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Posts by sarah

Ballad of a Changing World

‘Ballad of a Changing World’ is my brand new digital show: a music and text piece with cellist Maja Bugge and scientists Helen F. Wilson and Tone Reiertsen about species on the move. We learn about how Kittiwakes are moving into my hometown of Newcastle and the main town near where Maja grew up in the very North of Norway, inside the Arctic Circle. It is a poetic journey, giving you information and time to contemplate how our planet is changing, how nature is showing us that and how we, the humans, might need to adapt. This is told through Maja and I on zoom trying to make brand new cello and piano duos whilst remaining in lockdown in Lancaster and Stroud respectively. We get round it but there are some comical challenges along the way. Think warm-hearted, epic and a little educational! Book now for the online show through Cheltenham Music Festival.

Between a tour and a farm

11th November 2020

There is a familiar feeling which happens, even in normal (i.e. non-Covid) life, after a tour ends, a big concert is over, something is finished.  It is a dip.  A relaxation.  A sinking into.  A rekindling of normal.  A reconnecting with whoever is closest to you, your friends.  And an emptiness.  The audience has gone.  The Producer isn’t any more working on that project with you.  The team and the energy and the spotlight falls away because that’s it, the work has ended.  That’s fine, that’s how it’s meant to be, the audience are meant to leave the concert hall (digital or otherwise), the tour has an end, the applause signals when we leave and return to just being another person standing at the school gate.

But for the artist, this is a fragile and strange time.  What should I do now?  Where is my creativity given purpose now?  What is the plan? 

It’s hard to go to the piano but my good friend reminded me that that is actually what I should do.  “Music feeds your life, your life feeds your music” she said.  So I tidy up, get myself sat down, even plugged in to record.  And what comes out is searching.  Totally lost.  Completely unsure of the way forward.  A harmonic exercise in seeking. 

I find it curious and try to poke at how I naturally gravitate towards minor yet in my head want major to be the goal.  What is that about?  You can’t just shove ‘Tierce de Picardie’s (when a minor piece suddenly ends on a major chord) everywhere and hope that’ll work.  Happiness stuck on for a good ending.  Like a book with a really annoying conclusion. 

I’ve been reading The Starless Sea.  I’m 30 pages from the end.  I’m actually quite loathe to finish it because I’m worried the end is going to be disappointing.  An epic adventure of being stuck in a game full of symbols and magic and strange, underground, book-laden worlds.  But what if the ending is a neat sewing up of things?  How will I feel?  Satisfied and pleased or unconvinced?  I’d like the ‘hero’ to be ‘saved’ but is that really realistic?

And how should one’s philosophy burn into one’s music?  If I’m an optimist, shouldn’t I be making much cheerier music?  Why am I rhythmically so basic when I can even do 5 against 4 with my eyebrows (that was a weird fact to share with you)?  Why does my intense classical training belie a liking for the totally simple?  Is that a failure?  Or just my ‘true/authentic voice’?  Does simple music go with intellectual complication?

Belie, that’s a good word.

  1. (of an appearance) fail to give a true impression of (something).

“his lively, alert manner belied his years”

  • fail to fulfil or justify (a claim or expectation).

“the quality of the music seems to belie the criticism”

Interesting that the dictionary definition includes music!  And its opposite is ‘reveal’.  And I definitely want my music to reveal.  Emotional resonance.  The seeking.  In ‘The Starless Sea’ there is a toast repeated throughout: “To seeking!”, and its answer: “To finding!”. 

I guess that’s what it’s all about.  (I walked past a pub sign recently which said “Imagine if the hokey-cokey really was what it’s all about).  Yesterday I stood in our ‘wild field’ and I saw for the very first time that there is a power line coming off the pylon, perpendicular to the main power line journey, which goes across the brook.  I don’t know how I didn’t notice it before.  We’ve been on a 2-month permaculture journey of observation.  It’s troubling to me how my eyes didn’t witness this blatantly obvious feature on the living map of the land. 

The last 2 months have been a total whirlwind, actually.

In September I was gearing up for the ’12 years’ digital tour.  Re-writing ’12 Years’ for the third time (I started it in November 2018, inspired by the IPCC report, an article about luxury bunkers, the appearance of XR, Greta, the Camp Fire in California).  Then I came to re-write it for the 2020 tour (due to launch March 2020).  I had to change California for Australia.  The storm names were updated.  The fictional characters were a bit more environmentally aware now, in no small part due to Greta and Extinction Rebellion. 

Then COVID and lockdown hit.  I even got the dreaded thing.  It was horrible.  The night time fever was the worst bit.  Whilst reading headlines on the phone about people dying all over the world from this new disease which had sprung from some sort of human-to- wildlife inappropriate intervention.  What got me through was the hilarious memes coming mainly out of Italy.  The man who made himself a treadmill by throwing some liquid soap on his tile floor was a favourite… 

The tour went digital but in May we sort of lost momentum – everywhere was shutting up shop, venues were putting staff on furlough, shutters were coming down.  My amazing producers and I dreamed a new tour, totally digital, venue-supported, local yet global, still with amazing expert speakers joining the audience and I for post-show zoom discussions which were often disarmingly moving.  The moment Sarah Mander from the Tyndall Centre and the RNCM student kindled the idea of hyper-local institutional fossil fuel divestment.  The moment the 80-year-old XR arrestee exchanged perspectives with Richard Betts MBE from the MET Office about climate activists’ court cases and expert witness statements.  He’d had to answer “How many lives are saved by the action of the activist?” which presumably if the overall actions lead to the government declaring a climate emergency and setting net zero targets, could run into the billions.  The collision of the on-the-street direct action with the perspective of one of the most senior climate scientists in the UK was alive with the energy of possibilities unfolding.

For me, these moments were what made the tour incredible.  By opening up an audience with a pretty intense musical journey and then just letting them speak, share ideas, ask questions of experts, I felt we added stitches to the quilt of commonly-held and commonly-understood knowledge.  These people might then go on to chat to a friend, or a family member.  Someone even bought 9 tickets for friends and family to watch the next show. 

The climate situation does seem to be one which needs itself to spread its truth like wildfire, tree to tree, person to person.  (Which maybe makes the deniers like unsuccessful waterways, running between and beneath the inferno).

So, back to this moment.  I should hold in my heart the strength and the extraordinarily moving moments from the tour.  I should feed my creative core by not turning off the tap of making but perhaps by letting it drip its way back towards a running flow.

These moments where I’m not sure where I’m headed are probably like the green compost – plants grown not to eat or for their beauty but simply (and importantly) to give, or lock in, nutrition to the ground. 

And this is indeed my next chapter.  Because we’ve bought some land.  This is my next big story.  I’m becoming a farmer (and I say that with total humility and self-awareness of my amateurishness).

This is all related.  The more I learnt about climate change in creating and re-creating ’12 Years’, the more it seemed to me that I should live what we were being told were the solutions. 

Regenerative agriculture – looking after the soil, as with current industrial farming practices we apparently only have 40-50 years left of harvests (and that top figure is the ‘best’ places).

  • a technique that rebuilds the quantity and quality of topsoil, while also restoring local biodiversity
  • a system of farming principles and practices that seeks to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm by placing a heavy premium on soil health with attention also paid to water management, fertilizer use, and more

Local food production – organic, carbon un-intensive, most nutritious, seasonal

‘Wilding’ – restoring natural processes, so the land becomes as diverse as it can potentially be (see Isabella Tree’s really astounding book ‘Wilding’)

And my husband and I have always wanted to buy a rubbish building and make it amazing.  Breathe life into something.  One of the early places we looked at was in Liverpool.  A warehouse.  The estate agent said ‘you can just show yourselves around’ which I thought was a shame until we got there.  It was too dangerous to enter the building said the signs, so we walked around the outside.  There was a hole in one wall, a bit too high up to see but conveniently there was an old dining chair nearby.  Rich put the chair by the hole and stood up to look in.  “What can you see?” I asked him, my face full of hope and wonder – we could afford this and it was big!  “The sky”, came his reply. 

We are extraordinarily lucky to have found our spot, to nestle and rest.  But this is not about retiring at all.  This is about creating some kind of microcosm of how things could be.  This is about feeding with brilliant minds, watering with creative processes, planting in music, using the seeds from scientists, the sun and shade from a vibrant community.  We want to create a place where music is created next to food growing.  Where we mix together the short-lived moment in time of a talk, a gathering, a salon concert with the slowness of the growing of an oak tree.  Where we consider microbes on sound walks.  Did you know that “there are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the earth”? Where the vastly different experiences and perspectives from people from different walks of life teach each other and learn from each other. 

It is a huge challenge.  Sharing space.  Being generous.  Planning.  Getting it all done.  We have to start from this moment, where metaphorically we can see the sky through our future home to actually understanding our place properly beneath the sky, between the soil and the canopy. 

We want to live

I’ve written a song called ‘We want to live’, about the climate and ecological emergency and how we could face it.

This is my contribution to the Culture Declares Emergency campaign #LetterstoPower demanding we #BuildBackBetter. Thanks to Anna-Liisa Springham for her singing. Photos of Stroud mainly.



Tour re-starting 2020

What a lively time to be re-launching the tour of my #12yearspiano piece about the climate and ecological emergency! As XR fill the streets with protests on so many different issues relating to global heating, pollution and corruption, people are again talking about the planet in a way which for months we haven’t – hiding in lockdown bubbles or simply trying to survive the months of pandemic paralysis and personal traumas.

We are deliberately doing the rest of this tour online because none of us know how the next weeks will go. A doubling of Covid-19 cases in the last 2 days only highlights this but it is so important that we do get back to talking about the climate crisis and the ecological breakdown that’s happening.

I’ve seen over this summer many eminent scientists and activists arguing over just how severe the situation is. Will we reach 3 degrees or 5 by the end of the century? Will our children face food shortages, or will we? Are people already dying from human-caused climate change or not? The fact is, surely whoever is most accurate, these are troubling things to have to even discuss. We should surely want to stop any temperature rise for our entire planet, as it creates conditions which have never been seen in the times inhabited by humans. Isn’t that reason enough to cry for change? Shouldn’t we get on with doing everything we can to cut emissions? Just in case?

I have aimed in my piece to raise these kinds of questions. It is a piece which aims to involve you emotionally. It’s a piece of music and text which aims to get you actively thinking about where you stand, which asks you to consider the facts and what we should be doing about it. It’s a piece which listens in on different opinions and which seeks both to alert you but also to fill you with hopeful energy.

I would be honoured if you would listen in, watch online – see my incredible #insideoutpiano and hear the amazing sounds it makes. Listen to the words of experts and of two sisters talking on the phone. Audiences so far have found the piece challenging and provoking but also inspiring and uplifting. Book now to stream in October and thank you for the support – we are all facing massive uncertainty right now in terms of future careers, so your commitment to being an audience member is hugely valued!

Share with your friends and also come along to one of the discussion nights. I am thrilled to have expert scientists to help us unravel the truth and what to do about it. You can listen to Richard Betts on my podcast here to get started.

Thanks to SOUND UK, my producers and to all the venues for keeping the faith and supporting the tour. DATES AND BOOKING INFO HERE.

Lockdown 2020

I have a few things to share with you that I’ve managed to salvage from the crazy turn of events that have led us to lockdown. As I write, we’re in our eighth week and there’s been time for an entire gamut of emotional states.

