FIVE QUESTIONS WITH A LITTLE ORCHESTRA
Led by Monster Bobby (pianist and percussionist Bobby Barry), who founded the project in early 2010, A Little Orchestra is a delightful ten-member collective whose music is anything but stuffy (the other members are: bassoonist Alex Billig, flutist Catherine Carr, clarinetist Nicola Burnett Smith, cellist Helen Short, violist Jill Faure, and violinists Claire Hadidjenar, Matthew Walker, Rosie French, and Natalie Hudson). Refreshingly unassuming, the London-based group's songs sound more like the kind of thing one would encounter at a town fair than the concert hall—which isn't to suggest the group's averse to performing classical works. In fact, A Little Orchestra plays contemporary, minimalist classical pieces as well as original compositions, and, as its splendid debut full-length Clocks illustrates, is especially keen on collaborating with others such as Model Village, Simon Love, Haiku Salut, Gordon McIntyre of Ballboy, Apple Eyes, and Darren Hayman (the textura review is here). A few weeks ago, Bobby Barry and violinist Natalie Hudson kindly recounted how the group came into being and clarified what differentiates A Little Orchestra from other outfits.
1. First of all, in terms of historical background, how did A Little Orchestra come into being?
Bobby: It comes out of a number of different things. The name itself is a reference to something in a novel called Serenade by James M. Cain (the author of Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity). But even before reading that, I had this desire to do something with a reasonably large group of people that didn't necessarily involve the standard guitars, bass, and drums of most bands. At first, I just wanted to do something one-off: get as many people together as possible to play In C by Terry Riley—and In C was the first thing we did as A Little Orchestra. But then it becomes: once you've done that, you've got this big group of people who have had this kind of training in playing music together that is scored but still partly improvised (within certain limits, of course), so what else can you do? Because playing In C is like a sort of training in a way. I was also keen to do something that didn't require any sort of amplification—some sort of group that could play anywhere—but to get as far away as possible from the slightly lame thing that a lot of bands do when they have to do a radio session and they just strum through their songs on an acoustic guitar. The other thing was that I had all these ideas knocking around in my head since finishing my Masters degree in contemporary music that I wanted to try out somehow. So, even if a lot of our public performances might involve fairly traditional songs, at rehearsals we're just as likely to be pursuing ideas that stem from Fluxus, or from John Cage, or Stockhausen, or from some of the composers involved in the San Francisco Tape Music Center.
2. Many of the songs on your debut album Clocks feature other artists, but they don't appear to be songs where a singer was simply brought in as a guest to complete the track. Instead, they appear to be full-fledged collaborations. Could you discuss one (or two) of those collaborations as a representative example of how you handled the collaborative process for the album's material?
Natalie: Prior to recording the album, we had been collaborating with other bands such as Pocketbooks, The Loves and The Pipettes—sometimes even appearing on their records. We basically thought that if we were playing with other bands, why not ask some of our friends to come and write songs for us? We were very lucky in that pretty much everyone we asked to write a song for us agreed to do it! We originally had a theme of “soundtracks for imaginary films,” but the songs soon broadened out into something much wider than that. The way it worked was that our collaborators would send us a demo of their song, and then we would write an arrangement. For those singers who lived far away (such as Gordon in Edinburgh) we exchanged recordings and demos until we were happy with how it sounded.
3. Can you put into words the concept behind A Little Orchestra? And relatedly, how did the concept for the group come into being—was it something predetermined or did it crystallize over time as the members played together, etc?
Bobby: The concept, really, is to be a sort of community orchestra—albeit for a fairly diffuse and hard to define community—that hopefully takes some of the still only semi-permeable barriers between different musical tribes and styles and makes them a little bit more blurry. And although the basics of that idea were probably there in some way from the beginning, it's definitely something that has developed and matured with the interaction of the particular players and the particular circumstances under which we play together. The fact that we have always rehearsed in this community centre attached to a housing estate in Kilburn, for instance, has become quite a big part of the way we think of ourselves in a way that I certainly couldn't have predicted. So, we'll do concerts for the housing estate at Christmas for instance, and that's always been really nice and, in some ways, as important a part of what we do as playing at festivals or other sorts of concerts. To be honest, when we first started, it was just about getting lots of people together and seeing what we could do. Then there was this gradual process of refining that, seeing what we could do best, if you like. The next step, I think, will be to start expanding those possibilities again, and moving A Little Orchestra into some new and surpassing directions.
4. Though the ensemble was formed by Barry in 2010, I'm wondering how much of the group's sound is defined by the band members. In other words, how much of a say does the individual performer have on the arrangement of a given song?
Bobby: Increasingly, everyone in the group is involved in writing and arranging the pieces we play. If the whole thing started off as my idea, it's been shaped and refined along the way by all the people involved in it at every stage of the group's development. In terms of what we play, how we play it, and who we play with, these are questions that everyone in the group is involved with and everyone is bringing ideas to the table. It doesn't quite work like a normal band, in as much as we won't just have four chords and some lyrics and then jam it out until we've got something that sounds alright. There are notes on paper in advance. We work to written scores like a traditional orchestral ensemble—even if some of the scores we've worked with leave fairly large degrees of freedom, sometimes even specifying no more than a few lines of text instructions.
5. How for the group members does the experience of playing in A Little Orchestra differ from playing in a regular orchestra?
Bobby: A Little Orchestra is probably more like a band than most other orchestras. It's certainly a lot more relaxed and informal than a regular orchestra. There is no dress code for performances (I once said to everyone: don't wear black at the gig, wear bright colours—but a few people were, like, all my clothes are black! So now everyone just wears what they want). It's also very open. People come along for a while and play with us and then perhaps they get busy with other things so they have to drop out for a while and then maybe they come back later. There's enough people that we can accommodate that quite comfortably. A few people have said that A Little Orchestra is the most fun and friendliest orchestral ensemble they've ever played in.