Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Bristol Puppet Festival

I have just returned from the Bristol Puppet Festival where I took part in two productions of The Chalk Giants for Norwich Puppet Theatre and two of Claytime for Indefinite Articles. It was a flying visit but I made the most of what was on offer.

The name 'Hotel 24Seven' does not hold out much promise of a peaceful night's sleep but, unlike other establishments I've visited recently, it was totally serene.  At least it was once I'd unplugged the empty fridge that sat humming to itself in the corner of my room. And the best thing about the hotel was the communal breakfast room where we met other puppeteers and festival volunteers.  All in all we were very well looked after throughout our stay.

Setting up for Chalk Giants at the Brewery, we discovered a modelling workshop being run by Aardman in the next room. Some of the stars from their animations were on display along with the moulds used to create them.

After the show we had a drink on Bristol's waterfront before heading to the Tobacco Factory for Stephen Mottram's 'The Seas of Organillo'. The marionettes were expertly made, lit and operated to a wonderful soundtrack created by Argentinian composer Sebastian Castagna. Almost all the sounds used in the piece were recordings of a miniature street organ, the organillo of the title, which had been built by Stephen himself. The performer gave us a demonstration of the instrument and its mechanisms after the show. It uses paper scrolls in the manner of a player piano, air escaping through holes in the paper (long for a minim, short for a quaver) enters the appropriate tube to sound the note.

For Claytime I had cobbled together an instrument which is somewhere between a mobile and a mug tree.  The flower pots need a hard beater to make the note sustain at all.  The structure sits on a box, a builder's hop-up, which I am turning into a budget cajon.  This needs softer-headed beaters for a good resonance.  I use it for the drum roll at the show-stopping moment when Steve Tiplady juggles nine lumps of soft clay. Breathtaking!

Between the performances, and after reporting the breaking of a window on the Puppet Theatre van in the night to the local constabulary and organising its replacement, I popped into the exhibition of Aardman and Ray Harryhausen work at the Tobacco Factory. As a fan of Tony Hart and 'Vision On' back in the day, it was lovely to see Morph's friendly face. The skeleton from the groundbreaking 'Jason and the Argonauts' (1963) looked far less friendly but was equally impressive.

Finally, so that it wasn't just a festival at which performers performed and audiences watched, there was The Big Draw giving everyone a chance to be creative.  We were invited to draw around hands or feet and make something out of the resulting shape. My foot's in there somewhere.

All too brief a visit, and I didn't even mention the puppet cabaret!  Perhaps I'll save that for another day.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Holiday reading

I don't seek out music-related books for holiday reading and I came across this one entirely by accident. A new vegetarian Indian cafe opened recently near Norwich Puppet Theatre and I went there for lunch a couple of times while working on Thumbelina.

There's an odd assortment of books there, with hardback recipe books (dealing with food they don't serve) featuring prominently. So this one stood out and I started reading it while waiting for a plate of samosas. At just over a hundred pages of widely spaced print it didn't feel like too much of a commitment.

It relates a brief period in the life of an avant garde vocal ensemble. Beautifully observed, at times wryly, and although fiction it has the ring of deeper truth. It even boasts a sound bite from Brian Eno on the front cover.

Although it passed me by when first published in 2002, in the way much did when I had small children in my life, I am very glad to have come across it now.

Friday, 19 August 2011

The Day the Dinosaurs Came Back

Last year I found myself working on a project in a Great Yarmouth primary school, building up to a play written in collaboration with the children. My tasks included setting their lyrics to music playable on xylophones by 9 - 11 year olds. And then rehearsing the band with the singers. As anyone who has worked on school performances will know, the children usually give every indication of being completely unprepared, especially in the final rehearsal. Somehow it all comes right on the day, in front of their parents, and everyone breathes a huge sigh of relief.

The playwright in charge of that project is currently working on a play to be performed by children in a public park tomorrow and asked me to come up with some sound effects. Tomorrow is also the first performance of a revival of Thumbelina at Norwich Puppet Theatre and I have been spending the week coming up with a brand new soundtrack. This prior commitment means I could only provide ideas and materials for The Day the Dinosaurs Came Back. So I went along to the park last Sunday afternoon to run through my ideas with the director and her assistant.