I’ve been improvising a lot at my normal piano and have released part 1 of a long album called ‘Everything in Black and White. You can find it here at Bandcamp. This is simple, soulful music, relishing the gorgeous tones of a piano and following quiet, hopeful, sometimes sad journeys through sound – a reflective set of pieces created mostly at sunset in lockdown.

I was about to go on tour, with my climate change recital-story ’12 Years’. On Wednesday 27th May, I’ll be presenting extracts of that for Culture Declares Emergency ‘Evening Offer’ event, starting at 7.30pm (FREE but you must register in advance). I’ll be introducing why and how the piece came about, the main things I learnt and opening to questions from any attendee, to discuss artistic activism or how we change.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I should have been playing ’12 Years’ at Exeter Phoenix and the post-show discussion would have been with the brilliant Richard Betts MBE. In lieu of being able to meet in person, we have recorded a short conversation for my podcast The Musical Activist, where Richard shares incredibly valuable insights, coming from a place of great knowledge: this is the man writing the UK’s risk assessment on climate change.

After my show for South Street Arts, Reading, which happened online in April, Richard shared a thought about how we talk about lifestyle change. He urged us to replace ‘giving up’ with ‘liberation’ and I was really interested to read shortly after, in a permaculture book (Earth Care Manual by Patrick Whitefield), the following:

“I feel it’s important not to feel guilty about our lifestyles. The time to make a specific change is when the positive desire to do so grows to the point where it’s greater than the discomfort of giving up an old habit. If we take the trouble to learn about the ecological impact of our daily lives, the process of lifestyle change happens naturally. Then it’s not a self-imposed penance but a process of liberation.” 

It is really helpful hearing about how Richard gained his ‘liberation’ from owning a car: the tedium of the regular commute, the upset caused by an oil spill in Pembrokeshire – the obvious associations between his regular daily drive and the fossil fuel causing untold damage to his favourite beaches, and finally being caught for speeding (!). The cascade of negative events or daily experiences which led to him finding a much happier solution – you do get a genuine sense that he is liberated by cycling and taking the train, sharing a car when needed.  There is something really important here about language and also personal discovery.

He made some very clear statements about the bigger picture though: “We’ve got to have changes at the system level” and “It’s very clear that if we’re going to slow the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere… we just can’t keep burning fossil fuels and we have to rein it in soon”.

When I asked him about the arts, I found his answer so clear and resonating with what I am hoping to achieve through ’12 Years’: “The arts play an incredibly role in people understanding within themselves what something really means… not just having a technical understanding but what it means to you – that’s a very personal thing… [That with the arts we can] open people’s minds to an issue and allowing them to make sense of it themselves.”

Finally, at the end, I asked him what he would say in a 1-minute primetime TV advert to the nation and he said: “It is real and it is definitely our fault, we know this now. We’ve got to face up to the fact that some further climate change is inevitable and deal with that but also don’t lose hope about avoiding the worst: we still can avoid the most severe changes.”

Let us all take heed.

12 dates for 12 Years tour

Now open for booking: the tour dates of my climate change recital-story 12 Years. I’m visiting 12 towns and cities around the UK: see the Sound UK website for all details on dates and bookings. This is an original, one-hour work that I’ve composed and written and will perform on my amazing Inside-Out Piano, using the strings and insides of the piano to explore cataclysmic and utterly serene sounds. Read all about it on my project page.

Flightfree 2020

As soon as I heard of giving up flying, it was like a lightbulb switching on. Everyone is aware of vegetarianism as a concept, but to give up flying just hadn’t occurred to me. It was Green MEP Molly Scott Cato who mentioned she’d stopped flying during a public talk. It immediately struck me as a simple yet bold decision to make. 

I came across the Flightfree pledge (see @flightfree2020) a few months later and thought it would be a great way to share my personal commitment with others, just like Molly had. 

This was during 2018, the news was becoming more alarming and then the IPCC Special Report 1.5 came out, telling us we had 12 years to reduce emissions drastically. Greta Thunberg appeared on her first school strike and there was a huge wildfire in California. 

I decided I needed to bring the planetary crisis into my creative work too, so I made a piano recital-story ‘12 Years’, which tours the UK in 2020. The recital explores different opinions and feelings about climate change, with the aim of bringing people together.

Of course, touring throws up challenges. As a touring musician, and therefore someone who makes income from travelling, I had to make changes. 

For a professional musician, it is a badge of honour to go all over the world (as well as being deeply enriching and stimulating). I’ve played in Brazil and USA, Korea and the Caribbean. Musicians who’ve been working somewhere far away sound impressive.

But in order to stop flying and also to live in a more environmentally-sound way, I’ve had to rethink ambition from the ground up – and I think that’s what we all need to do. Our lives are often driven by extending ourselves to a point of exhaustion or collapse. I began to think instead about steadiness and home as the goal and to make more communicative music instead.

I like that the Flightfree Pledge encourages a cut-and-dried decision, making individual cases much easier. By saying no to flying by default, you’re forced to be more creative, to learn and explore. 

So, when I was offered a gig in the Arctic Circle in June 2020, my decision to give up flying meant a discussion about the long, complicated journey (three days by train and boat!) 

But I’m looking forward to the epic journey. Travelling large distances at a slower pace means you can actually feel that you’re going somewhere far away, feel the weather changing, notice culture shifts. 

I’ll also be going to Germany by train in 2020, and was delighted when I went to check tickets and found that it was comparable to looking at a cheap flights dashboard. Trainline and the Man in Seat 61 make it easy to plan international train journeys, though of course many places do remain so much easier by plane. I look forward to solar and wind-powered ferries!

My family and friends may view me with some curiosity, but saying you’ve given up flying is useful. It’s a simple statement, doesn’t have to be preachy, and maybe it helps other people to think about what we take for granted. 

It’s also vital to be an example to our children: it’s ultimately their future we’re removing by going on with our emissions.

In 2020, I’ll be touring ‘12 Years’ across the UK and inviting climate scientists to come on stage afterwards to talk with the audience about the situation, to share feelings and explore together what we can do. Taking the pledge and making art about the crisis do the same thing: it’s about starting conversations and helping people to think for themselves.

I do think we need drastic and urgent action now, but I’d also like to see leadership from government on taxing aviation fuel, stopping airport expansion, and investing in public transport. 

Good quality, collective, low-impact travel is pleasant – let’s do more of it!

Re-working 12 Years for 2020

Sun 5th January: When I wrote this work, climate news was not part of our daily language or narrative.  Currently, Australia is experiencing its worst ever bushfire season – most hectares burnt – and it is only the beginning of that season.  It is thought 500 million animals may already have died. Massive floods have killed tens and displaced thousands in Indonesia. Flash floods in Israel have killed people. Fishlake in the UK experienced traumatic flooding before Christmas. The Amazon has seen a catastrophic increase in fires. The Thwaites glacier is retreating much faster than predicted. The planetary situation has already changed beyond recognition since we were first alarmed at the IPCC report, the one where they said we only had 12 years left to halve emissions, to stay within the possibility of 1.5 degrees of warming. 1.5 would now be a good news story. The climate scientists seem now to be saying 3-4 degrees is likely by the end of the century if we carry on as normal. And are our leaders doing anything about it? Trump is doing his own political assassinations. Boris Johnson is on holiday in the Caribbean. #scottyfrommarketing really seems to be doing almost everything he can to look the opposite to an empathetic human being, let alone leader.

So, what of my characters?  What of my story?  Last year, I was experiencing shock and discovery. I was going through utter surprise, disbelief and then, quite quickly, grief. Now I don’t feel surprised at all but I do still feel anxious as the numbers seem to rise against us.  4 degrees by the end of this century would seem to confirm my personal darkest fears that our kids shouldn’t have her own children. The world would just not be safe enough.  So, no time to give up, then!

If the aim of my show is to move people along a notch, help them think, give them time, educate a little but also inspire, then how best to do that? In the first rendition, Fran goes on her own journey. She is quirky, funny, a bit ridiculous but ultimately just a normal woman, living as best she can and enjoying the current luxuries which seemed, until about 18 months ago, fair enough (if you could afford them) and spoken about without concern: flying to exotic locations, eating meat, buying luxury without questioning the provenance of it.  Some of this almost seems old hat – but is that only to me? I read an unusual amount of environmental news. What is a ‘normal’ level of perception? Most people have surely now heard of Greta (apart from the actress who answered “Sharon” in the BBC quiz show!): when I first began writing her track, she was not the icon she is now, with her little book at every Waterstones’ Christmas till. Many in the UK probably saw David Attenborough’s Climate Change: The Facts and most will also have seen the Extinction Rebellion protestor being pulled from the roof of the tube train (how one man wrecks a movement.. but that’s another story).

So, don’t my characters need also to have moved on, then? Can Fran still exclaim that Extinction Rebellion sounds like a heavy metal band if even my mum has heard of them? And in a horrible parallel, even the Camp Fire in Paradise has found a new update as the Australian fires approach Eden.

So, how will I update the phone calls between Fran and Lara? How will their different levels of involvement in the climate crisis still ring true but in the newer context of 2020, not 2018?  And will the new headlines that I insert sound even worse than the last ones, or more of the same slide into apocalypse?

One thing is sure.  I now have a lot more experience of what happens after people decide to engage. Although many will have only seen the disastrous XR tube protest, I took days out to witness a lot of very thoughtful and passionately delivered protests in London, where people not only put their bodies on the line but also collected in groups meaningful to them: professionals for XR, scientists for XR, even nursing mothers for XR who blocked the Google offices.  I’ve also experienced first-hand the very direct and personal connections which are springing from a new shared purpose.  Like a crowd appearing from nowhere, the amount of people globally who are calling out the climate crisis and their demand that we face up to it and do radical things right now are all seeing and finding each other and this is creating an incredible connectedness.  I have a lot of new friends, despite actually being a very reticent protestor myself (I prefer to interview people, make music and attempt to talk to strangers about it all, rather than directly face off to the police).

I hope I’ll do Fran, Lara and Aidan justice, then.  But part of me just really isn’t ready to change Aidan yet.  I don’t think he’s actually ready yet, either.

Kickstarter 2019

We did it!!! Amazing! Sarah and the Future Piano team will be building a new lightweight Standing Grand piano in 2020. See for more details and thank you all for your support!

Future Piano logo

Snape Maltings: Festival of New

I’m just back from another very intense experience at Snape Maltings: a residency with Maja Bugge leading to the Festival of New. While I was there I found myself looking back over the times I’d been previously and was amazed to discover I’d been going there to make music for 31 years!!! 

The Snape Maltings Concert Hall

Reminiscing: 1988

The first time was when I was 14 and I played mandolin in Mahler 7 with the Northern Junior Philharmonic Orchestra. My Dad made me a special mandolin case as the instrument had been found in a school cupboard I think, unadorned. The case was a cool shape and I was very proud to be playing such a unique instrument in amongst all my friends (and that’s a lot of people for a Mahler Symphony!). I can completely remember sitting on the stage of Snape Maltings Concert Hall, looking out at all the wood and thinking how beautiful it was. I was also slightly afraid that the percussionist was going to drop a cymbal on me after one of the crashes. Or in fact did they actually drop it? It’s so long ago, it’s hard to decipher sometimes between imagination and reality…


I next came back to play another instrument I never normally play – celeste, this time in Hans Werner Henze’s The Emperor’s Nightingale under Oliver Knussen for what I suppose might have been called a Britten-Pears ensemble. I’d been in a practice room at Guildhall School of Music and Drama and my friend had said he’d been asked to play and didn’t fancy it. “I’ll go!”, I said. I arrived in the room when they’d already started playing and I had no idea how famous or amazing Olly was and I just got straight in to it and thus was born one of the most important relationships of my musical life. Over the next I think 10 years, I came back every year to the composer’s course to perform in the ensemble. I played some ferocious music but every time I was learning a new score Olly had tips about rhythm, colour, timbre. I was challenged by young composers over and over but I thrived on the excitement of not knowing what I’d be playing at the end of the week when I arrived and then slaving over it until Cross Keys o’clock every night.  Goodness, we spent too long in there too!


