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Experimental VI – a memory box

Sculpture from Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, Whistler, British Columbia

In the early 1980s I worked for a couple of years as a Community Artist. I was part of a team of artists from different disciplines. We worked with a diverse range of people from 8 to 80 years old, most of them with some sort of special need. Sometimes we worked on our own, and at other times we worked in pairs. It was great fun and hugely rewarding. I learnt so much about life and about myself. It was a great opportunity to combine work on creative projects with teaching. Thus, often we would be developing a new idea, and sharing it with a group as it emerged.

My own disciplines were photography and writing. The writing was something I had developed over the previous 10 years, from my mid teens. The photography was something I learnt as a went along. I don’t think ever really got the hang of using a dark room, but learning how to compose an image from the world around me, and to look, really look at the world around me – that was something that I developed from the skills of those who taught me.

I worked with fine artists, potters, photographers and fabric makers. One project which I still remember really well – partly because I still have my own output from it – was a project where a visual artist and I worked on a memory box idea. We constructed a small box from card, painted it and then filled it with memories. These could be things we had kept that we wanted to put inside the box, or things that we made that evoked a memory. Some of the ingredients in these boxes included mini booklets, scrolls, bits of material and tiny paintings. The box itself was about 10 centimetres across so everything had to be made in miniature. It was a great project to work on. I think the idea for it came from the artist, Lucy. She had done something similar in her degree studies I think. Each version of the basic idea was distinctly different.

From this “maker” project, I developed the idea of memories in a box, bought an old jewellery box from a second-hand shop on Lark Lane in Liverpool (the same shop where I bought a wind up gramophone to play old 78 records! That’s another story) Inside the box I kept hand written notes, cards, postcards, feathers, shells and stones. Each thing bears a memory.

I was looking at this box recently, and wondering how these ideas could be extended into a digital space. I use a lot of online spaces to store things – photos, video, words and ideas – sometimes in Facebook, sometimes Twitter, Google Plus and Evernote. Some of these memories are stored in a  public space where others can see what I have saved. And sometimes they are private. My own space to store things in a virtual, online digital box. Combining the virtual and the real would make a really exciting concept for a memory box.

 

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Slow Music

Richmond Castle, North Yorkshire

Why do I love abstract and weird? Well… to be honest, why not? Sometimes it’s so important for the music we listen to or the things that we read to challenge us. If all we listen to is the sweet and obvious sounds then we miss a whole sound palette. Being open to adventures in sound can bring us new ideas, new thoughts and concepts.

I’ve been working on writing projects today and whilst in the zone I was listening to the Slow Music project. This was a really fascinating project developed by Bill Rieflin with the help of Robert Fripp, Peter Buck and others. The concert I was listening to also included the late great (please excuse the cliché) Hector Zazou. At times it was ambient, at times it was abstract, improvisational and always spacious.

I hadn’t heard it for a long time. It’s even more beautiful than I remember. The concert took place 11 years ago in Los Angeles.

Sometimes we can find beauty in the gentle and slowly evolving. It’s a fast paced world. We need time in the 7 minute morning mediation, or in the moments of pause whilst sitting on the train, or the hour spent listening to music like this. We are brought back to the present and reminded that there is no other time but now.

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Experimental V – music with or without an audience

I have mentioned before on this blog that I am a huge fan of the work of David Sylvian and Richard Skelton. An initial google might lead you to think that these two have very little in common. Sylvian began his career in the last 70s and early 80s with Japan, a band that trod the New Romantic route even if that isn’t what they wanted to be called. He broke the band up just as they were becoming popular – and then set off on an eclectic solo career working with an incredibly wide range of musicians from the worlds of jazz, ambient, classical, avant-garde and modern music. His recent albums have been either entirely instrumental musical pieces for art installations or spoken word pieces with found sound backgrounds. All very obscure and truly beautiful (if you like that kind of thing, of course!)

