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‘Belonging Here’: A co-commission from Oxford Contemporary Music and the Ashmolean Museum, this was a performance at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford for their ‘Supersonic’ Live Friday event in March 2017. We projected the audience’s answers to our questions on a screen at the centre of the atrium whilst I made music to accompany them. This piece was made with Becca Ellson who is seen writing the text. Some of the answers we received can be read at the bottom of this page, kind of addictive reading…

Programme note

Belonging Here is a live, collaborative performance between music and text, audience and performers.  Sarah Nicolls and Becca Ellson create a text and music piece with the audience’s own stories and music created by Sarah’s Inside-Out Piano.

The audience’s combined anonymous answers to our questions form the text of the whole event, projected onto a screen, claiming the space of the venue. Cradled by the piano’s responsive tones and rhythms, your hopes, fears and memories belong here as much as any other art, have as much power, and will be held with the same tenderness and care.

Sarah’s piano is an upright grand piano standing 2.4m tall, its workings all on display.  Sarah plays the keys and also reaches to the strings to pluck, strum, create harmonics and entice strange otherworldly, rich and beautiful sounds with different objects and techniques.

Audience responses

(Do not reproduce or appropriate: we retain copyright over the entirity of the collection, thanks.)

DESCRIBE THE HOME WHERE YOU SPENT YOUR EARLY CHILDHOOD.

Happy.

Pale orange-pink brick, windows that the wind whistled through. An open fire and no central heating. The river ran alongside, under the willows that held together the banking that the bricks balanced on.

The most comfortable place I’ve ever been.

Pebble dashed semi, with an avocado bath. I used to spend lots of time in the garden with my toys and loved to hide between the raspberry stands.

It was in Section 6 in Taipei, white tiles and tropical green plants on a balcony. Mop buckets, pasta, warmth, bikes, basketball courts, toys, knees never not bruised, relaxed.

A cozy, sunny home in the Wisconsin forest.

A classic Australian fibro house that was once a pale green with a small verandah in the burbs. As my parents made a little money it grew into a two storey house with cladding, a pale yellow colour and a swimming pool in the backyard.

There was a frangipani tree outside my window that smelt sweetly each evening during heat of summer.

The interior of the house was dark, 70s and filled with too many children, bad decor and joyful mess.

The corridors scared me as did the cheap portraits of clown hung outside my bedroom. I loved my parents room, Jesus hung over their bed and their cupboards and drawers were full of secrets, vinyl and the occasional wool sports jacket emblazoned with my father’s name.

Large, old, terraced, inner city home, badly decorated.

Barratt house in a cul de sac with neighbour from hell wild garden and threadbare carpets and broken boiler and peeling wallpaper. Impoverished petit bourgeoisie? But full of books. And broken things. And biscuits.

When I was born, my mother and I lived with my grandparents and my 2 uncles in a town house in Parkstone, Dorset. The house was full of adults and me. I shared a room with my mum. We had twin single beds on either side of the room. I was convinced there were monsters under the bed and hated getting up to go to the toilet in the middle of the night.

There was a lot of condensation in the house and it was freezing cold in the winter. Doors were always kept closed to keep the warmth in. There was no central heating, just an electric fire in the living room. We had a shared phone line, called a party line. When you wanted to make a call you had to pick up the phone and check that the other party weren’t already using it, not that we used the phone much anyway then.

The house was always full of living- someone would always bring a friend home who would be invited to stay for dinner. Grandma did all the cooking and we always had dessert. After dinner we played games, especially on Fridays when we played Mah Jong for pennies. I often won some money on Fridays, even when I was 8! Whenever there was a guest for dinner I had to sit on the stool as there weren’t enough chairs and I always got a table leg!

If we all watched TV at the same time I had to sit on the floor because there weren’t enough spaces on the sofa and chairs. My mum had a record player that could play a record and        have another one stacked to fall on top at the end. I used to listen to a song on a record as I went to sleep. Just as I was drifting off I would be woken up by the second record falling down and starting. My grandma grew runner beans in the back garden and tomatoes on the front porch. I remember stripping the wallpaper in the hall. It seemed to take forever and then they put some more wallpaper on top anyway!

Wooden. Earthquakes.

I have almost zero recollection of it. The only memory is my bedroom door which for a time had no handle. In my minds eye I can clearly see a round one inch hole where the handle should have been with a piece of string dangling through it.

I can’t.

