notes from the past few days

Whitstable is gorgeous and I enjoyed the Off The Page Festival organised by Sound and Music and The Wire Magazine held there the weekend before last. I learned about graphical sound in 1920s Russia from Andrey Smirnov; met Jonny Trunk of Trunk Records, (who released my favourite record of 2011, Music for Biscuits); and participated in a Panel Discussion focussing especially on Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram; I also met Aura Satz – and saw her film about Oram’s Oramics Machine.

I revisited Adventures in Washing Up The FRRS in assn. w. MA for the purposes of the panel discussion, and also talked a bit about Messy Tuesdays, in reference to how one’s creative workspace can influence one’s work. I found myself considering how the work of the Radiophonic Workshop never got the same recognition that other 1950s electroacoustic music like Musique Concrete; Elektronische Musik etc. acquired, because the work of the Radiphonic Workshop lacked the quality of abstract purity striven for in those other disciplines, and because the creative process in operation at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was more like a craft process than an art process. I am interested in making impure work, and in muddying the distinctions between art and life, and there is evidence in Oram’s work that she did this sometimes, too. I love the physicality of the Oramics machine as technology… as expression of idea… as tool… as creation.

Oramics: Atlantis Anew from The Wire Magazine on Vimeo.

I had read and heard a lot about Delia Derbyshire during my PhD research, but I knew only a little bit about Daphne Oram. Exploring Oram’s work during the past few weeks was the richest aspect of participating in the panel discussion for me. I discovered that Daphne Oram lived in an Oast House in Kent, where she built her Oramics machine, made goat’s cheese from her own small flock, and pioneered new ways of thinking about – and producing – sound. She travelled far and wide, teaching school children about electronic music; created jingles using recordings of washing-up machines; recorded her cat; and made music using sound recordings of power tools. As well as this playful, exploratory work, she also made dark, difficult, complex electronic music, and her way of thinking about the production of sounds was like computing and synthesising before we had computers or synthesisers…

…Extra-curricular delights of the Whitstable weekend included fish’n’chips, seagulls, acquiring a ball of Lleyn wool from a local shepherd, mending some clothes and sleeping in The Continental Hotel – which has a beautiful view of the beach and an impressive, art-deco frontage.

Re: mending, the hole in the toe of my tights has now been glamorised with a Visible Mend* in vintage angora.

Bunking off from the festival for a couple of hours on Sunday Morning to go in search of the legendary Shipwright’s Arms was an unexpected bonus. Pops was looking especially good in his tweedy outfit as we headed for Hollowshore…

…On Monday the arrival of Valeria Merlini AKA Phonopolis, AKA JD Zazie bought much joy and heralded the beginning of an intense workshop at this year’s Audiograft Festival, organised by the Sonic Art Research Unit at Oxford Brookes University.

Merlini is a turntablist, field-recordist and experimental DJ. She is as obsessed with SOUNDS as I am, and is one of my favourite people to collaborate with, owing to the fact that she takes everything very seriously, is an extremely sensitive and perceptive listener, and has an amazingly playful, experimental approach to the organisation of sounds. We work at the same pace – coffee-fuelled and rapid, talking in animated bursts, between long bouts of silent, furious concentration, editing and listening. In this photo Merlini is looking up at one of the works produced for the festival by Mike Blow. It is one of several solar-powered instruments which he built, and which emit delicate beeps from old gramaphone horns high in the trees around the campus of Oxford Brookes University. Would you like to see it? You will soon be able to hear it here!

Our workshop was intense, spanning the whole of the Audiograft festival. We had a number of excellent and dedicated attendants who gamely bought microphones of all varieties to all concerts, participated in listening walks, and helped us map out the framework:afield radio show and the Sound Diaries posts which will showcase our collected efforts. We ran on crumpets, tea, car-drives filled with Daphne Oram’s Snow composition, beer, water, and sound. I miss Valeria already. This was the theme-tune of our drives into Oxford; the more that the rhythm speeds up, the more comedic the act of searching for a parking space becomes…

As well as co-running this workshop I also had a couple of performances at Audiograft – including Towards an Excellent Finish – which was devised in collaboration with another favourite co-conspirator; the amazing Stavroula Kounadea. All the thinking about gender & technology in preparation for the Off The Page panel discussion fuelled my own contribution to this work, while Stav worked out of her extensive experiences as a performance artist, and her experiences of working as a technician. We drew on some of the work we did together last year – Mixtape Consultancy – for the utilitarian aesthetic of our performance, which involved producing music using a sewing machine; a handbuilt electronic Atari Punk Console (made by me at a workshop in the Digital Media Centre); scissors; material; and a spectrum 48k knitting pattern software cassette which I played through a dictaphone and mixed with the other sounds. Our set up looked like this:

