Thursday, 9 March 2017

Experimental Knitter // Sam Meech

Sam Meech is completely disarming. I’m not sure what I expected as I made my way up to the Rogue Studios guided by the knitted signs. I’m not sure what questions to ask, or even where to start. I slightly worry that I’ll kick off with, so what is it you actually do? When speaking to friends of the planned interview I’ve invariably told them I’m off to meet an experimental knitter, they invariably ask what’s one of those, and I invariably shrug, grin and say I’ll find out. I’m also unsure how much there can be to this lark. I schedule forty-five minutes, and leave an hour-and-a-half later fired with enthusiasm and yet more curiosity.
Sam is not really an experimental knitter. Only in the narrowest of senses could Sam’s practice be described as experiments in knitting. Certainly much of Sam’s current work has involved experiments using elements of knitting, knitting machines and the peripherals that surround the art, or craft, of knitting. Sam is primarily a digital artist and working with digital media is the driving force of his work. He studied theatre at John Moores and has previously worked at the Royal Opera House as a video designer "on two new operas. Very different types. I got to whack a load of CCTV cameras on the set. I like the ethos, that it’s going to happen." First night deadlines are a fine way to focus energy. "The art work is different, it will emerge when it’s ready."

"I’m interested in how the design process and digital media overlap, in theatre, in music sequencing. For me, textiles, and knitting, have a lot of parallels with digital processes." I’m still not sure where this is going, but Sam points to the knitting machine next to him in the middle of the room. "The punchcard system is the forerunner to modern programming, knitting is a digital system. The stitches are pixels, you make the pattern, copy and repeat." The knitting machine works by taking a pattern from a roll of card which has the pattern punched into it in rows of holes as you’d make with any standard hole punch. You punch into the roll of card the pattern or image you want the machine to reproduce, feed it in, and the machine takes the pattern and follows it through with the wool. In the way it looks it does remind me of how early computers were programmed on the same principle.

"Although my background is the digital moving image, I can explore things I like with these tools. Knitting works, people are familiar with it, it’s engaging, even subversive. And finally, you might be able to wear it. Consequently, it takes up a lot of room." Sam has two knitting machines in his studio, which squat silently and slightly menacingly. Shelves, boxes and the usual detritus of the artists’ work surrounds us, although a closer look reveals that the cylindrical objects on the shelves aren’t pots of paint but cones of yarn. So the question is, what happens to all this material?

I was very interested in a spreadsheet that Sam produced to show the costs of production, which came about through his last experience of the art market. "It was
Kinetica, I was lucky to get a stall, through a strange sequence of events, and thinking ‘I don’t have anything to sell, or it wouldn’t be any good, actually the only thing is my labour.’ So I had this nice conceptual premise, the art will be my labour, you buy my labour at Arts Council rates. Many people engaged, thought it was a great concept, one said to me it was “the closest thing to art there”. But no one bought anything. It cost almost £600, materials, storage, accommodation. I lost a lot of money."

"When the Manchester Contemporary came round I couldn’t do that, so I copied the Unique Knitwear factory signs." Rogue Studios sits in a mill occupied by a host of knitwear companies, producing stylish garments to prestigious high street retailers such as Primark and BooHoo. One of the companies has their signs on boards, "Unique Knitwear; I thought there was something funny, something cute and ironic about it being ‘unique’, so I make, copied the sign, ‘Unique knitwear’, piled them in the corner in an unlimited edition, put the pattern online."

"The other thing I wanted to make clear; the cost of labour. That’s how a factory works. They work out the cost, materials and overheads, and labour. So I worked out my time, at a fair rate. Art markets hide that labour, and I don’t think that helps us as artists, we can be romantic or naïve about what it actually is, and undercut ourselves." Sam has a wry smile to himself as he continues, "I didn’t sell any then either. I proved a conceptual point to myself but I’d rather have more control over context."

Sam came across the idea of knitting and the knitting machines while filming a knitting group project in Moston where he set up the
Small Cinema at the remarkable Moston Miners Club. "For so many people, the machines remind them of their gran," Sam reveals, but he had a different object come to mind as he stands and takes on the rolls of card in hand. "Most machines are punchcards, though some are hackable, but," as he rolls out the card in front of me showing the sequence of outlines punched down the roll, "this is a film reel."

