Languor, absurdities…

Seth’s response to Supernormal

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I particularly liked Seth’s response for the line ‘a horse ain’t a horse till the first bloodletting’. Without further ado…

Seth’s Response

Photo by Sarah BB

Photo by Sarah BB

I’m no stranger to sleep deprivation.

In my day job I take emergency calls for the police, so my shift potentially covers any hours, 24/7, 365 days a year. It’s a strange sound environment to be immersed in, all tinny compressed audio, overloaded microphones, crackles, static and lost signal from phone reception, intrusions from traffic, nightclub noise, alarms, heated altercations or full scale breakdowns of public order, punctuated by occasional malfunctioning phone line detritus, shrieks of noise or ethereal warm drones. A typical working day will see that peculiar sonic window open onto homes, bus stations, hospitals, care homes, streets or motorways, from people reporting domestic abuse, thefts, burglaries, sexual assaults and suspicious incidents. People call with all sorts, it’s our job to make sense of it and talk people through a situation until we can get a police officer on scene.

So you might be up at three am, slightly giddy in a vaguely altered state, looking at the coloured flags of incidents popping up and disappearing on your mapping system (which your NLP practitioner and religious background encourages you to think of as some kind of God’s Eye View), waiting for that sonic window to open onto the worst day of someone’s life, capturing a brief shared moment that might change the world… or at the very least, their world. Imagine Whitehouse collaborating with Peter Ackroyd on an infinite multi-channel sound installation with portable microphones in the pockets of almost every person across the UK, mapping the psychogeography of England. Or the whimsically unrealistic sonar map of Gotham created to catch the Joker in the third act of The Dark Knight, heightened by the perpetually jet-lagged state of timewarp that shift working engenders.

Still, no police employee – civilian or otherwise – would be expected to stay alert for thirty six hours straight. The Hákarl performance was always going to be a stretch. But in some small way this year’s Supernormal Festival felt like a collapsing of the barriers between my sound world at work and the sound world of improvisation that’s increasingly becoming the bedrock of how I approach music.

What had become normalised was restored to its extremes. That may be my best attempt at a summary of what the Hákarl 36 performance achieved. It certainly didn’t always produce music that I liked, or that I could defend in terms of quality.

Too many times, we allowed the performance area to be invaded as though it were an open mic or jam session. It would be an understatement to say that the contributions were variable. Unwanted poetry recitals, extended jazz flute soloing, banal strumalongs… at times, it felt as though any attempt at subtle interplay was thwarted by someone who thought we needed a little help to give things direction. At these times I could be a bloody-minded blowhard, obnoxiously farting out noise from my electronics to piss on people’s parades. The most memorably unwanted intrusion came at around 3am on Saturday morning from a nameless belligerent drunk with a galaxy-sized sense of her own entitlement, convinced that we were trampling on her creativity when were frantically trying to clear the pitch-dark performance space of people to avoid damage to instruments (“It’s only money,” she kept telling us. Yeah: our money). Tensions were running high at that point, so high that I thought I’d deploy a public domain recording of a child telling ambulance control about his mother who was having a seizure. Was it out of mischief? A well-meaning attempt to lance the boil? An intervention intended to enhance the atmosphere, or take it past breaking point? I’m still not sure, the compulsion seemed multi-faceted. Who was I to argue?

It wasn’t all bad. The eight year old who joined us on drums [Editor’s note – kid’s name was Dylan, according to Barn] – with no previous drumming experience – was a fantastic addition, audibly growing in confidence and ability throughout Saturday and nicely confusing any sense of cohesion. And the members of the A Band who joined us at several key junctures were predisposed to colour artlessly over the lines, giving us a boost when we really needed it. Sharen Sum proved particularly game, providing some superbly judged saxophone blurting throughout much of Saturday morning.

Too many times, we allowed ourselves our comforts and distractions. I assumed, before we began, that the six of us involved would be making continuous music with minimal breaks to eat and shit… which turned out not to be the case. Some of us slept in shifts. Clive and I closed our eyes when we were at breaking point; I caught about ten minutes at about 5am on Saturday and a further twenty minutes at the same time on Sunday. The event never quite became the endurance test that it probably should have been. We all took long breaks, timed so that there would always be someone making music. But I’m as guilty as any of thwarting the aim to keep playing past the point of no return.

