INTERVIEW WITH COLLECTIVE31

Megan Preston Elliott, December 2017

Founded in 2015 by Naomi Wright and Catherine Underhill, Collective31 is a contemporary music and arts organisation that aims to make contemporary art accessible and bring together different art forms through collaboration. Collective31 organise events across the country, usually including music alongside another art form, such as fine art, design or dance. Each event involves living composers and artists, with a focus on emerging artists. Artists are either invited to compose or make something new for the event or to exhibit recent work.

Megan Elliott: What was your aim when you first started the organisation and has it changed?

Naomi Wright: When I started my masters at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, I had a lecture about professional life after college. They emphasised that there are few jobs in orchestras and how tough and competitive it is. I decided then that I would make something for myself, something that I was passionate about. So, I decided to set up an organisation and reached out to Catherine and others to see if they wanted to be involved.

Catherine Underhill: We then went to watch a colleague perform in a concert together and from there we came up with the name. A lot of things we did at first were in partnership with the Royal Welsh or another institution. However, since Naomi graduated we have become more independent and we have broadened who we are working with. We wanted to make art accessible for all and to be collaborative across art forms. This has remained, but the organisation has evolved naturally. 

Musical Chitchat

Courtesy of Collective31

'HEAR' exhibition

Courtesy of Collective31

NW: The way we go about putting on events has changed as when I was at university I didn't know so much about funding opportunities, such as with the Arts Council. At the Royal Welsh, you could apply to put on an event and use their facilities, so I took advantage of this opportunity whilst there and it gave us time to learn about how to organise these events. We were able to use their professional theatres and equipment and had the support of their technical team too.

CU: We also managed to use a gallery in the Royal Welsh College campus for one of our events.

NW: The project was called 'HEAR'. Design students at the Royal Welsh College made massive paintings and I decided to ask composers to write a piece of music for each of the portraits so that people could 'hear' a response to the art. It was only supposed to stay up for a week but the head of the college liked it so much so it ended up being extended for the whole academic year. It had a great response. The public had access to this part of the college sometimes too so I felt it was engaging a wide range of people. Lots of children enjoyed it. 

CU: We are keen to engage younger children more in future events too. 

NW: We also do outreach projects where we go into schools or invite schools to participate in music and art workshops. For example, for one of the workshops we invited a local artist to bring her work in and split the children into groups to compose a piece of music inspired by the artworks. We then played music to the children live and on a CD player and they created artworks inspired by the music. 

CU: We have tailored the workshops to different age groups of children, from both primary and secondary schools. We have an outreach page on our website where you can have a look at the projects that we have done.

ME: Why do you think it is important to engage young children in schools and inspire them to get creative?

NW: I think it's important to have imagination and to think outside the box. Engaging in the arts helps to develop a different way of thinking and encourages a curiosity that means that you never just take things at face value. It also helps with problem solving and can really boost someone's mood.

CU: I grew up involved in dance and music and want to offer children the same opportunities that I had. I believe that they shouldn't be limited by funding or anything like that. It's even more important now because children often don't get these opportunities on a day-to-day basis in schools due to budget cuts, whereas when I was at school we had a choir etc. 

NW: I also believe that life isn't about taking tests and ticking boxes but that school often makes children feel like it is. Especially now I have left education, I realise how little it matters. It is nice to be able to offer an alternative creative outlet for children to engage in. Also, arts subjects can help portray important or serious issues. These might be portrayed in the news but sometimes simply stating the facts doesn't resonate with people and people often become desensitised to these issues. But, when you put them into an art form, it can help engage people and it asks them to view things in a different way.

CU: When we did a workshop with one of the schools, one of the children expressed something quite emotional that maybe they could not have expressed otherwise. It gives children another outlet to express their feelings and this suits a lot of people.

"engaging in the arts...encourages a curiosity that means you never just take things at face value"

Collective 31 Directors with Kantos Choir Directors after 'Handel's Messiah' event

Courtesy of Collective 31 

ME: What has been your most exciting project so far?

CU: For me, I would say ‘Handel's Messiah’, because it was our biggest and perhaps most successful event. We got funding, sold out and had to add extra seats. It was a collaboration between ourselves and Kantos Chamber Choir, based in Manchester. They performed and we put together an orchestra. We are going to try and tour it again in 2018/19. 

NW: The Arts Council funding we received for this project meant we were able to pay people and put on a really professional event. 

CU: It was the first time that we weren't co-existing with a university and the first time that we were fully independent and doing what we wanted to do.

NW: A close second for me would be the 'Hear' project, mentioned earlier, due to the incredible feedback that we received. To have the event extended for the whole academic year was really exciting and the response was amazing.

ME: What would you say are the biggest challenges you have faced? 

CU: One of the main recurring obstacles is funding. At the moment, we're finding that funding is limited and it can hold us back from moving forward with projects, whilst waiting to hear back on the results of a funding application. Creatively, we always have different ideas though and have managed to find ways to keep working regardless. However, it is frustrating when trying to plan things, not knowing whether the funding will come in. 

NW: The difficulty with putting on arts events that are accessible is that ticket prices need to be kept low, but then the ticket prices do not cover the cost of putting on one of those events where you need to hire a venue and instruments, pay the orchestra/choir/composers/sound engineers etc. So, we do have to rely on funding to make these events accessible and it is very tight at the moment.

CU: It's not the end of the world though - it means that you work harder for what you're doing, but that it's just a little bit more challenging trying to find solutions. Ultimately, it often just means that the process takes longer. For example, some of the ideas that we are working on now will not be fully realised until 2019/2020. It also means that there are gaps in between projects and that we can't run projects simultaneously. 

October 2017 'Snow White- A New Ballet' workshop: Bond Photography

Courtesy of Collective31

ME: So, what are you working on at the moment?

