I’ve been working on a creative development for a new show, – SOX – which combines looped music, performance, puppetry, projection and participation. I borrowed a ukulele from a friend to work on the show, and this diary is written by that instrument, entries sent weekly to Michelle, the ukulele’s owner.
Monday, October 28, 2019
It appears as though I’m going on some sort of holiday. Michelle took me into work, and my case opened into a big room and a man who played me upside down. Must be left-handed. He also stretched my strings and lifted my tuning to ADF#&B, which was a bit uncomfortable, so I did my best to dip back down to where my strings normally are. An hour later he took me to another room and plugged me in to a small PA. I could hear myself being looped by a computer program called Ableton, as well as authoritative chatter followed by confusion as the chaps in the room tried to work out how to make it happen. The focus was more on the technology than the music, but that was OK, it was interesting to hear the sounds I made built up into layers.
The man, David, took me home on the bus, and his wooden house, and swapped my two middle strings. This left handed thing is clearly not a phase. My tuning settled, and he played a few tunes on me as we got to know each other. He even took me onto his front step so I could see the neigbourhood. He showed me to his family, but I don’t think the arrival of another ukulele is anything too remarkable for them.
Wednesday, October 30, 2019
I haven’t written for a while. Partly because I don’t have hands but mainly because what I do is usually beyond words. At times over my stay here, I’ve simply been sat in David’s lap on the couch as he explores my fretboard. My tuning’s settled down, and David worked with me in a spare room to record two pieces of music. I suspect he had something ‘more important’ to be doing, but I am perfectly comfortable with my complicity in this kind of creative procrastination.
Friday, November 1, 2019
I can’t help feeling I’m part of something bigger. I’m not sure what it is yet, but today was a bit unusual. I was taken to a room at uni where there was a friendly old grand piano, though she didn’t say much. David and another chap, James, plugged me in to a computer, but all that was played upon me were a few fragmentary phrases. Their concentration was on the small screen, not my sweet sound. Over and over again a short phrase was plucked or strummed, and then I could hear it being played back in a loop. Other layers were added, but it wasn’t the music that was the point – they were trying to work out how to use this technology.
It was a bit boring to watch, but quite nice to listen to. I’m not going to lie, I like the sound of my own voice, especially when it harmonises with itself. One piece was something David had played on me before, a fast arpeggio over three chords, with some hammering, which he pulled the threads out of, then gradually wove up into its final form.
The other piece was built up over a clanky mechanical drone. It was clear David was making it up as he went along – it was more hesitant, more mistakey, but it was quite interesting to be part of something in which the destination was unknown. It shifted from a sort of sadness on a sunny day into an unusual, dubby, plucky reggae over the looped drone of a clothes dryer.
Monday, November 4, 2019
Seemed like a big day today. I was taken out of the case and could see there were quite a few people there. James, a musician/technician, Samuel, a bassist, Matt, a chap who played everything from trumpet to kalimba. Nathan animated pictures of washing dryers on a computer. Tahlya and Courtney were there to assist. After a bit of chat, I was plugged in and the musicians tested their instruments and the system. Hesitant, at first, they looked for a spot to land, wondering who was leading.
Music came into focus for a moment, then drifted away. But it was just a soundcheck. Then a click track started and David played some light harmonics on me, then added a part or two. Then we stopped playing, and listened. Then bass started to loop, then trumpet. It came together quite easily. The skills were high and the stakes were low as they circled around an 8 bar pattern.
Smiles on the room. Then another piece. Led by someone else. Then another. The music doesn’t belong to anybody. Almost like it was being summoned rather than created. The music seemed to inspire ideas. They’re trying to build sounds, then build a show around and into the sounds and their making.
They returned after lunch and tried something different, difficult. Longer. A bit funky – dinky-funky. Like Stevie Wonder on Sesame Street. The loops built, then were pulled in and out of the mix. Then they talked for a bit, excited for next week’s possibilities, of which there seemed many, they finished and I was zipped back into my cosy case.
Monday, November 11, 2019
Today the humans sat round a table for a while, talking, flapping paper and making marks on it. I couldn’t wait to get out of my case. Once I was, I saw them clapping like school- children, concentrating on polyrhythms – some clapping on 3, some on 4, some on 5. A list of possibilities was put on a whiteboard, scrawled across a stave – no need for notation here. The music’s in the air and in the hands and hearts.
Then we made music, quickly stacking multiple melodies on top of a sort of Parisian chord pattern from an accordion. On me: choppy rhythms, harmonized melodies, again based in a tighter rhythmic drone. Looped muted trumpets. Two attempts, and there’s a song. Sounded like eastern European muppets being forced to work in a mine. At least that’s what David said. Weirdo.
Then an experiment: a long loop, no rhythm, more a weft, which was more like sound than music, then a tune emerged from the mist, the bass player, Sam, shifting its foundations with new notes.