The course changed one year, into New Music, New Media, and now I was listening to David Sheppard explaining how a mixer worked. I strained to learn about inputs and gain, then encouraged by Dave and my other new bandmate Mira Calix to buy some basic guitar pedals and try daisy-chaining them in different ways. I learnt about Delay and Distortion and now I was starting to improvise and our band, Alexander’s Annexe, was now coming for a residency in the same Britten-Pears Recital Room where I’d played so much already. It was here that we made our “extremely beautiful and highly unexpected” WARP Records release Push Door to Exit and prepared for an amazing outdoor performance at the Ravello Festival, held at the Villa Rufulo where I believe Wagner lived for a while…

My beautiful Annexe band mates: Dave the Microbrute & Mira holding the title-inspiring tape

At some point during these years I worked as a repetiteur for the new opera Mira and Tansy Davies wrote – Elephant & Castle – and I can still visualise the enormous screen and singers in the reeds. That was a magical re-making of the place I’d come to know like home. And I also helped to lead a course with the fantastically energetic and creative Michel van der Aa and Arnoud Nordegraaf on making films and multimedia music. Also on the staff for that course was Oliver Coates, the extremely talented cellist and composer who now works a lot with Jonny Greenwood and Radiohead.

My next visit (I think – chronology dissolves too with memory) was to teach the incredibly talented Aldeburgh Young Musicians. I think I was very pregnant. They were so inspiring, so dedicated. I was working with Leafcutter John, a musician I have huge respect for, and we led the group in exploring making music, using electronics. It was probably the first time I’d experienced the new Hoffman building, which seemed to at least double the technical capacity of previous years. Suddenly everything was very professional in a different way – even the way the buildings had been coaxed into the new age were stunningly ‘architect-y’ now, instead of just really nice.

Sarah and Maja


And now, 2019. Here I was, back again. This time with a cellist, Maja Bugge. We had come to make something about climate breakdown and the wilful destruction of the planet. Our first meeting had been at Hack the Jazz Fest at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, kindly invited by Emily Jones to come together and think about augmenting the festival with new audience experiences. Maja and I had hit it off and continued talking on the phone. We found a shared concern about the future our children were facing. But we hadn’t ever played a note together until Monday morning at Snape. The gig was Saturday, noon, and in the preceding days it had become clear that this wasn’t just a sharing but instead part of a brilliant festival, where people had bought tickets and lots of ‘industry’ guests would be. This aspect might have added a bit of stress but of course was also an amazing opportunity. To make something fast, show it, get feedback, then maybe even get it out there.

Making music together

Almost as soon as we began playing, we had the wonderful realisation that cello and inside piano go brilliantly together. It turned out that I’d basically spent 5 years playing the cello with my piano – finding harmonics, bowing it with cassette tape and rosin, plucking, pizzicato, playing spiccato with various rubber balls and knocking on the body of my instrument. Maja and I easily found a palette with which to work. What was much harder to establish what to do with it. I am rather a limited composer – I tend to stay on a pedal note or one chord or texture for the duration of a piece, unless it is a deliberately through-composed longer work (of which I’ve written only a handful). Having spent many years playing highly complex avantgarde classical contemporary music, I have edged closer and closer to simplicity and minimalism and away from experimental gesture. However, when Maja and I tried longer forms, we veered towards rhapsody, able to easily include different musical language (e.g. impressionism) but also incorporating more experimental gestures.

Climate crisis

What was more straightforward to navigate and to make choices about was the topic for our concert – climate change and the looming crisis the planet is facing. In listening to some recorded interviews that Maja had made in advance, we alighted on the idea of running the event as a public meeting. This immediately fitted the risk of the ‘sharing’ – “hi, everyone: thanks for coming.. we’re a bit unprepared but there’s a lot to get through today.. we’re doing our best, we’ve only just learnt recently about what’s required..”. We created an agenda: Welcome – 1. Why are we here? (Which we thought of as ‘what are we saving?’ but by avoiding the word saving, we avoided the trap of humans as heroic) – 2. What’s happening now? – 3. What can we do? – AOB/Close of meeting. It seemed to really work and kept momentum. It allowed us to go to very dangerous and vulnerable places but also allowed us to make jokes where inappropriate and to stay human and imperfect. I have to confess (much to my husband’s chagrine) that I am increasingly enjoying connecting to audiences through the medium of laughter. It cuts across the stage/auditorium barrier very well.

Guest speakers

Through the week we honed the structure, the script and the musical pieces. As we were working within such an extraordinarily tight time-scale, we decided early on to keep text and music separate except in two solo pieces – me duetting with Greta Thunberg and Maja with John Smith. Maja had also collected a snippet of Solve, an 8-year-old Norwegian boy who was doing his bit, going to the School Strike 4 Climate and also becoming vegetarian, even though he does rather miss sausages, sushi and bacon.

We were very privileged to have two wonderful conversations during the week, tiny parts of which are online as soundfiles. Gina Gow of Incredible Oceans talked to us next to their installation for the recent Siren festival by Roger Hardy (above) and Charlotte du Cann of Dark Mountain read to us and fed us delicious food, whilst we enjoyed a special evening together.

Sarah with Charlotte du Cann
Sarah with Charlotte du Cann

The final sharing

In the sharing itself, the audience were moved. They agreed the meeting format worked (we used activist meeting hand signals to take the temperature on this – see photo below!) and we had extra ‘guest speakers’ in the form of reading out or playing clips of: Jem Bendell, Neil Kaye, Julia Steinberger and Peter Believes in Science not Dogma.

Our brilliant audience at the Festival of New, Snape Maltings

But most movingly, several individuals came up afterwards and said it was the push they had needed – to actually feel climate change in their hearts, not just to have read about it and understood that it was serious. For me, I feel the job is done if that has happened. What better reason for me to be on a stage right now?


Shama Rahman: sitar and brainwaves
Shama Rahman: sitar and brainwaves

There were so many other great artists there with us. Most excitingly, I got to perform with Shama Rahman on her sitar. That was a really magical experience. I found out that inside piano can cross into other cultures so much more easily than just straight keyboard playing. My zinging glass ball mirrored the sitar’s wonderful buzzing, my microtonal pitches and harmonics cradled the delicacy and otherness. But I also learnt (very quickly!) how to play raga, a tiny bit about the rules – what needs to be established and in what order. I even had to try to learn how I would play an F for her during her melody, as she didn’t have the F at the right pitch. That was probably the hardest thing! Discussing the meeting of raga and Western notation was fascinating – the simple act of adding phrasing meaning that I could now understand the rhythmic profile.

Shama was not only playing the sitar though – she is also a neuroscientist and was wearing an EEG headset, with maybe 10 sensors which could read her brain activity, which was visualised and projected onto a screen. The loveliest comment afterwards was from Seb Rochford, who was later drumming with Kit Downes, who said that, a couple of times, when I’d found a really rich note to cradle the sitar (possibly a plucked bass piano string, which sound amazing), Shama’s whole brain had lit up.

Kit Downes (piano), Lucy Railton (cello), Tom Challenger (sax), Seb Rochford (drums)

Kit Downes’ performance with ‘Dreamlife of Debris’ was absolutely fantastic. As well as Seb, he had Lucy Railton (cello) and Tom Challenger (Sax) playing with him. He started with a gorgeous track by his wife and then went into a set of music which was delicate, quiet and texturally creative whilst being deftly harmonically underpinned. The beauty and intensity grew until an explosion of rhythm in an athletic piano solo threw everything into dramatic relief. He played a really nice bit of inside-piano, using some bass harmonics to great effect. I absolutely love watching other pianists play inside because it is so different from what I do and it makes me excited that other people spend time exploring it too. I did cheekily think he’d have been more comfortable doing it on my piano 🙂 I asked him to demonstrate some of the techniques…

Kit Downes playing inside the piano, using a Matthew Bourne technique

The day before we’d seen the extremely cool Tinmen and the Telephone, which I did indeed answer…  They began their jazz set with a video piece, showing the drummer stating that (paraphrasing) ‘just like biologists and chemists who tried to stop biological and chemical weapons, AI scientists were also acting against the formation of AI as a controlling or weaponised medium’.

Tinmen and the Telephone

Of course, gradually morphing through glitch, this became the opposite statement and what was genius about the set was that this morphing is what happened to us (and more specifically, our phones) during the set. They’d brought their own WIFI (this would have been helpful earlier in the week for a few file-shares!) and an app, which the audience then interacted with to affect the concert. At first, we had to vote world leaders to eject, then we composed music (it was very cleverly done) and finally, our phones became the music. What was really dark (through pretty lights) was that they began to control eg people’s phone torches flashing, or their volume. A kind of polite panic set in, with some people trying to quit the app. It really reminded me of a scene in the fantastic BBC recent drama Years and Years where the Farage-esque Emma Thompson character takes control of her audience’s phones. A very neat comment on authoritarianism, all done with some skilled playing and a friendly demeanour. By the end, I was seriously impressed and only wished that they’d left the games for some time and done some playing, even if to give us time to think about the darkness of AI-control that they were explicitly talking about through it all.

The theatre group ‘Silence Makes Perfect’ (Yael Rasooly Director & Singer with Meitar Ensemble) from Israel did something absolutely extraordinary. I have never seen costume, make-up, props, 3-D printed puppets and classical music brought together, let alone to elicit such a fundamental and strong response in me. They tackled big issues head on, unwavering, to the point where as an audience member I was almost cowering whilst simultaneously marvelling at their ingenuity and the astonishing extent of their accumulative talents. This really was daring and epic theatre brought to life by some incredible minds. I’m just sad we didn’t drink wine together properly until the last night!

To top off the festival, Sam Lee performed with a brilliantly talented band (I especially enjoyed his characterful pianist and sensitive violinist). Sam has a beguiling voice and uses it to bring old folk songs into our times. His directness lets his voice and the songs speak for themselves, whilst the arrangements conjure both the old and new skilfully and urgently somehow. I share his focus on the importance of looking after our planet and the celebratory yet humble manner in which he shares his immense talent was an inspiring end to an exhausting but no doubt expanding week. I’m also happy to report that since the gig we’ve had an offer to commission our show and to tour it to the Arctic Circle! So watch this space for more on that. And if you’ve enjoyed reading about my exploits with the piano, please consider donating to my Kickstarter fund to build a new lightweight version which I might actually be able to take to the Arctic…!

Back to Chetham’s

After reading, please view Sarah’s Kickstarter to help her build a new piano.

Arriving in Manchester for the Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists 2019 was a surreal experience.  It felt like I hadn’t been back to Chetham’s since my school days (Murray McLachlan later reminded me I’d done a talk in the early 2000s) and driving down Deansgate was bizarre. I couldn’t spot any of our favourite haunts! The next morning as I looked out of my drizzily hotel window, I spotted Chet’s – an historical island in an otherwise changed and modernised Manchester. Wow, was that really where I’d spent those four intense years of my life?