…And our performance looked like this:

I really enjoyed devising the work with Stav; going through our ideas together, exploring our tools and their soundworlds together, and being the only all-female act to perform at Audiograft this year. Thus there will be more instruction scores! More amplified sewing machines! And more utility-wear! I also had a solo performance the following night at the Holywell – my Harp & Things piece. This was a little more nerve-wracking, because it involved stepping into a proper Concert Hall and playing a classical instrument if not badly then definitely in an unexpected way. In the event it felt liberating to sit there mixing the sounds of thunder and the sea and wind and rain and church bells with the resonances, and sounds of the harp, and the detuned pitches of the its remaining strings.

I enjoyed, too, trading the long velvet skirts and smart shirts of my youthful performances as a budding classical pianist for my most militant of skirts and shirts.

There were so many good moments at the concert in the Holywell but Parkinson and Saunders were the absolute highlight of the evening’s line-up, for me. They used no microphones and no amplification save for the amplifying qualities of the Holywell building itself and their own strident voices. The score – created I think by Tim Parkinson – was created largely out of a consumer opinion survey. Text was reorganised, edited and reconfigured into rhythmic patterns, and everyday objects were struck and manipulated to produce sounds. Stray sentences escaped here and there amidst the linguistic flotsam, so that the source of the material was never allowed to be forgotten. I thoroughly enjoyed the barrage of opinions, views, insights and sounds taken from the original text, and the exuberant use of everyday materials throughout the performance. Their last piece was structured around the phrase “I like” followed by huge lists of themed objects. Every time an object was named by one of the duo, an object was lifted and replaced on the tables loudly, creating a kind of percussion of things. Coffee-cups, bottles, lids, tupperware, baking dishes etc. clanged on the table emphasising and underscoring the list of declarations “I like biscuits and I like ladders and I like trees and…” etc. The piece rose to a jubilant conclusion, and as the pace picked up, objects started to fall on the floor round about the performers, in an avalanche of stuff. I loved the minimal means by which music was produced in this instance, the fun of the performance, and the celebratory use of banal and low-cost materials. It was thrifty, skilled and joyous, and I won’t forget it in a long time.

I also really enjoyed Paul Whitty’s piece – Ricercare – which was performed at Modern Art Oxford on Saturday as part of Audiograft. It was a 6 hour long performance undertaken casually in the yard, spilling out into the street and drawing passersby in. Ricercare is Italian for research or researching, and the piece involves working with a stack of scores and corresponding records. You pick a moment on each page of your score, and then search for its place on the record. You play that moment – a snippet of sound; a note; a chord; a phrase – and then move on to the next page. There were always 3 people performing at once, and this variously produced either a cacophony of chunks of classical music, or beautiful little moments of quietness as we all searched through the scores or the records. There is a very specific kind of listening required to perform this piece, and I enjoyed the work involved in the performance.

I found all the ideas and sounds encountered during this busy time enormously energising. My head is ringing with electronic music; dismantled classical music; plinky harp noises; the rumble-roar of the sewing machine; the delights of the Atari Punk Console; the desire to build more electronic devices; the animated discussions in the car with Valeria between Oxford and Reading; and the politics and experience of being an artist who is a woman working in this sphere.

Throughout the whole time, I have been knitting this. It is the stitch-pattern Flare from Barbara Walker’s treasury of knitting, shown here featuring various yarns, including some heather-dyed Estonian wool; some Lleyn grown near Whitstable and worsted-spun at Diamond Fibres; worsted-spun Black Welsh Mountain yarn; worsted-spun blue, over-dyed Gotland Fleece from Sue Blacker’s own flock; and some Portland yarn which is also worsted-spun at – I believe from its appearance – Diamond Fibres Mill in Sussex. It is a mosaic-stitch pattern, and the instructions are not charted. The long, written explanation of how the pattern is achieved reminds me of computer code.

I have also been making badges from a 1963 copy of “Wireless Today”, featuring vintage recording equipment. These can be purchased for £1.10 at the Old Fire Station Gallery Shop in Oxford.

Finally, I have been really enjoying some darning. Colleen gave me a most beautiful little pincushion, which has travelled in my pockets between Whitstable’s Off The Page festival, and Oxford’s Audiograft. It can be very ungrounding to spend loads of time in concert situations, academic presentations and art installations, and I find darning a welcoming antidote to this – a thread which connects all the exciting sonic information to which I expose my brain to my everyday life and to my everyday things. I don’t want to separate these things.

I wonder if Oram felt the same way, moving between composing electronic sounds and milking her goats?

*please visit for further news on Visible Mending! Thanks to Tom for this phrase, too…

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