Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Chalk Giants

I must have spent the last four weeks or so on this show but it has been well worth it. It opened last Saturday but the four of us closest to it, meaning the two actors, the director and myself, have continued re-working it in the light of audience response. I was down at the theatre yesterday painting a screen to hide the projector from the auditorium, having my two-tiered work top measured for curtains and black felt table tops, and labelling cables and equipment to make the technical gear easier and quicker to set up. I also did some work on a puppet stand, hastily knocked up with hammer and pins in the lunch break immediately prior to the dress rehearsal, to make it more road-worthy.

The photo is back-stage at an early stage of development. We only use one overhead projector now but it is still a technically ambitious production combining live video feed, shadow play, animation, pre-recorded footage on DVD, live action and, of course, puppetry . And then there's live and pre-recorded music supplied by your humble scribe. We use tie-clip radio mics to allow the actors to be heard when they are behind the projection screens. They also allow me to put a 'giant' effect on voices as required. The scariness of this means the show has a '5 years and over' age rating.

I know I am very biased but I can't recommend the show strongly enough. We have three more Norwich shows before heading to the Edinburgh Fringe next week where we'll be playing at Zoo Roxy on Roxburgh Place at 11.40am each day from August 6th to 23rd. And if you're a real puppet junkie I'll be accompanying Pinocchio on my clarinet at 10.30am in the same venue on each of those days.

I haven't told you what the show is about. Well, think Jack and the Beanstalk meets Jack the Giant Slayer but from the giants' perspective. But that's only half the story...

Saturday, 17 July 2010

The Road Movie

I'm currently collaborating on a new puppet show called The Chalk Giants. It's to to be premiered next weekend at Norwich Puppet Theatre where it will run for just over a week before we take it up to the Edinburgh Fringe early in August. Without giving too much away we are incorporating moving images taken at key points along the chalk escarpment that forms the geological divide between the south-east of England and the rest of the country. We began by filming on the beach at Hunstanton in Norfolk a week ago last Thursday. The chalk cliffs there have a spectacular pink seam running through them which caught the sun very well. In case you are wondering at the way the chalk has separated itself by colour I can tell you that it is down to human intervention. One Michael Joseph Kennedy, an Irish accented denizen of the town, has spent the last fifteen years shoring up the sea defences by piling rocks from the beach against the base of the cliff. The colour scheme is his doing.

It takes about 80 minutes to get to Hunstanton from Norwich, whichever route you take. However, this was nothing compared to the next day's odyssey.

I set off a little before 6am to collect Kevin the cameraman and off we drove to our first port of call. Sally, one half of Indefinite Articles, lives just outside Cambridge by Grantchester Meadows, immortalised in song by Pink Floyd. I couldn't resist a quick look and found it just as peaceful as the song suggests. At 7.30am I saw one jogger and no one else.

Next stop was Buckingham for breakfast and I took a picture of the famous gaol. And then on to do some filming at Uffington White Horse, south-west of Oxford. It was a bakingly hot day and we wore black for the shots but the location and the views it provided were worth the effort. There is are other white horses in England, made by cutting away the top soil to reveal the chalk beneath, but the one at Uffington, thought to be about 3,000 years old is both the oldest and finest. It is highly stylised, its lines full of movement.

Next we took what was to be a short detour for a drive by shot of Stonehenge. A wrong turn, a pause for lunch and one of those traffic jams on the A303 where people get out of their cars to stretch their legs meant it took somewhat longer than we had hoped. I was driving so no picture. However, the light was poor and the famous landmark was not looking its best. I remember going for picnics there as a child - free parking, hardly any visitors and the stones, the fallen ones at least, were great for climbing on. Now it resembles a military compound.

Finally we made it to our goal, the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset. Here we met up with Steve, the other half of Indefinite Articles, who had been in Stratford directing a puppet for the Royal Shakespeare Company's rehearsals of A Winter's Tale ("Exit, pursued by a bear...")

The Cerne Abbas giant may be a relative newcomer, the first historical reference dating from 1694 and no real evidence to demonstrate greater antiquity. One theory suggests it was carved to poke fun at Oliver Cromwell during the protectorate. He is very well endowed - a giant in every sense - and another theory explains this as being the result of a Victorian re-cuttting which accidentally (?!) extened his member by incorporating his navel.