Chetham's through the drizzle
Chetham’s through the drizzle from my hotel window

Down at ground level approaching Chetham’s, things were just as different. The road by the cathedral, now pedestrianised as much of it is around there, didn’t boast the best barm shop any more, run by local women who showed me you could put salt on tomato to spice up the most basic sarnie. Now instead it was Zizzi and other ubiquitous brands. As I walked closer, I realised the school buildings were also very different indeed. I was excited as I walked through the arch into the main yard – up high on top of Millgate was ‘the flat’ where I lived for my final year (scene of much drama!), the old girl’s house corridor windows, then down here the lovely old Baronial Hall where I’d slipped on the stone step as I came on stage for my first concert, to play the Beethoven Variations in C Minor. But now I’m walking across the yard towards Palatine…and it’s gone, simply disappeared! There just remains a gate staring out into an abyss – as I approach, it’s just an empty site, some unremarkable grass 2 floors down. A truly existential moment, as the place where so many hundreds of hours were spent, so many memories formed, has vanished.

So now I walk back through the arch and along the stunning new bridge to the new building. Did Chet’s own all this land before? We used to sledge here in winter – the grass bank opposite Victoria Station. The whole place is transformed now into a massive cruise liner of a building, pleasingly curved and beautifully designed. The full height metal door slides open for me and the Oglesby Atrium beckons – several floors of bright white and internal windows, a fantastic architectural space which inspires a feeling of openness without being too big for normal-sized humans congregating at the bottom.

The lovely chaps from Pianospeed: Powered by Yorkshire Tea!

Kathryn Page is wonderfully welcoming and the first thing we have to manage is the delivery of my piano – arriving any minute. A piano mix-up ensues, as, directed by the porter: my re-configured Erard grand is delivered (by the brilliant Pianospeed) into a small practise room. It turns out that Forsyths had turned up at the same time with an upright, which might have been heading for my spacious teaching room if we hadn’t intercepted. Who knows how many pianos are arriving but once we eventually get the right pianos in the right places, I take time to appreciate the two other grand pianos in my room (!) – a good Yamaha and a gorgeous Kawai Shigeru, all soft and silky, still partially wrapped in plastic.

The rest of the day is spent constructing my piano and playing, then meeting people as they begin to arrive, one of them, Henry Lewis, turns out to be a piano relative – more on that later. I find Sarah Beth Briggs who I haven’t seen since my youth in Newcastle, and my old school friend and peer Leon McCawley (we both studied with Heather Slade-Lipkin at Chet’s and a few days in, we have a fun session reminiscing about her memorable teaching techniques). Then we’re straight into concerts in the Stoller Hall – an opening gala evening with maybe nearly 2 hours of music – and it’s clear that the hall can handle the most sensitive sound amazingly; it’s a beautiful space. Joseph Tong, who I also haven’t seen for years, plays Schumann easily and sensitively, with real fluidity and humility.

Me, Sarah Briggs, Leon McCawley, Janet Nicolls (my mum!) & Nikki Isles having a nice time!

The next day we start teaching and the regime is strict and tiring – 6 hours a day, start 9am. I have to admit it is slightly abrupt on the first morning, as I dash across from the hotel breakfast but immediately the talent and friendliness of my first pupil has me absorbed. 14-year-old Ruth plays completely in the moment, she is really inhabiting the music. Where I can help is in making choices – which cadence is the most important?, which corner the most special?, if this happens here, what could happen there? We work through the piece and that wonderful thing happens, when a piece just comes more alive. She is a great listener and I’m delighted. Next up, I have an improvisation pupil who is a little shy. I decide we should just play together and gradually, with each new piece, I sense she is starting to find a tiny bit more confidence. We talk about having a tool box of parameters – what could be changed just using dynamics, texture, pitch, character, articulation, tessitura and I use a technique taught to me by Sean Gregory at Guildhall School of Music. He made me improvise in front of a room of piano teachers and I was totally alarmed at this thought (despite having played probably billions of notes in front of audiences by then). He gave me one note – D. That was it. So, I was forced to experiment with everything else – rhythm, texture and so on. That moment taught me I could do this terrifying thing. By the end of the session, Mary is growing.

After the break, Matthew arrives, chipper and chatty – his wife has bought him the course as payment for agreeing to a third child who is now 7 weeks old. I suspect the payment might not be equal to the task but am so impressed that he is also a doctor – how do these committed amateurs find time in busy lives to play the piano? It is absolutely humbling that at the end of what must be an utterly exhausting and no doubt emotionally intense day that Matthew wants to sit at a piano and play Brahms. He explains it is curative, that actually the music provides a space to visit emotional intensity without having to say a word and I see that the therapy that I am so lucky to enjoy as a career must help thousands of people who sit outside a career in music. The first lesson we have is on how to solve problems with efficient practise. I teach him that spending 5 minutes on that bar – dissecting the challenge, understanding it with his brain, isolating the natural motions he’ll need to overcome those broken chords or that jump – will mean that then, when he plays from the beginning, he will arrive at the newly sorted area and actually be able to go through it rather than stumble at it. He agrees that if he can start each 10-minute session (usually at about 9.30pm at night, when he’s really tired already) with this problem-solving, that his overall enjoyment will go up.

On arrival: my piano awaits building in my lovely & spacious teaching room

Next to appear is Tom, holding two scores – one Einaudi, the other Philip Glass – and saying he loves what I’m doing with the inside piano and he’s a computer programmer and he’d love to learn to compose and he’s had a severe trauma in his life and he’d like to express something about that in his music. We begin with some playing and he’s not completely in the zone – technical things are challenging and it’s hard for him to connect what he hears and imagines with what his fingers will do. We go over some technique and find smoother, easier ways of playing perpetual arpeggiac figures as are so common in Glass. But there’s something much deeper happening when we go to my piano and begin to experiment. Suddenly Tom is listening absolutely intently and he’s creating, he’s exploring the sounds. And we both get lost in it and by the end his eyes are sparkling. We’re both looking forward to seeing where his music will go.

My last two pianists are both virtuosi in different ways. The first is 16 and very accomplished. He plays Liszt impressively and it’s only left for me to talk to him about phrasing and structure, re-finding the music after the many hundreds of hours he’s obviously spent on the learning and mastering.  The second is 8 and has only been learning for 2 years, mainly self-teaching as his current teacher isn’t sure what to do. He’ll come to Chet’s next year and I see why. He is not only playing a Beethoven Sonata with a certain command of the material but he is also a total delight. When I suggest that we should re-think the introduction as a little sketch (between his little sister playing in a meadow with beautiful flowers and a big, hairy man who shouts “get off the grass!” at her) he is beaming and plays it again with more passion and conviction. There is so much I can teach him – phrasing in pairs, technical tricks, ways to put together difficult sections, how to practise octaves (isolating the thumb for guidance, ensuring you are still playing the octaves, rather than than just sticking in octave shape. I learnt that tip from a fantastic pianist and very modest chap Philip Howard who won Gaedeamus playing Xenakis – he was amazing and I should know, as I page-turned for his Evryali, which was terrifying!). I can’t help feeling a tiny bit jealous of this young boy’s future teachers: to come across such natural and effervescent talent in an 8-year old is kind of mind-boggling and utterly delightful and to sense you have the tools to help is a fantastic feeling. 

The next day I have a new pupil, a lady who I later discover shares gorgeous gardening photos on Instagram, who has bravely brought along some George Benjamin pieces, in theory written ‘for children’. They are complicated and challenging, using fast 5 rhythms, or difficult pitch groupings. I quickly realise that everything Diana is doing is in her brain, her head and we need to get these rhythms down into her body. We turn to stomping around the room, swaying, clapping, chanting and gradually I convince her that thinking of it just as beat and offbeat is possible and ultimately easier. We even make a short film of me illustrating this. Over the next lessons we make some progress but it is hard to unlearn the thinking she’s already embedded – I’ve realised that although it’s written in 5/16 it’s much easier to feel (and therefore think) it in 5/8. So the challenge that modern music can pose can be as much about learning to interpret the score and make it your own, as simply to read and learn it. (A strange addendum here is that I was the first ever person to perform George Benjamin’s music at Darmstadt, the terrifying German new music summer course that gathers the brightest, best and often most complicated composers together for intensive concerts and lectures).

Leon McCawley and Ashley Wass get ready to play Beethoven’s Ninth on two pianos

As the week goes on, we see more amazing concerts – two to note are the Beethoven’s 9th for two pianos played by Leon McCawley and Ashley Wass and also Sarah Beth Briggs’ lecture recital in memory of Denis Mathews. The former made me very nostalgic for the Palatine corridors – two muscular yet totally sensitive peers playing with total joy and energy. I love how quietly Leon dared to play his opening and the second movement came to life wonderfully. Ashley played with such ease and beauty, perfectly voiced chords. The whole experience was brilliant. Sarah’s concert/lecture was delivered with the best version of BBC Radio 3 knowledge and fluidity, she told anecdotes that helped us listen and then played with ferocious strength and delicious delicacy, I really felt captivated.

Henry Lewis (centre) with the new Inside-Out Piano moving team…

The late-night 10pm concerts were a treat, too. (It’s funny, new music on Radio 3 is often banished to ‘Hear and Now’, 11pm on Saturday, which we all referred to as ‘Where & When?). Adam Gorb was the featured composer and this was where I saw Henry Lewis in full flow. It was rather nice that at one point he did a proper pounce onto the piano for a low cluster and someone jumped in their seat and then smiled in response. Henry really was in his element and I found his playing alive, brilliant, exploratory and a fantastic mix of intellectual understanding and musical play. What I then discovered was that we’d both studied with Kate Miller, and as soon as I heard him say that it all clicked – of course he had! We phoned her the next day to celebrate that we’d met and she was delighted.  

As the teaching progressed, there was a really satisfying journey with each pupil. The improvisation became more and more authoritative and confident, the 8-year-old got the hang of certain techniques and the idea of story, Tom ended up making a new piece using software on his own computer and we were both very moved, the doctor found a new determination to practise for a few minutes in a problem-solving way to then enjoy his emotional outpouring. And we had some lovely workshops, up to 30 people coming to find out what on earth my piano is all about. Various people popped in to visit the piano and it was great to have the opportunity to show it up close to many enthusiasts. The piano was also lucky enough to be not just tuned but basically reborn at the hands of the amazing Peter Lyons, a piano technician of incredible skill, who I absolutely loved meeting during the week. The piano sounded better than it ever has!

Angela Hewitt’s concert of the Goldberg Variations was an extraordinary feat of playing and of listening. Apparently, she used to be a ballet dancer and the way her arms moved so fluidly and towards the end, increasingly dramatically, really was a visual feast. The control of the sound and the architecture was phenomenal and I did recognise that I was seeing probably a once in a generation performer, so committed to her very particular art. She did seem to be sort of floating above us mere mortals, sitting reverentially soaking up every profound corner, each virtuosic phrase. The last slow movement was absolutely static in the best kind of way – time literally stood still – I can recall it clearly right now, as I sit writing on a busy train. She really has poise in spades and I feel lucky to have been able to witness her performance as part of this enormous feast of piano recitals.

One of the challenges of the week was finding any time at all to think about my own concert and I was very sad to miss Murray’s performances, as I would have really liked to see him in action. Sorry, Murray! However, I did manage to grab a few practise hours and my recital on the Monday evening was thoroughly enjoyable, a bit more of a riot than I’d planned, really but the audience was so warm (even heckling with jokes!) and the hall so beautiful that I just had a lot of fun. My mission was to introduce my incredible piano and the sounds that it makes.