Then a slower tempo – an attempt to play more sparsely –musical pointillism – the notes built up, with lots of space around them as the musicians spoke to one another instead of stacking up conversations with themselves. The tune came into focus.
I noticed there were images of dryers rotating on a screen and Nathan and James had managed to get the music and the vision talking to each other in rudimentary form. I liked watching the dryers rotate, the flash of a red sock turning, though my one strung eye.
A prototype for a visual score, their drones a musical foundation.
I saw blood on Matt’s ankle. Probably before he did. ‘Saw’ is right. He was using a wood-saw to make music, drawing a cello bow across it – then he put the saw under the chair and accidentally cut his ankle. He was fine, they tended to him and cleaned it up, but he went to the doctor to get it checked out, leaving only two musicians.
Then a simpler, funkier piece which sounded like the Jackson Five. The focus was split – mainly on the screen, playing with the conversation between sound and vision. Then time was up, and I was zipped back into soft, dark, green silence, emptied, for the moment, of song.
Matt’s leg was fine.
Monday, November 18, 2019
Today I heard myself, and the other instruments as the artists played and listened to the music we have made so far. Rehearsal recordings: but each tune had a sweet definition and level of resolve. They were laughing, and sharing ideas and images the music inspired. It was also interesting to hear how the music shifted and changed over the development time in this room as the instruments, technology, people and their compositions listened, gave and took from one another in building something new.
They gave the songs working titles, and then played with sorting them into a setlist. It was interesting to hear how each of us had different, and yet strangely similar ideas about what should go where. Perhaps there is a story in these wordless songs, even if it’s just the story of their performance. These songs will shape the show, rather than the other way around.
Then they experimented with everyone singing a single note, which was captured and looped, a foundation for something else. I imagine they’ll try this with an audience one day too, but it’s important to remember that this group of people, even the performing musicians, are, at this stage, their own first audience.
Then they invented a percussion loop, slapping and clapping, and at one point singing and giggling a refrain ‘don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me’. They seemed to find this very amusing, and I wondered if words to these wordless tunes would be found by future audiences Imagine creating a rhythm that inspires words – like Queen’s ’ ‘We Will Rock You’.
The artists had a few ideas about what to do, including working with the drones and human percussion they’d created, and also breaking free of loops entirely. With interviews going on for something David called research, today was slower and a little stickier – though this group’s ‘slow and sticky’ would be someone else’s ‘productive session.’
I could hear them straining a little towards arrangement, rather than improvised composition – this set James and the technology into a different view, and at times it felt like the stop-start of a recording session, more than the live improvisation we’d bonded over. James is quick with the tech stuff. There was also a little more work playing with syncing the video to the videoed dryers. Technology can seem slow when music is so responsive, but it’s simply a different rhythm and workflow.
Suddenly the day was done, and they started talking about next week’s performance for an audience.
Monday, 25 November 2019
Today a new room. A bigger place. A bigger video screen, a bigger PA. Empty chairs staring at us. The project has shifted towards performance. Nobody feels ready. The cosy semicircles of the compositional period have opened up into wider curves to include an audience.
The artists gathered to talk about the plan. It sounded like it involved trying to do slightly too much in not quite enough time. The gearshift meant that there was more work to do in setting up things technically and theatrically, so while things appeared to stall from time to time, work split and continued. While the video and audio was being put in working order, the musicians tried to remember a small selection of the tunes they’d composed, shifting into modes of arrangement and rehearsal. Experimentation continued, with Nathan donning a speaker cover to provide a dark background for some video/puppetry work.
The music sounded good bigger: more confident. It seemed like the music was part of some kind of narrative, with people arriving and interacting with space, objects and each other. They seemed very focussed on socks. It was a bit like funny performance art, from my perspective, anyway.
The music I played focussed on key riffs, the icing on the cake. It looked like David had conquered his urge to over-play on me.
Once the artists had arranged two songs and accompanying action (and slammed some lunch) they pre-set and suddenly an audience was there. David talked at them for a while, showing them pictures and speaking ideas, sort of a verbal frame for our musical palette, then we started.
Things were quiet at first. The artists had decided to let the thing build at its own pace, rather than rushing things, or trying to entertain anyone.
Gradually laughter came, and the layers of the work coalesced. Music. Loops. Performance. Video. Puppetry. It was pretty clear the artists were flying by the seat of their pants – they’d run through segments, but never the whole thing. But it had shape, and a golden soul of music, so it constructed itself quite nicely, like music tends to do.
The show finished on a curious note, with a reunion between two red socks, the artists bowed, there was applause, and then people asked questions, and offered their thoughts on the work. Then the room broke, and people came to chat more intimately. Then they packed up, and the room was as bare as we found it, after 19 hours work over 4 weeks, it was like we’d never been there. But we had.
This project was supported by QUT’s Creative Lab