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).