Wednesday, 14 August 2013

A tale of intervention

As an artist and community musician with a background in rural community  development I regularly reflect on the impact of my work on communities. Last June I rounded up some of those reflections in a paper that I presenred at the seminar meaning(less)meanings at Gray's School of Art, Robert Gordon University, in Aberdeen. Here is slightly shortened version of the paper. The full paper will be published online some time this autumn.

Community music, and community arts in general, has been on the scene since the 1960s (Lacy, 1995; Crehan, 2011; Rooke and Garrido Sanchez, 2011). Artists may add some form of community engagement to their projects to justify their work and/or to respond to calls from funding organisations to include an element of outreach work in project applications (Kester, 1999). Others do so because they want to contribute to social change. This raises questions as to what is understood to be a community, the communities that are engaged, the objectives of such community engagement, and the extent to which such engagement is meaningful. Here, I’ll use the example of my own community music work to discuss how one can intervene in, and influence, communities through the arts. 

Community music 
Rather than defining community music I tend to describe my own approach through a number of characteristics. To me, community music is based on the premise that music is a means to intervene in communities and bring them together. This is grounded in ideas of social activism in which projects are relevant to communities, and audiences are seen as active participants rather than passive receivers (Lacy, 1995). My projects emphasise process rather than outcome, and the experience of participation rather than quality of performance (cf. Small, 1999). To allow people with varying musical backgrounds to participate, all projects include an element of song, whilst many are stratified to provide opportunities for people with more musical experience to shine as well. Many of my projects use folksong or folksong-inspired music as participants are likely to be familiar with this. To offer participants with limited singing and instrumental experience a chance to participate I often include unison choruses and an element of creative writing.

Community music projects often last three to five months. Though each project is different, they usually start with a phase in which I engage with communities to gather their memories and reflections. On basis of this, I tend to compose a piece of music which is subsequently rehearsed in one or more community workshops. In some projects I work with pre-formed groups like schools and community groups, in other projects I recruit participants from the wider public who participate in one or more events.

The themes of my projects usually relate to the everyday life experiences of participants (Lacy, 1995) and deal with heritage or social history (rather than national history) or social issues like migration and gender. In doing so, the projects aim to reinvigorate the bond participants feel with community, place and time, in turn strengthening their sense of identity (Lacy, 1995). My musical compositions tell stories based on the memories and reflections shared by the participants in the first phase of the project. To do so, words play a central role in my musical compositions, and are usually included as song lyrics or poetry.

What distinguishes my work from that of many other community musicians is the kind of people I engage and my objectives for doing so. Community music organisations like Sistema Scotland train musicians, and aim at enhancing their participants’ musicianship skills. Their focus thus is on the personal development of participants. Community objectives may be achieved through this, but they are achieved through personal development in first instance. In contrast, my projects place the community objectives at the centre, aiming at a degree of transformation or socio-cultural change as a result of my projects (Lacy, 1995; Crehan, 2011). The focus hence is on the quality of participation rather than music-making. As a result, my emphasis in community music projects is in many ways closer to the ethos and ways of working of community artists (Lacy, 1995; Crehan, 2011) rather than other community musicians. 

Identifying communities  
To discuss the kind of communities I engage in my projects, I need to define what I mean with the term community. Artists, politicians and academics have defined the term community in different ways. The term can refer to the functioning of the institutions that guide the interaction of a group of people, or it can refer to people identifying with each other (Vergunst, 2008). In the context of community music, my understanding of community starts from the second interpretation. People identify with each other because they feel they have something in common, i.e. they share a symbol (Cohen, 1985). Those symbols capture the meaning of a community for its members, but are in themselves open for a range of interpretations. Their strength lies in the ability to use them in a ‘them and us’ manner, thus allowing for the exclusion of people from communities who are considered not to share the symbol (Vergunst, 2008). A symbol can be living in the same locality (a community-of-place), or a specific interest (a community-of-interest). Whereas a shared interest can be concise and straightforward, the symbol shared by communities-of-place can be complex and multi-layered. To become part of a community one not only needs to identify with a community and be identified as a member of that community, but one also has to participate on the terms set by that community (Vergunst, 2008).

