Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Tomb of Spirits

Another show for the Fitzwilliam Museum is coming together nicely. Last Friday I went over to Cambridge to see how The Tomb of Spirits was developing and to discuss the audio requirements. The exhibition which runs alongside the show is of Han dynasty tomb goods from two tombs: a minor king and an emperor's brother.

Since I got back I've been recording dew drops falling into a jade bowl, entombed to make sure the deceased did not go thirsty in the afterlife. Not having a jade bowl to hand I tried a singing bowl and a pyrex dish before settling on an IKEA soup bowl. The challenge is to get the quiet drips recorded above the 'noise floor', the background hiss of the recording gear.

There will be plenty of scope for bamboo flute, dulcimer and Chinese percussion. A search for Chinese music on YouTube yielded some disappointingly cheesy results until I remembered The Guo Brothers who set the bar very high. If I can recreate even a flavour of what they have done I shall be very happy.

Monday, 19 March 2012

A workshop, a show but no camera

On Saturday I went to a music workshop run by PuppetCraft where I learnt a little about mbira technique by watching master musician Chartwell Dutiro play. I understood immediately why he doesn't use the name 'thumb piano' for his instrument. He uses the forefinger of his right hand, playing the keys from underneath, as well as his thumbs. I have yet to try this myself but somehow I don't think I'll come close to emulating Chartwell's technique.
The picture is of his mbira in a gourd which is used to amplify the sound. Both mbira and gourd have shells attached which buzz, like radio static, with the vibrations. This isn't to everyone's taste and the first thing I do with any mbira that comes into my possession is disable this feature.

I also came across an instrument I had never seen before and this is always a pleasure. It consists of a small iron cowbell (but no clapper, of course) and a ring. The cowbell is worn around the thumb and the ring around a finger. Striking the ring against the bell makes a a sound something like a metallic castanet. Another of these sets, with a different pitch, is worn on the other hand.

 Having somehow overlooked the fact that a puppet show was attached to the workshop, and having an appointment to make elsewhere, I didn't see the show 'Circle of Tales' until the follwoing day. Exquisite puppets, expertly manipulated. A real treat. I just wish I had remembered my camera. A cheap phone is no substitute when it comes to taking pictures in low light.

Monday, 12 March 2012

AM Drum

I ran into a friend of mine at a gathering yesterday who had just returned from south-west France.  He had brought back this wonderful instrument which he described as a poor man's Hang drum.  I had a brief play on it and was entranced.  It was more than sitting outside, post-sauna, in the sunshine on a warm Spring-like day.  There was nothing impoverished about this drum, reminiscent of a steel pan but with a more rounded, bell-like tone.

Made from two gas bottle bases welded together it is one of the best pieces of recycling I have ever come across. The tongues are cut by hand with a hacksaw.  Apparently the makers tried using machine tools but it ruined the tone of the instrument.

There is a Facebook page for the drum.  You don't need to sign in or have a Facebook account to view it: http://en-gb.facebook.com/pages/AM-Drums/168619476501078?v=photos&sk=info 

There are also some clips on Youtube such as the one below.  In this clip the drum is tuned to what they call 'Oriental'. (I can't think why but I'm not letting that bother me.)  Anyway, it's the scale to which the drum in the picture is tuned.

I suspect that in the current economic climate schools won't be investing in these at about 120 euros a pop but they appear to be virtually indestructible and so represent very good value.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Natural Fibre

Thanks to BBC news for this gem about making violin strings from spider silk.  I'm not sure when, or if, they'll be available to the average punter but I wouldn't bet against it. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17232058

The spiders used are different from this garden spider, being  Nephila maculata.  The article also has an audio clip.  I must say, I rather like the sound.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Tamil Festival Music

We arrived in Munnar on December 23rd to find the hotels full.  It was the Christmas period and the Indian middle class were on holiday. We'd met a family from Assam on the train from Madurai, spending a couple of weeks touring a mix of holy and secular attractions. Arriving in the mountains we discovered that hill stations were particularly favoured by Indians for short breaks. Most were from other parts of Kerala and neighbouring Karnataka.  Had the border with Tamil Nadu not been closed because of the dam dispute, we may not have found a room at all.

I spent the night in the worst room I can remember, right off reception and with a damp, smelly en-suite and a window with a view of a brick wall less than three feet away.  The manager and the sweeper, an old smoker, slept on the floor of reception. Somehow, this being India, it felt perfectly natural and as a by-product the 10.30 curfew was rigidly enforced.  The most memorable sound was that of the sweeper coughing, hawking and spitting at regular intervals through the night.

On Christmas Eve, while our bags were moved to a better room (in fact the best in the hotel had become available), we went out on a set tour. Exhaustion had allowed the manager to talk us into taking a Jeep tour with his friend, Rajeesh.  This was very pleasant, and took in tiger and elephant hunting (with cameras).  We saw neither but the fresh elephant dung was particularly impressive.

We were well behind schedule on the return journey and Rajeesh, who had been taking a leisurely pace, sped up in response to a phone call.  So I was surprised when, two minutes from the hotel, he pulled over.
"Would you like to see this?" he asked.

'This' was a patch of waste ground and people standing around a fire.  It was cold in the Jeep - the temperature had plummeted when the sun went down - and the fire was attractive. Rajeesh killed the engine and then I heard music.  We walked closer and saw a band of three drummers and two horn players, a priest/MC, a sadhu (holy man), three men doing something with fire and a group of women dancing in a manner I associate with sub-Saharan Africa. ( They did not come across as demur Hindu women.)  And around them all was a small crowd.

We had happened on a ceremony of some kind and I quickly decided not to take our my camera.  This was partly to avoid causing offence but mostly because the sound was so amazing I wanted to record some.  In my back-pack was my handy Zoom H4 and the clip contains that audio. The way the rhythm shifts back and forth is of particular interest. (You may want to roll off the bass a little.)