Planted Symphony: Lucy Hale’s final piece re-imagined as an audio trail


In honour of Disabled composer Lucy Hale who died earlier this year her piece Planted Symphony has been produced as an accessible audio trail. Connecting the listener with themes of health and wellbeing, the power of nature and our duty to protect the natural world, the symphony has been commissioned by Drake Music to be experienced through smartphones. James Zatka-Haas sat down with Musical Director Ben Sellers to discuss the development of the work.

Q1 Hi Ben, what was the nucleus for Planted Symphony, how did the original idea come about?

A young white woman is in a large park, sitting on one of several small colourful stools. She is listening to the audio trail on large headphones and looking at the silk bunting fluttering in the breeze

Final installation of the audio trail

The original Planted Symphony was in London 2012 and was set in The Olympic park. The original idea was to build an interactive experience that could make the audience part of the ensemble. There was a tree with giant strings strung across that you could strum, various copper touch objects that you could touch and light and colour sensors. They wanted to take it on tour, so I was brought on as musical director, but then Covid happened.

Q2 How did that change the nature of the work?

Well it quickly became clear that the audience wasn’t going to be able to touch anything anymore. We needed to move from a live project to a recording project. Suddenly we weren’t limited to three musicians or acoustic instruments any more. There’s a lot of things you can’t do with a live project.

Q3 How did you begin working with Lucy?

All these conversations were happening around Christmas time, and it was during the first lockdown that Lucy came on saying she wanted to write, so I began giving her a few prompts. We began looking at different rhythmic structures. I’m really interested in Balkan music, West African music and a lot of Northern and Southern Indian classical, so I gave her some brief’s from Dave Young’s text and we put them into different scales. Really we just wanted to play and explore, keep it light. We had the help of a really brilliant team, not just of music people but visual arts people too.

Q4 So did the project emerge out of those initial conversations with Lucy?

The point of the briefs was for me and her to get to know each other and to see where the meeting points were. There’s that famous album by Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass ‘Meetings Along The Edge’. I wanted Cassandra Gurling and I to meet her along the edge. The music she made demanded careful listening and attention. She wasn’t going to sell millions of records but her character was so humble; she was just making music irrespective of the fact that she had lots of fans. My job was to get the essence and energy of what Lucy was saying, her vision of the universal tone, and put it in such a way so that it resonated with young and old, experienced and inexperienced. During the first meeting Sophie, our Executive Producer, asked everyone to bring in one thing that represented nature for them. Lucy had brought a sketch of her and her best mate drawn as witches stirring up pots. This is where the whole alchemy idea came from; thinking about pots and potions, then transformations.

An illustrated collage of English flowers like red roses, thyme and blackthorn. A potion bottle is in the centre of the image, with a mysterious liquid inside

Planted Symphony illustrated collage of nature’s potion

Q5 That brings us nicely to my next question, could you tell us a little about the structure of the work?

Sure. There are six movements. The first introduces Lagarther, our central character. She invites you to enter this space. Maybe you’ve come from the city, maybe you’re a little discombobulated, maybe you’re a child; you’re being invited in by this woman Lagarther. Dave describes her as being muddy, wearing muddy loose jeans like she’s just been gardening. When you enter she welcomes you in with a ‘Oh, you’re here. Great!’ Like she’s been expecting you. You are then invited to marvel at the beauty, the waltzing butterflies, the smells and colours. Lucy wrote the clarinet as the main voice for this movement and we had Sonia Allori, who is Deaf, perform the part. After Lucy passed away, I listened to loads of her sketches then gave Cass a few to work with in Logic. It’s an orchestral piece in a major key, welcoming and accessible, so we called it ‘Welcome to Our Garden’

Q6 And then the tempo switches up in Movement Two?

The second movement is called ‘potions’ and it mixes things up, boils it, gets the heart rate going. We’re going on an adventure. The original melodies were in 7/8 time but Cass put a straight 4/4 underneath it (pah pah pah pah pah). Two and Four are my favourite movements.

Q7 How about the Third?

