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Composing the Song of the Skerne

Inspired by the nature around them, pupils in Darlington have been taking part in a special project to bring their local river, The Skerne, to musical life. The resulting film will be premiered on YouTube at 7.30pm on Thursday 12 August.

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In a creative partnership project between Opera North, Orchestras Live, Discover Brightwater, Creative Darlington and Darlington Hippodrome, young people were encouraged to celebrate the river which defines their city – and which became even more important during lockdown as many people embraced and enjoyed their local landscape in a new way.

The River Skerne © Discover Brightwater

The project was originally conceived as a live, in-school activity but, as Covid restrictions came into force, it soon became clear that a major rethink was required.

As a result, Song of the Skerne swiftly developed into a recording project with the planned workshops moving online. Composer Sarah Freestone, lyricist and folk singer Katie Doherty, and Chris Bradley and Christian Jones from the Orchestra of Opera North worked over Teams with Year 9 and 10 pupils from Haughton Academy in Darlington to find out and capture what the river meant to them.

“Music basically says what can’t be said in words”

– Year 10 Pupil at Haughton Academy

Participants' word responses to a presentation by Discover Brightwater about the River Skerne in the first creative workshop

Inspired by suggestions from Chris Bradley, the young composers also created their own homemade junk percussion instruments which were used to create a soundscape replicating the sounds of the river and its surroundings.

“I went down the route of trying to create ‘instruments’ from recyclable waste emphasising the plastic pollution in our seas and rivers. Not being able to access their school instruments, this gave the students the opportunity to create their own percussion at home. Listen out for the effective sounds they make!”

– Chris Bradley, Percussion, Orchestra of Opera North

The Orchestra of Opera North recording the Song of the Skerne at Leeds Town Hall. Photo credit Opera North

Covid restrictions meant a joint recording was impossible so, after the piece had been orchestrated by Sarah Freestone, an ensemble of 21 socially-distanced members of the Orchestra of Opera North played the score at Leeds Town Hall in March 2021 for the very first time. The school recording took place a couple of months later in Darlington, with the young singers joined by vocal animateur Marie Claire Breen and by children from Red Hall Primary School and Springfield Academy.

By merging these two recordings together, a film was created for the participants, their families and friends to watch as part of a screening and live performance event at Darlington Hippodrome in what ultimately became a celebration of creativity during the time of Covid. This film will now be available for everyone to watch online from Thursday 12 August to Tuesday 31 August 2021.

Future plans (pending Covid restrictions) include a live performance of the Song of the Skerne as part of a wider opera gala themed concert at Darlington Hippodrome on Sunday 7 November 2021, finally giving the young people the chance to perform alongside the professional musicians of the Orchestra of Opera North.

“I guess it’s just part of being something that’s being created – you feel good about yourself just contributing to that.”

– Year 10 student at Haughton Academy

The new piece will also be shared by Durham Music Service with all their primary school contacts in the autumn, giving the piece a life far beyond the original project.

Song of the Skerne is produced by Orchestras Live in partnership with Darlington Hippodrome, Discover Brightwater, Durham Music Service and Opera North. 
Composer / Arranger: Sarah Freestone
Lyrics: Katie Doherty
Students of Haughton Academy, Darlington
Orchestra of Opera North
River Rea Films
We are grateful for funding from Arts Council England, Discover Brightwater, Creative Darlington, and Scops Arts Trust.

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