Hope this works
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 to be performed with a string quartet. 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:
Because the entire project was shifted online, Jane’s piece was a real test of my nascent software skills. The original piece was chopped by more than half in order to create a short film with most of the dancers filming themselves at home, along with a small group joining together to stay 2 meters apart on Stapleford Down itself.. 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. As we couldn’t at that point expect to get a group of players together, the instrumentation was largely determined by what sounded the least annoying as far as my orchestral sample library went. 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, but, unfortunately using the most excruciating West Coast Yacht Rock stylings 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; margaritas at the ready.
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. One of the problems was the fact that there was, of course, no conductor controlling the choir, so each part has a highly personal take on dynamics, phrasing, sound. That, and the fact that none of the singers had a safety-in-numbers feeling so as to be able to confidently project their part, instead singing by themselves in their room, all to aware of the family around them, which tended to inhibit their performance. Therefore you had to ride the levels of each singer’s track with the score in front of you to edit in the dynamics that would match the ensemble.
But it’s interesting to try and work so far outside your personal style; and the song needed to be surrounded by a sympathetic arrangement. Also, with the constraints of time, the pieces themselves with 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, you find that these constraints are 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.
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.
It’s early July, I’ve sent off the string and vocal parts after finishing them three weeks ago, and I’ve been sweating over Protools beginners manuals and videos for the last month or so to try and remember how the software works. The very clear, relentlessly upbeat (and noticeably nasal) West Coast sound engineer who narrates them can grate eventually, as can the somewhat twee MOR guitar bands he uses to illustrate his points. It was a bit like kids TV in the 50’s (” So kids, I’ve made this model of Sputnik just using toilet paper tubes, library paste, and bent paper clips for the antenna…”) . Still… we got through it.
So above is the first of four pieces based on the resonances of the Peddars Way churches; it is built from local sounds of the (pissing) rain of the day I went through, plus birdsong from the area once I got far enough away from the main road to lose the traffic noise. I sampled some notes on piano, etc, plus some singing bowls and a couple of propane tanks here behind the Lazy K Ranch. These were, through the magic of radio, pitch-shifted and generally messed with to the various actual church frequencies returned on the sweeps (strangely, the church does not exist in a tempered continuum); +30 cents here, -49 cents there, to create the sounds to assemble. (A chapeau here to John Ward). Fun, if time-consuming. I started messing about with organizing the structure rhythmically from the series, but just started having too much fun. So much for a disciplined approach.
This is going to be used as a setting to some improvisations – exactly how yet remains to be seen.
or: too much information
The idea of having way too much of anything, like these Baroque Nederland-ish depictions of plenty, is something that keeps coming back to me as I sort through all the material I’ve gathered for the Peddars Way project. I particularily like the coy reveal through the parted velvet curtains of a very un-Nederlands backdrop with hills. Wine, silk cloth, exotic fruit, cherries, oysters, shrimp, ham, Venetian glass, silver platters…someone has stopped for a breather …or something; perhaps that something suggested by the oysters.
Working on the Peddars Way piece, I realize I’ve gathered way too much stuff to keep the the thing cohesive: thirteen melodic fragments, five church resonance profiles, two plainchant melodies; plus several months of sketches of messing around with it all. Pages and Pages of messing around. It’s now more than half-written, and I’ve just spent an afternoon assembling the fragments in their working order to have a try at how the connections work. Normally I try to keep the number of processes and monads at a minimum; not so much that I’m concerned with a total gesamtkunstwerk , I’m not that concerned with a strict organicism of material and media springing from a single source as such.
The main question is do I try to keep it more-or-less through composed, or reveal the joins that make up the whole. Again, both the Berio and Stravinsky stuff I’ve been obsessing over is happy to use either a suite or a collection of individual songs as a template. The thing that makes it work is the coherence of the composer’s individual voice.
It’s a little like when I use the swiss chard I’ve cut out of the garden; I’ll wash and chop it a few times until nothing seems to be moving (always bad in a salad). Then, when I assemble it in its context, the connections will be revealed, hopefully. As I write this, I’m checking out the March chard from the garden to go into the risotto – all quiet on the veg front.