As the name suggests, this show has dinosaurs in it. As there will be no electricity available I went for an all acoustic aesthetic and took advice from a friend who is a junk percussion specialist. I also visited Colman's (of mustard fame) factory, the piano shop and the man who runs my local bicycle shop. Everything we use needs to be portable because the action moves between various locations in the woods. For the three music makers I provided:

3 plastic barrels of 46 gallon (220 litre) capacity
2 didgeridoos
1 bass piano string stretched over a baton
1 nylon ground sheet

The barrels make great resonators. Also, if two different designs of barrel are dropped alternately in a slow walking rhythm it sounds just like a dinosaur walking through the forest. I had been given some old inner tubes from the bike shop with which I had intended to make beaters but dropping the barrels gives a better sound and is less fiddly on the move.

Blowing the didge into the barrels, remembering to touch the end against the wall of the barrel, makes a great groaning sound.

Scraping a piano string with a piece of metal, a spoon or a key for instance, has a long pedigree, most famously as the origin of the sound of Dr Who's TARDIS on take-off and landing. With the added reverberation of the barrel it's easy to picture Britain's favourite timelord materialising a few yards away. But it can also sound just like a dinosaur calling from beyond the trees.

Finally the groundsheet, tied to a tree at one end and flapped vigorously, makes a pterodactyl-in-flight sound that would even fool Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I sincerely hope this play is performed elsewhere on a day I can make.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

A Wedding

In the UK it is possible to marry practically anywhere. I'm not sure if that includes cliff tops or not and this couple had done all the official stuff prior to the main event. But there is certainly a trend for marrying, and having unions blessed and witnessed, in unorthodox spots.

Back in May Eastern Straynotes, the trio in which I play clarinet, even played for a wedding that took place in a church. Not so unusual except for the fact that the building has been de-consecrated and is now a dedicated puppet theatre.

Most of the weddings I play for involve the band but I occasionally play solo too. A saxophone is a more mellow alternative to the traditional bagpipe and many prefer it. The wedding in the pictures took place on a cliff top on the north Norfolk coast. The couple chose a perfect day; a gentle breeze from the south and sunshine. If the wind comes from the north it can bring in a chilly fog. There's no land between the coast and the arctic.

The picture shows me with an alto saxophone. I had previously lugged the tenor across the cobbles and up the hill only to find that the sound was rather buried in that of the waves. Overcoming my laziness, I made the twenty minute round trip to my car to replace it with the alto and was pleased to have done so as its higher frequencies rose above a gently snoring Neptune.

The program included Cole Porter's 'You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To' and 'Higher and Higher' (Jackie Wilson, not The Moody Blues).

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Research and Development

While performing is a real thrill, the process of creating a show can be equally exciting. Last month I was involved in R&D (research and development) for a show exploring light and aimed at very young children. It involved working with an expressive dancer who trained at the highly regarded Laban school of dance in London. Also involved were a specialist in shadow play and the director, both of whom are experienced puppeteers and manipulators of objects.

My own role was to improvise and interact, sonically, with the dancer and respond to the changing images and projections. We spent three consecutive days together and I used a computer in a live situation for the first time. Experience of watching others struggle with technology had put me off in the past but now I felt the time was right. And it paid off.

I was able to loop previously composed soundscapes, take out unwanted sections or layers, and add live sounds to the mix. In the past I would have burned a CD with various options but this was far more versatile. I remain wary of laptops but, like any tool, they should function properly provided they aren't pushed too hard.

The great thing about R&D is that it's pure play. Anything can, and should, be explored. A voyage of exploration to rival those of Captains Cook and Kirk.

And it was a treat working with a real dancer who truly inhabited and understood her body.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Hawkwind to Hemsby - a tale of sonic attack. Part one...

I was fifteen when I went to my first real gig, sneaking out of a badly run boarding school and into the back of a transit van, borrowed from his father by an older day-boy. The band was Hawkwind and I was blown away by the event. The light show featured four slide projectors, mounted on a tower, that made dragons dance on a screen behind the band. The music was driving and the flute player (I'd begun learning the previous term) also played a saxophone. It may have been the first I'd ever seen. It was certainly the first I'd seen decorated with fluorescent paint.

I was also blown away by a strange cigarette that came my way (Congolese, the man said). It left me lying on the floor, unable even to crawl, while the band played a 'song' called Sonic Attack and I had my first brush with paranoia.

