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Sleep scene with Janine Fletcher

From rehearsals in November 2014 at Brighton Corn Exchange: working on the movement in ‘Sleep’ scene with the brilliant Janine Fletcher, my Movement Director for the Moments of Weightlessness show. Simon Hendry was the Sound Designer and is heard a bit in this clip.

Practising domestic scene in a domestic setting

Finding sounds with Stan (bedtime!)

Self-evaluation and audience comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AUDIENCE RESPONSES: Sample of written comments

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

Evaluating the project – team comments

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

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

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

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

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

2. What were the challenges of the project?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. How did you find the eventual show?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments from LAURA DUCCESCHI (Music Producer, Brighton Dome)

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

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

26th Oct

A rare day at home making music, so an incredibly short post so as not to waste time – but currently working on a loop of ‘peg bag’, ‘ratchet’, ‘spinning top’…  If you happen to be reading this and would like to come to my work-in-progress showing on 19th November at Brighton Dome, then please get in touch.  Otherwise, buy tickets here for the real show on Weds 10th December here!

Thursday 9th October

Thanks to Brighton Dome for giving me a fantastic opportunity, in using their fab Corn Exchange space and lending me their lovely tech team for the last days. I’ve been in the space with Chris Umney doing lighting design, Lou Cope advising on the dramaturgy and Janine Fletcher talking about Choreography. It’s been a very intense and fruitful time which has left me with some important questions (Is this actually a piece about the tensions between being a musician and a mother? Which one frames and which one interrupts, if so? How much can I sensibly do (e.g. operating sound, looping, props, etc etc!)? What *is* the music?). At points, I’ve had the feeling that I have plenty of time to just tweak but am left with the feeling that I could make about 4 different shows and know that I have to decide which one I will make! All healthy and normal I’m sure…

Thursday 2nd October

A fascinating day, as I start to discover just how the theatrical processes might actually affect the music I write, creating useful ideas/challenges/limitations. For example, just for the very first piece:
1. Lou observing that the hammers are really lovely to watch as they hit the string, and thinking about how in low lighting we could really draw attention to them and so could I write music that would play with these patterns – eg making symmetrical shapes, or arpeggiating or making shapes around each metal beam…
2. And that if I play the black keys first, we don’t really see them move so much but then a striking white note could create both the visual and sonic shift suddenly.
3. Also that it’s nice to show preparation early on, so that when I start sticking peas in between the strings, there is a ‘sensible’, musical precedence for that.
We did another run but after much talking and preparation (and re-building the piano!!
And this was the day that I could actually steer the piano in anything other than straight lines too – exciting! Though we did discover that turning the piano in the down/horizontal/splayed position takes a footprint of about 4m square! Happily, it’s very easy to do in the upright position! ☺


Sun 28th September

On the train going to do IF WET and realizing that there are so many clear parallels between the senses and feelings of motherhood and the act of creating an instrument, that the piano texts really do feel relevant (e.g. about not knowing fully about something til you make it; about finding out by being with it; “getting inside” etc). I created a montage of little film and sound clips and, after doing my sensible power point, played these in a kind of ‘hash up’ for the audience.
In the station going back. So, I did it – I shared some of my material to a real, live audience – and it kind of worked! I was really interested to discover how terrified I was, about to press play on the Stan birth-day clip. But they seemed to think it was ok, not over-sharing! And fascinating to hear how audiences MAKE CONNECTIONS IN THEIR OWN HEADS. I need to keep remembering this! That we make something then give it to someone who then processes it themselves. They are processing. So whatever we give them, they will build connections and meaning and probably deduce all sorts of things that we didn’t even think of.
Before I listen to the feedback, what I remember are these points:
1. That people were moved
2. That people laughed
3. That the ratcheting is very repetitive and people worry about my safety but also enjoy the almost pointless or energetic nature of it. Clearly btw this is the thing to get rhythm from for the show. If running tracks could come from anything, it’s this.
4. There were nice comments about the contrast of how a concert pianist should act compared to the brutality and peril I’m exhibiting! Also about toys being made to be obsessively (boringly!) safe but I am using them to be quasi dangerous and certainly randomly semi-violent/chaotic.
5. That people loved the swinging and could have watched it for ages. This could be the ending. Others wanted resolution whilst some wanted no answers. I think I could build into an epic, pulsing something and then leave it or even lie down in front of it to a very slow fade out, perhaps even holding it in a very low light for quite a while and then going back around to play the lullaby of the opening again, or even play with the child bedtime projector on the front of the instrument… Perhaps bring in ‘you can hardly hear them breathe when they’re deeply asleep’. But also right after “connectedness” I say about the hypocritical thing of them being in nursery…so I could burst it. But it just doesn’t seem right to do that in the version of events I just played, as the sad bit comes after the audience have enjoyed (endured?!) a lot and also laughed with me and possibly cried with me, so it seems fairer to be fair to them at that exact point.
6. I think now that I should make cool music come out of the fun stuff.
7. I think that I should draw the peas and the broccoli and the burger (or sausage?! Or toast) on an easle, as they did appreciate knowing it was silly plastic food.

Sat 27th September

• Trying soundtrack of me describing Stan’s birth-day whilst watching me swinging piano from behind. Could be very tense/harsh/strong but I’d need to edit out ALL human chatty & gory/extra bits I think.
• Motivated today by finding my run the other day to Lou too cheery, busy, frankly positive! ☺ Want to create more space, poetry, beauty, moving-moments.
• Have been experimenting with Wii’s swinging and strapped to piano swinging. Poss a distraction but they are a nice way to get a texture going to play against. Perhaps I’m worrying too much about demonstrating them: making sure people get what they do. Or maybe this is important as otherwise people feel left out. But need to quickly go beyond that into seeing if something sounds nice.