Or, here we go Agon.
Trying to stay in touch with the Peddars way piece on a daily basis, I’ve been mildly angsting with large, scribbled A3 diagrams as to how all the various elements will organize themselves: everything is related, and, (ahem) it isn’t.
Thinking about it as I composed out various sections based on particular churches, it seemed what I had was a suite a of parts, some quite disjunct, and getting more so as I looked for ways to add improvisatory sections for the sax based on the church resonances I had been gathering with John Ward. And there’s also the possibility of getting the rest of the ensemble in on the fun, in a semi-aleatoric-kind-of-way.
A couple of models occured to me; the first was Stravinsky’s Agon, because it combines two radically different compositionsal approaches literally bolted together as a dance suite over a two year period when he went through a major and traumatic stylistic shift, adapting his previous way of working to incorporate his personal take on the serialist school he felt he was being superceded by. Even Boulez (after dimissing Stravinsky as a reactionary for years), one of the most total of the total serialists, admitted Agon had opened a new sound, and declared it one of the seminal pieces of the mid-twentieth century.
What interests me about it is that there was a major break between starting and finishing it, maybe precipitated by a late-mid-life crisis of relevancy. The older parts of the suite are still in his neo-classical style, while others explore his personal take on serialism. And they are shuffled up and combined so there’s no telling what you get next. But, amazingly, there’s no sense of which is which; and the listener would be hard pressed to point out such an incredible shift in aesthetic and method between sections. So there is hope.
The second was the open and luminous settings of folk songs by Berio; eleven songs from different cultures, each one different. They each give a nod towards the style in which they arose, like the acerbic Gaelic fiddle and harp accompianiment in the first piece, Black is the Color…. Although it doesn’t quite have the same stylistic cohesiveness as Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, it also manages to set each song in a unique texture; like Schoenberg, using differing elements of a small ensemble in constantly changing colors. And the fiddle part oddly echoes the violin solo in the first Pas-de Trois of Agon.
So they both sit on my piano/desk.
Up on a hill, overlooking the Nar valley to the north, in the next-to-non-existent hamlet of Houghton St Mary, there is a small, now-restored-once-abandoned church in what is now a lost village equidistant to the Pickenhams (both north and south) . It was a good mile-ish hoof up a hill in the heat. With the pack. And no more water until I got to the pub three miles on.
So the story goes, that when its roof had collapsed in the 19th century and the water got in, the improvements of the Restoration, like scales from one’s eyes, gradually went with it. The lime render used during the Restoration (which has a lot to answer for as far as British church architecture goes) to conceal the idolatrous Papist images, once wet from the intrusive weather, had fallen away to reveal medieval wall paintings with Gabriel and his trumpet calling fort the faithful on the last Day of Judgement. The hammer blows in the plaster to give the render purchase give the effect of an unfortunate bullet marked wall in a recently fallen dictatorship, which, I suppose, it was. The hammer blows of fate? The souls surrounding Gabriel are in Rapture… if only all gigs were like that.
Naturally, any sax player could to relate to what should perhaps be our patron saint; well, although not strictly speaking a saint. Gabriel has his own feast day, though. St Cecilia is fine, but she doesn’t have a horn to hand at crucial moments. Instead, she sang non-stop to prevent her marriage to Valerian being consummated; perhaps not an ideal life partner/soul mate for a lonely guy, and it might also say something about her singing. And then she was martyred. Perhaps a small comfort for Valerian was that he also martyred as well. Maybe. And that it all took place under the everyone’s favorite Stoic, Marcus Aurelius.
So… a month or so after I completed the walk, John Ward and I showed up with all his gear in the tiny but intensely evocative early 11th century pre-conquest Saxon church at Newton, just outside Castle Acre. This was on a cold, windy, rainy day in November as the sun was going down. The place feels ancient, with its small barrel-ceiling nave, Saxon stonework, a wonky central tower with dead-end stairwells that ascend to a long-lost gallery above the departed rood screen, and an even smaller chancel and modest altar, which you can just about touch both walls of. The floor and skirting are dripping with moss and damp, and nowhere does the building contain a right angle. You can see the moss in between the bricks in the photo; no kidding.
