Conall Gleeson recently won a British Composer Award for his work with the New Note Orchestra – an orchestra that seeks to recruit people in recovery from addiction. John Keenan finds out more

It is not unknown for members of any orchestra to face battles with drug and alcohol addiction. But the New Note Orchestra, based in Brighton is – so far – the only orchestra in the world to specifically seek out members who are in recovery from addiction. Whether they have any experience in playing an instrument is not a key consideration when they join.

The orchestra was inspired by the Channel 4 documentary Addicts’ Symphony, broadcast in 2014. Ten musicians from a range of abilities worked together for two months, building towards a concert with the London Symphony Orchestra. The creator of that documentary, Molly Mathieson, says the night the participants played their final concert with the London Symphony Orchestra was one of the most inspiring and moving experiences she has had.

‘It literally changed my life,’ she says. ‘It was such a success that I vowed to replicate Addicts’ Symphony for others who are in recovery.’

Mathieson gave up her career as a TV producer and with the backing of the School for Social Entrepreneurs set about learning how to set up a charity and how to build an orchestra from scratch. That was three years ago. In November 2018, the orchestra was recognised by the British Composer Awards in the best community or educational project category.

She says the model could be replicated anywhere in the world but also issues a warning. ‘There are pitfalls. There’s a huge amount of back-end infrastructure you have to be aware of. For me it was the first time I’d stepped into the charity sector so it was a steep learning curve. You have to be utterly passionate about it otherwise any little minor skirmish might put you off.

‘Everybody has a relationship with music. You may have to be taught how to appreciate other art forms. We all have an opinion about music. The reason New Note works is because we create an atmosphere which is supportive. All the cornerstones you need to stay sober are there. One idea I was dead set on was the idea of using music as an inclusive practice. Lots of people told me I’d never be able to find anybody who would be able to teach non-musicians how to play. I knew those people were out there and I was determined to find them.’

Award-winning composer Patrick Harrex was the founding musical director of the orchestra. Conall Gleeson, deputy head of the School of Media at the University of Brighton, took up the baton in January 2017. Gleeson says, ‘I first came across the New Note Orchestra by attending one of the Christmas performances. I then met up with Molly and also had a conversation with Patrick Harrex who was really instrumental in getting it going.

There are moments of serendipity and you just let them happen because they sound good.

‘The next stage was to develop a partnership between Brighton University and New Note. We want the university to be a porous institution and there’s an organisation known as Community University Partnership Programme which is focused on building relationships and reaching out into the city. The work of the orchestra fits that remit.’

Gleeson explains that his role is primarily driving the artistic integrity and musical excellence of the project. ‘When I became the artistic director of the orchestra, I found that I could begin to shape the identity, the purpose and the rationale and the ambition around the development of musical excellence.

‘People in New Note are primarily coming from outside the traditions. They may not have experienced formal music education when they were younger. But they are using music to support their recovery. For many of them New Note is the first opportunity to work in a structured creative environment. We do use notation but we use a lot of graphic scores which have a tradition in 20th-century music making. You describe the musicals shapes rather than specific values, as pioneered by the likes of John Cage and Cornelius Cardew.’

Gleeson argues that if you want to be a good musician you have to be a good listener. ‘Part of being a good musician is understandings the sounds you make in the context of the sounds other people are making,’ he says. ‘It’s welding the sounds together which creates the overall impression. When you are creating a piece which is dynamic and changing, that’s the challenge. It’s about understanding that cognitively and understanding it emotionally.’

He arranges workshops where the orchestra members generate ideas and then he plays an independent role in editing those ideas. ‘We generate a lot of ideas but we trim away a lot. There are moments of serendipity and you just let them happen because they sound good. We try to build a fluid and dynamic interplay within the orchestra so that if someone can’t attend, their part can be picked up and played. We use improvisation to build a piece together. Unlike professional classical musicians, the New Note musicians haven’t been taught to be afraid of making a mistake.’

Gleeson says that his recent nomination in British Composer Awards has helped build the profile of the orchestra and records the excellence of what it does. ‘It validates the orchestra as an incredible musical entity,’ he says.

Watch the New Note Orchestra performing the BCA Award-winning Solace here:

For more information visit