February 2019: Input & Output

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For reasons that appear ridiculous to me now, at the end of last year I envisioned the first few months of 2019 as a gradual build from January until the end of April which would give me ample time for clearing the 2,000+ unread emails from my inbox and doing the other necessary drudgery that makes life better but is very dull.

Wrong.

Somehow we’re in the second half of February already and I have a  UK tour and four international trips in the diary between now and end of April. This is very brilliant. But it does remind how necessary time management is to make sure there isn’t a burn-out on the horizon.

The best way I can combat being busy is to feed my soul up to the brim with inspiring things and these are some highlights from February…

************Books************

The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon is an absolutely mesmerising read. Conversations with David Sylvester (whose books on art and artists are some of the best around, in my opinion) conducted over years come together in six long-form interviews. Often David will pose similar or in some cases identical questions to Bacon and for me that’s one of the fascinating things – to read how his answers differ and how they remain constant as years go by. Bacon is one of my favourite artists and reading discussions about creative process is a passion of mine, so this book ticks many boxes. It’s also listed on David Bowie’s Top 100 Books which is a fabulously diverse list. There’s little better way to get inside a person’s mind than to read their favourite books.

Revolting Prostitutes by Molly Smith and Juno Mac is a book that if I had limitless funds I would buy copies of for everyone on earth. If there’s a topic that is deemed ‘inappropriate’ to talk about in society or causes people to feel uncomfortable, you can bet that it’s also a topic that it is IMPERATIVE we talk about. Mac and Smith are sex workers and are the voices so often ignored as people discuss sex workers rights. They don’t go down the well-trodden paths of hand-wringing or cheerleading, they present balanced and factual information that is clear and compelling. I cant recommend it highly enough.

************Music************

There are two albums I can’t get enough of this month, both new releases.

Lau’s new album, Midnight and Closedown, has been the soundtrack to my life this month. I can’t tell you how it makes my heart sing.  In particular, Toy Tigers and Dark Secret are completely sublime. The whole album is receiving HEAVY airplay in my house.

Ralph Alessi’s new ECM release Imaginary Friends has also stolen my heart. In my life as a double agent, I’ve developed a very complicated relationship with listening to jazz and improvised music. As a programmer or in other industry capacities, I have to listen to music with a specific agenda – I find myself defaulting to thinking things like how many seats would they fill? Or ‘Is this a £10 gig or a £15 gig?’ Or ‘Hmm, this intro is a bit long – that wouldn’t work well in a funding application’ – even when I’m not working, it’s hard to switch off that bit of my brain. As a result, I’ve tended not to listen to a whole lot of jazz and improvised music for pleasure in the past year or two.

But when I sat down to listen to Imaginary Friends, I was completely compelled and that inner monologue died away. What an utterly beautiful artistic statement this album is. It’s one of the most honest and pure ECM recordings I’ve heard for a long time. I had a lesson with Ralph Alessi a few years ago at his home in NYC and as we talked about recording, I remember him saying that he didn’t get nervous before recording ‘because all of my energy and focus is outward, to the music. There’s no ego.’ That statement has sat in my thoughts for years now and it came into sharp focus when I listened to the album – that’s exactly how the music sounds; as the band are ego-less, their decision-making driven only by what’s best for the music.

And Karine Polwart has dropped a few little morsels ahead of her new album which I’m so happy about as she explores in her own beautiful way some of her favourite songs from Scottish pop history. Deacon Blue’s Dignity and CHVRCHES’ Mother We Share have both be released as singles and they are auditory delights.

(When I saw her at Cadogan Hall recently they played Frightened Rabbit’s Swim Until You Can’t See Land and The Buggles’ Video Killed The Radio Star which is isn’t strictly Scottish but rules are made to be broken – and it was glorious. Especially hearing Swim Until…in light of Scott Hutchison’s death which was beautiful and painful all at once.)

************Fashion************

Sunday 17th February was a day of highs and lows – I got hit hard by a gluten contamination which meant I had to pull out of my scheduled duo gig with Charlotte Keefe at Hundred Years Gallery for Raw Tonk Records (sorry to everyone involved but especially to Charlotte who had an impromptu solo set which I’m sure she smashed.) We’ll reschedule it for sometime in the not too distant future I hope.

But the high…oh what a high it was. Vivienne Westwood’s Homo Loquax show at London Fashion Week took place in the afternoon and was astonishing. This is the first time in a few years that Vivienne’s presented on site at LFW, the past few years having been digital presentations.

