Interview with composer Nigel Osborne

By Khai Ern Ooi

British composer and activist, Nigel Osborne, was in Malaysia during the week of September 26, 2016 to speak at the annual Khazanah Megatrends Forum, a platform for the gathering of Malaysian and international corporate leaders, policy makers, think tanks and practitioners. The Malaysian-based group, Ensemble Virama, was privileged to premiere Osborne’s new piece, ‘Music4nature’ at the forum.

Scored for oboe, percussion and string quartet, the piece brings together three movements of Osborne’s previous work, ‘Botanical Studies,’ and two newly-written movements. Osborne uses traditional and extended techniques to evoke the sounds of insects, monkeys, birds and other general sounds of the Malaysian rainforest. Through the music and a narration spoken by the composer himself, Osborne sought to provide a presentation that would bring about greater awareness of the rich biodiversity in Malaysia. 

In the narration of this piece, you say that art can protect the environment. How does that work?


In some very obvious ways; the first one is simply by drawing attention to [the environment.] By advocating it. You can use music and words to get a message across. Art is very good at advocacy. It is probably one of the best ways. You can shout with a placard from the highest building, you know, ‘protect the rainforest,’ but actually the way to people’s hearts and minds is through art and culture. In a way we, musicians, have an interdependent relationship with ecology and the environment. That means we have to protect it. For example, in Japan, when making the Shakuhachi, the bamboo flute, there’s a real problem with making them currently, because acid rain has destroyed the variety of bamboo - the range of bamboo that gives them a chance to make good instruments. There is an important symbiotic relationship. Increasingly, musicians are planting trees and looking after trees that actually have the wood for making their instruments.

Like bow makers planting Pernambuco because of the depleting Pernambuco wood in Brazil.

That’s right. So there’s a natural relationship there that helps. And then, art itself, on the whole, is environmentally friendly. Most of what we do doesn’t harm the environment…


Maybe ivory keys…


Yes, that’s a problem, but they don’t have to be ivory. On the whole, the creative industry is more friendly towards the environment than most industries. Finally, art can service the environment, show the beauty of things. There are several ways for this, even down to ecological architecture. We can design things that are friendly to the environment and celebrate the environment. In that way, it is a partnership.

You are also involved in a lot of humanitarian efforts - how does music, and in particular, new music, help with that?

First of all, music is very fundamental to human beings. We probably made music before we spoke. And music - or something similar to music - was the way that early societies related to one another, understood each other’s emotions, shared feelings, to work and live together. So music is very much part of social cohesion since the beginning. When things get broken, music is a way to mend things. When a mother first relates to a baby, it is through sound -  the voice. So sound is the way we create shared relationships.


The work that I do - we didn’t know how important it would be when we began. I began working with children in conflict by accident. I was working in Sarajevo, Bosnia, during the war, and I was working for human rights, politically. Not as a musician. I was working voluntarily for the Bosnian government. Simply trying to stop the war, and defend the Bosnian people. Gradually the war got worse and worse, and more and more disastrous, and I thought our efforts to stop genocide and cruelty were failing at that point.


Looking at the situation with the children, I realized there was something I knew how to do, and I talked to friends, and fellow artists in Sarajevo, and said, “look, can’t we do something for these children?” It was a terrible situation - there were no schools, no food, and you had to risk dying to get water. There were shells falling at any moment and snipers at every corner from the mountains. The children had to see terrible things. I said, “can we help distract them?” My artist friend said, “yeah, we’ve been wanting to do that, but we have no energy. We’re skeletons.” It had to be a collaboration. So we started a collaboration. This was in 1993, and we began our collaboration, and it was more successful than I could have ever imagined.


What was this collaboration about?


Making art with children. Trying to create things, experiences, that would take their attention away from the horror around them. Distract them, basically. And it worked. We’d write songs, and then learn to play and sing them. I brought small instruments that we could play. We created musicals and operas. All sorts of things. It got so big that in a cease-fire, we took over the national theatre, in Sarajevo, and we put on a big children’s opera there. It grew and grew and grew, and wouldn’t stop. It was very strange, it seemed to have its own force. The children seemed very happy, so we kept going.


And we were looked at by what was left of the Ministry of Health, and they said to me, “you have a great therapeutic project.” And we hadn’t dared use that word, but they said it was therapeutic. So OK, we can use that word. The doctors said, “please develop it,” and so we did. It was only years later that we discovered why it was therapeutic. There are three areas - the traditional areas for social work and medicine - biological, psychological and social areas.


In the biological area, when children, or anybody, have bad experiences or trauma, there are certain physical symptoms. Your heart rate goes up, and the autonomic nervous system has increased activity in the sympathetic division - the thing that makes you on edge. Children have changed ways of moving, they become hyperactive or very sluggish. They breathe differently and sometimes have difficulty speaking. Hormones are changed.


