Inside The Arms of Sleep

Brighton Festival May 11th – 14th 2018

A personal account by stage manager Sophie Rashbrook

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Last Monday at 9am, I emerged, blinking, into the sunlight, alongside 75 other people, in the middle of a wood. Dressed in white aprons and black trousers, we resembled a large cohort of hotel staff who had got spectacularly lost on their return home from a night shift. Except this was exactly where we were supposed to be. We looked on wordlessly, as 50 bleary-eyed guests filed past, smiling at us, some wiping away tears. The crowd came to a stop in the clearing, and five solo voices enveloped them, passed through them, and halted time itself, spinning a golden web of arpeggios into the treetops. The voices fell silent, and there was only birdsong and the hush of the leaves. Then, slowly, but surely, came applause. Elation. Exhaustion. And, a little later, some much-deserved Buck’s Fizz.

 

This was the culmination of the surreal and glorious experience that was The Arms of Sleep. Rewind one week, and Firle Place was a stately home basking in its usual splendour. Set in 7000 acres of exquisitely tended lawns, herb gardens, and bafflingly suicidal lambs, it is a venue more used to hosting lavish weddings and afternoon tea than avant-garde musical experiences, but its Riding School – a beautiful timber-roofed hall – and grounds became the portal into a musical world of dreams, for audience and performers alike.

 

Billed as ‘a 23rd-century Vespers’, The Arms of Sleep was programmed as part of the Brighton Festival. It sold out instantly online, at the members’-only stage of booking. Co-commissioned by the Norwich Festival, this overnight 10-hour choral installation was the production of award-winning, Norwich-based organisation The Voice Project, conducted by Director Sian Croose, with original music by co-Director and composer Jonathan Baker, as well as Helen Chadwick and Orlando Gough.

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It is hard to overstate the energy and dedication that went into making this hugely ambitious project a reality. In a matter of days, the tireless production team assembled 50 specially-constructed beds into a maze-like formation in the hall. Alex, the Production Manager, and Iain, Voice Project Co-ordinator, made multiple trips to Brighton laundrettes to deliver fresh bedding every night. Alex was also regularly to be found spraying kimonos with vodka; a fantastic life hack if you hate the smell of Febreeze, but need an inexpensive and pleasingly alcoholic way of freshening up garments kept in storage. Meanwhile, lighting designer Tim Tracey spent a vast amount of time dangling from the top of a ladder, ensuring that Sal Pittman’s exquisite projections found their mark, and that, come nightfall, the grounds were bathed in magical light.  For the first few days of rehearsals, choir members arrived in cars laden down with foliage from their gardens. They spent hours festooning the changing rooms with branches, and lent lamps, rugs and sheets for the dressing of the space.

 

In many ways, the choir was the star of this event. Voluntarily giving their time, and paying a contribution to take part, they commuted from Brighton at all hours of the night, and, in some cases, even joined us from as far afield as Norwich. They performed outdoors, in all weathers (although in reality, we were blessed with a very warm and dry week), rehearsed with great professionalism, and gave their warm-up such gusto, that on occasion, I had to take cover from their exuberant arm movements. Musically, the quality was outstanding. Coming from a background in professional opera-making, I was astonished and moved to see what was possible with a non-auditioned community choir: musicality of great depth, and the mastering of complex rhythms and harmonies, thanks in large part to Sian and Jonathan’s musical leadership. The result, with a simple but effective staging, was an achievement on an operatic scale.

 

The choir’s performances happened in two slots every night: 9-11.30pm and 6-9am, with some members staying up all night, in order to see the soloists’ musical event at 2.30am. As you can imagine, sleep deprivation started to take its toll.  ‘Has anyone seen my glasses/apron/umbrella?’ was a familiar refrain; while one morning, someone in a moment of confusion filled the water urn with tea or coffee grounds (and no, no one ever owned up to it…) On the penultimate morning at 6am, the chirpiness overflowed into mild hysteria, with a spontaneous and deranged chorus of ‘Good morning, good morning to you!’ as the choir assembled, but invariably, all this nervous energy dispelled in the calmness of the morning air. In the moments of ‘down time’ in the church, while the choir waited for the audience to be led to their beds, or to return from breakfast, I’m certain that among that crowd of architects, editors, bankers, choreographers and artists, friendships were made which will last for years.