In the case of sonic attack survival means
"Every man for himself"
Statistically more people survive if they think
only of themselves
Do not attempt to rescue friends, relatives, loved ones
You have only a few seconds to escape
Use those seconds sensibly or you will inevitably die
Think only of yourself
Think only of yourself
Do not panic
Think only of yourself
Think only of yourself

I hardly remembered breaking back into the boarding house at 2am with severe munchies, gorging on thick cream and lumps of cheese - the only food we could find in the school kitchen - and then praying with fervour to the porcelain trumpet. By the next day it could all have been a dream but for the reassuring ringing in my ears. That and the knowledge that nothing would ever be the same again.

Below: the author with that flute player, some time towards the end of the following decade.

To be continued...

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

A change of priorities

I snapped this with my phone the other day. I was at the house of a friend with young children. Behind the alphabet primer and numbers poster lies his CD collection. A reminder that life moves on.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Sites and Sounds

Last Monday saw the launch of the Sites and Sounds project in Norfolk. This will see musical practitioners including singers, instrumentalists and beat-boxers going onto traveller sites in order to share their skills with the young people who live there. The launch took place at County Hall, the seat of regional government, a 1960's Brutalist edifice, outside which had been placed a vardo, or traditional gypsy wagon. I wish, now, I had taken a long shot to show the incongruity.

The keyboard club of a local primary school bashed out 'Wagon Wheel' with the assistance of some of the team of tutors, yours truly contributing an alto sax solo towards the end. We must have played this three times for various visitors and dignitaries. The band included a handful of traveller kids but most travellers are away at this time of year. Travelling of course.

Other tunes, with the children accompanying on various percussion, included 'Dark Eyes' the theme to the movie 'Chocolat' in which Johnny Depp plays a gypsy. You can probably tell by now that neither diaries nor the budget had allowed the members of our impromptu band the luxury of a rehearsal and we fell back on common repertoire.

Being the parent of daughters, dolls houses are not unfamiliar to me. I even had the misfortune to assemble the Barbie caravan as a kit (nothing fitted and I spent Christmas Day cursing under my breath while my friend built his son the immaculately engineered Lego castle). But I had never before seen a proper doll's caravan. These are used in schools with a traveller intake in order to make the environment feel less alien to very young children.

The project proper kicks off in the autumn and I shall post my impressions then.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Singing Bowls

One item that always scores a hit is the singing bowl. Children are fascinated and thrill-seeking (but usually clean living) Five Rhythms dancers can't get enough.

If, like me, you are fascinated by Tibetan singing bowls then this link to BBC News will interest you. It reports on research into the peculiar behaviour of water in the bowl when the instrument is sounded. If you have a singing bowl and have never tried this then give it a go.

The first bowl I acquired has a tiny hole in it so it is unsuited to this activity, at least indoors. Perhaps it would be prudent to hold your bowl over the sink for a moment while you check for leaks. Incidentally, my holed bowl is perfect and fully functioning in all other respects.

The BBC article touches on potential engineering applications when the physics of the bowls is understood. Perfume atomisers and fuel injectors are cited as early beneficiaries But so far, it seems, the Tibetan singing bowl has not given up its all its secrets.

Thursday, 2 June 2011


I have always been fascinated by automata - toys that move when a handle is cranked or a lever pressed. So when the opportunity came up to help children create an installation for their primary school I jumped at the chance. However, the first hurdle was convincing the interview panel that I was the most suitable applicant. To this end I constructed a machine with a strong musical element.

After some experiment I came up with a construction that, on turning the handle, plays the first two bars of Good King Wenceslas while a Christmas Tree goes up and down. (The interview was in December.) It was an object in need of refinement but held together on the journey to Bedford and performed on the day.

I immersed myself in the project for the next few months, experimenting with designs I hoped would be accessible to 8 and 9 year olds. It was to culminate in a big festival in the school's extensive grounds and Year 4 were to present the installation at this event. The theme was 'White British Culture' and the point we were making was that much of what we think of as quintessentially British, from Fish and Chips to Chicken Vindaloo, would have been unrecognisable to the subjects of King Henry VIII.

To illustrate this we made a large globe set on a turntable, showing where tea, sugar, pizza ingredients etc come from. (This became a very foody take on British culture.)

We built a boat, the centrepiece of the installation, showing how we brought so many British characteristics from overseas. The waves go up and down and sea-life appears and disappears. The sound of the waves was sacrificed to time constraints but I was rather pleased with the ship's bell.

