January, including the HandsFree project created by Anna Meredith with the National Youth Orchestra. Together they will make music without instruments, using handclaps, body percussion and beat-boxing.

The Cultural Olympiad banner is also working hard in the  name of British pop music too. BBC Radio 1 has enlisted the help of Hackney born Leona Lewis, triple Ivor Award-winning Plan B, eminent DJ and tastemaker Trevor Nelson and triple jump champion Phillips Idowu, who will act as cultural ambassadors and engage with local young people in the run up to the Games. It forms part of a joined-up approach to the Olympics, which will culminate in the largest festival Radio 1 has ever hosted in London at Hackney Marshes on 23 and 24 June.
A practical demonstration of the spirit behind the Olympics

For Jason Carter, BBC Event Director at the London Festival 2012, the event is a practical demonstration of the spirit behind the Olympics. ‘Part of the reason we won the bid to host the Games was our Olympic promise to young people,’ he explains. ‘That’s what I see as our role in the Olympics; we’re reaching out to 100,000 young people in Hackney to offer them tickets for a major music event, plus we’re offering the rest of the country fantastic content. It’s about us celebrating young people in East London and across the UK, and there’s not enough of that at the moment.’

With more than 52,000 15 to 24-year-olds living in the borough, Carter believes the festival can engage young people who would otherwise be under-served. ‘In some quarters, there is not enough activity that’s really connecting with the young demographic. We’re putting something on for free for young people in an area where they might struggle to get a ticket for the Games, or struggle to afford one.’
An area of London which is very rich creatively

The festival is the largest in Radio 1’s history and will play host to hundreds of UK acts across dance, rock, pop, grime, urban and hip hop, across six stages. There will be both BBC Introducing and In New Music We Trust stages, giving priority to acts from Hackney. The selection process will follow the usual BBC Introducing formula; artists can submit their music online via the BBC Uploader, and event organisers will hook up with BBC Radio London to cherry-pick the most exciting emerging talent.

‘The way I see it is: you’ve got an area of London which is very rich creatively,’ Carter says. ‘Just look at all the artists, which are relevant to our audience, coming out of East London. It couldn’t be a better time for the likes of Professor Green, Leona Lewis, Labrinth, Plan B, Dizzee Rascal. We need to make the most of this.’

It is this determination, excitement and dedication to British music from all quarters of the industry that will elevate London 2012 from the sporting arenas of the capital city and out into the streets and venues around the country, engaging with local musicians and audiences, and showcasing the UK’s musical talents on a world-class stage.

David Arnold reflects: ‘Without being reductive about it, when you platform British music in this fashion for the world to look at, you realise quite what a gem it is. You realise what a resource it is, and I think that talent is extraordinary.’