Paul McAlindin | 'The first duty of every musician is to listen'

Paul McAlindin | 'The first duty of every musician is to listen'

In October 2008, fresh from high-profile stints with orchestras in Armenia, the US and New Zealand, Paul MacAlindin, a freelance conductor living in Germany, was on a trip back to his native Scotland to visit his father. Enjoying a pint and a plate of fish and chips in his favourite Edinburgh pub, his eye was drawn to a headline in the Glasgow Herald: “Search for UK maestro to help create an orchestra in Iraq.” The accompanying article would profoundly change his life.

It was an appeal, via the British Council, by Zuhal Sultan, a 17-year-old Iraqi pianist, for a conductor to help her form a national youth orchestra of Iraq. Fish trembling on the end of his fork, MacAlindin knew immediately this was a job for him. “I said to myself: ‘I know how to do this’. We’d just hit that terrible time when the global recession had started and I could see that the old ways of getting work weren’t going to happen for me anymore, because the music industry would be under tremendous pressure. So I thought: ‘I’m just going to have to keep myself busy, until I can get myself back to where I want to be in my career.’”

A meeting with Zuhal via Skype followed. Aged six, her mother had noticed her listening to music and mimicking it on the toy piano in her Baghdad home, and signed her daughter up for music lessons. Aged nine, she received a scholarship to the Music & Ballet School of Baghdad, the first music school in the Middle East. Aged 12, the 2003 invasion and war intervened, and her tuition continued only intermittently via Skype. Young musicians across Iraq faced similar obstacles, along with increasing censure by politicians and imams who preached that Western music stood for decadence and sexual immorality.

When he answered Zuhal’s call, however, MacAlindin knew next to nothing about Iraq beyond the violent and bloody headlines. “I was immediately confronted by very obvious questions: ‘What are the young musicians playing at the moment? Where do they get their instruments? What will even be possible in a culture like Iraq’s?’ But there was an altruistic instinct in me, which said: ‘I have it within me to try and help, and see what happens.’”

And so the musical odyssey began. MacAlindin was soon conducting auditions with young musicians via YouTube: a protracted business as five minutes’ worth of audition would often take up to 10 hours to upload—if uninterrupted by power cuts, that is. In August 2009, his nascent orchestra—made up of 33 males and females aged 14–25; Arabs and Kurds; Sunni and Shia from across Iraq’s divided society—met for the first time for an orchestral boot camp in the city of Sulaymaniyah, chosen because it lies in the comparatively safe Kurdistan region of Iraq.

The remarkable successes and heartbreaking setbacks of the following five years are charted in Upbeat, MacAlindin’s inspiring and profoundly moving first book. He describes how he and a group of music tutors from all over the world somehow managed to help a group of young people whose musical tuition had been ropey at best—their musical instruments were often of such poor quality that they buckled in the heat, and ethnic and cultural differences sometimes threatened to overturn the whole undertaking—to play to concert standard.

The biggest hurdle of all was to overcome playing that was “joyless”, says MacAlindin. “It was as if their instruments were disconnected from their souls.” Somehow he had to draw beautiful music from young musicians traumatised by the dreadful effects of war. “There’s only one word that can describe the strategy we used, and that’s ‘compassion’. We had to get them listening. The first duty of every musician is to listen. If you can’t do that, then everything else is a waste. So it was about the very simple act of sitting people down next to one another, teaching them to listen; listening to them, feeding back positively, constructively, gently. We all had a sense that just by focusing on the art of listening and making music, we could do something that had never been done before.”

It is no accident that MacAlindin found the necessary intuition and compassion, for he himself experienced an often harrowing childhood. Growing up a musical, ballet-loving boy in a tough Scottish town, he was an easy target for bullies. Then his mother’s untreated schizophrenia distorted her immense love for her only child into manipulation, delusion, paranoia and shame, culminating in a shattering fracture of their relationship when he was 16, which also precipitated the end of his parents’ marriage. In Upbeat he writes: “I felt strongly about the players because we shared the experience of developing as young musicians under tumultuous circumstances.”

After overcoming every obstacle, including endless red tape and funding black holes, the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq succeeded in giving triumphant concerts in Edinburgh, Bonn and Aix-en-Provence. A trip to the US beckoned. And then, in 2014, it all came to a sudden, devastating end. “Firstly, the visa process was deliberately delayed by the US citizenship and immigration services, with the aim of timing the whole process out. We were not deemed good enough for America. And then ISIL invaded Iraq.” As a consequence, the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq is now no more, though MacAlindin remains in touch with all his young musicians on Facebook. “They are either in the Kurdistan region where they’re physically safe, or in Baghdad, where they’re not safe because of daily terrorism. They’re all still alive and playing as best they can but it’s an impossible environment.”

MacAlindin believes he was doomed to be frustrated, not only by events beyond his control, but also by the post-war government of the country whose citizens he was trying to help. In Upbeat, he is critical of the post-war Iraqi administration’s failure, despite considerable oil revenues, to invest in culture: culture that would give Iraqis a vital sense of their own identity. In a passionately delivered TEDx talk last November, he stated: “Culture is not an added extra. It’s not a nice middle-class thing to have. It’s absolutely fundamentally essential.”

I tell him how striking I found this statement, and he expands on it. “We created a little utopia which proved that when you give young people a chance, they’re brilliant. But the tragedy is that Iraq is honestly the most self-sabotaging culture I’ve ever come across. The way Iraqis see themselves is the reason that it was so easy for ISIL to invade Iraq. Because the Iraqi people had nothing to believe in: nothing that they wanted to defend. It’s about who you are in your breast, in your gut that actually defines the success or failure of your country.”

The process of writing Upbeat was, says MacAlindin, an immensely cathartic one. Like his young musicians, he is still coming to terms with the loss of his orchestra. That loss has been compounded by the death of his father in 2014, and of his mother earlier this year. Two weeks after she passed away, MacAlindin’s former partner, the renowned composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, also died. He contributed both a foreword for the book and a piece of music, “Reel of Spindrift”, written especially for the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. Scottish indie publisher Sandstone Press and Upbeat came together after MacAlindin researched publishers who would take open submissions, and sent out a synopsis and the first three chapters by email. “Sandstone got back to me within 48 hours,” he says. A fruitful working partnership was quickly forged with Sandstone editor Robert Davidson, with whom he is now planning a second book.

While MacAlindin assures me there is “not a snowball’s chance in hell” he would embark on such a mission again, his gains from his time with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq have been both huge and utterly unexpected. “Its loss was devastating but that loss has also deepened me and forced me to acknowledge the power of family. As a gay man, I never, ever thought that I would have fatherly feelings…but that orchestra was like a child to me.”


Imprint: Sandstone Press
Publication: 18.08.16
Formats: HB/EB
ISBN: 9781910985090, 9781910985106
Rights: available through Maria White
Editor: Robert Davidson

This article originally appeared in The Bookseller magazine of 27th May 2016.