Sofa Sound  Newsletter 12/March 1997

Yes...and No


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With this issue there's a new release which will be out in record time, even by my current standards. The timescale involved is, in fact, reminiscent of the period with Charisma when four albums were recorded and released in the space of eighteen months.
Just over four months after the performance, a live CD (double, at just under two hours) of the Union Chapel performance by Guy and myself - plus various illustrious others - is now out.
The bulk of this newsletter, naturally, deals with my many and varied thoughts, memories and reflections on this event.
In the meantime, till later and as ever, thanks for listening!

In the Chapel

The initial idea and impetus for the Union Chapel Concert came from Guy. The venue - a magnificent and still working church in Islington - had lately taken on a fellow member of Echo City as Artistic Director and she had suggested to Guy that he present an evening's entertainment as part of an ongoing series - and as a drive to raise the profile of the place as an alternative London concert site and therefore secure its funding and survival. Guy immediately contacted me, with a view to doing something along the lines of - or at least starting out from the general principles of - our mutual "Spur of the Moment" experiences. We would, therefore, be doing something comparatively left -field in a wonderful ambience, while helping to ensure its continued existence as a performance space. In other words, from a motivational point of view, we would be being 100% Good Eggs.

I sensed, he offered and we both agreed on a sense of challenge. I was keen to avoid a "Hammill solo show with added Evans weirdness" scenario; he to bypass spurious random improvisational noodling. So he encouraged me to hit guitar mode and I him to Go Sample. We also concluded that the involvement of others would be positively beneficial. Beyond this, we had no initial principles to follow or break.

Jackson, by dint of history, nature and personality, was an obvious first candidate for inclusion in whatever scenario would eventually emerge. Giles Perring (unfortunately credited Perrin on the cover!), a fellow-member of Echo City, also loomed as a strong candidate - as an instinctive improv player with a manic streak (something of a dictionary definition for all involved!) - to play second psychedelic guitar. I was also keen that Manny and Stuart (who have, of course, now been fully inducted into the strange frameworks of what might be expected, allowed or demanded in terms of playing with me) should be involved. Finally, Guy pointed out that there was a rather wonderful Pipe organ in the chapel, that he had spoken to Hugh and that he, in turn, had an organ arrangement of Barber's Adagio which he was keen to perform. With the potential addition of an Echo City cast and six weeks or so to go, we had our line-up(s). Clearly, we were obliged, by each other if not by audience expectation, to undertake at least one VdGG effort. From the outset, however, we were all clear that, although an obvious and monumental highlight, this should not be the entire focus of the event; and that we should keep it absolutely unpublicised and secret.

The great material debate then ensued by phone and fax. Early on we agreed that in general we wanted to avoid things which were more or less in my current repertoire; indeed, that by preference we would do stuff which was rarely, if ever, performed live. We were still left with several impressive and lengthy lists with which to juggle, both in terms of set and who-would-play-what. Before we actually began (what can only be loosely described as) rehearsals the only certainty was that the - one and one only - VdGG song should be "Lemmings", since this would be i) not the most expected of choices and ii) difficult enough to stretch us and give us the opportunity for some ensemble playing, some improvisation and some sheer racket.

Guy arrived at Terra Incognita, then, with his stripped down kit and sampler; I'd dug out E-bow, bottleneck and wah-wah; and we both had open minds. Over two one-day sessions we had a lot of fun and made most of the crucial decisions. Some time was spent sifting through my multitracks and masters in order to give Guy a palette of samples which would be architectural rather than ornamental in function; and not too much time on deciding, more or less on-the-fly, who would be responsible for signals and nods. It was with some joy that I discovered I still had the original "Roger and Out" loop; the swirl of "Accidents" was something of a challenge to fit into coherence; many other journeys of sonic research were also undertaken.

On the final set list, three pieces would be live premieres: Guy's sample-and-improv based "Fireworks"; "A Forest of Pronouns"; and "Accidents". Guy has, in fact, been keen to play the last for years (possibly because in the initial recording he had the feeling that he had to drum as though landing a plane in darkness under control tower direction from PH masquerading as Lloyd Bridges). "Anatol", "Roger" and "After the Show" were obvious candidates with loose structure and open possibilities. "Ship of Fools" and "Seven Wonders", both rarely performed, offered different spins on the intended guitar-based world, as did "Red Shift", which had the added historical benefit of having been a song played by the very first VdGGs - both the Judge Smith duo and the Keith Ellis incarnation. The remainder of the set would be taken up by the solo contributions and an ensemble "Traintime", for which Guy was keen to create an Echo City arrangement.

In the meantime, the others involved had been left in some twilight world; they'd been told, just about, what tunes we were expecting them to join in on, but that was about it. I had Manny and Stuart over for an afternoon each to give them the bare bones; Guy worked with Echo City and Giles. Happily, it was generally understood that things would only really become clear, if at all, when we finally rehearsed together.

