committing to this: TUSK Festival 2019

February 19, 2020 at 12:30 pm | Posted in live music, musings, new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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TUSK Festival 2019

Venues in Gateshead and Newcastle, 11th to 13th October

wristband

[The usual provisos: I won’t be mentioning every act as creating An Exhaustive List Of Everything That Happened is not my bag. I won’t be mentioning everyone I spoke to either because I don’t want to allocate some to this ‘highlights’ package and not others. Safe to say that every conversation I had with you lovely people I enjoyed very much. It was a delight to catch up with old hands and to chat with new acquaintances alike. Lastly, I’m not cluttering what follows with links, nor topping it with a cloud of tags – I’d suggest having the TUSK Festival site open on another tab and hunting and pecking as appropriate. TUSK will fill the archives with videos in due course. There are fewer pictures this time, and very few of performances in progress, because despair at my photographic ineptitude led to a mass deletion whilst I was writing this.]

INTRODUCTION

On August 20th I posted the following tweet:

tweet

As you can see it attracted a modest level of ‘engagement’. At first I was touched but then increasingly alarmed at the number of heartfelt well-wishing messages I received in reply. It had been interpreted far more seriously than I intended and, remembering that I have disappeared for lengths of time in the past due to mental health problems or whilst dealing with family emergencies, I followed up with reassurances that I was fine just busy.

I took comfort in rereading those replies in the following weeks when it became clear just how busy was just busy. Juggling summer holiday childcare alongside a difficult time at work and then moving house for the first time in seven years – for the first time since my son was born – left me gasping like a mudskipper hopping after the retreating tide. I ain’t complaining – life is, by and large, sweet and I am cushioned by a silky pillow of privilege – but the prospect of TUSK, the one time of year I spend more than a few hours free of responsibility, became an oasis in the distance. All tasks were split into two piles: ‘must be done before TUSK’ or ‘can wait until after TUSK’ and I shambled from hour to hour until…

chill out

FRIDAY

…suddenly – ah shit! – like The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, it was upon me and I was folding my most tuskian t-shirts whilst shouting at the lad to sit down and do his spelling homework. The haze didn’t lift, nor did my teeth unclench, until I was on a train pulling away from Leeds station.

Mirroring my softening demeanour, the skies gradually cleared of pissing rain until the landscape resembled the cover of everyone’s favourite ambient collage album (see photo above, taken from the train window). Boarding at York, though unable to join me due to allocated seating, was JOHN TUFFEN (hereafter JT), TUSK newbie and designated festival buddy for the weekend – the guy I introduced to everyone as “He hosts Wonkystuff in York, records as namke communications…” etc. We convened at Newcastle station on arrival and strolled arm in arm downhill to Quayside and our hotels. My room had the same view as last year – pigeon shit / engineering – and after some swift unpacking I headed back out to Newcastle University for the afternoon show.

Embarrassingly, despite the walk being more or less a straight line AND using Google Maps, I still managed to get lost on the way. However, an indication in my change of mood was that I was chuckling at my own uselessness and entertained by a speed-mooch through city centre, rather than fretting or annoyed. If your phone calmly tells you to “Take the escalator to the first floor,” you know you’ve proper fucked up – it’s hard not to laugh. Luckily, once I hit campus I saw LAURA GREY (Hard Stare), LEE STOKOE (Culver, of course) and JAMIE STUART (Wrest, soon to perform) walking ahead of me and I hurried to catch ‘em up figuring they’d know where to go.

King’s Hall is a very large, very grand, wood panelled box used for graduation ceremonies and concerts. The impressive pipe organ it contains, more than two storeys high, looks so new (installed 2017) that I suspect an ante-chamber still contains the cardboard boxes and bubble wrap that it came packed in. After some chatting with YOL, PAUL MARGREE and other early adopters sitting nearby, silence fell for the first performance of the day. Jamie, now in full WREST mode, lay on the floor and indicated the beginning of the set by hauling himself to his feet.

