Interview: Laurence Tompkins

Interview: Laurence Tompkins

For details on attending the two secret Bournemouth shows on April 23rd, get in touch here.

So in a nutshell, what is Handy?

It’s four days of gigs. I’ve written a piece for David Bainbridge on six-string banjo and I’m playing two saucepans, a harmonica and weird electronics with handheld speakers. That’s about a 15-minute piece, and then I’ve asked four friends to write short pieces that take place over a sort of supporting program; it’ll be my piece alongside one piece, and then my piece alongside a different piece…etcetera.

There’s also this light installation by Dori Deng. Because we’re playing all these gigs in quite strange places, the idea is that it gives it some sense of visual consistency. And that all functions on the same rules as the music – the music is all unplugged including the electronics, so we can just pack it up and go and move quickly. Likewise the whole installation is battery-powered and just moved around by the players.

What venues have been opened up to you by the portability of the setup?

Well we’re doing a big church in Bournemouth and a secret flat show. The London date is a gallery space and an old office space, and then ends on a longboat on the canal. Manchester is in the library downstairs at the Anthony Burgess Foundation, and the yoga room in this other arts building, and then a strange common room space. I’ve been interested in trying to find little nooks and crannies, but also the music is quite robust in itself – it’s not about going to an unknown space and making music about that space. If I’m doing this weird music that doesn’t really necessarily work in a bar or club, but equally doesn’t suit a concert hall, how do I keep that fresh? For me, the way to experiment with that is to get outside of needing a PA so that we can use all of these spaces. People can have quite an intimate encounter with it.

I’ve done so much stuff with the label where it’d be like Bass Clef playing at the end of the night, and the start of it will be weird viola music or something. It’s an interesting game to play, but I’ve increasingly found that it’s ultimately a bit unsatisfying; you still have to play up to these tropes of how the night is going to obviously end in this “big bang” thing, and it’s obviously going to start off a bit stranger. So in terms of creating this new music, it feels like you need a new space and a new method of doing it.

I imagine the duration of the performances ties in with that as well. For example, when you go and see Bass Clef you know you’re going to be there for three hours, and you can trace the gradual escalation of anticipation as the night goes on. Given that this piece is only half an hour long, is there an element of toying with the idea of duration as well? 

I think it’s an interesting question to ask. You know I went to see that PAN night at CTM Festival? Regardless of the music, there’s quite a standard pacing to it. You’re always going to see roughly the same amount of sets of the same length, and regardless of the music’s “type” within experimental music, there’s something within the pacing which ends up being quite predictable. I wanted to try and make quite a grand gesture while making it practical and cheap, and also without having to have really long sets. It’s almost an early 20th Century modernism thing with all of these little chunks of music, but there are a lot of these chunks simultaneously and a lot of concerts packed into a short space of time. So really it’s quite a disorientating, large-form thing that’s all in tiny chunks. It might work and might not.

So is this the first time you’ve written for six-string banjo?

Well I’ve written for guitar and it’s the same tuning, so it’s not too different. And in terms of the pots and pans and stuff…I mean, I really wanted to play in it, and to be honest that’s the main thing that defined the other side of the instrumentation. I’m not a particularly fab instrumentalist; the harmonica playing is really basic, but the interesting stuff happens when the harmonica is playing into these handheld speakers. I’m just playing around with the simple things I’m able to play, which end up sound like a twisted version of hillbilly music I guess.

My piece is 15 minutes long and it’s split into two halves. The first half is called “Once Upon A Time In Cairo” and it’s all these big whistling melodies, fractured with sparse electronics and with no actual banging of the pots and pans. The second half is this piece called “Two Minstrels”. It’s a silly homage to Steve Reich’s “Four Organs”, which is that one which starts with a rhythm and just keeps getting longer and longer for like 20 minutes. So this one is just alternating hits on banjo and pots and pans, which spread out on these evermore-complex rhythms for 10 minutes. It’s really flat and ramshackle.

A bit like his “Clapping Music” too then?

“Four Organs” is different to “Clapping Music”, but it’s kind of a similar thing: a chord getting longer for 20 minutes. That section of the piece is quite a flat type of music I guess.

The whole piece is called “MYLAR”, which is this black rubbery material. I went to see these Richard Serra pieces at the Courtauld Gallery in London at the end of last year. He uses mylar – this waxy black stuff – and he puts it in between these two see-through plastic sheets, and then draws on top of the plastic sheets with a stick or something, so that it compresses this black thing in the middle and leaves traces of the hand mark. I’ve been playing with this idea of the two instrumentalists cueing eachother and leaving these weird traces on eachother, so that’s the governing metaphor for the whole thing.

As for the supporting piece, were the composers given free reign?

I was reasonably strict. They’re all people I know really well, and a lot of them have either done stuff on the label or they have stuff coming up. I asked Aaron Parker to do a piece for electronics and banjo but without any pots and pans banging, so it’s pretty quiet. One of the speakers is attached to the back of the banjo, so all of the electronics come out of the body of the instrument. And then there’s another speaker hidden in the audience. Caroline Haines has written a piece just for me with no banjo, which is just whistling electronics and playing a Japanese rice steamer. And then there’s one by Tom Rose that focuses just on the banjo, which is a table-top banjo piece, and one by Joe Snape which is mainly just electronics. So I wanted to single out aspects of the setup with them. For example, I asked Caroline to just write for me, as I think it gives you a better sense of what the whole setup can do.


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