Blog

Studio Build Part I // Not making a brick but building a wall

December 16th, 2020

INTROIT

What follows is a sort of photo blog, chronicling the period between April-December 2020. This was time spent neither making any new music, nor being particularly creative.

I felt a sense that this is what was expected of musicians (or of myself) – as if the pandemic has presented an unmissable and golden opportunity to create, to invent radical ways of expressing one’s creativity through a series of meaningful musical statements, and as musicians, we should make it our duty to rise to this occasion, or something. I’m being deliberately obtuse, but this is only as I felt the pressure to create at a time where there was no excuse not to. These circumstances have had the opposite effect, and permitted a stillness and the suspension of being habitually musical for a little while. Suddenly there was time to reimagine, reassess and reaffirm immediate surroundings after almost twenty years of physical transience, collaboration, travel, and communing with the invisible power in music. Instead, I have swapped this for communing with the very literal bedrock on which my home rests – moving vast quantities of earth and stone to create and alter a physical space, and perhaps uncovering opportunities to learn something about myself whilst doing it.

In short, I’m building a studio, and have decided to chart its progress through a series of blogs – mainly as not to forget what / how things happened, and also as it’s a useful place to gather images captured during the work itself.  The very opposite of Grand Designs magazine (they rarely if ever show photographs other than the completed project). First, the access to the house itself had to be widened, making it easier for site vehicles to enter. Before launching into detail, an epiphany from March 2020:

NO ONE ELSE IS GOING TO HELP YOU

Although I’ve learned much from the endeavours that follow, letting go of the concept that others might blindly help you out – professional or otherwise; was a rare moment of clarity. Almost everything that follows (save for the wall rebuild), was done by hand, and was done alone.

THE WORK

Previously, the swing-round up to the driveway entrance was extremely problematic for most vehicles. A newly-erected fence to the left of the approach made access by anything exceeding the wheelbase dimensions of a small transit van virtually impossible. Removing the gate/gatepost didn’t really make much difference.

 

Note the lower wall/raised garden area leading to the coal sheds, and beyond that – one of two 13+ft Leylandii hedgerows.

LEYLANDII HEDGEROW REMOVAL – BEFORE / AFTER

 

 

(UN)CONTROLLED SHED DEMOLITION & WALL #1 DISASSEMBLY

With the trees removed, attention was turned to demolishing the sheds at the head of the wall, behind which stood a 1200-litre oil tank, which was then sold on eBay, along with the external boiler, for £500.

 

It was then collected by a couple who PUSHED the tank from the house almost half a mile to the main road and into a truck that wouldn’t fit down the lane. They were able to heat their water thenceforth, and I looked forward to cold showers for at least the following month.

  

With the demolition of stone buildings, chipping off old mortar/cement from the stone by hand was needed so it can be reused for dry stone walling. Taking around a day and a half to clean the stone with a lump hammer and chisel was a strangely meditative act. Stone by stone, all of the lower wall was disassembled, exposing the earth/bank behind it. Up to this point, all of this work was done without machinery – everything completed by hand/wheelbarrow, save for those occasions where a garden tractor and trailer was used to move loose stone to the ever-growing piles of stone around the house.

 

JCB 8014 – ACQUISITION / OPERATION

Three separate people advised purchasing a mini excavator as a way to save on throwing money away on operator/hire costs for the duration of the project ahead. As plant machinery depreciates much slower than cars, for example, I stand to sell it at not too much less than I paid for it. Although I now love it too much to think of parting with it…

At no point in my life to date did I ever think I would purchase a JCB after viewing a two-minute WhatsApp video of it in action from Matt at Budd Plant, then teach myself to operate it after studying a PDF of the Operator’s Manual and a couple of YouTube videos. But I did. Despite my additional delivery instructions, it arrived on the back of a vehicle that was almost too large for the main road itself. A human being can crawl on hands and knees faster than it takes to track a JCB up a half-mile lane.

After an interminable journey home, the work began. The difficulties included, but were not limited to:

Complete unfamiliarity and lack of any practical experience whatsoever with the machine;

As the driveway is already very narrow, squaring up to the work was not possible, and often collected only very small loads;

Avoiding neighbouring windows was essential, whereas utility meter boxes are fair game;

Both the lack of and/or effectiveness of using a dumper truck (including another person to operate it) meant tracking back and forth from worksite to garden to dump loads of earth was both time consuming and tedious;

Attempting to excavate/collect at high/above ground level and at odd angles;

Figuring out how to use excavated earth to level/grade uneven ground on a sloped site.

With these difficulties present, I was able to achieve a haphazard baptism of fire that boasted few witnesses. Since taking ownership in May, I’ve clocked just over 130 hours of time on this machine and can beat anyone in my postcode at a game of Tiddlywinks using only the edge of the grading bucket.

BEDROCK

And then, the fun began: the closer to the field wall base the excavation became, the enormity of the stones uncovered increased in disproportionate size and frequency. The JCB can do much to prise these from the ground, but may of them caused the excavator to tilt forward or fling it backwards if it lost its grip, meaning that many of the larger stones / boulders had to be started off using a pinch bar (point & chisel) and shovel to loosen the surrounding earth/small stones holding them in place. This was the case along its almost 40-metre length, including the lowering of the footpath section behind where the trees once were.


 

What often seemed like medium-sized stones on the surface, turned out to be three times their size once unearthed. Below are two photos of the same piece of stone. This and many others like it are now a striking feature in some of the base sections of the rebuilt wall.

