Patrick McCarthy, Head of Artistic Planning and Operations for the Ulster Orchestra, writes for Culture about their Your Song Now project, and the resulting album Our Songs, Our Place, now on release.


Six weeks into the first lockdown in April 2020, the Ulster Orchestra was confronting the same question as every other orchestra, theatre, opera company and dance group in countries across the world. "How can we keep doing the thing we really love, to keep connected with audiences, and with creativity, at a time when we can't be in a room together?"

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Listen: Ulster Orchestra's Our Songs, Our Place

While the internet was flooded with digital content in the form of shared archive material and individual musicians recording themselves at home, it felt like we could, and should be using this time to create something really special, that could plug us in to the great wealth of creative talent on this island.

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Composer and arranger Paul Campbell approached the Ulster Orchestra with an idea that we offer a way for musicians here to share with us their creative responses; we made an open call for songwriters at any stage of their career to submit a song that spoke to their life and experience of the lockdown.

From sixty-nine entries, nine songwriters were selected to work on their songs with mentors Duke Special (2007 Choice Music Prize nominee), Kitt Philippa (NI Music Award Best Album winner in 2020) and Paul Campbell, during the summer of 2020.

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The project, which we titled Your Song Now, came to fruition in September 2020, when the nine songwriters joined with the orchestra in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast for two days of recording with stunning orchestral arrangements from Paul.

Along with an orchestral prelude, the songs now comprise an album called Our Songs, Our Place, and we are delighted with how it has turned out, along with the positive reception it has had since its release last month. It’s an album that crosses genres and generations, while exploring the common experience of lockdown and how it has changed all our lives.

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"In the midst of all that’s conspired to keep us apart for many months now, the music we make is a gift - inspiring us, providing us with deeper connections and closer community" says Paul Campbell. "Producing Our Songs Our Place, with such a wealth of local talent surrounded by the sublime sounds of the Ulster Orchestra, has been a truly overwhelming experience for me personally. These songs are saturated with real life - our lives - and I hope that the album might remind us of all that’s precious about these challenging times, long after they’ve become a distant memory."

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From my own perspective, I’m pleased with it not just because of the astonishing quality and variety of the songs, but also because it was a project which was made 'with’, rather than just ‘for’, and so it has a particular resonance and special importance to it. I see it as a great example of what an orchestra can do when it opens up and welcomes in the creativity which exists around it.

Our Songs Our Place is out now - find out more about Ulster Orchestra here.