CU: We are currently working on ‘Snow White: A Contemporary Ballet’. I did a course a long time ago where I met a French horn player. A while later I posted about Collective31 and he contacted me to tell me that he had a friend who had written a score for a new version of Snow White. After many conversations, we met with a composer, Leon Haxby, and a ballet dancer, Abigail Bulfin, who were both keen to get involved with the project. We went straight in and applied for funding, which initially got rejected. On reflection, we can see why as we hadn't thought about the whole process in stages. However, we kept going and got private funding which enabled us to put on 'Phase 1'. For this, some of the music was made into mp3 files so that dancers could work with it without a live musician present. Abigail created the choreography and we hired in dancers for the week and held a week of workshops. 

NW: We had 10 professional dancers come in and each day we focused on a different scene, using all the characters from Snow White. 

CU: By the end of it, we managed to go through half of the ballet. It allowed us to play around with a lot of ideas and explore how far we could push the boundaries.

NW: It was about developing a motif for a character. Also, we wanted to experiment with contemporary ballet as well as traditional ballet and it enabled us to see which fit better with the music for each scene.

CU: We got to know the music better and have now had time to reflect on those things. When we come to 'Phase 2', for which we are hoping to get more funding, we can continue to develop the ballet and make more decisions to put on a full-scale performance. 

NW: I think it's better this way, as I realised that we needed the week of workshops to see what worked and what didn't work. During Phase 2 we'll do another week of workshops and then we'll finalise the dances. We'll then do two weeks of intensive rehearsal to perform a 'reduced' version of the ballet to some schools. Were also hoping to put on two private performances where we'll invite other people to come and watch it. Hopefully, it will help us to decide what type of audience we want to aim the final ballet at. We want to make it accessible and want to see if kids enjoy it, adults, dancers, etc. 

ME: Will you be working with any artists for costumes, sets, etc.?

CU: We have thought about that a bit already, but there's a lot to think about there still. We'll be experimenting with this during Phase 2 where we hope to put on the performances with a small number of transportable props, as we want to see how much we think we need to enhance and compliment the performance. Then, when we get to Phase 3 we'll have a better idea of what we need and what will be effective. We want to think outside the box and perhaps be a bit more contemporary and abstract with it.

ME: Is this the main project you're working on now or do you have anything else on?

NW: The next event will be for women’s day. We held an event last March for International Women's Day and we're going to do it again in 2018. It is called ‘SHEtogether’ and will be on Friday 9th March at the Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester. The event celebrates the work of female artists from musicians, poets, filmmakers and visual artists. Artists include: Sarah Keirle, Athanasia Kontou, Isabel Benito Gutierrez, Cally Statham, Natasha Sofla, Ciara Healy, Lucia Cannizzaro, Naomi Wright, Elizabeth Ditmanson, Sophie Sully, Rachel Graff.

CU: Something that we're working on continuously is our 'Artist of the Week' initiative where we feature an artist on our social media and website. 

NW: It's a way for us to engage with other artists on social media and for us to support them and for them to support us too by sharing our posts and projects with their followers. It's about building a community for future collaborations and events too.

CU: It allows us to reach out to a wider network. It's also an easy thing for us to do that benefits a lot of people.

"it's about building a community for future collaborations and events too"

ME: How do you go about finding people to get involved with your events. Do you do open calls? 

NW: It's always a mixture. Sometimes, we have specific people in mind for an event that we'd like to work with. However, we do post open calls on our website and on social media to find new talent.

CU: We did a call for poetry. For example, when we were at university we put a call out through the English department to get writing submissions. As we're both musicians, we often think of things from a music perspective but we're always looking to get other people on board so that we can look at things from different angles.

ME: Could you tell me more about yourselves and what you do outside of Collective31?

Musical Chitchat 

Courtesy of Collective31

CU: I do a lot of different things. Most of my time is spent teaching. I am an oboist but I also teach all the different woodwind instruments around West London. When I'm not doing that, I work as a freelance musician. I enjoy working in pit bands. Naomi and I have done some of this together and have worked on Beauty on the Beast. I also do some dance teaching at Passion Dance Academy. I would like to invite the students that I teach at Passion to come and watch the contemporary ballet! I am currently finishing my dance teaching qualification in ballet. 

NW: I just graduated from the Royal Welsh with an MA in Violin Performance. I also do some freelance performance work. I've had quite a few gigs recently, often every weekend. So, I play in musical theatre pit bands, operas, orchestras, string quartets. I've just put a string quartet together and we've launched our website. We're hoping to do some corporate and private events, like weddings and in restaurants. I also teach piano and violin privately. I do compose as well, as part of Collective31 and separately. I am aiming to do more professional violin performances, ideally for contemporary orchestras. Outside of this, I have just learnt to snowboard! I would also like to start ballet lessons. I danced a bit when I was younger but now I'd like to pick it up again. 

ME: Do you have any advice that you'd give to emerging artists who are just starting out?

CU: Do what you want to do and don't let anything stop you. Just be as creative as possible and find a way to do it. There's always another way around. Do what you want to do!

NW: With anything that you want to do, there's always going to be a barrier. You must persevere, stay calm and find a way past it. You might have to compromise but you can always make it work. You're never going to please everyone so just stick to what you want to do. 

CU: Do something you enjoy.

NW: So many of the most successful artists throughout history kept persisting even when no one was interested in their work, so you just have to keep going.

CU: I'd also advise anyone to talk to as many people as you can and build a network. You never know what someone might be able to offer you. 

NW: Don't be scared to create your own opportunities.

CU: If there's nothing that works for you, make something for yourself. Be prepared to work a lot of different jobs at first but if you work hard enough it will pay off.

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