I came close at two points. One of my reasons for wanting to be involved is an interest in ritual and altered states, which began playing drums in Charismatic church services and progressed through learning about shamanism. I’d never call myself a shaman, or what I do even remotely shamanic, but I’m still interested in using instruments and sound to make something other than music. I figured that given the time available it was likely that something long-form and repetitive would occur naturally, which it did at roughly five or six o’clock on Saturday evening. Jamie (on guitar) and Huw (drums) were playing an energetic rock oriented piece that sounded fairly rehearsed, matching each other for the changes. I was accompanying them on tar and continued the my fast, metronomic pulse after they drew to a conclusion. It’s hard to know how long I kept the pulse for, it was intended to be functionally ritualistic as opposed to purely musical. My eyes were tight shut, I was speaking in tongues, but I was aware of a few things happening around me. There seemed to be some push and pull regarding whether the others were going to come along for the ride or sit it out. It seemed to take a long time before any accompaniment was discernible, but perhaps that was down to my mind having wandered off on its own, somewhere entirely other than the marquee. As people joined in things seemed to build and ebb in waves. One of the drummers – I have no idea who – seemed to want to end the piece at several points, possibly after I’d continued well past the point that good taste would have suggested that I stop. It seemed to be an attempt at a classic strategy that NLP practitioners refer to as pacing, then leading. Starting at my tempo for a while, the drummer began to slow down and move to cymbals, as though he were ending the piece. Bloody minded and used to ritual drumming being polytempic (Ken Hyder’s term for multiple tempos coexisting within shamanic drumming) I ignored it each time. The effect of resisting the slowdown on my trance was electric: the contradictory tempos seemed to smash the musical accompaniment into luminous kaleidoscopic shards. I’m not one for experiencing music in terms of audio/visual synesthesia so it was a rare treat. As the visual shards scattered I felt as though I were hallucinating voices and harmonies, so I have no idea what any of it actually sounded like. I was aware that I was slipping through different rhythmic phrasing within the same pulse, but none of it was intentional. Anyway, it was a horribly self indulgent hijacking of the session, done almost entirely for my own benefit. Being in a trance is no excuse – I could have stopped at any time – and the retroactive justification of opening my eyes at the end to see a couple of people dancing won’t fool anyone. What I got out of it will remain my secret. Maybe the one lasting souvenir was the christening of my new tar, purchased a week earlier at the Early Music Store in Saltaire. While not wanting to come across like I’m singing some daft occultist’s version of Summer of ’69, a horse ain’t a horse until the first bloodletting.

The second moment at which things teetered on the edge of capability was being startled awake at around five am on Sunday morning, barely an hour from our finishing time, by one of the caterers crouching in front of me and inviting me to have a free coffee when her stall opened later that day. It was startling for two reasons. Firstly she was not only so strikingly good looking that my sleep deprived mind wondered whether she was really there at all, and on top of that she was telling me that I was her hero for playing for such an unreasonably long time. And secondly, I realised that I’d continued to play the tar while asleep. God knows what it sounded like, but I actually think I’d managed to keep the beat going.

Too many times, we were caught returning to hastily established default positions, whether as a result of inattentiveness, poor amplification, the limits of our repertoires for possible responses or the shoddiness of our equipment. A cobbled together drum kit, its snares stuck in the on-position, dampened beyond resonance, cymbals either cheap or broken, seemed to discard more possibilities than it offered. This stinker of an addition was offset by Barny’s hilariously unexpected provision of an upright piano, sadly inaudible from my side of the tent. Some of the fallback position frazzled freak outs sounded brilliantly energetic from where I was sitting; others were painfully dreary lowest common denominator jam sessions.

Most of the best music took place on Saturday. Clive’s explorations of his acoustic guitar were understated to the point of too-often unnoticed, but given space added some much needed attention to texture and detail. Where possible I tried to match his timbres with my voice-controlled Weevil, but elsewhere fell back on manipulating fortuitously congruent mp3s by Taku Sugimoto and Toshimaru Nakamura. There were some beautiful long-form feedback explorations that saw everyone almost forced to sing from the same hymn sheet, as their playing was picked up and processed through my stainless steel waste disposal sink, adding a metallic detuned sheen to the whole mix. The sink proved to be my most unexpectedly diverse instrument, sounding great whether played with sticks, mallets, bouncy balls on bamboo skewers or metal files.

