A Slave to the Rhythm – Part 7

The seventh in an occasional series from Rick about his life as a musician – where it all started and what it has come to now

Learning styles and serving the story

My recent associations with Indian musicians happened in a sequence of visits I had made to India to continue my earlier study of the chenda drum. I had certainly made some progress and had moved to be under the masterful tutorage of Mattanur Shankaran Marar. He was generally recognised to be the top man in his field. Indeed, after a collaboration on an Indian film, Zakir Hussain, himself rated as the best tabla player of his generation, called Shankaran ‘a master of rhythm’. Clearly, to be studying with Shankaran was the chance of a lifetime.

I spent a lot of time, living in his house, travelling with him to performances and studying in the early morning. His masterful grasp of rhythm was more than impressive and he was also a very patient and humble individual who never tired of demonstrating and trying to share the intricacies of his art to me. Musicians take for granted the notions of doubling the speed of something, doubling again and maybe even again. It takes a sideways train of thought though to think what it might be to increase speeds by 1 ½ and 2 ½ times !  Rhythm becomes more of a science, or at least applied mathematics, in the Indian classical and related models. I was able to put my own new found knowledge directly to task in the workshop and performance projects I undertook with the Academy of Indian Dance in London. This solidified basic groundwork although I never aspired to be a great chenda player. My purpose in study was to enlarge both my concept of rhythm and my ability to incorporate new elements into my own music making.

Over the next couple of years in the UK (2006 /7), I became involved in various outdoor, site-specific events. They were always unique. The one that sticks in my mind was at Hambledon Hill in Dorset. It was the work of the Red Earth Company and involved horn players, drummers, a Butoh dancer and a lot of fire. An audience numbering many hundreds were guided up the hillside of an iron age hill fort, encountering little events on the way, until they came above the low clouds to witness a rhythmic ritual drama of movement culminating in the passing through a fire gate. I remember being very wet at the end of a rainy day but also very uplifted by the magic of the spectacle.

Helen East & Rick Wilson

Throughout all these various experiences, I was regularly working with Helen in our day to day business of storytelling and music. Whether working in education or otherwise, with both children and adults, we had developed a very instinctive style of rapport. This enabled me to, musically, almost pre-empt dramatic shifts in the story as well as solidify the current narrative.

I had expanded my instrumentation in this context to include a couple of zithers that could be tuned to reflect an almost-global range of scales, modes and sounds. We famously undertook a 9 week tour of schools and educational establishments in 5 south American countries which stretched both our working repertory and our physical endurance !

I had also started to work with storyteller Hugh Lupton on his telling of the epic Beowulf. Originally, he asked me to use just metallic instruments but very quickly came around to the benefits of using a much wider range of tone colours. Although very much a fixed show, I still had room for innovative inspirations as well as a solo feature. The previously mentioned idea of almost pre-empting the narrative continues to be a dynamic feature of this performance as it can subtly guide the listener ahead of the spoken word.

I will always be trying to develop this particular skill further and further as I believe it gives a narrative another special dimension.

Spending much more time on the borders of Shropshire and the Welsh Marches, I joined The Street Band, based locally. Originally conceived as a more of a large outdoor and celebratory ensemble, it encompassed mostly dance style music from Latin America, south and west Africa and the Caribbean. I had to learn a variety of different drumming styles and lock into the other rhythmic parts played by the other two percussionists. I fashioned a set up around the bass tones of the large Brazilian surdo drum with some extra bits and pieces. It was the first time that I had been in a band that, on a good gig, got the whole room dancing. That certainly felt good.

A Slave to the Rhythm – Part 6

The sixth in an occasional series from Rick about his life as a musician – where it all started and what it has come to now

Part 6        Suitable Language

Suitable Language was my first solo album release on my newly created Third Force Records label. It contained a wide remit of compositional styles – possibly too wide, but reflecting my musical appetite. I played most of the instruments and, once again, invited certain musicians to play certain parts and / or improvise. I invested money in working in a good studio with an attentive engineer and a very capable individual, Tim Hodgkinson, a band mate from The Work, ultimately responsible for production duties. I was happy with the outcome. It even got a few reviews – The Independent called it ‘entirely winning’. My big idea was to get some effective distribution and to interest a larger specialist label but I had to settle for much less. But it was out there….

