Thursday, December 31, 2015

Canterbury midwinter

The acoustic project I've been working on with Tom Holden (still provisionally called "Binnewith News") suddenly took on a completely new life and direction in the weeks leading up to winter solstice.

First, Aidan from Arlet got involved musically, playing accordion, making very helpful arrangement suggestions (even transcribing some of our tunes as sheet music, which was quite strange and flattering to see). Tom and I were both taken aback that someone with that level of musical and compositional skill would want to get involved with us, but delighted by his enthusiasm.

Second, our friend Juliet got involved as a kind of "art director" for the project, an open-ended assignment that could have involved creating visuals, costumes, projections... we weren't exactly sure, but I had great faith in her insight and imaginative powers. She came to a couple of rehearsals, sat in the corner listening and sketching in her notebook. "I think I'm going to put you on a raft," she eventually announced. Characters and costumes were soon sketched out — Tom a kind of psychedelic/steampunk pirate, me a kind of Arab prince/scholar (with curly-toed slippers, crucially), and Aidan, having expressed a strong desire not to get involved in any kind of acting, a monk under a vow of silence.

A premise then emerged between us: Three amnesiacs waking up on a raft with musical instruments — they can remember how to play various pieces of music, but not who they are or how they got there. Slowly, gradually, by playing music, they're able to work out how to navigate the sea of ontological uncertainty that they're adrift on, leading to all kinds of possible encounters with fantastic entities, etc. It seemed a great starting point for an experimental project like this, a kind of initial test/sketch where we wouldn't have to worry too much about "getting into character", as we wouldn't know what our characters were (just had to adopt silly costumes and get on with it).

Holly had offered her bedroom in a shared house in Wincheap for the first performance (without having much of a picture as to our intentions, just expecting an acoustic trio to play, I think), and we came up with the winter solstice (well, 21st December, technically the evening before) as a date that would work. Several nights leading up to that were spent in Juliet's garage, painting scenery, constructing a large cardboard raft, working with papier-mâché, origami and other media to get all the necessary props and visuals together. There was a real sense of excitement about this, entering into some kind of unknown reality...

Aidan showed up just before the gig, having been at home practicing the tunes (while we figured out how to hang scenery in Holly's room, and fussed with the various props, etc.). None of us had any idea quite how this was going to work, but it went astonishingly well. An invited audience of twelve was summoned from the kitchen by Juliet (wordlessly, wearing a blank mask and a black veil) and led upstairs to find a maritime scene: we had two types of crinkly semi-translucent blue fabric ruffled up on the floor to represent the sea, seascapes Juliet and Tom had painted on sheets hanging on three sides, and the raft at the back. Tom was strumming idly on his ukulele, me "asleep" and Aidan sitting in silence beside his accordion. After a while, I "woke up" in a state of total confusion, Tom and I quickly ascertaining that we had no idea who we, or each other, were, and that "Brother Aidan" might know something, but wasn't saying.

The first couple of tunes were just Tom and I, Aidan remaining in silence. Eventually he started fiddling with his accordion, in a very playfully percussive way (he turned out to be an excellent silent actor!), then wheezing a few chords, and then bursting into his full musical brilliance for the third tune. Between pieces, Tom and I riffed on the "what is this place? how did we get here? who are we? and how do we know how to play these instruments and tunes?" themes. There were references to a feeling that we were being watched (some giggles from the audience then), but otherwise we acted like the audience wasn't there, and they sat attentively until the end. There was no break, it got rather hot in the room, no one left for a toilet or smoke break, and the whole thing went on for nearly two hours. I was wearing a turban Juliet had wound onto my head (and a kind of paisley dressing gown, as well as baggy trousers and curly-toed slippers I'd made from papier mache), so was sweating profusely by the drinking water on the raft...but this just added to a sense of endurance and authenticity. The whole thing had quite a comedic aspect, and afterwards I was happy to hear Holly compare our aesthetic to The Mighty Boosh (praise indeed!).