How the punchcard works in the knitting machine is by releasing needles to change colours, "so it’s a tactile process, not a digital one, except that it can be thought of as binary." Sam checks with me that I understand how binary works and I nod in the same was I did in maths class when I felt I understood but didn’t want any questions. The implications of this for Sam were far-reaching. For example, if you link the punchcard strip into a loop, "it’s a gif, a physical gif. So I’ve been working on ways to animate. My first interest is in the moving image, not storytelling. And I’m interested in the restrictions: there can be a bit of a tech arms race, and I know I’m not good enough to keep up with that even if I had the time and money. I like looking back. Lo-fi." There’s the use of the original fair-isle pattern that crops up in Sam’s work, from his time there, and then from living and working in Montreal he explored the lives of the people there, "I’d take things from their workplaces, make patterns out of them, gifs, small pixel art forms that were knitted."

Projection is literally a big aspect of digital art, projection onto buildings, on to clouds in the work of 
Dave Lynch, who references Eadweard Muybridge. Creating images to project onto that scale using the knitting machines plays with size in creative and slightly subversive ways. Sam has already commented on the size relation between the large punched holes of the input to the smaller size of the stich stitch "where the physical output is smaller than the programme, which is weird." Now he takes down from a shelf behind me what is to all the world an excessively long but impractically thin scarf. The pattern is an image of a horse galloping, and at this point I’m having a bit of difficulty working out exactly what’s going on. Sam’s enthusiasm is infectious, his joy at the idea he’s presenting, as I puzzle out what I’m being shown. It’s Muybridge’s sequence of photographs for his Zoopraxiscope, which transforms the series of still images into a galloping horse, now turned into a scarf that imitates a film reel, with the images knitted via a roll of punched card, and which are then individually ironed "which kills your back" and photographed digitally before being compiled into a stop-motion film.

He shows me a stop-motion film
‘Ceci n’est pas un spectacle’ in reference to "the dude with the pipe" and the Quartier des Spectacles event in Montreal, "quotes and symbols, taken and smashing them together." It’s provoking in the way it juxtaposes the police and the anarchists, and clever, but mainly it’s fun. As with the way Sam plays with the Muybridge footage there’s a sense of mischief here. The use of high-end digital technology to exhibit the lo-fi knitting is quirky, and yet it makes me realise how much more accessible digital cameras are, compared to knitting machines, both in terms of availability and the skills required. With reference to the Montreal project and the images projected onto the buildings, Sam says "it’s going to make some great wallpaper, the things found and collected, but it’s just wallpaper." The scarf of Muybridge horses sits on a shelf, its purpose fulfilled once photographed. "Quite often the physical thing is a by-product of the thing I’m making." It’s a blurring of the traditional perceptions of art and craft. "To me it’s still a part of using craft. In this sense when I’m trying to make films the knitting machine is the projector, the punchcard is the film. The knitting that comes out is a document of that labour; it’s a receipt."

The binary potential of the knitting machine also revealed itself in another co-incidence that Sam was able to spot, that the punchcard arrangement of three groups of eight holes would also fit the 256 figure that is used to fix the Red/Green/Blue digital spectrum. "I knitted an RGB disco. I pointed a camera at the punchcard, trying to see which holes were punched, with some tracking software" This became the basis for a project at the Whitworth Art Gallery. "It might just be a happy co-incidence, but I wanted to use that. Then people aren’t knitting, they’re programming lights. Again it’s another digital parallel. You put it in front of people, they’ll find their own parallel that I won’t have thought of." Sam runs his hand across his hair and leans forward slightly. "At the moment, I want to go back to more digital work, but I love these projects where things come together."

His work is startling to tackle the more commercial potential of Sam’s ideas in a collaboration with a knitwear company in the mill. By the door there’s a big box of scarves that have been produced using a pattern of encoded binary quotations. "It’s just a pretty pattern, but you could decode it if you wanted to, and hopefully you wouldn’t find any spelling mistakes." Previous attempts to produce garments hardly created something marketable. His proposed Christmas jumpers, which I think are spectacular, take the idea of the bad jumper through the wringer. "I decided to work with the idea of appropriation, took bad photos of jumpers in M&S and Primark on an iPhone. By the time I’ve reduced it to three colours, and the scale." Sam hangs up the jumpers he produced and challenged me to see the festive patterns, one in which the figure of Santa is distorted like a Cubist portrait, the asymmetrical snowflakes only recognisable through a squint. "They’re unique. The jumper is made by taking big sheets of the material that’s cut, so each jumper looks different. You won’t see jumpers like this in the shops. Because they’re bad."

