Tuesday 1 June 2010

Mixtape: Songmap

We were invited by our friends at Unlimited Theatre to take part in their Mixtape project. It’s a lovely idea: they’re inviting a number of artists/theatre-makers/comedians to choose a song they love and create stage action/performance of some sort to accompany it.

As we were in the process of planning a show made up of shorter pieces, it seemed like great timing, and so we incorporated our contribution to Mixtape, into Words & Pictures, which initially was cross between a book reading and a theatrical short story collection. Doing something for Mixtape within the show would provide a different dynamic, and give us an audience for whatever we made.

Making something for Mixtape was a really interesting challenge for us, as using a song – or perhaps music with lyrics is a more accurate distinction – is something we have always shied away from. This is because the lyrics in a song will almost definitely be telling an at-least-slightly-different story to the one you are telling live, and, also, familiar songs carry a whole host of associations about the time and place people became familiar with them in, that as an artist you have no control over.

Of course audiences bring a whole host of other associations in with them that you have no control over, and certainly we've always tried to make work that embraces that, and allows space for those associations to become part of the experience of the work. But with songs, perhaps because they are someone else's work, I've always felt much less comfortable with including them in our live work. And often I don't like it when a song I'm familiar with is used in a theatre piece; I find it distracting.

I’m aware that there are exceptions – certain companies actually use known music well (Unlimited Theatre themselves being an example, and also Oliver Bray’s current show Villa uses popular songs really nicely, not least because Oliver can sing, and because he deliberately uses the lyrics in a tangent to their intended meaning). And also, I often really like the use of well known music in film and TV.

All images: video stills by Christopher Hall

But throughout our work with Third Angel, Rachael and I have always been keen to bring composer/sound designers (most often Lee Sykes and David Mitchell) into the process to score the work. I remember an early conversation in rehearsal for Where From Here with Lee in fact, where, penny dropping, he said to us, “You don’t want a show sound track – you want a film score.” And Rachael and I replied “Yes!” in unison, suddenly understanding our own intentions better. On the occasions when we have used found music it has nearly always been relatively-not-well-known instrumental stuff.

All of which is a preamble to saying that we knew we wanted to give our song space - let it lead the action.

What we didn't know was what song we wanted to use. We both had suggestions, and a complex multi-blackboard Venn-diagram appeared on the wall of the workspace early on. We tried several songs, and at one point were both going to be listening to a different pieces of music on headphones whilst the audience listened to a third. Then we lost our two individual songs, and began work on texts to read over Wim Mertens' Maximising The Audience.

I wrote:
We’ve been trying to understand songs.

We’ve been trying to choose a song. Should that song mean something to either, or both, of us?

How do people write songs? Where do tunes come from? How come songs can be played on different instruments to the ones they were written on? How do you write a drum part when you’re writing a song on a guitar?

We’ve known each other a long time. We have bought each other music, played each other music, copied music from and for each other, been to hear music played live together.

But despite all that, or perhaps because of it, it’s been very difficult to choose one song.

How come some songs are verse chorus verse chorus, and others aren’t? If it isn’t verse chorus, does that mean that technically it isn’t a song?

I once saw a bloke on the bus writing music in a reporter’s notebook. He’d ruled a line in biro between two pairs of lines to make three lines into five – a stave. He looked like he was playing a tune in his head – or tuning in to one, like this, trying to catch it – then noting it down. At the time I couldn’t decide if he was being a pretentious twat or just open to inspiration. Although, I quite fancied a go. But I never got any further than ruling the extra lines in biro.

I’ve started drawing Songmaps – pictograms of the dramatis personae, the locations, the events of particular songs. Trying to pin them down, so I can better find my way around them.

People talk to me about what key certain songs are in, about key changes, minor chords; they talk about things being flat, or out of tune, that sort of thing. I don’t understand what they mean – well, I understand, but I can’t hear it, even after they’ve told me.

I remember a conversation in a Chinese Restaurant Karaoke Bar about the Dark Heart of Karaoke, about how it is one of the last socially acceptable refuges of the bully. Of the delight some people who can sing, or at least who don’t mind getting up singing in front of people, which is of course a different thing entirely, the delight these people exhibit when they talk about making people who can’t sing, or who perhaps are not comfortable getting up and singing in front of other people, which is a different thing entirely, about making these people get up in front of others to sing so they (the singers) can enjoy their (the non-singers) discomfort. We’d had a bit of wine by that point.

