I’ve been meaning to post these great photos from the performance at Rotherhithe for a while now but due to an excess of life Crossing Dartmoor had to be put on hold for a little bit. But now I’m back! And there are three fabulous photographs by the great Alexandra Waespi who photographs most of Bastard Assignments’ gigs (and now is also photographing Adele!) of this performance to give you just a tiny taste of the atmosphere of this one (click each photo to view large):
I’ve been gradually working on a new page for this site too to record the different ‘paths’ or configurations of the work at each performance – because Crossing Dartmoor is a flexible piece, every performance can be different so I feel it might be useful to have a record of which pieces were performed and the order they occurred in at each performance. Planning for this to be online soon… once I’ve worked out the best way to show overlapping elements and where they should start and end!
It’s been a rather manic few weeks here for Crossing Dartmoor as we hurtled towards the third performance of the piece in London – this time for Bastard Assignments: Fresh & Clean in the Thames Tunnel Shaft in Rotherhithe on Thursday 17 September.
With no piano in the venue and Simon unavailable to sing, I created a new arrangement for mezzo-soprano and guitar for this performance, yielding to suggestions that I should have a go at singing it myself, and working with guitarist Ashley Blasse. I also developed a new ‘path’ through the material to cater for a shorter timeslot and an audience who I knew would be open to the more unusual elements of the work.
This was a great chance to test out the flexibility of the piece, and I ended up setting aside three of the existing four sung pieces (two songs and the text score ‘Windsong’ which uses a folksong) and focusing instead on the text scores and audiovisual media.
This Rotherhithe performance has really cemented the place of the new content I created for the theatrical production in the work. Both the video elements and the text score ‘Drawing Out’ (amplified drawing of a Dartmoor scene via contact mic) worked extremely well, with the latter in particular receiving a very enthusiastic response this time round. For this performance, I allotted it a longer duration, we were able to pump more volume thanks to Ashley’s provision of a larger amp than we’d had before, and I gave it a more prominent position in the path – first up, combined with both a video and a field recording. I think all of these worked in its favour and allowed it to shine.
Performing the piece myself has been a very valuable exercise too. While I’m no rival for Simon in the singing stakes, doing it myself made concrete some things that as a composer I could only imagine. Those long gaps in the vocal part are a bit abstract until you find yourself on stage with nothing to do in them, and I felt a strong need to find something that would make me feel relevant in these gaps.
To do this, and to smooth transitions between pieces, I found myself drawing on some of the elements Omar developed for the theatrical production. Watching the videos and messing about with maps – but the theatrical approach also leaked into how I considered the relationship between videos, field recordings and live performance.
My original concept had been that the videos and field recordings would be presented as performed pieces within the work – no overlap, they would appear in sequence in much the same way as if an oboist had stepped forward to play a solo in the middle of the performance. I may still try this out, but for this show I wanted to experiment a little with layering up sounds and playing around with how that layering affected the perception of duration. I started to look for points where crossfading between videos and fading field recordings in or out would make some sort of dramatic sense, even though I wasn’t thinking of this as a staged production at all.
Of course, the sacrifice for performer-side knowledge like this is the eternal problem of the performing composer: you lose the experience of being an audience member, which provides a different type of information. But I’m glad I did it because the experience has provided yet more useful information for the development of the piece, and particularly for staging the piece, even in a formal recital context.
So, the video of the production is great, but these photos of our production at the New Diorama Theatre by the fabulous Claire Shovelton are just as exciting for me – beautiful and mysterious and really evocative:
Aren’t they great? These are just a few of the great set of photos of the production, and I really urge you to and check out the full set on Flickr as they’re really amazing.
Plus, she took this lovely team shot of us at the end of our run-through! Left to right are: Omar Shahryar, director, Simon Oliver Marsh, tenor, Alexandra Kremakova, piano, and Caitlin Rowley, composer & producer:
So thanks to Claire and to Tête à Tête for arranging for her to be available to us (and all the other productions in the festival!). We’re all delighted with how these turned out!
Firstly, we’d all like to say huge THANK YOU to everyone who came along to our performances of Crossing Dartmoor at the New Diorama Theatre – we really hope you enjoyed the production!
Now that these performances are done, we’re deep in admin-central-aftermath territory. Returning props, considering outcomes, reviewing audience feedback. Most excitingly we get to relive the whole thing without the performance-day jitters through the wonder of online video! Tête à Tête very kindly film all the performances in the festival and it’s always great to be able to look back over a show, as well as have the opportunity to give those who couldn’t be there a glimpse into what it was like. The performance in this video was the first show on Saturday 25 July, and it’s looking great!
And of course, huge thanks, too, to Arts Council England and the National Lottery for funding this performance at the New Diorama Theatre, to Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival, King’s Cross and their Artistic Director Bill Bankes-Jones for their support and encouragement, and to Sound and Music for the Francis Chagrin Award they gave me to help with the costs involved in creating the field recording sections of the work (which haven’t come through very clearly on the video but I’ll be posting the recordings from the show on SoundCloud soon).
