Last week I played for BBC Radio 3 and presented edition 8 of my residency ‘Peach’, with two different bands, meanwhile my 4th album is being mixed at the Total Refreshment Centre. A few people have recently been asking me about my approach to performance, which is generally evolving, and which grew again on my recent tour. In response, I’ve prepared:
A few things I remind myself, before a performance.
1. This is not a show about how good I am at something or not.
2. Fear is the first ingredient in courage.
3. Get out of the way of the song.
4. Something terrible is probably happening for someone not so far away, show some respect.
5. This is awesome. In a couple of years, will I be able to remember it?
6. What day is it? What place are we in? Who is here, and what do they need?
7. Forget the singing, remember the song.
8. The things we wish to address will be true whatever happens or doesn’t happen tonight, nothing can change them.
9. (while feeling the floor under my feet) I am here.
10. (while looking at the waiting audience) I love them.
The Radio 3 performance will air on Late Junction on Friday 2nd 11pm, with a preview tonight (30th Nov) at 11pm
The residency concert series ‘Peach’ (in London N16) returns on 26th January, contact us for details
The Moulettes, at Islington Assemble Hall, 23/02/16
My question, just before the Mouls began their show, having not seen them for years was, was: who will we be meeting tonight – Apollo or Dionysus? Will we have the immaculate or the perfectly chaotic?
Operating as they are, in greater and greater spheres of the industry, can we hope that these characters have managed to bring some element of the vital spark of abandon and chaos, so personal to them; can they have conveyed it intact, egg-and-spoon style, through the manifold demands of ‘success’ in music, where – many believe – all quality must be replicable, precise and deliberate…
The sci-fi voice-over hails their entrance as if in answer: “Impossible? Unbelievable? I’m telling you it could HAPPEN…” And as a 4/4 thunder fills all space not already occupied by delighted humans, a more immediate question crosses my mind – what manner of creatures are going emerge from those gigantic glowing orbs, and will they breathe fire?
It’s a collection of new tunes in its entirety, presented as a spaceship landing neatly in the park. Hannah told me beforehand, that this set is growing and developing during performances. The decision to cast off all established material is a (characteristically) bold one. Now she stands, flanked by light, holding her cello forth like a talisman and operating a synth as if on a mission from the Lord of Mars.
Can I hear her voice clearly?
Is this a show about hearing someone’s voice clearly?
From the stage Hannah provides us with the definition of the LP title ‘Preternatural’, as “the space between the known and the unknowable”. And so, it seems, the music spans evocations of distress, longing, fury and release – the unknowable – though all the while working in within the framework of hard-rock certainty.
But between these epic invocations, the humanity of the group glows, with friendly and frank introductions, explaining tales of the Medusa, of the Japanese Puffer Fish, and tying them to our behaviour and situation, as people. Through spiders, interconnectivity and communication, for instance. “There is so much that is chaotic”, says Hannah, gleaming in glitter, caked in distortion pedals. It’s in these moments, for me, that their warmth of personality sparks to light the music. As when we pause for Ruth to dedicate a song to the Right Honourable Jeremy Hunt, and remind him (Ruth is not only bassoonist/singer with the Moulettes, but also a junior doctor) that the strikes are not about money, but the safety of patients, and the hall erupts in indignant consensus, and the following tune screams into being.
What is it about the close harmonies that has me so frightened, and why am I enjoying it so deeply?
“Thank all the gods for Spinal Tap” says Hannah. So thank them, and enjoy the truly exceptional Moulettes:
New album ‘Preternatural’ – http://moulettes.tmstor.es/
Social media – https://www.facebook.com/Moulettes-181614811902710/
Website – http://www.moulettes.co.uk/
They have a ‘4th wall’ in theatre, as many know – a wall between the audience and the stage. But there’s another 4th wall, I reckon, in music gigs. With the gig-4th-wall, interaction is mostly limited to things like “this next song is called”, “we got CDs”, or “thank you very much“. If you break this wall and chat frankly about the activity you’re doing, or the time you’re having in your life in that instant, it can be frightening, foolish, hilarious and reaffirming for everyone involved.
This is one of the things we’ve been doing in ‘Peach’, the monthly concert series in Stoke Newington we started in December with my album launch.