A concrete 5 storey block of flats, middle entrance, left hand side flat.

I lived in 6 different homes by the age of 7.

The removals van! We moved five times by the time I was 10.

You could lick salt from the damp walls.

A suburban semi-detached house. It still had an old Anderson shelter left over from the war. We kept rabbits in the shelter.

My home was large with a nice big garden. It was on an estate where all my friends lived and we were able to see each all the time. My house was always messy as mum didn’t really mind us making a mess or having my friends around.

Front path great for tricycling, peonies, next-door neighbour’s cats called Whisky and Pickles.

I had the smallest room but I loved it because it had curtains underneath the bunk bed that felt like my own little hideaway.

It was little and cramped but safe and I felt loved there.

In the trees on a mountain next to a stream.

Warm, noisy and full of food smells.

Dull middle class semi-rural blandness

victorian semi-detached

I was so lucky. I grew up in a big house with 7 bedrooms for the 7 children in it. In winter our parents let us draw on the floor and swing from the stairs when we couldn’t go out.

Simple and comfortable.

It was many homes, the restlessness of unhappy parents searching for stillness. It turned into two homes.

 

FIND A NEARBY PICTURE, OR REMEMBER THE LAST PICTURE YOU NOTICED. DESCRIBE IT.

Facebook photo of a neighbour who died young with her best friend in the countryside with huge smiles on their faces.

Pink flowers interspersed with other flowers. It came from my mother’s attic.

My mum, on a campsite, looking happy.

It was a picture I just took with my phone of a creation I just made out of tin foil …. it won a prize in the schools quiz night !

A grey broken hand reaching up into the nifht

Groucho Marx. Grease paint moustache and eyebrows, wire-rimmed glasses, puffy tie/cravat; long cigar. Eyes typically off and up suggestively.

A painting of iridescent silver birches in winter on a snowscape.

A favela or barrio on a hillside with eyes giant eyes on all the walls looking at me

Phoebe is almost 1 year old. She is sitting on a box and smiling with her eyes as much as her mouth. She is pure happiness in that moment, not a care in the world.

Oldish picture of cottages, a bit washed out in a simple frame of painted gold

three journalists playing cards, cheating

‘you make my heart sing’ print from old manuscript paper.

Two shapely legs in red wool tights.

A wave of rabbits.

Black and white map with a portrait sketched over it. Parts of the map are cut out to rveveal a second, vividly-coloured map underneath. The colours from the second map highlight certain features of the face portrayed in the portrait.

Light gone gritty: Next to me is a photocopy of a photo of a stained glass piece based on a painting of a 19th century native american

My boyfriend aged 5 in 1998 with his 2 younger brothers visiting santa. They are all wearing turtlenecks. His brother, Harry, is looking at him and it’s not a friendly look, more like confusion and annoyance which are probably hard emotions to express at the same time.

the slope of the hills of the tyne valley, with the yellow of the rapeseed oil fields muted and gently echoed in the blue grey sky. A hint at distant hills tells anyone in the know there is the well travelled valley of the Tyne between home and the Lakes. A bit of foreground detail ensures you feel part of the view, standing in a field, tempting you to run down the slope.

busy boats in Venice, breaking the otherwise tranquil summer evening sunset

A painting on canvas I did with my older children when I was pregnant with my youngest child. It is abstract and kinda depicts them and my partner as rectangles and me as a big circle with a small square inside it. We revisit it occasionally and add to it.

Black and white photo of my daughter at 6 months old on her front with me and her dad laying either side. We are smiling, she is very serious.

My eldest daughter is is posing in her best ballet pose. Complete with pink tutu and white tights.

Me holding a placard saying: “I swear to drunk,I’m not God”!

On a punt, near a shady tree, He is smiling with his legs out in front of him, I am straddling him, looking back, scowling at the photographer, smiling, we are laughing, denim shorts and cider, the water is moving us and we are on a ride just to ride, not going anywhere fast.

Vladimir putin in profile in front of a cliché cyberspace background.

Earth, covered in green video play button triangles on a blue background with white question marks around it.

It’s a picture in my house of my mum and dad aged in mid 20s. They are sitting on a vintage car with trees in the background. They look happy and in love with each other.

Two frogs sitting opposite each other. They’re both watching a fly who hovers above them. You can see its reflection in their eyes.

