Interview: The Earth Orchestra - Emma Newman & Jude Dexter Smith
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
Having completed the huge undertaking of bringing an artist from every country together to perform on a single track, we spoke to Emma Newman and Jude Dexter Smith about their achievement, the thought process behind it, and the challenges they encountered along the way
“Our main point to prove was that music unites people, and it doesn’t matter whether you can speak the same language, or whether you can be present in the same room together, the fact of the matter is that if you want to communicate and join with people from around the world, music is the way that you can do it.”
This was the thought process explained to us by Jude Dexter Smith, who, along with her collaborator Emma Newman succeed in finding one musician from every nation on the planet to play on a song for a collective entitled Earth Orchestra. The brainchild of Mighty Village record label head Ian Brown, not to be confused with the Stone Roses singer of the same name, and George Fenton, the Bafta award winning composer, Dexter Smith and Newman were charged with the mammoth quest to actually bring the project together. The idea was to create a truly global sound, with musicians from 197 countries providing one element of the song, Together is Beautiful.
The beginnings of the track were forged in Abbey Road Studios, where Dexter Smith and Newman, in their capacity as project directors, oversaw a recording session with 57 musicians from 57 different countries, which took place in the summer of 2019. Initially overwhelmed with the prospect of sourcing a musician from each country, they realised that London is (for the moment anyway) a global city with plenty of international music talent. As such, they started laying down “the bare bones of an orchestra” with foreign musicians based in London, either for study or work. They had doubts that they would be able to find a truly global base of classical musicians based in London, worrying that it would be mainly European based, but they ended up discovering a diverse range of talent, with musicians from Bolivia, Ethiopia, and China, with even a Mongolian throat singer tagging along for the ride.
Buoyed by the success of the sessions, the intrepid duo believed that the rest of the project would be a piece of cake. As Newman recounted to us, “We naively thought it would take us six months - it took us a year and a half.” However, the two of them found the process of working together easy as they had worked together for years at Decca Records. Though they had gone freelance, by a serendipitous throw of the dice, Brown had approached them both separately to work on the project, not knowing their previous connection, because they both had musical backgrounds and had a knowledge of how to put an orchestra together and how instruments work.
Then the arduous process of actually finding musicians from other countries to fill the remaining 140 spots began. As one can imagine, there were plenty of problems and challenges along the way, ranging from cultural and geographical ones, to connectivity and technological ones. They soon found that there was no quick fix to finding people, and each country required a unique approach. “Every few weeks we thought we had a new secret that would unlock the rest of the world for us, and then we realised that that doesn't translate to Mauritania,” Dexter Smith opined. Some problems were more logistical, such as getting the recording of Roberto Hernandez, their Palauan pianist. “He was living in a dormitory with eight men and eight women, and he had to wake up in the middle of the night to go to a restaurant to perform the piano at night time, so it was quiet, to record it with no interruptions, and then it took him two days to upload it and send it to us, because the connectivity issue was so hard there.” This was part of a broader connectivity issue they had in the Micronesian, Polynesian, and Melanesian states, though having to be reliant on good internet became part of the story, as they had to face the unprecedented problems of completing the project during the pandemic.
One such problem occurred when arranging for their Emirati oudist, Abdullah Salem, whose main point of contact was his music teacher at his music school in Dubai, and once the pandemic hit, and the school closed, contacting him was a nightmarish experience. Another facet to the tale was that they were purposefully not looking for professional musicians. As Dexter Smith recounted to us, “we were looking for people who were extremely passionate about music but perhaps didn’t actually make a living that way, but had the same sort of ethos as us about why music was so important.” Therefore, while some of the musicians involved were professional, it was much more about their attitude to music and the project that meant they were selected. Dexter Smith and Newman told us they often contacted hotels and tourist boards in efforts to find musicians who would fit the brief.
Some obstacles they encountered were not just pandemical, but political, such as when they aimed to find a North Korean musician for the project. The hermit kingdom is notoriously inward looking and suspicious of Westerners, so there was no way to contact any North Koreans living in North Korea itself. Where on earth would they find a North Korean for the song? The answer was the sleepy London suburb of New Malden, located in the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames. Though it sounds like a location in a Miss Marple novel, New Malden is, in fact, home to the largest Korean population in the UK. When Dexter Smith and Newman approached the Korean community through their South Korean contacts, they found some musicians from the North, however they did not want to be a part of the project as “they did not want to make themselves known.” Running out of options, they approached an academic from SOAS studying North Korea, who then put them in touch with a student who was studying the Korean community in the UK, who knew someone who might be able to help. This is where the 80-year-old violinist Jun-hyuk Hong enters the fray.
However, another hurdle had to be vaulted. “It was still fully in lockdown, it was about May … and we were so desperate to get it recorded I said 'I can come to his house and stand on his doorstep and record him playing,'” Newman regaled.