Similarly, if you get some players (new players each month) who haven’t worked together before, and put your full trust in their interpretation of the material, they can be left naked, with recourse to nothing but their own invention, sincerity, and musical communication, in a situation where personal expression is universally welcomed. This can be challenging and rewarding, and is another thing we’ve been doing in the ‘Peach’ series.
A good sense of inclusion can be infectious, and spread to the audience, and when people leave they might feel less like customers who bore witness to something, and more like people who were welcomed and involved in it.
A piece of music can be a wonderful thing, but a human being is infinite, and more entertaining than anything I could script or compose. Focusing this work on people and instances is perhaps a short-cut – can I be cheating my way out of the responsibilities of an artist: to personally produce and represent original material?
Before we play I remind the players, “If in doubt, yes!”, and “Make sure you do something I’m not ready for”.
Ben Hooper made a short film of last month’s Peach and you can see it here.
Join us for the next one – travel if necessary – it’s the best thing I have to offer you:
Before too much time passes I’d like to share an impression of my experience making this piece, while the edges of it remain relatively distinct.
I’m starting to learn that the more vulnerable you make yourself in a project’s development, the more potential your project has.
The games were brought in as an activity for the chaotic characters, so they would have something to do, and not feel self-conscious. Quickly, though, the games became the foundation for the atmosphere, energy, and eventually all that was most valuable in the film.
The night before filming, having bought the props, gathered the timber and cooked the meal, alone under the arches painting a great wall of plywood white, I felt rather stupid and lost. New to London as I was, the feeling was not dramatically unfamiliar. Brick dust sticking to the paint on my hands, I said to myself
I feel good.
If you organise your projects just so, the very moment your responsibility for the use of so many wonderful people’s precious time occurs to you, you’re also too busy to reflect on the general standing of your ego. I recall a moment where, while demonstrating to the DOP and director that the collapsing wall structure would in fact work after all, a crucial piece of furniture disintegrated beneath me, just as the first member of the cast arrived, asking where the toilets were (there were no toilets).
We played the games all day. Long lists of wild group games, as the cast became acquainted, and began creating a unique air of abandonment and common mischief. After a time we brought costumes and face paint into the games. Then we assigned certain games to certain players. Then we brought the music to the games, assigning certain players to certain lines. Finally the destroyable objects were introduced.
And then, that was suddenly that.
Throughout the session the camera crew had been running the camera on the dolly, with the cast paying no heed. Only their work (director Melodie Roulaud, DOP Leopold Naessens and grip Hardy Damavand Saleh) could have allowed the cast such ease, whilst capturing the light and form of it all so precisely.
At the final moment, cast and crew crammed together behind the camera to watch back what they had made, gasping and laughing and cheering. Myself I only pranced about in the debris as they did so, deeply distracted, and didn’t watch the piece until nearly two months later.
I’ve told people, “If it’s to be any good at all, the question of getting it right has to be very low on our list of priorities.” I wanted to make a film we could not have deliberately organised, with elements that belonged solely to those people and that moment. I love my work, but I only love it through people, and through rare occasions. What we have, I’d say, is a fine piece of work, but the time that made it shines brighter, just as the people that live outshine their lives.
On a train to the Edinburgh Fringe, upon spotting that during my journey across London my gig wages from this past week have disappeared from my pocket, a few things are going through my mind.
I wonder, first of all, who they are, this person, and how they feel, to have such a skill. Do they feel powerful. Was it a thrilling moment for them, reaching out to me, to take away my cash. Was the moment itself, the act, their motivation, in fact?
What will they do with the money – perhaps it will save someone? Or maybe damn them.
Do they imagine I will be hungry for the lack of this money? I know I will, but I also know, more so every day, how others will be hungrier.
I think of my privilege as a white middle class male with a family who loves him, and I wonder if the last human to have had their hand in my pocket can boast the same arbitrary advantages, or not. I think of how intimate we are, them and me, while so strange.
Finally I wonder what’ll happen if I wish this person well. I imagine them laughing, I imagine them rich, I imagine them pissing the money up the wall, and I say “enjoy it” and I say “good”, in an obstinate bid to preserve some dignity. Not to be nice, but to be strong. There’s a hot energy of indignance, spilled in rage, that can fuel many good labours if properly contained and utilised. If this is how my money’s been spent, then ok. Let’s make the most of this abundance of new energy.
