Partly political broadcast

This week, I had planned to write a blog post breaking my own rule and talk about politics, briefly, with regards to the EU referendum, which has pretty much dominated conversations online and off for the last month, and frankly made it tricky to concentrate on getting any artwork done. On Wednesday, when there was a jolly scene on boats on the Thames, I’d got everything lined up ready to write. And then, as I’m sure you know, events took a much darker turn. As a result, I’ve chosen not to wade into things, but instead to tell a little story about how I became a teacher, and the EU’s surprising part in it all.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, I ran a record label called Wasp Factory Recordings, which was successful in every way except financially. We had not one person on our crew who was any good at sales, but despite this we had some brilliant adventures, played some legendary shows and put out some amazing albums, a significant number of which are still in my mum’s loft. Whilst running the label, I was doing a lot of other music related things at the same time – working as a sound and lighting engineer, booking bands for showcase gigs, and producing the odd demo for local acts. All good fun, but none of which did appreciably more than pay the bills.

Whilst booking a room for a band to record their demo in – a local community centre with some recording equipment neglected in a corner – I enquired as to who was in charge of the space, and was told that the previous manager had left, that the funding to renovate the space was available but they didn’t have anyone who could continue the project, and was I interested in helping out? I grabbed the chance with both hands and gave it a hug. This turned out to be the beginning of my current career path, and within a couple of months I was working with local bands, and then students excluded from school and young offenders.

Then one day I saw an advert asking for someone to manage a music project going into schools and working in pupil referral units (PRUs), with NEETs (those not in education, employment or training) and other youngsters having a tough time at school. To my delight and surprise, I aced the interview and thus was born the In Tune project, based at Stroud College. For the next 2 years I worked with an awesome team running what I still regard as one of the best projects I have worked on. We would go into schools and PRUs for 3 weeks at a time, working with the students that other teachers were struggling to engage or, in some cases I’m sad to report, had given up on. Through a mixture of enthusiasm, naivete and a cavalier approach to the qualification I was supposed to be teaching, we were incredibly successful at re-engaging those we worked with, and many of them went on to study music or work in the creative industries. We gave 200 young people at risk of dropping out of education – and in some cases, society – the opportunity to be part of a team working together on something creative, and for the many, this was one of the few positive educational experiences they had since leaving Primary school.

And here’s the key bit – this project was funded by the EU, via the European Social Fund, which gave grants specifically to help underprivileged people across Europe. Without it, there would have been no In Tune project, and I doubt if I would have been given the opportunity to go on and become a qualified teacher and continue to be an advocate for providing transformative experiences for those facing barriers to mainstream education. The money we got was generous, and although there were intended outcomes (which we exceeded), we were given a level of freedom to run the project how we thought would work best, the likes of which I have not experienced since in my teaching career. Looking back, it remains a brilliant model on how music projects can be run and how massive their impact can be.

We’ve heard a lot over the last month or so about the EU, the supposed costs and ‘red tape’, but not enough has been said about all the positive work the EU funds for those who have had less opportunity in life. They have quietly and without fanfare provided a significant amount of money and assistance which has helped to change people’s lives, and in many cases plugged the gaps that have been left by recent government funding cuts. If we leave the EU, we will not be able to access this funding, and the work that I and countless others do for those in vulnerable situations could be severely compromised.

If you’ve made up your mind about the referendum, I’m not going to try and convince you to change it. However, if you haven’t decided yet, or are not fussed either way, I have a simple request – please consider those less fortunate than yourself when deciding how to vote on Thursday.

I think we achieve much greater things when we collaborate and work together than when we compete.

Sorry I’m late, miss…

The more observant of you will have noticed that I didn’t manage to hit my Sunday deadline for a blog post this week, for lots of reasons… which will make up my blog post this week.

preservation-201x300Almost all weekend I’ve been preparing music for our performance at The Wilson Art Gallery takeover, called PRESERVATION which is on this Saturday (18th June) from 6-10pm (free entry). I’ll be performing a temp0rary set with Adrian Giddings – and as is our way, what started off as a small-scale, straightforward event soon spiralled out of control.

The idea of temp0rary was to be a ‘band’ in the loosest sense that did A/V performances where it would be impossible to put on the same show twice, were every element was constructed live, and which could respond to the audience – even allowing them to take control of the show at points. We’ve performed our own shows and done some incredible collaborations with other artists in all creative fields. The show for PRESERVATION, called Suggestion Box, is actually a prelude to a working method we hope to expand in a later work, but the premise is that we will be taking audience feedback and recommendations for the direction of the visuals and music *as we perform it*. I have no idea what will happen, but in preparation, I revisited some of the previous temp0rary tracks, nearly 30 of them, and have been hammering them into a shape were they can be performed all together as a single piece of metamorphosizing work. Should be interesting…

Alongside this work, my wife and I have been popping along to events at Cheltenham Science Festival most evenings, which is a great way to keep the grey matter ticking over. I love the festivals we have locally, and the science festival may well be my favourite – I’m particularly fond of the ‘communicators’ ethic as typified by FameLab, which we saw the final of – I think it sets and excellent example of how dynamic and fun education can, and indeed, should be. Maybe we could have a similar thing for music?