NO WAY

He said, he shouted, he screamed, he rasped. Over and over. Walking around the room to bounce those two words off the walls, testing the acoustics, testing the audience. It was the first act of a ritual. He played acoustic guitar, he rattled and pounded a kettle drum. He returned to the voice – “Good people die, good people fade…” – repeating a few lines, perhaps improvised, maybe taken from a folk song, a sea shanty – raging anguish to sorry acceptance depending on the tone he chose. It was a mesmerising and, at the end, I laughed out loud during the stunned applause to see Jamie snap back into his affable Geordie self immediately: “Aye, thank you very much!”

Next, the pipes were cleared by ELLEN ARKBRO who used the organ to play a profound and enveloping set of room-filling drone. The venue was saturated with standing waves so dense that moving your head mere centimetres to the left or right would radically alter what you were hearing, despite the sound source being taller than my house. Everywhere became the centre, which made the hard transitions between notes all the more discombobulating – moments of turbulence in a flight across the desert.

As I was pulling myself together a very enthusiastic gentleman bounded up and greeted me: “Rob Hayler! You haven’t aged a day!” I didn’t recognise him but he was clearly delighted to see me again* and so I listened carefully and sent out conversational feelers whilst trying not to let on. Eventually it dawned on me that I was speaking to JOHN WHATLING, performing that weekend as JOHANN WLIGHT! My expression must have been hilarious as it twisted from bewildered to thrilled. John is a fellow survivor of the turn of the century CDr underground, producing work around the same time I was busy with fencing flatworm recordings. He ran a terrific label himself, the much missed Nidnod, and his thoughtful, beautifully paced, pastoral recordings – collages of drone, small scale found object noise, birdsong and the like – were maps of an alternate world, invitations to explore. Always reclusive, at some point he just disappeared entirely and his decade-long absence was sometimes speculated about in conversation. He became my Jandek. Then late in 2017 – HOLY SHIT! – a new album appeared on Chris Gower’s Trome Records. Recording as itdreamedtome, A.Y. is as good as we could have hoped for – seemingly delicate, actually thoroughly robust, a modest and beguiling triumph.

AY

Turning over the typically magical packaging in my hands, I felt myself close to tears. However, it got even better. In March of this year I was astounded to see that he was PLAYING LIVE, on the bill of the Listen to the Voice of Fire festival in Aberystwyth alongside fellow travellers HAWTHONN. I was furious with jealousy that I couldn’t go. When I saw that he would also be appearing at TUSK, thus RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME, I was so excited that everyone I spoke to for two weeks after the announcement was treated to a breathless version of this paragraph. And finally here we are. We gushed at each other for a moment longer then, as the room was being cleared, I introduced him to Lee, gathered up JT and along with CRAIG JOHNSON of Invisible City Records trotted back for the evening session, with JT and I stopping to eat at the lovely Super Natural Café on Grainger Street – highly recommended.

[*We had actually met before. John later reminded me that in 2004 he was at a gig I played as midwich supporting Vibracathedral Orchestra in Trinity Church, Leeds city centre. I apparently kept him company before and after the show so I’m glad to hear I was a good egg. I vaguely remember it – I played at the desk, sound-tracking an old cymatics video and used hair clippers to get the buzzing tone I wanted alongside the MC-303 – but it was around the time that a bout of depression led to me taking a lengthy break from music and memories of that era are smeared and dark.]

The evening session on Friday of TUSK is always a rush of glad-handing and saying hello as we settle again into SAGE. Walking up the path from the Swing Bridge I was amused and awed, as ever, by this bizarre confection. Part noble arts venue, proud to be publically funded, part Ballardian vision of corporate blandness lit in sickly boiled sweet colours. I think I love it? I’m certainly old and tired enough to be immediately institutionalized by the helpful staff, open space, decent toilets and high quality rooms. Don’t worry about losing your underground credentials though – you’ll soon be sat on the floor watching the people on stage yelping and squawking. Speaking of which…

Interrupting my project of introducing JT to every person in the building that I knew, then getting to know more so I could introduce him to them too, was ACRID LACTATIONS, the first act of the festival ‘proper’. Seeing Sue and Stuart perform is a rare treat and it was an accomplished set of (semi?) improvised malarkey. Sue’s saxophone cracked and loosened a little of the remaining uptightness I’d brought with me and I was won over by the water play and the funny-bordering-unnerving duet with a tape of baby cries. Following this was MIR8, expanded to a trio for TUSK, and whilst I wholeheartedly approved of the breath-catching bass I was fidgeting too much to give it the consideration it deserved so retired to the bar for more conversation hopping.

