Sunday, 5 March 2017

Of Turbines, Memorials And Collapsing Mics Now Open For Business

I went to the first night of a new open mic evening on Friday. The event was intriguingly named the "Collapsing Cabaret" and was held in the café at the Green Britain Centre in Swaffham, Norfolk. I once knew this venue very well. In a previous life it was called The Ecotech Centre and a community music organisation for which I undertook a number of projects had a broom-cupboard of an office and an equipment store there. If I was never really sure of the main function of the place then any specialist function is now even more obscure. In its defence I think it is looking for a distinctive purpose and identity and it shouldn't really have a problem because, physically, the building is very distinctive. For a start it's big and the sloping, south-facing wall made entirely of glass is designed as a solar collector and provides heating. One enters the building from the car park (now fitted with recharging points for electric vehicles) into the extensive exhibition space behind the glass wall. In Ecotech days there was an exhibition focusing on aspects of generating power and there were also opportunities for temporary exhibitions too. A friend of mine once curated a travelling exhibition on the lives of travellers. This was especially appropriate because there is a traveller site at the bottom of the hill and directly below the A47 bypass - one of those off-the-shelf brick and concrete traveller sites banished to the outer edges of a town where it could not be seen, forced into a space where no one I know would want to live and consisting, as has become customary, of hard-standings and utility buildings divided into plots by the local council that look as permanent and as alienating as the modern overspill housing estate where I grew up. Nowadays, though, the exhibition space in the Centre exhibits little other than tables and chairs.

The original Ecotech Centre was built in the shadow of a large wind turbine, Swaffham's first of two, which claimed to generate half the town's electricity needs. I always suspected it was more complicated than that. It was never clear to me how this worked, or how fluctuations in power requirements were met. There was no sign of storage for the 3.1 million units of electricity being generated annually from its 1.5 megawatt turbine. I suspect it was more a statistic for purposes of comparison than any real description of function. One of the music projects we worked on came to a head in a performance under that same shadow. Working with the excellent composer, Duncan Chapman, schools and community groups devised a piece using (as many of Duncan's compositions seemed to at the time) barrels of water, stones and submersible microphones. Alongside these were other tools of his trade, including early (and by that time superseded) samplers and signal processors for live sound manipulation. In contravention of any health and safety nonsense we had sent a fearless fellow musician up the tower to lean out of the access hatch some sixty-seven metres above the ground to suspend a microphone somewhere near the hub of the turbine with a view to capturing and processing, in real time, whatever the sound turned out to be. The trail of daisy-chained XLR cables down the stairwell and back to the mixer used all our available cable resources. The concept was as audacious as it was pointless. Try as I might, while artistically dropping and aesthetically swishing stones around in buckets of water, I could not hear what we were supposed to be amplifying and processing beyond a bit of humming and wind noise. Perhaps the single dynamic vocal microphone was not fully up to the task of picking up the subsonic subtleties of the sixty-six metre rotor span of the turbine, or perhaps the basic p.a. was incapable of reproducing the more dramatic elements of the sound colour palette, but everyone else seemed jolly pleased with the outcome. My confidence had already taken a recent knock when, at a music technology conference, no less a person than the founder and president of the Roland Corporation, Ikutaro Kakehashi, had made me sit in several strategically microplaced chairs when demonstrating his new invention of 3D sound from a pair of stereo speakers. I had to stay behind for several sessions while my fellow voyagers oohed and aahed in appreciation of aeroplanes on the screen that apparently flew over their heads. In the end he gave up and I felt like the little boy in The Emperor's New Clothes. I carried the burden of my own impairment into future projects and he went on to sell the massively expensive RSS (Roland Sound System) to discerning audio facilities.

