Tag Archives: julian winslow

On Not Being Caroline Bergvall

Some time ago I wrote about Ms Bergvall and expressed some desire to be her in that I wanted to ‘do’ poetry in art galleries. This article is an extended way of saying that I am now doing (more or less) that very thing. Our local art centre has just shortlisted my collaborator (Julian Winslow) and I for its ‘Duets’ competeition and we’ve been there to talk about display and acoustics and everything. According to Ju, this now means that we are artists but I’m not entirely sure that I want to have that much to do with art. What I think I want is to be able to explore the potential for poetry (as poetry) in that kind of quite formal and culturally structured arena.

This is not the same as a performance or reading. I’ve had quite a busy year and have been reading poetry and performing multi-vocal poems in a number of different settings but the art aspect is quite different. The voices are recorded and accompany the ‘film’, the piece (art term, apparently) runs on a fifteen minute loop and will do so throughout the two month duration. So, it’s a rendition that doesn’t need me or anyone else to be present and, as the vocals are layered, it can’t be a book. There will also be times when the gallery is open when it will play right through with nobody present, as if to itself. I like that.

Surprisingly (we didn’t intend to do this until we saw the ad for the competition), we’ve found that making this piece has created a number of further possibilities in that we’re now exploring how this documentary format can present other subjects and events. I’m delighted that both the piece, “Hello Austin!”, and the performances have met with such a warm response: this was a complete shock to me because I just wanted to see if I could get the idea out of my head and into the world – I had no idea that people might relate to it and like it.

Given that I’m now both a performer and an artist it seems time to try and work out some kind of framework for these events / objects to operate in. I don’t think this is the same as Bergvall’s thoughts on ‘language practice’ but it’s a first attempt to build a set of rules for the work that is being produced.

Trust the People.

This isn’t original, it is stolen from Emile de Antonio, the finest documentary film maker that the world has produced who said you should let your interviewees lead and steer your content and recognise that any attempt to impose your own take is doomed to failure. This seems straightforward but isn’t, in the film piece I wanted to talk more about our friendship and the things that maintain that and much less about the practical problems involved in the collaboration. I was also immensely tempted to insert what I think wanted to say rather than what I actually said. There’s a piece that I use which I talk about landscape as a performance, it sounds stilted, it doesn’t contain the central point that I wanted to make but I couldn’t leave it out because that was my staring point in the collaboration.

Keep the poetic in sight.

When I started thinking about this, there was an enormous temptation to break things down and scramble them into each other and was reasonably content with the results but then realised that this was more an exercise in cognition than in creative expression. I then started to take more notice of what seemed to be important to people and the way that they talked about these things and that wilfully breaking up these importances wasn’t very honest. So, I’ve introduced longer phrasing into the performances and recordings and this has created a chance or an opportunity for something with a touch of the lyric. As regular readers will know, this i quite a shock as I am of the view that there is far too much of the poetic in poetry and we need to get rid of (most) of this pernicious vice. I was then taken aback when mastering (technical term) the sound file for the film to discover that it has quite intensely lyrical passages and even more surprised to find that I didn’t mind.

Keep on changing the frame.

This is important. Poetry works best when it puts itself in new and uncomforatable places. It should continually try itself against other forms and in other places and it should not be frightened that this will dilute its purity or strength. One of the reasons poetry isn’t attended to any more is because it looks inward to itself and it has conversations only with itself which results in stupidly (stupidly) spiteful factions that deter and repel any converts that it might attract. The best way to amend this sad malaise is to engage with musicians, painters, sculptors, film makers and any other creative types that are open to dialogue. This should involve explaining and justifying poetry to those who have no attachment to it and working with others to make different but poetic things.

Take care with image and the poem.

We started with what we didn’t want: we wanted to move away from illustration and augmentation. I’m not making a soundtrack and Ju isn’t illustrating the sound(s). I started out with the improv model in that we’ve had broad themes and then working around these in a way that’s mindful of the images. With the ongoing landlying project this has been refined down ready for the next phase. With ‘Hello Austin’ we took collaboration as our theme and ourselves and our processes as the subject matter. So, the sound is a recording of things that were said during this filming session and one other but as an expression rather than an account of the conversation. I’m trying not to get too complicated on this but it is important to be mutually aware in some detail of the processes involved and to share in the making process from both perspectives. We think we’re now at the point where we’re beginning to get what we want but it’s still got a way to go.

Noise is okay.

This is odd. I’ve disccovered the astounding aporee site which collects and presents geo-tagged field recordings from all over the world. I’ve listened to many of these and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a case to be made for some unmediated recordings as poems. It transpires that there is someone in one of the Baltic states who is making these poems and they are quite wonderful. I’m using ‘noise’ rather than sound as a kind of protest over the way that both technology and architectural strategies have been used in the last 100 years to deny the noise that things make. I don’t want to get to carried away (manic) on this but I was listening to the noise made by patients who were waiting for their drugs in a hospital in Taiwan yeaterday and decided that this was a 5 minute poem….