Next, THE ROLLING CALF were one of the highlights of the festival and inadvertently provided me with the title for this piece. The trio of ELAINE MITCHENER, JASON YARDE and NEIL CHARLES started slow and, despite it being clear they were reaching for something very special, ten minutes in I was slyly plotting a path to the exit. Something stopped me getting up though, maybe the shame that I’d just done the same during the proceeding set from MIR8, and I found myself wondering: c’mon Rob what are you here for? During the recent months of being just busy I’d been reduced to bumping-into-doorframes tiredness whilst still feeling compelled to multitask. This led to an unhealthy state in which my attention span was hopeless but I couldn’t rest, instead stumbling from one task to the next, interrupting myself, enduring the tyranny of a heavily annotated ‘to do’ list. Elaine Mitchener’s ululations had cut through all that – lemon juice dissolving the grease gathered around my thoughts. Fuck it, I decided, I’m committing to this. The set proved to be a marvel – spacious, free to surprise yet sharply focussed with the players seemingly locked into a telepathically shared purpose. Like all the best improv it existed essentially in the moment but connected to something timeless. The performance, which had started tentatively, grew into an extraordinary multi-limbed mythical creature, fascinating and beautiful.

I’d learnt a lesson – partly due to circumstances allowing me some perspective, partly about how to play the rest of the weekend. Realistically, an hour of music, no matter how good, wasn’t going to shift the bad habits I’d developed but it suggested a tactic. I was committing to TUSK and I’d commit to individual performances by simply making it difficult for myself to leave. If I was stood right at the front in full view of the act, or wedged into a space surrounded by people or, as we shall see, sat in a dark room where the tiniest arse-cheek squirm became part of the performance, then that would give me pause to challenge the desire to leave. I could remind myself that I am not in a doggedly-crossing-things-off place, instead I am visiting an adding-unique-things-to-the-sum-of-my-experience place. TL;DR – dude, enjoy yrself.

selfie

[I can’t remember when I met Glory, known round these parts as THE DOLL or CORPORAL TOFULUNG or GINONDIAMONDS, for the first time, or discovered that IAN WATSON was present, but it is likely to have been around now so let’s pretend it was. Blimey, the genius polymaths of the no-audience underground count was very high indeed. You couldn’t have thrown a limited-edition tape in handmade packaging without hitting at least one inspirational character on the back of head. What a joy.]

Any need for strategy, however, was left outside as we descended into Sage 2 for MARIAM REZAEI & LASSE MARHAUG who were joined by a string quartet for the premiere of their piece The 42 Mirrors of Narcissus.  This performance absolutely stripped my screw thread, left me spinning.  Mariam’s astonishing skills as a turntablist, seemingly sprouting extra fingers to blur the fader, was augmented by her own voice, the unifying sweep of the quartet and the apocalyptic dark humour of Lasse’s vinyl abuse.  Whilst most of me was enjoying this on a purely visceral level, what was left of my high end functions were delighting in trying to figure out how it fit together.  The quartet were playing from a score and Mariam was cueing them, conducting with nods and looks.  She also had her own score which she was dramatically discarding, sheet by sheet, as they worked through it.  “How is this written down!?” I marvelled (more on this later), before my reverie was punctured by being hit in the chest by a piece of vinyl from a record shattered by Lasse.  I picked it up as a souvenir.

vinyl fragment

Due to basking in a post-set mind-shimmer, and enjoying the swinging social scene in the bar, I missed the beginning of AUDREY CHEN’s set and only lasted ten minutes when I finally did head in.  This is not due to the quality of her performance, which was clearly glorious, but her deciding to perform in the middle of the Northern Rock Foundation Hall, rather than on the stage at the front.  A claustrophobic crush had developed near the door where patrons were too confused or too polite to elbow through to the relatively clear space behind her. All the middle-aged beardies like me were sticking together like Velcro fastenings in a pile of laundry so I went back to the chatter.