Performing at Stoller Hall, with audience participation heard afterwards…!

What was rather lovely was that, having given a couple of workshops, afterwards people said “oh, you didn’t play the rubber ball” or “I missed the slate!” and I was touched by how much they’d fallen in love with these sounds, exactly as I have. I actually made a little film on Youtube of my favourite sounds, so, if you missed any during the concert, you can see those here:

I also performed one track from my 12 Years recital. It felt like quite a risk to do so but I feel so strongly that the climate crisis is something we need to push into all of our conversations that in the end I did decide to include it. Several people were extremely moved, with the very kind Mark Hagger saying on Twitter that he thought it should be prescribed listening.

I do agree that absolutely everyone should hear the words of Greta Thunberg, which is what features in the piece I played. Her truth is clear and direct.

It was such a pleasure to have time during other week to meet other pianists and I was thrilled when Nikki Isles (recent award winner of an Ivors Academy Golden Badge Award) said that I had good rhythm! I wished she’d been my improvisation teacher somewhere along the way. I enjoyed chats with many other staff, including Ben Frith and Mark Tanner and I even managed to grab Murray and Kathryn for a brief moment, to thank them for having me.

What was lovely for me is that I really don’t teach at all currently and it was just great to have that feeling again of sharing in someone’s journey, of being helpful and of being able to offer advice which leads directly to something impactful. It is a humbling thing and totally energising. Although I left thoroughly tired, I drove away with a very complete sense of having communed and shared with people who care about the piano just as much as me and who spend their own hours, shaping and perfecting emotional experiences at this most monolithic of instruments.

Please view Sarah’s Kickstarter to build a new piano. Some names in this article have been changed to protect anonymity.

Upcoming gig dates: 2019

I have a fantastic string of gigs coming up in the next months and very excitingly, they are ALL with my Inside-Out Piano!

Thursday 18th July: First up, there’s LATITUDE FESTIVAL. I’ll be playing my ‘12 Years‘ recital there at the Lavish Lounge on Thursday evening (8.30pm tbc). I’ll also be performing in Max Reinhardt‘s ‘Instant Scorchestra’.

Monday 19th August: Next is a recital at my old school, Chetham’s School of Music and Stoller Hall. This will be a bespoke mix of music I’ve written over the last 2 years, including some new purely acoustic material. I’m also teaching at the Chetham’s International Summer School in the days preceding: tickets available for that before 10th June.

Saturday 7th September: At noon, my new collaborator, Maya Bugge – a fantastic Norwegian cellist – and I will be featured in Snape Malting’s Festival of New in Snape, Suffolk. We’ll be doing the very first showing of music and text from our new climate/environmental UK-Norway project. There’s loads of other great artists playing, including ECM’S ‘Dreamlife of Debris’ by Kit Downes piano, Tom Challenger saxophone, Lucy Railton cello, Seb Rochford drums.

Sunday 6th October: King’s Place, London – This will be my first performance in the London Piano Festival and I’m delighted to be finally making a show about my piano just for kids (age 5+). I want to showcase why strings are great and why the whole piano is better than just the keys..! There’s two performances but limited capacity, so please book now if you want to get your kids into experimenting with sound!

12 Years

My new recital ’12 Years’ is now ready for touring and I’d like to send it as far and wide as possible. Please get in touch if you know where I could perform or show it near you! Read more here:

Petitioning in Brighton

Well, yesterday was an exciting and tiring day! I had to present a petition signed by 3,700 people about getting major public events in Brighton and Hove to go Single-Use Plastic (SUP) free by 2020. Watch my speech here, I’m on at 1’12:26 or read it here (via Twitter). We did put forward some ambitious targets but at the same time, these actions are completely mainstream – big events like Paddle Round the Pier are taking huge strides towards removing SUP and we think a city like Brighton should be a beacon of environmental well-being. It’s really not unusual to have branded reusable cups at other festivals, for example, yet millions of water bottles and other things can be seen all over Brighton’s streets and beach after big events in the City. We were on BBC Radio Sussex Breakfast show too and although the BBC had collected vox pops and had people texting in for 2 hours, they couldn’t find anyone who disagreed with the petition!

What was fascinating was going into the Council Chamber at BHCC and just seeing how the representatives of our city work and operate. How their thoughts and beliefs tally with their actions. And I have to say, I am actually very sad to have to tell you that Labour was the most disappointing thing I’ve witnessed in a long, long time. I am gutted to say this because I fully believe that we need a caring and generous state, I totally and absolutely and fundamentally believe in a society which looks after its weakest. I have many, many issues with the extrinsic values of conservatism. But I have to say, in the BHCC Chamber last night, I saw Labour, in their entirety, vote repeatedly against things which shocked me. First, they voted to ignore a petition of over 5,500 Brighton residents to stop circus companies bringing animals to their shows in Brighton. Even though Zippo’s circus have decided not to bring animals this summer, thus proving the point succinctly that animals are not required for a successful show, Labour decided to hide behind some complicated thing about land use. This was despite the Labour Councillor who seemed to have the choice whether to accept the Green Party amendment (basically a statement which turns a petition into an actual action point for the Council) standing up and saying something along the lines of “I would dearly love to vote for this, I’ve been veggie for 30 years, I don’t wear leather, I’d love to never see another horse with a feather on its head”. So, please, Brighton Labour Councillors, can you explain the gap between what you believe and what you do? Guess what, they also ALL voted AGAINST making big, public, outdoor events in Brighton & Hove single-use plastic free too – the petition I’d brought.

I understand that people who are generally left-leaning look at the National picture and hope that Labour would be able to stop austerity and bring back some humanity to the country. But. I would really, seriously urge all Brighton Labour voters to just take a moment to come along to the Council, or read up some minutes, or just ask your Councillor WHY they voted against everyone else in the Chamber to avoid having to stop so much plastic waste hitting our streets and to stop circuses bringing animals to their Brighton shows.  

The Conservatives did vote with the Greens and I was really pleased to see that: thank you! However, there was one very unpleasant moment in the response of the Conservatives to the Climate Change amendment (watch here at 45:52). The chap stood up and basically went on and on about how great (“outperforming on targets”) the current Conservative government was. He said they were amazing, that emissions were going down overwhelmingly within limits. It was bizarre and deeply uncomfortable. It’s as if he’d forgotten that the current government is basically stopping subsidies to renewable energy, putting tax-freezes on petrol for the Xth year running, being sued by Europe over the appalling and illegal air quality in this country. He quoted George Monbiot as saying that Michael Gove was the first environmental minister who was saying everything he wanted to hear. If anyone else has access to George Monbiot, perhaps they could ask him to clarify that, just in case it was a misquote? It was a very strange way of showing off, instead of the utter humility that surely we should all feel in the face of climate change? I mean, can you think of a bigger, more humbling problem that we face? We have completely failed our children and future generations: there is nothing to be proud of, except if we can now genuinely make strides to dismantle the fossil fuel industry and divest from it completely.

Extinction Rebellion were amazing: bold and brave and I’m very proud that again, it was The Green Party who brought forward proposed actions on their petition and argument. I was really pleased to be able to quote the incredible @gretathunberg in the Chamber. As she said, the climate change issue really is “simple enough for even a small child to understand”. I really hope Brighton Council can take real, meaningful action and that perhaps Labour can see the error of their ways and start voting to represent their constituents. Personally, I’m well chuffed to be in the Green Party. They were respectful, humble, avoided nastiness and were the only party who basically brought powerful and important change last night. They listened to all of the petitions and said “yes, we should and could do something about that – let’s try to!”. If the Green Party weren’t there then none of those petitions would have had any success. They would have just been brought and filed somewhere. Amendments turn a petition into action and it is starting to feel to me that maybe the Green Party is the only party who might be able to not only speak truth TO power but perhaps even speak truth IN power. Let’s see! 

Brighton Local Elections are on 2nd May. GET INFORMED AND PLEASE REMEMBER TO VOTE!! The local council is what runs your city, not Caroline Lucas. But remember – if we had a Green Council, then Caroline Lucas would have a direct through-line to be able to work WITH the local council AND the powers that be in Parliament. So, if you’d like to see CL have more influence in Brighton, you know what to do!

Belonging in Parliament?

Yesterday I went to the Houses of Parliament (HoP), for the first time in my life.  I’m nearly 45.  I was totally excited about going, both for the sake of it and also because it was to see whether I could bring my music installation piece ‘Belonging Here’ to the HoP later this year. 

Before I explain my experience, there are two important things that I discovered. 1. As a UK resident (not citizen, necessarily) you can go on a free tour of the Houses of Parliament via your MP: read about that here.  Secondly, you can ‘lobby’ your MP in person at any time.  Of course, they might be busy or away but the fact is that you can walk into the Houses of Parliament, go to reception and ask to see your MP.  I discovered recently that groups can also organise ‘mass lobbies’, whereby a large group of people all do this at the same time and all ask to see their different MP.  It seems really important to me that we know about this access.  Also, if they are away or busy, they have to respond to you within 7 days.  I appreciate it’s very London-centric (I don’t live in London either) but I thought it was worth passing this on!

So, having gone through security in Portcullis House, I first found a brilliant exhibition, of photo portraits of the 209 female MPs.  These are stunning photos and really interesting in their differences.  Some women are photographed in the HoP itself, either in tune, or in cheeky dialogue with, its grandeur.  Some are photographed in parks, on one is on the beach with a horse, and then there is a group who have perhaps asked to be photographed with family members.  What it brought home to me is how diverse the female MPs actually are.  I think we get an extremely limited view of these people who have chosen to work within our ‘establishment’ (nice quote from Tony Benn about that!) for what they believe is a better way of doing things.  I’d really encourage you to go – it’s free!  Tickets here

Having met my contact, we then went from Portcullis House underneath the road, in an ancient tunnel and across into Westminster Hall.  This is a vast space (see pic) with a stone floor, stone walls and a massively high ceiling, the wooden roof, which is currently being renovated.  It feels quite like an outdoor space as it’s so cold and open.  Apparently there used to be market stalls in there historically and I was told that it’s used when a huge speech has to happen which won’t fit into either chamber.  Barack Obama spoke here.  Trump was not permitted to. 

From this bare and huge space we then went up the steps and into gold-leafed rooms and on to the Central Lobby – that space we see on TV a lot, a perhaps 8-sided foyer-type space.  It sits between the Lords and the Commons (map of Parliament here).  Here we caught the daily speaker’s procession to the Commons: the top of the Mace bobbing past over the crowds and John Bercow’s face, who seemed to be in an extremely smiley mood.  We then walked to the Lords, via the Royal apartments, where the Queen comes when she visits Parliament.  It’s all very grand and golden and my main thoughts were about intimidation, although the Lords chamber itself feels very small and quite cosy.  How would someone who wasn’t used to such buildings, perhaps hadn’t been used to going into big churches or had not been educated, or who lacked confidence, feel, when walking through these corridors?  It was my most prevalent thought.  If this is our frontline for seeking democracy, it feels very lofty. 

Then, I was allowed entry to PMQs.  I probably looked a bit delirious, I was so excited.  Handing in my electronic equipment and coat, I was asked to sit on the front row of the ‘Special’ public gallery, the bit behind glass, and I wondered if it was called Special because you get to see both ‘sides’ evenly.