So I was hoping to catch up on the blog on Monday, but I had my final music leader training session with Phil Mullen at BPM in Bristol. These sessions have been absolutely outstanding, and once more I came away with a head full of new ides, best practice, and ambitions to be a better musician and leader in future. This week we were talking about progression, and it reinforced some of my beliefs that music ought not to be seen as a ‘treat subject’, to be offered to students if they do their spelling and sums, with the threat of removal for bad behaviour. I learned about a lot of ongoing research on how music helps people to develop important interpersonal, emotional and cognitive intelligences, and it strengthened my resolve to go out, change lives and blow minds.

And in between the gaps I have been keeping the plates spinning for my Mix & Mash summer school as part of the Of Course We Can programme, preparing the performances (multiple; four at last count…) for the Cheltenham Music Festival between 9th & 16th July, and marking late work from tardy students. Anyway I’ve got 2 blog posts all sketched out for next time, one about the financial side of being a freelance music leader, and another with some thoughts about a piece of homework I did for Phil about the skills you need to be a community musician. That’s if I don’t fall asleep between now and then…


preservation-201x300Saturday 18th June, 6pm – 10pm
‘PRESERVATION’ – The Wilson Art Gallery Takeover
temp0rary performing ‘Suggestion Box’ – a long-form silent disco performance with audience interaction
Wilson Art Gallery, Cheltenham
Free Entry


Saturday 9th July (Time TBC)
The Great Gamelan Experiment
Performing with a gamelan orchestra and live electronics
Imperial Gardens, Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry


Sunday 10th July (Time TBC)
Live Electronic Music show & tell
Imperial Gardens, Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry

Sunset-Lumiere_600-210x300


Saturday 16th July, 7.30 – 10.30pm
Sunset Lumiere
temp0rary performing a full A/V set with very special guests TBC
Skillicorne Gardens (next to Imperial Gardens), Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry


Sunday July 31st, 6pm
Dali Males
Performing improvised electronics as part of Vinestock Festival 2016
The Vine, Cheltenham
Free Entry


mixandmash2016Monday August 8th – Friday August 12th
Mix & Mash summer school
Friendship Café, Gloucester
£55 for 5 days
See The Music Works website for details

 

The naming of the thing

I’ve been thinking a lot about my blog from last week, and I have to confess that I may need to go back to that ‘I make music for a living’ statement. It’s not that it’s inaccurate, more that it doesn’t actually cover the most important aspect of  how I make music for a living.

I’ve already discussed in previous blogs what I do, and to some extent what I don’t do. This came up in conversation when speaking to a new client a couple of weeks ago, who asked if I did Music Therapy. In the strictest sense, what I do isn’t music therapy although it shares many of its goals and methods. But to be a qualified music therapist requires years of theoretical study, and a musical proficiency on conventional instruments that remains a barrier to me.

What I do instead doesn’t really have a name yet, and that’s part of the problem. What I’m very good at is taking my 30-odd years of knowledge and love of electronic music and bringing it to bear on the core belief I have that literally everyone has the potential for artistic expression through music – if given the right instrument.

So whilst part of what I do is make music for a living, increasingly, and I feel perhaps more importantly, my job is also to research different ways of making music, and then modify, tweak, hack or build them to the specific needs of those that I work with.

There was a perfect example of this work over the last week. I had done a one to one session with a new client – let’s call her Cee – who has Multiple Sclerosis. She has limited movement, which renders most musical instruments impossible for her to hold, let alone play. In the first session, where I had experimented with some movement based instruments like SoundBeam, I noticed that she had a strong grip in both hands. In between the first and second sessions, I built a music controller that was based on pressure.

What followed was almost unbelievable. Cee was controlling the pitch of a sound through pressure whilst I joined in on keyboard and guitar, playing call and response phrases and pitching notes. She then went on to add movement with her head to play the SoundBeam at the same time, effectively acting as a one-person band.

I’m not the only one doing this sort of work or realising this need – aside from the outstanding work that Drake Music, BPM and similar organisations are doing, there are several inventors and musicians creating exciting projects that have the potential to re-shape music performance. Here are a couple of my favourites:

Firstly, Imogen Heap and her MiMu gloves:

More info here.

And secondly, a Kickstarter for Dato Duo – a synthesiser designed for two younger people to play together:

More info and Kickstarter here.

Part of my goal is to make myself obsolete, which might sound like a strange endgame, but hear me out… What I would ideally like to do is to work with people who want to make music and help to break down any and all of the barriers they face, be they physical, emotional or behavioural, but then to give them the tools to make music as independently as possible rather than relying on me and my boxes of tricks. What I’d like to move towards with everyone I work with is to find inexpensive and simple ways that everyone can make music so that they can do so whenever the muse takes them, not just for the hour or so when I’m in the room. Music can change lives, but I believe that to unlock its full potential, people need to have access to music making all the time, not just in workshop sessions.

So, what do I do for a living? I’m still not sure what to put on the next lot of business cards. My friend Rodney Orpheus defines himself as a ‘Technology Evangelist’ and I am very fond of that title. So with his permission I might have to borrow that until I can think of something better myself.