The whole thing was a sublime example of artists using their platform to raise their voice about what matters. This was part-fashion show, part-theatre, part-protest, ALL Westwood. As I listed on facebook, my highlights were –

– The models were among the most diverse group I’ve ever seen at a Catwalk show. I loved the blurring of gender lines by using paint on models faces, prosthetics and switching up the use of trousers and skirts.

– Fred Harrison and John Sauven’s appearances were great – just the right level of slightly awkward but poignant. How often do you see economists, socialist activists and the director of Greenpeace in a fashion show?

– The theatre of the whole thing was amazing. I’m always interested in the way shows like this use music but this time she basically eschewed that tradition and staged a play/protest, giving most of the models microphones and lines. Rose McGowan also totally nailed it.

– The clothes themselves were just peak Westwood – like a complete distillation of her punk roots with references to all sorts of pop culture and my most favourite tweeds and tartans throughout.

With Alexander McQueen gone, the use of catwalk shows to stun, shock, empower and raise one’s voice is down to Viv alone and she completely smashed it out of the park.

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NEWS: Family Band’s Family Holiday Tour – March/April 2019

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We’re fortunate enough to have received Arts Council England support for the upcoming Family Band tour and one of the brilliant things that allows us to do is to pay one of my favourite designers/illustrators Molly Lester to produce a tour poster and some other things that are currently under wraps. Check out some of her other work on her website. 

It’s also the first time I get to bring Family Band to Scotland which will be a particular treat. We’re up as far as Glasgow and down as far as St Ives (so many art galleries, so little time…) so we’re covering a whole lot of ground and the 10 dates will allow us to develop some new music for our second album which is in the works for later this year.

January 2019: Input & Output

As I write this, it’s -15 outside. In fact, according to the weather forecast when you add wind chill and moisture it actually feels like -26. That is considerably colder than it was when I was in the Arctic in October and I’m fairly certain is the coldest temperature I’ve ever encountered. (It trumps Berlin in January which was -14 and my legs felt as if the wind was going to remove all the skin from them. I cried.)

I’m spending this month in New York – I arrived back on the 5th and leave next week, back in London on 29th.

Week one was industry week – I attended Jazz Congress and Winter Jazz Fest and most of my favourite people from the arts across the World (bar a few notable absences) were here so it felt oddly like home. With that week or so over, I’m spending the rest of the year filling up on energy and ideas, plans and strategies for 2019.

Last year was extraordinary and I got to see parts of the world I thought I never would, but it got a bit silly toward the end with the amount of work and travelling I was doing and I felt as though I crawled over the finish line depleted of life force. So now, back on form, I’m working to make sure 2019 is equally as extraordinary but with balance included this time so the plates I’m spinning don’t all end up smashed to bits on the floor.

Listening: I discovered the exceptional Val Jeanty last week at the Stone playing with Kris Davis, Tom Rainey and Tony Malaby. She blew me away and I need to hear more. Luckily she’s playing later this week with Jen Shyu and Linda Oh.

Tilman Robinson‘s Deer Heart continues to be on my frequently played list. Explorations of the psychological effects of dense sound. He’s a deep thinker. His piece for Australian Art Orchestra which sampled the audio interviews of an ANZAC soldier was profoundly moving and occupies my thoughts often.

As always my podcast consumption is vast. Endless Thread, My Favorite Murder, Athletico Mince, Reply All, Last Seen and Alan Alda’s Clear + Vivid all in my long list of favourites.

Reading: Scotland Her Story (Edited by Rosemary Goring), Symposium (by Muriel Spark), Rebus’s Scotland (by Ian Rankin), The Speechwriter (by Barton Swaim), The Choice (by Edith Eger)

 

 

Input/Output – February Edition

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We’re one month and 12 days into 2018 and it’s time to check in.

Input (What I’ve been putting into my eyes and ears this year…)

Podcasts

Podcasts now far outweigh TV shows and films as my medium of choice. I use Stitcher to listen and have a number of absolute core shows I listen to.

Hellbent – The tagline is ‘a feminist podcast for those who resist and persist’. the two hosts, Devon and Drexel are great and their remit covers all kinds of important topics – lots of current affairs and politics especially as it relates to equality, healthcare, family law etc. The tone is strong and honest and bold. This one is a new find but I love what I hear so far.

Inflection Point – Presented by Lauren Schiller and always with a fascinating roster of guests. The tagline is ‘how women rise up’ and there’s some great episodes like How to bring Joy into the Resistance and one about Alex Bernadotte’s Beyond 12 programme for underserved college students including first gen immigrants and low income families.

Slow Burn – This is an incredible series about Richard Nixon and Watergate made by Slate. The theme is fascinating enough but this podcast goes beyond the standard stuff we all know about the enormous garbage fire that was Watergate and goes deep with lots of interview content with those close to the various stages of the story.

