Jan Tait and the Bear 2018

29 August 2018

Catherine Backhouse and Brian McBride in Ensemble Thing's Jan Tait and the Bear

Here are some great photos by Kinagram Limited of Ensemble Thing’s recent performances of Emily Doolittle’s opera Jan Tait and the Bear, which I conducted. In August we gave six performances of the piece at Summerhall, Edinburgh, as part of the 2018 Made in Scotland Showcase.

Alan McHugh as the Narrator in Ensemble Thing's Jan Tait and the Bear.

The production starred Catherine Backhouse as Jan Tait, Brian McBride in a multitude of roles, and Alan McHugh as the narrator. It was directed by Stasi Schaeffer.

Brian McBride as Sigurd in Ensemble Thing's Jan Tait and the Bear.

The band, costumed and on stage throughout, also doubles as the chorus and has some tricksy singing passages and speaking roles to perform. August’s performances featured Alex South (clarinet), Aileen Sweeney (accordion) and Emily Walker (cello).

Brian McBride, Alan McHugh and Ensemble Thing in Jan Tait and the Bear.

Made in Scotland supports Scottish artists to bring work to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and to take advantage of international opportunities received from performing at the festival. Since 2009, the showcase has featured over 200 shows.

Catherine Backhouse as Jan Tait in Ensemble Thing's Jan Tait and the Bear 2.

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Jan Tait and the Bear @ Made in Scotland Showcase

8 August 2018

Jan Tait banner

Following two previous appearances at the Made in Scotland Showcase at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (with 2014’s Replaceable Things and 2015’s Independence), I’m very happy to say that Ensemble Thing, the new music group I direct, will return to Summerhall as part of the Showcase to perform Emily Doolittle’s delightful opera Jan Tait and the Bear.

Jan Tait and the Bear had its origins in 2010 when Emily visited Shetland for the first time and wrote an opera based on the local tale of Jan Tait: when he is overcharged by an unscrupulous tax collector, Jan Tait strikes back. He is transported to Norway to account for his crimes before the king, but instead of meeting his fate, he meets a fearsome bear who needs Jan as much as Jan needs him.

Ensemble Thing premiered the work at the CCA, Glasgow, in October 2016 and we’re delighted to reunite our original cast and production team for this run of six performances in Edinburgh. The opera is directed by Stasi Shaeffer and stars Catherine Backhouse as Jan Tait, Brian McBride in a multitude of roles, and the show is narrated by Alan McHugh. It’s been great fun to revisit this work!

Ensemble Thing will perform Emily Doolittle’s Jan Tait and the Bear at Summerhall, Edinburgh, on 8th, 9th, 13th and 14th August 2018 at 1pm, and on 15th and 16th August 2018 at 10:30am. Tickets are available here.

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Video from Ensemble Thing: Independence

5 November 2015

Back in August, I performed Independence by John De Simone with Ensemble Thing as part of the Made in Scotland Showcase at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. One of our performances, at Summerhall, was captured by director Sarah Hodgetts for her work-in-progress film about John and the personal stories behind his music. The video above is just a snippet from Sarah’s footage. The audio is raw and unmixed — and best listened to through headphones — but the film gives a good impression of what we were up to with Thing this summer.

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Independence Trailer

23 July 2015

Here’s a trailer for a production I’m involved in at the Made in Scotland Showcase at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. The music is by John De Simone and the group is Ensemble Thing. Performances are at 11:20am on 18th, 20th, 22nd and 23rd August at Summerhall and tickets are on sale now!

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Ensemble Thing @ Made in Scotland 2015

25 May 2015

John De Simone's Independence poster

I’m looking forward to working on Ensemble Thing‘s production of John De Simone’s Independence as Musical Director this summer. The performances will be part of the prestigious Made in Scotland Showcase at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, a curated programme of 21 productions encompassing theatre, dance and music. This is the second year Ensemble Thing has been part of the line-up having presented Replaceable Things — which featured music from myself and John — in 2014.

As the title of John’s work suggests, it was written amidst the debates leading up to last year’s independence referendum in Scotland and was premiered on the night before the vote. It was a privilege to work on one of the few (the only?) musical works to directly and artistically address issues surrounding the referendum. Despite the wealth of indyref-related discussion across Scotland, including several high-profile contributions from other artforms (including the National Theatre of Scotland’s The Great Don’t Know Show), the world of (broadly-defined) “classical” music generally stayed tight-lipped and unresponsive to the issue. Those composers who did speak out tended to do so through the press rather than through their work. John’s piece tackled the issue head-on.