So what about this song?
And Rachael wrote:
It’s a horrible thing, not to be a listener of music. Actually, that’s not factually correct. It makes it sound like I’m deaf. Which I’m not. I’m a passive listener.

Sound happens to me more often than not. It imposes itself on me and at times attempts to persuade me to change my state of mind.

But it’s not my passion. It’s not the thing that defines me. I do not have a collection of "my" or "our" songs on a series of carefully hand illustrated mix tapes.

It makes you feel like an outsider at first. A social inadequate. I cannot make small talk about the various albums of Bob Dylan. I can’t name a single song by the Fall; I do not know the name of the lead singer of Massive Attack – if they have a lead singer.

I have tried to keep up. I would tape things off the radio as a kid, despising those older than me who thought the top twenty unimportant and laughed in the face of adults who couldn’t name the current number one. But then the first album I owned - was bought - was Cliff Richard's Silver, so I guess I never really had a fighting chance.

When I was sixteen I quite liked Phil Collins, but pretended it was really Genesis I liked. I even bought one of their earlier albums from an older boy, but I never played it and would struggle to recognise an early hit, and the Peter Gabriel days are definitely out of the window.

And so it went on. There is a catalogue of artists I’ve dabbled with, but to list them would be for purely sentimental and very selfish and boring reasons.

My world is not silent. I like to dance – on my own mainly and not really at parties. I hear songs and sing the same few lyrics – often just ever so slightly wrong - over and over again.

I’m feeling quite upset about this whole thing now. I feel vulnerable, naked in my admission. I feel you will think there is something not quite right about me. I shouldn’t have said anything. You are going to feel sorry for me now, you are going to pity the fact I can’t name a single Smiths album.

I do not own an I pod.
I do not now how an MP3 player works or really what it is.
I have not bought any music for at least five years.
I threw my old tapes away.
I do not own a kitsch, slightly cool vinyl collection.
I can’t listen to music and concentrate.

It’s ok and I bob along to stuff, but it’s not everything, not really something, to me.

But this felt like us talking about a Mixtape piece, rather than making one. We went back to the songmaps idea mentioned in my text, and back to the first song suggested, which was The First Big Weekend by Arab Strap, which, it has to be said, is one of my favourite songs of all time. On the album that it is from, The Week Never Starts Round Here, the song writing is credited as "Most Things Musical: Malcolm Middleton, Most Things Not: Aidan Moffat."

It doesn't have a chorus, as such, although there is a sung refrain towards the end of the song. It's not sung, in fact, apart from that refrain, it's spoken. It has a lot of characters, plenty of locations and many activities and stimulants. Originally we had tried drawing the song on a wall, but that meant the audience saw our backs a lot, and not much of the drawing, either. So we revisited the video-drawing idea that we used in The Lad Lit Project (although we only used it for projected handwriting in the final show). Malcolm Middleton, Aidan Moffat and Chemikal Underground were generous enough to let us use their song and we had a* Mixtape piece: Songmap.

Words & Pictures evolved to become an autobiographical book reading piece, becoming a more focussed solo performance. In this version Songmap is acknowledged as a borrowed 'chapter' in the unwritten book of my life story.

The commission for Mixtape includes documenting the track on video. It's no surprise that when we explained this to Chris, a single camera set up was not going to be enough, and the multi-camera set up allowed for the multi-frame screengrabs you can see in the top two stills.

We premiered the short-film version of Mixtape: Songmap at Curve after a performance of Class of '76 last month, and were really pleased that the 'will he keep up with the song?' tension of the live performance seems to translate to the recorded version, too. In discussion with the audience at Curve we noted, too, that of course we had chosen a highly narrative song, that indeed works, perhaps more in the video version, theatrically.

So, thanks again to Arab Strap, and to Unlimited Theatre, particularly Jon and Kate, for the opportunity and their support.


*we did actually keep developing another Mixtape idea, that may surface in the future, too.

Songmap features The First Big Weekend by Arab Strap. Words and music by Malcolm Middleton and Aidan Moffat. Courtesy of Chemikal Underground.

Live performance devised and performed by Alexander Kelly and Rachael Walton.
Film version directed and edited by Christopher Hall.
Additional camerawork by Alexander Unwin
Songmap is Third Angel's contribution to Unlimited Theatre's Mixtape project. www.unlimited.org.uk

The film is available for 3 days, 1-3 May 2015, as a #GiftForGIFT.

Supported by Leeds Met Studio Theatre, Off The Shelf Festival of Words & Sheffield Hallam University.
Special thanks to Stewart Henderson, Malcolm Middleton and Aidan Moffat.

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