If we manage to get the Olympics, let’s make sure we do this again.’ That was the BBC’s response the night after Serious programmed a string of stages for 450,000 people in Hyde Park to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002.
Fast forward ten years and Serious are galloping towards the finishing post with BT River of Music, a nationwide programme in the lead-up to the Games that will culminate in two days of free performances at iconic sites along the River Thames, from Battersea Park to Greenwich. It all happens the weekend before the Games begin (Saturday 21 and Sunday 22 July 2012) and the giant stages – one for each continent – will bring together musicians from all 205 Olympic and Paralympic countries.
Serious themselves combine an infectious enthusiasm for high-level artistic creation and a disciplined ability to produce very large-scale events. They run the London Jazz Festival in association with BBC Radio 3, which celebrates its 20th edition in 2012, and they have created special events for the British Council’s 75th anniversary, for numerous charities and for the Commonwealth Games, so playing a major part in the arts programme when the Olympic and Paralympic Games come to London is a natural progression for them. Serious are Associate Producers at the Barbican Centre, and work closely with the Royal Albert Hall and the Southbank Centre – both the Barbican and the Southbank Centre are among the artistic partners of BT River of Music. The company’s roots are in bringing international artists to Britain and touring them nationally, and all that experience is being harnessed for BT River of Music.
‘What really fires us up is creating new opportunities for artists,’ says David Jones, one of the directors of Serious. ‘There will be stars across our stages, of course – we’ve already announced Zakir Hussain, Baaba Maal, Angelique Kidjo and Scissor Sisters, and there are many more waiting in the wings, but all of them will create something unique for BT River of Music, working with artists from other countries that inspire them. There is no room for divas, and we’re not paying huge fees – but what we are offering is a huge level of exposure in Britain and beyond, and the potential for worldwide coverage via broadcasts from the stages.’
So, what will the stages feel like? ‘They’re big stages, and every artist will play to thousands of people, so we’re looking for flexible performances with high impact that can reach out confidently to a massive audience that may not share a language or cultural roots, and play a fabulous set of about 45 minutes. Most of the stages run from midday to mid-evening both days, so these will be daylight performances for a family audience. Right now, we’ve just passed the halfway point in terms of finalising the programme, and that’s about six weeks ahead of schedule. With a total of around 85 slots for 205 countries, we’re focussing on creative figures who can draw together musicians from several different countries in their region’.
The budget for this major cultural event has been drawn together by Serious and the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG) with significant funding support from the National Lottery through the Olympic Lottery Distributor, Arts Council England and the British Council, and additional support for participatory projects has been received from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and City Bridge Trust, with a number of partnerships still to be unveiled. The British Council were an early supporter – working closely with Serious, they are commissioning one major collaboration between an international and a British artist for each continent’s stage. Arts Council England is supporting a number of major artists appearing at BT River of Music, as part of its significant investment in the Cultural Olympiad, which aims to increase participation in the arts, increase the profile of artists on the world stage and generate new collaborations that push boundaries.
BT are Premier Partners of the Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 Festival – they have been interested in this project since the early days, and signed up as title sponsors earlier this year, although this was only unveiled in late October. As well as making a significant contribution to the budget, they bring further international reach and an enthusiasm for the art. Already three of the artists who are creating music for the event – Arthur Jeffes from Penguin Cafe, clarinettist Arun Ghosh and saxophonist Andy Sheppard – are featured in the BT Storytellers programme – see more at www.btlondon2012.co.uk/storytellers
Andy Sheppard is creating one of a number of participatory projects funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation which are designed to draw in young people from outside London, typifying BT River of Music’s spirit of ambition and adventure. Andy’s Saxophone Massive brings together saxophonists from every single European country, from Sweden to San Marino, to play this epic composition at the 200 windows of Somerset House. This is just one of the fabulous settings for BT River of Music, an event that will bring the whole world to London.