Monday, July 29, 2013

Wild Sing, Wild Swim

This week saw a smashing night for juice and MaJiKer at the very eclectic Holt Festival, where our fellow artists were the likes of John Hegley, the Britten Sinfonia and The Proclaimers. YES. I think it was our best joint gig yet, and marvellously received by all-comers, aged 8 to 98, who clamoured to take part in our interactive Radio JaJa piece. We are nothing if not inclusive... Then it was up north to co-devise and perform a music-theatre piece with wonderfully-named York University PhD student Nektarios, who has an unusual approach of really getting under the skin of his performers and creating pieces very personal to them. Last year, he got us to talk about our first loves (cue much heart-rending sobbing, at least from me, ha), and wove these into this final work which also included singing into a grand piano, imitating sirens, taking the mickey out of his grandmother, and accompanying a Cypriot song. I loved this bare-all approach: that the audience could watch us as musicians, and suddenly be confronted with such personal revelations; like we were removing masks and reminding them that we were just human, and just like them. Here's the trailer for Nektarios' piece!

Gig of the week was, however, over at the Manchester Jazz Festival, where Metamorphic were one of four bands chosen for Jazz on 3's BBC Introducing stage. It was a top gig, with a heartily whooping crowd; I made sure I wore my sluttiest possible outfit (ha) and rocked out on stage; I also enjoyed being a bit more adventurous in the freer vocal sections, inspired by working with Royst on the tour. Our set is being broadcast on Jazz on 3 on August 5th and on iPlayer for the next week, and you must listen to it!

Wild swimming scout of the North, Oli (depping on sax for Chris), had tipped me off about a cracking outdoor swim at Gaddings Dam in the Pennines. So after four hours' sleep (having celebrated at our classy Staycation apartment by drinking Oli's dreamy homemade elderflower champagne and being flung around commandingly by Tom, who turns out to be a dab hand at Lindy hop), Oli, his ebullient keo-mun-go player friend Eun-Jung and I got a train to the cutely squat market town of Todmorden. We climbed the two miles up onto sun-baked moorland to this four-acre-plus reservoir, with dry-stone walls sloping down to black water with a glint in its eye. We coaxed Eun-Jung in up to her waist before taking off to swim a length of the Dam to the far corner and to flop onto England's highest beach! On climbing out, we stood dripping and looking west into Calderdale, on the best view I've ever had after a swim: dancing cotton-sedge in the foreground and magnificent, pale mustard-coloured hills beyond. Heading back down, there were butterflies everywhere: trios of cabbage whites did Japanese fan dances, and red admirals kept repeating themselves over and over next to the path, as if they were bunting heralding our return. BLISS.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Woodwosed, Trembling and Itchy

Level of conviction in own genius: 10
Hours of creative activity achieved today: 2
Watching / Reading: The Tour de France finale / 'Game of Thrones' by George RR Martin, shamefacedly bought at Herne Hill Books, where I normally buy things like psychogeography by Robert McFarlane. Ahem.

Woodwose was a triumph at Wigmore Hall on Friday, hurrah! I was sooo pleased with it all, and with how much the participants seemed to enjoy throwing themselves into it. The community choir, Paddington's All Sing, were as gutsy and characterful a chorus as you could hope for, and the school groups all their bit, with some smashing face-pulling and zombie-poses from the Year 5s at Queen's Park and totally wicked acting and beautiful singing from the Year 7 lasses at Marylebone School, whose two-part South African lullaby made me blub. Amber from Marylebone, who played the Lonely Girl, did her best music-theatre hand-gestures and sang like a dream. I'm rather in awe of tenor Andrew Kennedy, a big bad operatic prof who breezed in this week to do the central role; his communication and Woodwoseyness was masterful, like he could do it in his sleep. I had some cracking praise afterwards, from the big tearful man who crushed me in his bearlike embrace, sobbing 'Britten would be proud!', to the man who told me that my talents outweighed my reputation and that I looked like Annie Lennox (I also got a lot of comparisons to Pink from the girls), to the All Sing-ers who enthused that the opera was a masterpiece and that it was one of the best days of their lives. SOB! This is really me, this community opera thing... more please! I hotfooted it to Brixton's Hootenanny for the unofficial Woodwose after-party featuring Step 13 - fresh from playing to a thousand people at dawn at Glastonbury a fortnight ago, and with Andy on bass - who made us all melt into sweaty drum 'n' bass puddles.