The Gender Knot – Exploring the new masculinity and femininity is their remit and the topics are far-reaching and always interesting. It’s thought-provoking and contemplative with broad topics like Does Gender Shape Business? as well as topics that reflect the current climate such as How Will #Metoo Affect Dating?

Up and Vanished – Late to the party, I know but to the 7 of you that haven’t listened – DO IT NOW. I’m just glad I discovered it when all the episodes were available so I didn’t have to wait in between. It’s made by Payne Lindsey and focuses on a 12 year old cold case  – the disappearance of 30 year old Tara Grinstead in Ocilla, Georgia. It really is extraordinary to listen as it turns from a cold case to an active case during the course of, and as a direct result of, this podcast.

Last Podcast On The Left – I. LOVE. THIS. SHOW. Hosted by Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks and Henry Zebrowski. If you want in-depth investigations into true crime, cults and aliens, finding this will be like all your Christmasses come at once. This is the podcast that makes you snort with laughter on the Tube and wake up the snoozing commuter next to you. It’s really hard to pick a favourite episode but I will say I keep episode 81: Female Serial Killers on my downloaded list at all times because it is gold.

Output

February’s turned into a lovely month for gigs so you can see me as part of a small, a medium AND a large ensemble setting across England –

19th – Calum Gourlay Big Band @ The Vortex, London

21st – What Love? @ The Lescar, Sheffield

22nd – Deep Tide Quartet @ Claptrap, Stourbridge

23rd – What Love? @ Listen, Cambridge

I did a pretty in-depth interview for LCoM which was published today as one of their Alumni profiles. Read it in full here.

Here’s a snippet…

 Some of your recent work has involved the use of graphic scores and the visualisation/sonification of data. How important to you think it is for jazz musicians to push the boundaries of musical notation?

I think it’s important for musicians to be true to themselves and that it’s ok if your voice as an artist sits outside of the mainstream. I’m at home in the world of improvised music and graphic scores because it feels very honest to me. Part of developing as an artist is about trying lots of things on for size and figuring out what fits and what doesn’t. Visualisation and sonification of data is something I’m really excited by at the moment. For example, I wrote a score for the Visualising Music event at the RA called Feeling Truth, which took data sets from the Earthquake Swarms in Oklahoma caused by the oil industry’s wastewater injection process. Through that performance, I’ve started working with an artist called Liz K Miller on a graphic scoring project and I’ve quite a few things in the works for this year in that field. I LOVE hearing people talk about their work and about artistic process, so I try to incorporate that into my work, too. I mainly use my website for that purpose.

Inside A Tune: Epitaph Part I – The Soul

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Later this month, I’m playing with a new group that’s been put together by Seth Bennett, a wonderful warm human being who plays double bass and composes. The project’s called What Love and is an octet of improvisers re-imagining the work of the great Charles Mingus.

Seth asked each of us to contribute a tune and opened up the vast canon of Mingus music for us to choose from. I dithered around as one by one, the band picked their pieces. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel inspired, it was just that I’d had my head burrowed in other composing projects and it was difficult to shift focus. Which work of Mingus’ did I have an emotional attachment to? I realised on a London bus as I travelled to teach one Wednesday evening. Epitaph. Mingus’ huge, bizarre, ambitious monster of a work that spans over 2 hours and 4,000 bars. I performed it for a friend’s final recital. It was difficult to get together, by turns ugly and beautiful and impossible and sublime. It’s a fitting Epitaph to Mingus, I think. So I decided to pick eight sections from Epitaph and create 8 individual graphic scores, each written specifically for a particular musician.

This is Part I: The Soul

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I don’t want to reveal it all before it exists as sound with the band and I’d like them to be the first ones to fully understand the piece, but this score is the one I’ve written for myself so I can afford to elaborate a little on what you can see.

Each musician will be given three things – 1) a graphic score 2) fragments of notated music from the section of Epitaph the piece is based on and 3) information about the Epitaph is it inspired by.

In my case, the piece is The Soul which is the 6th part of Epitaph. There’s a video snippet of it being performed here on the mingusmingusmingus website.

The epitaph the score is inspired by is that of Chemist, writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi.  I would urge you to read the profoundly important If This Is A Man and The Truce.

Levi was held in Monowitz, also known as Auschwitz III, a labour camp which was one of three main sites at Auschwitz complex. Of the 650 Jews transported to the camps with Levi, he was one of the 20 who left alive.

174517 was Levi’s record number, branded on his arm and used to identify him during the 11 months he was held. During that time, it defined him. Afterwards, it remained on his skin as a symbol of his past, his experience and his resilience.