"It’s been good to work with the factory, they’ve been very patient with me, but I’ve liked working in a more direct way. It’s alright treating this as a work of art," as he hangs up his jumpers, "but what’s the economics, how does it feed back." This recurrent conceptual reflection in Sam’s work, viewing one thing through the prism of another, the tension between the commercial world and artistic ideas, craft and economic realities, has a new outlet in the knitted flames scattered around the floor. My visit to Rogue has come shortly after a fire that threatened the studios. While the circumstances behind the fire are still uncertain, there are certainly theories that combine recalcitrant tenants and redevelopment ambitions. "And the fact that it happened in a knitting factory. So I’ve been knitting flames and thought about projecting them round the building. It’s the presence of a fire, but they’re knitted so they’re cute, it plays with the threat. I’ve cut out flame shapes from boards connected to the development, because it’s a part of the story. And I’ve reverted to punchcards, using traditional fair-isle patterns, in stop-motion. I’m determined to get something to mark it."

Following his previous venture in Moston, Sam has set up a
pop-up cinema in the exhibition space at Rogue, which he shows me on my way out…

… but that’s another story…

conversation with Sam Meech took place at Rogue Studios on Wednesday 22 February 2016 from 5.15pm //
@videosmithery  //

Sam was recommended by Clara Casian.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Thrilling Spirit // Adam Szabo

There’s a moment in the playing of the Biber when the texture is disrupted by a collective foot stamping. A frisson goes round the room as expectations are shifted. There’s just shy of one hundred people packed into the performance space at Islington Mill, encircling the musicians and the unworldly sight of the harpsichord amidst the exposed pipework and hanging cables. It’s not an audience you can pre-judge; many of them will be concert regulars at chamber gigs at the RNCM, others will have been to other nights in this space, perhaps some doom rock or improvised white noise experiment. I suspect very few of them will have heard Biber’s Battalia live before; it’s very rarely done, and recordings are few and far between. Everything about this experience feels new and fresh.

It’s possible we take for granted that within easy reach of anywhere in the north west there are at least eight large orchestral groups of international standard. Coming from Sydney, Australia, where there is just one symphony orchestra and one opera orchestra, Adam Szabo feels this strongly. It’s apparent that in our local area, as Adam tells me, "there’s an incredible density of that kind of cultural practice. For wherever reason there doesn't seem to be the same breadth of top-tier, live chamber music." Those reasons could be mixed: string quartets tend to gravitate to the bigger cities and no one can operate in a full-time string sextet, where there’s a small subset of what might be thought of as "great works" alongside a large group of amazing works that rarely get performed outside the festival circuit and the academic concert programmes.

Adam Szabo is the artistic director of the Manchester Collective, a chamber group that gathers up all these thoughts and issues and aims to tackle them by creating a well-considered and effectively prepared season of performances. "Our MD Rakhi Singh comes from a background in classical chamber music, first violin in the Barbirolli Quartet, and is used to preparing programmes with the artistic rigour that quartet are famous for. If Transfigured Night was programmed at an arts festival, for example, it might get one or maybe two rehearsals. We had a session in early January, followed up with sectional rehearsals and a full week of calls to put the project together."

There’s definitely something else going on, however. At Islington Mill, the interspersed Purcell and Cage is the sort of idea I can imagine William Glock doing in the 1960s, the use of lighting changes to chart the performance might not be revolutionary nowadays, but brought into this space and presented in this way it feels unrepeatable. At the interval we’re encouraged to move to a different place in the room for a different acoustical experience. Things like this shouldn’t feel radical but they are statements. They are statements of intent. They are ways of treating the audience experience as more various than the concert-goer is traditionally allowed. "It’s not so much the traditional arts cry of reaching new audiences. The aim of the programme is to wake people up to the possibilities of the art form, whether or not they’re a Halle veteran or a student of heavy metal. And we’ve had both of those in our audiences. It’s important that what we offer is different, moves them, that it changes the way people feel."

