A Slave to the Rhythm – Part 9

Part 9: The Question of Sampling

 

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

In previous pages I was remembering how I used to take a cassette recorder around with me to record anything of interest. This could include machinery sounds from a factory or building site, snatches of conversation or sounds of the natural world. Cassettes would accrue and my audio library expanded accordingly. Before the invention and manufacture of the Sampler in the 1980s, a few people I knew were already using ‘found’ sounds in their own music. This could include snatches of other people’s music. Once the Sampler was on the market and out there, this trend became commercially rampant in the ensuing years and the inevitable cries of ‘rip off’ could be heard widespread. There were a few high profile court cases involving the richer, or more visible, musicians and record companies. Settlements were arrived at through the legal process. Lower down, more tacit agreements were achieved. Lower down still, you just took your chances.

Some artists are outraged by such ‘referencing’ but some are flattered. Some had their careers re-ignited by someone else’s use of their music. It remains a lively debate. Personally, I try to always avoid the obvious. Though I have never owned a Sampler, I have used extracts of other people’s music over the years. I never use it verbatim or wholesale. I always put it through some creative process of transformation to sculpt it to suit my purposes. It often becomes unrecognisable from its source. It is this process of transformation which, for me, justifies such action.

If I were ever to be sampled by someone else, I hope that I would welcome it as an affirmation of a good idea. I can never imagine that there would ever be any question of financial remuneration.

When Mountains Meet

When Mountains Meet/Jub Milain Pahaar is a music theatre and visual art project that connects Scotland and Pakistan both culturally and geologically. It is inspired by the first hand true story of musician Anne Wood, whose mother is Scottish and her father Pakistani.  

Anne, an old friend of Helen and Rick’s, has drawn together a multi cultural team of performers and artists.  Throughout the pandemic they met over Zoom and, when they could, in person to share music, stories, food, visual arts and responses to landscape.

Rick is part of the musical side of the team which is weaving these threads into a story.  They held some development events last year and hope to create a touring production within the next two years. The planned production will include live acting / storytelling and digital imagery as well as live music.

Scourie landscape, Highlands – with thanks to https://www.scourie.co.uk/

Rick’s early contributions involved an intensive creative week with the whole team in the Highlands of Scotland. Click here to see him playing customised fishing buoys with fellow musician John McGeoch. 

Although ‘When Mountains Meet’ is not yet ready for performance, Rick is working on three or four pieces for an EP that will show some of the different musical directions at work in the piece.

For more information about the whole project, blogs about the stages so far, images and more extracts of music, follow the link to the project website:  www.whenmountainsmeet.com  

​​جب ملیں پہاڑ

A Slave to the Rhythm – Part 8

The eighth in an occasional series from Rick about his life as a musician – where it all started and what it has come to now  Who needs the biz ? When I was rather floundering around during my semi-pro years, I had very little real picture of what it would actually take to make […]

The Place of the Sacred Snake

Two stories open in parallel: Millicent in 1930s Kerala, Nadia in 1980s London. Half a century apart, these two very different Western women experience the powerful embrace of rural India. Their stories become interwoven as Nadia, a scriptwriter, unpicks the mystery surrounding mission schoolteacher Millicent and both women face tragedies of their own.

The pungent scent of the Paala Tree blosson pervades the story

After years on the back burner, ‘The Place of the Sacred Snake’ is Helen’s first adult novel and it is now available to read, hot off the virtual press. Revising and refining the story, originally entitled ‘The Paala Tree’, became Helen’s lockdown project when venues closed and face-to-face storytelling became impossible. Earlier this month friends and family gathered by video call to celebrate the launch of the novel in ebook form (available here) with a print edition soon to come.

Helen says the launch of the book has given her a huge boost. Production and design was managed by her brother Roger, with sister Isabel helping with the task of editing.  This family collaboration – working virtually from three different countries – added an extra dimension to the project. The story itself draws heavily on Helen and Rick’s time in Kerala,living and working with storytellers and Kathakali performers. The sights, sounds and smells which they experienced are powerfully evoked and while the storyline is fictional, one of the key characters – the child Jeyasri – was inspired by a child who Helen herself came to know and love.  As you might expect, stories from Keralan myth are woven into the narrative and there are tales from Russian folklore too.

If you are looking for an absorbing read to escape the chill of a northern winter, this could be the book for you!

 

Feb 2022 update: ‘The Place of the Sacred Snake’ is now available to buy in hard copy for £11.95.  You can contact Helen in person or via this website to request a copy, or find it in these local retailers:

Willow Gallery, 56 Willow St, Oswestry, SY11 1AD  https://willowgalleryoswestry.org/  

Rowanthorn, 4, Old Chapel Court, English Walls, Oswestry SY11 2PD  https://www.rowanthorn.co.uk/ 

 

The ebook version is still available via Amazon (see link in text)

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!

