Sunday, May 25, 2014

Catha's Seat and final PITW

Saturday, 3rd May 2014
Canterbury area

An eventful day. In the afternoon, I joined some of Arlet for a bike ride from Thanington Without, along the Stour and out along a new cycle path near Chilham. Nick, an old friend of Aidan and Owen, has been campaigning and fundraising (and wading through Council-generated red tape) tirelessly for quite a while to create an impressive wooden double seat ("Catha's Seat") on the path as a memorial to his mother, another cycle campaigner whose efforts led to the opening of this path, although she tragically died many years before it's completion. He'd asked Arlet to come and play some music for the opening ceremony and picnic, and so naturally they cycled there. Aidan had an accordion (not his new "Watkins Super-M" though!) bungeed to the back of his bike, and Ben and his partner Rosie cycled with their little Hazel. Rosie the violinist had to drive down from Gravesend, so she parked nearby and walked in. Thom was unable to make it on this occasion.

They played unamplified beneath some bunting while a good-sized crowd of walkers and cyclists milled around, ate picnics, etc. A very low key little gig, but spirited and fun. It was especially satisfying to be in a crowd of people every one of whom had walked or cycled there. Big respect to Nick for persisting and getting this together. As many people commented in the various speeches, his mum would have been immensely proud of him. The local councilor (who confessed this was the first time he's used his bike in years) cut a ribbon to declare the seat open, at which point I had to whizz back to Canterbury as Sondryfolk artist-in-residence Tom Stone was arriving from Bristol.

Tom and his wife Amy arrived to present his final work (he'd done two stints in the woods last year), a little presentation box with a few photos, texts and artefacts, and an MP3 player with an audio guide to the place (or "mis-guide", as Phil Smith and his Wrights & Sights collective would have it). As well as getting to see the place at the peak of bluebell season, they got to catch the final Piano in the Woods performance.

This was the thirteenth monthly PITW happening, almost a year to the day since we moved the piano out into place to let it slowly decay and Sam Bailey (and collaborators) explore its sonic possibilities. It had been integrated into CCCU Music Department's Sounds New festival, so there was the largest audience we'd had, many people who'd not been to any of the previous installments. And it was only the second one to happen after dark, so I prepared candle lanterns along the path from the gate to the piano, Libby ferried people back and forth, and I spent most of the event on the gate. Somehow this was OK, as much as I'd have liked to have seen it — someone had to do it, I knew I'd get to hear the recording, and I'd also twice before seen Toma Gouband, the lithophonic percussionist who was collaborating with Sam this time. Libby kindly took over for ten minutes so I was able to head over and catch what must have been the weirdest few minutes of live music I've ever experienced!

I've mentioned the ritual quality of these events before, and the almost post-apocalyptic atmosphere, but this took that even further. The piano had been tipped on its back, with the action fully removed, so strings were fully exposed both above and below the protruding keyboard. Sam and Toma crouched on either end, facing each other, the former manipulating the strings in his usual ways (bowing, scraping, strumming, vibrating with frothing whisks, eBows, etc.) and the latter tapping away at an arsenal of carefully chosen, large lumps of flint placed on the strings (along with various cymbals and bells). There's nothing random about Toma's lithophonic percussion — he's not just banging rocks together! Anyone who regularly walks along the edges of ploughed fields in Kent will know that accidentally kicked flints colliding can be surprisingly musical, and he's seemingly studied the musical topography of his flint collection in such detail that he's able to produce precise tuned percussion from it. People were sitting and standing around the piano in concentric rings, some wrapped in blankets (it was a chilly night), hushed attention, flickering lamplight. My overriding impression in those few minutes was that I was listening not to two people making weird noises on a clapped-out piano, but to two skilled and highly receptive musicians jamming together in a most sophisticated way. I'm not sure how the recording will sound to someone who never got along to check out the context and atmosphere of any of the PITW performances, but here it is anyway:

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Owen, who'd enthusiastically headed to the pub in Chilham with Nick and friends after the Catha's Seat picnic, surprised us by showing up for this. Also Callum from The Boot Lagoon (and now Bison Bonasus), one of Sam's old piano students, I was glad to see, as these more avant garde events tend to attract a different crowd (a bit more academic) from the rest of the musical goings-on I've been documenting around Canterbury in recent times.

Ed from Australia (who took some lovely still photos of the Sondryfolk Autumnal Jamboree a few years ago) arrived with a couple of friends, on a real buzz having just walked the Pilgrims' Way from Winchester over ten days. He had his good camera with him and attempted to capture some of it, but apparently it was just too dark. Neil Sloman, the main PITW photographer, sadly had to miss the event, but stopped by earlier to take some portaits of Sam and Toma, so those will eventually find their way onto the PITW website.


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