On the Friday before the concert we assembled, a motley crew, in the Chapel. Jackson had his new Tower block of equipment; Banton a hurriedly adapted organ rig; Elias a new D-drum set-up. Everything just about fitted on stage. Since Guy and I were reasonably confident about our duo pieces the day was devoted to integrating our guests; however, time and space dictated that each piece was only performed twice. Enough: enough to give a taste, to iron out major glitches and leave a sense of eager anticipation. Giles had, incidentally, turned up - he said he could hardly ignore the uniqe nature of the event - with his vinyl copy of "The Least we can do", which had fired him up at the age of eleven; he also later revealed to me that it had been a strange experience for him to arrive having worked on what he thought was a unique E-bow/wah/disto guitar approach to find me belting out something which, if not exactly the same, was certainly in the same Solar System.

Cut to the concert. Something of a sound-check, something of a rehearsal. Something of chaos, something of inner calm. The day went by in a rush and suddenly we were on stage; the other participants had just about been given their instructions as to when to appear and what to expect before we did so.

I was very glad that we'd decided to do two seamless halves: it kept the intensity and focus going throughout. At half-time we decided to add "Hamburg Station", a piece which we'd discussed and for which I'd learned the motif, but which we'd never actually played; a suitable glide into "Seven Wonders". The swell of the pipe organ was a fine oasis amid the sonic assault. Then the final rush. It was a delight that we managed to finesse the VdGG reunion in such a way that it was not immediately clear i) that the four of us were, indeed, finally on stage together or ii) what it was that we were playing. Quite emotional, of course, but also fully spiky and eventful in terms of playing. The wisdom of the choice of "Lemmings" was, I think, borne out by the fact that the extended outro meant we could end internalised on the music and each other's playing, rather than in a triumphal blast. Acknowledgements, "Traintime" and done. It was a great event and, from all our different standpoints, encapsulated what a lot of making music - any kind of music - is about: Serious Fun.

It was meant to be video-ed, but the video didn't show; it was meant to be recorded on three different DATs, but only one materialised. It's from this one, with PZM mics and compression, that the CD has been generated. This took a degree of mastering effort, but I've attempted to stay true to the neo-bootleg nature of the thing rather than attempt spurious enhancement. The sound is far from crystal clear...but it retains the power of the event! There's a modicum of editing, particularly of spoken introductions, applause and chatter (not the most fascinating things on CD!) or, musically, where enthusiasm overtook intention, but this excised only a few minutes and is, I believe, imperceptible. Otherwise, the concert is presented in its raw entirety over two discs.

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The Miscellany

As I write I'm taking some brief time off from recording. In spite of a slew of Fie! releases, it seems to be a long time since the last "normal" PH CD, "X my heart". The next one is now well under way. Five songs are (almost) mix-ready and work is in progress on the rest.
I don't want to be rushed, though. I've set myself no absolute time-frame within which to finish and want to be able to keep my options open about style and content as long as possible this time. My expectation is that I will be done by the end of April; this would mean a release some time towards August or September, I suppose. Enough said for now.
I've had a couple of odd singing slots to occupy myself in the meantime. One was for the German cellist Wolfram Huschke. I believe the CD will be released, by BMG Classical, in September. I've also been doing some work - at a distance - with Ayuo Takahashi, for whom I've both sung and delivered Latin recitation in the past. This one is far from finished; when it is, I'll doubtless have something to say about it, for it's an interesting project!
Departures: Norma Bishop has been with Gail Force for the last 16 years and has been largely responsible for ensuring that I've survived out on tour. She's now left. I - and by proxy you - owe her a large debt of gratitude!
Finally, I was very sad to hear of the death of the great Randy California....

In spite of being bound up in recording and uncertain of exactly when I'll finish, I have signed up for a couple of solo shows to keep the stage genes ticking in the next few months. Thessalonika (20th) and Athens (21st) are in March. On April 30th I'll take part in the "In Folio" literary/musical festival somewhere in Geneva.
There aren't many Antipodeans on the Sofa mailing list but for you few I will also finally be making it to Australia in June - a couple of shows in Melbourne around the 20th, followed by another couple in Sydney around the 25th. Naturally, these are still some way off and await final confirmation but things do look positive!
David Jackson will be doing a series of Soundbeam presentations at the Hannover CeBIT '97 Fair on March 13-18, at the Mitsubishi stand, sponsored by them and Serious (my normal London promoters). Scanner is also appearing and some kind of collaborative effort is in prospect. Should be very interesting. It can be accessed on the Web at
The main thrust of touring will be in the Autumn and is likely to be with the PH Quartet, although for farther flung places cloth may have to be cut to fit....
In any case, I hope to see some of you in 1997 from the mountain-top experiences are proposed at this point! More info next time....

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