The sun behind my (not yet then) wife surrounded by green fields and trees in North Norfolk

My new family sits for a photograph every year on my eldest child’s birthday. We sit formally on a sofa looking straight at the camera – it’s amazing how much we have changed over 18 years.

Stones piled upon each other, each a different texture and colour, from the biggest to the smallest at the top.

It’s a print of an old french champagne poster showing a man fondling a lady’s stocking – it’s somehow sexy rather than creepy

My friend’s 7 year old son, dressed up as Hercules, in preparation for World Book Day. Striking a fierce pose.

Sylvie running away down the station

 

DESCRIBE THE LAST STRANGER YOU NOTICED

An old man with a walking stick and three carrier bags in one hand, grasping the banister on a staircase with the other. He wore and enormous hat and moved extremely slowly – but not as if it was an effort – more as if each step were a treasure.

What is a stranger? When do people stop becoming strangers? Is it just someone you haven’t spoken to? What if you speak to them? The blonde woman in the striped top on a stool watching the rugby in the pub on Saturday.

track suit, big belly, bobble hat, walking swiftly across the road

He was not much taller than me with dark hair and a beard and a gentle face.

A lady wearing a big brown hat, pulled down tight to shelter her face from the driving rain, she was out despite the wrathet, walking a very old looking lurcher.

The bookshop worker who smelt of tobacco and tried, unsuccessfully to sell me a book I would have bought, had he left me alone.

A man in dark clothes walking the other way in the dark street. I persuaded myself to smile and not be afraid.

A lady on the street smiling at the sight of my daughter, she was about ‘Grandma’ age. She has fondness and affection in her eyes.

A lady on the train, maybe 65? Short white hair, laden with bags. I had the feeling she was quite chatty, although she only spoke to tell me she was getting off at the next stop.

Calmly pushing his newborn baby in the pram along our street

A young woman in very 1980s-inspired clothing and make-up. Boxy red crop top. Monochromatic chequered trousers. So modern, I suppose, to her. So ‘retro’ to me!

Wild mane of hair, chiselled face, striding past

Approaching me down an aisle filled either side with fresh produce, the middle aged woman with expensive looking hair had a judgemental look on her face, staring at me as if she knew me but then realising she didn’t.

A woman at the grocer’s. She was imposing without being fat, and had large, green eyes and flyaway hair.

An elderly Indian man waiting in the barber shop

cold, worn out, sadness and emptiness behind the eyes

A chap taking ridiculous risks crossing the road from a cash point to a pub

Long, dark hair, walking past two women with a buggy. He picked up a bottle which the baby in the buggy had dropped. One of the women was smoking. Later I spotted him again in the centre of town.

A woman was leaning into a car. She looked like a mum. A nice funky mum.

Young male dressed in black with his friend, brown hair, wearing trainers and chatting eagerly

Homeless young woman who reads slightly soggy paperbacks and has a cuddly koala bear guarding her donations hat

Two boys, roughly 16, so free and in love at the cinema

The last person I saw today was in my local shop. She had grey short hair,was in her 50s with a friendly smiley face. She had a greyish time to her skin and was wrinkly. She smiled at me and seemed friendly.

A man, in his mid 50s, shortish, natty long jacket of the sort you might see a bookie wearing at a horse race track. He has a good looking flat cap but his face is horribly disfigured on one side. We talk but I don’t ask “how come?”

A woman walked towards need fighting with an umbrella in the wind. She was middle aged with dark hair and seemed annoyed. But as she passed, she laughed saying “Well that’s blown the cobwebs away”.

The person walking towards me on the way home

Women with bag with all her belongings, guitar slung across her back, desperate eyes and a tattooed face

Biker in the local shop. He’s leathers were red, black and white with bit boots on

An aging man with a hostile frown. Tall, but hunched tensely. A bald head and angrily flapping coat.

A mom with twins with a really tall two story pram

Kind face, I thought I knew him

An elderly lady all wrapped up against the wet and wind but still took the time to smile at me

A man walking his dog. He was very tall and broad. Dressed in black, in a bomber jacket like a bouncer. The dog was a black labrador, skinny, wearing a red collar.

A woman travelling in a car with brown hair

A Buddhist monk in robes with thick socks and downtrodden sandals

A student at a show last night. Her name was Sky.

Old trainers, still-damp blonde hair, papers clutched to chest and a walk just erratic enough to suggest that he was horrifically late but trying to look nonchalant.