Forthcoming events:

Saturday 18th June, 6pm – 10pm
‘PRESERVATION’ – The Wilson Art Gallery Takeover
temp0rary performing ‘Suggestion Box’ – a long-form silent disco performance with audience interaction
Wilson Art Gallery, Cheltenham
Free Entry

Saturday 9th July (Time TBC)
The Great Gamelan Experiment
Performing with a gamelan orchestra and live electronics
Imperial Gardens, Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry

Sunday 10th July (Time TBC)
Live Electronic Music show & tell
Imperial Gardens, Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry

Saturday 16th July, 7.30 – 10.30pm
Sunset Lumiere
temp0rary performing a full A/V set with very special guests TBC
Skillicorne Gardens (next to Imperial Gardens), Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry

Sunday July 31st, 6pm
Dali Males
Performing improvised electronics as part of Vinestock Festival 2016
The Vine, Cheltenham
Free Entry

Monday August 8th – Friday August 12th
Mix & Mash summer school
Friendship Café, Gloucester
£55 for 5 days
See The Music Works website for details

Living the dream (terms & conditions apply)

“Hi, my name’s Lee, I make music for a living”

This week, I was able to say the above sentence with more confidence than ever before. I’ve been making music (or equivalent noises) for about 30 years now and have been in bands since I was 17. Making music has taken up a lot of my life, but it’s not been the thing that has primarily paid the bills until now. I’ve always had to have other jobs on the go – this isn’t something I’ve ever had a problem with, in fact I’d say that by doing this, I have built up lots of other additional skills that have been essential for going freelance. Plus it’s handy for my unique mindset, which was once described by a lecturer at college once as ‘intellectually promiscuous’.

So, to many people looking in, it would appear that I am “living the dream”, and I guess I am in many ways – I’m doing a job I love in an area of the arts that’s notoriously fickle about who it allows to profit from working in it. But, as came up in conversation with someone this week, I think a lot of that is because I have enjoyed the widely varied work so much that I have not minded making the sacrifices needed to get to where I am now. This bit is difficult for many developing artists from a psychological position; there’s definitely an unwritten score card that determines how well you are doing in adult life when compared to your peers who may have taken a more conventional route. By now, a little nagging voice of normality tells me I ought to have a fancy car, a mortgage, children, an investment portfolio, and probably be on to my second or third marriage with a nervous disposition to match. I sacrificed all this to live very much in the now, and I genuinely don’t regret it one bit, but I’ve always been more excited by the road less travelled than I am fearful of it.

IcebergNowadays, it’s not uncommon for children to be told from an early age that they can be whatever they want to be, but I’ve heard some folks of my generation commenting disparagingly that this this has resulted in disillusioned and feckless hipsters and Millennials. Firstly, I’d say that whilst it’s not in any way harmful to give children aspirations, I think it’s disingenuous to only tell them one side of the equation – you can be whatever you want to be, providing you are prepared to choose one thing, stick to it, and make sacrifices to achieve it. You want to be an athlete? You’ll be getting up at 4am and won’t be spending time on your XBox. You want to be an astronaut? Suddenly all that maths homework just got a lot more important. You want to be a musician? Throwing some loops together in Garageband might be fun, but go and learn how to do your accounts, or you’ll be paying someone else to do it for you.

Secondly I don’t think it’s wrong to question the expectations that society has for you. I’m hearing stories of people sacrificing all of their youth to live with their parents in order to scrimp and save to buy a house some time in their 30’s. This seems absolutely absurd to me, and I think it can result in people growing up with a very different set of values – I certainly didn’t even begin to develop into the person I am today until I moved away from home to study. Certainly from a musical perspective, it may account in part for how music sounds at the moment; in the 1970’s and 80’s, twentysomethings were living in bedsits and squats and we had a vibrant music scene. I’d argue that making a revolutionary noise is less likely if you’re living with your mum and dad, so from the point of view of music, I’m glad that some young people are starting to question the post-war narrative of school-college-job-car-wife-house-family-retirement-death.

At this point, it’s worth a quick privilege check. Sometimes I’ll discuss my career trajectory with a class, and that whole saying of ‘the past is a foreign country’ couldn’t be more true – my childhood experience is no more realistic to them than an episode of Game of Thrones. Although I’m from a working class background, I didn’t grow up in poverty, I went to 2 good schools and did well in exams, caught the final years when students had grants instead of loans, and set up my record label with support from the government. There were fewer distractions too; just 3 or 4 TV stations that shut down at midnight, computer games took 5 minutes to load if you were lucky, and there was no internet or mobile phones. I’m not sure that someone as intellectually promiscuous as me would’ve been able to concentrate on my studies or hobbies quite so effectively if there were as many distractions as there are now, and the financial commitments of further and higher education would have almost certainly led me to make different choices about what I chose to study.

I worry about music because I love music and want to hear new things that genuinely excite me until the day I die, and it’s been a while since modern music has affected me that way. I want to get old in a world that still thinks punk is an attitude, not something you go to see in a museum. I want music festivals to have bands playing that make me feel old, not a bunch of revivalists, reunions and tribute acts. It’s music’s ability to shock and agitate and energise that fuels my fire. So whilst I make music for a living, I still want to support those who make music because they have to, because it burns in them and has to come out, loudly, into the world. Not just because they are trying to save up to put down the mortgage on a starter home.

