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A Robinson Crusoe of the Soul at the Fringe

I performed ‘A Robinson Crusoe of the Soul’ for ten dates over two weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe. I described it as ‘dirty, noise opera’. A messy mix of sound, prose, music and nonsense. A solo show I wrote, produced and performed on my own, as stupidly arrogant as this may have been. I write this now it’s over, knowing now how blissfully unaware I was of how difficult it would be. The orgnaisation alone, from booking the right venue, to ensuring I had enough twenty pence pieces in a jam jar for the parking meter, was enough to have me crawling around on all fours slobbering. But these were things I knew about. What I could not have forseen were things like the entrance to the venue car park being blocked by a laundry van and there being nowhee else to park. I could not imagine how something I had run through over and over again – setting up my equipment, making sure all cables and connections worked, tuning instruments, sound checking, would be so much more difficult when the previous performer overran. With seconds to go before my audience was shown in, I would still be making final adjustments, unsure everything was working, the venue humid, my head, face, body, sweltering, pouring with sweat. And this was before any performance began. A performance is the tip of an iceberg, in this case an iceberg that is melting at a furious rate. What the audience don’t see is the huge amount of preparation, the years of writing, composition, organisation, and particularly, last minute, frenzied, furious mayhem.

Ten shows on I am pleased how well I did, how few mistakes I made, how little went wrong. It was not a great show, but I carried it off. I survived. I got some great reviews from audiences, from complete strangers who had just wandered in out of curiosity:

‘Passionate, magical, beautiful, intimate and quite astounding. I’m very glad I didn’t miss this gem of theatrical, musical, crazy genius. A wonder indeed.’

(Sally MacLean)

‘A beautiful and gently captivating one-man show. It uses layers of live sound and storytelling to tell of the life and inspiration of the author Machen.’

(Paul Fricker)

‘A beautifully realised and moving account of the life, creative processes and philosophy of the great Welsh mystic and writer. A must see (and hear) for those interested in the pastoral origins of Britain’s weird tales.’

(Paul Johnston)

And then there was one negative, almost hostile, response from a professional reviewer, who I shall not name, who suggested audiences would have felt ‘short changed’ when my show ended ten minutes earlier than I had assumed (shows were of varying length because so much was improvised). No audience member complained that my show was too short, although one gentleman walked out because it was too loud. I received no negative audience feedback at all. Yet this reviewer (who didn’t pay for his ticket) managed to tainted my (maybe  unwarranted) pride at having pulled off what was a gargantuan task. Just finding somewhere to park, to load my gear, climbing up and down two flights of stairs three times a day, to load the car, then getting to the venue unsure of whether I could get my stuff out of the car and inside on time, every day, was self-inflicted torture, and enormously demanding even without having to give everything to the show. But it is done. Maybe I’ll perform it again in a few months. We’ll see. I’m a wreck.

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‘From Ages to Ages’ reworked.

I’ve been working on a show I’m taking to the Edinburgh Fringe. ‘A Robinson Crusoe of the Soul’ is a reshaping of my opera ‘From Ages to Ages’. I’ll be perfoming solo, a production that fuses the life and work of Arthur Machen with a chaotic lecture on the history of Wales. I use voice, keyboards, live guitar loops and a variety of pedals and buttons that trigger samples and noises. I’ve set up a new website for the show: www.yawnthepost.com (Yawn the Post is the production company), more details there. Click here for the relevant page in the Fringe catalogue.

 

 

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Making Music

I’m not sure what I want to say here. If I was ten, and sitting in a classroom in England or Wales, two countries that have imposed a straitjacket of uniformity across its schools, I would have to know exactly what I wanted to say, probably plan it before hand, paragraph by paragraph, with a tick list of connectives and ‘interesting vocabulary’ and suchlike. Teachers too have to know exactly what they plan to teach, what it is they expect children to learn from a particular session. It’s not surprising that at the end of the day, if there’s time, most teachers I’ve ever worked with like to read to their pupils, it winds things down before the headlong rush to the school gates. But no teacher I’ve ever known ever considers what those children are learning as they listen, eyes fixed, to whatever world is created in their minds as a teacher reads aloud.  Yet, for the rest of the time many teachers subscribe to current dogma, that we must teach the curriculum, not the child. Focus on the needs of the country, or the economy, or your career, or whatever it is that is your guiding principle. But it’s rarely what the child wants.

I have two children, and I like to imagine what would have happened if, when they were not yet talking, I had created a list of what I expected each of them to learn on a particular day, what vocabulary, what things I would point at, what books we would read together, or games we would play.