The day ended with SUNN TRIO and for me this fried, psych rock was exactly what I needed to carry me over the finish line.  I was amused by how they played with almost no regard for the audience – no eye contact, no gaps between songs for applause, just noodling until it all fired up again.  Waist deep in their own vibe, leaning against a gale that we couldn’t feel, they roared through it with a satisfying, shambling precision.  At the end of their set I said goodnight to a random selection of the nearest at hand, walked downstairs to the concourse, closed my eyes, clicked my fingers and was magically transported to my hotel room.

lucky table

SATURDAY

I woke early, as ever, but groggily remembered yesterday’s self-help revelation so resisted the urge to do something.  Instead I stayed in bed and listened to MATT DALBY’s lovely audio review/diary of the event so far on Soundcloud and lived the late night fringe vicariously through Mariam’s Instagram posts.  Fuck me, BLOM are magnificent.  Eventually I pulled myself together, met JT at 10am and we returned to Super Natural where we were joined by PAUL MARGREE to gorge on vegan breakfast.  I had a smoothie made from fruit, veg and the kind of beans you’d usually need to swap a cow for so I was well set.  We bounced back down the hill and across the river.

First up was SWISS BARNS, a duo of JORGE BOEHRINGER (best known to me as Core of the Coalman) and AILBHE NIC OIREACHTAIGH and, as it was to be followed by a talk, the NRFH was full of rows of chairs.  The comfort was most welcome and, to my embarrassment, I can’t tell you much about this as I was perhaps a little too ‘relaxed’ for its duration.  What I do remember I enjoyed a lot, just don’t ask me for details.

I was very much awake for what came next, though: DEREK WALMSLEY, features editor of THE WIRE magazine, interviewing MARIAM REZAEI.  This event (in combination with her triumphant performance the night before and her involvement in a magical set to come later this day) cemented, I think, TUSK 2019 as Mariam’s festival.  Her charisma, intelligence and ethic – her presence – seemed defining this year, more than ever.  The stage was set up with turntables arranged battle style so Mariam could demonstrate technique as she answered Derek’s questions and I was fascinated by her account of her background, her struggle to be taken seriously in the turntablism competition scene as a woman, her work expanding the medium and collaborating with others and her views on where things stand for the art in the digital age.  All of this delivered with a self-deprecating wit filtered through a finely tuned bullshit detector.  Towards the end Derek asked the floor for questions and I stuck up my hand to ask about the score I mentioned above.  I’m very glad I did as, unbeknownst to me, it turns out that Mariam’s PhD was about notating turntablism and she later sent me some example pdfs which I have studied with bewildered delight (two pages chosen at random reproduced below).

Score 2Score 1

[Aside: The other upshot of asking my question (and of being named by Mariam in her answer) was that I was clocked by Derek.  “Rob? I recognize your voice from the radio.” He said, referring to my podcast/Mixcloud show, and so afterwards I went up to say hello.  I was a little nervous because I have been very rude about The Wire on this blog before, not all of it tongue in cheek and most of which I’ll happily stand by, but we had a perfectly friendly conversation and I left with a couple of freebie issues of the magazine tucked into my bag.  Some weeks later Derek got in touch to commission a short piece for the year-end issue about ‘hobbyism’ in the underground and despite the fact that I am not used to having an editor, a word count or specific beats I’m asked to hit I thought, fuck it – I’m a pretty well-qualified advocate.  Issue 431 if you’re interested.  Yeah, accuse me of selling out but you losers won’t be laughing when I use my sweet new contacts and influence to secure funding for my next audio-visual installation project.  Now shush whilst I fill in this grant application…]

After this I found myself in a delicious state of contentment and ANDY WILD, Mr Crow Versus Crow, and I chatted nice as we strolled to new TOPH/TUSK fringe venue Alphabetti Theatre.  I’d not been to this place before and was completely charmed by it.  We wandered through the small, book-filled bar into the venue which already seemed half full only to be asked to leave whilst they finished setting up – what I’d assumed to be the crowd was actually the cast and crew for the coming performance!  Blimey – actual theatre.  Back in the bar I admired the TOPH LIBRARY: big plastic tubs containing a complete run of DAVID HOWCROFT’s N-AUT tape label, a folder cataloguing the work he’s done recording and releasing live shows in the area and a complete run of ANDY WOOD’s TQ ZINE too.  The spirit of this exercise is perfect – generous, fun, an expression of self-sufficiency and heartfelt appreciation – and it is humbling to see.  More power to ’em both.