Juliet's role during the performance was as a kind of controller/programmer/deity responsible for the world in which we musician characters had inexplicably awoken. Keeping her blank mask and veil on, she stood up on a chair in the corner after each piece to announce its name (speaking in an ominous voice through an echoey "thunder drum"). This gave Tom and I something to talk about (what was that voice? where did it come from? what did it say? what could it mean?). After a while she got into her stride and started addressing us with other cryptic pronouncement and acted as a kind of sporadic narrator. None of this was planned or scripted, so afterwards it was surprising and encouraging to find that many in the audience had assumed it was.

Holly's housemate Tim had installed a very expensive looking microphone in the room and had recorded the whole thing on ProTools, and there were a few photos discretely taken during the gig, so some of that may make it's way here in due course.

[update, 2016-02-09: the recordings are now available here]

Liam from Syd Arthur was in the audience, we were happy to see, and his words of praise for the whole experience were hugely encouraging. We also learned that the new SA album, currently being mixed, is to be called Apricity, an almost forgotten word which he'd found, meaning "the warmth of the sun as experienced in winter", or something to that effect. I'd seen Liam and his brother Joel a few nights earlier at a little gig at The Refectory Kitchen in St. Dunstans — Jeremy and Steve, formerly of the Jimmy Jones Band (a long-defunct Canterbury fusion band) have formed a new trio with a drummer I didn't recognise. They're called Sharawadji, and it was only their second gig, really interesting stuff that suggests great things to come. I just looked up the Googled the name and found out that it means this:

"[A]n aesthetic effect which characterises the sensation of plenitude sometimes created by the contemplation of a complex soundscape whose beauty is unexplainable. The effect comes about as a surprise and will carry you elsewhere, beyond strict representation — out of context. In this brutal confusion, the senses get lost. A beautiful Sharawadji plays with the rules of composition, manipulates them and awakens a feeling of pleasure through perceptual confusion. Whether in a dreamlike or anxious state, we are sometimes completely deaf to the environment. However, while on a walk or on a journey, our spirit can combine availability, attention, perspicacity and therefore become receptive to new things, including sonic fantasy."

A good name, then!

A few days later I made my way to The Unicorn (also in St. Dunstans) for the customary Christmas Eve gathering of Canterbury friends and musicians linked to the old Furthur scene (members of Syd Arthur, Zoo For You, The Boot Lagoon, also Adam "Oko" Dawson and Tony "Care Package" Onuchukwu and others from various interlocking circles of friends). I got a chance to catch up with Laurie from the Sondryfolk collective, too, back briefly from Bristol. She got to visit the rainforest in Ecuador this year as part of her work as assistant to the artist Mariele Neudecker, a project which includes some sound art, like this:

Adam from Lapis Lazuli has a birthday on the 27th, so invited a load of friends out to his cabin near Barham on Boxing Day for an evening of playing pool on a wonky pool table he'd rescued, drinking whisky and spinning old vinyl (a lot of it from Leonie's collection, which had been left there): Led Zep III, Beefheart's Strictly Personal, Yessongs, Roberta Flack, The Staples Singers, the new Evil Usses and Count Bobo albums...

The reason Adam didn't do this on the 27th was that Native Productions were hosting their annual xmas-time gig at The Penny Theatre, with various Native DJs playing sets, and a live set from The Boot Lagoon. The latter was extremely well received. A howl of approval after the first, energetic, number led Callum (who does the somewhat reluctant between-tune talking) to exclaim "Wow, that went better than expected!". And it was all uphill from there, The Boot tearing it up in their characteristic fashion. Cam and Seth were the usual flawless rhythm section, and Pete and Cal seemed more confident than ever in their playing. I made a recording on my Zoom H2 and later found out that guitarist Pete took some video on a GoPro, so these will eventually be combined and the resulting clips embedded here.


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