Musicians strike a chord to remember Sunderland’s sacrifice in the Somme

Asunder creative team (front) with orchestra
Asunder creative team (front) with orchestra
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Rehearsals are in full swing for a striking cultural tribute to those who lost their lives in the Battle of the Somme.

Asunder, which takes place at Sunderland Empire on July 10, will tell a powerful story of the area’s involvement in one of the most traumatic battles in military history through largely unknown personal experiences.

Hugh Brunt conducts Royal Northern Sinfonia

Hugh Brunt conducts Royal Northern Sinfonia

The film will be narrated by Kate Adie OBE, with Alun Armstrong as the voice of the Sunderland Daily Echo & Shipping Gazette. To accompany the film, Sunderland’s Field Music and electronic duo Warm Digits will perform a live score with Royal Northern Sinfonia.

The bands gathered at Sage Gateshead for a rehearsal of Asunder, which is a collaboration with award-winning British artist and filmmaker Esther Johnson and respected music writer, film producer, curator and member of best-selling pop band Saint Etienne, Bob Stanley.

Fresh from a US tour to promote their new album, Commontime, Field Music’s David Brewis explains why the Mercury-Prize nominated band were so keen to get involved.

“The chance to write something completely new and play it with an orchestra doesn’t come around very often,” he said. “And as we heard about the plans for the film, the idea of telling a more complete story about our home town and how the war affected it was very appealing. There’s nothing quite like hearing a full orchestra right in front of you and if we get it right, then the balance between what you see and hear on screen and what you see and hear from the musicians should be spectacular.

Field Music's David Brewis with Royal Northern Sinfonia

Field Music's David Brewis with Royal Northern Sinfonia

“One of the other things which intrigued Peter (Brewis) especially about this project was our love of the orchestral music from that period. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring premiered in 1913, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in 1912. Bela Bartok and Maurice Ravel were composing, as was Claude Debussy, so it was a time of huge change in harmony and composition and we’ve dipped into that period for inspiration a lot.”

Steve Jefferis from Warm Digits said: “We’ve always been interested in art, film and music projects where the process can take the music off in unpredictable and exciting directions.

“So working with a film artist of Esther Johnson’s calibre was very appealing. Plus the chance to work again with Field Music, and for the first time with an orchestra, made this an unmissable opportunity for us - working with an orchestra opens up new worlds of possibility.”

Royal Northern Sinfonia have a strong record of working across various genres, with previous collaborations with bands and artists including Sting, John Grant, Lanterns on the Lake and Joanna Newsom.

Pictured: Warm Digits and Field Music (centre) rehearse with Royal Northern Sinfonia

Pictured: Warm Digits and Field Music (centre) rehearse with Royal Northern Sinfonia

Director Thorben Dittes said: “Royal Northern Sinfonia is thrilled to be involved in this commission which will mark an important point in our collective history. As well as establishing itself as one of the leading chamber orchestras in Europe, giving concerts in its iconic home Sage Gateshead, in concert halls, community centres and churches through the north east and touring the world, Royal Northern Sinfonia has forged a reputation for unusual collaborations. We jumped at the chance to work with Field Music and Warm Digits on Asunder.”

Royal Northern Sinfonia will be conducted by Hugh Brunt, artistic director and principal conductor of the London Contemporary Orchestra, winners of the Ensemble category at the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards 2015. More recently, he conducted the string and choir arrangements on Radiohead’s new album A Moon Shaped Pool.

Sunderland quartet The Cornshed Sisters will also perform an a cappella rendition of traditional Wearside folk tune, The Rigs of Sunderland Fair, which filmmaker Esther Johnson came across during the early stages of her extensive research in a book of folk songs in the Sunderland Local Studies Collection.

Marie Nixon from the band said: “We were thrilled to be asked to be a small part of this amazing project as it’s made by so many of our favourite artists and commemorates Sunderland’s contribution to such an important event in our history.”

The project is the first North East co-commission in the national 14-18 NOW programme - extraordinary arts experiences connecting people with the First World War, as part of the UK’s official centenary commemorations - an important milestone for the city in the year Sunderland begins work on its bid to become City of Culture 2021.

•Asunder will premiere at Sunderland Empire on July 10 before touring at selected venues. To book tickets visit or call the box office on 0844 871 3022.