TQNAUT archive 1TQNAUT archive 2

We were called in and I settled into a back row seat next to fellow naughty kid JON LEE (DISCOINSOLENCE, STAPPERTON) for LUKE POOT PRESENTS RICHARD AND JUDY: THE OPERA WITH THE LUKE POOT ALLSTARS BAND.  Luke, well turned out as ever, talked us through some key events in Richard Madeley’s life and career using projected slides, clips of theme tunes and punctuation from the dozen (?) players wearing Richard masks (plus one Judy – the villain of the piece) who squeaked hand-pumped air horns behind him. The incantation of ‘Richard Madeley’, repeated whenever Luke said the name, caught on in the audience who began to shout it out crackerjack style (I fear Jon and I may have started this) until it became a surreal mass heckle.  By the time Luke dramatically told of Madeley’s father dying the audience weren’t taking anything seriously and many, myself included, couldn’t help laughing at the inappropriateness of it all.  This caused one of the Richards to crack up (fess up YOL, I know it was you) and after that proceedings were pretty much fucked.  Most entertaining.

luke's opera

After the interval, the second performance was Roughtin Linn by THE CUP N RINGS, comprising DAVID HOWCROFT and SWARMFRONT (of which Mariam is a member – this was the other set I referred to above).  Here’s some context from the flyer that had been left on every surface at Sage the day before (with apologies to David for brutally editing it down):

Roughtin Linn is a huge outcrop of natural sandstone.  it is the largest prehistoric decorated outcrop of rock in Northern England.  It also has a hidden valley with a waterfall.  Much of the art decoration is of the cup and ring type and what is also interesting is the variety of motifs.  The waterfall is hidden in a gorge and adds to the power of place because I do believe … places do move us with a sense of their importance or beauty.  And water is a substance of beauty … a truly living thing.

Copies of rubbings of the prehistoric art were distributed on A3 sheets of paper.  The space was dressed with tree branches, a bowl of water and other mysterious objects and we looked on with growing anticipation.  David began his performance with no fanfare, quietly claiming the space, crouching over his tools. He stripped to the waist and used tree cuttings to gently scourge himself. Other vegetation he taped to his arms. He had some sort of chalky white clay which he mixed with water, beat into a paste and painted himself with. This mesmerising pagan ritual was accompanied by a growing roar from Swarmfront. Starting with a relatively peaceful swirl – rock pools being refilled by a rising tide – this developed slowly into an all-consuming rush of flood water.

CupnRings3

I found it profoundly moving. There was nothing here that was at all arch or pretentious. The set was presented with absolute sincerity and unreserved commitment by artists collaborating to express a celebration of nature and a connection to deep human history. There was a wider context too, known especially by the locals on stage or in the audience: David is loved. He has been a stalwart of the North East scene for decades, a humble and enthusiastic force for the good with an irreverent sense of humour. I looked around the room during the show and I swear you could see this on people’s faces. The vibe was incredible – we were willing him on. I cried during the applause at the end.

I walked back into reality with Andy Wood, Jon Lee and JT (who had been soldering with FARMER GLITCH and joined the event half way through). We talked it over and I compared the joyous revelation of what we’d just seen to the largely boring and cynical ‘transgressive’ performances we’d endured back in ye olden dayes of noize. As the sparkle began to fade I noticed the street we were on appeared to be nowt but kebab shops, some sporting pools of multi-coloured vomit in their doorways. Drunks were already staggering into traffic despite it only being late afternoon. God, I love Newcastle.

[Aside: Tweets from me and Jon somehow made it into the packaging of the N-Aut release of the set, as did a little piece of card that made me laugh by featuring the covers of Cut by The Slits on one side and Y by The Pop Group on the other. Heh, heh – David putting his mud into context there.]

CupnRIngs2

Back in my hotel room I read the excellent CHEWN ZINE PRESENTS WHAT TO EAT IN NEWCASTLE AND GATESHEAD DURING TUSK whilst mindlessly wolfing down a generic slop-in-mayo sandwich bought at the railway station and mulling over these missed opportunities.