This is one of the few churches actually on the Peddars Way; however, the village must have shrunk considerably some time ago, now merely being accompanied by a large farm, a roadside pub, and a few houses; and now cut off from even most of them by the busy main coast road. Presumably the rest of the congregation had shifted allegiance to nearby Castle Acre when superseded by the Normans with the grander Church of St James, the Norman Motte and Bailey (there to show who was in charge), and the sprawling late 11th century Cluniac monastery about two miles up the road. Another statement of domination by a fresh wave of conquerors, leaving this small Saxon church & hamlet thoroughly cowed.
It was dark in the church; and difficult to get any usable photos with my vaguely crap aged tablet. While John set up his gear (a mike, a speaker and a laptop), I walked around the space, giving random claps, listening to the echoes and slapback. As the rain beat down, John gave several frequency sweeps in differing locations, the most interesting being under the central tower. The sweeps are kinda spooky, as you stand there listening for something to happen for the first 5-10 seconds before a low rumble appears, and then wonder what else is happening after it disappears, standing quietly until it quietly bleeps to inform you it’s finished. This, you realize, (of course) just brings home the amount of your very own hearing loss. There is stuff happening in the silent sections, but now it’s just music for dogs (here’s one of my particular faves:). So here’s the sweep result:
We got this profile from the center of the church; unlike most of the returns, which are on the haphazard side; usually containing what look like a number of harmonic spectra from several random bass notes; this is interesting as it shakes out to a slightly flat (10-12 cents) E G C; with an additional top octave C is sharp by about 20 cents; an inverted C major triad: a concord, of sorts.
Confession: I was disappointed; I have trouble with simple consonances with my composer hat on. This should not be the case.
I’ve been up against it the last couple of months composing and preparing for the Cambridge Jazz Festival gig on the 26th of November, featuring ‘Jazzman’ John Robert Clarke’s performance poetry and Laura Brera’s dance interludes – just about there…things are at the herding cats stage trying to set up some rehearsals; unlikely we’ll have everyone in the same place at the same time.
Reading an interview with Jan Gabarek, he mentioned that he never had much interest in geeking about with possible sax/mouthpiece/reed combinations; he had used the same somewhat standard (and a bit unfashionable) MkVI-Berg Larsen set-up for years, in the meantime creating one of the iconic (and most copied, after Brecker – and it’s interesting to speculate whether Brecker had been influenced as well) sax sounds of the last quarter of the twentieth century. I remember sitting in the Jazz Workshop in Boston in the early 70’s, waiting to listen to him, determined to disapprove of some unknown Scandinavian interloper (with the strange “I-come-from-the-planet-Vulcan” haircut seen below) who had replaced my fave guy of the moment, Dewey Redman, in the Keith Jarrett Quartet…. and then he just played a simple, soaring line…
He talks about never giving his gear a thought until rather recently, when he started getting involved with the Internet. He referred to his sax as a tool, a ‘hammer’ something which he not particularly interested in and was invisible to him as long as it did his bidding. This saxophone-as-hammer is similar to the idea of Heidegger’s hammer (I know, there was the unfortunate business with Adorno, who was down on this guy) ; an object that is invisible as long as it fulfills its function. Garberek was happy for years playing in his preferred manner without thought of mouthpieces , reeds or particular instruments .But, of course, Theo Wanne promises everything, and once Gaberek started messing about on the internet, the chimera of a better world hovered just beyond his reach; one where everything spoke effortlessly from low Bb to an altissimo double F… balanced, in tune, rich in timbre. Squeaks are sent to a specific circle of Hell, or perhaps just on Charon’s ferry across the Acheron to accompany the wailing of souls on their final journey to damnation…I think all reed players would like to think of that as the last outing of all their squeaks down through the years. One would faint, and find that all the squeaks had been banished upon awakening on the other side. Here is Delacroix’s take on Charon, Dante and the Damned (not the band) hearing all the squeaks from the mortal world while crossing the Acheron on the barge, such as all those Parker out takes….