 

I had worked with Viv Corringham as part of Common Lore Storytellers and Musicians and wanted to make an album with her very distinctive vocal talents. Viv remains unique, to my thinking, in that she is the only singer around who can sing English traditional songs, and particularly those of her native Lincolnshire, Greek Rembetika, Turkish, Arabic and Japanese songs, is at home in any form of improvised music and works regularly live using her own battery of electronics. These days she is also well known as a ‘tradition bearer’ of the Deep Listening movement and has pioneered ‘Shadow Walks’, her own processing of sounds and conversations gathered during walks with individuals in their favourite landscapes.

With Viv, my emphasis was less on drumming but more on mood and atmosphere. The pieces tended to be elongated and uncompromised. We improvised a lot and I edited sections to create the compositions. We both brought words that created ‘songs’ in a wide interpretation of the word. Recording was shared between a limited domestic set-up and the wider open spaces of a good studio and an engineer with keen ears. I did take my first production responsibilities and credits here. We liked the outcome -‘Glimpses of Recognition’- and got a play on Radio 3 but didn’t set the world on fire!

 

 

 

My creative remit was significantly expanded when I was appointed Sound Designer for a production by the very inventive Theatre Rites. This company specialise in site specific, very interactive theatre for under 5s. I devised a number of very different pieces that occurred in the different spaces that the audience moved through. I was now using a proper multi-track digital recorder and was required to tailor the compositions to the exact length of each particular tableau. These were modified throughout rehearsals so I had to be able to respond quickly to shifting requirements. I was learning new tricks and demands on the job. Also, I had an actor’s duty in the production and played live music as well. When this production finished, I adapted my pre-recorded soundtracks to fit with the installation left in the venue for a month after.                                                                               Scene from ‘Finders Keepers’ – click here for link

The success of this venture, the magical ‘Finders Keepers’, led to my appointment as Musical Director for the Unicorn Theatre London’s production of ‘Rama and Sita – Path of Flames’. The adaptation, from traditional Indian sources, was by storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton. I had worked with her 5 years previously creating the radio play ‘White Horse Hill’ for BBC Radio 4 so she had a good idea about my musical processes.  My duties involved composing and recording the fixed soundtrack of the show as well as playing live and overseeing the other 3 musicians. This was a privileged position to be in but I knew my limits as 2 of the musicians were very skilled Indian experts well versed in their classical traditions. I bowed to their superior classical experience and encouraged them to make significant key decisions. We happily co-existed and made some wonderful music during the several week long run.  This Youtube link gives a flavour of the production.

 

A Slave to the Rhythm – Part 5

The fifth in an occasional series from Rick about his life as a musician – where it all started and what it has come to now

  Developing a personalised approach

I had another five years of touring and recording with a reformed The Work to which I could now bring some of my new found musical attributes. It gave me greatly increased scope for how a drum kit could be played although, maybe perversely, it made me select and hone down to the essence how I chose to play something. Experience does give you choice.

From the 1980s to the present day, I’ve been developing my own music, whether it be manifested on record or in my workshops.  Such workshops tend to have an inclusive outlook. Unless specifically stated, beginners are always welcome and I tailor the activities accordingly. There are countless group activities to nurture and develop a sense of time, rhythm and beyond. These must be interesting and engaging, not terminally repetitive – that’s for personal, private practice. I incorporate many ideas and chunks of style from the many different people and styles I’ve been exposed to but I always attempt to mix them into my own personal take on them. I can’t claim that community drumming has taken off to the extent that community singing has done in the last 30 years but it has certainly become more visible. I like to think I’ve played a small part in this.

Home recording – 1980s and 90s style

I first bought a cassette recorder when I was in my mid-twenties. Its portability allowed me to take it out and about and record anything that made interesting sounds. I didn’t realise it at first, but what I was doing was to start building an audio library resource of my own, that would later expand greatly, and give me my own private vaults to plunder when making original compositions. It could be the sound of machinery operating in a factory or building site, snatches of conversation or even music. I’ve always believed in harnessing all sorts of odder sounds alongside a more conventional range of instruments.

During the late 1980s, I shared ownership of a Fostex 4 track cassette recorder.

It was a radical upgrade that enabled an expanded process of recording to happen – multi-tracking!  This allowed me to take my first steps in composing original pieces which I then invited other musicians to add parts to. I eventually had enough material for a whole album which I then took to a ‘proper’ studio to tidy up and polish. I called this project ‘Pangaea Sound’ but it failed to ignite immediate interest and after a while I had to recognise its own shortcomings. I put it to rest but it had provided me with a starting point.

When my own drumming workshops had become more regular and popular, I went into a small studio to record an instructional drumming tape: ‘Beating Time – Making Rhythm’. A good portion of that material has endured well and I’ve used it widely in developed forms over the years. During my time in that studio, I took the opportunity to create a variety of well recorded loops and samples – basically tiny extracts of my own and other people’s music that I could later transform out of all recognition and re-invent creatively. That would stand me in good stead for my next recording adventure. I will expand on the morality of this in a later blog.