Finally all this wonderful imported food appears at a banquet featuring HM the Queen, William and Kate Windsor, Rod Stewart, Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mr Bean and an unnamed ancient Roman.

The heads of some of these characters moved from side to side while the mouths of others opened and shut, all with levers or cams. (Cheryl was mouthy, Simon big on the negatives while her majesty appeared less than pleased with the company she was keeping. Mechanisms were mounted in carpet tube - very strong but also rather tight on space. The heads were originally to be made of (nice and light) expanded polystyrene but, one of many compromises, ended up being papier mache.

I was lucky to have the assistance of visual artist Abi Spendlove for part of the project. (The Christmas tree had exhausted my repertoire.) Sadly she was elsewhere when the boat was drawn. What should have been an 18th century galleon looks more like a cross channel ferry as a result.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Boneshaker Medicine Show

The best part of writing music for theatre is seeing the show for the first time with my sound fulfilling its intended purpose. I haven't made it to a performance of Luminous Tales by Ripstop Theatre, which opened last month (although was involved in the development). But yesterday I caught the first outing of Bob Percy's new act, The Boneshaker Medicine Show, which he performs as his alter ego, The Great Whydini. For this show I worked purely from a brief and didn't see any rehearsals so it was all a delightful surprise. It's a wonderful mix of magic and off-the-cuff humour with a Victorian showman sensibility which had the audience laughing and gasping by turns.

This was part of the opening weekend of the annual Norfolk and Norwich Festival. So far, in spite of promises of (much needed) rain the sun has shone on the many outdoor events.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

It's not clever but it is funny

One of the downsides of touring on a budget is that there is no guarantee of a good night's sleep. The Travelodge at Wall's End, just north of Newcastle, was fine on Thursday and Friday nights but on Saturday night the corridor outside my room erupted at about 2am and kept bursting into sudden life until I got up at 7.30. Having taken a wrong turning on the way back from a gig I found myself driving the Norwich Puppet Theatre van through the city centre just as the pubs were closing and the clubs were opening so I had some idea of the state of mind of the lads in the corridor with their 'wayay man' and 'fookin' this and that'.

It seems the idea is to book a room for the night so when you pull you have somewhere to take your new friend. And if all that booze hasn't worked its charm, what do you do with your room? How do you avoid wasting it by falling into a drunken stupor that you may just as well have enjoyed at home? Well apparently there is a craze for taking ecstasy by injecting it into the mouth. And, I kid you not, it is called E by gum.

(My apologies to non-UK readers for whom this is probably neither clever nor funny.)

Tuesday, 1 March 2011


'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Last Wednesday all the museums in Cambridge stayed open late for an event called Twilight at the Museums. The lights were switched off and children issued with torches in order to see the exhibits in a new light. All except at the Fitzwilliam where torches were distributed but the lights remained resolutely on. The institution remains nervous after the high profile shattering of two Qing dynasty vases by a hapless visitor a few years ago.

The brightness of the lights made the recital of Jabberwocky a challenge. Indefinite Articles had opted to illustrate the Lewis Carol poem with projected sand drawings and shadow play. My role was to set the scene with music and provide an illustrative, and entirely improvised, soundscape between the verses.

The six performances were very well received and no one commented on the reduced impact caused by light falling on the screen. As is often the case with live theatre, I imagine that everyone assumed this was how it was meant to be. And many people watched the show more than once. Having seen it from inside the gallery they came round to the staircase to see it from the other side. Here they could observe Steve, Sally and our vorpal swordsman and 'beamish boy' achieve the effects.

The screen was hung in the doorway at the top of the stairs that lead up from the grand entrance. The landing provided our 'back-stage' area while I soaked up the limelight in the gallery where I could respond to the images.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Early Years Course

The best thing about being a freelancer is knowing there will never be enough food on the table to have to worry about a weight problem. A close second is choosing what sort of direction life will take at any given time. I say 'choosing' but the art of freelancing is being open to all manner of possibilities and taking the most interesting path offered.

So yesterday and today found me on an Early Years course called Magic Adventures with the Beautiful Little Humans. In a nutshell this involved a bunch of adults creating an interactive theatre piece for a group of 0-4 year old children. This took place in an environment which had been specially created by the course organisers and was so magical and stimulating as to make anything we did almost superfluous. But we created some extra magic all the same with sounds, lights and shadows. And of course letting them lead us in play.