UTILITIES – GAS & ELECTRICITY

GAS

Oh yeah, and as I’d completely removed the means to heat hot water, meant that I had to carefully locate the mains gas supply in the field above, then dig a near-vertical trench from the field level to a depth of 500mm below driveway level (a total 3 metres in height), and over to the house . Here’s how that went:

This last photograph belies a whole day of jackhammering through 1m of solid rock to reach the required trench depth for the supply pipe. Bastard.

ELECTRICITY

Neighbouring this trench by only a few feet, was the mains electricity supply – uncovered whilst excavating the wall base. Without the necessary slack to bury it behind the newly-built wall, more time and expense ensued, which meant rebuilding/negotiating it for six weeks before the cable could be extended. Bastard.

STRIPPING OUT

Stripping Out is a dry stone walling term used to describe the systematic dismantling and laying out of the stone on the ground, placed as close as possible to the wall base, in descending size order. With the raised bank now removed, and the earth used to flatten the upper garden slope beneath the fenced footpath section, stripping out of the main field wall could now begin. The JCB was perfect for loosening/pulling the stones out, but these still had to be manoeuvred and placed out as described above by hand. Kind of. In addition, there was a never-ending amount of loose earth and smaller stones – making the work unbearably dusty in hot weather, and almost unworkable in the wet. The following photos are in no particular order, but show the general mayhem, confined site space, and the increasing levels of insanity experienced on a daily basis.

 

   
                     

ON THE SEEMING INSURMOUNTABILITY OF THIS TASK

Around now seems apposite to introduce an element of quasi-philosophical reflection on this endeavour. Looking at these photographs months after the event is an odd experience. Collected here in this fashion, their flattened expression says nothing of what was going on internally for me. Pretty much every day I woke up at 6am for yoga practice, had coffee, then ventured out. On approaching wherever I’d left off the previous day, I’d purposefully ignore the enormity of the work ahead – instead focussing on a single/set of stubborn rocks or a pile of earth that seemed never to diminish, until wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. More coffee (+biscuits) usually followed after several hours, then back out again. Then lunch. After that, I’d typically work continuously, hitting my stride at around 17:00, then work until around 18:00, or sometimes later. In light of the current situation, I felt blessed by the good weather, the temperature, the outside space; and although I cannot say the same for the pandemic, I did nonetheless feel that this enforced stasis was grounding me to a sense of place in a way I’d never experienced before. As mentioned in the opening paragraph of this blog, the years of moving around have never appeared more vivid than in their absence. So day after day, for what seemed like countless weeks, I worked at nothing. At the conclusion of each day I would look at what I’d done, and see nothing. My father, who visited me during the summer, came out one day to help with some of the work, and remarked on this sense of slowness, and on the visible lack of progress after the passing of many hours spent trying to unsuccessfully force a single rock from the ground. There is very little to show for it, almost forever.

Then there was the indescribable joy of cleaning up, cooking a simple meal at the end of the day, and then sitting outside to eat it with a glass of something alcoholic and being completely overwhelmed by tiredness in some sort of post-marathon relief.

This was followed by more alcohol and time at the piano with some Ravel, Debussy or anything else that took my fancy. William Baines, perhaps. Then bed. Then repeat all of the above for as long as it takes.

I was not consciously working on my own music, nor on composition, nor working on technique or facility. There was no searching, no furrowed brow artistic struggle to become anything other than someone who enjoys playing a bit of piano to unwind after some hard manual graft.

Let’s rewind a little, and to an edition of Chipping Norton Music Festival, sometime in the early 1990s… I remember playing in a couple of concerts and receiving feedback from adjudicators, and in one such concert, a burly-looking man strolled up to the piano and played a Chopin Scherzo (in Bb Minor). He didn’t have the appearance of a musician, but someone of a very different vocation. I could see it immediately in his hands: they resembled those of my farmer uncle, Erik Tutt. Erik had thick, leathery, weatherbeaten hands that could milk cows or work mechanised farm equipment with ease and deftness. Back in Chippy, I found the man’s performance of Chopin simultaneously exhilarating and hilarious. This was someone whose embodiment of the piece seemed so total, and was playing the music purely for the joy of it – not to be a professional, but to be something that gave context to and is an extension of the quotidian of daily life. I have no idea whether he was or was not a professional musician, a farmer, a part-time care assistant, or what. But my reading of the potential of this performance was something I have solidified and carried with me ever since. The concept of being able to enjoy the power in music and not be a professional musician was exciting to me – as it offered an alternative solace to a teenager looking to music for alternative routes, or lateral answers to deep-seated inadequacies. Making a short story long, falling into this daily routine almost by accident this year, I managed to fulfil something of that dream: I became that man at the music festival.

FIELD RETAINING WALL – REBUILD

Philip Dolphin is arguably one of the finest dry stone wallers in the country – and luckily, lives only up the road in Skipton. Out of three people I contacted, Philip was the only person to respond and not be intimidated by the scale off the work. He’s also one of the nicest people on the planet. Philip and his colleague (also named Phil, pictured below), turned up day after day, and made a work of art.