Richard Skelton – Limnology

Meanwhile, Richard Skelton’s music uses drones and found sounds – hence, the connection with the work of Sylvian. In contrast, Skelton’s work has a singular vision – it is incredibly distinctive. His early work was in very limited editions, often with leaves of pieces of bark included to make the work unique. Skelton is a writer as well as a musician. His writing is also very focused – often drawing on the landscape around him – often poetic. His work is impressive for its purity of vision.

Another similarity between these two artists is the way in which they create music – or art – with a singular vision. One has the clear sense that they are creating what they want to because they are driven by a purpose from within. They are not playing to an audience at all. This driving sense of the need to create is at the heart of the experimental. It’s what often makes the product of experimenters hard to understand at first. Their outputs require effort, patience and a willingness on the part of the audience to suspend judgement whilst trying to understand what is going on.

And sometimes the work of the experimenter goes beyond rational understanding. Thus, Sylvian’s albums “When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima” which seems to be set in a stark and bleak landscape with strange falsetto voices (Arve Henriksen) and weather creaking and howling – is at times harrowing and at others beautiful. A more recent album, “there’s a light that enters houses with no other house in sight” takes the poetry of Franz Wright read by the poet, and drops it into a bleak soundscape that jars and resonates with the words.

It’s all powerful stuff – both musicians have created their own experimental worlds and developed them outwards to create their own musical vocabulary.

There is so much to inspire in what they do. At once I am inspired by their drive to experiment, and by the stripping away of anything familiar in a quest for the new and surprising. As often happens for me, this creates ideas in my head that jump out of music and into other media. And that is when experimental music is at its richest, its deepest and its most profound. Ah, wonderful!

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Experimental IV – photos

In the last post I mentioned that I worked as a Community Artist in the 1980s. This involved teachings skills in photography as well as creative writing. It must be said that my photographic skills were pretty basic. This was in the days of rolls of film, black and white moody photos and dark rooms with chemicals for developing each photo.

The world of photography has changed so much. These days millions of photos are taken from our smart phones and shared online every day. The technology that supports are photo taking has improved so much that many of the technical skills of the photographer are now done by the phone rather than the operator. But there is still so much that is in the hands of the person who points and shoots.

How we frame the photo and what we take as the subject is key. Then the editing of the photos that we take can lift the images to a whole new level.

Recently I took a batch of photos whilst walking with friends in the Wirral. One of the photos was an unremarkable photo of birds in the sky. I took the photo, cropped it and then added various filters.

Here is the original photograph before it was cropped:

Nothing remarkable in this photo. But once a crop is applied to focus on the four photos on the left of the image – and then some filters and effects are added…

The result is four images that could be a series of paintings. Experimenting with an image, a glass of wine (it helps apparently) and a simple app (snapseed) produces something which I really like.

Bird in Sky I
Birds in Sky II
Birds in Sky III
Birds in Sky IV

 

 

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Experimental III – adventures in publishing

I want to write about experiments in poetry and poetic form. This isn’t going to be a comprehensive history of experimentation in poetic form. That would be a very long blog post, maybe a book – and not one that I want to write (just yet anyway!)

Instead, this is a personal story about being inspired by the experimental in poetry. I have written before about City Lights Books – and my experience of reading Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems” (yes he did write them on his lunch breaks from working at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) whilst studying my degree. I found his style of writing hugely inspiring. Each poem looked effortless, conversational – and yet, clearly there was more art and craft behind his work than at first appeared. My favourite poem from this collection is called “The Day Lady Died” and is about the death of Billie Holiday. The poem begins with this:

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine.

And ends breathtakingly with this:

she whispered a song along the keyboard
…and everyone and I stopped breathing.

Other work by more experimental poets that I found inspiring would include ee cummings, a poet whose work was a huge influence on my early writings. His voice probably echoes in mine as I played with his particular approach to word play and experimentation with type-written words. I also loved the work of John Cage, known more as a composer for works like those I mentioned in the earlier blog post in this series. His writings are fascinating too.