 


Forthcoming events:

Saturday 18th June (Afternoon)
The Wilson Art Gallery Takeover
temp0rary performing ‘Suggestion Box’ – a long-form silent disco performance with audience interaction
Wilson Art Gallery, Cheltenham
Free Entry

Saturday 9th July (Time TBC)
The Great Gamelan Experiment
Performing with a gamelan orchestra and live electronics
Imperial Gardens, Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry

Saturday 16th July, 7.30 – 10.30pm
Sunset Lumiere
temp0rary performing a full A/V set with very special guests TBC
Skillicorne Gardens (next to Imperial Gardens), Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry

Sunday July 31st, 6pm
Dali Males
Performing improvised electronics as part of Vinestock Festival 2016
The Vine, Cheltenham
Free Entry

mixandmash2016Monday August 8th – Friday August 12th
Mix & Mash summer school
Friendship Café, Gloucester
£55 for 5 days
See The Music Works website for details

 

Failure is always an option

Although I’ve given the long answer to the question ‘how did you end up making music for a living’ in a previous blog, when asked at by someone I’ve not met before how I ended up doing this work, the short answer I often give is because I’m a failed modelmaker. I’ve kind of made a living by doing more than one thing at once, and then somehhow smashing those things together to build a third, unexpected combination, like some kind of occupational alchemy. I like the definition of ‘career’ that describes something barely under control.

I’ve done my fair share of academic education, in part because I am lucky enough to find it relatively easy. Having said that, I’ve never been fond of taking the easy route, preferring instead to follow what was interesting; at school, my grades in English were much higher than those in Art, but I have always preferred making something new to analysing something old, so I took the path of most resistance and went to art college rather than university. In no small part this was also due to the company I kept – I found artists to be much more fun to be around than those studying the classics.

Plan-Do-Review_0I’m a big advocate of action research and action learning, and believe these approaches offer a good structure for running dynamic music sessions and workshops, but there’s a key element that’s important in that cycle of planning, doing, and reviewing – and that is to do with being allowed to fail. I should add that I don’t regularly run sessions that I consider a failure, although to be honest, the reason I’m writing on this subject is because I did recently have a session that went so far off-piste I began to question my life choices. After the dust had settled, I reviewed the process – when I was in a band, we used to refer to the analysis of bad gigs as the post-mortem – and tried to work out where the session had started to go off the rails. After a lot of soul-searching and a few targeted emails to find out more about the young people I was working with, I made some tweaks to the session content, the room it was in and the equipment I was using, and all those involved responded much more positively.

Numerous studies show that we learn much more from failing than succeeding  and that’s certainly been the case in my life. I deliberately take on over-ambitious projects that I know have a chance of failing, because it’s only when my creativity and ingenuity are stretched that I feel like I’m doing work that is exciting and innovative. Experimentation is often fostered in the arts, and some organisations – like the inspirational and ground-breaking Tempting Failure  – actively encourage those they work with to go way beyond their comfort zone. They have helped many artists, including myself, to come up with extremely challenging and ambitious work.

Given this almost universal understanding, it can be incredibly difficult to get the young people I work with to experiment in the music workshops I run. Many are scared of failing, being told that what they are doing is wrong, or being embarrassed in front of their peers. The older the people I work with, the more reluctant they are to participate in anything that might not be a guaranteed success. I suspect (without wishing to get embroiled in politics) that a lot of this has to do with recent changes in education, and the idea that there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ answer to every question – not because it makes education more robust, but because it makes it simpler to assess. For some subjects like maths that may be appropriate (up to a point) but in the Arts, most progress is made by people intentionally breaking rules, making mistakes, doing things wrong and failing to conform.

burningmanI think as practitioners of the Arts, it’s extremely important to cultivate safe spaces that give the freedom to experiment, and allow participants to fail without the repercussions of criticism. When I was running Wasp Factory Recordings, we used to refer to these as “temporary autonomous zones” – little pockets of time and space where the usual rules are suspended briefly and people are free to act outside of their normal behaviour. A perfect example of this is Burning Man Festival, the once a year festival that builds a city in the desert and then vanishes again. I’ve never been but it’s definitely on my bucket-list. For a very long time, photography was banned at Burning Man, and before the internet, it had almost mythical status, tales of enormous sculptures, performances and rituals, being passed around like modern folk tales.

We are living at a very peculiar point in history where we have embraced digital culture without really considering how it is changing the way we interact with each other. As ‘selfie culture’ has shown, it is often more important to be seen to be having fun than to actually enjoy yourself, and young people live in fear of doing something daft, only to have it go viral and be made a global laughing stock. Sorry folks, but if you laughed at ‘Star Wars Kid’ and others, you’re part of the problem here. The permanent is often so much less important than those times when you are truly lost in something. I’m researching about ‘flow state’ at the moment, and considering how damaging it is to have mobile devices breaking people’s concentration endlessly, or worse still, ridiculing these fantastic times when we are lost in the wild abandon of creativity, not worried about failing or succeeding, but just being in the moment.

I remember being told a story, I think during my teacher training, that has stayed with me as an example of why we need to be careful of valuing just the end results of a process. A child spends all day playing in the sand pit, building an ellaborate system of roads, waterways, dams, bridges and tunnels. Their carer comes to pick them up, and as they leave, they put their hand in a paint-pot and slap it on a piece of paper. When their carer asks what they did all day, the child hands them the piece of paper, and it gets proudly displayed on the fridge. The city made of sand can be too easily forgotten.

