First point of business today is this superb all-dayer fundraiser at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff being put together by the redoubtable Ian ‘Uh Oh’ Watson, fine artist, sculptor, noise-maker and humanitarian. The event is raising funds and awareness of the plight of refugees, with particular emphasis on the current situation in Calais. Hope to see as many of you as possible there to enjoy this rather super line-up, all for a worthy and most important cause. Donations and gifts of unwanted clothing in good condition will also be gratefully accepted at the event:
— Ian Watson (@uhohwatson) May 18, 2016
And yes, I am only too aware that the above tweet sits to one side of the page and makes the website look untidy. You couldn’t possibly have more OCD impulses currently being triggered over this than I have. But what’s much more important right now is that you absorb the information in contains and turn up on the day with lots of items of clothing (and perhaps some cash) so that the good folk of Newport2Calais can put them to the best use possible. It’s also Howlround’s first trip to Wales, which is quite exciting. What’s not to like? See you there!
Speaking of Howlround, thanks to everyone who came down to Bad Timing’s sold-out event The Other Side: An Audiophonic Séance last week for giving me and the tape machines such a warm welcome. A tip of the hat must go to fellow performers Evie Salmon and James Riley, English Heretic’s ‘Documents’ project and especially Bad Timing mainstay Jo Brooks, who did quite spectacular things throughout the evening with a handful of old cassette and CD walkmans (walkmen?) and a contact mic. Thanks must also go to @StrayTaoist for taking the above rather spiffy photo of the performance. Even on four hours sleep and with a stubborn cold, I really do seem to just smoulder in black and white, don’t I? What a pity life has to be so colourful the rest of the time. Which brings us semi-neatly to…
By strange coincidence, at roughly the same time as I was snottily dragging a suitcase full of tape machines off the Cambridge train, my latest piece for BBC Radio 4 regarding the previous week’s Great Gatsby-inspired evening at Senate House was being given an airing on PM. Having a report on this flagship of current affairs is always a significant event for me, as it’s the one time there’s even the remotest likelihood that any of my work will reach Mother in her kitchen and win me some much-needed parental approval points. Though I think she prefers Radio 2 nowadays, for some reason…
The purpose of this most glamorous event, as hostess Sarah Churchill breathlessly explains, is not only to pay tribute to this classic novel of prohibition-era New York, but also to debunk a few famous myths and give us a better idea of the kind of world Scott Fitzgerald was addressing when he wrote it; thus helping us to view the story in new and often dramatically different ways. To receive the full effect one required authentic period food, costume, ‘historical perfumes’, newsreel footage, appropriate dances (not the Charleston!) and the nagging feeling of being decidedly under-dressed, despite wearing that one button-down shirt kept for job interviews and funerals. It is true that such glamourous shindigs are not usually my stomping ground, but my editor seemed to feel that such an evocative event might benefit from a little Radiophonic treatment – plus I still haven’t paid off my last tape machine repair bill, so it’s a welcome cash-injection. It’s equally true that something of a complete tonal gear-change is required when moving from the ragtime, evening gowns and bathtub gin of London to the more honest Cambridge fare of tape loops, coleslaw sandwiches and a bottle of lucozade. Nonetheless, temporally-speaking these two very different ships did more-or-less pass in the night and I like to think I managed to avoid sinking either of them. Have a listen and hopefully you’ll agree.
And finally this week, with yet another tonal gear-shift, it’s time to present the latest edition of Resonance FM’s Near Mint show, where Hannah Brown and myself look back on 2016 so far and pull out some of our favourite releases. It’s a brisk and breezy selection and by the time you get to the penultimate contribution by Brood Ma, you may well find yourself grinding your teeth along in sympathy. I would even have described the show as ‘banging’ if Hannah hadn’t spent six whole minutes telling me off for trying to do so. Apparently such a word is not to be bandied about by a gentleman of my cultural cache, time of life or income-bracket. It’s a real minefield out there, isn’t it?
Apart from the exceptionally high quality of each of the tracks featured here, there will be no major surprises if you’ve been regularly visiting these pages over the last few months, with the one possible exception of the rather enigmatic Freeholm Wilson; who seems to have rather sprung up from nowhere all of a sudden. Superb debut album Children Of June is currently only available digitally, but I do happen to have got my tacky paws on an advance copy of the clear vinyl edition and hopefully you’ll be able to as well before too long.
Please enjoy this latest report for BBC Radio 4 and The World Service on the subject of last weekend’s series of performances in the bascule chambers underneath Tower Bridge. Hidden below the waterline deep underneath one of London’s most iconic structures, these cathedral-like spaces serve to contain the gigantic counterweights during the lifting of the bridge’s central span (each weighs about a thousand tonnes or something ridiculous like that), but until last weekend few indeed would have been aware of their existence and fewer still would have been granted the privilege of climbing down into the chamber for a closer inspection. In fact, for the many hundreds of people strolling along the bridge around lunchtime last Saturday, the only clue that something out of the ordinary was about to occur below them would have been the sounds of distant brass pulsing mysteriously from somewhere beneath their feet. Or perhaps a Robin The Fog-shaped blur that nearly ploughed into them while heroically sprinting the final 200 yards to the entrance down to the chamber – thanks entirely to the incompetent, ever-delayed machinations of the accursed Southern Railways. Sorry if that was your umbrella…
The initial inspiration for the project came from a recording of this vintage machinery at work that was originally made by Ian Rawes of The London Sound Survey. Iain Chambers’ coming across it proved to be the catalyst for an original composition ‘Bascule Chamber’ in which the brass section of the Dockside Sinfonia play along with the sound of the bridge to uncanny and beguiling effect. Before long this unlikeliest of stages was set for a series of concerts featuring two more original compositions by Iain and an interpretation of John Cage’s ‘Aria’ by the soprano Catherine Carter; each performed live and taking full advantage of the chamber’s unique acoustics.