Because every parent knows is that every child is very different and each one needs a radically different diet of stimulation, and it is often the child that will lead. If your son points to a flower, or your daughter to the piano, you do not ignore them and direct their attention elsewhere, as if you have a prescription for how they learn. But nevertheless this is what happens in school. We teach the curriculum not the child, and more and more the curriculum is suited to one sort of child and one vision of how the future will be. According to mainstream educational policy it involves lots of writing, maths and IT software that will be out of date before the summer holidays. We don’t know what the future holds – although many would say its a future where robots take over and we humans are left to write blogs like this, musing over the way things could be.

However. This is a blog about composing music, because I’ve done a lot of it in my time and it’s just about the best thing there is. Schools can’t afford to much of it any more. Which is just as well, as they’d probably put the kids off music for life.

When I compose music I often have no idea what it is I intend to do. I have a working method, or a few to choose from, but never any clear idea of where I am heading for. I know my route, but not my destination.  I try something, and if it works, I continue. If it doesn’t, I don’t.

What the phrase ‘it works’ means here is not obvious. It’s a sense that I’ve found something that’s meaningful, and which isn’t a cliche. I just know when its right. Like teaching and parenting, composing music is an art, not a science, there are no clear rules.

I learn just as an infant learns, I am drawn to whatever interests me.

My favourite method of composition is to construct a series of musical phrases, each one a layer of sound on sound, and each one somehow related to the others. When these phrases are amassed, I begin moving them around, seeing which goes where. It’s a bit like furnishing a room on an unlimited budget: choose chairs, sofas, table, light fittings and so on that work together, but don’t expect to know how it’ll all work until it’s all there to play around with. And then you might have to leave more space than you expected, move an armchair to the spare room, add more cushions, find somewhere to store all those books.

I like making music for this very reason. It’s a constant battle between leaving something open ended, and drawing things to some sort of conclusion. It keeps the mind alive, curious, keen. The desire towards completing a polished piece is one thing, but the process is another. It’s art, it’s alchemy, it’s great fun.

I’ve worked on ‘From Ages to Ages’ for almost twenty years, and, at the same time, experimented by creating smaller compositions, always looking for something, wanting to find that elusive alchemy.

And here are some of those pieces, created over the last five or six years, ranging from simple improvisations to complex, sometimes muddled collages of sound.

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Extreme Babbulary

Wednesday June 10th: I presented a series of eight workshops at St Thomas Cantilupe School in Hereford.  Eight Babbulary workshops, one after another. It was a challenge, and one that I accepted in order to determine whether the core content of the workshop could extend across the primary age range. The answer is that, with a few tweaks, it can. The nursery pupils laughed at the silly sound effects and slapstick mime, but bobbed about to the rhythm and syllable sequences and were genuinely very nice to me. Meanwhile, at the other end of the age range, the Year 6 pupils were almost as keen to submit to the nonsense, and once they realised this was a joint exploration, were quite gleeful. They were happy to launch the Pencil of Destiny into the Balloon of Nastybad, and restore peace. They seemed fascinated by the presentation I gave on my favourite words – for example, the word turkey (the animal) is dinde (of India) in French, and simply peru in Portuguese. Perhaps the pupils in the middle, the seven and eight year olds, were the most reluctant to accept the lunacy of the enterprise, one child declaring, right at the end of the day ‘what was that all about?’ A question I took as the highest compliment.  I’ve always thought experience is the best means of learning anything, (how do we learn to talk?)  so I want the workshops to be sensory as well as conceptually challenging. I don’t tell the children what it is they are going to learn because each will take away something different, or, in the case of the child who asked the question at the end, go away wondering what it was all about.

There was one major flaw in the proceedings, however, and that was my tendency, later in the day, to confuse one workshop with the next (they were in thirty minute slots, one after another) so I often forgot to include something because, mistakenly, I thought we’d just done it. (Not realising it was covered in the previous workshop!) It got very hairy towards the last two sessions, when my head was beginning to spin, and the children (having spent the day in other workshops) were spinning too.

But a hugely positive experience, and wonderful, lively, interesting children.

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Ramblings and Digressions

I found myself looking at antiques. In an antique shop. The owner, hidden behind a wall of stacked furniture, was observing me in a large mirror. At first I mistook his reflection for him, and nodded a greeting. When I realised I was addressing a reflection, I peered around the barricade and smirked. He responded with minimal interest. I was a prospective customer, but he could barely acknowledge me. I was interested in the Windsor chair, but it was too late, I couldn’t overcome my embarrassment now, and walked directly out. This was Abergavenny, a place I tend to look down upon.

I look down upon Abergavenny from the three mountains that surround it. The Sugar Loaf, The Skirrid and The Blorenge. The last of these has an ascent so steep it is almost vertical. You climb on all fours, but standing up. The summit of the Blorenge can also be reached by road, which dilutes the achievement a little, but up there, with lungs screaming for air, this is what you get.

