Opera North commissions sound journeys for lockdown from Walking Home quintet

South African cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe: Responding to beneficial effects of walking. Picture: Mlungisi Mlungwana

OPERA North is creating Walking Home: Sound Journeys For Lockdown in response to the easing of Covid-19 regulations on exercise and time spent outdoors.

For this commission for BBC Arts and Arts Council England’s Culture in Quarantine programme, the Leeds company has asked five artists to write and record new works specifically to be heard while walking.

Crossing folk, jazz, Middle Eastern and African traditions, classical and contemporary music, with a propensity for experimentation and breaking the confines of genre, the contributors are South African cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe; Syrian-born qanun virtuoso Maya Youssef; Syrian-born Iraqi oud player and composer Khyam Allami; Anglo-Polish vocalist, violinist and songwriter Alice Zawadski and English accordionist and electronic experimentalist Martin Green, from the cutting-edge folk trio Lau.

Martin Green: Has a dawn or early morning walk in mind for his piece. Picture: Genevieve Stevenson

Building on Opera North’s history of innovative sound walks and installations, the five musicians are writing and recording their pieces in home studios across Britain and Europe. Once complete, Walking Home will be available through broadcast slots across BBC radio and television, through podcasts on BBC Sounds, and via the BBC Arts website, continuing the Culture in Quarantine mission to bring the arts to homes despite arts venue closures, social distancing and UK-wide lockdowns.

One of 25 new commissions for Culture in Quarantine,Walking Home is billed as a “vibrant cross-section of music-making in Britain today, made by musicians under lockdown for audiences in the same predicament”.

The series seeks to engage with the lockdown context for walking and solitary activity, each 15-minute piece “offering an opportunity to renew our imaginative connections with our environment”.

Maya Youssef: Intense and thoughtful music on the qanun

Jo Nockels, Opera North’s head of projects, says: “The spark for the Walking Home commissions came from the strange alchemy we found between walker, place and music that was powerfully evident in the past sound journey commissions we have made for the Humber Bridge and River Tyne.

“While these five new walking commissions are on a much more intimate scale, and meant for wherever you are, all five respond to the dynamic of walking, listening through headphones and taking in your surroundings to produce an experience as much created by the listener as by the artists. 

“They might offer a soundtrack to a daily escape from lockdown; intensify the sensations experienced on their chosen route; or conjure up something altogether harder to define.”

Iraqi oud player and composer Khyam Allami: Taking cinematic approach to disconcerting atmosphere of urban areas under lockdown

Nockels adds: “We are delighted to be working with five such brilliant and varied composer/musicians on this project, each of whom innovates way beyond the boundaries of genre. Together they will form a collection of music that is refreshing, unexpected and individual.”

Best known as one third of the visionary folk trio Lau, Martin Green’s reputation as a composer in his own right was cemented by an Ivor Award for his Opera North commission for the Great Exhibition of the North in 2018.

Evolving over the course of a half-hour walk along the banks of the River Tyne, Aeons was an epic sound work that featured the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North and Becky Unthank of The Unthanks. His contribution to the Walking Home series has a dawn or early morning walk in mind.

Alice Zawadski: Classical violin, gospel, jazz and folk. Picture: Monika S Jakubowska

Syrian-born Iraqi oud player Khyam Allami’s haunting installation Requiem For The 21st Century was an Opera North commission for the 2019 PRS New Music Biennale, combining microtonal tuning, ancient Arabic musical modes and generative software to produce ever-changing melodic sequences from speakers fitted within an array of decaying ouds.

Allami will be writing and recording his sound walk from his base in Berlin, taking a cinematic approach to the disconcerting atmosphere of urban areas under lockdown.

Now based in Manchester, cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe moves seamlessly from collaborations with world musicians and beatboxers to concerto performances and solo classical recitals.

He spent an Opera North Resonance residency working on a new body of solo music for the cello influenced by traditional African instruments. His sound journey will acknowledge the beneficial effects that he has felt from walking over the past weeks.

Walking Home: Five artists are writing and recording new works specifically to be heard while walking

Born and raised in Damascus, Maya Youssef plays the qanun, the Arabic form of the zither with a history dating back to the 19th century BC. She has made her home in the UK after recognition from the Government’s Exceptional Talent programme for her intense and thoughtful music, rooted in the Arabic classical tradition but taking inspiration from Western classical music and jazz. 

Drawing on classical violin, gospel, jazz and folk, Alice Zawadzki’s output as soloist and collaborator is prodigious and eclectic. Her second solo album, last year’s Within You Is A World Of Spring, showcased her mastery of a range of styles in an inspired collection of songs.

Opera North is “still in discussion with the BBC about a release date, but hopefully it will be within the next month or so”.