Spare Music w/ Ian Sankey

Winter 2022-23

Ian Sankey and I have a fresh half-hour piece for trombone and live electronics called Spare Music, and after having tested it at a vast and very fancy church in Kensington, and a significantly less fancy but considerably more interesting auditorium made of old pianos in Edinburgh, we’re excited to be filming and touring the work later this winter. If you want to come to the taping, let us know – we’ll have limited free spaces, which is happening at a gorgeous, 12th century chapel (with a fascinating history) tucked just inside the Northumberland National Park. (You’ll need a car to get there, and warm clothes while there to survive). If this sounds like something you’d want to be a part of, then get in touch via email (see the about / ‘???‘ page for an address). We’re also very glad to report that we’ll be in residency with Sage Gateshead’s Foundry programme later in the year, to work on a new set that takes Luciano Berio’s famous Sequenza V for trombone and turns it into an hour of bizarre, irreverent and, we hope, beautiful storytelling. 

Nicole Patrick / That Minnesota Sound

Ongoing 2021-23

Another long-term, slow-burn project is entering its blossoming stage: about a year ago, I finished a first pass of a piece for the absurdly and multiply talented NYC drummer Nicole Patrick. Since then, she’s been touring basically the whole time, but the stars are beginning to align and our long-distance epistolary working relationship looks to be about to take on a fleshy and directly vibrational quality! Here’s a little snippet of That Minnesota Sound, which is a wild, musical exploration of a mysterious, unlabeled cassette I received in the mail with an old Minnesotan keyboard I bought off of ebay. Going to be funky? Absolutely it is.

Until we get into a room together and really sort stuff out, I’m afraid we’ll all have to make do with a dodgy softsynth demo snippet of a track tentatively titled ‘Mwah’ run a bit hot into a limiter (yuk, but also it conveys the idea just fine). Think the music to the scene of your favourite romcom (you know, any one of the ones in which an impossibly gorgeous protagonist is chasing another through the airport) but instead of the music being dignified and romantic it’s romantic but resolutely undignified: everybody is dressed like sad clowns with yellow rubber gloves and is wearing covid masks and confetti canon are going off left, right and centre, and a chamber ensemble is also involved in the chase, limping along at high speed and lugging instruments not designed for the 100-metre dash. Also it’s happening in St. Paul Minnesota downtown airport and there’s an enormous fresco of Prince on the ceiling of the airport departures concourse. Unfortunately I don’t get paid for referring you to images of the Sistine Chapel, nor to confetti canon outlets on the interwebs. But any day that one sees a confetti canon is surely better than a day on which one does not? (Mike’s painting isn’t bad either).

Cyborg Soloists & Elements of Catastrophe

Autumn 2022

For the past year, I’ve been involved in a project with Royal Holloway’s Zubin Kanga and the power duo Zöllner-Roche that uses a biosignals microcontroller to see how something musical might be done with it. The result–which really finally is almost a result now after a tricky Covid-stricken development phase–is a cute set of movements for accordion, clarinet and basic electronics that I suppose is a kind of after-the-pandemic piece, but not explicitly. It moves from dark to light and slow to quick and solemn to fairly joyous over the course of a little under fifteen minutes, and is based around five short fragments of text, and is accompanied by colourful animations run on a laptop screen or projected if a venue’s setup allows for it. It’s not earth shattering, and nor is it meant to be. Instead, it’s pleasant and practical and, I hope, Works Well As Nice Music, and is Not A Chore to Intentionally Listen To. One of the key aims was to keep things as simple  and portable as possible. I think we’re almost there. Last I heard, the first performance will be April 21st in London. Effusive thanks to Eva and Heather for helping make the whole thing come to life after our plans were scuppered over and over by our continent’s repeated travel meltdowns. Here’s a little snippet:

While we’re on the subject: I don’t know about you, but I reckon there’s a bit of a gap in the market for simple/easy but still beautiful and crucially musical pieces for instruments (of all kinds) and electronics / soundtrack, aimed especially at beginner musicians. To this end, I’ve begun writing a collection of such pieces, that’ll form some kind of published volume at a point in the future. For now, though, I’m circulating the first few efforts among friends who play instruments that can play the music, for which nothing more than the ability to play single-line melodies and a dyad is required. The first one is called Elements of Catastrophe. Here’s a zip with the score and soundtrack/showfile. It’s designed so that you can just rock up to a venue (or a living room) and plug in a media player via an aux cable, hit play and go. If you do end up playing about with it, please let me know what you thought of it, and if you plan to perform it, even better! Let me know, and if it’s sort of nearby and I’m free, I’ll come down to see you do it. The first performance is soon, and is by a young Geordie at his sixth-form college for a recital on his music course. Very cool.

Northumberland Radical Fun Group / Taller & Taller LP & Live Show

Summer 2022

Things on this archive page have been quiet for a while, but we’ve been furiously making music in the background. There’s news on the Northumberland Radical Fun Group: after I unexpectedly received a Paul Hamlyn Award for Artists, an attempt at a modest and rigorous little EP working out all the lessons from Action Vibration Volume 1 covertly morphed into a new full-length record including actual songs with words, but we won’t be putting this out until we’ve played the material out a bit more as an ensemble, in a smaller, logistically sensibler manner; the NRFG Chamber Unit (a jolly little four-piece of multi-instrumentalists feat. HORNS) will be playing this set from the middle of spring through the end of the year, in the North East at first but then more widely. Keep your peepers peeled for dates. 

