You played at Supernormal back in 2011 under your Outdoor Sports guise. How will this year’s performance compare, and what is signified by the name change to Field Sports?
The original project was called Team Sports, which was an improv trio featuring Ian Watson using his handmade electronics, Jimmy Ottley on cello and myself on drums. Right from the start, I had it in mind to make a vehicle that could be put into different situations, whilst keeping a thread of identity going, and the ‘Sports’ tag felt like a good way of doing that. I’ve always been interested in taking the idea of improvisation in music to a more structural level, where the focus is not just on spontaneously creating music through extended techniques and expanding the aesthetic language, but looking at the process more holistically – so improvising with group dynamics as well, to think about how different instruments and personalities might work together to create different musical assemblages, or more recently, how different playing environments can provoke different experiences for the musicians as well the audience / listener / viewer.
So Outdoor Sports was about taking musicians into outside spaces and using the performance environment almost as a way of measuring, or at least recording the aesthetic results of the interaction between the musicians and their surroundings. The title itself is a bit of a schoolboy one-liner, but as I said, it worked to keep the narrative of the project going with a different focus. I was reading a bit of posthuman theory at the time and was thinking about the notion of “fuzzy humans”, and how that idea of porous thresholds between objects such as sunlight, plants, air, hands, blood and the brain, and the exchange of matter and energy flows between different systems, for example, could be explored through music.
There’s this great line by Nick Land about the flow of matter and energy between bodies:
Bodies are not volumes but coastlines, irresolvable but undelimitable penetrabilities, opportunities for the real decomposition of space.
There was an aspect of Outdoor Sports that could be described as the musicians reading the environment like a graphic score (I had asked Ian and Jimmy to be aware of all of the environmental factors such as temperature, light and scent whilst they were improvising), but there was also a wider set of processes that I was interested in, that was to do with trying to capture the kind of responses that might be going on at a pre-conscious level. So for Outdoor Sports, I wanted the playing to engage more holistically with the sensory environment, and the performances were a kind of experiment in that sense, to see what taking musicians outdoors would do to the music that they normally produced.
Sorry, that’s a fairly longwinded answer to a short question, but it gives you something of a backdrop for where the ideas are coming from. To answer the “why the change to Field Sports” question… having worked through the Outdoor Sports idea, what I was surprised at was the way in which it wasn’t just the music that was transformed by being taken outside, it was the whole way that the listening experience shifted. So instead of the listener thinking “ah, there’s the improv with some interesting dynamics, oh, and there’s the background noise adding some colouration”, it was much more like a field of sound, or environmental music. Pauline Oliveros and John Butcher have made some great recordings in various sonically rich spaces, such as cave systems and gas cooling towers, where you get these incredible resonances going on, and the listening definitely shifts into what Oliveros calls ‘deep listening’ – but that’s where you’re still only really listening to the musical instruments within a particular resonant space. What was going on with Outdoor Sports was this simultaneous backgrounding and foregrounding of all of the sounds, such that from a listener’s perspective there was no real distinction in terms of the sounds that are being heard, that really connected with Land’s idea of “decomposing space” – of making something unforeseen out of what’s around you.
It’s not necessarily the most original idea under the sun, but the Outdoor Sports performances were a real revelation to me both as a musician and a listener, and this idea of the field of sound and sounds / musicians / environments folding into each other has remained a constant line of enquiry since then. I think there’s also something that persists in the performance of music that recollects that mythology of music’s magical power to transform space and time – in other words, whilst a performance is running, normal time is suspended and a new ritual / magical time comes into play, so even the musicians’ and listeners’ sense of time becomes folded into the experience of new music being produced. I really like this line in Deleuze where he talks about folds:
A fold is always folded within a fold, like a cavern in a cavern. The unit of matter, the smallest element of the labyrinth, is the fold, not the point which is never a part, but a simple extremity of a line.
And so that was the main thrust of this latex version of the project, to look at how various elements fold into each other, and again taking a schoolboy approach to language and thinking about the shared etymological origin of the words fold and field – folds in the land, folds in music, fields of sound, plus playing in a field obviously…
There are quite a few videos of your performances online, which show you playing at Lavernock Point at dusk, Castell Coch at dawn…a wide variety of different locations. Have any performances proved particularly memorable or creatively potent?
