Walking home: step into Opera North’s new series of sound journeys for lockdown

Following the recent easing of regulations on exercise and time spent outdoors in the UK, Opera North has announced Walking Home: Sound Journeys for Lockdown, its commission for BBC Arts and Arts Council England’s Culture in Quarantine programme.

Building on the Leeds-based company’s history of award-winning and innovative sound walks and installations, five artists will write and record new works specifically to be listened to whilst walking. Crossing folk, jazz, Middle Eastern and African traditions, classical and contemporary music, with a tendency to experiment and to break the confines of genre, the contributors are cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe; qanun virtuoso Maya Youssef; oud player and composer Khyam Allami, vocalist, violinist and songwriter Alice Zawadski; and accordionist and experimentalist Martin Green of the folk trio Lau.

One of 25 new commissions for Culture in Quarantine, Walking Home is a vibrant cross-section of music-making in Britain today, made by musicians under lockdown for audiences in the same predicament. The series engages with our new context for walking and solitary activity, and each 15-minute piece offers an opportunity to renew our imaginative connections with our environment.

“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”, comments Opera North’s Head of Projects Jo Nockels.

“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.

“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 featuring the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North and Becky Unthank. His contribution to the series has a dawn or early morning walk in mind.

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 current base in Berlin, taking a cinematic approach to the disconcerting atmosphere of urban areas under lockdown.

Born in South Africa and 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 a recent 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.

Born and raised in Damascus, Maya Youssef is a virtuoso of the qanun, the distinctive Arabic form of the zither with a history dating back to the nineteenth century BC. She has made her home in the UK following 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.

With a background that takes in 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 an extraordinary range of styles in an inspired collection of songs.

The artists are currently writing and recording their pieces in home studios across the UK and Europe. Along with the other commissions, 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 with the Culture in Quarantine mission to bring the arts to UK homes despite arts venue closures, social distancing, and UK-wide lockdowns

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