How collaborative poetry might work

The Fugalists

Rachael Berry, me, Chris Jones and Keri Highland post-gig 17.8 2013

Regular readers may know that I dabble in making my own attempts at the poetic. Recent efforts have used archive material, photography and/or multiple voices with minimalist piano. After more than a few months of working through permutations I think I’ve got a collaborative ‘form’ that works. I usually define my stuff as ‘working’ when it does what was in my head at the beginning (or thereabouts) regardless of the reaction of others- which has usually been one of mystification and/or disdain. On this occasion however, I seemed to have struck a balance between what I want to achieve and what people like. Last week-end my collaborators performed this vocal improvisation in a yurt at a local arts festival. It was the last item of the evening and I rounded things off and joined a friend outside in the gathering gloom to discuss the evening as a whole. Before we could start I was approached by a lady in her fifties who asked for my contact details, I asked her what she thought and she said the last piece really “worked” and then became quite emotional about how well it worked.

I’d liked to have been able to write this off s a single reaction but there has been positive feedback from equally unexpected quarters. I find myself to be ridiculously pleased about this but the main point of writing about it here is to try and fathom what it is that appeals and why it should appeal to such a broad group of people. I’ll start with the motivation: for many years I’ve been interested in work with multi layered vocals; I’m of the view that there’s too much of the poetic in poetry; I’m incredibly interested in what people say about their passions and how they say it.

So, the initial plan involved a collaboration between myself and Julian Winslow, a local photographer who is also my best friend. Our theme is landscape and my contribution involved interviewing a number of people who worked on or with the land in order to make a multi-layered sound file which would then be played at the same time as people viewed Julian’s pictures.

This ran alongside a series of interviews and discussions with a local musician/song writer, Keri Highland, about mental fragility. I then distilled these down to about twenty phrases each which we improvised around at a couple of gigs earlier this year. We were both taken aback by the response. As part of my collaboration with Julian we’d been recording interviews with each other as to the creative process and he suggested that I should interview others from different disciplines. Rachael Berry and Chris Jones had both been exhibiting their art at the second gig where Keri and I had performed together and I cajoled them both into a series of interviews as to their various processes, I also interviewed Keri on the same subject.

The next few weeks were spent playing the sound files and extracting what seemed to me the most honest and unvarnished things that the subjects had said and subtracting the same from the interview that I had with myself – which was essentially my response(s) to what the other three had said.

We then rehearsed once or twice a week, refining the format. I’d known from previous attempts on the landscape project that three voices talking together mostly descends into incoherence whereas it is possible to make some sense from two voice. After some tweaking we decided to alternate the two male voices (with some cross-over) whilst the two female voices should do the same. This produced a piece whereby a male and a female voice were speaking at the same time but not in response to each other. The improvised element was that people could read the phrase that they wanted whenever they wanted in response to or against what the other had just said.

After some further discussion we decided to try a fairly abstract keyboard backing. After some brief exchanges Keri came up with and recorded something that we all felt that we could ‘lean’ into and which enhanced the work rther than turning it into any kind of song.

I’d produced these events through the summer and could therefore decide on where to place this amongst the poets musicians and story tellers. Because the mental health improv had been so well received in previous gigs, I decided to finish the evening with it and was amazed by the warmth and enthusiasm of the response.

I’m still not sure why this material gets this kind of response, now why it should appeal to an audience with different interests and tastes. I’d like to think that it’s because it carries some transparent honesty that people can relate to and be absorbed in. The friend who was waiting outside the yurt is of the view that it demands some audience involvement in that people have to really listen to follow a particular thread. I think he’s right and I’m very pleased that people do seem prepared to pay attention.

The other element that is ideologically important for me in my ongoing war with the poetic is that it made use only of what people said in non-poetic and reasonably ordinary conversations. You may argue that interviewing myself is a bit of a cheat and you’d be right. The first ten minutes of my conversation with me are full of neat and pithy little phrases, I then realised that I wasn’t supposed to be making an impression and wittered on about the material that I think is incisively brilliant and the rest of the world is completely indifferent to.

I also discover that I’m on bit of mission to challenge assumptions about poetry: I red half an episode of a soap opera that I’d poeticised which was very well received and a much more standard poetic rant about cultural saturation that was inventive, lyrical and quite skilled but ws ded after about the third line of many.

The next challenge is to try and maintain the momentum without being too ambitious. The obvious dimensions that I seem to be playing with are: subject matter; number and gender of voices and the nature of the musical backing if we feel we need one. Beyond that there’s visual material but I’m concerned that this might detract from the attention that is currently paid to the words.