As Einstein said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”


Forthcoming events:

Saturday 18th June (Afternoon)
The Wilson Art Gallery Takeover
temp0rary performing ‘Suggestion Box’ – a long-form silent disco performance with audience interaction
Wilson Art Gallery, Cheltenham
Free Entry

Saturday 9th July (Time TBC)
The Great Gamelan Experiment
Performing with a gamelan orchestra and live electronics
Imperial Gardens, Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry

Saturday 16th July, 7.30 – 10.30pm
Sunset Lumiere
temp0rary performing a full A/V set with very special guests TBC
Skillicorne Gardens (next to Imperial Gardens), Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry

Sunday July 31st, 6pm
Dali Males
Performing improvised electronics as part of Vinestock Festival 2016
The Vine, Cheltenham
Free Entry

mixandmash2016Monday August 8th – Friday August 12th
Mix & Mash summer school
Friendship Café, Gloucester
£55 for 5 days
See The Music Works website for details

Memory Tapes

chimps_1This is a blog entry by way of protracted apology – I’m a day late, but my excuses are many and wondrous. Normally I write my blogs over the weekend, starting them based on notes from the week and finishing them on a Sunday, but this week has been busy even by my standards. This weekend was spent with long-time artistic conspirator Adrian Giddings who is the visuals half of the A/V equation for temp0rary. Over a productive 36 hours we’d hammered out the shape of our forthcoming performances, done a site visit (which just happened to be situated behind the beer garden) and marvelled at the stage production of the Eurovision Song Contest.

chimps_2Then, at about the point where I should have been putting my feet up and resting for the week ahead, instead I joined the Cheltenham Improvisors Orchestra for the final event of the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, creating an improvised soundtrack around poetry readings. I’m loving my time with the CIO so far, it’s making me think about music in a completely different way, moving me even further from the already loose structures of the performances I do as part of temp0rary.

I guess I don’t really think very often about how far the music I make and enjoy can stray from what other people consider music – this was driven home on Friday when I popped into a school to do a talk about the music I make and specifically the Great Gamelan Experiment that I’m currently running on a Monday afternoon. It turns out the teacher was in a band with me almost 30 years ago, and reminded me of experiments with tape recorders and broken bottles. I’d entirely forgotten about early forays into music concrete and tape loops until then. The ghosts of the past didn’t stop there – over the weekend, another early collaborator got in touch to tell me he had unearthed previously lost recordings of my first ever band playing live. I listened to them with a mix of awe and embarrassment. I don’t think I’ll be sharing them with the general public any time soon…

gamelan-poster-A4_1It did get me thinking about how much the world has changed in the last 30 years – back then, all music had a financial barrier and electronic music making equipment was still prohibitively expensive whereas nowadays you can get a phone for a few quid a month that’s capable of helping you compose, record, mix and master your tracks, and then upload them to a global platform. Keeping copies of things you made used to involve buying tape stock, developing photographs and trips to the library to use the photocopier. To this day, I’m still pretty bad at remembering to document the work I do, and need reminding of the projects I’ve been involved in. On the plus side, however, it’s easier for me to hide the recordings of synth pop renditions of 1970’s metal songs…


I thought I’d end each blog in future with a list of forthcoming performances – as helpful for me keeping track of deadlines as it is for me to promote the work I’m doing. More info coming as it gets confirmed.

Forthcoming performances:

Saturday 18th June (Afternoon)
The Wilson Art Gallery Takeover
temp0rary performing ‘Suggestion Box’ – a long-form silent disco performance with audience interaction
Wilson Art Gallery, Cheltenham
Free Entry

Saturday 9th July (Time TBC)
The Great Gamelan Experiment
Performing with a gamelan orchestra and live electronics
Imperial Gardens, Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry

Saturday 16th July, 7.30 – 10.30pm
Sunset Lumiere
temp0rary performing a full A/V set with very special guests TBC
Skillicorne Gardens (next to Imperial Gardens), Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry

Sunday July 31st, 6pm
Dali Males
Performing improvised electronics as part of Vinestock Festival 2016
The Vine, Cheltenham
Free Entry

The map is not the territory

This week I want to start with a confession, and it is this: I can’t read music.

I mention this because a couple of weeks back, I was running a session with adults with learning difficulties where the centre was short-staffed (as, frankly, they almost always are). Some of the clients were being helped by a support worker who had not been in one of my sessions before. He suggested – I’m not sure why – that we should sing the Time Warp. And then proceeded to be shocked three times – firstly at the revelation that I didn’t know it off the top of my head, secondly that I didn’t carry the sheet music with me and thirdly that I didn’t read music. It made me feel like a bit of a fraud, even though this was at a centre I’ve worked at for years and where I know they are very happy with my work.

I’ve tried several times to read music, but music (as traditionally noted on a stave with all those dots, like you see on mugs and teatowels) just doesn’t link to what I hear coming out of the instruments in my brain in any useful way. It’s not that I’m musically illiterate – I can still talk with some confidence using most of the language of music, it’s more that I’m somewhat musically dyslexic, unable to equate the dots with the tunes unless I do mental arithmetic that renders the entire process uselessly slow. I can read the ‘piano roll’ style notation used by sequencers as that’s how I’ve grown up and interpreted music for the last 30 years. I sing and play keyboards, and use a modified guitar (open tuned) in my workshops as it makes it easier for me as I can to some extent play it one handed whilst doing something with the other hand. I use a lot of live sequencing and looping in my workshops using Ableton Live on my laptop, and can get musical results out of a Theremin and Soundbeam.