My own experiments in publishing poetry began in the mid 1980s when I was working as a Community Artist. At the time, I was working with groups of adults. This was pre-computer days. Having spent about 10 years trying to find my own voice through experimenting with the styles of poets who I admired, I wrote the first sequence that felt like my own voice was coming through. It was a turning point – 1984 and “sharp blue / breath” appeared. Over the years that followed, I threw away most of the poetry I had written up to that point. It felt immature, practise for what was to come. Once this collection was written I set about turning it into a booklet. The cover was a lino-print with letraset words (remember those sticky letters!)  and the inside was hand written. It was bound with cotton. There was only one copy made – you can see from the photo that I still have it.

Much later, in the late 90s I started buying poetry books and booklets from Peter Riley who was selling new and secondhand books from Cambridge via a mailing list. I came across some wonderful books which were published by Randolph Healey from Wicklow in Ireland. Wild Honey Press is on hold at the moment. The website is still there – Randolph has produced a beautiful collection of booklets. I bought a handful which contained some terrific experimental verse presented in hand-printed booklets which were bound with wool. Wonderful things to own!

My own experiments continued in 2003 when I launched the first iteration of BlueWater Books with two collections of poetry called “zen words” and “Umbrian Images”. These collections were hand-printed booklets produced on an old Canon printer with plain paper inserts and textured paper covers. I spent many happy hours trawling through paper and stationery supply shops looking for papers to use for these booklets. And that was followed by many frustrating hours battling with the printer to get the layout right, avoid paper being chewed up and find seemingly endless supplies of patience to produce 50 copies of each booklet. Was it successful? Depends what you call success – I still have copies left (looking for a good home, if you are interested!) Those that did find readers were well received.

Fast forward more than a decade to 2016 and I decided to re-activate BlueWater Books, this time with the help of the Editor whose name was given to the press, Alice Bluewater. The first book to launch was “It Begins Like This” and the second one came out last month – “Blue: experiments in sound”.

In some ways it is so much easier to publish books these days. Thanks to print on demand and online design anything is possible at minimal cost. The days of authors looking at the ceiling nervously, aware that there are a thousand copies of their book in boxes in the attic – are long gone! But there are still challenges – finding readers, working out how to format and set a book so that the published copy looks the way you want it to. All of this is do-able! A set of new skills to learn or tasks to find someone else to do. The end result is an experiment that has been well worth the patience. Enjoyable? Definitely!

 

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Whilst you are here: have you seen my two books released this year?

Values Count is available from Amazon or directly from my website. It’s a book about values based approaches to work. Essential for anyone who wants to work with a strong sense of purpose.

Blue: Experiments in Sound is my latest collection of poetry with illustrations, the latest stories about Blue, the misanthropic 21st century man in search of a meaning. It is available in a limited edition from my website.

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Experimental II

I didn’t get what was meant to be happening with John Cage’s 4:33 when I first heard about it. This was a piece of “music” that lasted for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Except it wasn’t a piece of music because the musician would sit at the piano (or any other instrument) and not play anything for that amount of time. It seemed like Cage was laughing at us – playing the ultimate con trick. Except, when you sit in the space and there is no music, you are forced into a zen-like experience of hearing everything else that is going on around you. There isn’t complete silence at all. You become aware of the sounds that the audience are making, noises coming from outside, the sound of your own breath. Perhaps, even the sound of your own thoughts distracting you. A truly powerful idea!

Simple, abstract and minimalist are all ideas in music and word that have intrigued me over the years. I bought the Gavin Bryars album “Sinking of the Titanic / Jesus’ Blood” when it was first released on vinyl in 1975. Not because I had heard of Gavin Bryars, but because it was on Brian Eno’s experimental label, and I trusted his judgement. I was only 14 at the time – it was an easy thing to do. This album was comprised of two pieces of music each spanning the full side. The first piece was inspired by the idea that the concert band on the Titanic continued to play as the ship sank. This idea is combined  with the idea that sound gradually decays and would be still present after the ship has gone down. Using recorded footage of interviews with survivors and treating the music as though it is echoing and distorting – the result is a beautiful piece of music. But it was the second side which really gripped me. Called “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” this piece begins with the recording of an unknown homeless man who Bryars had recorded for another project. The recording is looped and plays over and over for the 25 minutes of the piece. Instruments gradually join the singer, build and then fade away to just the singer’s voice. It’s a fragile and deeply moving recording.