It doesn’t take much imagination to realise just how far up my street (or hidden somewhere beneath it) all this activity is, particularly as I’m a huge fan of both The London Sound Survey and Langham Research Centre, the radiophonic performance group of which Iain is a key member; so I’m aware of the potential for accusations of bias. Nonetheless, I feel no hesitation at all in labelling these events a triumph and it would certainly appear that the enthusiastic reception from the crowd bears me out. Equally, so does the many disappointed people I’ve spoken to since who didn’t manage to get tickets. All I can say is that I hope my report gives some flavour of what went on down there and that apparently the concerts will be broadcast in full on good old Resonance FM at some point soon. Plus you can find both of these estimable gentlemen discussing the project and much more on the London Sound Survey blog here.
Moving on and continuing a busy weekend (though thankfully with less sprinting), I’d also like to present a few images from last Sunday’s sound installation at Mansion House in St. Helen’s Square as part of Vespertine York‘s latest sold-out event: A new sound-work created entirely from magnetic tape and the various ticks and chimes of the numerous antique clocks that until recently had populated this now empty shell.
Vespertine cordially invites the people of York and beyond, to a guided tour of the Mansion House with a twist! This event will be a rare opportunity to see the Mansion House as it is awaiting renovation; the unfurnished, raw building will provide the perfect backdrop for performances and music.
The source material was collected a month or so beforehand. In the intervening period all of these vintage timepieces were removed, along with the furniture, carpets, paintings and other fixtures, pending the building’s year-long closure for extensive refurbishment. It was a strange experience indeed to bring these recently gathered sounds back to the newly bare walls and exposed floorboards – almost like filling this grand building with the memories of its own departed furniture. The results were very positively received by the groups of visitors touring the house, with one even moved to compare it to the soundtrack to Tarkovsky’s Solaris. That, my friends, is one way to make me very happy!
Also on the bill were the truly remarkable Sheffield-based anti-choir Juxtavoices and the multi-instrumentalist duo McWatt – both well worth checking out – plus food, drink, games, stories and more. And all for free! No wonder it sold out so quickly! Thanks very much to everyone who came along and showed their support and to Vespertine York for being such amazing hosts and for giving us such an awesome space to play with. It’s the latest in a series of events they’re curating, so their website is definitely worth a perusal and you’re advised to book your tickets early.
And as a last-minute edition to today’s business, I’m happy to announce that I make an appearance in the latest issue of Caught By The River‘s regular publication An Antidote To Indifference, writing about some of my adventures in tape, alongside articles by Melissa Harrison, Chris Watson, Richard King, Emma Warren and many more. This is the second issue to be edited by legendary sonic curator Cheryl Tipp of the British Library’s Sound Archive (amongst many other goodly works) and thus promises to be even more of a cracking read than usual. Pre-order your copy here.
News of the new Howlround album arriving imminently. But after all this I might want a nice lie down first…
Not quite sure where the last week has gone, but here is my report for BBC World Service and Radio 4 regarding the recently released documentary How We Used To Live. Directed by Paul Kelly, written by Travis Elborough and Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne, with a beautiful original soundtrack supplied by the band’s Pete Wiggs, it’s an archive movie that has been getting some splendid reviews, including five whole stars in The Guardian.
Produced to promote a screening of the film with a live soundtrack at BFI Southbank in London as part of their London On Film season, it’s appearance on these pages is indeed a little late to be of any practical use, but the season continues throughout the summer with many other delights in store and I’m reliably informed that How We Used To Live will be imminently available on DVD via Heavenly Films. I certainly hope so, it’s one of my very favourite cinematic experience of the last couple of years. Have a listen while admiring the following stills to whet your appetite:
In other exciting news I was granted a rare insight this week into the working methods of the late musicologist, instrument-builder and experimental musician Hugh Davies, with a trip to the Science Museum‘s labyrinthine storage facility at Blythe House in West London. Their vast archive contains a number of his original tape loops and other equipment donated by his estate, and it was my job as a reel-to-reel tape loop aficionado to help with their cataloguing and digitising, along with Aleksander Kolkowski (who you might remember was responsible for the museum’s Denman Exponential Horn exhibition last year) and Dr. James Mooney of Leeds University, whose research project into Hugh’s work was the catalyst for all this activity.
It was a task not without its challenges as much of the splicing tape used to create the loops had dried out completely over the years, requiring careful replacing – but in a way didn’t cause any damage to an already aged and brittle format, which required a most steady hand. Much of the material appeared to date from the early 1970s, though some may have been a decade or more older than that and indeed I worried that some of the tapes would be completely unplayable – apart from anything else it’s very hard to play even fresh tape loops without damaging them a little, they don’t give up their secrets easily. Thankfully they displayed tremendous fortitude and and nearly all of the loops in the collection rewarded our patience with some strange audio treasure of one sort or another. Housed in a variety of domestic cardboard boxes (including the former home of some Zartbitte Schokolade, complete with Hugh’s hand-written notes, doodles and another annotations, it was a humbling to think that we might be the first people to hear this material in over four decades. And of how much longer the sounds buried within these loops might have survived had they not been captured digitally. The boxes have disappered back into the archive and who knows when they’ll next see the light of day? It could be another thirty years!
Obviously I’m unable to share any of this material with you – it’s not my research! But James was very excited by our findings, as we all were, and I’m sure at some point in the future he’ll be ready to share them with the wider world. Until that happens, I’ll leave you with a classic short clip of Hugh at work, including some virtuoso egg-slicer action!