Music City

Terry Blain wanders around Derry~Londonderry as acts from around the world unite in song for City of Culture

Walking over the Peace Bridge, above a freshly upgraded Foyleside railway track, I hear a crew sound-checking microphones on twin stages at Ebrington Square behind me, and the strains of the 'Londonderry Air' waft from a PA feed somewhere in the Guildhall area, where I am heading.

I get there, and people are already milling in the square below Derry~Londonderry's eastern wall, awaiting one of the biggest outdoor gatherings of Music City!, the mammoth one-day musical extravaganza mounted by the UK City of Culture 2013 organisers. Already today, the Sky Orchestra's colourful hot air balloons have taken their performance to the skies above the city.

And the point of the Guildhall gathering? To get as many folk as possible singing 'Danny Boy' together on the stroke of 12.30. First, though, a warm-up, led by the delightful choir of St Patrick's Primary School, Pennyburn, who seem totally unfazed by what appear to be billows of dry ice rising around them. It's smoke, apparently, from an over-enthusiastic burger-flipper at one of the many outdoor concessions in the vicinity.

12.30 peals from the Guildhall campanile, the words of 'Danny Boy' flick invitingly onto a screen, and we're motoring. It's a fantastic sound that emerges, made by an assembled horde of ordinary citizens now stretching back from Guildhall Square along Shipquay Place. The sun blazes, the media snap their pictures, and it's all over disarmingly quickly.

You don’t walk far, however, before encountering more music making, for in a variety of nooks, crannies and street corners competitors are already enthusiastically pulling instruments from their carry-cases for the Roaring Meg Busking Competition. You name that tune, and there’s probably somebody here who can play it. Washboards, double-basses, wooden percussion boxes, guitars and sundry other musical implements proliferate.

From the Foyleside Shopping Centre I hear more busking, and make a detour for it. Inside, wedged on a tiny dais between two glistening automobiles advertising local garages, I find two of the finest classical instrumentalists on the planet, hitting their fifth location of the day in a gruelling series of pop-up appearances.

On soprano saxophone is Derry~Londonderry’s own Gerard McChrystal, accompanied by the outstanding Australian guitarist, Craig Ogden. I mean to stay for just a single number, but the playing is so jaw-droppingly morish I linger for the whole mini-recital, including works by Piazzola, Villa-Lobos and Irish composer Ciarán Farrell.

McChrystal surveys the audience at one point, quipping that some punters seem to be following himself and Farrell around the city, from recital to recital. Could you blame them? A smile, a wave, and team Ogden-McChrystal scuttle off busily to their next pop-up assignation.

I continue to perambulate randomly, and some strange sights are there for the seeing. None stranger, probably, than the row of eight Singer sewing machines perched on top of slender podiums that I encounter on entering the The Shirt Factory in Patrick Street. They’ve been put there by an earnest young Canadian composer named Martin Messier, who calls his collection of antique artefacts ‘The Sewing Machine Orchestra’.

Battling scepticism that they will actually make music, I watch Messier flit from machine to machine, performing little alterations to the mechanisms with the sober expression of a laboratory mortician. An Apple laptop processes his twiddlings, engendering an intriguing series of hums, squeaks, yelps and rat-a-tattings, which have a curiously compelling impact. The sizeable audience appears to love it, though it’s difficult to pin down why precisely.

A brief dip into the Derry Playhouse yields more unusual images, in the shape of 70 crisply uniformed members of the local marching band fraternity, 'warming up' in the cramped bar area, flutes nestling snugly in their rear pockets.

Minutes later a batch of them are onstage in the auditorium, and a manic-looking figure is gyrating hyperactively in front of them. It’s Brian Irvine, the composer, and he’s coaxing swirling strands of piercingly tuneful melody from the fluters, and mingling it with the small group of musicians improvising on kit drums, keyboard, electric bass, sax and xylophone.

Beyond the March is a wild, wonderful mélange of different styles and influences, a hybrid composition entitled. It’s the culmination of five months’ collaborating with the bands, taking them out of their normal comfort zones, and boldly going where no marching band has ever gone before them.

It could have been seriously messy, but it isn’t: Irvine is a magnificent energiser, and forges something genuinely new and original from the disparate elements before him. When the 15 minutes of joyful cacophony are over, I want more of it.

It’s 10pm by now, though, and time to yield the platform to a younger generation. As I wander back over the Peace Bridge, the twin stages at Ebrington are now thrumming with a succession of live acts stretching deep into the evening, and a steady stream of concert-goers files towards The Venue, the large tent-like structure where Buena Vista Social Club are making a showcase appearance.

Glancing back a final time towards the city, now twinklingly illuminated and still pulsating with the sound of music, it’s impossible not to reflect on the fact that for most of my adult life an event like Music City! would have been simply unthinkable.

Dark times and dark years, many of them, preceded it. But for this special day – a magnificent celebration of the joy and irrepressible spirit of live music-making – the tag-line ‘LegenDerry’ is truly appropriate. It’s a unique occasion, and will be remembered for many a long day after.