 

 

    

STILE

In 2013, on the day I collected the keys to the house, the footath was overgrown, badly maintained, and its surface was waterlogged due to a blocked field drain. Here’s how it looked before/after the rebuild:

On lowering the footpath level, I uncovered a second field drain, which appeared to be out of commission, so simply filled it in/carried on with the rest of the work. Then it rained, and I discovered that it wasn’t out of commission at all. Further excavation was required to find/uncover the drain, and attempt to bridge or link the disjointed flow of water. Mistake successfully corrected, after much unnecessary work. Lesson learned…

DRIVEWAY / GATES & RAILINGS

Up to now, all of the work had churned up the driveway/footpath surfaces into a horizontal mud landslide, so twelve tonnes of crushed sandstone (14mm-00mm) was delivered, compacted. And to say nothing of the hardcore beneath it, taking many hours of sledgehammer work to reduce various site rubble down to a usable size (cue Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer / DIY). Andrew Brind fabricated the gates and estate railings, which were fitted, welded, and painted on site.

EPILOGUE : STONE

And now for some poetry: pictured below is a piece of Cotswold stone – quarried only a few miles from my childhood ends near Ebrington, Gloustershire. My very good friend, Glenn Armstrong collected it, and, brandishing his stonemason’s tools for the first time in thirty-one years, cut and made impeccable work of the inscription. It’s uncanny: a stone object associated with my boyhood past, situated within my current geography, hand carved by a dear friend in my youthful(!) present. Now that is a gift…

I’ll leave it there. Wishing everyone a safe and sound Christmas holiday, and let’s hope we all emerge into a much less insane 2021. x

Stay tuned for Part II. In the next instalment you will learn how I got into/out of this…

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

 



Be ready, always: on working with Keith Tippett

April 9th, 2020

ENTÊTE

This blog is a mixture of personal reflection, thoughts on process, on how working with Keith Tippett has helped reshape the topography of my piano/performance practice, and deserved praise for the work and pianism of one of the most significant musicians of our time.

BACKGROUND

Since discovering Keith Tippett’s music (Mujician I, II, III / Dedicated to You, But You Weren’t Listening / Septober Energy / Frames) as a student at Leeds College of Music in the late 1990s, I’ve been fascinated and stimulated by Keith’s musical universe. I remember one of our first meetings – he was a guesting with Stitch Winston’s Modern Surfaces, just over the road at The Wardrobe. I was part of a trio with bassist Riaan Vosloo, and drummer Dave Black – we played odd lunchtimes, and before most of the evening concerts organised by Leeds Jazz (usually in front of the main artists whilst they ate their pre-gig meal) – in exchange for £5, a little food, and free entry into the gigs downstairs. I saw Keith’s name in the programme, and prepared arrangements of a couple of his own compositions and included them in the set. Thanks to the supportive management at the time (James & Martin Hudson), we were given carte blanche and weren’t afraid of playing out or making more adventurous moves in this setting, and, as a trio, had mastered the subtle art of doing what we wanted musically; without upsetting any of the punters (avant-garde subterfuge). So, we did our thing. Sitting downstairs before the gig, I felt a hand on my shoulder and the words “Were you the piano player from upstairs?”. I confessed, and Keith then complemented me on the music, on not being afraid to play more adventurous stuff on a restaurant gig, and generally reaching out in support of what we were up to. To have confirmation that we were on the right track from someone like Keith, was huge. 

 

Over the years, Keith and I continued to meet at gigs, chat about music, and even once Keith phoned me at home after listening to a recording of a 2003 Bath Jazz Festival commission with Bourne Davis Kane; offering generous words of support. It wasn’t until we met by chance backstage at the 2016 Herts Jazz Festival that Keith suggested we do some playing together. I was travelling to London that evening, and met up the following day with John Cumming for a long-overdue pint… I mentioned the conversation with Keith, and wondered if anyone would be interested in hearing us play live – to which John responded with “Well, I would – how about a gig at Kings Place at London Jazz Festival next year?”.

RECALIBRATION

“There’s too much directing going on around here” –  Orson Welles

Keith and I had arranged to meet up in Bristol once a month for several months leading up to the 2017 LJF concert. Initially, I was daunted by the prospect of playing with someone whose approach to piano playing I so admired, and had stolen (or at least attempted) so much from. Our first musical meeting, after several afternoons of conversation at Keith’s home, took place at The Victoria Rooms under the auspices of Bristol University, and set the format for all subsequent occasions: playing, conversation, playing, tea break/conversation, playing, etc.

I recall the very first few minutes of playing together and immediately realised that something unfamiliar was occurring, internally. I found myself shunted from my usual ‘place’ into another dimension altogether: suddenly there was no room for superficiality of any kind, and the conscious directorial prompts usually present in these situations (“do this” / “do that” / “go here next” / “damn – I should have warmed up as I can’t articulate myself clearly – and sound shit” / “that’s Keith Tippett sitting over there, and I can’t be fucking about…”), were unbearably loud and intrusive. They were not the TRUTH of the situation. I had been unaware as to how loud these internal prompts had become, and amazed at how active and alive they are in their guise as comforting whispers as part of my practice both on and offstage.

Unearthing these interruptions prompted a need to confront and reevaluate their function: What are they doing for me now? What use are they? and ultimately – Are they the truth? Probably not.  My hunch is that these are leftovers – mental artefacts that were an important part of a highly frenetic thought processes that informed my earlier solo work, where Zorn-like musical jump cuts were a prominent feature, and ‘fifth gear’ thinking ahead to the next texture/gesture/sample/technique, was an absolute necessity for the effectiveness of musical execution. In this particular setting, there seemed neither use nor room for them, and have watched them gradually still, transmute themselves into more useful characteristics, or become muted altogether. Whatever is happening, I don’t wish to observe too closely, nor consciously action my evaluations onto/into the processes that are naturally unfolding. Cue Orson Welles…

COMMUNION

Typically, Keith and I would naturally play for around twenty/twenty-five minutes a session, with around three sessions in each meeting. Before our first concert in London, we were kindly given access to Colston Hall, Bristol, on a Sunday afternoon. Filmed by Ray Kane, the session below is a rare and intimate excerpt of this meeting, and illustrates the emergence of a burgeoning musical synergy.