Sun 21st September

Been a funny day. Yesterday was extremely productive, playing with lots of different things and discovering characteristics that I hadn’t predicted (eg the curve of the piano having different possibilities according to how far (mid-ratchet) I go: either a fun ramp for things to fly off OR a kind of pendulum for objects on wheels (such as Stan’s ambulance…). Today though, I decided to focus on trying out the Wii idea, so brought in all of my music kit: cables, stands etc, ready to try going through Ableton and using the swing of the Wii controllers (I thought I had 3 but one of them is dead ☹ ) to play with delay. This morning I managed to forget my soundcard (d’oh!) and a few little cable bits but then, returning this afternoon with genuine motivation to crack on I got everything wired up to discover my Macbook doesn’t take the Firewire 800. Of course I knew that, but what with the building project and getting the piano built and having Sylvie – just normal busy life stuff! – I’d forgotten. Shame!

More interesting though is to say that I’d been rather stuck by having a very productive first day where I had lots of ideas and tried lots of things – different positions with the piano etc – and even created a kind of structure, where one thing led to the next. This immediately fixed everything and suddenly I was trying to ‘tweak’ where I lucky patcher no root download clearly had hardly started the process. My meeting with Lou (the Dramaturg) freed all of this up and reminded to really focus on tasks with no worry about where it might fit (if it even would) in the eventual piece.

Another thing that’s interesting to observe is that yesterday I brought in loads of kids toys and suddenly the space was all homely, domestic, colourful and fun looking. Today when I brought in all of the music kit it instantly became male, complicated, black, technical and boring!

Inside piano music (ongoing)

Stefan Prins Piano Hero Think about discipline in movement, exactness, key points of sound and getting to them / away from them quickly; the anarchy or wildness of the possible sounds from inside a piano; variation; how a texture can be built up by sequential sounds – how linear textures might create vertical shapes;

Thurs 4th Sept P.S. the more I read about pendulums…

..the more the demonstrations sound like the sort of silly multi-tasking you end up doing as a parent of young children. Like I’ve just been reading about balance carts which demonstrate an inverted pendulum (also easily demonstrated by balancing a broomstick on the end of your finger), and an extension or variation on the initial ‘simple’ set up (balancing the cart-pendulum system on a see-saw) then starts to sound like the layering of feeding, watching, helping, answering, that all takes place a few seconds here, a few there…

Thurs 4th Sept

The start of a project… Very happy to have received my ACE funding (must get the logo up here!) and have started work on my new, solo theatre show featuring my new Inside-Out Piano, to be premiered at Brighton Dome on 10th December (in Laura Duccheschi’s Earsthetic Festival – music with a visual element). My whole project is an exercise in applying theatre processes to music creation, so I have a team of people helping me, time rehearsing in a space, a work-in-progress showing, and a lot to learn! I am currently sitting on the floor of my lounge sketching images of movement and motion on A3 sheets whilst listening to inside piano music (Frederik Croene at Holland Festival currently, mixed in with Philip Mead playing George Crumb). The motions include the piano swinging and how that might link to something based around Pendulum Music; Lister machines which I saw at a country fair where Stan was very excited to sit on a lot of tractors… and the Triple Pendulum mentioned by Hans Peter Duerr, who I was put onto by Matthias Mohr – thank you! (Weirdly though, having just looked for an image of the triple pendulum I just discovered this article which goes into a fair amount of mathematical depth to discern the relevance…in your golf shot!).
Anyway…I’m currently musing on some key ideas which might penetrate the piece – the industrial nature of the piano, the industriousness of motherhood; how mist seems to link very strong memories for me and how appearance and disappearance might be represented. So far I’ve had to answer a great set of questions from the Dramaturg, Lou Cope, e.g. which my favourite shows have been: it turns out I have some pretty abstract things in the top spot – Pina Bausch’s Cafe Muller, Kris Verdonck’s Duet and – since last week’s very happy trip to the Ruhrtrienniale with the Matthew Herbert tour – Romeo Castelluci’s Le Sacre.
I’m also excited about making a film with Joseph Rodrigues Marsh for Sinfini Music. It’s good to be thinking about images a lot – this all makes a very interesting change from practising piano. I just hope I can do the opportunity justice! Watch this space for updates and follow #insideoutpiano on Twitter (and maybe Instagram if I can get around to acquainting myself with it. I do like taking pics so I probably should. Slightly late to the party there! Like a fortnight ago when I discovered Radiohead’s No Surprises video and was compelled to watch it quite a few times. Then realised it had probably been made around 20 years ago.)

Mon 4th Aug

Mon 4 Aug from Sarah Nicolls on Vimeo.

Live electronics

Sarah has done a lot of experimenting with live electronics. On Sept 26th on BBC Radio 3 she performs with Atau Tanaka and his EMG body sensor system in a new collaborative piece ‘Duo for Bodies’: inside piano sounds and and inside body sounds!

A one-off piano

This picture is Sarah performing in Brazil on a one-off Inside-Out Piano built there. They gave her four old uprights to choose from and two lovely carpenters to help construct the instrument. ‘Best gig ever? Probably! :)’