As Robert Penn Warren is quoted as saying:
“Goodness… You got to make it out of badness… Because there isn’t anything else to make it out of.”
We screen my film ‘I Feel Good’ on 7th September in Waterloo, and release it the following day. In it, I’m sharing the sentiment I’ve just described, while around me my world is turned into mayhem by people having fun. Directed by Melodie Roulaud, it is a single-shot film set to a tune taken from my forthcoming third album, Peach. It features 17 trouble causers, group-games and destruction. Get in touch to come and join us at the screening, or look out here to see it online, from the 8th Sept.
Making this film, we had some of the finest creative moments I’ve known for years. Above all, the people are superb. More details on the film below. Good luck everyone, you’re doing very well.
Gus / Alabaster
EDIT 8th Sept: The film is now available to watch here.
I FEEL GOOD
“Hope grows naturally like a dandelion between the bricks…”
A somber man addresses us with his wisdom, while around him the joy of many makes him a fool.
Alabaster is telling us, “I Feel Good”, backed by an orchestral score. Behind him, people with painted skin are laughing, playing, fighting, and pulling his walls down. They behave like live humans beings, while Alabaster tries to tell us how he manages to live. The actions are revealed through a single tracking back shot.
In this film, the human interactions evoke the individual will required to persevere in daily life. The lone character addressing us with his obstinate resolve to remain positive is swamped by a colourful cast whose heedless behaviour makes a mockery of him, and a ruin of his surroundings. Watching the film, we can identify with the central character surrounded by a world of chaotic and irrational events.
Made using group games from Misha Gloubman / Sheila Heti and Clive Barker, and the full input of the cast. Filmed in a gallery under railway arches in Waterloo, London.
Script, lead role, score and audio recording Angus Fairbairn
Director Melodie Roulaud
DOP – Leo Naessens
GRIP – Hardy Damavand Saleh
MATTHEW ‘JELL’ JENNINGS
Filmed at Gallery 223
With indispensable help from:
ARTHUR WEYMAN (transport)
SHAUN SPARK (stands)
THE TOTAL REFRESHMENT CENTRE (lights)
BEN GOLDSTONE (lights)
Taken from forthcoming LP by ‘Peach’, Alabaster DePlume
Recorded at Limefield Studios, and Madwaltz, Manchester
Mixed and produced by Paddy Steer and Angus Fairbairn
Mastered by George Atkins at 80Hz
Words and music by Angus Fairbairn
ANGUS FAIRBAIRN (vocal, tenor saxophone)
PADDY STEER (drums, percussion, synth, bass)
JOHN ELLIS (piano)
MIKEY KENNEY (violin)
Fine artist Katarzina Jablonska’s event, ‘Fingers Crossed’ is making use of the three ‘Friday 13th’s of 2015 (Feb, March and Nov) to present a liberal array of art addressing chance and fate.
My submission for the first exhibition (Feb) used my cardboard spinning wheel invention, which chose the chords for the piece:
1st spin = key
2nd spin = minor/major
3rd spin = additional harmonic colour
The random-spinner-chosen chords were accompanied by my own melodies, and a grumpy and bewildered monologue. Melody, tempo, meter and voicings (i.e. my own input) represented human attempts to cope with and make sense of daily chaos (i.e. the cardboard wheel’s input).
For the next exhibition I’m making a collection of tiny recordings, that the listener will listen to on shuffle. These recordings feature only one word or sentence each, and their combination will carry different meanings according to how the playback device shuffles them. It’s called ‘Don’t I Know It’.
Making these things, as obscure as it may be, feels quite natural for me, just now. Through a set of experiences and changes in situation I’ve known over the past year, a manner of the arbitrary and unknown has become familiar.
Mayakovsky, in his book about how to write poetry, stated that no poet can be instructed in the creation of verse, since any true artist invents anew the method of their craft. It can be handy however, to share practices, so here are some notes on a couple of my own. They are a set of doctrines I apply only to myself, needless to say I wouldn’t necessarily imply at anything universal about these observations.
I love people, and I find they’re far more interesting than my work. So, when I can, get as far away from them as possible. The longer I spend isolated, the more I can forget the character I want to be known as, and focus instead on more relevant concerns.