Some of my happiest memories involve the A Band. Karl Waugh is always a pleasure to be around, he’s so relentlessly positive that he can make anything seem like a good idea. On the Saturday evening we did a relay so that some of us could be involved in the A Band’s main stage performance. I’ll never forget Clive’s amused/bemused expression as the two of us were dragged on stage, wielding sax and kitchen sink, to hammer out a racket with the rest of the costumed rabble. Kev and I shared a drum duo in the afternoon sun on Saturday, chatting about theology as we played (Supernormal brings that out in me; last year Simon Morris and I nattered away about cults and NLP for ages). Stewart Keith [of the A Band] helped give us a great send off at 6am on Sunday morning, having woken up especially to join us for the final half hour. The Supernormal organisers rounded up the after hours campfire crowd to see us off. We at least felt as though we’d finished, although where that left us is anyone’s guess.

Was the weekend a success? The danger of this kind of activity is that you can justify any result. Playing for thirty six hours is rewarding enough conceptually for the actual musical results to seem irrelevant. I don’t know whether I want to let us off the hook that easily. It’s hard to stake a claim for any kind of unqualified musical success when at one point I was so frustrated with default position autopilot playing that I threw my toys out of the pram and played Das Racist’s Return to Innocence in its entirety, as disruptively loud as I could. And certainly my shit stank as much or more than that of anyone else. Thirty six hours will bring all but the most creative musicians up against their limits, and I’m nowhere near the most creative. One of the most curmudgeonly, maybe.

What had become normalised was restored to its extremes. I started writing this last night, when that phrase sounded big and clever. It seemed to justify thirty six hours of inconvenient, inconsistent improvisation as some kind of reactionary stance against how easily accessible music has become – accessible in terms of overfamiliarity, the way we consume it, how we think we understand it and how much of it is documented. Twenty four hours later it sounds trite. A thirty six hour duration will lend that kind of conceptual weight to pretty much anything.

I’m a big fan of long form, semi-open sessions, in which things are more relaxed than a concert but not as relaxed as an aimless jam. The A Band’s anniversary show in Nottingham was like that. Some of the church events I used to play as a nipper were like that. It’s where I feel most at home, where the music feels totally free to develop at its own pace, where an extreme duration starts to feel natural. I’ve been threatening to start something like that in Leeds, and maybe next year I’ll even get round to doing it.

Would I do the full thirty six hours again? Beggars can’t be choosers, I’m slutty enough to grab any chance to play. Thanks to this show and its eight-hour warm up, plus the smattering of other shows I’ve been able to land, I’ve played in excess of fifty five hours worth of gigs this year. That’s almost as much as some proper musicians. So of course I’ll do it again, if only to feel better about something that occasionally feels dangerously close to being a ‘hobby.’


Written by Hákarl

November 13, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. […] didn’t always produce music that I liked, or that I could defend in terms of quality.” (full text) Photo by Sarah […]

  2. I don’t think your belligerent drunk lady was… all lady. I was talking to a slender, long haired (and still belligerently drunk) chap on Saturday evening who told quite the inversion of that story. I can certainly see how under low light the confusion could arise.

    I recall his complaint lead back to this line from the promotional garb: “encourages improvisation and collaboration from a medley of artists and participants to bridge the gap between artist and audience”. I completely agree that you’ve got to protect your kit from stampeding drunks, but once you’ve open yourselves up like that, you’ve got to expect the occasional overbearing flute solo.


    November 29, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    • The blurb in the programme was ambiguous, and not written by any of us. None of us were particularly bothered by people joining in – and people were doing so constantly throughout the performance. The problem was that there were A LOT of people on ‘stage’ and we’d already turned a blind eye to a few things. I would say that was because we weren’t vigilant initially. My violin has a fairly large chip on it; the bow (luckily, my spare bow) is now pretty much useless, both because of people not taking care on stage. Someone started hitting an amp (which isn’t the sturdiest at the best of times) with drumsticks/ a guitar. Some of the drumsticks were worth very little; the ones that are proper professional ones got wrecked by people using them. There’s also a dent in a sax I borrowed for the festival, and my clarinet has a couple of broken keys. These are just damages I can think of off the top of my head. 100s of pounds worth, in short. I had planned on playing my violin for most of Saturday, but couldn’t because the tuning pegs had been buggered with and the bow was useless. The pickup (no more than a tenner’s worth) was broken because someone stood on it.

