• Holly Mathieson

A Day in the Life of the Nevis Ensemble: VisitScotland.org

Jon Hargreaves and Holly Mathieson, Artistic Directors, Nevis Ensemble


Nevis Ensemble perform in the Outer Hebrides. Photo Courtesy of Tommy Ga Ken Wan

What are the origins of Nevis Ensemble and what do your roles involve?

Nevis came about as the brainchild of our CEO Jamie Munn and board member Jude Walsh after they toured Scotland with the original Dutch street orchestra, The Ricciotti Ensemble. I think they recognised a philosophy of music-making and communal spirit that would translate well to Scotland, and sowed the seeds very quickly for what has become a Scottish icon in the space of just 2 years.


Jamie really is the mad genius behind the strategic planning and day-to-day running of Nevis; as co-Artistic Directors, we advise on any artistic and musical matters, including repertoire, player recruitment, new commissions and creative projects, but really our proper work starts on the first day of tour, when we meet the players in a remote location for about 3 or 4 days of intense rehearsal. It is very little time to get through up to 35 pieces of music, of every genre, especially as Jamie fills every possible crack in the schedule with yoga sessions, walking, cooking and cleaning duties, lectures and training from visiting experts. Once the bus packs up and heads out on tour, we oversee the players' choice of repertoire for each concert, share the conducting between ourselves, keep an eye on the musicians' energy and engagement levels, monitor the quality of the playing and keep everyone focused.


As fun as it is for the musicians, the real focus of the tour is what we bring to people and communities, so there is a constant balancing act between how much fun we're having and what is needed in this particular gig, what is appropriate for this specific audience, and whether we need to refine our process. At the end of the day, though, if we really feel as a group that we're delivering something that was needed/appreciated/unexpected, then that translates to massive good vibes for us.



What are some of the things that make Nevis Ensemble different to other orchestras?

Our repertoire - in any gig you will could hear Beethoven and Bowie, Mozart and Rage against the Machine, a piece of avante garde new music written the week before, singalong jazz standards and Scots folk reels that get everyone up and dancing. The players think really carefully about how to programme for each concert separately, with as little bias for one genre over another as we can.


Our dance moves - our drummer is the only player to sit down (a necessity behind a kit!) Everyone else is on their feet, enjoying the groove and feeling the music with their entire bodies. It is unchoreographed, infectious (in the good way), and often very silly. I'm willing to bet we'd be the only orchestra on earth who could get an audience of toddlers and 90-year olds to do improvised interpretive dance together.


Our lack of (stuffy) boundaries - the players talk to the audience, sit down to listen when they're not playing, and have a meal and a cuppa with the audience afterwards. If someone in the audience cries, one of us will give them a hug; if someone wants to climb on the podium, we'll teach them how to conduct.

You were due to tour Water Stories as part of the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020. What impact has coronavirus had on your plans for this and other activity?

Like all performers, Covid-19 has completely curtailed what we can do with live performance and travel. However, we're a comparatively lithe organisation, and well used to adapting on the spot to strange and unexpected challenges, so the players have been very amenable to some inventive ways of connecting with people. Our motto has always been music for everyone, everywhere. That doesn't stop during lockdown. We're focusing our energy on making resources for the many people in Scotland who don't have access to the internet, commissioning as many small-scale new works as we can afford, and connecting people from distant communities through shared creative projects.

Tell us about your Living Room Ensemble project.

The big motivation behind it was to use our music to get other people playing, dancing, and being creative in their homes. We wanted to make something really fun and interactive that families could do as a home schooling activity, elderly folk and those with serious health issues could do to inject a bit of fun into their days while they're separated from their loved ones by the quarantine, and that musicians young and old around the world could contribute to while they're kept away from their usual rehearsals and performances.


The first project was the Proclaimers classic, 500 Miles. We've had a mountain of video submissions and will be releasing the final video shortly. And we'll soon be announcing the next installment - you'll have to keep an eye on our social media posts to see what it is, but all of the projects will be quite distinct musically, and offer different ways for the public to get involved. At the end, you'll have a really fun video or recording of you making music with people from all over the globe, to share with loved ones.


The Musical Postcards project also sounds like a fun project, what was the inspiration behind it and are you excited to share the new pieces of music?

Yes, supporting composers by commissioning significant works has been a central part of our remit from day one. With the lockdown in place, we've had to put a couple of those larger commission premieres on hold. We knew we wanted to replace them with something in the interim, and since we can't get the whole orchestra together, we thought small pieces for solo instruments would be ideal. The most exciting part for us, though, is inviting members of the public to become part of the commissioning process, by providing the initial inspiration for the pieces. That's an aspect of creative life that most people never have a chance to engage with. It's a powerful thing, we think, to say "your memories, your opinions, your neighbourhood are worthy of high art"


Normally you would be working with local communities and performing in front of live audiences. What have been the opportunities and challenges you’ve faced by having to adapt to this new way of working?

The internet is awesome, but you can't fight latency. It is, quite simply, currently impossible to play together in real time over the internet for even two people, let alone 40. So you have to go back to your main objectives as an ensemble, and think of ways to achieve those aims without traditional music-making. It might be multi-player videos like we're all seeing online, or it might be something else entirely. The big thing we were absolutely adamant about is that we didn't want to just make noise for the sake of making noise. Either we wanted do something that was true to our core principles of taking music to those who have limited access to the arts, or we'd not do anything at all. But once we were clear about that, the ideas came very quickly.


Do you think what’s happening now will lead to longer-term changes in the way you work?

We think it will, yes, not just for us but for the music industry as a whole. It is proving a challenge in some ways, but also a catalyst for really positive innovation that opens arts participation up to people who are inhibited in any way from coming to concerts or joining in. We hope that door remains open forever. It has also shifted the spotlight away from the slick, perfected end-product of professional performances. to the far more human and relatable act of rehearsal, playfulness and experimentation. We don't hear the most professional sound engineering or most perfect technique when someone plays from their spare bedroom, but we do see someone trying, making mistakes, improving. At Nevis we've always felt that those are the sorts of interactions that have the most value, for players and audience, but the current situation really drives it home.


On a more practical level, like many fields of work, the wider music industry will really need to rethink its reliance on travel. Touring could look very different after this for the big orchestras. Some international touring is a major source of revenue for many organisations, so it will affect operating budgets overall and curtail what can be done at home in the short-term, but given the enormous strain on the environment, perhaps it wouldn't be a bad thing if massive orchestras flew around the the world with all of their instruments a little less.

Which of Scotland's coasts or waters are you most looking forward to visiting in the future once it’s safe to do so?

We're both very keen to get up to the Shetland and Orkney islands at some point, but there are some magic spots closer to home. The sunny bays on the north eastern shore of Loch Lomond are gorgeous on a hot day, and Holly has some ancestral roots in Plockton and Attadale, on Loch Carron, including some really ancient family lands at nearby Loch Achaidh na h-Inich. We'll have to go and explore the area!



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