Photo: Alex Walker
Birmingham has a remarkable canal network, with 35 miles of waterways to its name – more than Venice, you’ll often hear people say. Of course, the famous Italian city has its singing Gondoliers, but in the past you would have been able to hear traditional songs on our urban waterways too. Nowadays they aren’t so often the setting for music, but that’s set to change this September when the acclaimed Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) stages the first classical concert on its home city’s canals. There will be two free outdoor concerts – on 10 and 23 September – both giving the public the chance to hear a new composition written for the occasion, Canal Serenade.
“I was new in the city and astonished by the canal system,” explains BCMG’s artistic director Stephan Meier, who commissioned the piece. “As a musician you always carry the music inside yourself and there was this special atmosphere, people sitting alongside the canals. That’s how the idea was born.” Cue three composers: Richard Baker from the UK, Yannis Kyriakides from Cyprus and Ondřej Adámek from the Czech Republic. They’ve each written a piece to be played on narrowboats that will travel down the Main Line, Fazeley and Worcester Canals, eventually meeting at Gas Street Basin at the heart of the canal system.
Meier felt that it was important for Canal Serenade to involve several artists, “because every canal has someone at the other end and you want to exchange something with them.” Once he had his trio of composers in place, it was time for a day trip. The team headed out, together with a trombonist and singer, to test the acoustics in various places along the route. The outing sparked three quite different ideas, explains Richard Baker. “Yannis has made a piece responding to the acoustics and space and the property of sounds coming from different directions slowly on a barge,” he says. “Ondřej’s music is a meditation on the public space around the canal. For me, Canal Serenade has this very particular resonance because I come from the area. I was thinking about the people as much as anything.”
“I had an immediate vision of a man or two men on the barge, one singing and one with an accordion,” says Baker. That initial idea blossomed into a group of songs setting poetry by Liz Berry, who draws on old broadside songs and uses Black Country dialect – familiar to Baker from his own local childhood. He’s written for tenor, accordion and percussion, and the other two composers have used other instruments. “Yannis has written a piece for trombone on the land and three barges which have loudspeakers on them. The barges echo and sustain material from the trombone and provide these drones at different points, that come in and out and create harmony. It’s really beautiful,” says Baker. “Ondřej has also used three barges, with percussion including pots, pans, tin cans and wooden blacks – and a surprise element.”
Of course, performing music on water is not without its challenges. Keeping everyone in time, for one. “We’ve all written music with quite a lot of flexibility, as you never quite know what’s going to happen!” says Baker. “For example, one of my songs is for people on three boats – percussion, accordion and tenor. They have patterns which in theory lock together, but if they don’t it doesn’t matter. There’s a signal from a bell at the end of every verse to tell them to get back together.”
Rehearsal is tricky too. “We’re going to have – literally – a dry run on land beforehand!” Baker says, laughing. “The great unknown will be how people in and around the space respond to what’s happening. Hopefully with delight!”
Canal Serenade is a celebration of Birmingham canals, with music travelling on the water by narrowboats to the point in Birmingham City Centre where the Main Line, the Fazeley and the Worcester Canals merge. Come along on Sunday 10 September or Saturday 23 September, 2017. No ticket required. Arrive from 3.30pm (for a 4pm start) at the canal towpath between Brindleyplace, the Barclaycard Arena and the National SEA LIFE Centre Birmingham, B1 2LG. For more details, head to the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) website.