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On the final morning, the gentlemen decided to stand in line and listen to the ladies’ chorus, rather than return to the church. They performed ‘Some nights’; a moving a cappella serenade to dreamless sleep, sung in an avenue of cherry trees. By this point, fatigue had stripped away any remnants of emotional resilience, and this simple gesture of appreciation, set within the overwhelming beauty of Firle Place, reduced many of the women to tears. Yet when it came to that final chorus in the herb garden on the last morning, it seemed that tiredness, along with the shadows, had dissipated altogether. There was only music and light.

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For anyone pondering whether to do something as mad as this in future, I urge you to try it, either as an audience member, or a choir participant. It may have taken a week for my sleep patterns to return to normal, but the memories, and the sense of magic, will stay with you forever. I’m sure their next project, Timepiece, happening tonight, will be unmissable.

 

Congratulations to Sian and Jonathan, and all the Voice Project team, for such a fantastic project. Thank you to the wonderful choir and artists who let me be a part of it. It was an honour to have been there with you all.

 

Sophie Rashbrook was choir stage manager for The Arms of Sleep.

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Birds of Hell – Astronomy Programmes

And here’s a link to the Birds of Hell video to the gorgeous song Astronomy Programmes – a fantastical swoon of a tune with great dreamy backing vocals…

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Birds of Hell Live (with The Neutrinos and Ross Sutherland) Saturday 21st May Norwich Arts Centre 8.30pm – tickets here

Birds of Hell Pete Murdoch Starman Strategies Songmaking workshop Saturday 21st May Norwich Arts Centre 3pm tickets here


Pete Murdoch – Birds of Hell

One of the very best songwriters around at the moment, Pete Murdoch (a.k.a.Birds of Hell) has been picking up a lot of plaudits recently for his extraordinary, eerily atmospheric and eclectic tales of Clint Eastwood, being eaten by snakes and dogging. Abetted by Iain Lowery, Carl Cole, Alan Southgate and some dead relatives too, the previous single Boa reached #11 in the UK vinyl chart. His new single Astronomy Programmes is receiving lots of attention from BBC6 Music, Radio 1 etc.

Pete Murdoch

Birds of Hell will be performing as part of Vocal Invention on Saturday 21st May in a concert which also features The Neutrinos and Ross Sutherland.

Tickets for that concert here

Also a highly-experienced workshop leader, Pete will be running  a session from 3pm called ‘Starman Strategies’  In this fun and hands-on workshop he will explore some of the creative methods of David Bowie.’Cut up’ lyric writing,  graphic scores, subverting instruments, writing in character, Eno’s Oblique Strategies – all of these approaches will be used collaboratively creating, playing and singing ‘our own song’. There may well be a bit of Philly Soul, Kraftwerk or drum and bass or make a glam rock monster! Bring your voices and if you like, your own instruments. Some instruments and amplification will be provided.

Workshop tickets here

Brief biography

Pete Murdoch’s music can broadly be divided into two categories: music for kids and music for adults. He’s about to release an album of kid’s music ‘that grown-ups won’t hate’ under the name of Henhouse (think ska version of 5 Little Monkeys sung by Ray Winston). And for the adults there is Birds of Hell where, using guitar, vocoder and tape recordings of dead relatives, he renders songs on subjects ranging from his family to being eaten by snakes and Clint Eastwood. Pete is a former member of Norwich favourites Sargasso Trio who enjoyed numerous sessions for BBC 6Music as well releasing records in Japan, America and Europe. He is also an experienced music tutor delivering workshops for over 10 years with children and adults.

 


Ross Sutherland at Vocal Invention

Here’s a very wonderful and clever chap – very funny too – with an extraordinarily inventive and literary imagination. When Sian and I were looking for a performer to complete the Saturday and Sunday evening line-ups in Vocal Invention 2016, Ross’s name was at the top of the list. I’ve stolen the following directly from his website as it describes his multifarious activities better than I ever could.

Ross Sutherland was born in Edinburgh in 1979. He was included in The Times’s list of Top Ten Literary Stars of 2008. He has four collections of poetry: Things To Do Before You Leave Town (2009), Twelve Nudes (2010), Hyakuretsu Kyaku (2011), and Emergency Window (2012), all published by Penned In The Margins. Ross is also a member of the poetry collective Aisle16 with whom he runs Homework, an evening of literary miscellany in East London.