"The venue choices have to do with the character of Manchester, which is more alternative, which has an underground aesthetic. It’s not the same as the Bridgewater Hall; here you step into a space where you may not expect to hear classical music. It’s a different way of seeing, different ways of listening. Preconceptions are removed." While making that happen in the usual halls is going to be well-nigh impossible, "we can help make it easier. When people walk in to an old Victorian cotton mill, you’re already expecting something different. And Islington Mill has supported an outrageous number of independent artists, it feels like a good thing to do, and it grows Manchester’s indie cultural scene. And that's not to say that in the future we won’t play bigger venues, but for now a special part of the performance is the intimacy, the physical proximity to the audience."

"What we’re doing, sitting in the round, the audience is less than one metre away in every direction. It’s a really physical activity, you see that when you’re up close, flashes that happen between players, the smirk if something goes wrong, the feet shuffle when something goes especially well. It’s what makes live music. For us Islington Mill is the best of both worlds, we'd never had that opportunity anywhere else. It’s an incredibly potent physical set up, an optimal set up for us. For the audience, wherever they are in the room, they’re engaging with player’s faces."

Adam has a considered attitude to his responses, a coherent line of thought that carries him through. When I start by saying I’d like the interview to be led by what he wants to explore, he tells me it would be helpful to have a provocation, as if otherwise he's worried that he won’t be able to get going or might end up on some random digression. When he finishes his response to the initial question he reflects "that was a very long answer to a very simple question." His thoughts fall very naturally into fully formed paragraphs and he has a habit of summing up the point he's made in an additional sentence or two. These feel like the issues that have been thought through deeply for some time, and spoken through with others. There is also a careful focus in the way Adam speaks. We’re a bit jammed in to the corner of The Art of Tea and so there isn’t a lot of scope for wild gesticulation or bold body language, but it doesn’t feel like Adam is one for the grand physical gesture. Instead his passion comes out through intense flashes, usually towards the end of a phrase that reveals something behind the story of how the Manchester Collective came about, and the type of work they do; that exposes a little of why Adam is driven to do this.

We talk a bit about the approach to playing Purcell in a twenty-first century way, after a century of re-discovery, the authentic music movement and the era of experimentation. Adam is clear that the Manchester Collective performance was informed by all of that but wasn’t enslaved to it; they couldn’t be. They play on steel strings, as one example. More than that, though, they are forced into a position by the music itself. As you scrape through layers of editorialising and tradition, you discover that "inherent in that repertoire is the spirit of improvisation and spontaneity that’s not really thought about in many contemporary performances." In their performance of the Purcell, Adam reveals to me that there were two passages of complete improvisation. "It’s true to the spirit of those composers."

At Islington Mill the Purcell wasn’t played alongside John Cage, as I think I expected, but interspersed movements of the Cage paired with a piece of the Purcell Fairy Queen incidental music. "There’s a lot of similarities, with aspects of the Cage that resonate with the Purcell." Adam offers me the extended metaphor of a visitor to a new city who just sees a host of huge buildings until a guide can point out specific details or stories behind certain buildings. And this isn’t always a one-way historical process, as Adam reflects with pleasure on the metal fan who heard reflections of his music in the Biber. "We don’t think our audience should always expect music to be pretty. We want people to have a good time, but that’s not the whole point, we want them to hear our music and have a reaction. The music can change something in you."

Adam’s work beyond the Manchester Collective finds him working with a wide range of other organisations; "I’ve worked a lot with Welsh National Opera. There’s a dramatic element to music performance." This feeds back to the way the Manchester Collective works, and especially how it programmes, with a conscious collaborative element. The next concert is with actor Mitch Riley, who Adam describes as an incredibly powerful, vibrant presence. He hasn’t been brought in simply to perform the new commission, but as a Lecoq trained performer he brings a strong sense of physical theatre to the group. "He casts a long shadow." The new commission has been written specifically for Mitch Riley by Huw Belling on a text from Anthony Burgess’ Inside Mr Enderby, worked out by Pierce Wilcox. And this isn’t simply a collaboration by association. "We worked very closely with the estate and foundation and stayed true to the spirit of the original novel. So we have a series of character studies of Mr Enderby; poet, tragic and desperate figure." Adam fishes around for a similar reference; "It’s Alan Partridge, pompous, ultimately deluded, but comic." This is paired with Janacek’s second quartet "which is also a literary work. Janacek starts from a place of introspection, so there’s a rhetorical epistolary aspect from letters between Janacek and his muse. And this relationship basically drove Janacek mad. In concert, Mitch performs selections from the original letters. In Sheffield, we’re doing something a bit different; a question and answer session with the artists. We’ve capped the tickets at thirty, for a two-way discussion, and the people there are then involved in creating the experience."

