Voices

The regular visitor will have noticed – and probably appreciated – the recent reduction in the rate of production of new content here.  This is not down to the lack of new subject matter gold for me to spin into textual straw, like an anti-Rumplestiltskin, but rather to a shortfall in the particular form of energy needed to perform that transmutation: some sort of motivational band gap, as it were.  However, I am back in the writer’s saddle for now – and with a backlog of ideas to throw against the wall of the internet to see if any stick.

Talking of long absences, with the exception of a single trip to see King Lear – made possible by my renewed possession of a car – it had been a couple of years since I last visited Chichester.  The good burghers of that city might wonder what they have done to offend me: I can reassure them that they are blameless, the lacuna can be explained by the terrible unreliability of Southern Railways for the past several years.  Brighton has also suffered (or enjoyed) a general lack of my presence in the same period and for the same reason and as a city does not welcome the car.  Still, other south coast cities’ loss has been Southampton’s gain!

The weekend before last I did voyage to Chichester, once again prompted by a visit to the theatre.  A friend was involved in a production at the Minerva and so I decided to risk Southern – knowing that I could always fallback on my car – and attend the Saturday matinée.  Travelling by train, I arrived very early – better than late or not at all – and so had my first visit to the Pallant House Gallery for the first time in a good while.  As ever, it contained a multitude of visual delights: I think my highlight was the glorious designs of Sheila Bownas.  However, more important (at least to this post) was the conversation I had with a member of staff as I was negotiating my (free!) entry to the gallery.  Through this dialogue, I discovered the existence of a hitherto unknown devised theatre piece taking place in Southampton this past weekend.  The city I call home likes to protect its cultural gems behind a thick veil of secrecy: sometimes this purdah can only be penetrated from a distance.

The plays I went to see in Chichester, the double bill random/generations by debbie green tucker (her choice of capitalisation) were very good: each a study of love and loss.  Without the personal connection I would probably not have noticed the plays, let alone travelled to see them: which would have been my loss.  It was such a joy to hear different voices from the stage and voices still carrying a very topical message: though both plays were around a decade old.  Not only were the plays both funny and moving, but generations was accompanied by a small ensemble from the South African Cultural Choir who were in fabulous voice.  I think the plays had the youngest audience (on average) that I have ever seen in Chichester and it was certainly the most ethnically diverse (in that it was ethnically diverse).  It was not a huge audience – the theatre was competing with bright sunshine, some nuptials near Slough and a kickabout in north London – but I’m told we were responsive and those I could see really enjoyed the experience.  I believe there are a few days left to catch random/generations should you find yourself near Noviomagus Reginorum…

Inspired by my discovery at Pallant House, this past Saturday I once again retreated from the heat of the afternoon sun to see some theatre.  My Life Closed Twice by Gauntlet Theatre was staged under the Arches, which I last visited to see a Playlist gig, and was a devised piece based on the experience of living with schizophrenia.  It was one of the most thought-provoking pieces of theatre (or anything else) I’ve ever seen and did an amazing job of creating a little understanding of some of the issues facing people with schizophrenia.  I was the audience member selected to try and read a short paragraph will listening on headphones to a simulation of the more benign of the “voices” that might be constant background to the life of a schizophrenic.  Whilst I could still read out the text – perhaps thanks to a life spent working in open plan offices – it was more difficult and required a lot of concentration.  If this were a permanent state, it would be exhausting and exceedingly ego depleting – and this was without having to cope with the more strident and negative voices that can also be a feature of the illness.  The play made me realise the strong similarities between a normal brain (or at least mine – which I am, controversially, going to use as an example of normality) and that of a schizophrenic: I think we all have the same basic underlying symptoms but in the more typical brain the unwanted voices are very quickly damped into silence (sometimes even before they can begin) almost all of the time.  It has also made me think rather differently about some aspects of my insomnia: the racing or circling thoughts that keep me awake seemed eerily similar to some of the voices I saw acted out on stage.