      The problem came because people were treating it as a free-for-all. I’ve been to open improv sessions a lot, and the general rule is: ask first, and respect the instruments and whoever’s gig it is. Someone attacking an amp with a guitar that wasn’t his isn’t cool, and got our heckles up. And the tide of people – a constantly changing audience of people – probably didn’t see the 2 or 3 hours of us politely saying ‘please go careful with that’, ‘watch your step there mate!’, ‘sorry, do you mind not hitting that snare with a half-full beer bottle?’ and so on. Ultimately, we got annoyed with people because a minority were taking the piss.

      I was also getting it in the ear from the festival organisers (very politely, I should say). We had a noise curfew, and had to go acoustic after a certain time (again, I was planning on playing violin then). So I was going around, turning amps down or off, trying to mute drums. People were seeing that things weren’t being played and coming and turning amps back on, cranking them up. One of us was decorating the space with scores, which were going to play acoustically during the night. These got scribbled all over (not creative scribbling – I mean childish drawings of penises) and torn down.

      The problem, again, is that I was trying to explain all of this to audience members. It wasn’t a case of not wanting contributions – it was a case that, on Friday night, we needed to wind things down before the police turned up and shut down the whole festival. It was also a case that we hadn’t anticipated how many people wanted to play, and we hadn’t arranged the space to keep damages to a minimum. We also hadn’t anticipated that people would rock up and not ask what the score was, ‘is it ok if I play on this?’, that sort of thing. On Saturday, these problems were sorted, and we had some 15 A Band members and another load of people joining in without any problems, as well as ample lighting to keep an eye on things.

      So the disagreement came because I was (badly) trying to explain to people who were a little drunk (or ‘otherwise inebriated’), and they – understandably, given how I’d spent hours trying to be polite with people – weren’t terribly impressed. It wasn’t a good situation, and I wasn’t as effective/ polite as I could’ve been, and much of that comes from poor organisation, planning and the blurb that none of us were responsible for. Mea Culpa there as well – I should’ve sorted out the blurb myself. I did say to everyone who was less than impressed that they were welcome back in a bit, it was just that at that moment we’d managed to take quite a lot of damage to some quite pricey gear (and only 2 of us have full-time jobs) and we needed to turn down and sort out not getting everything wrecked by Sunday morning. No-one came back at a time when I would’ve been better able to explain what the score was (or no-one came back to me, at least).

      I agree with you about the flute thing – I’m bound to enjoy some contributions more than others, and complaining about quality of input is tricky. Did I like the jazz flute? No, but that’s not really the point (I played several hours of stuff that… wasn’t my best, so I can’t criticise). The problem was that the flautist was on-mic having a go at the drummers for being out of time when they were working on some quite sophisticated poly-tempic African thing, which is disrespectful and unnecessary in my book – especially as they’d been at it for 8 hours or so by that point, and she’d been at it for about 10 minutes.

      It wasn’t a bloke, I assure you – we had a fair few trans-identified people joining in, and we’re all more than capable of discerning how a person is presenting/ identifying (or at least asking if unsure).

      Anyway, bit tl;dr – glad you enjoyed it!


      November 29, 2011 at 7:39 pm

      • Oh, forgot to mention – I’m not sure if you found this article via BtB but there’s a shorter article with sound clips here: http://www.bangthebore.org/archives/1960

        And also, the above is an IMO statement – I can’t and wouldn’t speak for Seth.


        November 29, 2011 at 7:48 pm

  3. The promoter, or whoever wrote the programme interpreted it as an audience participation-type deal. That wasn’t how Kev framed it, and if that had been declared as the arrangement prior to Supernormal then I wouldn’t have agreed to play. As it was, we turned up to find that people had gotten the wrong end of the stick. Any accommodation by any of the six of us was pretty gracious in that context. Although I’d like to add that I wasn’t gracious in the slightest – no one but me played any of the instruments I bought. I reckon we should have kept to the original intention and ensured that the crowd knew the programme was written in error.


    November 29, 2011 at 9:52 pm

  4. […] their shows (and one of their records); I played music for far longer than anyone should as part of Kev Nickells’ Hakarl36 performance at the Supernormal Festival; I selfishly hogged the drum stool for half of the eight acts at the A Band’s Anonymity […]

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