Having now played with Keith a number of times, I was beginning to intimately understand the range and scale of Keith’s dedication to the instrument through daily practice. Note that this work does not make its appearance by way of quotation or verbatim account (incidentally, neither of us ‘practice’ improvisation at home). One example of this can be found on the re-release of Keith’s seminal, and largely overlooked solo piano album, The Unlonely Raindancer. The titles on this album were taken from a series of recordings that were made on a solo tour of The Netherlands in 1979. They are unmatched in their musical imaginativeness and pianistic virtuosity. Even more startling is that these pieces are only fragments of a much larger whole: whilst on tour, Keith was playing three sets a night for almost a fortnight, with each set averaging from twenty-five to forty minutes in duration. The title track is taken from a single thirty-minute set, and (on the album), concludes as things are beginning to pick up in the context of the full set:

Alongside the transmutation of practice-specific work into a more spontaneous-sounding language in performance, are the often shorter, gestural ‘thumbprints’ each musician possesses that also find their way into a performance. The presence of a lexicon of techniques or favourite phrases is certainly not foreign to many improvising musicians – particularly in more conventional jazz settings, where any number might figure in various guises thought the course of a solo. To paraphrase jazz pianist, composer, and educator Bill Kinghorn:

“Whatever it is we do in the practice room we can only hope that this work translates through into an improvisation, somehow… To repeat verbatim is not the objective. But rather, that this daily work may manifest or reveal itself, refracted through the lens of each performance situation. That’s the fascinating thing about it: no one can explain exactly how it works…”

Keith’s view of how he uses his own familiar elements takes a more structural view, and one that considers them amidst a conceptual and durational reach; where their emergence are as a direct result of how each improvisation progresses:

“It’s not so much that they are thrown in arbitrarily, it’s more about how and where they are placed within the architecture of an improvisation; and about being able to survey the whole landscape of the piece as it unfolds.”

Surveying and evaluating an unfolding sonic landscape will be familiar to anyone who has witnessed any substantial improvised performance. One phenomenon that is common to all of our duo performances is a perceptual ‘shortening’, or suspension of chronological time whilst onstage. Curiously enough, this feeling is almost always shared by our audiences, and have received many remarks such as “It felt as if only ten minutes had gone by”, or, “Really, was that forty minutes?”. Such responses correlate exactly with our own perception of events, and confirm my own feelings in respect to the gradual erosion of aforementioned ‘mental artefacts’.  A deeper immersion and attention to the music at hand is the result, and an absence of obstruction that permits a triangulation of events between performer, music, and audience: where the audience is not merely a passive presence; experiencing it, but an equal participant in its creation. This was definitely the case for our concert at the 2018 Marsden Jazz Festival, where our musical journey was very much felt together with the audience. It was my very first experience of an audience rising unanimously rise to their feet, and despite the emotive impact of the situation, Keith remarked as we left the stage:

Not even the very best gigs feel like that – they won’t forget that for a good while. They were transported, just as we were”. 

Keith has often describes his own motivation for making improvised music as a desire to “transport people out of chronological time”. Anyone who has seen Keith perform, will have observed the concentrated reverence and space that Keith affords which are both prologue and epilogue to these improvisations: eyes fully closed in respect for any sounds which have yet to arise, or at its close, to dissolve completely – and for other ‘inaudible’ elements that have been summoned during the course of the playing to leave the space in their own time. 

 

PRACTICE

After spending much time in Keith’s orbit, I am fully convinced that a consistent and deep immersion in work at the piano has prepared him for uninterrupted communion with the instrument in the moment of performance, and, as mentioned above, is accompanied by a quality of reverence that reveals itself almost instantly to anyone who has seen Keith perform. Not that I would wish to imitate or mirror the effects of Keith’s practice, but to take inspiration from the spirit in which it is undertaken and use this as a basis to inform my own intuitive investigations.

GRATITUDE

In conclusion, a few words of thanks is deserved to those who have made this duo a reality on practical and logistical levels: Richard Brown and Arts Council England, and John Cumming from Serious for supporting this project from the very beginning; Polly Eldridge, Maija Handover, and Chloe Arnett from Sound UK; Dr. Peter Scott & Professor John Pickard at the Department of Music at Bristol University, and Todd Wills at Colston Hall for their generosity and access to rehearsal space; Sam Hobbs and Ray Kane for rehearsal and concert recording/filming respectively; Philip Bourne, Paul Hudson, and PJ Davy for photography; a special thank you to Serious, Barney Stevenson, and Ben Eshmade – all of whom worked especially hard to make some very special gigs happen. To Geoff Amos, for always being there at the right moment. And finally to Keith and Julie Tippett – for their friendship and kindness, a warm stove, and those all-important pre-road trip cups of tea. x



Help the grand piano to stand on its own (four) feet for the very first time

October 6th, 2019

Not so long ago, I visited Sarah Nicolls at her studio in Brighton, and was introduced to her ‘inside out’ piano: a grand piano with its frame and interior displayed on the vertical plane, opposed to the traditional, horizontal position. There are many benefits to such reorganisation – not least for the opportunity to become fully immersed in its sound, close up; but also for ease of access for the exploration of its (now outside) interior.

