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Improvisation starting with bolt sounds

I’m pretty sure there’s hints of Aphex Twin in this (the repeating four-note melody) but can’t find the source song right now. If anyone knows, please tell me – thanks!

Practising domestic scene in a domestic setting

Finding sounds with Stan (bedtime!)

Self-evaluation and audience comments

The final show on December 10th was a great success.  We had an audience of 106, lots of press coverage, a great review in the local paper (see REVIEW
) and genuinely heartfelt and generous comments from audience members, both on the night and subsequently (see below).

The whole process of this project was really quite extraordinary and certainly for me lived up to the aims of the project overall: to consider how musical development could benefit from theatrical processes and also how I, as an artist, could develop my music by contextualising it in a theatrical way.

1. Musically, there were many opportunities for development and these came in both working out how the music would tell a story of its own and how the music might develop to support the stories I was telling more literally.  I was most encouraged by the fact that my music, which could be considered experimental or abstract, was immediately coherent and communicative to people, including the audience, and I think learning and understanding more about repetition and simplicity was fundamental to this.  Also simply doing it and learning to trust it.

2. I needed to grapple with the layering of theatre – how image, text, sound and movement can send messages and how often less is more.  I had to learn this repeatedly until I began to trust that actually showing an idea might be enough for people to have the resonance of an idea themselves, to let audiences work with their own imaginations.  On a deep level I had to think about representing ideas and how these could hang together.

3. I needed to learn specific skills, which I hadn’t studied before.  Movement was probably the biggest area I needed to work in.  Having only been a pianist before, I haven’t moved on stage, other than to enter, bow and exit!  So I spent several days with the choreographer just working on how to move and what movements can suggest.  There is still of course lots to learn.  I also learnt things like what technical teams need to know to produce their own cue sheets, how to make a script, how to use collaborators in rehearsal, how to manage a rehearsal.

4. The work-in-progress showings were really vital to the process.  I was able to do an extra showing early in the process and here I also played some text for the first time.  I was overwhelmed by how emotional that experience was, how nervous I was, so I was glad it had happened early on and in a relatively informal and intimate setting (Sam Underwood’s ‘If Wet’ series in Worcestershire).  The showing at the Dome also gave me really valuable feedback and an opportunity to try the piece in a theatre.

5. I constantly had to show the work to my collaborators and I learnt so much from their feedback.  Working with a team of experts was really incredible and humbling.  To have three or four specialists in the room together meant we could work very fluidly, almost prototyping scenes – changing movements to fit around microphones, or trying different music with a particular lighting.

6. Having the space to rehearse in at the Dome was very special and quite a new journey for them (see below). Their team was fantastically supportive, with thorough technical support through to inventive marketing.

AUDIENCE RESPONSES: Sample of written comments

Email from engineer who discovered the piano during the installation:“Came to your enchanting show last night. I was mesmerised. I was sitting near the back and I’ve rarely seen an audience with so many people pin-drop silent, leaning-sitting forward, captivated by a performance. My thing is ‘creativity and innovation’ and I’m always on the lookout for something that is not only original and different, but truly a move on. And I feel that your show’s narrative (the message of complicated, often topsy-turvy journey of motherhood) and integration of the reinvention of the classic piano, does that.  Plus, speaking as a father, coupled to my working day (and night) 15 to 20 years ago; the narrative is so germane and easy to empathise with.  Truly archetype work.”
@davidharrisonbn: “Pianist Sarah Nicolls has come up with something delightfully original in Moments Of Weightlessness seen @brightdome last night…  The ingenuity of her self-invented insideout piano interplays with a narrative of parenthood in a performance both surprising and touching.”
Mum of two young children: “What a spot on performance showing the true juggling act of motherhood! Following ones own dreams and also being there for ones children and the demands this brings. The performance showed the mayhem of this journey us mothers go through and the sense of humour we need to have. Your performance was incredible… I found your playing so relaxing at times which took me far away from the demands I had gone through that day!”
Mum of one:  “It was amazing – totally memorable and incredibly moving.”