Friends once held a memorial service at The Ecotech Centre for Ooblydoobly - The Fenland Fool - who died tragically early while living in France. Ooblydoobly, a professional clown with his trademarked makeup painted on an egg somewhere - was once the partner of my ceilidh band's original fiddle player and on nights off from fooling he occasionally played violin himself albeit in a different ceilidh band. Even more occasionally I'd be drafted into that band to dep on guitar. The first time I played for them the band was playing for a private ceilidh in the ballroom of the Great Northern Hotel hard by Peterborough Railway Station. During a break from the dancing Oobly (I hope he wouldn't object to such a familiar form of address) reappeared with a number of implements and began a juggling routine - a rubber chicken may have been involved as were a number of sharp or otherwise dangerous objects. The climax of his performance came when he produced some hitherto hidden torches, set fire to them and proceeded to juggle them on the expensively and inexplicably carpeted ballroom floor directly under one of the ballroom's ostentatious and expensive crystal chandeliers. He knew exactly what he was doing and how to provoke a response. Lovely man that he was I don't think I could have coped with him in my class when he was a teen. My own modest efforts to provoke my aggressively unpleasant, boring, coffee-breathed, quacking French teacher would clearly have paled beside any japes he could have devised. My best effort arose when I found a copy of the textbook we used in class at a jumble sale. It was the best thruppence I ever spent. I would sit at the front of the class in contravention of custom and write notes in it, in ink, which unfortunately mostly went ignored. It was only when I hit upon the sonic ecstasy of tearing paper very slowly that my purchase evoked the desired result. I was sent out into the corridor regularly thereafter. My misbehaviour was ultimately somewhat self-defeating in terms of language acquisition though - how was I to know I'd end up with a French boyfriend decades later? However the same acts took on a considerably more successful outcome in terms of my chosen career, which has often made effective use of unorthodox sound sources. Sadly I didn't find out about Ooblydoobly's memorial until months or maybe years later. I felt I knew him well enough to have been invited, but I wasn't. Conversations that begin, "Do you remember ... ?" always provoke a little twinge and I would like to be able to remember, but of course I can't. It was by all accounts an event laced with unintentional mishap fully worthy of Mr Doobly, and I would like to have witnessed the ingenuity of the parcipants wrestling with how to sink a nine foot pole bearing the memorial plaque into frozen earth when no one had a ladder, a hammer or indeed any tool beyond a spade and a post driver to facilitate the task. During fallow times for fooling he would take supply teaching work, specialising in modern foreign languages (French and German). He said he didn't like teaching, but I suspect he was good at it. However it clearly fed his depression and his heart problems and we spent many hours discussing approaches to tricking bored adolescents into learning. He did have a huge advantage over me though. He could, and often did, resort to juggling. Just as I wasn't there for Ooblydoobly's memorial I wasn't there when the drummer of the same band was similarly remembered some time later. His distinctive feature was his circus drumming style and an array of dreadfully unimpressive-sounding home-made woodblocks mounted on his kit. That band was one of a kind.

Meanwhile, back in the Green Britain Centre there is a space that serves an excellent purpose. The café serves delicious vegan food and, once the intrusively noisy cold drink refrigerators were switched off, it was a good space for a cabaret, even a collapsing one. The evening was fronted by the always delightful John Preston and it was good to share the stage once more with him and other friends including Nico Dobben (whose cd album, "Songs Of Misery And Pain", has sold very well in Downham Market) along with poet, playwright, author and activist Jonathan Toye and to encounter some new voices too. One passionate performer delivered a lengthy homage to Pete Seeger without actually mentioning Mr Seeger's name and, having listed a number of his famous protest songs, handed out hymn sheets and bade the audience join him in singing an unaccompanied "Puff The Magic Dragon". That was a first for me, especially in that key. It is a song I have generally tried to avoid, being ideologically at odds with much of its sentimentality and artificial rhyming and on account of it being in possession of a tessitura beyond the range of most who might find the melody otherwise attractive. I would have been happier to sing "Where Have All The Flowers Gone", which I consider clever in its simplicity and clear in its message, but our passionate performer had an advertisement planned, which was somehow connected with a dragon. Unfortunately, by then I'd lost the thread. Onward. While not the first time I have encountered a karaoke singer at an open mic it was intriguing to enter another performer's world that was definitely more showbiz than folk. I was forced to confront some of my own prejudices for sure. On the other hand this audience was forced to deal with Marshlander's world for the first time when I sang "Flying" (about throwing people off buildings), 'Grey" (about precrastination during the writing and composing processes), "Cruiser" (about clandestine bisexual encounters in a woodland setting) and "Dear Mr. Carter" (my response to an inarticulate and hilariously upsetting letter from a local functionary three days after I buried my father in his cemetery). I like to think that I am more fun than I make myself sound. Most definitely a first for me, though, was having a human microphone stand - there being no boom stand available. All in all, a fun night in good company with some good music, idiosyncratic performances and great food served throughout the evening.

The plan is for these evenings to continue on the first Friday of the month. I shall probably go again, specially if the juggler who closed the evening with "something more cheerful" and undoubtedly more fruitful comes back too 🍊🍊🍊🍊🍊. Jannine, the powerhouse behind the vegan café, thought much of the evening was rather dark. "That's what you get for calling your child, 'Irritable'," observed Jonathan.

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