[Aside: …and in-between that sentence ending and this one beginning, two months passed.  The Tories win the election, Christmas with the family was lovely, Simon Morris dies.  The pace of real life continues to leave me three bananas short of a speed run every day.  I made no notes during TUSK so a battered copy of the programme plus my equally dog-eared memory will have to suffice in getting this done.  LET’S GO.]

Having been to his opera earlier I skipped LUKE POOT’s solo effort and my evening began with KA BAIRD.  Her take on vocal shenanigans, which had become an unofficial theme of the weekend, was unique and discombobulating.  Her two mic set up and octopus-level, brain-in-each-limb hyper-kinetic performance left me beaming, exhilarated.  The good vibes continued with ERNIE K FEGG who, along with drummer AL, treated us to some clattering rockabilly dada, joyfully tugging on the last teddy boy’s string vest and bellowing their catalogue of ALL types of love, even crustacean love.

Ernie

Then: JANDEK.  I was excited, nervous even, having been a fan on and off since the turn of the century.  I used to trade fencing flatworm recordings CDrs for Jandek CDs with Eddie Flowers of Crawlspace.  Christ, that feels like a lifetime ago.  Alas, it wasn’t for me.  Hundreds there were clearly digging it but I left after 25 minutes, unmoved.

Next we were beckoned into the luxurious surroundings of SAGE HALL 1 – all seating, perfect sound, capacity in four figures – for something really special: MOOR MOTHER X LCO.  I marched down to the middle of the very front row (“We’re committing to this are we?” asked JT, who had been informed of my strategy by then) and this time my anticipation was fully justified.  Centre stage but set back, part of a semi-circle of musicians from the LCO, MOOR MOTHER performed and conducted a new piece called The Great Bailout.  The subject of this work is the slave trade, how the profit generated built many of the ‘great’ cities of the UK and how the owner class was richly compensated when the slave trade abolished.  It was a deeply troubling performance – sad without sentiment, angry without catharsis.  It laid out the human consequences of misery as a business and asked uncomfortable questions about continued complicity.  There were no concessions to it taking place on the Saturday night of a festival and when MOOR MOTHER looked up sharply at the engineer during a problem with the sound it felt like she was admonishing the whole audience: “well, what are you going to do about this?”  It was brilliant.

I remained choked, dealing with a bite much larger than I could chew, until CEYLON MANGE, the trio of KAREN CONSTANCE, DYLAN NYOUKIS and BILL NACE allowed me to swallow.  They sat as close together as the three wise monkeys of a mantelpiece bronze and, although I couldn’t see what was on their tables from where I was sprawled, what emanated was a judder and gurgle of pleasingly indeterminate purpose, skilfully presented with a charming wry humour.

The night ended for me with ABUL MOGARD back in SAGE 2, a replacement for an indisposed ELEH.  I was familiar with both this artist’s music – a winning brand of industrial ambient – and the infamous false back story of an outsider musician discovered.  Suffice to say that, despite a density of dry ice that would have made Andrew Eldritch cough, it was clear the bloke on stage was not a retired Serbian metal worker.  I was probably not the only smart-arse cracking ‘oo, looking good for his age, eh?’ jokes.  The performance was, of course, without personality but I was well up for being enveloped in viscera-rearranging bass until the call of my bed began to cut through it.

mixed message

SUNDAY

Waking early again, I fought the urge to be busy and instead listened to the latest from MATT DALBY whilst hungrily watching the stallholders of Quayside Market setting up.  When I finally did leave the hotel I immediately bumped into… JT!  He was taking the air having earlier met a guy he’d arranged to sell a synth to.  How enterprising.  We looked for gifts, bought flapjack and discussed a standard suite of middle-aged talking points – health, family, responsibility – with a cheerfulness borne of a short time away.  Amazing how quickly a sense of perspective and purpose can return should the opportunity arise.

We split again back at SAGE and I ate an embarrassing number of sausage rolls whilst waiting for my most eagerly anticipated set of, well, the whole year I guess.  Taking the Sunday lunchtime slot was JOHN WHATLING, that is JOHANN WLIGHT.