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The Skirrid can be seen at the foot of the rainbow, and at the foot of the Skirrid, is The Walnut Tree Inn. I love The Walnut Tree.

I fell over on the Skirrid, a long time ago. I thought I had broken a rib. On presenting myself at A&E  at the Royal Gwent Newport, and complaining of chest pains, I was immediately rushed into a cubicle and sensors placed on my chest.

Only the night before I had been drinking in the Church House, a pub at the Handpost, just outside Newport. The Slowboat Takeaway is just up the road, and above that is a small flat where Green Gartside used to live. I used to see Green wandering the pavements. He was quite famous then, and I never understood why he had chosen to live back in Newport. I don’t think he ever wrote a song about Newport, or the Slowboat.

I was drinking alone  in the Church House, a pub near the Handpost, just outside Newport, when a bloke slumped down next to me and asked if I could buy him a drink. He was in a bit of a mess, pissed, but seemed  good company.  I bought him a pint, and he began telling me how hard his life was, how he couldn’t hang on much longer. He told me he was doctor at the Royal Gwent, and although I had no reason to doubt him, I did. He looked bedraggled, and after all, he did ask me to buy him a pint.

I’m covered in sensors, wondering why no one will just take my word for it, that this isn’t a heart attack, I’ve just done something to my rib, but the ECG is blipping away and the doctor rushes in, unshaven, squitty eyed, and it’s him, the guy I was drinking with night before. He didn’t recognise me, of course. I was going to tell him about our encounter, but decided not to.

The rib took months to heal, and I can’t think of the Skirrid without thinking of that fall. The day of my fall I’d climbed the hill with my parents, neither could manage it now, they are both approaching ninety, and live just around the corner from the Church House.  I was there just last week. My mother is very unwell, and my dad cares for her full time. He’s usually very perky, and full of rambling, digressive stories. But last time I saw him he looked weak and frail and was sorry for himself.  It was his 87th birthday.

“I’ve lived long enough,” he said. I gave him a hug when I left. It was hard.

But today I’m in Abergavenny, making my way to the car park after walking out of the antique shop. I get in the car, drive home. On the radio Iain Sinclair is talking about WG Sebald. I love both writers. Sebald’s Austerlitz is one of my favourite books.  I prefer it to The Rings of Saturn, which many people consider his masterpiece. Sebald was a walker, and his books are often ramblings in both senses. Sinclair spoke of Sebald devotees who try to retrace his steps and fail. Sebald was a storyteller, Sinclair reminds us.

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Watercress v Shouting

I won’t go into too much detail, but I recently undertook a psychometric test.  There were something like one hundred and seventy questions, ranging from “I enjoy theories” to “I hate parties”.  As the test proceeded, so my positive responses were clustered together, as were my negative answers.  So things I like (books, people, shouting and watercress) all appeared in the same question, forcing me to make a distinction.  Similarly, all the things I hate (golf, getting up, Wotsits and rabies) were thrown together to make me differentiate between them.  Imagine if you were asked whether you hated Wotsits more than rabies, could you decide?  Rabies is nasty, but you are rarely offered any.  Wotsits, they pop up all over the place, those horrible, disgusting, floury, yellow puke pods.

At the end of all this, I had to sit in a room with an expert who told me how nuts I was.  She laughed until she cried as she described the huge variations in my responses.  “You are a silent loner,” she said.  “You sit outside of the circle, looking in.  You hate Wotsits more than rabies.  That’s very weird.”

“Ah,” I replied, “but I love watercress more than shouting!”

She filed my report away and told me, no, I couldn’t have a copy.  For once in my life, I wish I could have been normal.  It must feel so good.  To like people more than poetry, and parties more than stationery.  I can only wish.

But as I spend hours alone, making things up, it is unlikely that the outside world would consider me a balanced, rounded human being.  I am not, and I don’t want to be.  I want to the eccentric that I am, because in that way the world is an endlessly entertaining series of the bizarre, the surreal and the utterly incomprehensible.  If I were organised and rational, possessed of that dubious quality ‘common sense’, then I am certain I would be incapable of dusting myself off and walking away after a computerised psychometric test had determined I was an introspective watercress loving loner.

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Awfully Big Blogs

I’ve been blogging for years for other people.  The most popular of these is the Awfully Big Blog Blog Adventure. (http://awfullybigblogadventure.blogspot.co.uk/).  I’ve blogged about education, Wales, music, creativity. Many other authors add their thoughts, too. It’s worth a visit.

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The Big Switch

I haven’t had time to keep fiddling about with Dreamweaver and Photoshop.  It’s too time consuming.  I’ve decided to use WordPress and see how it goes.

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