As I was watching the play and finding it fascinating, I did wonder how realistic it was.  What I discovered talking to the cast afterwards was that it was an autobiographical piece: the chap playing the protagonist was portraying himself and his own experiences.  He was a lovely chap and great fun to talk to, though it may have been slightly tactless of me to suggest that his brain had rather typecast the “voices” in his head.  The life and experiences I saw played out on stage bore no relationship to any version of schizophrenia I have ever seen on screen.  However, they did remind me of some of the issues experienced by those with Autism discussed in Steve Silberman’s book Neurotribes and his own experience of OCD which David Adam described in his book The Man Who Couldn’t Stop.  I can’t help feeling that not only are those with mental illness poorly served (at least at times) by the health and caring services but even more so by the media and, as a result, society at large.  The voices that dominate the media seem to be from a very narrow segment of the lived experience of humanity: there is no shortage of extreme political views on offer but these almost all seem to come from the same very slender slice of society.  These people fill the compulsory current affairs slots in our media with thought- and empathy-free argument: I presume current affairs is mandatory as the laws that make it so are created by the guests who get to spout their views in these slots.  Far more useful might be a requirement for a broader range of voices to be heard on the media, free of pressure from ratings, creating content on matters that interest them (and not this is not a pitch for GofaDM to get its own Netflix special).  We could easily live without the endless speculation, pointless argument and failure to answer questions that characterises so much current affairs and re-purpose that time and budget for something more useful.

My Mind Closed Twice has finished its home-town run in Southampton but I believe those near Reading or Gothenberg do still have a chance to catch it.

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Telling a compelling story doesn’t need a huge budget!

Theatre and other fringe culture does seem to offer a route for more voices to take part in the dialogue but it is not easy even there and money is always problematic.  Fringe culture, by its very nature, can only reach modest audiences, whereas an idiot demagogue can reach millions instantly (feel free to pick your own idiot demagogue: there are plenty to go around).  I’m not sure I have a solution, other than being an audience for the sort of things I want to see and feel should be supported and hoping to encourage others to join me.  Going out to culture is my primary form of economic activity, if we exclude eating and drinking, but I’m not sure I can produce societal change on my own – well, not without violent revolution and its been a bit to warm for that of late and there is only the one of me (for which we are all grateful)!

I would seem to have returned from my hiatus in a preaching mood: this will probably wear off…  It must be the effect of two Saturday afternoons hiding from the sun with truly great theatrical experiences which, like all the best experiences, live with you long after they have finished. I found myself wondering why are such gems so rarely (if ever) made available to those who’d rather sit at home watching the flickering of polarised light twisted this way and that to create colourful, apparently moving images?

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The Explore/Exploit Dilemma

I am currently reading a particularly excellent book entitled Algorithms to Live By (by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths) which attempts to take some of the insights learned by producing algorithms in mathematics, and especially for computers, and applying them to real life.  Expect me to be using the principles of “interrupt coalescence” and the “tail drop” in my everyday life from now on!  The book also provided a simple explanation of a technique I have been using (albeit within a “black box”) at work for almost twenty years without (as it now transpires) understanding it at all.

Like all the best books, be they fiction or non-fiction (which is a terrible name for the written form of  a huge swathe of human knowledge), this book has introduced me to new ideas and forced adjustment (or abandonment) of existing ones.  The title – and the content – of this post refers to one of these.  For a human, the dilemma might be whether to re-visit a tried and tested restaurant (“exploit”) or to try somewhere new (“explore”).  For humans, we tend towards greater exploitation and less exploration as we grow older: if for no other reason that that there is less time to exploit any new discoveries found while exploring.  In my general raging against the dying of the light (which is, frankly, a tad too bright at the moment and could usefully die a little), I am trying to resist this tendency, though my innate laziness does – all too often – favour exploitation.

For this post, I will be exploring the dilemma in terms of my musical gig going using three examples from recent weeks.  In these antics, my decision-making is also influenced by a desire to support (as well as exploit) favourite artists – some of whom also count as friends – and to support the local music scene and its unusually large number and range of venues: something that, my travels have taught me, we would be unwise to take for granted.

A few weeks back, I found myself in local basement bar Belgium and Blues to watch Bad Cat.  This trip falls firmly into the exploitation camp, as I have been to the bar several times before as its wide range of, often alarming strong, ales and handy location on my way home from several other venues making it a tempting location for a nightcap whilst continuing a conversation (or several).  On this occasion, for the first time, I delved slightly deeper into Belgian culture and partook of one of their excellent sweet waffles – a Thursday evening activity which threatens to become a habit (but I do associate Belgian bars with monks, so this may be entirely proper).  In fact, this waffle acted as a dessert to the main course of another Thursday tradition, the splendid Thai curry on offer at The Guide Dog earlier on that evening.  The Thursday curries at The Guide Dog seem leagues ahead of those I put up with in London back in the 90s: as so often in my life, a twenty year gap in an activity pays off!  Bad Cat are a local swing band, containing several friends, who have graced these pages before.  Their music is perfectly suited to the basement vibe and the evening was an absolute hoot with all the elements of a perfect night-out coming together: good beer, food, company and a nonpareil conjunction of music and venue.

