I’m just back from another very intense experience at Snape Maltings: a residency with Maja Bugge leading to the Festival of New. While I was there I found myself looking back over the times I’d been previously and was amazed to discover I’d been going there to make music for 31 years!!!
The first time was when I was 14 and I played mandolin in Mahler 7 with the Northern Junior Philharmonic Orchestra. My Dad made me a special mandolin case as the instrument had been found in a school cupboard I think, unadorned. The case was a cool shape and I was very proud to be playing such a unique instrument in amongst all my friends (and that’s a lot of people for a Mahler Symphony!). I can completely remember sitting on the stage of Snape Maltings Concert Hall, looking out at all the wood and thinking how beautiful it was. I was also slightly afraid that the percussionist was going to drop a cymbal on me after one of the crashes. Or in fact did they actually drop it? It’s so long ago, it’s hard to decipher sometimes between imagination and reality…
I next came back to play another instrument I never normally play – celeste, this time in Hans Werner Henze’s The Emperor’s Nightingale under Oliver Knussen for what I suppose might have been called a Britten-Pears ensemble. I’d been in a practice room at Guildhall School of Music and Drama and my friend had said he’d been asked to play and didn’t fancy it. “I’ll go!”, I said. I arrived in the room when they’d already started playing and I had no idea how famous or amazing Olly was and I just got straight in to it and thus was born one of the most important relationships of my musical life. Over the next I think 10 years, I came back every year to the composer’s course to perform in the ensemble. I played some ferocious music but every time I was learning a new score Olly had tips about rhythm, colour, timbre. I was challenged by young composers over and over but I thrived on the excitement of not knowing what I’d be playing at the end of the week when I arrived and then slaving over it until Cross Keys o’clock every night. Goodness, we spent too long in there too!
The course changed one year, into New Music, New Media, and now I was listening to David Sheppard explaining how a mixer worked. I strained to learn about inputs and gain, then encouraged by Dave and my other new bandmate Mira Calix to buy some basic guitar pedals and try daisy-chaining them in different ways. I learnt about Delay and Distortion and now I was starting to improvise and our band, Alexander’s Annexe, was now coming for a residency in the same Britten-Pears Recital Room where I’d played so much already. It was here that we made our “extremely beautiful and highly unexpected” WARP Records release Push Door to Exit and prepared for an amazing outdoor performance at the Ravello Festival, held at the Villa Rufulo where I believe Wagner lived for a while…
At some point during these years I worked as a repetiteur for the new opera Mira and Tansy Davies wrote – Elephant & Castle – and I can still visualise the enormous screen and singers in the reeds. That was a magical re-making of the place I’d come to know like home. And I also helped to lead a course with the fantastically energetic and creative Michel van der Aa and Arnoud Nordegraaf on making films and multimedia music. Also on the staff for that course was Oliver Coates, the extremely talented cellist and composer who now works a lot with Jonny Greenwood and Radiohead.
My next visit (I think – chronology dissolves too with memory) was to teach the incredibly talented Aldeburgh Young Musicians. I think I was very pregnant. They were so inspiring, so dedicated. I was working with Leafcutter John, a musician I have huge respect for, and we led the group in exploring making music, using electronics. It was probably the first time I’d experienced the new Hoffman building, which seemed to at least double the technical capacity of previous years. Suddenly everything was very professional in a different way – even the way the buildings had been coaxed into the new age were stunningly ‘architect-y’ now, instead of just really nice.
And now, 2019. Here I was, back again. This time with a cellist, Maja Bugge. We had come to make something about climate breakdown and the wilful destruction of the planet. Our first meeting had been at Hack the Jazz Fest at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, kindly invited by Emily Jones to come together and think about augmenting the festival with new audience experiences. Maja and I had hit it off and continued talking on the phone. We found a shared concern about the future our children were facing. But we hadn’t ever played a note together until Monday morning at Snape. The gig was Saturday, noon, and in the preceding days it had become clear that this wasn’t just a sharing but instead part of a brilliant festival, where people had bought tickets and lots of ‘industry’ guests would be. This aspect might have added a bit of stress but of course was also an amazing opportunity. To make something fast, show it, get feedback, then maybe even get it out there.