What kind of communities do I engage in my community music projects? In Burn of Sound, a community music project commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage at Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve, I have worked with three local primary schools. Focusing on the experience of nature with all five senses and capturing these experiences in creative writing, the project helped pupils to develop a sense-of-place. Though for the convenience of communicating with the commissioning organisation I call this project a community music project, I consider this to be an example of a project that promotes personal rather than community development.

An alternative approach to community music projects is one promoting the development of communities-of-place. In the Culter Mills project, in collaboration with St. Peter’s Heritage Trust and community artist Norma Hunter, the trust, former mill employees and residents from Peterculter looked at the legacy of the former papermill in Peterculter. In Warp and Weft, a project for Dundee Heritage, I looked at the untraditional gender relations following the large-scale employment of women in the city’s jute industry which left their often unemployed husbands run the household and look after the children. In both mill projects I worked with the community-of-place, with a view to reinvigorating one of the symbolic layers around which this community comes together.

In addition, one could say, the community music projects themselves add a new layer to the symbol that unites a community of place. This became particularly clear in the Culter Mills project in my own village. The face-to-face interaction with participants extended beyond the project as people identified with me on the bus and regularly spoke to me about the project, the papermill as well as their personal lives. The familiarity and trust resulting from the perceived shared symbol thus triggered former participants to speak to me, which in turn renewed their trust in me and added a layer of meaning to the symbol that united us as members of the same community-of-place.

To reinforce the face-to-face project activities I write blogs in which I reflect on the project. These blogs, together with press releases, general publicity and networking, reinforce the sense-of-community experienced by participants in the face-to-face activities. In the Culter Mills project, the visibility of the project made participants feel that people were talking about the project they were part of. The heightened visibility of the project thus gave participants a feeling that the project they were part of mattered, thereby reinforcing their sense-of-community.

In those community music projects in which I promote community rather than personal development, I work primarily with communities-of-place. Through my projects the complex and multi-layered symbols that unite communities-of-place are reinforced through face-to-face activities and the wider narrative created by blog posts, press releases, publicity and networking. The project communities created through community music projects add a layer of meaning to the symbol that unites a community-of-place. Community music projects thus intervene in communities-of-place in a similar manner as that Lacy (1995) considers the new genre public art to be an intervention.

Intervening in communities 
Community music projects can be seen as an intervention in that they are designed to take a decisive or intrusive role in order to determine events (Douglas, 2005). Not only can community music projects be seen as an intervention in that they reinvigorate the symbol around which communities-of-place gather, the intervention can also entail the renewal of such symbols. Through the intervention of a community music project identities can thus be formed and transformed (Kester, 1999). The Parallel Lives project, for Arts Development, Aberdeen City Council, was carried out with this type of intervention in mind. The aim of this project was to improve the relations between long-term residents and people from Central and Eastern Europe living amongst them. This was based on the understanding that to improve community relations the two groups of residents would have to identify, and ultimately engage, with each other. I thus worked with each of the groups separately before aiming to bring them together in a final celebratory singing event.

The work with long-term residents was based on exploring their own history of migration for work through traditional song. The Song of the Fish Gutters relates the story of herring girls, young women who followed the herring along the East Coast of Scotland down to Yarmouth in England, to work in this seasonal industry. After singing the song we explored the experiences of herring girls through reading first-hand accounts. The participants, many of whom had themselves worked in the fish industry, then wrote a song in which they expressed some of the experiences of migration for work of herring girls.

The work with people from Central and Eastern Europe was much more challenging. Initially, it was hard to find participants. At the outset of the project I contacted a range of migrant organisations, churches and language centres, but with very limited positive response. The lack of response may have been due to the Central and Eastern European migrants’ desire to keep themselves to themselves, their post-communism lack of trust (cf. Crehan, 2011) in authorities, and resulting lack of experience of active citizenship (Rooke and Garrido Sanchez, 2011). In the end, I worked with a small group of Central and Eastern European mothers who attended a mother-and-toddler group. This type of group demands little commitment of its participants to attend on a regular basis and it did not have an appointed leader who could form the link between me and the participants. Some of the mothers had difficulties speaking English and most of the conversations had to be translated by mothers who did master the language. It was in this context that I discussed the women’s experiences of migrating to Scotland with the participants. Eventually, I wrote the song for the women.  