A Slave to the Rhythm – Part 3

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

No 3: Influences and idiosyncracies

Time check – 1976. Musically, my ears had been filled by a glorious and rewarding period of listening. Electric jazz had been stirring me most for three or four years and I was influenced by the various drummers that Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Weather Report employed. There were many others of course in other genres.  As players, they occupied a different planet to me but I followed the ethos (still do) that you make your own personal stamp and style. It’s all part of being your own man.

English drummer / singer Robert Wyatt had been an inspiration for some years. He made his own playing style by a mixture of following his own intuition and not being super-technical. I warmed to his individuality and his spirit, and his social circumstances were nearer to me than the super hero drummers through the ages and all the brilliant college graduates that followed in their wake.

Wyatt’s own drumming career was cut short by a major accident which caused him to become wheelchair bound but he reinvented himself as a singer who Elvis Costello described as ‘the most individual voice in English pop.’ Wyatt’s early playing provided a blueprint for drummer Chris Cutler to take a lot further, initially with the group Henry Cow and latterly with too many to mention. Cutler’s playing was a polar opposite to the jazz and groove players I’d taken to heart but I picked up some particular and idiosyncratic elements from him which I added to my playing – a kind of free flow stream of consciousness that wasn’t to do with holding down a line but snaking in, out and roundabout – playing like a moving target but with strong intent and purpose. When I first started playing with The Work, I needed this approach as the music, although tightly and densely written, was also restless and didn’t hang around anywhere for very long. I’ll return to that further on.

What then followed was a year of challenging old habits and trying to create credible idiosyncracies. This involved trying to make the knowingly naïve sit happily alongside sturdy rolling polyrhythms. It was a very experimental period and also when I was making records for the first time. Getting to be able to produce the goods when the red light was on was a new adventure. My co-conspirators at that time were The Family Fodder and People in Control who both aspired to make very off -centre pop music. It was during this period that I was inducted into roots reggae and the radical world of the dub mix. Once again, the way I saw it was not to mimic blindly but to incorporate facets of these styles into my playing and to know when to bring them to the fore. This involved a lot of listening and practical application. Also, at this time, I was listening to an increasing amount of non-western music which seemed to throw the doors wide open when it came to exploring rhythm and its endless possibilities. The concept of rhythm in Indian music is a deep and vast area of exploration – practically a science. I listened from a distance, unknowingly. I didn’t have a key that fitted that particular door but, not far ahead, I would find a locksmith who would create one for me.

Rick in action with The Work in Wurzburg, Germany in July 1981

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was next asked to be the drummer in a new group just forming. It would become The Work and would be a major step upwards. The Work was just that. A very intense initiation in total commitment to the cause. Eight hour rehearsal days learning complex music that required me to find new ways to play. The guiding force of the group was Tim Hodgkinson, a highly talented and driven musician I had admired previously from his time in Henry Cow. Tim played keyboards and reed instruments and was developing as a flat (slide) guitar player and singer. He also composed very demanding music. Our quartet made a fearful, uncompromising sound and no money but we toured Europe extensively and made records. I felt fully-fledged though somewhat marginalised  by our ‘super independent’ stance. I gained immeasurable experience from the two years I spent in this company but my ears were hearing more and more  music from far flung places and these sounds seemed to be voices calling me to up sticks and away.

After two years in this hothouse, I announced that I had intentions to travel. Despite the tempting prospect of a tour of Japan, I made the decision to leave the band. It felt like a huge leap into the unknown with no turning back. It was, and it wasn’t………………………

Voices from Off Centre

Rick’s latest album, ‘Voices from Off-Centre’ has now been released on Third Force Records and is available for download from Bandcamp.  It’s also available in hard copy on CD.

Voices From Off-Centre casts a wide view of voice:- songs, intonations, the calls of traders and of birds, captured voices recontextualised, playground rhymes and electronic manipulations. Some run on rhythm, some more mysteriously. All instruments are played or persuaded by Rick but considerable contributions are also made by Roxane Smith, who sings on nine songs, by Niall Ross, soprano saxophone on two and by Viv Corringham, a voice presence on one.

There’s already been some really lovely feedback, with the album being described as “haunting”, “beautiful – fresh and clear” and even “symphonic” in places.

You can hear ‘Voices from Off-Centre’ by clicking the link to Rick’s Bandcamp site here, where you can also download the album or give it as a gift.