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Co-commission from OCM & Ashmolean Museum

I spent several months imagining a piece for the 6-floor atrium of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum (see this post.  I’m going to write a bigger blog soon but here, for now, is a beautiful film of the night made by Chris Brake, who I met on the Southbank Collision residency in January.  Becca Ellson was my collaborator for the piece, which we called ‘Belonging Here’.

 

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

Jan ’17 Southbank Centre residency

Some exciting news: I’m off to live at the Southbank Centre for a week!  This is a residency called Collision which is part of the Southbank Centre’s Nordic Matters Festival.  I am paired with ANNA THORVALDSDOTTIR, a composer from Iceland, and we are in residency alongside some amazing artists, as per the table below.  We’ll be introduced to SE1 United, a young people’s group, staff at sbc and the borough of Lambeth more widely.  I’m hoping it will help me generate 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

TBC

Petri Sirviö, Choir Director

Anthony Anaxagorou, Poet and Writer

Morgan Stewart, Pianist & Vocalist

TBC

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

imag6919

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

See CANTERBURY here

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
GET INVOLVED YOURSELF

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.
* * *
View the conversation at the bottom of this page.
* * *
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.

PART ONE

PART TWO

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) which kicks off in Oxford on 28 Nov. We then head to Canterbury and Reading this Autumn, and next year we visit Birmingham, Colchester and York before ending the tour at 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
Thanks!

Improvisation starting with bolt sounds

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

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! ☺

Music

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 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! :)’