None of the participants from Central and Eastern European came to the final celebrations. This disappointed the long-term residents and needed careful negotiation. We arranged for some of the long-term residents to meet some of the mothers briefly during one of the mother-and-toddler sessions. The final singing event did, however, highlight the many similarities in how herring girls and people from Central and Eastern Europe experienced their migration for work.

The project Parallel Lives was designed as an intervention to help long-term residents and people from Central and Eastern Europe living in the same neighbourhood identify with each other, thereby improving community relations. The project has shown that such intervention needs continuous monitoring and adjusting in response to events. Community music projects that aim to intervene in communities thus highlight the continuous negotiation between the commissioning organisation, the community musician, participants and other stakeholders (cf. Lacy, 1995; Kester, 1999). The musician does not control the process as the sole author (Douglas, 2005). Instead, each of the stakeholders has the power to influence the negotiation process, and this includes the power of limited participation or not participating at all. 

Contesting communities 
Thus far we’ve seen that community music projects can reinvigorate communities-of-place and intervene in the way symbols that unite such communities are constructed. Projects can be used to highlight popular ways in which communities are symbolically constructed and contest these symbols. This was an unexpected consequence of the community music project Warp and Weft, for Dundee Heritage Trust. In this project, I worked with the trust at their museum Verdant Works to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the weaving trade in Dundee. The popular narrative about the jute industry in Dundee emphasises the fact that women replaced men in the jute industry and became breadwinners while their often unemployed husbands ran the household and looked after the children. The museum’s exhibition is grounded in this popular narrative as was Sharman MacDonald’s play She Town that was staged in Dundee in the same period as the community music project took place. The project Warp and Weft started with a memory-sharing weekend aimed to engage different generations of Dundee women. What stood out, however, was that the men who had worked in the mills came forward, drawing attention to their contribution to the jute industry post-war. They had been spinners, technicians, or worked in the office. As a group they were less easy to capture than what one participant called ‘the vast army of millgirls’ in the 1930s, as their work was more disparate. The men’s stories tended to emphasise how their work enabled women to do their job. When a loom broke down, a male technician would be called upon for repairs. The experiences of men working in the jute mills turned out to be significantly different from those of the women who worked in the industry.

During the memories weekend the men who worked in the mills thus took the opportunity to challenge and question the symbol that had made their contribution to the city’s jute industry invisible. The men felt they wanted to belong to the ‘mill community’ as they had worked in the mills, but were unable to relate to the symbols around which this community was constructed as it did not acknowledge their presence and contribution on the work floor.

Participation and quality of engagement 
This paper set out to identify some of the impacts of my community music work on communities and the extent to which such interventions are meaningful. In exploring the communities I engage, I found that those community music projects that promote community rather than personal development reinvigorate the symbols that unite communities-of-place and add a layer of meaning to them. Community music projects also allow to renegotiate such symbols. As an intervention, projects are constructed around a process of continuous negotiation between the commissioning organisation, the community musician, participants and other stakeholders, and demand continuous monitoring and adjustment. Projects may also highlight the way symbols for specific communities are constructed and how such symbols, because of their content, can be exclusive in character.

There is, however, a danger to overestimate the impact of community music projects on communities. The number of people participating in my projects is generally low (between twenty and thirty participants at final singing events), representing only a small proportion of the total population. In some projects I work with pre-formed groups, in others I form a new community from members of the wider public. Especially in the latter context the endorsement of the commissioning organisation is vital as press releases, general publicity and networking can make or break the recruitment of participants. That said, the way a project is presented will determine whether people feel able to identify with the theme and attracted to the methods used in the project, and whether they feel the project is for them. In the Culter Mills project, for example, I was warned not to use the words ‘choir’ and ‘choral’ when presenting my project as these words were considered to sound posh. Though it is likely that the participants are those in the community who are more vocal and active in other initiatives as well (cf. Crehan, 2011), they are likely to share their project experiences with others in their community. It is in this way, as well as through blog posts, press releases, general publicity and networking, that multiple audiences are reached (Lacy, 1995). Though the number of participants may be low and representing only a small proportion of the local population, other people may develop a sense of ownership as well. A sense of ownership can thus be established through direct and indirect participation, though the intensity of such ownership is likely to vary dependent on the intensity of the engagement (Crehan, 2011).