Johann

John knelt on a rug in front of the stage in the NRFH amongst a carefully ordered collection of small objects and other equipment recognisable as ‘kit’.  I went and sat as close as possible, nothing between us but a few feet of space crackling with my giddy excitement.  The set was a beautiful meditation – understated, free, spacious yet clearly plotted and with a masterful overall control that suggested concentrated rehearsal.  John’s nerves were unmistakable (he obsessively neatened his instruments in fallow moments) but he held the room enthralled, stopping time for the music’s duration.  At the end he nodded sheepishly in thanks as we applauded.  My shit was so utterly lost that I nearly knocked my glasses off trying to wipes tears from my eyes and clap at the same time.

There then followed a pleasant lull before the weekend’s greatest test of my ‘committing to it’ idea.  Here’s part of the explanatory blurb provided by THE SHUNYATA IMPROVISATION GROUP:

We play with mainly acoustic instruments exploring the balance between the ambient sound of the environment and our musical intervention  …  Part of our intention is to encourage listening to the environment we play in so please feel free to give your attention to all the sounds in the room.

Interesting, eh?  The band, joined by JOHANN WLIGHT who had rushed upstairs for a one-off collaboration, were scheduled to perform a two hour set in a white box conference/rehearsal room and, fuck it, I was going to get through the whole duration.  To give my will the best chance possible I deliberately sat with the musicians in-between me and the exit, thereby maximising the potential embarrassment of bailing early.

So, following a quiet welcome, we began and I settled pretty quickly.  As you might expect, I’m into the idea that all sound can be music (work colleagues are amused by my interest in gurgling radiators and squealing doors) and in that darkened room the contributions of the artists soon became one with the air conditioning, shuffling of chairs and the entering and leaving of stamina-poor part-timers.  At points though I have to admit to becoming restless, the urge to be DOING SOMETHING welling up like the need to find a vending machine after an hour on an orange plastic chair in A&E.  I did my best to let it wash over me, refocussing on the moment.  Being present.

Occasionally rhythmic heavy breathing suggested an audience member had succumbed to a nap and I can only hope I didn’t snore when I did so myself.  I must have only been asleep for a few minutes but it was long enough to dream I was chatting to two snakes.  There was nothing mystical about the conversation, they were fellow festival-goers and we compared notes on our favourite acts so far.  However, as the dream continued I realised that these were not ‘real’ snakes but crudely constructed sock puppets and that they were on MY OWN HANDS.  Thus a dream version of myself was chatting to second and third dream versions of myself about sets at TUSK whilst my actual self was sleeping through an actual set at TUSK.  Fucking hell – as if I needed further evidence of how tangled and overly complicated my thinking had become.  I woke bemused and chuckling, snuck a look at the time on my phone, and rode out the rest of the show until it ended with some gentle piano tinkling.  In the context of the augmented silence of the previous two hours it felt like a triumph heralding fanfare.  I’ve thought a lot about this whole afternoon since. It was an important and useful experience for me.

Sage

The next couple of hours were taken up with buying presents, sending soppy messages to my son, eating and deciding which cummerbund to wear with that evening’s tuxedo. I returned to Sage refreshed just in time for FARMER GLITCH. Whilst I’d been dreaming of snakes, he’d been running a workshop introducing some teenagers from the Sage’s Centre For Advanced Training to the marvel of handheld racket production via his own Atari Punk Consoles. They joined him for the performance: dressed smart, sat in a line and, initially at least, looking bemused. As FG conducted they loosened up and their delighted/embarrassed reaction to explosive applause from a venue full of weirdos, most old enough to be their parents, was very charming.

I have sometimes chuckled at the incongruity of acts booked by TUSK – YOL springs to mind – playing in the NRFH as it is basically a large and very well appointed school assembly room. The dissonance was never more evident than with MONDO SADISTS who started late and swaggered through a set of adults-only, tone-lowering, scuzz rock. It was glorious. Imagine a sixth form goregrind band playing a school talent show, pupils mad for it, appalled teachers pinned against the back wall.

Laughing, nostrils still flaring, we returned to Sage 2 for SONIC BOTHY. I knew nothing about this group other than what could be gleaned from the two line description in the programme and that ALI ROBERTSON, of the mighty USURPER, was a member. The band comprised half a dozen(ish) musicians and between them they conjured a beautiful set of semi-improvised modern composition with aspects of traditional song, jazz and other genres all part of the spell. What cannot be captured by that dry description, though, is the love radiating from the stage and how it touched everyone in the room.