Making music together
Almost as soon as we began playing, we had the wonderful realisation that cello and inside piano go brilliantly together. It turned out that I’d basically spent 5 years playing the cello with my piano – finding harmonics, bowing it with cassette tape and rosin, plucking, pizzicato, playing spiccato with various rubber balls and knocking on the body of my instrument. Maja and I easily found a palette with which to work. What was much harder to establish what to do with it. I am rather a limited composer – I tend to stay on a pedal note or one chord or texture for the duration of a piece, unless it is a deliberately through-composed longer work (of which I’ve written only a handful). Having spent many years playing highly complex avantgarde classical contemporary music, I have edged closer and closer to simplicity and minimalism and away from experimental gesture. However, when Maja and I tried longer forms, we veered towards rhapsody, able to easily include different musical language (e.g. impressionism) but also incorporating more experimental gestures.
What was more straightforward to navigate and to make choices about was the topic for our concert – climate change and the looming crisis the planet is facing. In listening to some recorded interviews that Maja had made in advance, we alighted on the idea of running the event as a public meeting. This immediately fitted the risk of the ‘sharing’ – “hi, everyone: thanks for coming.. we’re a bit unprepared but there’s a lot to get through today.. we’re doing our best, we’ve only just learnt recently about what’s required..”. We created an agenda: Welcome – 1. Why are we here? (Which we thought of as ‘what are we saving?’ but by avoiding the word saving, we avoided the trap of humans as heroic) – 2. What’s happening now? – 3. What can we do? – AOB/Close of meeting. It seemed to really work and kept momentum. It allowed us to go to very dangerous and vulnerable places but also allowed us to make jokes where inappropriate and to stay human and imperfect. I have to confess (much to my husband’s chagrine) that I am increasingly enjoying connecting to audiences through the medium of laughter. It cuts across the stage/auditorium barrier very well.
Through the week we honed the structure, the script and the musical pieces. As we were working within such an extraordinarily tight time-scale, we decided early on to keep text and music separate except in two solo pieces – me duetting with Greta Thunberg and Maja with John Smith. Maja had also collected a snippet of Solve, an 8-year-old Norwegian boy who was doing his bit, going to the School Strike 4 Climate and also becoming vegetarian, even though he does rather miss sausages, sushi and bacon.
We were very privileged to have two wonderful conversations during the week, tiny parts of which are online as soundfiles. Gina Gow of Incredible Oceans talked to us next to their installation for the recent Siren festival by Roger Hardy (above) and Charlotte du Cann of Dark Mountain read to us and fed us delicious food, whilst we enjoyed a special evening together.
The final sharing
In the sharing itself, the audience were moved. They agreed the meeting format worked (we used activist meeting hand signals to take the temperature on this – see photo below!) and we had extra ‘guest speakers’ in the form of reading out or playing clips of: Jem Bendell, Neil Kaye, Julia Steinberger and Peter Believes in Science not Dogma.
But most movingly, several individuals came up afterwards and said it was the push they had needed – to actually feel climate change in their hearts, not just to have read about it and understood that it was serious. For me, I feel the job is done if that has happened. What better reason for me to be on a stage right now?
There were so many other great artists there with us. Most excitingly, I got to perform with Shama Rahman on her sitar. That was a really magical experience. I found out that inside piano can cross into other cultures so much more easily than just straight keyboard playing. My zinging glass ball mirrored the sitar’s wonderful buzzing, my microtonal pitches and harmonics cradled the delicacy and otherness. But I also learnt (very quickly!) how to play raga, a tiny bit about the rules – what needs to be established and in what order. I even had to try to learn how I would play an F for her during her melody, as she didn’t have the F at the right pitch. That was probably the hardest thing! Discussing the meeting of raga and Western notation was fascinating – the simple act of adding phrasing meaning that I could now understand the rhythmic profile.
