Sitting across from Sid Peacock in the coffee shop at Birmingham’s new library, it’s easy to feel his excitement. He has just been named as one of five British musicians who will go and spend some time in a Chinese city, a crucial ambassador in the cultural exchange between West and Far East.
“Like many others I am in awe of the rise of China over the past two decades. There is so much to learn from both the old and new aspects of its culture, and in understanding how that can influence my own artistic vision,” he explains.
Alongside Sid in the British Council and PRS for Music Foundation’s Musicians In Residence – China programme are Anna Meredith, who has worked with The Stranglers and Laura Marling; Arun Ghosh, a key player in the IndoJazz sphere; Oliver Coates, and award-winning cellist; and Sam Genders, formerly from the band Tunng, now in Diagrams. The Musicians In Residence experience will provide the musicians with an opportunity to create original work and build new international relationships while reaching and inspiring new audiences.
So what will Sid’s visit involve?
He continues in his soft, round Bangor brogue: “I’ll have the opportunity to visit Chongqing, the fastest growing megalopolis on Earth, and explore music making with people from all walks of life – which will be just incredible.
“Whilst there I hope to make long-lasting artistic friendships and to share some of the creative musical eccentricity that we excel in and value here in our islands.”
In addition to spending six weeks in Chongqing, Sid will be working with Chinese musicians in Birmingham.
“I worked in Zhengzhou in 2006 and 2007 – on a Chinese pop record, of all things! As a result I met and worked with Chinese musicians in Birmingham.
“For this project I also hope to research Chinese instruments and styles further and then do a collaboration of Chinese musicians with some of the guys from my Surge big band.”
Sid Peacock settled in Birmingham after growing up in Northern Ireland, playing in garage bands and then taking formal music training. His work ranges from inspiring young children in inner city schools to create their own tunes to composing sophisticated and complex music for saxophone quartet or jazz orchestra.
It is this wide range that attracted mac. As their associate artist he has already presented an evening of compositions for saxophones and drums, covering all manner of autobiographical subject matter, from a suite of tunes about a couple of hard nights and recovering days in Paris to a travelogue in music and video from Bangor to England by car and ferry. That latter piece is called Over The Sea, the words used by his countrymen to denote someone who has left Northern Ireland, and uttered with just a hint of suggested betrayal.
As with much of Peacock’s music, it combines whimsy and deep feeling, seriousness and humour.
So, what else will Sid be doing at mac in the next 12 months?
“Well, I get to do a number events over the year with the primary focus on a big Surge set for November 2014.
“We’re putting together a Youth Ensemble. I’ll be working with Ray Prince – we’ve done a lot together at Hollyhead School - and it will involve 15 young players. We’ll have kids aged around 16 and put them together with an older group. It’ll be a bit like we’ve done in the schools but the pace will be quicker and the standard a lot higher.
“We’ll do rehearsals and then a showcase event and hopefully a recording session, about the same time as the Surge gig.”
This busy 2014 should in no way suggest that Sid has been resting on his laurels in 2013. On the contrary, it’s been a richly satisfying year with a ground-breaking project back in Northern Ireland. It was called Beyond The March and was part of the Derry/Londonderry City Of Culture year.
Again, the excitement is almost palpable across the cups of tea: “It was brilliant. And challenging. Brian Irvine (the composer who is Peacock’s former teacher at Bangor College) and I set up with a few flute bands. Over a few months we worked with these bands towards a performance in The Playhouse. I took some marimbas over and we developed some minimalist-style music with little riffs from their tunes. We put a reggae backbeat to one of their traditional marching tunes and they loved it, they could feel it - the smiles burst out.
“We took them to participate in the Fleadh (the festival of Irish music); it was the first time it had been held in Northern Ireland. And marching bands had never played at the Fleadh.”
In a way, the cultural aim was to reclaim the marching bands back into music, and cut the restrictive political ties.
“That’s exactly what the bands want to do. The marching bands during the troubles were a way for the Protestants to assert themselves and say “this is us, we’re not going away”.
But the Orange Order and the marching bands are two different things: the Orange Order goes on a march and they get a band to come with them. But the bands can exist without the Order; the Order wouldn’t necessarily exist too well without the bands.
“The bands meet twice a week, and then they go out marching maybe twice at the weekend. There are thousands of marches a year, and there are about five of them that are controversial. And those are the ones you see on TV. When we were doing the Fleadh there were guys in Celtic tops cheering them on.”
Is Sid optimistic about the marching bands in the future?
“I think the bands can exist if that bad side of their image is challenged. The more you bring them in and the more they have things to do, the easier it’s going to get. It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done.
“Certainly, there is a lot in Northern Ireland that still needs to change, but the bands are vital because in some of the council estates they are at the centre of the community.
I’m really optimistic about it. It would be nice to bring the bands over here to the St Patrick’s Parade.”
And was the Beyond The March beneficial to Sid’s own music?
“To be honest with you, that experience has probably had the most impact in my whole career. I am looking forward to exploring this in the project in China.”
* You can find out more about Sid Peacock and his many projects at www.sidpeacock.com