Another thing Adam is clearly very proud of in his understated way is the live stream of the Islington Mill gig (which can be found on the Facebook page), which was caught by over sixteen thousand views to some extent. There were some minor technical issues and they are still to get to grips with the metrics and feedback, but it was obviously a hugely important part of the project, and in time those recordings will be matched up to the HD audio and made available. It’s a piece with their approach to accessibility which also finds them working in schools. "We’re taught how to listen, how to see, when we’re young. It’s formative for people. So in our first year we wanted to do some grassroots educational work. This year we will be conducting some composition work in junior schools with Sam Glazer and then building that work into broader performances at the schools. It's not about creating more musicians, it's about appreciation; in twenty years they’ll be the audience. It’s something I’m very proud of; we’re a small organisation, we have to be careful with our budget, but we’ve made it a part of our practice from day dot."

There are exciting plans for the years ahead for Adam and the Manchester Collective. The idea of a major new commission each year is one thing, but some of the plans yet to be announced will have a real buzz about them, I suspect. "There’s this sacred fourth wall that we’d like to remove." It's not iconoclastic, but more about finding a more direct line from the music to the listener and enabling them to hear it anew, which comes through the spirit of the craft. Adam compares the orchestral players experience to that of the chamber player as being like the novel to the sonnet. In the orchestra "you’re part of a huge machine" which the chamber player by contrast is like "a part in a mechanical watch. Terrifying and thrilling, each note is meaningful."
The second Manchester Collective programme tours 23-26 March.

conversation with Adam Szabo took place at The Art of Tea, Didsbury on Sunday 19 February 2017 from 3:00pm //
@Mr_Szabo  //

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Facilitator // Sam Illingworth

I’m sat opposite what Manchester City Council have deigned to call Circle Square, and I wonder if I need to get myself a philosopher or theoretical physicist to help me to understand the concept. A man gets impatient as he tries to squeeze between the window I’m sat by and the slow tread of students ambling by the roadworks. A couple waiting at the bus stop opposite laugh and I thought I heard it. Sam slides in the doorway and catches my eye half hesitantly, half expectantly. Slightly delayed by a meeting the value of which is shrugged aside, we avoid the small talk to make the most of the allotted time.

I have a structure, and it comes from Sam’s webpage. Sam Illingworth is Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University, as I figured this was as good a place as any to get into the circles of scientists that still seem so distinct from my arty peer group. And it’s a concern for him as well. Although he has a background in climate science, his current passion is finding the bridges, the links for people between scientists and artists. Or maybe he’d prefer to help people realise that these are artificial distinctions, that professional scientists also have an artistic aspect, that artists have valuable and essential things to say about science.

“I spent two years in Japan, some of which was spent studying with Yukio Ninagawa, who’s famous for his Shakespeare adaptations, thinking about how you can use theatrical techniques to improve communication and encourage creativity.” When he returned to the UK this became an interest in the potential for theatre to facilitate the conversation between the expert and the non-expert. We look at each other with an acknowledgement of how loaded those terms are today. “I’m interested in the co-creation of knowledge, working with non-scientists, have them ask what they can do, what will benefit, what can they provide.” Sam confesses that theatre is no longer the driving force of his work at the moment, that “poetry has taken over,” but there is a project envisaged, tentatively, using the techniques of forum theatre to explore co-governance and community involvement, which he sees as “a powerful tool for allowing people to play out scenarios. Especially with science subjects that people think they’ve nothing to contribute to.” Sam has a way of leaning forward and pinning a point with his fingers when he feels it’s important, and the position of the audience in relation to science subjects is one of those points, where he wants to subvert the idea of a lay-audience. “You may be a lay-audience in relation to bio-medicine, but if you’ve suffered from an illness for twenty or thirty years, you’re not really a lay audience in health care.”