He has written several pieces for the stage, including The Three Stigmata of Pacman (2010 and the interactive theatre show, Comedian Dies In The Middle Of A Joke (2012). His new show, Standby For Tape Back-Up, will be on tour in late 2014/2015. There’s more info on his website. Tickets from Norwich Arts Centre here for the Saturday performance (with Birds of Hell and The Neutrinos) and here for the Sunday performance at the Bicycle Shop (with George Szirtes, Stephen Watts and Esther Morgan).

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Katherine Zeserson & Bex Mather at Vocal Invention

It feels good to be doing Vocal Invention again. For those not familiar with these mini-festivals (it wouldn’t be that surprising if you aren’t as we haven’t done a Vocal Invention weekend for 5 years),  it’s a celebration of the voice and many of the wonderful things you can do with it: over a weekend of performances, talks and workshops at Norwich Arts Centre on the 20th-22nd May (tickets available through Norwich Arts Centre). We had loads of fun the previous three times we’ve done this (2009-2011).

The workshop element has  always been an integral part of Vocal Invention and I thought it might be a good idea to provide a bit more information about some of the amazing people we’ve got lined up to be part of this year’s event.

On Saturday 21st May at 3pm Katherine Zeserson and Bex Mather will be presenting a workshop called ‘Making It New – Singing the Mouthful Way’ which will involve learning about the brilliant way the four-piece ensemble Mouthful (Katherine, Bex, Sharon Durant and Dave Camlin) create their sound together.

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Mouthful L-R Bex, Katherine, Sharon and Dave

I first met Katherine and Bex when we put the fledgeling Human Music together in 2006. It was Katherine’s idea to make a piece called ’Singing the Building’ for one of a series of inaugural concerts at the Sage Gateshead. Singing the Building was a show with eight-piece Human Music acting as bogus singing tour guides for the new Norman Foster building – in the lifts, backstage, on the balconies and corridors.

Katherine was a founding director of Sage Gateshead from 2002 until 2015 responsible for the strategic design, direction and implementation of its ambitious, internationally acclaimed “Learning and Participation” programme. She has a national reputation as a trainer, music animator and educator, having led programs in a notably wide range of community, educational and social contexts: from pre-school settings to post-graduate and professional development training programs. She has taught vocal skills, music theatre, improvisation, elements of world music, community arts theory and practice. She has designed and run animator and teacher development programs for many local authorities; and has designed and lead staff and leadership development programs for the cultural sector, third sector and businesses. She has held several arts-in- education residencies, working with both primary and secondary age children.
Katherine  performs regularly with the cappella vocal ensemble Mouthful and Human Music.

I found this TEDx talk from 2014 a good reflection of Katherine’s practice.


Recording today with Trio Zéphyr

Well this is rather lovely. Here we are with the Voice Project Quintet in a beautiful village next to Lac Salagou near Montpellier as guests of our friends Trio Zéphyr. It’s pretty idyllic and today we’ll be recording – results up here soon hopefully.  

   


Learning the pieces off by heart

By jonvoiceproject

I’ve posted this before (twice!) but it’s timely now so here we are again:

With all the music there is to learn, we thought it would be a good idea to itemise a few methods for learning off by heart. Some of them are really obvious but I hope it will be useful if you’re not used to doing this kind of thing. Of course, everyone learns at different speeds in different ways.  A combination of approaches can help. Some people will probably have learned their parts already. Anyway, for those who haven’t, here are some pointers:

  • Take your time – cramming the information doesn’t work as it all becomes a jumble. Being methodical definitely helps.
  • Break things into manageable sections – e.g. an eight-bar sequence.
  • Write the words down.
  • Listen on repeat – not necessarily with full attention: in the car or in the kitchen is good.
  • Sing along as much as possible.
  • Look over the piece whenever you have some free time.
  • Read the poem through as it helps to know what the piece is about.
  • Use a combination of the mixes and the ‘enhanced’ parts.
  • Some people learn music best when asleep (headphones advised for this…)
  • Try to memorise one line at a time, starting with the first. Cover it up and try to repeat it, move to the next etc
  • Try to learn the ‘shape’, the ‘form’ of the song.

Good luck and if anyone has other effective tips for helping to learn by heart then please reply to this post.