The Sure Thing

At my time of life, a chap should stereotypically be seeking things that are either fast or loose (though probably not both, that way lies a health and safety nightmare!) in an attempt to re-capture his lost youth: or some rose-tinted, re-imagined version thereof.  Having been physically present throughout my youth and still retaining some faded recollections of it, I have instead chosen to head into areas not previously explored by my younger self.  This may be down to a mis-guided attempt to prove that I am still – or, more realistically, could become – relevant or is perhaps the application of some sort of value maximisation strategy to life™.  I think there is also a desire to attempt or attend things that are not ‘on-brand’, or at least what I delude myself is (or was) my ‘brand’.  I like to imagine that the fact that I have a lot of fun and get to laugh far more regularly than is, apparently, normal acts as some sort of vindication of my ‘strategy’.  However, lacking a control me or a placebo life and performing a single trial must render any results from my life, at best, a matter of mild anecdotal interest.  Luckily (for me, if not you), ‘mild anecdotal interest’ is very much meat and drink to this blog!

The aspect of this relatively new, and continuing, phase of my life (why should young people have all the fun of going through a phase?) that currently causes the largest anticipatory thrill is my unexpected engagement with the worlds of New and Experimental music.  Having been to two of these gigs in the last month, I can confirm that I do become excessively excited as I take my seat: the prospect of hearing something entirely new, and often unimagined, is enough to start my pulse racing.  As with so much in my life, this all started by accident thanks to the twin inspirations of Playlist and the Out-Take EnsemblePlaylist snared me at their first gig through a combination of Tenderlore, my obsession with very big lutes and the provision of exceedingly fine baklava.  I can’t remember why I went to the first Out-Take Ensemble gig, as I’m fairly sure I had no idea what I was getting into, but it was just so different to anything else I had ever heard or seen: it was like buying the most extraordinary expansion pack for my musical life.  They are frankly peddling musical crack (and/or craic) and I was hooked.

The first of this recent brace of concerts, at the end of January, was entitled Shifts and billed itself as offering ‘seismic shifts and sideways glances at New Music’.  I think it certainly counts as one of the most technically and musically ambitious gigs it has ever been my pleasure to attend: I have never seen such variation in the array of instruments and speakers in a gig at Turner Sims (or anywhere else) before.

The evening started with Red Shift by Lois Vierk, which required only a relatively small ensemble: though pleasingly the percussion did call for the use of (locally sourced!) circular saw blades.  This was an amazing piece of work in partial second derivatives with respect to time with all of rhythm, pitch, amplitude and note density tending to rise through the piece (which I can’t help feeling has more of blue shift about it).  It was somehow reassuring to see the guitarist visibly counting to keep his place and in time: I  could feel marginally less inadequate.

The next piece was recorded and played in very full surround sound while the audience sat in total darkness.  In Sowing Seeds by Brona Martin, the sound moves around the audience and at times seemed to skitter across the ceiling above us.  It offered a strange admixture of the meditative and the feeling that something slightly scary and mobile was lurking in the darkness.

The highpoint, in a really good concert, was written for the concert and the programme included very cryptic, hand-drawn sketches that looked like the combination of the plan for a rather odd military campaign and the mind-map from a mentality even more disturbed than the author’s. Wave of… by Drew Crawford was a sonic and visual feast with the players moving around the stage in complex patterns (explaining the sketches) with an extraordinary combination of brass, keyboards, percussion and electronics.  There was just so much to take in (and so much that is now fading) that as soon as it finished I just wanted them to do it all again (though they probably needed a rest). It was such an electrifying demonstration of the possibilities of music and its performance.

After the interval matters were a little more conventional, or at least sedentary.  Ben Oliver‘s Changing Up was centred around a solo percussionist and orchestra with its narrative arc rooted in neither melody or harmony of tradition but in tempo, percussive focus and orchestration.   The concert ended with Steve Reich’s seminal Music for a Large Ensemble: a glorious, joyous classic of post-minimalism which you rarely hear performed.

It was an amazing evening for a mere tenner, rendered perhaps even more impressive by the fact it was local and that the Hartley Loop Orchestra were mostly current or recent university students performing pieces of surpassing difficulty and acquitting themselves very well indeed.  I don’t not who was subsidising the cost of staging the gig, which must have been substantial even given that much of the orchestra came for ‘free’, but I’m willing to stand them several pints should I bump into them in a decent hostelry!

The second musical focus for this post took place under the aegis of the Out-Take Ensemble and formed part (I like to think an important part) of a PhD: and is likely to be as close as I’m going to get to a doctorate.  It was a work of crowd composition and I, as a member of the audience, was part of that crowd – which I think makes me a composer (or at least a fragment of one).  Our composition started from the first 18 bars of Yellow by the much-maligned Coldplay.  Most of our decisions as composers were polled, voting electronically via small keypads – and, perhaps uniquely in recent electoral history, appeared entirely free of extreme right wing, destabilising interference from either east or west.  Our first task was to pick a title from a short list, selecting from Yellow lyrics, and with little or no irony we chose ‘Turn into something beautiful’: though whether our later choices lived up to our early ideals is a matter for debate.

The 18 bars divided into an initial verse form followed by a chorus and each section was given a style based on audience suggestions: so we started with Passion and then became positively Jaunty. We next chose to re-cast the no-longer-Yellow as a waltz.  With a few choices under our belt, the resident musicians, in the unusual duo of electric guitar and manual trumpet, gave us a taste of our work so far – something they repeated at important junctures throughout the process. We went on to re-harmonise the piece and then subjected each half to a range of transformations – selected using an 8-faced gaming die (disappointingly, no +1 tone, or -1 attack) – to find ourselves a very long way from Coldplay.  As all of these changes were made, a nimble-fingered chap had to hurriedly update the score to keep it in line with the compositional paths taken.

At this stage, individual audience members were giving direct access to the score with a chance to add their own dynamics and accents to the piece.  Cast slightly against type (I am nominatively more comfortable with f and, particularly, ff) I was given charge of adding piano markings to the piece.  It was during this exercise that I learned the vital musical exchange rate of three stoccata marks to one slur.  Finally, we elected to allow the musicians to add their own input to the piece, which involved use of a mute and wah-wah pedal (rather conventionally to the trumpet and guitar respectively), among other embellishments.  I have been too lazy to work out precisely how many pieces we could have composed but, even if we ignore the entirely free choice of styles, it must have been orders of magnitude beyond the millions.  I think partly (or largely) down to the clever choices of our director, Turn into something beautiful largely lived up to its name when it was performed in its final state – there was at most the odd rough edge that could have been sanded down – and was unrecognisable as having started out Yellow.

Is this the way from Amarillo?

It was a fabulously enjoyable and educational evening and gave me a tiny insight into the possibilities that composition lends to even fairly simple basic material.  Had music lessons been so interesting at school, my life might have gone in a very different direction…  Still, I am a pretty happy soul on the whole and I’m not sure I’m psychologically cut-out for the life of a musician: it seems to offer a very poor ratio between training and skill on the one hand and likely remuneration on the other (which is also why I am not relying on my writing to put food on my plate – well that and the shortage of both training and skill).

Anyone who has made it this far might be wondering as to the relevance of the title.  Beyond assuring you that all the clues are there and that it is relevant to the current experimental phase of my life.  I now find my head filling with ‘Gib’ quotes and I may have to shot-gun a beer later (I’ve got loads of old pens I could happily 86), it’s been way too long…