It’s pretty experimental. There’s a lot of soundscape and disonant-type stuff. The movement revolves around transformation, like a transformation in life. I’ve never been divorced, but I imagine it’s both horrible and in some cases necessary. Transformation can be painful and weird, but necessary. The Fourth Movement then sees you as open. It’s called ‘The Winds Whisper Secrets’ and it reminds me of an Icelandic proverb that translates to something like ‘if you stay in nature long enough, it will talk to you.’ What we want the listener to come away with is a feeling that the transformation is only just beginning, that when you return to a tower block in Walthamstow or a disused dock in Hull, you will be able to hear the wind’s secrets.

Q8 Given the current climate crisis, doesn’t this all feel quite poignant? Planted Symphony seems like an invitation to meditate not only on what nature is, but our relationship to it.

Before I got involved with Planted Symphony, Dave had written a libretto (the text for an opera or other long vocal work) with Lucy composing the accompanying music. All of that was heavily referencing the climate. We took some of the music and its themes, but you can’t really talk about nature without discussing our symbiosis with it and our responsibility

Poet Dave Young visits an installation on the trail in the park. He is a young white man in a wheelchair with two other people next to him. He smiles as he looks at the bamboo tripod with fluttering colourful silk bunting

Poet Dave Young visits an installation on the trail in the park.

Q9 Tell me about the Fifth

Number five is the heart of the piece. Lucy came up with the title ‘Wait Quietly’. It’s basically a clarinet solo, and while the title may seem a little funny, it’s really meditative and reflective. It asks the listener to question who they are now the wind has revealed its secrets. It’s an intimate piece which opens the doors to movement six ‘We Like Our New Look’. It’s a celebration that brings in a lot of the motifs from the earlier movements and has Lagather seeing us off saying ‘Nature is everywhere, let’s have the symphony of love’.

Q10 The visuals play a large role as well. How did you find working with Jon Van Beck?

Once Lucy and I came up with the visuals I sat down with Jon, who is a genius, and we talked about dancing, transformation and solitude. Working with the musical sketches, he came up with a lot of good ideas, but kept saying he wanted more music.

App icon for Planted Symphony shows a hand-drawn red rose on a neutral background

App icon for Planted Symphony

Q11 Accessibility is obviously a major part of Drake Music. Could you tell me about access and those amazing Mi Mu Gloves

Sonia Allori, who is an amazing Clarinet Player, has hearing loss. She uses a haptic metronome, a gadget on her wrist that allows her to keep time. It was really interesting to question how we could communicate that deaf experience back to the audience. How could we do it? Did we need to do it? How do we create and choose sounds that would work for different hearing ranges? Cass was very keen at one stage to have drums on all the tracks, so that if people were using vibrating speakers, they would get something.

Q12 And the Mi Mu Gloves?

Yeah Kris Halpin. He’s a guitar player with a condition that limits his hand movement more and more as time goes on, so Drake invited him to be a guinea pig on these gloves. Imogen Heap created them actually. The gloves work with gesture control, so if you put your arm here, it makes a sound, and if you move it there, it makes a different one. Kris came up with a lot of different gestures – throwing a ball, catching a ball – It’s great for performance.

Q13 In that sense, they seem better equipped for Improvisation rather than composition. I don’t quite know how you’d be able to replicate the same gestures each time you perform.

Exactly. We had to find parameters and gestures that allowed Kris to have an influence in the music. That’s what Drake Music’s about, the Social Model, fitting music to the musician.

It was a real pleasure to talk with you today. Thank you.

Planted Symphony will be at Higham’s Park, Waltham Forest (18 & 19 September 2021), Inside Out Festival, Weymouth, Dorset (24-26 September 2021) and online at from October 2021.

Planted Symphony lasts between 20 – 30 minutes and is suitable for adults and families with older children. Visitors will need to download the Planted Symphony App and bring headphones. The App is accessible and includes BSL videos and embedded audio descriptions. Each of the trails is wheelchair accessible.

For D/deaf and hard of hearing audiences, there will be Subpacs available that translate sound into vibration and over-ear headphones which are compatible with hearing aids.