Here’s one of the more banging of the new actual songs, unmastered: 

A miscellaneous update about which more when further details become available: as of last week, there’s a trip on the books to do a new, one-performer version of You Are The Mole at the Oslo Fringe Festival in September. Because Norway is quite far, and because it’s not a cheap place, I’m looking to add some more dates on the way. If you’re reading this near Oslo or its neighboring nations and you like programming odd and adventurous performances involving fun music, please write me! Odds are that if you can kick me some cash, food and a dry place to sleep that isn’t absolutely sordid or literally dangerous, I’ll come and do it.

Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Artists

Summer 2021

Recently, I received an email from somebody whose name I did not recognise. (No, I promise, this isn’t the start of a new storytelling piece). The email mentioned that the mystery sender had tried to call me on the phone multiple times but to no avail. (At the time, I was hiding out in deep Northumberland, where telephone signal is notoriously poor–at least on my network provider 3 (grumblegrumble)–and I had not yet discovered the conveniences of WiFi calling. In other words, my phone had inadvertently been off for a couple of months. 

I called the number back, and a friendly voice informed me that the foundation she represented would like to gift me an ACTUAL REAL-LIFE AWARD for making funny tunes and oddball pieces. Convinced this was an updated version of the Nigerian Prince scam, I waited for the catch… Just what proportion exactly of my nan’s retirement would I have to send her to unlock this ‘award’? Unbelievably, none whatsoever! And so it transpires that for the coming year, I am honoured and grateful to be one of the recipients of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s awards for artists in the composition section (or department?). This is particularly exciting because I have a foot-long list of odd, small pieces to write that I think would be tricky to attract other competitive funding for; they’re super interesting to me and I’m sure will add up to something pretty cool, but they’re not particularly flashy, and I don’t quite know the final form they’ll take yet. (Above is a photo of a wall in my house of stuff to do–there’s enough of it to take a decent while). PHF: thank you very much indeed! I now need to update that dry line in the ‘about’ section…

Sage Gateshead Composer-in-Residence / Action Vibration Volume One

september 2020-june 2021

Over the last year, it has been an extraordinary pleasure to be one of four composers in residence at Sage. It was great for two reasons: 1) for the mentorship of the team at Sage, in particular Emily Jones, who is also a radio DJ and general Impresario-About-Town, see here for more, and 2) for the space and time to make a Proper Big Piece for a Proper Big Gig during a time where everything else on my calendar and those of all the people I work with has essentially been nuked into, at best, the medium-far-future. 

I proposed doing two things for the residency: to set up a new ensemble in the North East consisting of players from all kinds of musical and social backgrounds, and at all stages of their careers, and to write a big old hourlong storytelling piece I’m pleased to report that both proposals have come to fruition! The ensemble is called Northumberland Radical Fun Group, and we borrow very much from the Broken Social Scene model. There are thirteen of us, and we can expand or shrink forces depending on the piece, project or performance scenario. We come from hardcore scenes, some of the best conservatories in the country, professional orchestras and garage bands, and I don’t think I would be speaking out of turn to say that finding a musical middle-ground that we can do cool stuff on together has been a pretty inspiring process. Our first performance together, of the new piece I made over the course of the year, called Action Vibration Volume One, (Volume Two will be the record that develops the music from the live show into newly mangled forms) took place in Sage One on June 20th, and while I can’t post the entire performance here for rights reasons, I can offer an opening slice of it:

The blurb for Action Vibration Volume One goes like this:

Beginning with the four-to-the-floor thump of Riviera House tracks played to patients in a Greek intensive care unit and ending up with a south Birmingham birthday bacchanal at an oversized Chinese restaurant, Action Vibration Volume One is an hour-long paean to the music an people that make us who we are, in all our gory, complicated glory. Comprised of lavish chamber ensemble orchestrations, proper floor-fillers, tongue-in-cheek musicological analyses and pop psychology mini0lectures interwoven with intimate, live-typed text fragments hat chronicle months of amnesia following a music lover’s catastrophic brain injury, the work walks a tightrope between a full-blown breakdown and a string of darkly dry one-liners. Come for the superficial weirdness, stay for the world-weary fun. This is catharsis at its oddest. 

If you’re interested in booking this piece (after all, we’re going to have to start taking and making bookings at some point again, if any of us are to survive from this racket…) email me for a secret link to the full recording. The setup is complex in that we are a large band, but it’s also totally doable without everybody having the luxury treatment that a venue like Sage can offer. If you’ve a PA, a decent-sized mixer, a big screen, a reasonably powerful projector, and a room that sounds OK, we can find a way to make it work.

Oh yes, a final update: in April I received my PhD from NYU, which heralds two things: a pretty permanent return to the Old World, and a new age of pure freelancing in a very much mid-pandemic world. I have been afraid of this for years, and still am a little, but now that it has begun it also feels OK. Having said that, if you want to commission me to make you some musical fun, I totally welcome your patronage. My email is on the about page (the tab with the question mark), and I’d love to hear from you. Birthdays, weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, funerals – there’s whimsical weirdness to suit all occasions! Check out this video, for example, which, made around the time of the most recent Urban Music controversy, we have come to take pleasure in dubbing ‘rural contemporary.’ This track, called Tom Put Millie in a Bin Bag When the Police Came is kind of about euthanasia but mainly about a bar brawl in a giant Chinese restaurant on the upper floor of a stabby pub in south Birmingham, near my family’s old dentist. Lyrics and context at the Vimeo page for particular intrepid viewers.