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Global perspectives on the ‘orchestra’

Table of Contents

Project overview

Many kinds of large ensemble are described as ‘orchestras’, including the symphony, Bollywood film, gamelan and steelpan. All share a number of features and generate questions about the socio-musical aspects of their performance practices. They are often markers of power and status, within which musicians establish allegiances and hierarchical relations. Some orchestras have cherished and celebrated histories, but are shaped by various institutional, media, commercial and social environments and cultural policy-making trends.

Developing global perspectives through comparative and ethnographic approaches, this project considers how musicians work together in large ensembles, focusing on their training processes, creative and expressive choices, and communication skills (aural attention, gesture and coordination). The research methods support insights into diverse rehearsal processes and the creative roles of performers within large ensembles, resulting in new conceptual and cross-cultural perspectives on the ways in which orchestral performance traditions are shaped, greater understanding of orchestral practice as a global phenomenon, and enhanced appreciation of orchestral performance as a creative, political and social practice. The following methodologies are being employed over the five-year period:

  • multi-sited field research and participant-observation
  • ethnographic observation, interviews, documentation and analysis
  • historical study of recordings, film and archive materials, and written documents.

The broad, multidimensional scope of the project provides an ideal opportunity for uniting diverse specialists within five project workshops and the Performance Studies Network.

Project narrative

The early phases of the project involved setting up, assessing potential case studies, pursuing bibliographic research and beginning fieldwork in the UK (especially in London). The fieldwork focused on the activities of the London Symphony Orchestra, especially through participation in the LSO Gamelan including weekly rehearsals and performances in the Barbican Centre Hall, Barbican foyer and LSO St Luke’s. Attending the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s premiere of Ravi Shankar’s symphony at the Royal Festival Hall tied in with thinking about the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Rafi Resurrected projects, and these events provided a way of linking two case studies (the symphony orchestra and the film orchestra in India). These present complex histories of interaction as well as new orchestral initiatives to address issues of diversity, access and community engagement. Results from the early phase of the project were published in a 2011 article, ‘The orchestration of civil society: community and conscience in symphony orchestras‘ in Ethnomusicology Forum, 20/3: 327-51.

Research insights have been presented in various talks including keynote lectures given at the Goldsmiths Music Research Symposium 2010 (‘Reflections on the orchestra: towards a global perspective’), the IMR/Leeds conference on the ‘Symphony orchestra as cultural phenomenon’ 2010 (‘Interacting orchestras: on new communities, social relevance and digital technologies’), and the Musicological Society of Australia Conference 2012 (‘Postcolonial orchestrations and the politics of memory’). The project leader convened a panel for the International Council of Traditional Music joint special interest group meeting 2010 on ‘Applied ethnomusicology, cultural heritage, social relevance’, presenting a paper on ‘Symphony orchestras in the twenty-first century: between social relevance and digital technologies’. She participated in an ICTM 2011 plenary panel on dialogic research practices in Europe by contributing thoughts from the orchestral project.

During 2011-12, the project reached a stage of intensive fieldwork. Research in the Caribbean focused on steel orchestras and in India on film orchestras. As the frames of comparison come into focus so, too, does an engagement with comparison as a mode of theorisation.


Three project workshops have been held with a variety of speakers in an attempt to share insights from both practitioner and researcher perspectives.

The first workshop (April 2010) sought to explore different approaches and methods in studying symphony orchestras and was planned in light of thoughts emerging from bibliographic research and reflections on previous orchestral participation. Questions posed included: What should we be asking about practice in the world of orchestras today? What are the social, economic and aesthetic factors that shaped the rise of the symphony orchestra? What are the new technologies and performance environments that practitioners turn to in ensuring orchestral sustainability?

The second workshop (November 2010) focused on Indian film orchestras and Indonesian gamelan, and speakers were circulated with points to consider and questions for discussion including 1) the practicalities and experiences of fieldwork in India and Indonesia; 2) Indian cinema and Indonesian gamelan in European contexts; 3) the micro-dynamics of ensemble practice and theorising the internal relationships of orchestral performance; 4) perspectives on the orchestra from the vantage points of the player, the leader, the composer, the dancer, the researcher etc; 5) the histories of Indian film orchestras and of gamelans; 6) the interconnected histories of orchestras.

The third workshop (September 2011) focused on the histories of orchestras, the organisational practices of orchestras, the administration of orchestras, and the range and distribution of activities which shape orchestral performances.

The fourth workshop in the ‘Global perspectives on the “orchestra”‘ project took place at the Institute of Musical Research, University of London on 1 June 2013. Speakers from the UK, Finland and India contributed to the discussions. The workshop focused on comparative research, global histories and cultural exchanges.

Much of the project leader’s initial thinking for this project is published as an article in the journal Ethnomusicology Forum: ‘The orchestration of civil society: community and conscience in symphony orchestras’, 20/3, (2011): 327-51. The abstract states:

This essay explores the symphony orchestra’s potential to contribute to the making of civil society. It highlights orchestral attempts to reach new communities through repertoire choices, outreach projects, interactive digital technologies, and initiatives addressing poverty and environmentalism. Metaphors of the ‘orchestra as society’, which have been shaped by notions of social relations, are outlined to provide a platform for considering the institution as a social agent in the contemporary world. The social conscience of symphony orchestras is illustrated with ethnographic case-studies mainly from the British context – the CBSO’s tribute concerts for the qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Rafi Resurrected recordings, the LSO Gamelan community project and the Philharmonia’s digital project, Re-Rite. Orchestral advocacy and the quest for contemporary social relevance stand in contrast to pessimistic views in the late twentieth century on the future of the orchestra as a musical institution. Key concerns are the symphony orchestra as a socio-political actor, orchestral interaction as a mode of civic collaboration and orchestral participatory projects.

Other publications very briefly note orchestral matters, e.g. orchestral arrangements in the Caribbean of Indian film songs (‘Music in circulation between diasporic histories and modern media: exploring sonic politics in two Bollywood films Om Shanti Om and Dulha Mil Gaya‘ in South Asia Diaspora Journal, 2011). Various conference papers have been given in relation to this project, notably keynotes at the ‘Symphony orchestra as cultural phenomenon’ conference, University of Leeds in association with the Institute of Musical Research, University of London (July 2010) and at the Musicological Society of Australia Conference (December 2012). A second article is in press (‘Performance as storytelling: memory, European integration, and the Baltic youth philharmonic’ in Musicology, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, in press). An edited book will emerge at the end of the project.