The Gog Magog Downs, Stapleford

Last year, I was asked to be Artist in Residence to oversee a series of events that were going to take place around the Stapleford Granary Arts Centre (Brit spelling). I had asked a series of East Anglian artists to propose work that was related to the locale of Stapleford, near Cambridge. The environmental sound artist Simon Scott was recording birdsong in the chalk downs above the village to create a piece. And we had Boo Hewerdine, the award winning Cambridge singer/composer was going to collaborate with a local ensemble, the Phoenix Chorale in choral settings (by me) of some of his music; plus Mark Cocker, an East Anglian natural historian, was going to give a talk, accompanied by music, about the avian wildlife of the chalk downs. Also the choreographer Jane Turner was going to create a work based on Lethbridge’s suppositions that there were giant carvings in the chalk in the downs of the gods Gog and Magog. And then, suddenly, we weren’t.

In the end, everything was postponed indefinitely because of the lockdown. However, so far we have managed to create on-line version of two of the events thus far. Jane Turner worked with the film maker Chris Frazer Smith and members of her troupe, present and past, to create a virtual performance of her piece:

Jane Turner’s Turning Worlds ensemble, Chris Frazer Smith’s film, my music.

Because the entire project was shifted online, Jane’s piece was a real test of my software skills. The piece was chopped by more than half in order to create a short film with most of the dancers filming themselves at home. The structure and pitch sets were based on the coordinates of Stapleford Chalk Downs, and local birdsong ( slowing down a skylark recording to reveal what became a bassline), which in turn fed into the instrumental parts. So I had to compose out everything as score in Sibelius, and then fly the individual instruments stems into Protools to be hooked up with a set of orchestral samples, and then edited into the video. This forced me to confront a number of tutorial videos with very capable Californian engineers named things like ‘Todd’, who walk you through the editing and recording techniques, only using the most excruciating West Coast Yacht Rock of the last century as examples: “…wow – just listen to how that guitar soars over the vocal line…” in a number of sub-Doobie Brothers’ examples.

So now, I’m working on a piece for the Phoenix Chorale, which has come together with the singer-songwriter Boo Hewerdine to perform choral arrangements of some of Boo’s pieces in a virtual choir format. It should come together before the New Year. I had originally set a half-dozen of his pieces for the choir, but because of the wildly cumbersome work-arounds needed to record and align 25-30 separate choristers in a virtual format, we decided to just go with one for the moment. It’s interesting to try and work so far outside your personal style; with the constraints of time, the pieces themselves and their largely diatonic nature, the need for absolute clarity as there won’t be any rehearsals, and the technical demands of working with a young choir all making most of the decisions for you ahead of time.

So four performances have come and gone: Brettenham, Sporle, Stapleford and Fring, with the ensemble sounding more cohesive each time. There will hopefully be at least two more, in Wells and Kings Lynn, when the weather warms up the churches again in the spring, along with a recording session sometime in the new year. And here’s hoping the King Lynn Festival Too comes through as promised next June.

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And so, ten months on, none of this came to pass. The coming of the Covid lockdown meant that the recording was canceled, all the gigs in the Spring are postponed till who know when, assuming the venues survive? I’ve been lucky, the Festival I was meant to curate still resulted in some work, namely a piece with a choreographer, and another with a virtual choir, along with various bits and bobs and a gallery installation to beaver away at.

Things have gotten somewhat beardy in the meantime, but one carries on.

I might even start blogging these posts again.