Sunday, 28 February 2016

I play because...


These are the nine cellos I'm playing with as part of the Hear me Roar Festival in Lancaster. Obviously I'm not playing a cello, I'm playing my voice. Maja Brugge, composer of the piece and initiator of the performance, asked me if I'd be interested in delivering the words of her cello students about why and how they play the cellos in accompaniment to nine cellos. I had met her once before - at a gig where she played alongside Steve Lewis and I'd read. We'd liked each other's style, delivery but knew nothing more about each other. I say nothing, but I enjoy how much we are able to pick up about people by such simple things. Besides who could say no to the chance of performing with nine cellos?

We met once to talk over the text, she sent me clips of the music we would have one rehearsal with all celloists and me - which was today. The text is a seemingly simple arrangement of words from her students about their thoughts towards the cello, why they play, what they find difficult about playing and what they love about playing. While the register is the same for all the voices, they are clearly from different people and I enjoy slipping in and out of all those viewpoints personas, trying to ensure they sound distinct, that they are not me, that they are real voices.

Some of the piece I speak solo, at other times with Maja on solo and at others in dialogue with each player. While Maja wanted a non-actor to deliver the work - to ensure a low key delivery to the words - she also wanted some sympathy and rhythmic accordance between voice and cello. Today we spent what little time we had feeling that space and pulse that exists between each of us, exploring how much space we can give to the cello, to the voice and to the piece as a whole. There is a lot of information in the piece: verbal, musical and rhythmical and how to convey all that in a gentle yet absolute way was both fun and intense.

What I love about the cello is its depth of sound. I don't know if it is because it is larger, and yet contained by. the torso that its music seems to resonant in mine, swell my ribs, heave breath and impress its rhythm upon me. It felt absolutely impossible not to respond to the music in my own intonations, to feel the strings, the bow and wood in my diaphragm and work them accordingly to the music and text.

It is a fragile piece, as Maja beautifully described. One that has been made from the experience of all these players and is still being made and will be made further next week. There are simple refrains, improvisations, ensemble sections, discordance and sublimity. It was a delight to be part of it today and I'm really looking forward to making it again next week. I know it'll be over too quickly and will relish every draw of bow and breath and thrum of strings and fingers for the performance.



The ensemble is Maja Bugge, Anna Brigham, Ella Cornwall, Emily Dale, Veronica Dunne, Caroline Lovett, Rosie Lyon, Bev Paddon, Whitney Rawlins and Angie Whitaker. The performance is in the Music Room, Storey Institute, Meeting House Lane, Lancaster, Wednesday 9th March, 7pm.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Oops upside your head



A gorgeous morning today so I decided to ignore the large influx of rubbish - chocolate wrappers, torn bags and bottle tops in the main - and just walk the beach, watching the geese and lapwings overhead. It took me five minutes to find this. We think it's a guillemot, which isn't a regular visitor to the bay. They like cliffs, so roost further north on the Cumbrian coast or in North Wales. 

There's no obvious evidence for its cause of death, and it doesn't look as though it's been in the water for long, barely decomposed. 

Of course it's nothing so dramatic or horrific as the recent surge of whale strandings on the east coast but holds a similar mystery. All these deaths seem to be a perfect image for the huge unknowableness that is the ocean. 

It covers two thirds of our planet; a constantly changing environment, affected by and affecting the weather; containing more species than on land, many of which remain unidentified; the sea bed is uncharted territory: only 15% of it has been mapped to a 100m resolution. 

The PCBs we poured into the ocean until they were banned in the 1970s are still evident in the top feeders, and are given as the reason why orcas are not expanding in population in the North Eastern Atlantic*. They have such slow metabolism toxins sit in their fat layer, although lactating mothers get rid of it through their milk - to their young. When pods are stressed (through toxins or lack of food) females have been known to give birth aged 8 and finish at 43 - usually their breeding age is 12 - 40 yo.

In fact all the pollution in the ocean affects the top feeders the most - in these I include humans. The plankton is extremely efficient at recycling water, its food and gas, and they recycle the chemicals with it, over and over, so they build up in those that predate on them and those that predate on those and so on until we reach the 'top' of the chain.

I put top in inverted commas. In fact we're so dependent on the plankton and filter feeders for our existence it seems almost comical that we consider ourselves at the top. Sure our body plans may be more complex, but without them the future would be extremely bleak. A friend asked me the other day how would we behave if we were to invert the traditional triangle of the food chain and place ourselves at the bottom?

* MCS 
** and for the story - once I'd found the guillemot I felt obliged to go back pick up all the crap on the strandline