He had short, ginger/blond hair, and eyes that were beads, and shoulders that said hello first, and he was engaged, and his skull round, and his cheekbones sharp, and his breath hot.

Spanish? Black glasses, short black hair. Probably a scientist.

A man of about 45 sitting in a cafe and writing furiously

A lady sitting next to me at a concert who was enjoying every minute.

A lady who appeared to be in end stage cancer

Check out lady at Asda

Female, soft hair, middle aged, glass, familiar. She smiled and made me immediately think of my aunty 20 years ago.

Turned out to be Andy walking a dog that wasn’t his.

A smiley man jogging past me this morning – he said Hello and had a nice normal smiley-looking face! He could also run properly fast.

A young man who noticed I was walking the same way as him. I was behind him. He was, for a moment, obviously concerned he was being followed. Then he relaxed.

A man walking through the woods wearing glasses and tweed looking nervous.

Man sleeping in car in services

A woman who walks past my window most days, walking – following – her dog. She always dresses in the same red raincoat, wellies, is about 50, thin. Looks like a ‘Margaret’.

Do the strangers in my dreams count? Blonde, creepily in my bed, wrapped in a blanket in the street on her phone when i explained she had to leave, confused. Does the dream seem less misogynistic if you know i’m a woman? Or not?

A handicapped gentleman dressed rather inappropriately in shorts on a visit today to a wetland and wildlife trust.

A smiling dad with his son, walking their puppy.

Teenager with a determined look in his eyes and an elf-like presence.

A man on the train. He was reading his book but noticed us and tried to help. He was dark haired, 5ft 10 and was wearing a festive jumper. He had glasses and was kind.

youngish lady, very muddy boots – a bit odd as walking in the opposite direction to immediate walks around here.

absorbed in his hobby

guy with interesting face – sort of nuked looking

He had very dark brown large eyes, but not menacing, dark beard & a handful of healthy foods, not a trolly of beer

A middle aged woman dresses smartly but running really fast and looking out of breath

Really smelly guy on the bus

A mother at the dentist. Looking tired and anxious. Arguing with her husband.

Man, maybe in his 50’s. Bit dishevelled. Woolly bobble hat. Bags. Red shirt and long gold chain with round pendant.

Pink haired lady of about 70 in Waitrose 2 hours ago.

Old man in wheelchair being pushed by a nurse, she distracted looking, he with huge wide eyes staring but not seeing

Man in his 20s, green Parker and moustache.

Beautiful 20-something woman. Kitted out in walking gear, with pretty earrings and an annoyingly loud dog.

Man driving a car, speeding past me. Angry. Restless.

There are no strangers.

I only really notice strangers in dreams. Last night it was one of the Weasley twins, but he looked more like Ron.

 

IS THERE AN IMAGE YOU JUST CAN’T GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD? DESCRIBE IT.

My mother dying. Her final breaths

Driving in a snowy landscape in Norway. Pitch black sky. White snow. Speeds too fast. Flash flash flickering movie. Fear of dying. On and on and on.

A small pink cloud, caught in a sunset, hanging above a New Zealand ocean horizon while the sky darkens and rumbles.

No. Everything that comes, goes.

One of those penny charity things where the coin goes round then drops.

No

my mother cleaning up my vomit as a kid. She was about to go out, dressed in a emerald green dress with gold thread running through it, plunging neckline but she was flat chested so it was a lovely weathered freckly neck with a locket of my father hanging around it. She was also wearing a short fake fur coat and mum got down on her hands and knees to clean the vomit from out of the carpet, she didn’t make me feel bad about it, I thought she would look after me no matter.

I am always troubled by images of torture shown to me in an Amnesty International film when I was 15 – a long time ago.

The view out to sea from a beach hut on Rarotonga in the Cook Islanss. I’d love to go back there!

I’ll never forget the idyllic sight of Princess Maragaret Beach in Bequia in the Caribbean. A beautiful stretch of sea, sand and rainforest punctuated by small clusters of families and holiday makers all relaxed and enjoying the natural beauty of their surroundings.

Lifeless child refugee washed up on the shore

Two people, face to face, leaning against a wall. Mirrored body language. Talking. Smiling. I wished it wasn’t so.

The shed is on fire, inside, so the windows are lit up

Not really. Images go round in my head constantly.

An imagined quiet, rural place with gilt sunlight

I suffer from OCD so of course there are images I can’t get out of my head.

My son looking at me for the first time in hospital with such a fixed expression.