 

Sarah’s idea is to commission a prototype of this instrument, the Standing Grand, from the extraordinary craftsman David Klavins, and thus, moving a step closer to making this concept a reality for all pianists. The idea that one could transport this instrument anywhere, is an extremely attractive proposition for any pianist, whose bookings are almost certainly dictated by the availability of a quality instrument at the venue.

Even if such an instrument is present, those practicing at the more contemporary or adventurous end of the scale may well encounter resistance: choice of repertoire, stylistic predisposition, or pianistic approach, can often be enough for many venues or institutions to categorically refuse access to their ‘good’ piano. Unfortunately, it is the culture of dedicated and persistent ignorance that fails to perceive logical explanation to the contrary. The existence of a Standing Grand would mean an end to this perennial dilemma faced by many pianists.

A little while back, Geoff Smith (also based in Brighton) introduced the Fluid Piano to the world, and, with one masterstroke of  innovation, turned the piano into a multicultural instrument. The Standing Grand is of the same vital importance: a seismic shift needs to occur in the perception of what a piano can and needs to be for pianists, instrument manufacturers, and for the wider context of music making in the 21st Century.

Innovations of this kind are all too rare, but you can help change this! With only nine days to go in the Standing Grand Kickstarter campaign, Sarah is just shy of £8000 too make this a reality so, please share the news of this project as much as you can. If 173 people could give £50, or 87 people give £100…

GO SARAH!!

 

Standing Grand Kickstarter

Future Pianos

Sarah Nicolls

David Klavins



Mike Westbrook’s Letter

April 22nd, 2018

On discovering the work of various figures from British Jazz, I quickly came to the Music of Mike Westbrook – albums such as MetropolisMarching Songs Vol. 1 & 2, Love Songs, Release, and Citadel/Room 315 (composed in the old Leeds Polytechnic building; now part of Leeds Metropolitan University), were the ones always leaning against my record player as a student. I couldn’t get enough.

I decided to write to Mike with a view to forming a similar band to his ‘Concert Band’ line-up (as on Celebration / Release / Love Songs, et al.), and playing some of that repertoire. Below is the letter I received in reply:

I can remember my initial response as one of disappointment – sad that scores of this material were no longer available. So, I slipped it inside my belovéd copy of Metropolis. I would forget that I had this letter, save for when I took the record from its sleeve whenever I came to play it (I practically wore it out when I first bought it – a story for another time). Every time I have taken the record from its sleeve over the last twenty years(!), the letter presents itself, and I always read it, in full.

It is curious how, through re-reading this letter many, many times, it has revealed certain truths that completely eluded me as a burgeoning student of Jazz in the late 1990s. The following sentences are particularly profound, and continued to reveal new depths, and to resonate with me more deeply with each reading:

 

“I’m not sure that playing by contemporary musicians material that was created by and written for specific people at a particular time, would be a valuable exercise.

Ultimately, however much one learns and absorbs from the past, and from other people’s stuff, the great opportunity, and challenge that Jazz presents is to create one’s own musical language for one’s own time and circumstances. The message I got from the great artists I admire, Ellington, Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll Morton and countless others, is that everything is possible – you just have to find your own way to do it!”

 

That’s absolutely right.

It is perhaps the single most important piece of advice any musician could receive. The letter is like an old friend – reenforcing my own philosophy on music making, and giving me continued encouragement to find my own path, my own voice.

I was prompted to write this little blog on watching a video of Mike’s latest solo piano record, PARIS. Mike’s piano playing has an assured elegance, colour, light, and shade. It is the counterpart to his unique voice as a composer of large-scale works for ensembles, both large and small; and I love how Mike controls and distills his vast musical universe into a singular essence at the keyboard.

Mike Westbrook is an example to anyone embarking on a lifetime of music making: to always keep moving, creating new opportunities, and to look forward to the next musical adventure…

 

Thank you, Mike, for replying to that young, naive student, all those years ago. x

 



Twenty-Seven Areas of Contention: celebrating the life and work of Basil Kirchin

October 26th, 2017

Twenty-Seven Areas of Contention is a piece I was commissioned to write by Serious, for Mind on the Run: The Basil Kirchin Story, and was premiered at Hull City Hall on February 19 2017. Devised using two of my favourite electrically-powered musical instruments: the LAMM and my beloved Roland Re-201 Space Echo tape delay, Twenty-Seven… is more an exploration of the intangible-yet-perceivable aspects of Kirchin’s musical ouevre.

For those of you who are familiar with the album, moogmemory (2016), you will hear I have used the same sound (patch 36 – my all-time favourite LAMM programme) as for I Loved Her, Madly – albeit explored in a couple different ways as the piece progresses.

It was easy to be consumed by the breadth of Kirchin’s work to the point of paralysis: “exactly how do I transmute the individuality and diversity of one man’s work into a single solo ‘response’?

I chose to focus on only one or two elements: firstly, I was given a recording of an interview Kirchin gave for Late junction, broadcast some years ago, and chose various segments of dialogue I thought interesting from a storytelling viewpoint. Krichin mentions finding his musical soulmate, Ian Firth (who, incidentally, was the sound engineer for the live event) – and felt a sense of genuine warmth and generosity that I wanted to make explicit. In one particular segment, Kirchin sings three notes – and it is these pitches that become a source of variation and manipulation in the second half of the piece.

Secondly, I was particularly drawn to the works that make up the Primitive London album. Kirchin didn’t use any synthesisers (as we know them today), but, he does manage to conjure up a sound world that is somehow reminiscent of electronics, but without being overtly so. There is something about the aesthetic of his sound world in these pieces that I really connected with.