Evaluating the project – team comments

I created my latest show Moments of Weightlessness with the help and support of a fantastic creative team.  At the bottom of this are comments from Brighton Dome’s Music Producer, Laura Ducceschi, who made the whole thing possible.  I asked the other team members six questions after the process and here are some of their comments.  Thanks to them for being really brilliant and so helpful to me in discovering how to stage my ideas and music. LC: Lou Cope – Dramaturg
JF: Janine Fletcher Movement Director
BE: Becca Ellson – Script Editor
CU: Chris Umney – Lighting Designer
SH: Simon Hendry – Sound Designer

1. Did you yourself learn or reflect on anything new through working on this project?

JF: “During the project, I had the chance to put into practise some new movement tools that I had been learning – it was great to have the chance to do this in a creative situation with another person.”

BE: “I learnt a HUGE amount.  It was my first experience of working with live performance since becoming a development exec and the immediacy was deeply satisfying. Usually I have to wait months or even years… Working with music is a very important part of filmmaking but usually the music is one of the last creative layers of the process. This story came out of the music and that, too, was deeply satisfying. It made me want to collaborate across disciplines more, to be more experimental, work with more musicians and artists with a different perspective on storytelling.  It gave me further confidence in my instincts and storytelling skills. Film storytelling is very structured and established. I felt the filmmaker’s storytelling tools can be used in other contexts very effectively and there is much more scope to push the conventions of the craft through experimental interdisciplinary exploration.”

SH:“as this was all a bit new for me in terms of design. I learnt not to do what you originally think is “right” and try other things.”

2. What were the challenges of the project?

LC: “Trying not to take on a director’s role, trying to fill the space available to me while leaving the right amount of space for Sarah.”

JF: “For me personally, one of the challenges was working within such a tight time-frame.  As we only had a limited amount of time together, I felt we didn’t play / explore the movements of the piano that were not part of the ‘script’.  I think this limited us in finding new ways of interacting with the piano – sometimes new possibilities leads us back to the work, and I feel we didn’t have the chance to go down new avenues.

Trying to juggle the tech / venue / piano requirements within rehearsals was sometimes a challenge – the tech requirements for the piano were very specific, and needed to be so, however they were not always conducive to practicing / re-working sections as they could take up a lot of time.“

CU: “The main design challenge was to light the piano’s journey without lighting too much of the stage. Keeping the focus tight but at the same time lighting the stage sufficiently to cover Sarah’s movements around the piano, particularly in the ‘Domestic’ and ‘Seagulls’ scenes.”

SH: “designing something that is still a work in progress by itself, and trying to keep on top of ideas that are changing and how they affect the sound design and technology side of things.”

3. Do you have any comments on how Sarah has developed artistically through this process?

LC: “I was totally impressed by how ‘up for it’ Sarah was. Her willingness to try things, and give 100% to whatever she was doing, was fantastic.  This carried right into the performance.  She remained open to evolution right until the end, at the same time as she was taking ownership of the piece, the music and its performance. This is a great balance.  I’d love to see her make more work in this world, perhaps pushing the emotional side more.”

JF: “Sarah came into this process with an understanding of her own artistry and clarity about where she needed support and what her aims were. This was a great place to begin from.  I feel that Sarah’s performance skills have developed theatrically and choreographically (I get the feeling she will now ask herself how, why and when she is moving or speaking in a performance!), and this will continue into her future work.  Having the chance to work with a script editor, lighting designer, dramaturg and movement director on this show was a great way for Sarah to ensure that all the elements she was interested in using were supported.  I think a challenge for Sarah during the lead up to the show was not having a director / outside eye.  It’s really hard to make and be in your own work, especially when working within new art forms.  Knowing who to work with and when is as important as what you make.

From an overall observation, I believe that Sarah has developed within her artistic process; how she approaches the making of work, what performative forms to utilise and how and how these work with her compositions.  I have a feeling that these explorations will continue to feed her artistic process in the immediate future.”