SONIC BOTHY is an ‘inclusive new music ensemble,’ to quote their website, ‘…a group of musicians with and without additional learning support needs’ and two of them that night appeared to be on the ‘with’ side of that sentence: ADAM GREEN (front and centre, percussion) and ANDREW ROBERTSON (stage left, piano). As the audience at large, most presumably as ignorant as me, began to understand and buy into the performance the atmosphere became golden. Adam’s reaction to the rapturous response they received after the first track – a look of almost terrified shock instantly becoming full-beam delight once comforted by a fellow group member (NICHOLA SCRUTTON, I think) was very moving. Turfed out of MONDO SADISTS in full-on, cynical noise mode we now stood there smiling, swaying and urging them on.

Just as we were all settling into safe, middle class, patronising sentimentality, however, the vibe was undercut with a brilliant moment of humour. Suddenly Andrew, who up to that point hadn’t even raised his head, started waving his arms around and yelling. ‘Oh no, oh no,’ I thought, ‘what’s wrong? What’s triggered this?’ Then the rest of the band all stood up and joined in with a nonsensical, babbling argument, gesticulating wildly, obviously rehearsed. I can’t overstate how perfect this was. Not only a fourth-wall-breaking comedy set piece worthy of Andy Kaufman but a timely reminder to reflect on our attitudes but made in a non-chiding way entirely in keeping with the rest of the performance. Yet again I was in tears at the end of a set. A magical, unforgettable TUSKian moment.

magma context

What could follow that, eh? Not MAGMA unfortunately. This ‘wasn’t for me’ to an almost comical extent. After 25 minutes of pain I retired to the bar with others also blowing their cheeks out and shaking their heads. Still, I heard from die-hards later that it was a life-completing experience so live and let live, eh?

grupi lab

Luckily the joy was rekindled by GRUPI LAB. It seems very TUSK that a group performing Albanian isopolyphonic singing, a centuries old tradition with costumes to match, could pack out the venue at 10pm on a Sunday. The men stood in a huddle and sang a capella, chanting and taking turns to be the central soloist. Overtones emerged from the harmonizing and oscillated over our heads. It was thrilling. The atmosphere of good-natured cultural exchange was perfected by the presence of an interpreter in a suit with a clipboard, the son of one of the performers, who introduced the songs and chaired a Q&A session (!) halfway through. It was as wonderful as it was unlikely. JT, sat on the floor next to me, was grinning throughout.

Finally then, TUSK 2019 was closed out by THE NECKS. If I’m honest I remember little of this. Following SONIC BOTHY, GRUPI LAB and a lot of socializing my mind was scrambled egg. After ten minutes I wondered, like a total noob, when it was going to kick in and it wasn’t until the half hour mark that it really clicked with me. I enjoyed the gathering swell that followed very much but when the applause came I realised I’d been surfing not swimming. As we filed out and started saying goodbye at least two people of impeccable taste told me it was one of the best shows of the year. So let’s leave it there.

Back at the hotel I was too tired to sleep so I packed, metaphorically pulled on the crudely constructed sock puppets and mulled over the weekend. Thoughts about the music, the people I’d hung out with, being ‘just busy’, what that was doing to me and possible strategies for countering it all began to settle into different coloured layers. This process carried over into the morning – I nearly missed an announcement that my train had swapped platforms because I was cry-laughing about SONIC BOTHY again – and accompanied me back into real life.

So have things changed? A bit. That it took four months to finish this article is an indication of how little ‘spare’ time I still have (or perceive I have) but I also think it shows I’ve taken a healthier, less self-flagellating attitude to self-imposed deadlines. I’m still biting off more than I can chew but less frequently and I’m better at apologising when I do or avoiding it in the first place by politely saying ‘no’. I’m liberating as much life as I can – home, work, creative – from the tyranny of the ‘to do’ list. Mixed results, sure, but it seems to be a net positive. It’s funny, I always return from TUSK inspired but rarely can the lesson be stated so simply. Give yourself a chance: commit.

predictor fish 1

—ooOoo—

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