So, by taking a tiny part of the essence of Kirchin’s work, I attempted to attend to this throughout the writing process. I use the term ‘writing’ not in its traditional sense, as much of how I work relies on the repetition of a loose set of ideas, performing them again and again until they become almost automatic: the piece becomes an extension of my faith in improvisation as a means of completing any piece – and, ideally, brought to life in a live performance setting.

Many thanks to Serious, Hull City Council, the BBC for permission to use the live recording, and, of course, Basil Kirchin; for allowing me to be included in what was a truly special occasion.

So, why is this piece titled Twenty-Seven Areas of Contention? Well, Basil Kirchin might just tell you, himself…

Twenty-Seven Areas of Contention and a live version of Sam, are available as a FREE download on Bandcamp.





Paul Bolderson

December 22nd, 2016

Paul Bolderson 21/03/48 – 21/12/16

250809_10150186270016981_880522_n

Paul Bolderson lived an extraordinary life

Affectionately known as ‘Peebs’ or ‘PB’, Paul’s larger-than-life persona was infectious and inescapable – and he never failed to leave a lasting impression on those who came into contact with him.

I was introduced to Paul via Sam Hobbs, way back in 2001 – when he rented one of his garages to Sam and Mark Creswell, who converted it into a little studio. Paul’s garage, and ‘The Kabin’, as it became known as, was the site for many happy memories (most of which involved copious amounts of cups of tea – more on that later), and the making of The Electric Dr. M – where PB features both photographically, and literally: all of the track titles relate to names he gave to his tools, nature, people, things – e.g., ‘Pinki’ is the name for his pink ratchet Snap-On screwdriver (he chose a pink one as it would be the least likely thing to get stolen in the event of a break in at the garage). I even have the Romesse pot-bellied stove he installed into The Kabin – now in my front room…

Little did I know that meeting this man would turn into a long-lasting and close friendship – I would see and/or speak to him several times a week; and I hope that his distinctive, booming Yorkshire voice will never leave me.

There is so much to say about him, that I cannot do justice to the wealth of friendship that he gave to me, and to so many others. His life was fascinating: from his early years spent growing up in Rhodesia, the move to Morley in his teens, and his subsequent tales of love, loss, adventure, motorcycles.

bournebolderson-bad-urach-sept-11

Paul introduced me to motorcycling, which led to us undertaking a trip from Leeds to Valencia in 2011 – taking in visits to friends throughout France, Spain, Germany, and Belgium – clocking up some 3500 miles in the process.

img_0804

This was a huge undertaking for him, especially as he’d suffered a major stroke only months before. He never gave up, wouldn’t be beaten by anything, and always making plans for the future. This is something he continued to do, right up until 21:30 yesterday: to kick ass, to keep making plans, to continue to live, to adapt, to overcome.

img_1065

(He also made amazing Yorkshire puddings)

dsc01494

I learned SO much from this amazing man. Especially, that ‘taking the piss’ could be a universal language. He had so many sayings/platitudes that are countless in number, too. Something for every occasion. Here are a few to be going on with:

Women: can’t live with them, can’t shoot ’em

Slow Down (usually said to me)

A cunt is a cunt, in any colour

Adapt and Overcome

298536_10150289432591981_1602811426_n

Having spent much of his working life as a design draftsman, working on cars and bikes seemed effortless to him – and he was a great teacher, too. I learned to use (his) tools under his supervision – he taught me all about motorcycle maintenance (with his own unique brand of Zen, I might add!), and was amazing to hear him describe the art of listening pertaining to being a motor mechanic. This undoubtedly came from his love of music, too. To me, he was as great a listener as any musician I know.

Tea, and the drinking of, was a major part of any conversation or personal encounter with Peebs – and played a major role in any kind of problem solving: “Leave it alone, have a cuppa tea, and come back to the problem afresh”. Basically, a cup of tea solves everything. That’s absolutely right…

screen-shot-2016-12-22-at-14-02-28

It was a privilege to know you, and an even greater one to have been able to call you one of my very best friends. Long may you live on in everyone who knew you – as you gave so much. Other than being God (“I AM GOD!”), I don’t think you knew just how extraordinary you actually were.

254510_10150186248856981_3801487_n

Sleep well, Pb’s.x

 



MOOGMEMORY PLUS

September 29th, 2016

DOCK63E_RGB300

During the preparation for the moogmemory live show with Michael England, earlier this year, a number of new pieces came out of our collaboration together. moogmemory plus brings these new tracks together, along with reworked versions of Daniziel and Sam; reflecting how these pieces have changed through live performance. In addition, there is a homage to the late Keith Emerson. Emerson’s Lake was recorded upon hearing the news of his tragic death. Emerson was a true pioneer – and somewhat of a background inspiration for me: having the courage to tour with a mighty moog modular, despite the obvious concerns of tuning/reliability under ever-changing atmospheric and temperature conditions; Emerson deserves full respect.

When asked about such issues re touring with an all-analogue setup, my response is usually “it’s fine”. As, most of the time, it is… Any glitches, or unexpected changes in sound or functionality have to be dealt with spontaneously, and, as far as is possible, musically, too. If there’s one lesson that has been learned through many live performances is that the concept of ‘reliability’, when pertaining to any musical instrument, is a false trail.