Sam believes there have been a number of very good theatrical projects around science, but largely traditional, not breaking the fourth wall. “But scientific transparency is very important,” so the idea becomes bringing together audience with scientists, bring in a dramaturg. Yet Sam has his reservations even about this sense of public engagement, for by picking the scientists in some sense you’ve already set the boundaries of the conversation.

I’m slightly worried that asking Sam whether he is looking to process over product might be a loaded question, but he catches on to it. “Process definitely, process as much.” It brings to his mind a module that he teaches on Sciart, where the conversations between the students is so interesting to him. There’s a common concern with the role of the teacher, the expert. “The traditional lecture room, with one person stood at the front reading from a textbook, that’s not changed from medieval times, when they only had one copy of the textbook, it’s not changed. I might have more knowledge in one area, but everyone brings knowledge, that everyone can benefit from.” It seems to me he’d love to find the process that would utilise the best process for the specific audience, the appropriate methodology for each different community that produces the most useful outcomes.

“What I’ve struggled with most is that role, that stood at the front I’m still thought the most knowledgeable; I don’t know if it’s modesty or Britishness, I don’t think of myself as much more of an expert, and certainly some of my students are smarter than I am, certainly. But it’s dangerous to have too much of a sense of modesty. Actually, a dramaturg isn’t a bad analogy; ultimately I encourage the student to utilise their skills.” Sam talks of his practise in three strands, of research, teaching, and public engagement, which are symbiotic (a scientific term physicalized with intertwined fingers). “Encouraging people who already have the innate skill set, give them the confidence. That’s why interdisciplinary work is so important.”

“I’ve always had a personal interest in poetry, I’ve written plays, there’s a similarity, a searching for questions, there’s a natural flip between, many of the most creative people I know are scientists.” It’s partly an aspect of contemporary culture that Sam feels passionately is “really divisive,” and it’s what he’s driving against. “People are unsure of where they fit. A scientist might not visit an art gallery; an artist might not contribute to a scientific discussion. We should be exploring similarities rather than differences.” This mission of both art and science are, as Sam describes them, “futile attempts to describe the place we live;” futile because they will always be partial, both incomplete and biased. “People are not artists or scientists but human beings.”

Not that Sam finds much resistance to these ideas. People generally seem very open to new ways of working and “are willing to push boundaries,” and Sam has a project pairing artists and scientists, particularly poets. He’s worked with London-based poet Dan Simpson, creating experimental works enabling scientists and poets to communicate to a wider audience. “Ultimately I want to work to something truly interdisciplinary.” We can avoid CP Snow no longer, whose idea that scientists should be able to quote Shakespeare has for so long been de-contextualised and misconstrued, and Sam wants to hold on to his idea that “the only way to solve inter-disciplinary problems is to use inter-disciplinary solutions. That’s my whole raison d’etre, to help people see the world through other people’s eyes.”

As a concrete example of a project that Sam is working on to demonstrate exactly the sort of cross-pollination he proposes he tells me about his blog The Poetry of Science, in which “every week I read a new piece of science research and try and write a poem.” But it’s more than that, it’s using the structures of the science to inform the artistic choices, to have the artistic choices affirm the research. “So a piece in dementia, I choose the pantoum structure, which I felt plays with the concept of memory. Another idea was to see if we could replace that traditional abstract with a poem, where we gave a group of scientists an abstract and a poem based on the abstract. Not surprisingly they preferred the abstract, but their analysis of the poems were fairly accurate.”

“I’m incredibly lucky. I’m passionate about what I do and I love doing it.” You can see it and despite our tight time-slot it feels like it’s going to be difficult to draw this conversation to a close, especially as Sam is determined to tell me about a current project he’s engaged on to make Manchester a carbon neutral city by 2050. “The challenge here is that both of these terms are esoteric, so we’ve gone out into the community, to find out what’s important to them and now we’re working with people to implement a better climate change strategy. Mainly using poetry so far, but also art and music, to try and communicate and get responses. You have to be careful about that, to remember that art has its own intrinsic value, but it can also be a facilitative tool. That’s easier because of my background. I’m very proud of that project; it’s of benefit to the community, it feels ahead of the curve.”