Not being able to read music isn’t uncommon – a quick bit of research suggests that more than half of the world’s population can’t read music, and only 16% identify as being able to read music well. A lot of people struggle with reading music at school and I suspect for many, because of the conventional way music is taught, that the failure to get over this hurdle results in them feeling like they can’t participate in music beyond a rudimentary level. Quite often this feeling of ‘not being good at music’ can stay with them for the rest of their lives. I see it all the time in my work – younger children are used to singing and playing in groups, but from secondary school onwards, where music (if it is taught at all) becomes formalised, young people start to feel like they can no longer join in with the freedom they had enjoyed previously.

To return to the Time Warp anecdote above, it often feels like being able to read music is somehow what sets you apart as a ‘real’ musician. For this reason, I consider myself to be musical rather than a musician as I use the technology to overcome my own barriers to progress, which is why I am such an advocate for helping others do the same. I also think the term ‘music technician’ is undervalued and think that helping others to make music by providing the right equipment and environment is as important as any teaching since you can’t learn fully without this foundation; you should be working with your instruments, not against them.

Whilst reflecting on the ‘Time Warp Incident’ driving between workshops (and, I’ll admit, somewhat nursing my bruised pride), I started to think about the idea of music notation. It struck me that not only is it often of little use in the sessions I run, but sometimes it can be damaging to the creativity of them. Having notation or a model of what is ‘right’ sets out anything that is not the notated music as ‘wrong’. It means there’s a correct way and an incorrect way to play the song. When working with most of the groups I deliver workshops to, doing something right is less important than enjoying the act of making music. Sure, you can coach people to be better musicians, and this is something I consider myself to be really good at, but I don’t think that process is in any way helped by having a binary notion of what is correct and incorrect.

Furthermore, standard music notation is, in the history of music, a relatively new invention, and was only ever intended as an aide memoire. Playing a piece of sheet music always involves a degree of interpretation and relies on the musician or a conductor to make the performance come alive. So much of what makes a song or performance memorable, engaging or emotional is to do with the humanity of the way a piece is played, not the accuracy of it. We don’t assess what’s important in music, we assess what’s easy to assess. Passion, enjoyment, fun – these are all things that rarely get assessed because they can’t be objectively evaluated and put on a spreadsheet.

Yesterday I was working with group of autistic students who were singing the bits of popular songs they knew, but which I didn’t. I remembered the Time Warp Incident, thought about going online, watching the video on YouTube, Googling for the lyrics, looking for guitar tab and chords… and then I remembered my thoughts from previously. I started improvising instead. We worked out our own tune. The session kept its momentum, and we went on to write another 2 original songs, all in the time it would have taken me to find out if what we were doing was ‘correct’ or not.

I still have no idea what Katy Perry’s ‘California Girls’ is supposed to sound like. And I’m okay with that.

Making it up as I go along

My week got off to a good start on Monday with my third and penultimate training session with Phil Mullen at BPM in Bristol. Although the sessions are based around developing and reflecting as a community musician, one of the best things about the session is that it’s an opportunity to get together and talk with other people doing similar work to me – usually we all work in isolation and don’t get a chance to share good practice. But another thing that’s so great about the sessions is that they are free-wheeling, and follow the interests in the group. Phil makes no secret of the fact that there are things that he’d like to deliver in the group, but that the energy in the room is the most important navigator of the session.

In business it’s called agility. In music it’s called improvisation. In formal education, it’s called bad practice.

Musicians are weird. They are physiologically different from other humans. The brain power it takes to play an instrument and sing at the same time along with a band uses more areas of the brain simultaneously than almost any other activity. Daniel Levitin‘s excellent book ‘This Is Your Brain On Music’ goes into depth about how important music is for all areas of the brain and how to hear it and participate in it lights up and rewires the synapses within it. Music literally reaches the parts of the brain other activities cannot reach.

Maybe that’s why the creative arts in general and music in particular has a hard time fitting into the prescribed rigid structures of formal education – the way that musicians think isn’t necessarily aligned with the often linear check-list approach to education that is often required when dealing with a strict academic syllabus. Most of the time I don’t have a problem with this – if an exam board has a set of criteria by which they judge achievement, most of the time that has been developed with some subject specialists. You can often see the join between what people want to deliver and what is easily quantifiable, but in my experience it is often done with the best intentions.

Unfortunately, for a multitude of reasons, fun and enjoyment are not things we tend to assess.

My difficulties with the above model stem from trying to apply formal education models to anyone out of the mainstream – anyone with a disability, anyone on the autistic spectrum, anyone with behavioural issues, anyone excluded from school, anyone with emotional issues… I mean, we say these people are out of the mainstream, but I’d argue that for certain demographics, such as working in areas of deprivation, they can make up the majority. Many of these people turn to the Arts because they have been given a hard time in the more conventional academic subjects. If the Arts are forced to act within the same ‘One Size Fits All’ structures, then they will fail these people the same as they have been failed before.

This is best illustrated with an example. About 5 years, I started to run a regular session at a day centre for older people with profound long-term disabilities. (Here’s a video of me testing the equipment I planned to use before the first session). In this session, 90% of the group are non-verbal communicators. My remit, from the point of view of the centre staff, was to work with the people in the session and make music with them. That was it, nothing else. Within a couple of weeks, I’d started to learn what each client liked, what they didn’t and started to prepare equipment and repertoire to match their abilities and musical preferences.

Then along came Ofsted, who voiced concerns that it was difficult to show progression of those who were coming to the sessions (not just with me, but across the adult education work in general). The funding body responded by creating enormous booklets that all delivering staff had to fill in. They had to show progression. They had to show how I was embedding English and Maths into my sessions. They had to show how I was preparing the people I was working with for a job, giving them ‘employability skills’. I had to show all this in detailed plans, I had to collect evidence that there had been progress from one session to the next, and I was told that if I didn’t do this, I wouldn’t be allowed to run the sessions any more.