BE: “I think the project was very brave and quite groundbreaking. It was deeply personal and it was a working practice Sarah hadn’t tried before. It felt, to me, to be very successful so I hope she developed in a way she was pleased with. I imagine the way she has developed artistically will really become more apparent in the months and years to come.”

4. How did you find the eventual show?

LC: “I was moved, inspired and proud.”

JF: “Sarah has achieved her goal!  Sarah performed the work with eloquence and clarity.  Everything Sarah and I had discussed / worked on was demonstrated in the performance, and some of these things were utterly new to her as a performer (timing of moving, how to move etc).  Sarah held the timing of the work that was needed for the different elements to breath – I think this comes from her skill in composition, she understands the importance of timing and tempo.

The work itself did everything Sarah had told me she wanted it to do – it integrated text to weave a narrative story, it communicated her experiences as a mother, and it created a context in which her compositions could be made more accessible.”

BE: “The eventual show was funny and incredibly moving. The man to my left was guffawing in all the right places and there were titters of appreciation in the funny bits. At the end I was crying, my friend beside me was crying, the two women in front of us were crying. And then everyone crowded excitedly onto the stage to get to know the piano. It felt like the tone had been perfectly struck, the balance between music, sound exploration, the physical spectacle, piano-story and motherhood was just right.”

CU: “It’s a great show. A testament to it’s strength is that as it develops the show becomes less about the piano and more concerned with the ideas contained within it. Naturally the piano plays an important part in telling the story that unfolds but it doesn’t dominate. Sarah’s performance and her compositional choices support the narrative with subtlety and purpose and lead us through this journey.”

5. Do you think it was well received/any comments about that?

LC: “I think people were moved and were thrilled to be able to listen to the music in such a creative and inspiring and personal setting.”

JF: “The audience response was very supportive, and a big portion of them came onto stage after the show to look at / interact with the piano. The audience response to the ‘invited audience’ sharing at the Dome Studio was fascinating!  I felt that people were engaged with it, intrigued by it and moved by it.   They helped shine a light on moments that needed clarification and spoke freely and openly about how the music / narrative affected and moved them.  I think getting this response before the ‘final show’ was a very important step.”

6. How would you describe the music and did it seem accessible, contextualised as it was?

CU: “I would happily listen to it at home away from its theatrical setting.”

SH: “Beautiful, but mainly a good balance between accessible traditional music, and more experimental stuff.”

BE: “I think the music was really the beginning and end of everything.”

JF: “Sarah’s compositions and playing are beautiful.  Her technical skill and experimental nature are a brilliant and artistically interesting combination.   I do feel that framing the work with moments of narrative based text did help make the overall show accessible to audiences who may not see / listen to much experimental music…The music is what moved me – the text / narrative gave me a context for that journey, but it was Sarah’s compositions that gave them an emotional life.“

LC: “The music was beautiful. Accessible, moving, appropriate, generous, full of care and honesty.”

Comments from LAURA DUCCESCHI (Music Producer, Brighton Dome)

“It’s rare for Brighton Dome to make work in the building, so the creation and rehearsal of moments of Weightlessness in the building was a new experience for most of our staff.   Sarah formed personal relationships with the various teams at the Dome, including press, marketing, technical and operations as well as the programming team.  On reflection, I feel this was very much at the heart at the success of the process from Brighton Dome’s perspective.  Our staff, across the various teams felt invested in the creation of this new piece of work and I would say it illuminated them.   We have learnt a lot as a team working with Sarah on this project and for me in particular the preciousness of the open ‘work in progress’ sessions.

“The piece created is complete, intimate, moving, balanced, musically excellent and slick.   It exceeded my hopes in its completeness.  The artist has challenged herself beyond her comfort zone and transitioned from that of a formidable pianist to a formidable performer.  It was interesting to see the response from the audience in particular our most critical theatre audiences.  There seemed to be unanimous praising of the work after its performance from the theatre as well our music audiences.   I am confident the piece will have a successful future life.  If I was viewing it as a Producer, I would seek to have it included in our programme.”