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 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:

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 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 vocals…” 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