I’m originally from Romania but have lived in the UK for almost six years. I’ve made a home in London and come to identify more as British than Romanian.
Prior to the European Union referendum, I was rather apathetic about the whole discussion of the UK’s future in the EU. Then the vote in June 2016 happened and I suddenly realised how much I would be affected. The UK’s decision to turn inwards left me feeling disappointed and unwanted.
Of course, as Brexit has highlighted, it’s easier to look inwards than outwards, and it’s a trap that many student musicians such as myself can fall into. It can be all too easy to edit one’s environment and fail to recognise when inspiration and progress come along.
In many ways, I have been as closed off from the political situation in the UK as I have to my artistic environment, so it seemed fitting to open my eyes to both.
To combat such creative isolationism, Trinity Laban runs a unique initiative called CoLab: an annual, fortnight-long celebration of creativity and collaboration involving nearly 1,000 students, staff and visiting guest artists and mentors. We break from our normal learning to undertake creative projects, where the process is as important as the end product. And it’s a compulsory part of our training.
Choosing from nearly 100 projects on offer, I signed up to take part in the intriguingly titled Brexchange. This promised to bring together 22 musicians from 12 nations to explore themes of home and belonging through the medium of jazz improvisation.
Attracted by the catchy title, I entered the project questioning how much of an impact could five days realistically achieve? “A few hours trapped in a classroom doing some musical noodling with a group of near-strangers can’t lead to anything”, I thought to myself.
But the whole thing was like coming up for air after a long time underwater: refreshing and vital.
Working with these talented musicians from within my own conservatoire and from further afield, reminded me how enriching it is to interact with people and exchange ideas. I rediscovered my willingness to be open and my ability to care for other’s views and input. Forums for exchange are necessary, especially as we become increasingly culturally homogeneous, and it’s amazing how transformative a single week can be.
Admittedly, at times it was a difficult process. With over 20 individual voices it sometimes felt like we were testing the very fabric and meaning of democracy when trying to arrive at an artistic decision – it was like the European Parliament! But we navigated through, shifting focus from our differences to our similarities.
We learned to compromise, to accept a better idea, and we developed trust and respect which has led to lasting international friendships beyond the week-long project. If only everyone could experience Brexchange.
Being forced out of my comfort zone was exactly what I needed. And perhaps exactly what we all need? That’s certainly Trinity Laban’s ethos.
On a practical level, the project helped me to realise that improvisation isn’t something to be terrified of. Beyond musicianship, the flexible musical atmosphere invited an open exchange of ideas. In exploring themes of home and belonging, we discovered that countries’ folk songs – so often used to define national identity – are incredibly similar in subject matter and have common musical structures, making it easy to blend them.
Realising that we have similar concerns and desires, regardless of heritage, was humbling. In a sense, the songs became emblematic of the European ideal: individual entities that are complementary as a whole.
The process culminated in writing a new anthem to embody the Brexchange movement. We wrote a simple, hymn-like tune to be sung at the conclusion of the exercise. It was emotional and exhilarating to end our performance with this anthem.
This is the role that the arts has in wider conversations – one of facilitation and translation. Art can be unifying and also a force of change, given its ability to convey meaningful messages.
Brexchange was a life-changing experience and a reminder of how much we can all gain from working with friends across Europe.
Laura Chiorean is a third-year vocal student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.