They were all great, but playing in the cave system near Crickhowell for the Frederick J Fredericks event was a pretty intense experience. There’s that expectation that playing in a cave is going to be a massively reverberant sonic experience, but the space we were in was very compact and low-ceilinged, and so the sound was just coming back at us in a really powerful way. There was some light around, since it was part of a public event, and people needed to be able to find their way around, but we played in about as much darkness as we could. So there was this incredibly focused and intensive atmosphere – probably helped by the thousands of tonnes of rock that we were right under – bearing down on us.
The other moment that really struck me during the making of those films was as the sun came up in the woods behind Castell Coch. I think it was the first time that I really felt like I was in a very different kind of playing and thinking space than I’d even been in before. It wasn’t so much a great romantic epiphany, more a realisation that the process I described earlier was working. I remember thinking to myself, “how do you respond musically to a subtle shift in the quality of light and air pressure around you?”, as well as suddenly being hit by this incredibly strong smell of ferns, which opened up a set of thoughts around synaesthetic approaches to improv. Again, it’s a posthuman / consciousness studies way of thinking about human consciousness and cognition, where, what we normally think of as the discreet five senses are simply flows of information and data that the brain processes in a much more holistic way. So that sunlight / fern smell experience really brought out this idea of post-sonic improv, where what we think of as sound, is merely a perspectival snapshot of a much more variegated set of sensory process that are going on. I guess we’ve learned to specialise each sense for survival and more recently cultural / scientific / social purposes, but it really got me thinking that most of what we now think of as ‘hearing’ or ‘seeing’ are constructions, rather than embedded processes / faculties in the human body.
What have you learned through the Team Sports / Outdoor Sports performances? Have they made you more aware of how your environment influences your own psychological disposition? Or perhaps, raised your sensitivity to the inherent musicality/percussiveness within nature?
Maybe I’ve just answered this question without meaning to… I think certainly in terms of the idea of nature, I don’t really ascribe to a distinction between the the natural environment vs built environment as ‘nature vs non-nature’, it’s all just nature in different forms, and that nature is an artificial construct anyway… There are rhythms everywhere for sure, but like I said the thing that hit me was the constructed nature of sonic improv – that’s not to say that it’s no good, in fact, doing the Outdoor Sports project got me listening to improvised music even more intently than before – it’s just that idea of sound being part of a network of aesthetic information seems much more interesting now, particularly as we live in an increasingly sensory-rich world.
In terms of the other part of this question, I’m not a psychologist, so I wouldn’t be confident about whether the environment influences my ‘psychological disposition’, but I do know that in terms of the thought processes that I go into when I’m making music, or when I talk to other people about improvisation, it certainly made me reflect on the kinds of choices and responses that we make in order to produces some kind of valid sonic statement whilst improvising.
I feel there’s potentially something quite meditative and depersonalising about your performances. How does this sort of improvisation inform your sense of self, and your positioning within your environment?
I’m really interested in the way that improvising can be seen as a way of dissolving the self, or at least de-centring the self, and seeing it as part of a larger field of drives or agencies. I guess that’s quite a machinic way of seeing things, where what is seen as a sealed unit of intention, such as an individual human, on closer inspection is revealed to be an amalgamation of a mass of competing, conflicting and coexisting forces. I always think that the idea that music allows you to ‘express yourself’ or ‘express your emotions’ doesn’t fully account for the way in which music, as with any experience, actually invents emotions for us, or at least co-invents expression with us. It’s compelling to see the improvisational process as a point at which the player engages with a set of resources and an environment, and where you get this assemblage appearing that’s a bit like an improvisation machine – one that’s made up of all of these different parts, brains, hands, ears, instruments, the performance space, other people, ideas, techniques instrumental prowess, the history of music, temperature, light etc etc. That atomisation / dissolution of the self seems to be an interesting way of thinking about what is happening with improv – it’s a moment where all of these actants come into play with each other.
Is there an Outdoor Sports bucket list? As in, a set particular places that you’d really like to play next?
I’d like to take the idea into train stations, airports, markets, open-plan offices, to
really get a sense of the various qualities and environmental conditions of those
spaces, and where it’s people rather than birds that are making sounds and moving around. It can be a little tricky, in that the musicians can run the risk of becoming too much of a spectacle in themselves, which isn’t the intention, but we did try a performance in a cafe, where we were playing for so long that people eventually started to ignore us, so it’s definitely possible to achieve some kind of ‘furniture music’ type of invisibility with it.