At first in a way the room is disappointingly familiar – just liked the telly – yet it’s the whole room experience that is valuable – the things that are beyond the field of vision of just the person who is speaking.  The basics: who gets to speak, who asks to speak – repeatedly (can’t they have a queuing system??  Argos and Clarks manage that!).  Where the attentive listeners are and where the jeerers are – I’m afraid to say, the Conservatives really are the ones bringing the reputation of the House down.  Here’s my blow-by-blow account of what it was like and what was going through my head as it happened.

‘Wow!  I’m in the HoP public gallery for PMQs!  12pm.  There’s Jeremy Corbyn!  Amber Rudd.. not so many celebs today, perhaps… Then Theresa May appears.. (shudder).  (I wonder if this is some primitive response – it was watching Maggie on the telly in the 70s that probably first politicized me).  We get into TM’s opening statement about Holocaust memorial day then there’s some questions about Brexit context “the army are set to slaughter lambs set for export” and TM is saying the “SNP is out of touch with the Scottish people” which doesn’t sound entirely justifiable.  Then JC gets his first Q in “will she take no deal off the table”. 

By this point I suddenly think THE ROOM IS WRONG!  It totally encourages two parties.  That side vs that side.  The politicians either side are like kids in playground gangs: safety in numbers and bullying.  And I have to say, the Conservatives really are worse in this.  I can state that categorically, having been in the room and seen and heard the jeering.  It is very far from pleasant.   Meanwhile, Corbyn is coming across very well and seems reasonable.  TM seems evasive (she doesn’t answer anything, really – what is the point of PMQs??) and actually, deeply patronising.  So, I’m thinking JC is very good and then he stops speaking and I realise his 3 Qs are up.  So – this is why he doesn’t get enough media coverage.  If he was allowed to press and press, then we might get somewhere. Why are Tories even allowed to ask questions?  Surely, this should be the Parliamentary opportunity for the other parties to probe her.  Instead what happens is that the Conservatives throw her gentle ball and gentle ball, from where she can gloat about how great and kind they are. 

I quickly realise that I actually HATE this!  There is no listening, no progress.  By this time, 4 Labour politicians have stood up 7 times now and are being ignored.  I become fixated on their cluster. 

There’s a Q about a soldier father which quietens everyone down but still Labour are ignored.  It is 12.24 by the time the first Labour MP (not counting JC, obvs) is allowed to ask a Q.  It’s a man.  There’s a Tory ref to a Chichester choir performance called Push (interesting to me that the arts could penetrate here…) then at 12.27 we hear the first Labour woman.  She has a great line: the ‘stench of complacency’ to do with cladding post-Grenfell.  At 12.28 there’s a question about regulating Botox from a Conservative.  Really???  Is that what this meeting of all MPs once a week is going to spend time on???  Now I’m starting to ask, who is the Labour black female MP who has stood every time now and is still ignored. 

At 12.30 there’s a ‘closed question’ which lets TM show off again.  About Birmingham airport – because, let’s face it, what we really need is to prioritise the needs of long haul holiday makers right now.  At 12.31 a Labour MP about Brexit and then TM is saying “there were a variety of reasons why people voted to Leave” and I’m thinking – and one of them is the CORRUPT CAMPAIGN!!  A random plea to women to go to their smear tests then a Labour man (still not the black lady, who by now I think is Dawn Butler) again brings everyone to quiet, talking about a young man who has committed suicide and his parents are there today.  I wonder if there’s a moment when all the MPs remember they are there to represent us, not to jeer and bicker with each other.  Then we enter some kind of personal ultra-casework section of questions and I’m thinking, is this really the best use of the moment when all MPs are present?? 

Finally the white Labour woman who has been standing up every time since the beginning gets to ask her question about the High Street which TM just doesn’t get.  She says ‘there’s still be a Post Office in W H Smiths’.  Doesn’t she herself value different shops, a mixed High Street not dominated only by the same 5 shops we see in every airport terminal?  At 12.41 a Tory MP makes a rather desperate stand, saying “Dyson is totally committed to the UK”.  What a joke!  But this brings out, for me, TM’s darkest phrase of the day: this government is “unapologetically pro-business” and I think ‘what about people, Mrs May?  What about communities, what about those who need support, what about the planet, what about fairness, what about the things in life that are not measured economically?’. 

And then all the MPs just leave.  They walk out (surely not only because of Tim Farron’s hilarious interjection saying “Happy Cumbria Day” and listing the various Cumbrian delights that will be available afterwards in the Jubilee Hall and which TM could select her walking holiday packed lunch from – which has the Speaker calling him a “one-man tourist board” in good humour).  And you think – hang on!  While everyone is here – shouldn’t you have a meaningful moment about SOMETHING???  The climate doesn’t even get one single mention (I couldn’t see far enough along under where I was sitting to know if Caroline Lucas was there, who at least has managed to bring that biggest issue of our day into the spotlight). 

Afterwards, I met a new script writer who’ll hopefully be working on the new versions of ‘Belonging Here’ with me and discovered she’s set up a nice project called ‘Library of Change’.  Then, my last great meeting was with Kate Dunton, who I’d met to talk about how she’s connecting artists and researchers at my old university, King’s College London.  I discovered she also wears another hat and had been on a course by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation who sound amazing, getting fantastic ideas about making social change.  Whilst in a positive moment about her ideas about connecting a community to solve problems together (I now realise, I should have told her about ‘Flatpack Democracy’ in Frome), we also both simultaneously expressed how torn we are: on the one hand, of course we want to help and make things better and on the other hand, this used to be what the State did, before David Cameron’s “Big Society”.  So, we also feel massively defrauded of our natural first callings in life and our time and energy, when fat cat business is sucked up to whilst the rest of us suffer – including homeless people actually just dying of cold.  Kate’s aspiration is, at the least, that we should all be able to live in a place where things that JUST AREN’T RIGHT don’t happen: the government should surely also have this aspiration?!  Theresa May being “unapologetically pro-business” makes me cringe all over.  (Even though business doesn’t seem very impressed currently with her Brexit negotiations).  What will she say on her death bed?  “Oh, I’m so glad I saved business!”? 

So – what do we all want our legacy to be?  What are you unapologetically pro?

Talking to climate scientists

So, it’s 10.20pm in January 2019 and I’m sitting checking my recording of a conversation I’ve just had with the brilliant Professor Julia Steinberger and I’m reflecting on a couple of things she said. It is pretty humbling to be told by a climate scientist that one thing they’re sad about is that their own child won’t see the winter that they themselves saw as they grew up. When Julia said this to me, I have to admit I was a bit taken aback. I mean, I’ve been reading a lot of headlines, a lot, and getting as animated as I can about it all. But when a serious expert who has literally spent their life studying this stuff floors you with a fact like this (I’m still thinking we can get it all back to normal), or that e.g. we’re going to turn the planetary clock back 3 million years over the next 10 years, in terms of temperature, or that – as another climate scientist I’ve been talking to recently said, that the planet is not going to recover for, at the very least, 300 years, probably more like thousands, from what we’ve already done… then, well, what do we do with this information? There is a bizarreness in this shared grief. Think about how hard it is to think of the right thing to say when someone loses a parent or friend, we’re so untrained to talk about death. And then imagine that in them telling us, that actually they’re also telling us that someone *we* know has died. But then, I really am a ‘yes’ person, as we discuss in the conversation – which will be launching as my first podcast of the year hopefully by the end of this week. We ended on a strong note, despite the enormity of it all weighing so heavily. Fortunately for all of us, climate scientists like Julia are “taking risks”, becoming braver and reaching out beyond the safety of an academic paper. We need to do our bit and listen to experts like her (please read her totally brilliant blog when I post all the links). We really must rise up. And it’s not some fad protest. As she said, she really thought 10 years ago the adults would sort everything out. They haven’t. We, in this bizarrest of coincidences, across millennia, are the adults now.

2019 begins

Happy New Year 2019!! I am currently working on an entirely new ‘eco-recital’ which will hope to address climate change through the fictionalising of the real news we’re all hearing, to get to the emotional core of how this might be affecting all of us (or some of us?). The sounds of my #insideoutpiano will feature throughout. Premieres in March at City University London and in Galway on Brexit Day: see the Musical Activism tab, where you can also listen to Episode 1 of my new podcast.


So much going on.  Just spent a buzzy day looking at over a hundred scores with stimulating fellows and then bumped into the legendary artist Christian Marclay!  Before Christmas, two disparate and unusual things happened: I reconvened with my band from 2005 – the talented Mira Calix and David Sheppard.  We are Alexander’s Annexe and will be playing on BBC Radio 3’s Open Ear live broadcast a week on Saturday 13th January.  Listen out!  Then I also went on a magical and totally surreal trip to the Hungarian outback with the engineers (Jigsaw Structures) from my piano-reinventing team (currently funded by Innovate UK) to visit our team piano builder, David Klavins.  We found a hive of activity in a factory, literally in the middle of nowhere; it was like a scandi-noir set.  We saw three distinct pianos: one lightweight, one designer and one enormous one.  This picture is Tim and Chris from Jigsaw talking to David Klavins (back to camera) by Klavins’ lightweight UC piano.

Designing a Future Piano

I am looking at how the piano, a historic and iconic instrument, can be made to fit more appropriately into our modern lives. It seeks to retain the acoustic grand piano with all of its richness of sound and its impressive, monumental stance, whilst also making it a less cumbersome instrument. We aim to radically rethink how a piano works and looks.

In October 2017, ten years after having the idea, I got funding from Innovate UK, to undertake detailed design/engineering work on a really new kind of piano. My project will be familiar to all of you who have seen my piano-endeavours over the last decade but this took my idea onto a whole new level, working with outstandingly creative and technical people to bring it closer to becoming something real. I led a team including Keechdesign UK, Jigsaw Structures, the National Composites Centre and piano builder extraordinaire, David Klavins (his super-light UC piano will be known to some of you and, through pianist Nils Frahm, you might also have heard his impressive pianos at the other end of the scale). Keechdesign UK are a leading London-based design company led by talented brothers Tristram Keech, former Design Director at Conran & Partners and David Keech, who was the first non-Japanese designer to join Yamaha’s creative team in Hamamatsu. Jigsaw Structures are Tim Evans and Chris Vaissiere, experts in how to put different materials together and finally, the National Composites Centre is like a dream aeroplane hangar of materials possibilities where, just maybe, my piano might get built one day… 🙂

We talked to around 70 people to get views on existing pianos, what it could be, the constraints it currently has (especially musically or logistically).

The team has now focused and, with Jigsaw Structures and David Klavins, we are hoping that 2019 might see the build of our first lightweight prototype.

Please just drop me a line, tweet, etc with the #futurepiano if you’d like to be part of this conversation.

Library of Water, Iceland: a residency

Freezing to boiling, falling, melting and everything in between, Iceland is about water. Looking at it, being in it, being awestruck by its many magical and hugely powerful forms. It surrounds, heals and enters your thinking, making you fluid with the environment; everything that exists because of it, in it, is all of history.

I had an amazing artistic residency in Iceland with my 5-year-old son in the summer of 2017. We were invited to stay at the incredible Library of Water in Stykkisholmur, a building transformed by artist Roni Horn and commissioned by Artangel, which looks out to the serenely gorgeous and translucent Icelandic sea. Upstairs, Roni Horn’s installation of glacial columns and volcanic words inspired us while we played chess, whilst seeing the utterly mind-blowing sights of Iceland (here, my new favourite place on earth: the ‘ice lagoon’ Jokulsarlon) transported us through the raw landscape to muse on a geographical time scale.  Thanks to Frida Ingvarsdottir for enabling me to have this experience and I look forward to seeing how it comes out in my work.