There’s students negotiating the spaces between the crowds, a couple laughing at the bus stop, a man with a blue paisley bow-tie rushing from meeting to meeting to meeting. I can’t tell if they’re artists or scientists. Perhaps one day Sam will be able to get us all round the table to facilitate the discussion.
conversation with Sam Illingworth took place at Costa Coffee, Oxford Road on Tuesday 7 February 2017 from 4:10pm // @samillingworth  //


Thursday, 9 February 2017

While Playing With Radiators // Paul Morrice

The Jam Street Café occupies an interesting place in Manchester’s psyche. Nearly everyone I mention it to has heard of it; ‘Why have I heard of it?’, more than expected know it well, surprising numbers know someone who knows someone who works there or owns it. It’s not a surprising or pre-possessing place; with posters and Banksy on the wall it is the typical Northern Quarter, Chalk Farm, Prospect Park or Venice Beach type vibe. The only other drinker is focussed on his pint and crossword. They apologise for only having demerara sugar.

I’ve spent the last couple of days listening to the Cynthia’s Periscope playlist on Soundcloud. It’s a mix of the playful and angry, frustration pent up in the playpen. In the interview Paul talks about how he keeps things acoustic with samples of knocking things around the house, scraping radiators and the like, which “can make it feel more real and tangible.” It’s unusual, unfamiliar and unexpected, and it feels individual. This is an artist collaborating with himself, and there’s always a story there.

I’ve come to think of Cynthia’s Periscope as elusive. I’ve just missed the set at the first Cute Owl festival, a wonderful night of truly alternative work at Gullivers. While the acts weren’t experimental (as I understand the term), the event felt like a bit of an experiment which I hope to see repeated (see update below). Friends have mentioned Cynthia’s Periscope to me, in that way when someone knows your taste – ‘I think you’d like them.’ Other than the music there’s not much online; a couple of arty gig photos and a very few words. When I message the band Facebook page I’m still not sure whether it’s a group or a solo artist with collaborators, or a fictional void out of which I’ll never hear back.

I hear back almost immediately, the arrangements to meet are sorted inside of the evening, and we agree to meet early the following week. It’s never this easy. But it is. Sorted. A quick confirmation message and I take a stroll out to Jam Street for the appointed time. It turns out Cynthia’s Periscope is Paul Morrice, chirpy and tausselled, diffident yet eager. After a quick call to confirm, Paul arrives with a bounce and once he’s perched on the sofa opposite me and we’ve laid out the ground rules, we set off.

The Cute Owl gig came about through networking. “I saw Tangerine Cat perform, I gave them my CD, they gave me theirs, we messaged, and they asked me to play the festival. It was one of the better gigs. I stopped playing live for a while, I was in a more alternative band Young Mountains but stopped for about a year.” It feels like audience reception has something to do with this, and he remembers being called ‘wilfully provocative’ after a gig at Fuel, It’s not something to shy away from; his attitude is that whatever he could do on stage “there’s always some who’s been more extreme. I could be offensive or violent, but I still want to be playful.” Back at Fuel for an electronic open-mic organised by Martin Christie very soon, could be an interesting experience. “I don’t know how that’s going to work, as an open-mic. That’s the thing with electronic music, there’s a lot of equipment.”

“In 2011 I wrote Turtles, playing with Ableton, it was the first song that felt like a Cynthia’s Periscope song but it wasn’t called that at the time. I wrote other songs I could record at home, 2014 I had my first gig at Antwerp Mansion, four songs.” Emerging into the world of a solo artist from the collaborative world of bands throws up an interesting perspective. “The last band was a three-piece, where you’re writing for a set line up.” Perversely this doesn’t offer more possibilities but rather Paul tells me it’s “a bit frustrating with the limitations.” Working on Cynthia’s Periscope songs enables him to be more exploratory, maybe kicking off by simply running a drum machine through an effects pedal, so perhaps “only fifty percent of the songs I perform live. I try and keep things as live as possible, but sometimes it’s me with a backing track.” It speaks to the range of Paul’s approaches to writing that there is no standard path to the song, which could come through long perseverance with an idea that seems to go nowhere, and “some of them turn out to be the best. If something is very heavily improvised I usually don’t perform it.”