We’re now into theatrical rehearsals, where we take all the work we’ve done in the musical rehearsals and start building it into an actual SHOW. I find this part of the process absolutely fascinating, and wanted to share a little bit with you from our rehearsal at Peregrine’s Pianos on Tuesday. This is the second show I’ve worked on with Omar – the first being last year’s Breadcrumbs for Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival, which we did at King’s Place. It’s been interesting this week to see activities and techniques he used with Charlotte last year to develop Gretel’s character, now at use with two performers to develop characters out of thin air.
The word association game is always challenging and fun – the first person says a word and the next person says the first thing that comes into their head in response to that word. The aim is to free up the thinking and set aside our tendency to self-censor before moving on to more specific exercises. Omar also brought along a range of toys to play with, including this ‘dead sheep’:
I’m sure this ISN’T the sort of dead sheep Richard Long came across, but it’s our London-variety of dead sheep anyway :-)
The main exercise we worked through is one to develop characters: the performers are prompted to imagine the show scenario and to think about who they are and why they are in the space – what they’re doing, how old they are, what their relationship is with others on the stage. Of course, when we were working on Breadcrumbs, Charlotte as Gretel was all alone, so it was particularly interesting to see how Simon and Alex as ‘John’ and ‘Frankie’ negotiated aspects of who they were and their relationship over the course of being interviewed in character by Omar, and then again as John and Frankie’s children ‘Tom’ and ‘Caitlin’ (!) talking about their parents and their own relationship.
I don’t want to give away tooooo much about the show – it’s already changed from where we ended up at the end of the rehearsal two days ago and will probably change again – but there’ll be lots of boxes. Lots of rocks. Probably lots of maps. Not so many dead sheep :-)
Oh! And we now have print-promotion materials! So if you see any of us roaming London, or our regular rehearsal haunt of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, come and say hi and ask for a flyer or card!
So now we’re finally into rehearsals for our Tête à Tête performances and everything’s in full swing and terribly terribly exciting! For this show, we’re working on the three existing notated songs, plus three text scores. In this first rehearsal we were principally looking at the paired songs, ‘1979’ and ‘2010’, and did some drawing-media tests for the new text score, ‘Drawing Out’, attaching the contact mic to a borrowed bass amp, and worked through some cuts to the folksong used in ‘Windsong’. It was a lovely hot day to be out in Greenwich… but we were inside in Greenwich, so shoes off and some moments of larking about seemed called for alongside the solid work :-)
Next up we’ve got a production meeting on Sunday with our director, Omar Shahryar, at which we’re planning to pin down the order of pieces for the show. Crossing Dartmoor is designed to have a flexible structure, allowing performers to create their own version of the piece, in much the same way as a rambler would choose their path across the moor. There are only a small number of notated pieces at the moment – the cycle is still a work in progress – so the actual pieces we’re doing are pretty set, but we still need to pin down the order, which field recordings and videos to use, and how to put it all together, as well as nutting out a theatrical approach to presenting it.
I’ve been experimenting with ways to capture the sound of wind over the past couple of days. Wind is a real feature of Dartmoor, as much as the granite tors and the ponies, but recording the sound of wind is a real challenge (as opposed to having recordings messed up by wind hitting the microphones directly, which is outstandingly easy). Yesterday I was experimenting up at Little Mis Tor by attaching my Røde M3 microphone to my recorder and recording from within crevices in the rock, which I think has been quite successful, although I’ll need to listen to the result on the proper speakers I have at home to be sure.
Today presented a different option though. I took the parents off to Drewsteignton to find Castle Drogo, but owing to finishing up at Wistman’s Wood later than planned, and the travel between Two Bridges and the castle taking far longer than anticipated, we arrived to find the castle all shut up for the evening. However, the benefit of this, of course, was that everybody else had gone and as the grounds aren’t locked up at night, we drove up to see what we could see. Imagine my delight to discover a fantastically tall line of trees (basically a 30-foot hedge) which caught the wind with a marvellous rustling sound, while blocking most of it from the area I was standing in. So I just had to make some recordings there and I think I’m going to be pleased with those too.
And yes, Wistman’s Wood actually happened today. I’ve captured some interesting video footage, but sound recording was hampered by high winds and some intrepid rambler playing a clarinet. Very nice indeed, but not quite what I was after…
I’m super-pleased that I’ve managed to capture some sheep sounds on this trip. Random bleats are very much part of the soundscape of the moor, but last time I was here, the sheep were very shy and I failed to record any at all, so I’m delighted to finally have some sheep-sounds to play with.
Dartmoor is famous for a number of things: beautiful bleak landscapes, the Hound of the Baskervilles, a very imposing prison… and its highly changeable weather. Today we experienced the last of these – and to such an extent that we were totally unable to experience either 1 or 3 and had we encountered 2 we’d never have seen our doom approaching. Today was a day of FOG. Lots and lots of fog. Also enough significant drizzle that standing a camera out in it to video stuff seemed like a seriously stupid idea.