Co-commission from OCM & Ashmolean Museum

I spent several months imagining a piece for the 6-floor atrium of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in March 2017.  Becca Ellson was my collaborator for the piece, which we called ‘Belonging Here’. Here is a beautiful film of the night made by Chris Brake, who I met on the Southbank Collision residency in January.  Blog post here.


Belonging Here: Sarah Nicolls and Becca Ellson from Sarah Nicolls on Vimeo.

Jan ’17 Southbank Centre residency

I was absolutely thrilled to have a residency at the Southbank Centre in January 2017.  This group residency is called Collision and was part of the Southbank Centre’s Nordic Matters Festival.  I was paired with ANNA THORVALDSDOTTIR, a composer from Iceland, and we were in residency alongside some amazing artists, as per the table below.  We were introduced to SE1 United, a young people’s group, staff at sbc and the borough of Lambeth more widely.  I went with the idea of generating thoughts around how public art might be meaningful and useful in connecting and improving lives.

The picture here is the stage of the Purcell Room, which is the first place I ever performed at the Southbank, absolutely terrified, in an audition for Park Lane Group.  I thought I’d played terribly but then got the gig and 2 months afterwards had a second concert in the Purcell Room, receiving amazing reviews and suddenly feeling like I’d “arrived”.  Strange how things can change in a short space of time.  It will be interesting to see what my next chapter with sbc is!

Julie Edel Hardenberg, Artist, Writer and Scenographer

Collaborating with…

Xiaolu Guo, Novelist and Filmmaker

Nils Bech, Singer & Performance Artist

Onoe Caponoe, Hip-Hop/Rap Artist

Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Composer

Sarah Nicolls, Pianist and Performer

Kristina Sørensen, Dancer and Choreographer

Alan Perez, Artist

Arn-Henrik Blomqvist, Theatre Director

Sabrina Mahfouz, Poet & Playwright

Mette Henriette, Saxophonist and Composer

David Shearing, Multimedia Artist

Jasper Hoiby, Bassist and Composer

Sam Steer, Animator, Illustrator and Designer

Asa Sonjasdotter, Multimedia Artist


Petri Sirviö, Choir Director

Anthony Anaxagorou, Poet and Writer

Morgan Stewart, Pianist & Vocalist


Freya Bramble-Carter, Potter & Sculptor

Tia Simon-Campbell, Photographer



Oct ’16 Lilja’s Internship 1: Sheep, Oxford & ribbons…

I am currently extremely lucky at the moment on two counts (well, lots more but I’m just talking about work here!).  1) I am on OCM‘s BOOM scheme, to encourage musicians to make first steps towards public art and outdoor work.  2) I have Lilja Maria Asmundsdottir with me for two months, coming as an intern after her degree at the Iceland Academy of the Arts.  We’re thinking about installations and possibly pianos.  At the moment, installations are definitely taking up our time as we both have installations to make/create (due in March & April 2017).

Lilja arrives in my studio!

Lilja arrives in my studio and puts earplugs in my piano! Hopefully not a metaphor! 🙂

Lilja's Hulda instrument, the centre of her installation

Lilja’s Hulda instrument, the centre of her installation

We began with some piano playing, Lilja played extracts from a young Icelandic composer, Ornolfur Eldon.  We began to talk about fluidity at the keyboard, phrasing, gesture, dynamic depth.  That day we also improvised duets between the Inside-Out Piano and the Harmonium, which we really liked!  Some of the questions we’re contemplating are the differences in being a pianist or an installation artist.  As we both have installations to make, we’re both very much wondering about what shape these should take, what they look and sound like, and more fundamentally, what are they about?  For me, the main thought to hold on to is the sense of a collective experience.  For Lilja, she’s working with the concept of hidden things but also a world (a room) which is completed by an instrument being played, and vice versa.  We’ve been quoting Aristotle today (watery retinas!) and thinking about the impact of weather sounds indoors.

So, we made a trip to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where my own installation will be for a special OCM Live Friday on Friday 3rd March, entitled Supersonic.  My thoughts began with the idea of the journey of sound and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the slides that were at the Tate Modern several years ago.  I began to mull on the concept of what a museum fundamentally is – a collection of people’s stories and experiences – and immediately got the sense that this was how my work would take its own form.  See below for pics of the incredible atrium I’m therefore hoping to fill by collecting people’s stories, experiences and memories.  My whole idea is based on a tree shape and the question is what material to build the tree out of.  The first main idea (and one I want to do eventually, somewhere) was to create a structure out of transparent drainpipes.  The contact mic under the table has been collecting the sound of Lilja and I writing stories and we’ve begun playing with processing these sounds, to really interesting effect.  I’ve also been drawing lots of sketches about how to capture stories and make music out of them whilst avoiding unending wiring or soldering…

The Ashmolean atrium is an incredible space but also enormous.  The way that the space allows visitors to view the possible journeys into the museum is rather profound, as a central place from which to look any way in time or culture. Its main exhibit is the Apollo statue at the ground floor level.  Beyond that, it is a collecting space, somewhere to explore on the way to somewhere.  It is cathedral-like in its scope, height, light and openness.  On a Live Friday night it will be bustling, noisy, busy.

Next stop was a lovely walk right from my studio up to the Westdene Windmill where we really randomly chanced upon the conservation grazing sheep.  Lilja and I felt very mellowed out by being with the sheep and carried home a lot of random, natural items including bits of plants, nut casings, dry leaves… The views of the brightly reflective sea were also amazing that day.  The sheep reminded me of the Louis Andriessen opera I saw at the Ruhrtrienniale, which had a whole herd on stage…  As my idea revolves around a tree, I’ve also begun looking at how differently trees are shaped and structured.  This enormous been in the nearby woods has a beautiful twisting, spiral sort of momentum, as if it kept looking for light in different directions.

Meanwhile, having visited the Ashmolean and been impressed again by the size of the atrium but also the rapidity required in the get-in and get-out and the fact that actually the gig is only one evening, I began to think much more about things we could install in a much lighter, easier, quicker way.  Randomly, I happen to have a lot of ribbons currently, so I’ve started wondering if these can be the thing that people write their stories on and Lilja has used her sketching skills to illustrate how the finished piece might look.

Lilja's sketch of the ribbon tree

Lilja’s sketch of the ribbon tree


Leaves as bigger image: colour richness








Bringing my show back to Brighton

So, my show is coming home, right to where it was created. I’ll be performing Moments of Weightlessness on Tuesday 24th May in the Brighton Dome Studio Theatre, where we first tried it in front of some invited audience members. That first creative burst was an incredible period for me. It began at The Spire, a creation space where I took my piano, drew pictures, wrote text, played tennis against the strings, played with toys, swung things, recorded myself talking to the empty church. In only a couple of days, the show’s shape was mostly in place. Then the hard work of developing and polishing it started, with a team of brilliant creative experts around me (including Lou Cope, Becca Ellson, Janine Fletcher & Chris Umney) to help. The showing at the Dome told us we’d created something which was moving and which had exciting potential.

I’ve been touring the show since November 2015 and have found it so rewarding to do it lots of times. Not only has it really become part of me, but it’s been so nice to play to different places. I grew up in Newcastle and I really noticed how the Northerners laughed more! The fulfillment of people laughing and crying while I perform is quite addictive, so I’m hoping my home crowd of Brighton will beat them all. I had a lot of really strong responses from audiences (listen here).  One of the sweetest comments was from an 8-yr-old girl in Reading, who said “the way Sarah plays the piano… it’s a miracle!”.

I also had several really deep chats with old friends who found the show really chimed with their motherhood experiences.  One sent me this great poem by a Geordie lady.

Small Beauties

Let the milk boil over,
The half-filled tins of baked beans sit idle on the table,
Children scribble on the walls with crayons,
Clothes heap in riotous mountains.

I am reading a book.

Let the bells ring, bills lie unopened,
Doors slam over then bash shut, letters unwritten,
Plants unwatered, bread gets as hard as a rock.

I am thinking about the moon.

Let the bank get nasty, the grass grow high,
Children decorate themselves with lipstick,
Build houses within houses in every room,
Pee on the floor, pull doll’s heads off.

I am looking for a door.

Oh come here you small beauties,
Together we will run across the town moor
With waving fingers, running for our lives.

You are too small, and too beautiful to ignore.

Julia Darling (1956-2005), lived in Newcastle for most of her adult life

Apr ’16 Home Live Art at Brighton Festival: 20-21 May

Ahead of her installation in ‘At Home; a 21st Century Salon’ next month at Brighton Festival, Home Live Art invited Sarah Nicolls to tell us more about her piece Body Clock – what it is, where it came and how the themes explored relate to her own life. Here’s Sarah’s response:

My installation is a full-size grand piano tipped vertically and then set swinging from side to side, like an enormous piano metronome.

The piano is from 1900 and has beautiful gold bars inside it, which will set off reflections in the gold of the room’s mirror and chandelier. I created it to play ‘inside’ the piano more easily – so the strings are totally available to the performer to pluck like a harp, as well as having piano keys as normal. When I made it I hadn’t expected it to swing – this was a by-product of the frame design – and I realised it was a metaphor for having children: we can have an idea about something we’re creating but in fact, until something exists in the flesh we won’t fully know it (and of course children just keep on growing and changing).

In the show I mingle the birth of the piano with the birth of my son and also try to put the chaos of motherhood on the stage, literally changing imaginary nappies whilst playing the piano with the instrument turned fully onto its side. After, I collapse against the keyboard balancing diagonally on the ground, playing whilst seemingly asleep. The music is all my own and is on my album – available as a download and as a Limited Edition piano key with a USB-key embedded in it.

I’ve been touring the show around the country and have been meeting parents and collecting birth stories, and through doing so, I’ve been continuously reminded where the idea originally came from for me. When I was probably 37 and preparing for the leap into trying for a baby, I skimmed a lighthearted Guardian article by a single woman probably of the same age, saying that every time an eligible man approached her, they were probably put off by the fact that as soon as they got close they could just hear this very loud ticking.  I thought that was funny but I could also completely relate. I think I became a bit manic around that age and felt I needed to ‘get on with it’. I had never been a baby person, wasn’t madly broody in a ‘oh, they’re so cute’ sort of way.  Much more in a ‘oh man, I’m going to be 40 and apparently there’s a statistical danger there’ll be seriously ill if I don’t do it now!!’ sort of way.  There wasn’t a huge amount of contemplation relating to how it would actually be…

So, I related to this columnist – I could hear my own ticking.  I realised the piano on its own could be my body, my ticking, as well as the perpetual motion of motherhood, growth, life, pulsing, and that rocking that all mums do, even if they’re not holding a baby (I have rocked an empty pram a few times…).

Resident in the Drawing Room through the Salon, my hope is that visitors can contemplate this relationship of our own internal rhythms and our changing external pressures, or perhaps more simply, just to take time to think about time.

Body Clock Installation

Body Clock is a giant sound installation, marking the passing of time.

Angel House, Fri 20 & Sat 21 May
for Home Live Art as part of Brighton Festival

A vertical grand piano swings perpetually from side to side, like a giant metronome marking time.  A near-immovable piece of furniture rendered weightless. Sparked by the internal ticking of her own call to motherhood, Body Clock by Sarah Nicolls is a contemplation on the perpetual motion of our inner cycles.

Sarah Nicolls Inside Out Piano

Sarah Nicolls Inside Out Piano

Found in the Drawing Room at Angel House, this monumental instrument moves fluidly and hypnotically: a sonic sculpture-come-installation, intended to let visitors take time to think about time.