I suppose the pervading attitude for much of my own childhood was that children are empty vessels that need to be filled. The ethos here was that they are rockets primed to learn. They will learn in spite of us. Or role is to facilitate and provide opportunity and environment for that learning.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

On the road again

I did a bit of touring back in the 80s and loved the excitement of setting off for a new destination, the camaraderie, the shared sense of purpose. And of course, having my bad habits reinforced by hanging out with people who had made the same lifestyle choices.

What I didn't like was sitting in the back of a windowless transit, with amps and the PA for seats, playing cards to pass the time. There were nine in the band/crew and only one of them (the sax player) didn't smoke. Guess who played sax.

Touring with Indefinite Articles is a wholly different experience. No one smokes, the gigs end in time for tea (and sometimes in time for lunch). The sax player plays clarinet and flute now and handles all kinds of lighting, video and audio cues. He always sits on a seat and often actually drives the van. Nobody smokes.

Last weekend we went to Havant for a performance of The Chalk Giants. The sun was beginning to set by the time I took the pictures. Parts of the town are very pretty, others a bit run down. If you look closely you'll see those shops aren't shops at all.

See? I told you.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

The speed of sound

Every so often I play in a very large hotel, jazz for eating to in a restaurant where the band is foisted on staff who really don't want it. Although some favourable comments come from diners I think many of them are also perturbed by music that isn't entirely bland, predictable and disembodied; piped as opposed to 'live'.

So what are we doing there? Believe me, I ask myself the same question every time we play. There are two benefits to ourselves, both slightly dubious. One is the money (poor, especially after the agent's removal of 15%) and the other is that in three one-hour sets we can play through the bulk of our repertoire, even tunes that don't often get an airing.

The benefit to the establishment is certainly lost on the senior waiting staff who never greet us on arrival, not even with a glance of recognition, nor return our goodbyes at the end. I can only think we are part of some corporate vision - somehow, dressed up in dinner jackets and bow ties, we go with the decor and pot plants.

Of course I exaggerate when I say the staff don't speak to us. Last time I was spoken to twice in the first number. First the head waitress pointed to the instrument I was playing and, without risking eye contact said
"That one, turn it down."
I duly complied. And a few moments later, while a customer stood with his five year old twins, actually listening (!) the head waiter came flapping his arms and saying
"Too loud, too loud."
(I spent the rest of the evening playing off-mic and as quietly as possible. No one asked me to turn up.)

In fairness, our sound-checking is rudimentary at this type of event, and we usually rely on co-operative staff to give us an indication of sound balance, so on this occasion the clarinet may have been a little shrill. But in the past it has usually been after an up-tempo number that we are asked to turn down. And this brings me to my point.

We are never asked to slow down but to turn down. And this is because fast music is more disturbing to the senses than slow music of the same volume. It is therefore perceived as being louder.

So jobbing musicians everywhere, remember to ascertain the nature of the gig. There are customers who love what we do. And there are customers who believe that, like children, jazz should be seen and not heard.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Keeping it live

The decline in live music in public places dates back to the rising popularity of the phonograph early in the last century. Since then numerous inventions and developments have seen the trend continue.

Pubs in the UK have also been in decline for years. The smoking ban of 2007 has been held up as a major cause but changing lifestyles and cheap supermarket booze are probably just as much to blame. So pubs, like the present government, are looking for ways to cut costs and live music is an easy target. And not just pubs but restaurants and galleries too.

You can expect me to argue that cutting back on live music is short-sighted. That it's detrimental to the future of music in the UK strikes me as obvious. But even in terms of pubs' economics, cutting an obvious expense does not guarantee a saving. From The Guardian:

"Research carried out by PRS for Music – the Performing Right Society of composers, songwriters and music publishers – found that pubs that provide music take on average 44% more money than pubs that do not, a figure which rises to 60% at the weekend.

Live music nights proved to be the greatest draw, with one in four publicans reported increased takings of between 25%-50%."

However, as this article explains, the licensing laws make it time consuming and expensive for small venues, including pubs and restaurants, to obtain a licence for live music. It's understandable that publicans and restaurant proprietors see live music as not worth the effort and expense. Let's hope the current government will act on its promise to 'cut red tape' with that surrounding music licences being the first to meet the scissors.