Shama was not only playing the sitar though – she is also a neuroscientist and was wearing an EEG headset, with maybe 10 sensors which could read her brain activity, which was visualised and projected onto a screen. The loveliest comment afterwards was from Seb Rochford, who was later drumming with Kit Downes, who said that, a couple of times, when I’d found a really rich note to cradle the sitar (possibly a plucked bass piano string, which sound amazing), Shama’s whole brain had lit up.
Kit Downes’ performance with ‘Dreamlife of Debris’ was absolutely fantastic. As well as Seb, he had Lucy Railton (cello) and Tom Challenger (Sax) playing with him. He started with a gorgeous track by his wife and then went into a set of music which was delicate, quiet and texturally creative whilst being deftly harmonically underpinned. The beauty and intensity grew until an explosion of rhythm in an athletic piano solo threw everything into dramatic relief. He played a really nice bit of inside-piano, using some bass harmonics to great effect. I absolutely love watching other pianists play inside because it is so different from what I do and it makes me excited that other people spend time exploring it too. I did cheekily think he’d have been more comfortable doing it on my piano 🙂 I asked him to demonstrate some of the techniques…
The day before we’d seen the extremely cool Tinmen and the Telephone, which I did indeed answer… They began their jazz set with a video piece, showing the drummer stating that (paraphrasing) ‘just like biologists and chemists who tried to stop biological and chemical weapons, AI scientists were also acting against the formation of AI as a controlling or weaponised medium’.
Of course, gradually morphing through glitch, this became the opposite statement and what was genius about the set was that this morphing is what happened to us (and more specifically, our phones) during the set. They’d brought their own WIFI (this would have been helpful earlier in the week for a few file-shares!) and an app, which the audience then interacted with to affect the concert. At first, we had to vote world leaders to eject, then we composed music (it was very cleverly done) and finally, our phones became the music. What was really dark (through pretty lights) was that they began to control eg people’s phone torches flashing, or their volume. A kind of polite panic set in, with some people trying to quit the app. It really reminded me of a scene in the fantastic BBC recent drama Years and Years where the Farage-esque Emma Thompson character takes control of her audience’s phones. A very neat comment on authoritarianism, all done with some skilled playing and a friendly demeanour. By the end, I was seriously impressed and only wished that they’d left the games for some time and done some playing, even if to give us time to think about the darkness of AI-control that they were explicitly talking about through it all.
The theatre group ‘Silence Makes Perfect’ (Yael Rasooly Director & Singer with Meitar Ensemble) from Israel did something absolutely extraordinary. I have never seen costume, make-up, props, 3-D printed puppets and classical music brought together, let alone to elicit such a fundamental and strong response in me. They tackled big issues head on, unwavering, to the point where as an audience member I was almost cowering whilst simultaneously marvelling at their ingenuity and the astonishing extent of their accumulative talents. This really was daring and epic theatre brought to life by some incredible minds. I’m just sad we didn’t drink wine together properly until the last night!
To top off the festival, Sam Lee performed with a brilliantly talented band (I especially enjoyed his characterful pianist and sensitive violinist). Sam has a beguiling voice and uses it to bring old folk songs into our times. His directness lets his voice and the songs speak for themselves, whilst the arrangements conjure both the old and new skilfully and urgently somehow. I share his focus on the importance of looking after our planet and the celebratory yet humble manner in which he shares his immense talent was an inspiring end to an exhausting but no doubt expanding week. I’m also happy to report that since the gig we’ve had an offer to commission our show and to tour it to the Arctic Circle! So watch this space for more on that. And if you’ve enjoyed reading about my exploits with the piano, please consider donating to my Kickstarter fund to build a new lightweight version which I might actually be able to take to the Arctic…!