You have no formal training in drums, and I understand that Team Sports was partly driven by seeing how this would inform the development of particular musical processes. Are you conscious of becoming “habitual” with your instrument, or does performing in a variety of environments keep it sufficiently fresh?
Haha, yes, playing the drums… On reflection that was a massively solipsistic process on my part, which goes diametrically against everything I was saying earlier about “losing yourself”…! So the story is that I’ve played music for as long as I’ve been able to read or write, so I can’t remember what it’s like not to understand how to read music or play an instrument, so as with a lot of those processes that we just learn about through growing up, I wasn’t really aware of how I’d learned to play music.
I’ve taught a lot of people how to play music over the years, and that learning process has always fascinated me, plus having played in rock bands for years, and being completely fascinated by and enamoured with drums, I thought I’d have a go at teaching myself and see what happened. So Team Sports was one half of this process of learning to play drums in bands that I was interested in, the other half being a band called Things Make Electric that I was doing, that was a much more straight-up beats and songs based project. So I was fascinated about how, as I developed new technical facility on the drums, more musical options would open up, and again, as I was saying earlier about improv machines, how different modes of creative thought occurred when I was playing drums, as opposed to basses and guitars, which are the instruments that I usually use. This just really emphasised to me that idea that you’re not really “expressing yourself” through playing music – the instruments are really expressing you as much as anything.
The other thing that came from this process was that it also enabled me to think much more effectively about the relationship between instrumental technique and the production of music. Maybe this is a little bit to do with habit – i.e. if you’re stuck in a rut with what you’re doing, then try something completely different to shake up / decontextualise your approach to the original task, but I also think that there’s more to it than that, that’s to do with instrumental technique becoming part of the improvisation machine that I was talking about.
I think if you’re disciplined about your practice as a musician you can keep shifting the horizons of your habits, so that they don’t become a limit on your playing, rather a set of territories that you can keep building out from – we all have musical patterns and shapes that we’re drawn to, so maybe by working them and working them, we can explode our way through them. I think the interesting thing about technical facility on an instrument is that it sets up a tension between what you’re making and how you’re making it, which can be a real point of engagement for an audience. If part of what makes a performance is to do with exploring the limits of your technique and using that technique as a musical hunting tool, rather than simply a display of instrumental prowess, then things start to get interesting – that’s when all of these factors, skill, environment, habit etc all come into play.
It feels like the improvisation is a result of these elements all coming together – again, in a machinic way to produce something both engaging for others and oneself. Just playing in different places could become boring in itself, or being the guy that plays a different instrument for every performance – I think its about putting into play certain forces that can provoke dynamic thought processes and musical responses.
What are your thoughts on Supernormal as a festival? Is there anyone on this year’s line up you’re particularly looking forward to?
I do love Supernomal – as someone that was born too late to ever experience those classic 60s and 70s festivals where the musical performances were part of a wider network of interests, events and cultural investigations that were taking place, it is a really lively and dynamic 3 day experience. SNs that I’ve been to in the past have had this great atmosphere to them, because pretty much everyone you’d meet were doing something in relation to the festival itself, so it really feels like a community of people all feeding into this thing in various ways, rather than the artist / audience / facilitator split that you get at most festivals. Braziers Park is a pretty interesting place as well, particularly in terms of the community who live there and the ideas of Norman Glaister who coined the term ’supernormal’ itself to describe his thoughts on the future development of human life – very egalitarian and spiritually fulfilled, as far as I can make out.
You do see some great bands there and the organisers manage to cram the festival with such a wide array of things to see, hear and take part in. I am looking forward to seeing Kemper Norton, Hacker Farm, Form Constants and Mary Hampton in particular – all of them working away at a 21st century conception of folk music I suppose, with underground fogou recordings, handmade electronics and traditional songs like Benjamin Bowmaneer being overlaid with birdsong.
Beyond Supernormal, what’s next for you and your music?
I have some shows coming up in the autumn, with another band that I’m in called Margot, and we’re going to be doing some recording for that. As well as that, myself and a couple of friends, have set up a net label, Becoming Records, and we’ve got our first release for that coming out in September, which I’m really excited about – it’s a Cardiff-based artist called Boris a Bono who’s been making some properly beautiful songs; and then at some point, I’ll be doing some writing based on some of the ideas that I’ve been talking about here.
Supernormal Festival website – http://www.supernormalfestival.co.uk
Watch Outdoor Sports performing at Lavernock Point at dusk on youtube