Let me be clear – this was for a session where I was singing and playing instruments with people with profound disabilities, some of whom had been in the centre for a number of years. The idea of ‘One Size Fits All’ was the very antithesis of equality and diversity. If I’d have thought for one minute that my sessions would have been even slightly better for doing all this extra work, I would have done it; in actual fact the opposite was true as it took time away from me preparing music for the sessions. I tried so hard to find a compromise, but the funding body refused to budge. So I filled in their paperwork, spending two solid days working through a booklet that the clients would never see or be able to read, only to be told it wasn’t filled in correctly.

And then I quit. That’s not normally a happy ending, but because I had built up a great reputation for my work, I started working directly with the centres, cutting out the not only unnecessary but obstructive level of bureaucracy that prevented me from running the sessions to the best advantage of the centre, the carers and the individual clients. Now the sessions are a joy to run, not a burden. Financially, I think I might be worse off doing the sessions this way but I haven’t even checked because I literally couldn’t care less – for me it’s all about doing the right thing by those I work with, everything else is secondary.

I’m not saying that we don’t need plans, but I am saying that planning needs to be appropriate to the work that we do in the extent and the form that it takes. The analogy I favour in classes is that of the pilot who needs to get to the destination but will need to navigate around bad weather and unforeseen problems; a commercial flight is off-target for 90% of its time, but is always making tiny adjustments to get back on track. This brings me to the second problem I have with planning – it allows people to be absent from the real work.

When you are in a session and responding to the group, it’s very much like surfing a wave, you have to be profoundly present in the room to keep the session moving forward, and that’s what makes the session thrilling for everyone taking part. An overly-planned session is like being on a conveyor-belt, everyone moving forward at the same pace, and it is disengaging for both leader and participant. Stating the aims may be great for Ofsted (and for some participants) but for many it’s like watching a film or football match and being told in advance when to pay attention and which bits you can tune out for.

Let me end with a video – I was reminded of this by an inspiring presentation by Mark De-Lisser at Music Education Expo a couple of months back. In both the presentation I saw and the video below of Bobby McFerrin, the audience are clearly fully engaged. There are no stated aims or objectives, but it quickly becomes clear what is being taught. You can only deliver sessions like this if your focus is entirely on those who you are teaching. And I know that, for me, this is the time when my brain lights up like nothing else on earth, and it’s what keeps me doing this kind of work.


And you may say to yourself… how did I get here?

This week’s blog is going to be a little bit self indulgent – a few people have asked me how I ended up having a career in music, so I thought I’d spend a bit of time trying to remember how I ended up making music for a living. It’s not been the most obvious of routes and it certainly wasn’t the plan from the beginning.

My first musical memory is of being very young and very ill, wrapped up in a blanket, and singing harmonies along to the sound of my mum vacuuming the carpet. I remember the feelings in my head as I sang, and played around with different notes, seeing which felt nicest when sung along to the mechanical drones. My second musical memory is of a big kid picking on me for singing too loud in the school choir at Primary school – I’d always enjoyed singing up until that point, but suddenly I became very conscious of my voice, and this one comment damaged my confidence so badly that I became reluctant to sing alone for many years after.

Secondary school was a disaster for me musically – this was a long time before equality and diversity and Every Child Matters, and our teachers seemed to regularly leave less able students behind in order to focus on the naturally talented members of the class. And, so, after a few unsuccessful experiments with a recorder and a violin, I was classified as Not Musical, a state that could only have been remedied by a combination of costly private lessons and enthusiasm, both of which I couldn’t afford at that point.

Around this time I became an avid heavy metal fan, initially drawn in by the artwork of bands like Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Led Zeppelin and so on, before encountering Guns N Roses – apologies to any fans reading this, but I found Appetite for Destruction so repellent with its misogynistic lyrics and whiny vocals that I sold all of my metal records and disappeared down an electronic music rabbit-hole. For me this was the gateway to incredible new soundscapes and unexplored worlds, some of which were musically within my grasp through the magical powers of the holy trinity of synthesis, sequencing and sampling.

When I was doing my A-levels, we had a change of staff in the music department, and a more forward-looking music teacher called Mr Yarnley changed my life forever. He updated the school music room with a synthesiser and 4-track recorder, declared that he didn’t have time to learn how to use it and by some twist of fate, give me the keys to the music room to experiment with the equipment during private study sessions. I balanced my academic studies with an art A-level and as much music as I could fit in the gaps around the edges, learning how to put tracks together piece by meticulous piece, compensating for a lack of music theory with remorseless trial and error. These early experiments even got an opportunity to take to the stage, early synth-pop experiments sticking out awkwardly in the end of term rock concerts.

Electronic music became my hobby whilst I went through art college for 4 years, firstly in Cheltenham and then in St Albans. I spent all my money on music equipment and records. My first student grant (those were the days) went on my first drum machine, my second got spent on my first sampler, and the money from my job was spent on cheap food and gig tickets. My college course was in modelmaking – something I wasn’t particularly good at, but which gave me a wide set of problem-solving and business skills. With some friends we also staged a hostile takeover of the Students Union, and we started to run events alongside scraping a pass on the course. Although I was a barely adequate modelmaker, I was able to use computers to enhance and manipulate my 3D creations, and in my final year I was able to combine this with early experiments in computer programming, installations and composing film soundtracks. By the end of the course I knew I had no future as a modelmaker and knew that music was what fired my motor.