We found that through music, we can regulate these things. We can regulate heart rate. Music exercises the heart. Breathing - when we’re sitting here talking normally, we’re only using ten percent of our lungs capacity. When we’re working hard, maybe fifteen percent. There’s only one activity that uses all of the lungs capacity, that’s singing, and playing the oboe (laughs). So by singing, we can correct breathing problems. For hyperactive children, you use high-rhythmic, fast music, and they enjoy that, they can move to it. Then you can slow them down with music. Or the opposite with sluggish children; you start with gentle, slow music, and then speed it up.


In the psychological level, music can start building cognitive capacities. We’ve found exercises that have gotten children thinking again. We’ve got them feeling again. They’re more in control of their emotions. Music begins with infants and mothers sharing sound. It’s a wonderful way of processing emotion, of learning to communicate again.


On a social level, then that gives children self-respect and self-belief. So it’s a long story, but we found that at all levels - creativity, cognition, socialization, physical health - we were able to make a huge difference. We only found that out later. But that was why we were having magic in Sarajevo. We developed these projects, and now they’re around the world. But then it grew further. Bosnia was my first project in this area, my latest one is Syria and Lebanon. What happened there was that we started with these activities for children, and now we’re using that to rebuild education. We’re opening schools for refugee children, and through that, because of the trust and coherence that we’ve built, we’re using that to expand even further to the areas of social care and healthcare. We’re beginning to plant food, and thanks to some sponsorship from Malaysia, we were able to mend a lot of tents, otherwise a lot of people would have died this winter. So the trust that is built up through music, art and culture, can then be expanded to create healthy, social societies and economies. In music, you don’t lie, you can’t cheat so it’s a very good place to build an economy.

So you start with culture and music, and then you build.

Yes, and it’s something that works everywhere. It’s a rule. And of course, it doesn’t fit in with the power structures, but it’s what really works, and it’s probably the way to make transformation on our planet. So it’s something for every young artist to remember, that this is a big wide world full of opportunities, and one of them is to be involved in social regeneration. But of course, you have to be a strong artist first. So it means, you should study, you should work, you should become a professional, and you should become as good as you can be.




Because for this to work, it needs the magic of real music. And also you have to be quite a good musician. For example, in my work, I sometimes find myself having to understand a completely different kind of music I’ve never heard before. Only by being an experienced musician can I do that.


Like understanding multimeters, rhythms and atonality?


Like when working with Syrian music, I need to know about maqams. I know about maqams and ragas in India. These are things, as a musician, you might need to learn. So being a knowledgeable musician means you can deal with these complex things. And also, we should always be offering people the best. Like for my refugee children, I try to give them the best education in the world. But being the best doesn’t mean we’re being elitist. The best should be available to everyone. Everyone can become an excellent musician; it is their choice.

You know that in the skills you’ve developed as a musician. You know that at the best moments, something very true is happening. You know there is a truth that comes that is our highest point as human beings, and only by aspiring so high can we achieve anything well. Music has a very important role to play, and as our economy is being destroyed, we have lots to do.

But you know that most professional musicians just go from gig to gig, and the burnout is very real.


I think that burnout happens when people are not living a proper musical life. Also, if you fall out of love with music, leave it. But beyond that, there is this huge world beckoning. In my generation, working with the orchestras in the UK, we began social projects - took them to schools, hospitals, prisons, places where music was useful. This made a big difference with the orchestra musicians. Most of the players told me, “now I remember why I’m a musician.” I’d say, in the profession, it was half and half. Half of the musicians took to this like fish to water, and they embraced it. The other half wanted to hide behind their gigs and music stands, and that’s fine. Music depends on its mixture of introverts and socially alert people, but for the half who don’t want to hide, there is the biggest opportunity ever. Now is the time that we can be involved, in a very necessary social-economic shift. It’s a big job to do, and we should be teaching it more in the conservatories.


Can you tell us a little more about your work with neuroscience?

The reason why music is so important for the science of the brain, is that if you look at the sense of smell or vision, it’s very difficult to count. How do you count these elements? How do you count the colours that you see, and what you see? In music everything is countable. Music and numbers are very connected, and this science has never died, nobody ever questioned it, even during the time where people said, “music can’t heal.” Numbers and ratios were discovered by investigating music. The laws of planetary motion were discovered by Kepler looking for musical proportions. So a lot of mathematics were generated by music, and music is very countable, mathematically. If you’re wanting to measure things, you have many forms of notation, from the musical score to the spectrogram, to the counting of hertz and cycles. You have a preciseness with music.


Also, music itself is the slowest energy. Light is very fast electromagnetic energy. Music is a slow mechanical energy. Therefore, when it enters the body, it actually flexes the eardrum, in a frequency. The system of the ear fires neurons at the frequency of the information itself. If we take light, the eye generalises the frequencies. It does not respond to the frequencies, the speed of the electromagnetic energy. It is flooded by it, the cones and rods at the back of the retina generalises energy, they don’t count it. Whereas, the ear actually measures the frequencies. Also, the system for sound and music is the fastest firing system in the brain. So we have the slowest energy understood and measured by the fastest firing system in the brain, therefore we know more about music and sound than anything else.

Thank you very much for your time!


My pleasure.