That said, the trickiest country to source ended up being the tiny enclave of the Vatican City. Once the pair reached 196, they really thought that their hopes of reaching the magic 197 was over. A year and a half of researching and finding people, the lack of a papal performer caused them to think “the Vatican City, oh my god, what are we gonna do!” recalled Dexter Smith. Here the problem was rather specific to the unique nature of the Holy See as a country. “If you are asking someone to record something specifically for you, the politics involved is immense, because we found that it's not just that you're a citizen, it's that you are a citizen because you've signed up to an organisation,” Dexter Smith explained. “So, there becomes a hierarchy [similar to] if you approach someone from BP or Universal and said, ‘Can you just do this? Can you just sign up to this for me?’ And they'd be like, ‘Oh, hang on, I just need to probably go and check with the bosses.’” And in this case, the boss in question is the pope. Determined to get their final piece of the jigsaw, they enlisted the help of Sally Axworthy, the British ambassador to the Holy See, who helped them with the correct processes of how to approach the archbishops. Alas, it was in vain, despite contacting them to say “will you be happy when we send somebody out for you to be contacted to say you didn't want to be part of it?” said Dexter Smith. Newman added that they hoped that “the guilt of being singled out as the only country in the world would help.” However, they did not need to resort to such tactics in the end, as they were helped by an organisation called Commonwealth Music, who helped them find their apostolic artist, Patrizio La Placa.
Help was a constant theme throughout the process, with Newman and Dexter Smith often having to rely on the kindness of strangers. We have already mentioned a few examples, but possibly the most striking of these was the chronicle of Carol Cassidy, who they found on Facebook. Cassidy is an American immigrant to Laos who has lived there for over 15 years, who went above and beyond to connect them with a musician in Laos, despite not being involved in the music industry in any way, but because “she loves the idea of it and wants to help out.” Along the way they also had help from other strangers, such as UN human rights lawyer David Levy, who helped them with some Oceanic countries.
Payment also became an increasing issue for Newman and Dexter Smith, not only because some people did not have bank accounts or were hard to access, but also in some regions due to cultural differences surrounding music itself. They were alerted to one potential stumbling block by someone who informed them that their approach “had been a bit misguided when it came to some of the Arab nations” because of the way they spoke about being paid a fee for performing on the track. They assumed that this would motivate people to want to be involved. “Transaction probably wasn't culturally the way that people thought about music in those countries. And actually, it kind of would be off-putting for it to be a monetised thing that we were asking people to do. And that was when we really sat back and thought about that a lot afterwards,” Dexter Smith divulged. In other nations, the problems were more practical ones around arriving at banks to receive the transactions, as well as swapping IBAN numbers and accounts. “[We’ve] never known so much about international finance!” Dexter Smith jokingly quipped.
The response to the project now it has been released has been positive, and has opened up discussions over what is the meaning or purpose behind such a project. Newman has told us that “we are not political, we were not trying to make a political statement on this,” and yet the message of unity and global co-operation is a powerful one, and shines through the track. For them, this was amplified by the pandemic, where the connections they had made with so many musicians from around the world were amplified by the cruelty of this global calamity we are currently experiencing. “Their replies would echo exactly your own anxieties and thoughts,” Dexter Smith observed. “We’re all the same, media and the way the world is portrayed is that you’re not all together and you are different, and actually… we all feel the same things, and go through the same worries.” Newman proclaimed. This sentiment is one we feel should be promulgated as a counter to the rather divisive nationalism that is sweeping across many countries, including the UK.
After a whirlwind journey, the pair revealed they had many moments of joy and despair. “It was hard but also really rewarding, but there were just weeks where you felt in the trenches, like how are we going to go back to finding somebody from this country,” Newman remarked. Dexter Smith continued in a similar vein, saying that “it was incredibly repetitive at times and a bit soul-destroying at times… like, ‘oh, gosh I can’t send another email to Uzbekistan!'” She went on to say that “then we’d remember that we didn’t have a rider coming through with ludicrous things on it, we didn’t have demands about what sort of car was picking up someone from an airport… we were suddenly like, ‘oh, hang on, we are so lucky that we are just dealing with real life people, real life musicians, all they want is to be a part of this thing.’ Some people didn’t even want to be paid, they donated their fee to charity because they just wanted to be part of it.” For them, every down day was countered by the feeling they both shared when someone truly understood the project and was enthusiastic about it. The pay-off at the end of it all was the truly global community that they had built, as well as a song that all involved can be genuinely proud of. They hope they can get a live concert together at some point in the future, however due to the pandemic, that is not likely to happen any time soon. In the meantime, there is a documentary in the can, aiming for a 2021 release.
In any event, it is a huge achievement to pull off a project of this scope, and to complete it fully, with every country represented, even with the accidental inclusion of Puerto Rico. Despite many moments where it didn’t seem like it could be achieved, and also the fear that Universal might pull the plug after their allotted six months had been used up and the project was still only partially completed, Dexter Smith and Newman worked away at it, and eventually have come away from it having learned a great deal, and having formed a vibrant musical community around themselves. Was giving up ever really an option, we asked. Newman retorted “no, once you’ve got 185, you can't backtrack.”