When the space between the recorded track and the live act becomes a topic of discussion, there’s no sense that Paul’s ambition is to ensure the spirit of the recording is reproduced on the stage. But the different journeys he can take from idea to recording to song to track are just as many and various. A song may start out as a track recorded at two in the morning in his bedroom, yet it may not get what some might call an official release until it’s been played live a number of times. “I’ve already picked the songs for the new EP, the advantage is they’re road-tested.” So who is this all for? Playing on the fringe of the alternative scene in Manchester necessitates a small selection of venues with a select audience on a circuit that can seem cliquey. The EPs are a calling card, an ambition to reach beyond and play more gigs outside Manchester. “And it would be nice to have a full album.”

Paul is of that generation where, while being able to fully embrace the potential of the online world, the CD album still has a powerful attraction. “I still listen to full albums on CD in the car,” he says as if it’s some sort of confession and it’s clear he feels greater satisfaction from listening to a whole album, even from the bands he loved growing up but whose musical work is no longer his. Even fond memories of Alice in Chains is grist to the mill for a musical experiment as eclectic as Cynthia’s Periscope.

The continual dark reflection of childhood keeps cropping up in the conversation as much as it does in the songs. Cynthia was the name of Paul’s childminder, and while on a first listen Cynthia’s Periscope songs can seem quite technical, Paul is sure that “reduce it to melodies, you could probably teach a seven-year-old.” He talks about there being a “blend of hedonism, carefree sex and drug abuse, and doing those things because you’re not genuinely happy.” He’s talking about Arab Strap, but not only them. “It’s innocent things from childhood related to adulthood.”

“I used to write a lot but just over a year ago I got a new job, it’s more demanding. One thing I find, some songs I’ve written, recorded and uploaded in a day, I like that, it has a charm, a bit scrappy.” While a combination of events have curtailed the time Paul can devote to music for the last year, he now has a new impetus. Editing old tracks, writing new work, gigging more. Recent songs like Corneal Scratch and Pillar of Salt come from midnight sessions, “throw stuff at the wall, wake up with a hangover and edit it.” And lyrically? “Essentially pop songs. I’m conscious of trying not to be edgy on purpose. A lot are about real-life,” and here Paul has a sudden brief inward look as if he wonders whether to go there. “One I was assaulted and my jaw broken, there’s dysfunctional relationships (not my current one). Often on stage I’m in drag and I get offensive things on the street.” It’s a look I suspect speaks to his approach to his songs, he wants to write pop songs where darkness can still intrude. “I don’t want to write political songs,” and a lyric squares up to the conversation; “How much longer will you wait to hear a piece of your mind has been bought.” We are in a world of tensions and ambiguity.

With all this lack of time Paul worries that he should listen to more music, yet he still buys a couple of albums a month and when he has time at the weekend he may do a trawl of youTube, picking a genre and following the links. “It’s a consumer culture, consume and forget. A CD I’ve listened to for eight years means more, I’ve given it the time. I still have a preference for the full length, forty-five minutes. That’s why I think I should write an album, I’ve written a lot of disparate things.” We chat of a shared passion for Radio 3 and I encourage his discovery of Late Junction; “a thousand years of music, I still only know five pieces of music.” We don’t listen to 6music much, which is clearly “Radio 2 for people who went on CND marches.”

Unsurprisingly for someone who launches tracks online with the compulsion of a hamster with a catapult, the internet is “overall a positive. It’s devalued things a bit, taken away from the album which can be more moving. Another temptation, you can pull it down very easily if you’re not happy with it.” This is not something Paul approves of, preferring I think to keep his path through his music literally recorded. He reminds me that the live act is vital as well, and taking work to new audiences. Paul talks about having a setup he can pack in a suitcase with a simplified set list, pop on a budget flight to the continent, play and return.

Paul has a vision for the future. He uses that very word. It’s a passion to keep exploring, to tug away at the edges of what’s possible and what sounds exciting to him, and find more direction for his musical journey. He starts studying audio engineering at Salford University later in the year. He has a project to work with Tacit Music over the summer, and he has a concept for a music video. “Between now and then, tie up loose ends, perform outside Manchester, away from supporting indie bands, look through my old files, start afresh.”

UPDATE: And at the next Cute Owl festival on 13 May at The Star and Garter.

conversation with Paul Morrice took place at Jam Street Café on Tuesday 31 January 2017 from 7:00pm // @CynthiasPerisco  //