 

MATT-VIEW-1024x576

Unlike the album, the live setup included the addition of another synthesiser beside the LAMM: a Minimoog model D (in need of some attention). Keighley, Dave, and Emerson’s Lake, all feature this instrument and, for those of you that are familiar with its sound, may be able to detect this particular instrument’s own ‘idiosyncrasies’: the modulation circuit is completely fuck*d – and is all the better for it. My one and only criticism, for want of a better word, of Moog equipment, is that the sound is so beautifully clean and refined; making horrible, aggressive, gnarly, and unpleasant textures quite difficult to achieve. My Minimoog’s faulty modulation function is, therefore, unique; and am not about to change it in a hurry.

The first four tracks of this EP are something of a departure from the album tracks, in that there is slight evidence of some shredding on the Minimoog, where the ghosts of Chick Corea (Return to Forever period), Jan Hammer, and even, on the closing section of Dave, Bill Evans, can be found lurking.

In addition, the bonus tracks Meniscus and Jacqueline, that were previously available in the download version of moogmemory, are now included in this EP. The lead instrument on Jacqueline is an old, barely-functioning push-button stylophone…

Screen Shot 2016-09-29 at 12.10.10

 

I love Phil Collins’s Sussudio so much. One of my favourite pop songs of all time. I’d always wanted to do a version of it on the LAMM. I didn’t expect it to turn out quite the way it did, but, that’s how I roll…

Collins

Hopefully you will find moogmemory plus to be a worthy companion to moogmemory, even in spite of the addition of another synthesiser. Maybe a ‘Keytar’ will be the next instalment – who knows. That said, only the back-breaking Moog Liberation would do.

 

But even then, fuck off…

 

moogmemory plus is available to pre-order here, or via The Leaf Label.

 



moogmemory

April 21st, 2016

moogmemory is a forthcoming album for The Leaf Label, recorded entirely on a Lintronics Advanced Memorymoog (LAMM) – a standard Moog Memorymoog that has been specially modified by engineer Rudi Linhard

.MOOGMEMORYminusV1

moogmemory is also taking the form of a live, audio-visual show, touring from March-April 2016, where I will be collaborating with filmmaker and graphic artist Michael England:

I’ve known Michael for many years, and we’ve always wanted to work together. Now, finally, we’ve got round to producing what is hopefully the first of a many projects together.

As the album came into being during August-November of 2014, I reflected on just how important the journey of this particular instrument was: where it had come from, and the people involved in its life seemed to speak out and have a strange, uncanny resonance.

MATT VIEW

I’d bought the instrument from keyboardist extraordinaire Phil James in 2007 – who had owned it from new, and was a treasured part of his collection. I remember going to pick it up from him – and met a passionate musician, who knew the instrument inside out, and put it through its paces… I’ll always remember Phil’s reaction when I came to put it in the back of the car: it had been an integral part of his music making for twenty-five years…

MATT RAW

Fast forward nearly ten years, and with numerous visits to the repair shop, and one huge upgrade from Rudi later, and we have an instrument that has travelled some considerable distance, and been lovingly cared for by those that have nurtured its brilliance.

BACK VIEW

It is this human story around the instrument that has interested Michael and I, and has governed our rationale for the project as a whole, choosing to focus on very specific set of narrative criteria. The film and graphic elements will reflect place (from locations as a varied as Montauk, NY, to my home in Airedale, and drone camera filming on the Yorkshire moors), and people – including my communications and correspondences with Rudi, and a visit to Phil James’s studio in Huddersfield just a few weeks ago, capturing the reunion with his former instrument on film.

MONTAUK SIGN

Similar to the approach for Songs from a Lost Piano (2009), I find myself fascinated by the memories inherent in musical instruments. Even though this is an electronic instrument, I remember the words Rudi once told me: “Don’t forget – she’s an old gal!“, meaning that, although the LAMM functions every bit as well as its more modern counterparts, she’s a living, breathing entity – a character, with a life, and with memories, and stories to tell.

And in that last statement lies an important subtext: it’s not me who makes the music. I’m just someone who flicks the power switch, depresses a handful of keys, and listens carefully to what she has to say…

Hopefully Michael and I can do her justice in bringing some of these memories to life through the mediums of sound and vision.

moors 1

TOUR DATES

March

4 – BRISTOL – Colston Hall

5 – LONDON – BFI Southbank

6 – MANCHESTER – Islington Mill

17 – BRIGHTON – Komedia

18 – SOUTHAMPTON – Turner Sims

April

23 – GLASGOW – Outskirts Festival at Platform

moogmemory is available to pre-order via Bandcamp



RADIOLAND: Album Release

December 1st, 2015

As I began to write this post, I was en route to Luxembourg, and to the Philharmonie, where, together with Franck Vigroux and Antoine Schmitt, we performed another Radioland show. Hopefully this will be the beginning of another series of live performances abroad. And, as I now continue to write, several weeks later, the album versions of this project is now available via Bandcamp, where you can also preorder the 20-page hardback CD book, and deluxe gatefold vinyl editions. The release of Radioland on The Leaf Label, has highlighted just how far this project has come since Franck and I decided to embark on such an adventure back in August 2014. I have already written a little about the process of how we put this show together in a previous blog post, but I thought I might revisit this a little, and share a few reflections on the process of recording Radioland.