We performed for several takes using the hillside on which it stands as a backdrop but didn't climb the hill to peer over the fence that guards it. Instead we retired to the Royal Oak in the village for a well earned pint of Badger and the best pub food I've eaten in years.

The drive back was not quite as long but it was 2.30am by the time I parked up back in Norwich. Still, it's great to get out and about from time to time. And now to work on the music for the show.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Day return

A quick trip down to London today to record Guyana born poet John Agard. He wrote poems and lyrics for a new puppet show called The Chalk Giants for which I'm making music. John has a wonderfully sonorous voice and it is hoped that we can use his readings of some of the words in the show.

I took the train to Liverpool Street and the tube to Embankment. Crossing the river I came across a steel pan player busking against the London skyline which seemed like a good omen. I met John by the Poetry Library at the Royal Festival Hall. The library is closed on Mondays but we were able to gain entrance in order to make use of the peace and quiet for the recording. He read three pieces he had written with a mythical flavour and inspired by tales of giants, giant-killings and ancient sites like the Cerne Abbas giant.

It's easy to forget in these situations that I'm supposed to be working; It's tempting just to immerse myself in the wonderful sound. All too quickly it was over and we went our separate ways, me to catch my train home and John to give a reading at the Purcell Room as part of the London Literature Festival.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Solstice celebrations

I have recently returned from a week of celebrations surrounding the summer solstice. We camp in circles, with about thirty people in each, around a central fire used for cooking and warmth in the evenings. Needless to say the weather can make or break this kind of activity and this year we were blessed with warmth and sunshine.

I was one of three official camp musicians and one of our roles was to play for the ceremony and celebrations on the night of the solstice itself. The other two musicians were essentially drummers. One of them plays guitar but an acoustic guitar doesn't really cut it for over a hundred happy people and amplified music is banned by the owners of the site. (Hooray!) So the line up was djembes (one occasionally doubling on cabassa) and, the perfect outdoor instrument, soprano saxophone.

The midsummer ceremony was a DIY event with no overt religious affiliation, pagan or otherwise - a humanist 'make of it what you will' affair. My drummer friends and I began at our circle and visited the other three circles in turn, pied-piping their occupants towards a double spiral maze. This had been laid out with cut hay and nightlights in paper bags. On arrival we continued to play as each person in turn entered the maze.

Entering the maze involved passing between two people who whispered complimentary things about you in both ears at once - a strange, and strangely uplifting, experience as what the conscious mind hears is fragments of all that is said. This took some time. No one had been primed as to what would happen and many took a while to realise that the two 'priests/priestesses' weren't trying to have a little dance with them or kiss them on the cheek. It's impossible to laugh and play the saxophone but I came close.

This went on for some time and my bottom lip was nearly jelly by the time I, and the remaining drummer (the other having become a whisperer), brought up the rear. Then it was party time and much dancing around the fire so more on the soprano to a djembe beat. I love playing outdoors in situations like this. I improvise everything in response to the occasion and what emerges is a blend of styles that have informed my musical being - lyrical British Isles folk, bluesy rock or jazz and middle eastern flavours. At its best it is as if I am 'channeling' the music from somewhere else. Midsummer magic!

A note on the structures. The henge was built about ten years ago and is made of bog oak from the Fens. Apparently the posts were all carefully positioned in accordance with astronomical data. More than that I'm afraid I don't know.

The building is based on an iron age roundhouse and was designed by a man who advises the UN on mud buildings. Before the current war in Afghanistan, John visited the country after an earthquake. By the simple act of changing the shape of the pans in which the mud bricks were made, he succeeded in making the buildings more resistant to collapse in future quakes. My own use of the building was to practise my clarinet so I can still strut my jazz and klezmer for the ongoing wedding season. The mud walls, wooden floor and pitched roof make for a very warm acoustic.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

July's free music game

As regular readers will be aware, a new free music game appears on my website each month. This month's game is called Pot Luck Orchestra and is a sonic exploration of found objects. Fun for all!

Meanwhile, I have been rather quiet lately, not because nothing is happening but because I have yet to get around to blogging about it. I shall rectify this situation in the next few days and share my tales of midsummer madness.

And what better time to plug my other blog which tells the unfolding story of jazz/klezmer outfit Eastern Straynotes ?