We are now in the mid 90s and, by this time, I had my own dedicated working space in the garden. This was a generous present from Helen to encourage the expansion of my efforts.  It was structurally a pre-fabricated concrete building which I then slightly soundproofed. It was more than a shed though perhaps a little less than a studio. It proved to be an important transitional working space for me even though I could only get one other musician in there with me.

At this time, I felt the need to add some new ingredients to my life – to expand my experience in a new way. I had recently returned from another trip to Kerala where I had been overjoyed to meet and start a new period of chenda drum study, now under Mattanur Shankaran Marar, one of the truly greats of his genre. Apart from the practical business of playing and learning, I had developed a serious interest in the theoretical and historical aspects of not just this genre, but of Indian and African music in the wider sense.

This interest led me to apply to SOAS – the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University – where I investigated the possibilities of an undergraduate degree course that included these areas of interest.

To gain a place here, as a mature student, I had to undergo a preliminary course of study at Morley College to re-acquaint myself with the mechanics of study and studentship. I also had to take enough lessons in music theory, reading and writing, to satisfy the requirements of entry. This took an academic year by which time I had secured a place at SOAS. It wasn’t the course I had hoped for as it was a mixed course that involved south Asian cultural studies and Hindi language as well as music. The first year was a roller coaster where, at times, I doubted my decision but at least I was in there and I had often heard that, once inside, students could change courses. Fortunately, after the first year, I was offered the opportunity to specialise in music. The second and third years were far better. I worked industriously and was happy to achieve a 2:1. Where to now?

A Slave to the Rhythm – Part 4

                                                              A Giant Leap into the Unknown

 

Inspired by the idea of a complete change of scene and influence, I (together with Helen), found our way to rural Kerala in south west India on the trail of Kathakali dance drama and its associated drumming. This trip could fill a whole book in itself but I will try to stay on task with the particular job in hand.

 

the chenda

We lived with a Brahmin (high caste) family in a village and began an intensive course of watch, learn and (try to) do – Helen with dance and me with drumming. Everything was different. Now concentrating on a single drum, the large, heavy, cylindrical chenda, I was required to start again, usually with the children, together with my first teacher Vidiyan Damodaran Nair (VDN). This was very much the traditional model of learning – one to one with a guru. Now, here’s the catch……..I wasn’t allowed the drum. Instead, a flat log and a pair of fat 10 inch sticks – first you walk then perhaps you might be able to run. More critically still, a new technique for my right hand needed to be learnt. Instead of the normal up / down motion, the right (or leading) hand is played in a ‘towards you, away from you’ action. This was very difficult to get to grips with and created many aches in muscles who screamed  ‘why are you putting us through this?’  The local children had no such problems and my struggles created a lot of humour amongst them on a daily basis. This was probably when I was first struck by the notion of humility. I did make some progress however and mastered the initial ‘Ganapedikai’ blessing. I even managed a go on an actual drum at the end!  I think my teacher thought it was ok but he had almost no English and the household weren’t in the habit of passing on any thoughts he might have had.

 

After this three month adventure, returning to England presented me with a blank page. I had left The Work to go exploring with no plan beyond. Helen’s vision of a multi-cultural group of storytellers and musicians began to crystalise and I could see creative mileage in it, having experienced many manifestations of such-like in India. I became the drummer in Common Lore Storytellers and Musicians, a group who told traditional stories with related music and song to young and old in every conceivable type of venue and circumstance. As the group secured funding, it expanded its personnel and remit. Apart from the performance angle, I now devised drum and rhythm workshops. I even told stories sometimes but that’s another tale………….

 

Working with African, Indian, Caribbean, South American and Middle Eastern practitioners quickly expanded my knowledge and capability and also showed me how much more I had to learn. New intricacies and subtleties were revealed. I learnt how to fit complementary but different parts of a rhythmic jigsaw together in the classic model of African polyrhythm – what I call vertical formation – or how to negotiate the lines of an Indian tala ( a cycle of a particular number of beats phrased in a certain way) and come out at the end to hit the Sam (1st beat of new cycle) bang on – what I call horizontal or lateral formation.  All very wondrous stuff that seems to carry a degree of elusiveness about it. There is a quote from a latin percussionist who says ‘ I play clave (key / time line) all my life in the hope that one day I will manage to  play the perfect clave’  There is always another destination up ahead!