So Wistman’s Wood was off, although I did go a little way down the start of the path to capture this proof:
and met two extremely sodden walkers returning from the wood with dripping wet-weather gear and muddy boots and looks of determination that said clearly “there’s a warm pub just over there” which just confirmed our decision to not go there at all today. The rain likewise made recording sounds challenging what with the drippings out of the sky and general dampness, so we decided to show the parents the very imposing prison instead and headed off towards Princetown.
Normally the very imposing prison looms at you from the skyline from quite a distance away. Today though we saw… fog. No landscape, no prison, and then “oh, is this Princetown??” and we were there. But we could barely even see the buildings by the side of the road, so gave up and went for a Sunday roast at a pub instead.
Of course, being Dartmoor, in the afternoon all the fog lifted just too late to be useful, yielding this:
Tomorrow, though, they’re saying will be spectacular blue skies. Fingers crossed, please?
First full day on Dartmoor today and the work is somewhat underway. Today was a bit of a family day though, as I’ve brought my parents along to show them this wonderful place, and my partner has joined us just for the weekend, so today was less about the remote areas and more about doing some things together, interspersed with a bit of video work and refamiliarising myself with the moor, its sounds and its moods.
It’s ended up being a bit of a Widecombe Fair day, though. This famous Devon folksong is used in Crossing Dartmoor as Simon’s chosen song for the text score ‘Windsong’. Today we visited Widecombe-in-the-Moor itself. No Fair, alas (it happens in September, apparently), but there was a market selling very nice goats cheese and honey fudge, which was some compensation. The sky was being gorgeously cloudy, so I took advantage of family members exploring the church to test out a video concept which I’m quite pleased with. The tripod makes a massive difference – amazing how much less disturbing it is when the patch of sky you’re looking at in a video doesn’t visibly wobble about! – but I think I need to do a bit more experimenting with the video settings on the camera to be sure it’s not automatically adjusting anything I don’t want it to. I think the wide-angle lens I’ve borrowed from my partner’s DSLR is making a real difference with the feel of the video than using my own lens, so I’ll probably stick with the one large lens for the rest of the time we’re here.
Particularly notable at Widecombe today were the birds (rooks? Something black. With wings. Sorry – I’m no good at birds). They had colonised a large tree about a field away from the churchyard and were making the most marvellous racket. Absolutely stunning. And then as I was packing up my video gear, they all took off and flew to another tree about 2 more fields away, and the sound moving with them was just beautiful. I didn’t make a proper recording of them because a) it would have been impossible to get a clean recording without tourist noises all over it and b) I want the sounds for the performance to be genuine remote-location sounds, away from the towns, but here’s a tiny clip of them shouting away on the soundtrack of my sky video:
In the afternoon we visited Finch Foundry up near Okehampton which unexpectedly turned out to be the resting place of one Thomas Pearse (d. 1875), supposedly (according to the National Trust) the ‘Tom Pearce’ of the song.
I did record a few sounds here – if you’re ever passing by, you should visit if only to hear the water-powered steel hammers in motion! – but just for my general collection rather than for Crossing Dartmoor.
Tomorrow, though, the real work begines: I’m heading back to Wistman’s Wood for video and field-recording duty. Hoping it won’t be swarming with tourists. Or if it is that they’re super-quiet ones!
I’ve got some locations lined up from previous visits: Wistman’s Wood, Little Mis Tor, the area around Scorhill Circle, but I’m hoping to also discover some new places as we’re going to be staying in a different area from previous visits. Little Mis Tor I need to plan in advance because it’s situated near the Department of Defence’s Merrivale firing range and I don’t want to get shot :-) so that means a weekend visit or Monday as the range isn’t being used on those days.
I’ve got a bunch of gear lined up for the trip which I think will be more effective than last time I went, when I felt that much of the material I produced was really only suitable to give an idea of what I wanted. For this trip, I’m replacing the three (yes, THREE!) cameras of the last trip – my film SLR (a Canon EOS500), Canon G11 compact digital and a Flip HD video camera – with just one, a Canon EOS600D digital SLR, which shoots video as well as stills and most conveniently will take the lens from my film SLR and the big wide-angle lens from my partner’s DSLR too. I’ve been getting to know this camera over the past few weeks with some test shoots and am pretty happy with the image quality straight out of the camera. Here’s a couple of test shots I took with it down at the LV21 lightship at Chatham this weekend:
I’ve also finally invested in a tripod – on my last trip I took my marvellous travel-friendly Velbon monopod, but I hadn’t bargained for the crazy winds on Dartmoor, which meant a bunch of wobbly video that can’t really be used. I’m hoping the tripod will be sturdy enough to sort this out, although I’ll probably still take the monopod as it’s great for limiting handling noise in field recordings and for recording ponies and sheep who don’t like me standing too close.
Plus of course I’ll have my trusty Tascam DR-40 field recorder, which I bought with the assistance of Sound and Music’s fantastically helpful Francis Chagrin Award. I’ve had this for a few months now so I’ve got to know it fairly well, but it hasn’t been to Dartmoor yet (the last round of recordings were done on a borrowed DR-05) and I’m keen to find out how it fares. I’ll probably also take my contact microphone with me because, well, why not? Who knows what sounds are lurking out there, waiting for me!