For some reason I’m also of the view that we should only perform this at the moment because it appears that this collective involvement / attention might be the core aspect.

A final note on collaboration, I know that some find it intolerable and other projects crash and burn due to big egos but I have to say that my experience both with John Matthias and these three have brought me out of my shell in quite unexpected ways.

The Landlying Project

This is essentially a shameless piece of self-promotion disguised as an extended discussion of the Poetic Collaboration problem. For the past few months I’ve been involved in a collaboration with Julian Winslow, a photographer, on the general ‘theme’ of landscape. Here’s a it of a taste:

landlying pic

The River Medina Feb 2013


Before we go any further, I need to point out that I have been a poetry purist in that I don’t think that the poem should be sullied by other forms of expression. This is primarily because one will inevitably detract from the quality of the other. I’ve felt this since being very disappointed by Hughes’ ‘Remains of Elmet’ in 1979 and there has been little to change my mind since.

So my excuse for the above is that it didn’t start as a poetic endeavour but as an attempt to construct a ‘mix’ of oral history and image in such a way that each element informs rather than illustrates/accompanies the other. Regular readers will know that I have a creative interest in the appropriation of what people say (in formal settings) about things that are important to them and their lives. I therefore determined to interview local people who worked on or with the land. I bought one of those voice recorder gizmos and then gathered about twenty hours of interviews with eight different individuals.

A further creative ambition of mine has been to create something with overlaid/fugal voices in a way that plays with our notions of coherence. I tried this initially last year in overlaying and phasing my own voice reading excerpts of the Saville Report and this endeavour had given me the confidence to take things a bit further.

In terms of collaboration, I’m very fortunate to have Julian Winslow, an outstanding professional photographer, as my best friend. This creative partnership works for us because we respect each other’s respective skills and because we don’t need to worry about offending each other. Needless to say we haven’t produced what we intended to but we’ve allowed things to move in the direction of the material. Talking to people has revealed, in this narrow but eclectic sample, the central importance of parental influence in engendering an interest in the natural world and that one of the first steps into this interest is the naming of things.

For an ego-maniacal control freak like me this was intensely annoying because I wanted people to talk about moments of epiphany and transfiguration and about the placing of the body and about the myriad of processes in the environment occurring at the same time. What people actually said (once I’d let go of my ‘themes’) was far more compelling because it was considered, heartfelt and honest. People did want me to understand their experiences and perspective and were incredibly generous with their time so that I could clarify what was being said.

With this kind of generosity and honesty comes a sense of responsibility. My first fifteen efforts were aimed primarily at technique and pandered to my own preference for the abstract with short phrases that I’d ripped completely out of context and overlaying that too often fell into non-coherence. I then started to give some thought to the wy that polyphony has developed in different cultures and this gave me a new ‘hook’ to build the audio around.

I decided to use longer extracts and to concentrate on what I feel are the most honest and authentic things that people said, things that people seemed keenest to get across, the things that matter to them. This ranged from seeing the landscape as a primary source of education, a site of ecological paradox, a place of interlocking narratives to a place of healing and an ongoing source of child-like wonder. I also tried to honour the multi faceted nature of landscape processes by overlaying the voices so that the listener does have to concentrate to follow one or more particular thread.

The other quite important point to make is the absence of purpose involved in the collaboration. Early on we got accustomed to the idea that we didn’t know where this project was taking us and (after a while) relaxed into that fact and have tried to let it become both a key feature and a technical advantage. I’m not going to get too ‘deep’ about this but I’ve certainly found being playful for it’s own sake has had a significant and positive effect on my other activities.

One of the best aspects of collaboration is enhanced objectivity, as a fully fledged bipolar suffering artiste I have this inbuilt tendency to destroy almost everything within two days of making it. I now have to explain to Julian why stuff isn’t any good and this (it turns out) means that I keep much more- and I have a range of non-depressive reasons for doing this. This has also led to a reconsideration of ‘failure’- previously I’ve judged my output in terms of its proximity to what I want to achieve and rejected anything that was remotely wide of the mark. Now, I find I’m taking an interest in those things that turn out different and trying to work out why this is and what might be done with them.

We now come to the music, I really struggled with the use of recorded music initially but the reaction thus far has been that the minimal/repetitionist music of Lawrence Crane and the monotone trumpets of South Sudan do help to ‘frame the audio in a way that is (oddly) more involving on the ear.

In conclusion, Id like to thank those who contributed so much of their time- Irene Fletcher, Mary King, Chris Kidd, Tim Johnson, Julian Winslow, Max Hastings, David Biles, Keri Highland and Ian Boyd.

Feedback on any of this would be much appreciated. On the audio track below, things start with 10 seconds of almost deliberate silence.

Medina river Feb 2013

Medina river Feb 2013