Throughout these sessions and before, a dogfight ensues, in the artist’s attempts at escaping the idea of attaching qualitative values to his output. While application of work and its presence in the world are essential in giving it life, the same concern can kill it in infancy. A piece of work must be treated, at this time, as would a person, who has their own ideas and rights, and who will not be herded or patronised. Later, when the piece is made, it can be borrowed from or redistributed.
Everything is recorded, relished and encouraged, from the sermon on the screaming hill to the last burp of the night. Everything is observed and expressed. The following day, during chores, coffee-making, the whole thing is played back, and notes are taken. Later in the week various parts are tried alongside each other, in developing a more refined piece.
While it may disappoint the reader, loneliness and remorse are in no way the aim of the process, though they can make for humerous situations. They also help, along with all other ‘big’ feelings equally, in distracting you from the useless question of whether your art is awesome or not.
Our lives are full of distractions – human, technological, functional. With the removal of these arrives a set of very colourful feelings – feelings of all kinds – we didn’t know we’d been trying to escape.
While some of the material I’ve been most excited about in these situations has turned out to be utterly forgettable, similarly some of that which I greeted with apathy or even violent shame, have turned out to be among my best moments. Aside from this altogether, though, the practice of the art has its own value, and each act of creativity is reflected in all subsequent work, they all being siblings in the same family.
The purpose of the work is not to have you the artist hailed as excellent – this eventuality would be a by-product at best. Here the question of identity comes in. At some point during the session, perhaps, a great sorrow is felt as the artist finally gives up on himself. Then at last the door is open for genuine work to begin.
A typical day in isolation:
Make breakfast and coffee whilst playing back yesterday’s recordings.
List them on the big list, and make notes on any that affected you.
Record yourself responding to the questions you recorded yourself asking, last night.
Go outside, choose an object, and talk about it into your recorder.
Copy up spoken script if some enjoyable spoken script is available.
Practice saxophone and do breathing exercises.
Cook midday meal and tidy.
Develop work from earlier in the week, based on notes on the big list.
Sing a song about what you see before you.
Cook evening meal.
Go outside with your recorder and choose a voice to communicate with.
Take a melody and fit words to it.
Sing a song about what you see before you.
Fit new words to your melody.
Become supremely and impressively drunk, and record a set of questions for yourself, that you will not remember asking, tomorrow. Ask anything at all.
The recording session that we did yesterday was intended to involve as many people as possible, and this is why it was also a big meal.
There’s a thing I was told, about the relationship between food and music, and I’ve encountered cooking and creativity combos domestically before. But even apart from this, the way we behave as people depends on the quality of our company, and so then will be our performance, in music and poetry.
So, we got scores of people together to be there, at the recording, and in return we fed them.
It was done using an old-style tape machine, (the recording, not the food) and this was partly to limit us. It means it’s harder to change things afterwards. If you can’t edit, then what you play in the first place matters more. At the same time, though, we eliminated the idea of a ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ note, or performance. This was done by varying each performance with (occasionally arbitrary) positive directions, and encouraging the performers to listen to each other.
The fact that the 50-60 people present were hearing the same four pieces of material over ten hours demanded that we be wildly varied and creative in our performances. Occasionally the guests were personally giving directions.
The intention was partly to create a unique record, partly to gain from the influence of so many characters, partly to have many good people meet. But also we wished to have a large group of people take ownership, to some extent, of the work.
A person can’t be told to own something, or identify with it. It must be left out for them, and open to being distorted and coloured by whatever they choose for themselves, and even then, potentially rejected. The result in the music, if you ask me, was a frailty, and an urgency, and (I hope) a personality that all present could ascribe to, but none can claim as exclusively their own.
The material is part of a collection we’re preparing for release some time next year. More on here soon.
Thankyou, to all involved, in any sense whatsoever. It was a great thing to be doing.
