Right. Musician-in-Residence. What’s all that about, then?

It’s a bit of a fascinating one, this, and also a tad convoluted. Stay with me. Won’t be long.

Way back before the pandemic changed our world, I was heavily involved in a big education project, with 85 school-kids all singing about things to do with Electronic Waste and the Circular Economy. Along with SÓN Orchestra colleagues, we managed to perform this, twice, just before the portcullis of lockdown descended.

This was the SÓN eWaste Project – part of the larger TRACE project, the title coming from TRAnsitioning to a Circular Economy. The other part was some inspired artwork by Susannah Pal.

Fast-foward a few years, and here we are again. Not only did the original TRACE Project win Campaign of the Year at the 2021 National Recycling Awards, but funding has recently been awarded from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for another project, this time involving me as Musician-in-Residence. The TRACE-E Project continues themes of eWaste and circular economy, but also brings me into close contact with some of the world’s top scientists working in semiconductor tech (with ARM, the chip giant), eTextiles, optoelectronics, waste-management and sustainability.

In essence, I’m meeting with research scientists, and seeing what triggers an artistic response. Searching for that little gem which gets my creative juices flowing.

And, then, I’m going to be bundling it all together into a performance piece, telling a story about the growing eWaste problem, using sound, music and more. The goal is to sow seeds of change in those who hear it. In other words, informing catalysing change through art.

Electro-minimalism: my guilty pleasure

Over recent weeks, I’ve been plunging regularly down the rabbit hole of Ableton, VST synth plug-ins, and all manner of sounds and samples. One of the chief difficulties has been bringing my music-tech knowledge up to the required speed for a project such as this – no easy matter, I’ll freely admit. I’ve spent 25 years as a professional conductor after all, and can perhaps comfortably tweak a Mahler symphony for performance, but finding where on earth I’ve put that sample loop is something I’m grappling with daily.

And then there’s the composing, the sketching, the finding of ideas that might actually work and not sound eternally crap. Or even, you know, create the actual mood I’m looking for. That’s something I’m finding frustrating and seemingly endless. Two steps forward, two steps back… And only a more furrowed brow to show for it.

But after a lot of faff I’ve developed scribble into sketches, ideas into samples, samples into useable sounds, and begun getting ideas to coalesce. Under a month ago, I didn’t even know what this project actually WAS – I had ideas, but none of them felt right, it lacked coherency and had no forward drive. Now as January eases into February, that has begun to change.

Only yesterday, I decided to add this little ditty – full of unashamedly retro, 80’s minimalist electro loops (courtesy of some marvellous Arturia sounds and a sample or two) – to some film clips of micro chips and circuit boards. And now it’s out into the wild, for all the world to see.

Bear in mind this is quite a big step for me: I’ve spent decades performing other people’s music, none of my own, and now I’ve got to overcome years of inertia and probably quite a few inner demons to get my creative voice out there.

But I’m getting there, for sure. If there’s anything I’ve learned during the pandemic’s seemingly endless silence, it’s to stop waiting, to just get on up, and do things. Life’s too short to second-guess your every creative move.

Thoughts very welcome, of course. I’d love to hear your views and answer your questions. Pop a comment below, or ping me a message on Twitter or Insta.

Next update soon! Maybe with some more synthy sounds. I’ll be updating you on some of my musical and scientific collaborators, and giving you some glimpses into some exciting eTextile plans being hatched specifically for the TRACE project. Watch this space.