1997_Live_David-Birch_06-803x1024After the inevitable freefall from college graduate into dead-end job, I ended up working in music retail whilst starting to form my first serious band, The Chaos Engine. We were the band with no drummer at a time when grunge was big, but our stripped-down and portable stage set-up, coupled with our love of filling the stage with projections, smoke and strobes, meant that we got a lot of gigs and played all over the country. I always maintain that we didn’t necessarily get gigs because we were a great band as much as the fact that we were incredibly efficient, well organised and easy to work with. Most of my free time was taken up booking gigs, promoting, running our little fan club and writing & recording music at home.

The usual musical route of sending out demos to record labels and getting rejection letters was followed before we decided to self-finance our own CD – this wasn’t common at the time but thanks to some great T-shirt designs and paying gigs, we’d managed to save up enough money to give it a go. Suddenly, people started to take the band seriously, and because of my contacts in the record store, we were able to get the album on the computer system and shipped out to other stores. Accidentally, I was running a record label.

ChildrenObstinateWasp Factory Recordings escapeferocitywas a great idea in principle – it was more like a co-operative than a traditional label might be, and we got to sign and work with many of the bands that we had enjoyed gigging with in the earlier years. We released more than 20 CDs around the world, took artists to play festivals in Europe, North America and Australia, did deals with Microsoft to provide music for video games, won awards, had brilliant adventures, and made hardly any money at all. Whilst trying to control this juggernaut, I also worked at a local arts centre called The Axiom, which is where I learned how to be a sound and lighting engineer, DJ and events manager.

Somewhere in amongst all of this I met George Moorey, who asked me to do some music workshops for a project he was running called Wired Music. From this small seed, I started to get involved in teaching and mentoring young people in bands, briefly running the recording studio at Whaddon Youth Arts Centre and providing music sessions for young offenders and excluded school children. Of all the work I’d done to date, this some of was the most rewarding so far. When the funding for that project ran out, I decided to look for other work, and as luck would have it, I managed to get a job running a project called In Tune for Stroud College. Over 18 months, we worked with 150 hard to reach students trying to re-engage them in education through a programme of music, film-making, poetry, DJing, animation and anything else that would catch their imagination. It was here that I really began to understand the positive effect that music could have, how it could literally transform people and energise them like nothing else. It helped people to communicate and express themselves when everything else had failed, and I realised that it had done the same for me throughout my life.

comfort-zoneEver since then I’ve been working to try and provide these opportunities for people of all ages and abilities. I’ve started to build my own music interfaces to allow people with limited mobility to access music making, and to modify existing instruments to make them more accessible. I think back to my experiences of music in the past, and of all the barriers that were put in my way, and use this experience to try and help people overcome whatever barriers they face. In general, we have moved towards being a more egalitarian society since I struggled with a recorder in the 80’s, but in some regards, music education has failed to keep pace with these developments, and still judges musical accomplishment by a set of criteria that haven’t changed in 50 years. Similarly, the music industry has struggled with change and its reluctance to adapt to a digital age has stunted its growth of late. It’s time to move bravely into the future and maybe leave the recorders behind for a while.

Push the button

It’s been a busy week this week – I added another job to the stack and started the first Gamelan session with Jonathan Roberts. We had a good group of young people at the first session and they gave me some good ideas on how they would like to augment the Gamelan and the kind of music they’d like to try and play. As is often the case with these kinds of sessions, I came away with a head full of ideas about ways that we could add music and technology to the conventional instruments and create something unique.

Each job or workshop I do requires a different set-up so that I’m using equipment that specific person or group can interact with. There’s a core of equipment that stays mostly the same as I mentioned in a previous blog but with different instruments and tech added to it, depending on the abilities of the group. When I’m starting a new workshop, I’ll consider all the options and try to work out which will work best – and since I’ve been collecting unusual instruments for about 20 years, there’s a fair few to choose from. Other factors will come into play, such as the venue, how much time there is to set up, and on occasion environmental factors (some interfaces are based on light and doing workshops outside can be a whole other challenge).

LaunchpadAt Monday’s session, I did a bit of show and tell and demonstrated some equipment to help the musicians select some approaches for the Gamelan session. One of the young people pointed to one of my pieces of kit – a Launchpad, covered in a grid of 8×8 buttons – and asked what it did. This caught me off-guard a bit; the Launchpad can be anything, and it can easily act as a drum machine, keyboard or mixer, but it’s not actually anything without the computer. This is one of the issues with using computers, tablets and other technology for music – because they can do almost anything, it’s hard for whoever is using them to know what they are doing at any given time. A button can do anything from playing Ode To Joy to activating the self destruct, after all…

The good thing about this flexibility is the ability to continually modify the equipment. The flip-side of this however is that the continual changes prevent the building of the muscle memory that one gets from practicing with an instrument in order to develop musical technique. The flexibility can reduce the barriers to access to music, but the key is not to entirely remove them and ensure that within the workshop or performance there is a degree of musical challenge. This will be different for everyone, and it’s where one to one sessions have an advantage as it it’s easier to assess current skill and prescribe methods for development. Pushing a button can be a massive achievement for some people.