My daughter was born. She was as pale as the moon.

A red dress that I want to buy but I don’t even know if it exists

My beautiful son and daughter. Happy, smiling faces.

My dying aunt’s small face

Watching my wife in the last few minutes of sleep before I decide I have to wake her to tell her the bad news

The person I’ve got a crush on in my corridor

My brother slumped and drowsy and not even having the energy to lift his eylids

Beautiful. Blonde, bobbed hair and excited eyes. A cheeky grin and a bruise on her cheek.

Sitting on the top deck of the 321 bus 21/22 years ago. Sitting with a boy who I had snogged the night before and laughing.

Darkness in the mountains, dead road, tall grass on the sides.

my 9.5 year old on the way to his friends walking past me on the path ignoring me

Chocolate

At dusk, in the Andes, two sheep roasting on spits over an open fire, strewn with crackling herbs.

A stranger flashing on the street one night about 15 years ago

The view of the river from my old bedroom window. It was framed by the window, then the ivy that blurred the periphery, then the willows that curtained my view of the bank and brushed against the flags of the patio when the wind got up. In winter it would freeze over and the ‘crack’s from the water breaking up the slabs of ice would wake me up at night.

My boyfriend’s beardy smile

Me, at Olney river where I swam all summer, muddy and messy and half-drunk or otherwise relaxed, wet hair whipping my neck, up in the tree we swam to and climbed up to jump off, hanging somehow from my arms, swinging, laughing, like Mowgli.

Walking out into a packed stadium. I haven’t experienced it but i want to.

A boy who I love but who has to disappear from my life lying in the grass on a hot summers day singing and laughing

 

IS THERE SOMETHING YOU WISH THAT SOMEONE HAD SAID TO YOU? OR SOMETHING YOU NEED TO SAY? WHAT IS IT? AND TO WHO?

I miss my mum.

No

I wish you’d let me be me

I wish I had told my parents I loved them before they died.

Tracy, I will always love you and I’m sorry your illness scared me so much. I miss you.

To calm and rest and breath and feel. Not to run, panic, alert, alarm.

To my friend: it’s not normal or OK to constantly be afraid of disappointing your husband and to feel constantly sad. He is the problem, not you. Please get help.

We should all say “I love you” more often.

I want to tell my siblings that I find them a bit too overwhelming, but wish I didn’t and I wish I could see more of them, then maybe I’d get used to them.

Welcome back. We have space for you.

I wish someone would tell me I’m making a positive difference. I wish I could say ‘sorry’ to so many. For me, ‘sorry’ really is one of the hardest words. It shouldn’t be.

I love you. To my wife. Every day

I wish someone would say to me; “the weight of the world is not on your shoulders. I will make the decisions. I will ensure its followed through. I will ensure it will be as you would do it”.

Thank you for being my rock. Thank you for being you!

To a friend that her obsession with her parents has had a detrimentsl effect on hr life.

I often feel like I need to tell more people how much I admire them

If I could I would have told Tam that it was all going to be okay and that we would never forget her brilliance.

I want to tell my cousin I’m sorry for not being there all this time and wish we had kept in touch more. He is going through a really rough time with an illness and I feel like I should be there more.

I don’t think I can ever forgive you. Not in this lifetime. I can never take your advise or guidance. Stepdad.

I need to tell my daughter’s frenemy to stop being so beastly…

Thank you mum, I’ll be ok

I wish my parents had told me years earlier that I was OK just the way I was

Funnily enough it’s something I text my dad this morning but feel that I wouldn’t be able to say because too emotional. I told him I was really proud of him and that I had an amazing childhood. I wanted to say he should be proud of his success and not focus on the things that didn’t work out how he wanted.

I wish my mate Paul had told me “You were a pretty good and entertaining singer then”, when we were talking about our band from 50 years ago. He’s just too honest and chose to say nothing instead

It is ok to do less

Don’t worry, it’ll all be alright in the end. Said to me by someone who knows it will be alright in the end.

I wish someone had said you are a great mum instead of the opposite

Grab every moment with the ones you love before they get too old or ill to remember that they are loved

I wish that I was told that someone I knew was meant to take antidepressants but they did not… then they committed suicide. If I knew that the person had to take medice it would have not ended this way…

I wish someone would tell me I’m doing alright as a parent ( preferably my parents)

Do photography at university.

You are loved and you are precious. You are glorious and interesting! I want to say it to everyone.