12.12.12 – The Underground Orchestra Challenge at the Shepherds Bush Empire
On a damp night in January, Shaun Buswell warmed a packed Shepherds Bush Empire to its core. Part film screening, part epic rock orchestral concert, the event was to tell the story of The Underground Orchestra Challenge.
Conceived by Buswell on 1st January 2012, the task was considerable: to create an orchestra comprised only of passengers he met on the London Underground. He had until 12th December 2012 to generate an orchestra of between thirty and one hundred musicians, all identified by the instruments they were carrying and recruited personally as total strangers, while travelling on the tube. All of this was in aid of Daytrippers, a charity that supports disabled and terminally ill children, and every penny of profit earned went straight to them.
Sponsored by a varied mix of commercial philanthropists, the event began with a screening of a film, made by Buswell and friend, Vince Barnett, documenting the process. On the face of it, the project sounded like fun. Optimistic, Buswell set a number of rules for himself, among them the requirement that if he saw a musician on the tube, he had to speak to them. So far, so cheerful, but a few minutes into the film, he realises the enormity of what he has undertaken, and things took a rather more sobering turn. Cue a despondent and increasingly dishevelled young man, intimating on camera a newfound shyness at the hands of callous Londoners, and with nagging doubts about whether the whole thing was really a terrible idea. While the film was a little tortuous (we were taken in detail through finding the musicians, the venue, and the funding, as well as the composing of the music), it was actually very apt, illustrating the practical and emotional struggle involved – and it effectively emphasised the triumph we witnessed in the second half of the event.
The concert portion of the evening was inspiring. Having conjured an “orchestra of good souls” from the undeniably hostile environment that is the tube in rush hour, Buswell led us on a celebration of kindness and diversity. With a program as varied as the musicians performing in it, we were taken through a series of orchestral classical hits, followed by a medley of film themes, and culminating in a recital of songs, ably scored by Buswell himself, for traditional orchestra, rock band and backing singers (with a cavaquinho and accordion thrown in for good measure).
He personally introduced each and every musician, remembering all of their names and where he had met them, and then performed with soulful vocals alongside them. Their obvious affection for him and each other, and the shared excitement and elation of the diverse group on stage was palpable. The sheer emotion of the occasion coupled with very little rehearsal time were probably responsible for the poorer, slightly frenzied sections of the performance – but this was absolutely beside the point.
What Buswell created was a union of typically separate individuals, musical genres, industries and concert-goers – in the words of a Samantha Ward, representative for sponsor KMS California, “just being human”.