It's been gig central as usual this week. I went with photographer mate Dannie to Bush Hall to see the Incredible String Band's Mike Heron with Glasgow psych-folk-rockers Trembling Bells. The 'Bells are pretty great, melding folklore and place and a sense of real British rootsiness with rollicking drums, rock-ish pretensions and Lavinia Blackwall's astounding Sandy Denny-meets-classical-soprano voice, which soared and fluted effortlessly as she sang about Yorkshire rivers and rituals about earthworms. Mike Heron, bless him, was not in great shape, though this may have been due to having his arm in a cast following a stage calamity in the night before's gig, and his voice was pretty off-target. But there were some charming moments, my favourite being when drummer Alex Neilson and Lavinia did a simple, intertwining a cappella duet.
Finally, it was off to the Lexington for another round of doing improvising backing vocals for one of my favourite musicians, David Thomas Broughton (Sarah and I had done the same at Cecil Sharp House last year). This time, we were joined by musical compadre Laura Moody, who did a short solo set including two new ones involving serious Diamanda Galas-esque croaky distorted vocals, and a 'nihilistic sea shanty'. Hurrah! Then we had an absolute treat in the slight, colourful form of Japanese 'musician-artist-inventor' Ichi. Part-children's entertainer, part-magician, part-well funky musician, he is a delight, pulling out hybrid homemade instruments as if they were rabbits from a hat. He came onstage on stilts, playing a harmonica. He played a steel pans. He blew into a balloon which became a sort of bagpipe. He brought out a little harp/thumb piano/trumpet combo, whilst using his feet to hit a bass drum behind him, or clacking the little castanets on his toes. One of his stilts turned into an upright bass. Another mutant trumpet became a percussion instrument, pattered on with metal rings on his fingers. He disarmingly introduced songs in halting English by saying things like 'this song is about animal;' 'this song is about big mosquito' before launching into curious chanting, high-pitched mantras. The coup de theatre was when he combined several of his instruments into a delicate narrow slide for a ping pong ball, which miraculously rolled down into his steel pan, creating waves clanging, plasticky-metal ringing. Sarah and I watched the whole thing with our jaws slowly hanging further and further towards the floor. It was BEEEAUTIFUL and one of the best things I've ever seen. Catch him wherever you can.
With no soundcheck, David simply crouched to his merry band (Sarah, me, MaJiker, Laura, and guitar/effects dude Napoleon III) and said nonchalantly to just join in whenever, before he meandered onstage and began another night of his idiosyncratic brand of bewitching troubadour-clown-looping in his doleful baritone. He had a terrible chest infection, but brilliantly used it to his advantage, looping his coughs and looking miserable enough to make his audience uncomfortable. And we loped on with him soon enough, after the lovely Bishi had done a brief guest vocal. We picked up harmonies, copied his arm movements, beatboxed, stamped our feet, did mouth-pops and water-gurgles, and it was VERY FUN. I love how David truffles around for the imperfections that you normally try and iron out of a performance and makes the most of them, and how he turns a humdrum stage set-up into props for his baffled, trying-to-keep-it-all-together stage persona. And it makes us react to it, and do it to. Super-liberating and exhilarating!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Double Opera Whammy IN THE BAG

Level of conviction in own genius: TEN!
Amount of creative activity achieved today: like the Tour de France, it's been a sort of rest day, to make up for extremely arduous compo over the last 2 weeks
Reading / Watching: A.S. Byatt's deliciously evocative 'The Children's Book', all late 19th-century Arts and Crafts, politics and fairy tales / 'Game of Thrones' Season 3 has landed, as a perfectly-timed reward for opera-finishing! Hand-chopping, nipples being removed, slave soldiers... I've NEVER BEEN HAPPIER
Hair Day: Sedately fastened under a hot pink scarf, land girl style

BOOM! It's been a heavy two weeks of Serious Compo, finishing off Dart's Love, which I did yesterday, though boring part-making is still to come. A weekend of incessant score-formatting and tweaking has left me with an injury peculiar to composers, the very twingey and numb 'Sibelius wrist'. I'm sooo pleased that Tim, the MD, and Bill, the director - and Tamsin, the librettist - are all loving the look of it, hurrah! Now just to convince them that everyone needs to be in swimwear for the opening night... Here are the details for the August 17th/18th shows at the Tete a Tete Festival!

I've been writing a swimming diary to accompany the opera, which has been a lovely way to embrace my swim-sessions more deeply. The lido has to be borne in a different way now that the sun is (gloriously! MIRACULOUSLY!) out: the water is filmy, with much creepy human-derived flotsam and jetsam, and is crammed with slowcoaches. But it's still a blissful hop, skip and a dive away, and I've supplemented it with dips at the Hampstead Ladies' Pond and Shepperton Lake, where I went with DOLLYman compadre Jimmy for some open water swimming with the Iron Man-training big boys.
I went from finishing one opera to rehearsals of the other: it's Woodwose week, and everyone  - two primary school and a secondary school class, community choir and Open Age group, tenor Andrew Kennedy and band Ignite all piled into Wigmore Hall for the first time together yesterday. It's strange not to have been involved much in the rehearsal process - both a luxury and an uncomfortable not-knowing; but joyous to see scenes being stitched together for the first time, and to see how director Hazel Gould has managed to work with the un-operatic surroundings of the lovely, but chamber-sized Hall. I confess welling up at more than one instance, which means that I must be some sort of genius, right?! Ah ha ha. What has been most rewarding has been community choir members telling me how much they love the piece, and how magical it all is. There is nothing better than praise from the shop floor. Wiggy Hall's very first opera hits THIS FRIDAY at 6.30pm - do come if you can!
The Ignite crew, Andrew, perky Lonely Child singer Amber and myself ambled to Broadcasting House this afternoon to go to the Radio 3 In Tune studios to chat about Woodwose to the unflappable, super-cool Suzy Klein and present two lovely extracts of music, as well as meet James Rhodes, the raffishly rock 'n' roll pianist of the classical world, who was also on the show. Listen to it here again, about 49 minutes in!