Thursday, July 18, 2013

Arlet residency + ex-Penguins!

14—16th June 2013

This was another Sondryfolk artist residency, the first musical one I've facilitated. This was truly an honour and a pleasure to be part of. Arlet got to write, rehearse, experiment, play and generally have fun for the entire weekend (all within earshot of me) while I took care of basic cooking, cleaning, tea-making, etc. so that they wouldn't have to bother themselves with anything non-musical. They turned up with a borrowed bell tent on Friday morning and were around until Sunday evening. Dan and Alaric from The Bakery filmmaking collective were on site filming quite a bit too, so it'll be interesting to see what they put together.

You can read Rosie's blog posting about the residency here.

Thom and Owen (photo by Rosie)

They came up with a couple of very interesting new pieces (this was the first attempt by Arlet at group composition — accordionist Aidan has written all the music up to this point), one of which was based on aleatoric methods. Aidan and Rosie decided to twang the eight guy-ropes supporting the bell tent and see what sounds they made. They got a sequence of notes (supplemented by the drone of a small aircraft passing overhead between twangs), not initially promising, melodically, but through repetition, modulation and other compositional innovations they turned it into an extraordinary piece of music that none of them would ever have thought to compose.

Ben, Rosie (behind a camera) and Aidan reflected in Thom's euphonium

Saturday night was the centrepiece of the weekend, as I'd arranged for The Orchestra That Fell to Earth (former Penguin Café Orchestra members, including Annie Whitehead, the jazz trombone legend I interviewed for Canterbury Soundwaves episode 13, and Geoffrey Richardson, viola player with local legends Caravan since '73) to come and play a gig in our little woodland amphitheatre. Apart from Spiro, the PCO were the only point of reference that came to mind the first time I heard Arlet play (their first gig, a couple of years ago, in Eastbrige Hospital Undercroft in Canterbury High Street), and it turns out that they were indeed an influence. Usually, they're lucky to scrape together an hour or two rehearsal time before a gig. This time, very well rehearsed (having been playing solidly for two days), Arlet played a blinding support set.

This was after a crew of volunteers with wheelbarrows had helped the ex-Penguins shift their gear into the woods. I was most impressed by the way Liam Genockey, wild Irish percussionist with plaited beard (and who's played with Robert Wyatt, Steeleye Span, Kevin Ayers, John Martyn,...) immediately stationed his zebra-skin drum by the central fire to tighten its skin (as if he's always playing fireside gigs), opened a bottle of ale and made himself comfortable on the strawbales to enjoy Arlet. We had a capacity audience (about 75), an extremely good atmosphere, communal feasting, NO RAIN...couldn't have been better.

Liam's zebra-skin drum warming up (photo by Claire H)

Arlet played what I (and they) reckon was probably the best they've ever played, culminating in the brilliant "Edinburgh Fringe" and "Medway Services", to rapturous applause. This was filmed and recorded — one new piece will feature at the end of Canterbury Sans Frontières episode 5.

Arlet (they brought their own bunting!): Thom, Owen, Rosie, Aidan, Ben (photo by Claire H)

TOTFTE then got set up (that included a harmonium borrowed for the occasion) and took everything to another level entirely. They started off with "Air ´ Danser", then "Organum", on through a whole string of PCO classics like "Numbers 1—4", "Telephone and Rubber Band" (with Simon Jeffes' dialing/engaged tone sample having migrated from microcassette to USB data stick plugged into Jemnifer Maidman's battery amp), "Paul's Dance", "Giles Farnaby's Dream" and (of course) "Music for a Found Harmonium". People were up and dancing by the end... The audience were a mix of old PCO fans and younger friends of Arlet, so a really nice intergenerational mix appreciating each others' sounds. Will Greenham from Cocos Lovers was completely overwhelmed (never heard PCO before), whereas his young labelmate Will Varley was intimately familiar with them, having been brought up on their music (he brought his mum and dad along — his dad was apparently reduced to tears).

Of the six amphitheatre gigs thus far, I think that was everyone's favourite. At one point Jennifer explained that the original idea of the Penguin Café came from deceased originator Simon Jeffes after he had a nighmarish, dystopian vision of a dehumanised world during some delirious hallucinations brought on by food poisoning (in the early 70s, presumably). His idea was that the "Penguin Café" was to be a mythical non-location-specific place where people can gather peacefully and respectfully, everyone can be themselves, just hang out and listen to music, enjoy each other's compnay... "And this place is the embodiment of the Penguin Café", said Jen, at which point I realised that I must be doing something right.

After the main event, there was a wonderful musical takeover by several members of Little Bulb Theatre, friends who Miriam invited along (she was part of their recent gypsy-jazz inspired production of Orpheus and Euridyce), a good-old singalong, and a brilliantly eclectic selection of songs. They're huge PCO fans and have been working non-stop for months, so they were absolutely delighted to be out in the woods having just witnessed an intimate performance by TOTFTE. They were still going after sunrise apparently (I had to go and get some sleep once the dawn chorus started up). I can remember Dom singing "Rocky Racoon", a medley of "Hit the Road Jack"/"Wade in the Water"/"Cocaine Lil", Leadbelly's "Midnight Special", The Waterboys' "Fisherman's Blues", Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's Alright", Radiohead's "High and Dry", a hilarious sea shanty written by Alex for one of their earlier shows... Every now and again someone else would be handed the communal guitar to sing something. Ben from Arlet gave us a couple of beautifully delivered folksongs: "The Flower of Northumberland" and Archie Fisher's "I Came to a Western Island". A dreadlocked visitor called Ryan (who'd been at the Famous James/Hellfire gig last Hallowe'en just before flying out to Australia, and who'd just got back) got everyone singing "I Wanna Be Like You" (from The Jungle Book). On and on and on, until the break of dawn...

aleatoric precipitation-based composition!

The next day, after more writing and rehearsing, Arlet featured in a low-key early evening presentation back in the amphitheatre. This was largely for the benefit of the filmmakers, but there was a small audience enjoying it too. They played their new pieces and some experimental sketches (based on birdsong, raindrops on staff paper, etc.), answered questions, mused on the direction their music might be going in, and made some interesting observations about themselves as a musical entity in contrast to TOTFTE (who just seemed to "sit inside" their music, as Rosie observed, rather than hurtling through it, as Arlet perhaps have a tendency to do, lacking the experience and confidence of an established ensemble with an adoring following).

Everone involved was positively glowing and seemed to be floating a couple of inches off the ground by the end of this weekend. So many thanks to Arlet, TOTFTE, Sondryfolk, The Bakery, Littlehall Woods and Pinetum Association, Rosy P for much-needed vegetable chopping assistance and everyone who came along on Saturday and Sunday. I heard a couple of suggestions that people will be talking about this for years to come, and I think they might be right...


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