Sometimes the deepest experiments begin with very little material – silence in one case, a short loop of a recorded voice. This gives the boundaries within which the experiment can take life.

How can you place simple boundaries to enable you to experiment?


Have you seen my two books released this year?

Values Count is available from Amazon or directly from my website. It’s a book about values based approaches to work. Essential for anyone who wants to work with a strong sense of purpose.

Blue: Experiments in Sound is my latest collection of poetry with illustrations, the latest stories about Blue, the misanthropic 21st century man in search of a meaning. It is available in a limited edition from my website.

 

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Experimental I

This is the first of a series of posts on the experimental. This will be a set of blog posts, which feature ideas and experiments. Different approaches.

What is “Experimental”?

There are two distinct definitions for the word. When aimed at science, (of a new invention or product), based on untested ideas or techniques and not yet established or finalised e.g. “an experimental drug”.

When focused on the arts (of art or an artistic technique), involving a radically new and innovative style, e.g. “experimental music”.

Experimental – to take something and test it, try something new, be innovative. Put the two approaches together…

Are these two so different? What is the common ground between them? Why do we always want to separate out arts and science – and then further stratify with humanities and social sciences? Does division diminish?

In the background I can hear “4D Music” by Brian Eno. This is a simple drone, with a pulsing that creates a simple rhythm. A whispered voice repeats and layers the words “Behold the child, in front of me”. The piece – hypnotic and mesmerising, but also unsettling. Shifting slowly, imperceptibly.

Rain persists in the sky. Falling on silent wishes.

Disruption caused by change, new routines, new patterns – all to create different thoughts.

A blog post by Doug Shaw about Patterning – experimenting. Working out Loud – finding a space to share his journey of learning, self teaching…

John Kannenberg, curator of a wonderful web-based record label called Stasisfield which ran from 2002 to 2015. Avant garden, minimalist, micro-tonal. Thought-provoking and stimulating. I loved the music that appeared on this label – all of it free.  A labour of love. Something happened last week, prompted me to go searching – found that Stasisfield has stopped but John continues to experiment with a beautifully crafted site and a blog called Phonomnesis about silent memories of sound, art, time, museums, philosophy, and culture. Experiments.

Graham Shaw showing us all, that contrary to the Art Teacher at secondary school who told us otherwise, we can actually draw.

… and the journey of a year’s worth of Skype calls in 2013 with Andrew Dubber where his role was to persuade me that I could shift from someone who wrote a bit, to a published author. Technical ability making up 20% and confidence and battling the inner critic making the remaining 80%. He did more than I suspect he realised to push me forwards.

Poetry – the experimental. Taking an image and crashing it into something else. Loving the work of Frank O’Hara (writing about him in the new book, “The Journey to Wonder”) and obsessing over the writings of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. How to write with elegance and effortlessness.

Reading the latest issue of “The Wire” experimental music magazine – adventures in sound. Marvelling at the number of experimental magazines that exist at the margins these days. Sampling, trying – pushing the imagination to explore.

Street Wisdom – wandering streets with a loosely structured process to interrogate the surroundings, see it anew and find solutions to linear questions with non-linear approaches. Months later and still absorbing the learning.

And returning to Brian Eno: his oblique strategies cards were created with artist Peter Schmidt as a way to disrupt thinking. Two random examples:

“Be extravagant”

“You can only make one dot at a time”

… the journey to wonder continues.

 

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Have you seen my two books released this year?

Values Count is available from Amazon or directly from my website. It’s a book about values based approaches to work. Essential for anyone who wants to work with a strong sense of purpose.

Blue: Experiments in Sound is my latest collection of poetry with illustrations, the latest stories about Blue, the misanthropic 21st century man in search of a meaning. It is available in a limited edition from my website.

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