Along with his birth and death dates and his name, 174517 is engraved on Primo Levi’s headstone.

174517 is written in red and black ink across the score, in columns roughly reminiscent of the Periodic Table. Layered on top of the columns is the floor-plan of Monowitz.

The piece also draws on inspiration from a work by Jasper Johns, a piece he created in 1992 called Nothing At All Richard Dadd. The dark, pencil drawing has layers of content built upon the floor-plan of Johns’ childhood home.

 

I Am Happy When I Bask In Their Light (and some things I’ve been doing recently…)

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Karine Polwart’s song The Good Years contains this line –

I am happy when I bask in your light…

What an absolutely beautiful statement. (Karine is a true artist, a gorgeous soul. I strongly recommend listening to any and all of her work. It’s what my heart sounds like.)

If I had one piece of advice for how to lead a fulfilling life it would be this –

Surround yourself with brilliant people. Seek out people that magnify your spirit and bask in their light. 

You do this and good things will happen, I promise. I listened to Sofie Hagen’s Made of Human podcast recently and she spoke with her guest about definitions of introvert and extrovert. One explanation was that extroverts find energy and life-force by being around others and introverts generate that energy within themselves. I like this a lot. It’s far more pleasing than the old ‘extroverts are loud, introverts are quiet’ description. (Also, don’t worry – you can be an ambivert as well as an extro- or intro-; it’s a spectrum and everybody loves a spectrum.)

With this definition in mind, I’d class myself as an extrovert. I find good company so exhilarating, so life-affirming and it really does feed into my creativity. I love to listen and I love to talk.

These past four weeks have been busy and varied; I feel alive and brimming with creativity.

Visualising Music

I’m having a wonderful time creating graphic scores for the Visualising Music gig at London Jazz festival on November 10th. I’ve jumped down a brilliant rabbit-hole of Jasper johns, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham; listening to them discuss life and the creative process, experiencing their art both as collaborators and separately. The warmth and serenity that emanates from Cage and Cunningham when they speak is a complete joy.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the works before they premiere in November, but here are a few sketches I made while developing a piece entitled Heap and Fiddle.

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More information about the performance here – https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/event/visualising-music-the-art-of-the

EJN in Ljubljana

I was fortunate to spend a few days in Slovenia last month, attending the European Jazz Conference held by Europe Jazz Network, in my capacity as Chair of Jazz From Scotland. I’ve written a report which will be published on the Jazz From Scotland soon so I won’t go into detail here but the two main things I took from the experience were –

  • The joys of exploring a new city alone, as I spent a day by myself in the city before flying back to the UK. Ljubljana is beautiful and I’d like to return.
  • The utter glory of spending time in the company of so many extraordinary women involved in jazz. Amy Pearce, Jill Rodger, Martel Ollerenshaw, Emily Jones, Eve Risser, Kaja Draksler…I basked and I basked and I basked in their light like a little cat in the sunshine.

Here are a few shots from the trip…

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Last week, we took a trip up North and spent two days in Malham to fill up with space (another Polwart turn of phrase that I love). Walking, seeing a lot of brilliant dogs and soothing our souls with the views before spending some time in Leeds, spending time with more fantastic humans.

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(The feature image at the top of this piece was also taken while in Malham, at Janet’s Foss.)

Thank you to everyone who enriches my life, simply by being.

More soon.

EFG London Jazz Festival: Visualising Music, November 10th

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This week, the full programme of the EFG London Jazz Festival was launched and I’m incredibly excited to be invited to take part in a collaboration between EFG LJF and the Royal Academy of Arts.

Something Resembling Truth is a major retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns which will feature over 150 paintings, drawings and sculptures that spans six decades.

Visualising Music is an event that will explore the graphic score, and the relationship Johns had with composer John Cage. I’m one of two improviser/composers taking part, the other being the gloriously talented Raymond MacDonald. We’ll be joined by a group of musicians from Club Inegales. There will be live music as well as discussion.

Next week is the private opening of the exhibition and it’s the first chance I’ll have to see all of the works. Then, I’ll start work on developing some new graphic scores in response to the works as well as footage, interviews and literature about Johns and Cage.

When something is new to us, we treat it as an experience. We feel that our senses are awake and clear. We are alive.

In addition to this, I’m also part of the 25 for 25 commissioning project, generating 25 new works in celebration of 25 years of the jazz festival.

I’ll be using this site to document the progress of the project so stay tuned…

EFG London Jazz Festival 2017

Something Resembling Truth: Jasper Johns at Royal Academy of Arts