16698917758_426dfb24ca_o

The entire process of recording this album followed that of our previous method, involving Franck sending me his audio files over the internet, which I then imported into Logic, tracked my synthesiser parts; sending these in return. This whole process was then repeated by Franck, vice versa, ad nauseam, ad infinitum, et cetera, et cetera; until we were satisfied with the results. Much of this will be nothing new to those who already collaborate with those living at a distance. Although, as much as I marvel at how technology has made international collaboration much easier, almost instant, in fact; the downsides of this are that one isn’t able to hang out with/be hosted by one’s collaborators. It’s funny to think that, only a few years ago, sharing files via the humble data stick was considered the height of convenience, whereas now, even leaving one’s seat to pass it across the room seems to have become a monumental effort…

As all of the music was already in place, and developed further as the live performances progressed, we decided that, rather than document the segued order we had devised for the live shows, we would instead work title by title, further personalising our interpretations, and favouring the running order of the original album (we had completely changed the running order of the tracks; added linking segued passages and our own original material, maximising the effect and spirit of the original titles for a live setting).

As one will hear from the recording, much of the original material remains intact: some key themes are referred to overtly, and others may only be referred to subliminally; the essence of the originals possessing more than enough inspiration for us to explore other directions…

I am very proud to have been a part of Radioland, not least as it has afforded me the chance to work with artists such as Franck and Antoine (whose awesome live generative video stills adorn the pages of the deluxe gatefold vinyl and twenty-page hardback book CD editions of the album). The quality of the music and the austerity of the album art will hopefully go some way to effectively reflect the elements of the live performances, and provide some consolation to those who haven’t yet experienced it as an immersive, audio/visual experience. Finally, our take on Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity album, would not have been made available in any format, it were not for the efforts of all at The Leaf Label, and consultation with Kraftwerk themselves. Thank you, guys.

Now, “Listen to The Melody…”

Radioland is available for download on Bandcamp – where you can also preorder the 20-page CD Book and deluxe gatefold vinyl versions, just in time for Christmas…



Radioland: Reworking Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity – Rehearsal Photo Blog

February 23rd, 2015

SMPhoto_068

As some of you may have seen from my recent newsletter, myself, Franck Vigroux, and installation artist Antoine Schmitt will be radically reworking Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity album in honour of it’s 40th Anniversary this year.

SMPhoto_045

It all started in the summer of last year, with my suggestion to do something together with Franck – as it has been some years since the release of our duo album, me madame (good news from wonderland), and thought it was about time time we did something again. To cut a long story short, we agreed that we weren’t going to improvise (we know each other’s playing enough not to rehearse), and that we should explore something a little more relevant to where we’ve found ourselves; both technologically and musically. Franck mentioned that 2015 would be the 40th anniversary of the aforementioned Kraftwerk album. So, the decision of what we should explore was easily reached.

SMPhoto_002

After an initial get-together at Franck’s place, it wasn’t until Antoine became involved that we decided against replication of the music, in favour of reworking the material; bringing all of our creative approaches to bear on the original titles. Sound UK then came on board and helped us to turn this idea into reality in the form of a series of UK dates in March, with more shows to be announced throughout the year. Stay tuned via the APPEARANCES page for more upcoming Radioland shows.

Meeting up in Leeds earlier this month, we were kindly hosted by Leeds College of Music and their amazing technical team, using The Venue and the downstairs space at The Wardrobe, opposite, where the images featured in this blog were taken (by the excellent Sarah Mason).

SMPhoto_049

Now for a modicum of geekery regarding some of the equipment, which is arguably appropriate:

Franck and I are using a number of different means of generating the sounds – using a setup heavily-biased towards the analogue… I’m using a Lintronics Advanced Memorymoog (LAMM) for the lion’s share of the sounds, with the addition of a Minimoog Model D, Korg MS-10, Microkorg Vocoder, and, my most prised, well-loved (and very well-used) Roland Space Echo RE-201.

SMPhoto_018

SMPhoto_006

SMPhoto_007

Franck uses a variety of analogue rack mount instruments: Roland MKS-80 Super Jupiter, Roland SVC-350 Vocoder, an Electron Oktatrack (for much of the rhythm sequencing), and various other tabletop devices.

SMPhoto_011

For the video, Antoine programmes all of his visuals via code, creating generative video – in addition to creating his own control programmes in order to perform the video as we are playing the music. Antoine is an integral part of the group in all respects.

SMPhoto_058

Our earlier attempts at recreation last year had been useful form the viewpoint of finding out what we shouldn’t be doing. This was solidified by a kind of ongoing ‘pre-rehearsal rehearsal’ (leading right up to the first show in Leeds on March 13), whereby Franck sends me his sounds/templates for the tracks, I then record and send back to Franck my sounds; eventually piecing together and refining a structure of how the set will/would sound in advance of these rehearsals; meaning we could get on with the business of fine-tuning and refining the material and structure of the show rather than sitting around in a darkened room looking for sounds for days on end. This process has also served us well in providing Antoine with material he can work to in advance.

radioland-031342 copy

Not wishing to talk too much about the material or bore you with exactly what we’ve done with each of the album’s titles – we would instead encourage you to come along and experience the show(s) at full volume, and with full screen video, too.

SMPhoto_079

Radioland on Tour:

13 – LEEDS, Belgrave Music Hall
19 – BRIGHTON, Komedia
20 – LONDON, Village Underground
21 – BRISTOL, Colston Hall
22 – EXETER, Phoenix
23 – MILTON KEYNES, The Stables

Radioland Rehearsal Photo Gallery

SMPhoto_003

SMPhoto_004SMPhoto_031

SMPhoto_008

SMPhoto_033

SMPhoto_012

SMPhoto_048

SMPhoto_043

SMPhoto_061

SMPhoto_071