I’m in the middle of composing the music for a small section of the concert that will commemorate the First World War Battle of the Somme in Heaton Park, Manchester, in the evening of 1st July.
The concert will feature a children’s choir, the Halle Orchestra, Lemn Sissay reading a new poem commissioned for the evening. The part I’m working on is a new dance piece that explores hope, idealism, fear, excitement leading into the horror and brutality of war. A tall order!
The music is currently in its second draft and it’s been an interesting challenge to bring all of these emotions and ideas into one coherent piece that lasts for 14 minutes. It’s certainly one of the longer single pieces I’ve written for a theatrical event that isn’t an ambient underscore (in Slung Low’s shows these kinds of underscores are commonplace, usually to accompany large groups of audience members from one location to another). It’s way more front and centre – hopefully more a partner with the dancers and other elements than an accompaniment; and, because of this, it’s a more involved, more intricate and more crafted piece of work.
Ultimately the piece is in service of something way greater than itself – a commemoration of the largest battle of World War I on the Western Front,which killed or wounded more than one million men – one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
15 Minutes Live by Slung Low, which played this year at The Holbeck (previously Holbeck Working Men’s Club), Leeds, was an awful lot of fun. More than I was expecting! I’m trying to pick apart why, and here are my thoughts. Is it just that I’m older and wiser, I’m working with friends, I’m far less caffeinated than I used to be? Maybe all these reasons and more…
The first 15 Minutes Live was performed in 2011 and since then (5 years ago) it’s become a streamlined operation. Originally we took a week to rehearse; now we’re at two days, including time for rehearsing the band and the dress rehearsal.
15 Minutes Live is a live radio play experience – radio plays presented as theatre, performed with scripts in hand and recorded for archive and posterity. There are five plays, each around the 15 Minute mark, and I think this time we had 11 performers over all the shows. It’s really rather a lovely and laid-back way to spend a few hours on a Sunday afternoon.
There is live foley, the sound design art that gives us a popped balloon if a gun is fired and all the other background sounds called for in a script. There’s a five-piece band, some of whom double or triple up performing different instruments (drums/percussion/glockenspiel, clarinet/saxophone, violin, cello and piano/french horn/melodica), MD’ed by me. If we cock up the recording, say, an actor fluffs a line, or kicks over a mic, or we in the band mess up a cue, we keep performing the play ’til its end and then go back and record that little bit again.
In previous years, I’ve always found the live part of this job, for me, particularly taxing. I’m elated at the end of it, the relief that I’ve got through it in one piece. I LOVE being behind the scenes; I’m even ok with calling some of the live elements in a show (like the choir in some of Converging Paths), but I’ve never been overly comfortable in front of an audience. Even as a violinist, I was plenty content in the trio playing for weddings and other functions – we were glorified background music for the most part. I never got used to solo performances. I have nightmares about them occasionally, even now, and I can count the number of times I’ve picked up that poor, neglected instrument in the last few years on three fingers (that’s three, btw).
Something changed in this last show though. Maybe I’m just getting older and more mellow. My hair’s certainly getting greyer. Whilst there was still a frisson of nervous energy, somehow I’d managed to reframe the experience as exciting rather than rabbit-pinned-in-the-headlights petrifying. It was no longer just a valuable, challenging experience, something that was character-building; I was actually reeeeally looking forward to it.
I spent what felt like a long time composing the music for this – three weeks is unnecessary long for the number of minutes of score. But it was way more enjoyable, and my work days were short, I had most of my weekends free, and I was always fresh and ready to sit down and really work on the music, seeing obvious ways in which previous work should progress, change or be edited, then ready to stop and spend the rest of the day on recharging pursuits (biking, baking, the usual) rather than slogging away hour after hour always with a deadline becoming the primary motivation. The latter is not the reason I went into this business in the first place, after all (even though, on occasion, that deadline becomes an essential tool to forcing the decision-making process).
The music got sent off to the band (for any feedback they might have, like whether or not it was actually playable) a whole week before the show, a first for me to be that early. During that next week, I mentally rehearsed the score a few times daily before the first rehearsal. Conducting does not come naturally to me and there are times that my head is counting in 3 and the baton counts in 4… However, I imagined it going well; and also envisaged where it might go wrong, and how I might have contingencies for mistakes.
The band’s rehearsal didn’t take nearly as long as I thought it would. These people are all pros – always employ people who are better than you; it makes life so much easier. Also, most of these guys have been with me since the second show, one since the first. They all know the drill well enough by now, they know my easy(!) film-musical stylings and I know their proclivities: who’s happy with improvisation, who likes a challenge.
Quick conversations leading up to the show with some of these chaps over Facebook messenger or email about options and possibilites for instrumentation and orchestration were easy, and the fun of writing for the group always came to the forefront of my experience – the pianist/french hornist even bought a new instrument (a melodica) in time for the show. Now that’s commitment.
Between the last 15 Minutes show I worked on in 2013 and this most recent one, I somehow stopped drinking caffeinated drinks – its not a moral thing or anything and I certainly wouldn’t consider it a vice. It just makes me act and feel just a bit weird, jittery, scattered – I’m very sensitive to it, as I’ve heard is pretty common for introverts. I don’t need it to stay awake, and in fact I’m more awake, focussed and, crucially, function better later in the day without it. I don’t get such extreme highs and lows and life feels loads calmer since I kicked it.
I definitely had more consistent energy resources available to me through the whole on-site rehearsal process than I’ve had in previous years… (except for after I’d had seconds of Hansa’s takeaway curry just before the dress rehearsal. Possibly a mistake. A very tasty mistake. But I got a second wind after a couple of hours, yay! and phew!). It was most noticeable during the performance – at no point did my energy wane and the 2-and-a-half-hour show just flew by. In previous years I’d blame excessive fatigue down to being around people for too long. Just didn’t happen on this occasion (’til the Monday after, but that’s post-show elation come-down for you!).
There’s a rough and ready feel to the show, appropriate to this working men’s club environment. We’ll make mistakes, but it’s ok, we can got back and re-record those bits, and the audience is in on the magic – it’s actually exciting that rather than a polished sleight-of-hand we all get to see behind the scenes!
There’s a contentedness I feel with this particular group and format that isn’t surprising though – I’ve worked with the producing team and some of the cast for over a decade now, others for almost as long. It is bloody lovely to make shows with your mates, you know? Is it purely the familiarity creating an air of security, a safe place to take more risks? There’s also feeling that we’re all in this together, and we’re including the audience in our gang.
Honestly… I just don’t know. All I know is that I didn’t feel nervous, I felt excited and behind that was a strange calm that knew it would all be ok on a deep, visceral level (not the usual intellectual ‘of course it’ll all be fine… f**&&*^^%k!’). We were all looking out for each other – we’d all bring our A-game and if one of us happened to stumble the rest would be there to pick us up.
tl;dr? I got old, I worked smart, I rehearsed, I quit caffeine, I work with excellent and lovely people. Can these be the reasons I enjoyed actually performing this particular show…?
Maybe. Though I do sometimes wish I’d stop over-analysing these things and learn to appreciate them for the joy that they are. Plus it was pretty sunny over most of the weekend and that usually does it for me. So it was probably that. Glad I got that sorted, then.
All photographs Copyright © H. Fenoughty 2016