Once the participants are engaged, the impact of projects on communities is influenced by the degree of genuine collaboration (Kester, 1999; Crehan, 2011). Though in all projects participants are involved in the information gathering and music-making phases, the projects vary with respect to whether the participants write a song or I write the lyrics (based on what people have come up with in the information gathering phase) and compose the music myself. Working with a pre-formed group that engages in all stages of a project provides the continuity of participation that makes it easier to let participants write a song. The way the collaboration between the musician, commissioning organisation, and the participants is set up also influences the assumptions made regarding the expertise of me as a community musician, the degree to which participants are allowed to shape the project, and the extent to which the musician and the commissioning organisation control the process. In the commissioning process, and with a view to keeping the project budgets as low as possible, many organisations ask for detailed work plans that describe every stage of the process in detail and with identifiable targets. This leaves little space for participants to influence the structure of the process. The boundaries of the commission and the funding landscape thus influence the outlook of the projects (Rooke and Garrido Sanchez, 2011). Within these detailed work plans it is also easier to fit workshops (Crehan, 2011) that have a clear structure and meet identifiable targets rather than more time-consuming networking that has a less predictable outcome. In case of my work with people from Central and Eastern Europe in Parallal Lives, such networking would have been preferable as it could have contributed to the relationship of trust required for participants to engage. The character of the collaboration with participants is thus creative (Crehan, 2011) rather than structural. Also, because of the way in which projects are set up and funded, there is often little opportunity to continue contact with communities much beyond the conclusion of a project (Kester, 1999). Such sustained contact with the communities worked with would, however, be desirable to continue and enhance the changes set in motion as part of the community music project (Lacy, 1995).

The impacts of community music projects on communities is thus not only dependent on the idea and musical content of a project, but also on the number of participants and the quality of such engagement. Project participants are likely to harbour multiple identities related to residency, profession, family and a wide range of other interests. At any one time, the relative importance of each of these identities relies on the context (place, people, purpose) in which they find themselves. The intervention of community music projects creates a specific context of place, people and purpose. Though community music projects may make significant impacts, they are likely to influence only part of people’s complex and multilayered sense-of-identity.

A meaningful intervention? 
Despite the limitations discussed above, many of which are shared with community arts and social activism in general, I consider my community music work to be meaningful as it provides an opportunity for discussing social reality with communities (Kester, 1999). Doing so through music – or arts – gives an opportunity to reach out to people who might otherwise not readily engage in other forms of social activism. Music – and other forms of art – also provides an opportunity to discuss aspects of social reality that would be less discussable head on and it may make it easier for participants to challenge their own beliefs and actions. I consider my community music projects to be meaningful interventions because they allow to reach out to a wider audience and add depth to the discussion of social reality.

COHEN, A. P., 1985. The symbolic construction of communities. London: Tavistock.

CREHAN, K., 2011. Community art. An anthropological perspective. London and New York: Berg.

DOUGLAS, A., 2005. On the edge: the visual arts in remote rural contexts. In: MILES, M. and Hall, T., eds. Interventions. Advances in art in urban futures, 4: pp. 89-106.

KESTER, G., 1999. Dialogical aesthetics: a critical framework for littoral art. Variant 9.

LACY, S., 1995. Cultural pilgrimages and metaphoric journeys. In: LACY, S., ed. Mapping the terrain. New genre public art. Seattle and Washington: Bay Press.  

ROOKE, A. and GARRIDO SANCHEZ, C., 2011. Taking part case study: Stream Arts. Goldsmiths, University of London.

SMALL, C., 1998. Musicking. The meanings of performing and listening. Hanover, NH, USA : Wesleyan University Press.

VERGUNST, P. J. B., 2008. Social integration: re-socialisation and symbolic boundaries in Dutch rural neighbourhoods. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 34(6), pp. 917-934.

Copyright text and images Petra Vergunst

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