Sam Buckley – CHEF
Will Calderbank – CELLO
Rioghnach Connolly – FLUTE
Ellis Davies – TELECASTER
Alabaster Deplume – SAX, VOCAL, COMPOSITION
Lorien Edwards – BASS GUITAR
John Ellis – KEYS
Phillip Howley – DRUMKIT, PERCUSSION
Antwerp Mansion – VENUE
Kirsty McGee – BASS FLUTE
Tim Vincent Smith – VIOLIN
Paddy Steer – PERCUSSION, PRODUCER
Karl Sveinsson – ENGINEER
Rick Weedon – PERCUSSION
Let’s say you’re a performer, and you’re preparing for a show. It’s something you do a lot. They’re setting the thing up, all around you, in a really swanky hall in Vienna. Glances catch you and you notice yourself. You’re singing. Next, a friend of yours in another room who may or may not be able to hear you occurs to you. What they might be thinking about you occurs to you. The producer, no less, is sitting watching you and this, too, occurs to you.
You’re booked, you’re on the bill, you’re in the right place. All the same everything around you seems to ask, who do you think you are? It can take only an ordinary human degree of self-obsession for everyone, sound engineers and janitors included, to feasibly seem to be thinking, at the same time, about you. About what you’re doing, and who you think you are. As if they had no other business. Nothing of their own to concern themselves with.
How lucky, then, that who-you-think-you-are is not what you’re singing about. How lucky that there are such fantastical and mortifying things for us to sing in this world that we need not concern urselves with who-we-think-we-are ever again. And the show happens, and we sing a song, but this is the least of our concens, naturally. The job of a performer is perhaps the only job where forgetting about the job is an important part of the job. Do people go to a show to see someone be correct and appropriate? Or do they go to come back with a glimpse of a soul, or some minute imprint of what they know, somehow, to be so. About living, about being, anything.
He’s there every day, whoever he is, he-who-I-think-I-am. In the best of company he’s there. No doubt I’d be in trouble a lot more often, were he not. But how irresponsible it cam be, and how irresistible too, to have him stand there gawking, tongue-lolling, gormless, between and audience and what they need to see. And how like resignation, despair, relief, how akin to giving up, the sensation, when he falls like a veil, and the truth of the matter steps up.
At the launch of her new album recently, Liz Green addressed the sold-out crowd with a quote from her dad. Apparently his attempts at engaging with her international creative lifestyle revolve around numbers – how many songs have you got now, then? How many records? How many people are on it? How much money?
“Basically”, she says, “I’m not going to be able to pay for his old peoples’ home”
I was asked, at that show, as occasionally I am, “Is art paying?” and I’m never sure how to respond to this. Do they want to know if I have a Ferrari? Do they want a go in my red car? My helicopter? Are they getting impatient? Do they need to get somewhere really fast?
Just recently I moved out of the greatest home I’ve ever chosen for myself, a sort of halfway-house for the terminally musical, called Iron Mountain. I’m occupying instead a studio space in Hope Mill, and technically living nowhere, for the duration of the summer tour, and ongoing. I like to upset things that are comfortable. I travel a lot, not least to visit my partner in Paris/Holland. But I like to cook. How do I answer the Ferrari question?
What are the wages of this work?
Is it the validation? Is it that stranger’s tearful response to a piece, someone else’s lingering gaze, is it the identity? “Who, me? Oh, I’m in the band. It’s no big deal. I get it all the time”. It lured a lot of us in, in the first place. It’s embarrassing. Are these in fact the wages, after all?
Or is it the work itself? The material? “I am immortalised”, said my friend Louis Barabbas, when recently he found Bridie Jackson’s LP with his song on it. He was half joking. For him, is it the imprint of some vulnerable part of ourselves, that we probably don’t even know, that might just survive long enough for someone we’ll never meet to appreciate somehow, to recognise in themselves, are these invisible things the wages of this work?
Or is it in fact the circle of thieves themselves. Those others like us who find themselves good for no other vocation. Drawn together by necessity, but held there by a flailing love, and a bent but irresistible code of honour. Are my connections with these people the wages of the work, for me.
Has the function I serve brought me anything more valuable? Commodity, currency or ornament, I don’t know if it has.
But when asked the Ferrari question, I might respond, Do you see me breathing? Do you see me working? Do you seem me sharing the best of myself? And are the things I share worthwhile? Is art paying? You tell me.
Liz Green’s album Haul Away! is out on PIAS International now: www.lizgreenmusic.co.uk
I’m joining her on tour, as accompanist as well as appearing as support for the German leg, and I’m going to have an awesome time.