Read my blog piece about the inspiration and thinking behind Body Clock

Blog for Sound and Music’s Sampler

The Sampler, March 2016: Sarah Nicolls’ In Our Hands project summary

Jan ’16 Podcast from BBC Radio 3

Here’s the podcast of my January In Tune appearance on BBC Radio 3 with Sarah Walker.

In Our Hands – Brighton


Before beginning the tour of In Our Hands, I decided to have a first conversation with Maggie Gordon-Walker, who runs Mothers Uncovered in Brighton. MU is a long-established group, supporting mums through conversation, writing, improvisation, performance, to work through their experiences of birth and motherhood. Meeting Maggie has been brilliant and inspiring: she is so energetic and generous and shares my view that more women should surely be having a better time doing something entirely natural like give birth. We share an ambition to empower women to feel like they are supported in their choices and also supported much more afterwards, to be able to talk to the professionals who looked after them. So many women are left feeling frankly quite rubbish after birth (and I’m not even talking about the physical symptoms) and this can lead to many women having postnatal depression on different levels of intensity. I personally didn’t suffer that but I was bothered by my birth experience and the dangerous situation it produced. And when I hear directly from other women about their experiences, I feel very sad and like surely women should just be trusted more? My second birth, I basically decided I was in charge and it was such a ludicrously exhilarating experience, to just be able to birth without orders but with support. The picture of me after giving birth to Sylvie is hilarious: I don’t think my smile could have been wider or more manic without my ears popping off the side of my head! I feel incredibly lucky to have had that experience and would love it to be much more widely the experience that women have, starting the completely life-changing journey of becoming a parent.

Here’s our chat:

In Our Hands 1 from Sarah Nicolls on Vimeo.

In Our Hands – Canterbury

Blog for Sound and Music’s Audience Labs – supporting the tour of my Moments of Weightlessness

Tues 17th Nov
On the train to Canterbury. Quite nice to be going a direction other than London! I’m intrigued to see how the group today goes: my first meeting with mums/dads that I’ve never met before, to talk about their stories and our shared experiences. I’m curious, possibly slightly apprehensive about helping them to loosen up, keenly aware that I’m not a councilor with any training but hoping I can listen and enable well. Intrigued then also to perform in front of them in two weeks, to see if we create a connectedness, simply by meeting and talking like this.
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View the conversation at the bottom of this page.
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On the train home. There was just 2 ladies present in Canterbury but we had a really good chat and there were several really well-put insights into the general ‘condition’ of motherhood. There was discussion around different words – guilt, exhaustion, control, helplessness, loss of identity. It’s interesting to reflect that most people probably do a perfectly good job despite all of these very negative feelings that we internalize! It also makes me wonder if that’s why I sensed a guilt trip from my own mum: that in fact it was her feeling guilty, being projected out. Interesting idea…

One of the phrases that for me unlocked everything we spoke about was when one woman said she felt she was being prevented from trusting her instincts. There is such a fine balance between learning from others and just discovering through experience: literature is there to help us yet the advice changes so frequently (weaning at 4 or 6 months?; put your baby on it’s back/tummy to sleep), the internet is continuously on and can be especially dominant during those middle-of-the-night moments. At the end we mentioned controlled crying and the opposite idea that’s publicised, that we might damage our child’s brains forever. The kind of fear that is peddled is absolutely extraordinary when you stop to consider it. I feel like a laissez-faire approach is probably the healthiest (though no doubt hardest to achieve), as of course we’ll all make mistakes but are hoping to do the best thing for our child, and we also need to attempt to stay (get?) sane and to be as healthy as we can.

We shared birth stories and I was gutted to hear phrases like ‘I wanted X but they wouldn’t let me’. It seems such a common experience and just so shocking to me. If you were in pain in some other way, it seems likely you’d be allowed to do whatever was needed to help the pain go away. And yet somehow afterwards, the mother also bears all of the regret and guilt of this.

There were several moments in our conversation which will stay with me but one particular one was when one lady said she sat down with her tablet, thinking to just read something for herself for 2 minutes… and couldn’t think what to search for. She just said she couldn’t think what she was interested in any more, she didn’t know where she had gone. Not that surprising perhaps, when you consider she’s been looking after twin boys for over 3 years fulltime!! I feel extremely fortunate that I’ve been able to absolutely carry on what I do, and even take that in new directions. The burden of 100% childcare is such an absolute, total and fundamental change to someone’s life. (Of course, on the other hand, the burden of having to go back to work too soon also brings stresses, like the lady who’s children are now 23 and 25 still remembering her 6-month-old child being unsure about her when she went to collect him after work. I myself had to pump all of lunchtime for several months, which was horrible and exhausting: why government guidelines on how long you’re meant to breastfeed don’t match up with minimum legal Maternity Leave, I really don’t understand and find quite upsetting. We also talked about the strange dynamics of living vicariously – conversations with strangers where we might be instructing our children on what to say, yet never addressing the person ourselves and vice versa – people asking our children their names but never needing to know ours.

So, I come away with a real sense of kinship, feeling really like I got to know two people who I had never met 2 hours earlier. I also have, again, a reinvigorated sense of unease with a mother’s predicament, both during birth and after. A deep respect of articulate, observant women who are doing something which so many people do yet which has such intensity and precariousness.
Altogether it was a very moving experience! I think it will also be interesting to perform for these women: I imagine there might be a heightened sense of the experience afterwards, when we meet again.



See Brighton here

Intro to the Inside-Out Piano

To accompany the Moments of Weightlessness tour trailer  here’s a short film about the Inside-Out Piano which plays a main part of the show (and indeed played throughout the show!). Gain insight into the idea behind creating the Inside-Out Piano and how different tools can be used on the strings to get sounds a range of sounds from the instrument.

If you want to try any of these techniques this at home.. just remember to put the pedal down first! A few tips on how to make weird and wonderful sounds on your piano using marbles, blue tac, clothes pegs, rubber balls and bolts.

Moments of Weightlessness trailer

Take a look at the trailer for Moments of Weightlessness, Sarah’s first solo show (with the immense Inside-Out Piano), my theatre show which toured in 2016-17 to Oxford’s North Wall Arts Centre, the Universities of Birmingham and Canterbury, Reading’s South Street Arts Centre, the Colchester Arts Centre and Cheltenham Festival.

In Our Hands

I’m inviting parents from the areas I’m touring to to take part in a filmed conversation with me: see the ‘In Our Hands’ page. Thanks to Sound and Music’s Audience Labs!

Why my piano is special

I’ve designed the ‘Inside-Out Piano’ to make playing the inside of a piano easier. This means doing things like plucking a string, knocking on the wood and playing harmonics by pressing lightly on a string as you play a note. It can also mean ‘preparing’ the piano: sticking objects inside the instrument to change the sound. John Cage was an early pioneer of ‘prepared piano’, putting nuts and bolts between the strings to create bell-like sounds. His Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano are great to listen to: I played these on the London Sinfonietta/WARP Records tour in 2004, to 3,000 intelligent dance music fans who loved them!

Trying to play the inside of a grand piano is really uncomfortable. You’ve got to stand up and lean inside at a really difficult and unsustainable angle. If you’re using music, you have to reach over the music stand, losing all visual contact with the keys and making it much harder to play as your arms/hands are at the wrong angle. Its also becomes impossible to use the pedals. The audience experience isn’t much better: intriguing sounds happening whilst no one can see why or how they are being made. Someone once said I looked like a car mechanic tinkering with an engine..!

Yet ‘inside piano’ techniques have been scored for nearly a century. Henry Cowell was the earliest proponent, with Aeolian Harp in 1923. Nowadays it’s absolutely commonplace to see pianists playing inside, especially in the improvisation scene.

There is a further argument saying that the space-saving Inside-Out Piano could be the piano of the future. It offers a grand piano in sound and size, yet with a quarter (or less) of the footprint. Standing straight vertical to the wall, the piano becomes much more like a bookcase, meaning modern homes could easily house grand pianos where that was impossible before. For me, this feeds into my own desire for children to continue learning on real pianos, where the strings are accessible, playable and there to be listened to. Around 6 million children are learning or playing the piano or keyboard, so it’s a vibrant and growing community, also thanks to many who teach themselves online via you tube tutorials.

More info on Moments of Weightlessness – touring the Inside-Out Piano

Moments of Weightlessness 2015/16 tour

Moments of Weightlessness is a devised music theatre show which Sarah created in 2014, commissioned by Brighton Dome and supported by Arts Council England.  Now on tour, this is a major turning point in Sarah’s career, giving full voice to a curiosity which has led her to create many smaller scale choreographic and sonic explorations of her Inside-Out Piano.  Becoming a mum was the impetus for the emerging narrative, exploring the metaphorical journey of bringing things into existence. More info, photos and dates here.

Performing at Why Music? BBC 3 weekend: Sat 26 Sept 2015

Sarah brought her second Inside-Out Piano to London for the first time for the BBC3 weekend asking ‘Why Music?’ at the Wellcome Trust.  She performed a mix of George Crumb and Henry Cowell – very early pioneers of ‘inside’ piano music and a selection of new tracks from her forthcoming album and tour. She will also duetted with Atau Tanaka and his muscle sensor body kit, playing the sounds of his own body in their newly created ‘Duo for Bodies’ (pictured in rehearsal.) We will be posting footage of the performance soon!

London Design Festival at Somerset House: Mon 21 Sept 2015, 6pm

Sarah is the first performer in a week of pianists, performing with an interactive light installation as part of the HEM/London Design Festival. Sarah will be playing her own composition ‘Ballet-Opera for Piano & Lights’ on the specially designed Yamaha Disklavier, linked to 44 lights placed around the piano. Other performers are: 22 Sept – Tereza Stachova, 23 Sept – Ivo Neame, 24 Sept – Tom Cawley, 25 Sept – Alexander Hawkins, 26 Sept – Danny Wallington, 27 Sept – George Webster. London Design Festival website

Seedling #3

Straightforward plucking, in different registers, mixed with real notes. Turned into a longer piece.

Seedling #2

Strumming rhythmically and continuously. Clearly useful for a background, this doesn’t interest my ears as much: but it would be interesting to listen to the minutae of it, the resonances in-between, changes in strumming, the sound of 3-strings-per-note. Perhaps worth doing in super-slow motion.

Seedling #1

Trying to find a way to make music within or around the hecticness of life. Maybe this will be the first of regular posts, or maybe this will be the only time I do it! But the aim is clear: to explore particular inside piano techniques and to *try* to be strict on myself with the options in any one track (hopefully this will improve with time). Seedlings was a work-in-progress title of the album that I made on Inside-Out Piano I and then lost. I was sad about that!

So, here we have Seedling #1: taking strumming as the allowed technique and variations on that – using different parts of the hand, the heel, the nails, the finger tips, plucking individual notes, striking rhythmically or fast stroking to create a wash of sound.

At 8 minutes I do completely cheat by going off on one with the ebow. It sounds so great (the ebow, not me!), especially up close with the piano right in front of your face! At 15′, I clearly suddenly remembered I was meant to be doing strumming and come back into it with a bit of a bump.

It occurs to me that the compositional tasks ahead of me are about trying to edit, formalise and focus. Composition, then…! Will I find the time, space and discipline to do this? Like the dissolving at 17’40.

Anyway, if you listen to this, please let me know on twitter: @sarahpiano | #insideoutpiano #seedlingproject