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Sassy fun incarnate!

As an aside. every time I see Bad Cat perform I want to take up the trumpet: mostly to use the mutes.  So far the cheek-by-jowl (I provide the cheeks) presence of neighbours to my tiny dwelling has enabled me to resist but I can’t help feeling that time is running out for my embouchure…  In the interests of full disclosure, I have just searched for “electric trumpet” on-line and I’m finding the results rather exciting: you can obtain a silencer for your trumpet!

The following night was much more of an exploration: the venue – Turner Sims – is an old favourite – but it was my first time with a Gambian singer and kora player.  Turner Sims can be quite an austere space for music, hosting as it often does chamber music, but Sona Jaborteh was having no truck with that: I have never been so heavily involved in a gig at Turner Sims before!  She had the whole audience joining in with many of the songs, both new and traditional, so I briefly new several words in at least one Gambian tongue (i believe I can still remember “musow” means “mother”).  Sona and her band were clearly having so much fun with the music and audience members would have needed a heart of particularly icy stone not to be transported by the joyous atmosphere in the hall.  It is amazing how an artist can transform even a well-known space so that you see and feel it anew.  I can’t help pondering whether there is something classical music needs to learn here: so many classical music gigs contain glorious music and musicianship but a very one-way, pedagogic, relationship twist performer(s) and audience.  I can’t help wondering if the young are used to a more involving relationship twixt stage and stalls…

Still, shallow reflection aside, over a pair of consecutive days I navigated a glorious path between the Scylla and Charybdis of exploitation and exploration: beating even cunning Odysseus by losing no seamen at all!  However, it was this last Saturday evening that my delicate balancing act may have reached its apotheosis.  I have for a year or so, been exposing myself, through the good offices of Playlist and the Out-take Ensemble, to an extraordinary range of contemporary and experimental music.  I finally decided to take my interest and curiosity by travelling all the way to London for a whole evening of experimental music – my only safety nets was that one of the percussionists was Sam Wilson who I’d heard performing a piece by Anna Meredith (who was also the composer of the one of the pieces on the bill) at a recent Playlist gig.  Making my decision easier was the fact that it was held in King’s Place and that the cost of the ticket was only £9.50, though there was still the cost of getting to, and eating, in the capital.  I  think King’s Place has become my favourite place for music in London: it is a lovely space and it has such an interesting programme.  If I lived closer, I suspect that I would be there a lot more often.

The gig was performed by Icebreaker who are an unusual ensemble of instruments – a range of saxes (from bass to soprano), flutes, pan pipes, guitar, bass, violin, cello and a whole bunch of keyboards and percussion – played with amplification and tackling a diverse range of contemporary repertoire.  The stage was packed with gear, even before the players arrived, which created a keen sense of anticipation in me: what had I let myself in for?  I needn’t have worried, this was exploration at its very best: the gig had the most entrancing, exciting and unexpected range of musical offerings.  It was entitled Velocity and was part of the same Time Unwrapped series I visited earlier in the year, to enjoy Manu Delago and Friends from my beanbag throne, and so also unpacked time (though didn’t stray into the depths of quantum loop gravity).  The temporal exploration varied from a piece almost without time, to a hypnotic piece that moved almost glacially slowly to the final piece which kept doubling in speed long after I thought it was impossible for Sam to strike the wood blocks any faster.  The whole programme was a tour de force on so many instruments and I suspect required a specialist ensemble like Icebreaker to do it justice.  I found that the different pieces required different ways of listening which was also fascinating.  The gig was being recorded, and as we left Recomposed (who I think are a duo of composers) had recomposed elements of it into a new piece which served as aide-memoire, highlights reel and a way to deepen and expand the whole musical experience. I hing around for a while to enjoy their work before having to head for a train back home.

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Travelling in time without a TARDIS

I think I can say that Icebreaker: Velocity was my favourite of all the gigs I have ever been to: it was a programme full of wonder that I would never have attended or, probably, enjoyed at any earlier stage in my life.  While it didn’t take place in Southampton, it was only my local exposure to new music that brought me to go and have that amazing experience.  Thanks to that gig, building on earlier local work, I now want to see more contemporary music: I just need to find out when and where it happens!  I also discovered a hitherto unsuspected love for at least some EDM (electronic dance music), at least when performed live by such an outstanding ensemble: I have so far resisted purchasing any glow sticks…