Now, whilst preparing for these new performances of Independence away from the excitement of the referendum, I am struck by just how unpolitical the work is. The first performances were very much of a moment but the strength of John’s work lies in its questioning of personal and cultural identity rather than in the tub-thumping of a political cause. Yes, the work is political (isn’t everything?), but it’s not polemical. Instead, John uses autobiography to explore how we construct our own identity. In spoken-word interludes between movements, John considers how his upbringing and family history has helped create his identity: he’s a Scottish-Italian who was born and raised in England, his grandfather was instrumental in the founding of the Scottish National Party and John considers himself Scottish despite speaking with a broad English accent. Musically, the piece includes elements of Scottish trad music (some of it composed by John’s forebears) tinged with a post-minimalism picked-up during years spent in the Netherlands. Can one really speak of possessing a true national identity when one’s influences, outlooks and personal history are so… international?

Ensemble Thing perform John De Simone’s Independence at Summerhall on 18th, 20th, 22nd and 23rd August 2015 at 11:20am. Tickets (£10/£8) are available here.

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Two new videos

24 September 2014

Here are two new videos from performances of my work that have taken place this year.

The first is two extracts from Elbow Room, the piece I wrote as part of my Sound and Music Embedded Residency with the Red Note Ensemble. The piece explores the psychogeography of cites: how we affect them, and them us, and tells the story of the real mid-twentieth century plan to demolish Glasgow and replace it with a high-rise concrete utopia.

The second video is a complete movement from Replaceable Parts for the Irreplaceable You which was performed by Ensemble Thing as part of the Made in Scotland Showcase at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This particular movement, Instructions for Curing the Human Heart, comes at the very end of the work which is concerned with what it means to be human in a world inundated with machines.

Both videos were filmed at Summerhall in Edinburgh by the lovely folk at Dotbot.

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Summerhall TV interview

16 August 2014

Here’s a little interview from Summerhall TV: John De Simone and myself discuss Replaceable Things, Ensemble Thing’s Made in Scotland Showcase performance, which receives its final outing at the Edinburgh Fringe tomorrow (Sunday 17th August), 11:35AM at Summerhall. The performances have been great so far, we’re all sad the run isn’t longer!

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Gig!

6 August 2014

Replaceable Things poster

Ensemble Thing’s new show Replaceable Things opens next week at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The show features John De Simone’s Panic Diary and my Replaceable Parts for the Irreplaceable You. I’m really looking forward to this. Catch it when you can — there are only three performances! Friday 15th – Sunday 17th August, 11:35am, Red Lecture Theatre, Summerhall, Edinburgh.

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Gig!

19 May 2014

ER1

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Writing Elbow Room

10 May 2014

Elbow Room image by David Coyle

This year’s Commonwealth Games will not longer be inaugurated by the synchronized destruction of five thirty-storey tower blocks. The buildings, the Red Road flats which have been home to hundreds of families since their construction in the 1960s, were due to be demolished as part of the opening ceremony to Glasgow’s Games which take place this summer. Organisers had promised that, by beaming television coverage of these implosions across the globe, Glasgow would be celebrated as a city of “authenticity, passion and ambition”. Others were not so sure: 17,000 people signed an online petition to stop the destruction of Red Road as part of the opening ceremony, forcing the plans to be dropped.

The size of the backlash against the plan indicates how strongly many feel about the symbolism of Red Road and the infrastructure of Glasgow’s regeneration more generally. Many accused the organisers of insensitivity, not least for the asylum seekers housed in a sixth tower who would have to spend years living in a rubble-filled wasteland. The flats are due to be demolished regardless of the Commonwealth Games, but by attempting to include their destruction in a broadly artistic event, and by insisting that razing the buildings is purely a celebratory affair, the organisers appeared to overlook the nuanced and contradictory symbolism of such an act. Since construction began in 1964 the Red Road flats have been home to thousands, initially providing an improvement in living conditions for many. For some they once represented the dawning of a Utopian way of life; a functional, modernist approach to city dwelling. Others see only an eyesore. The flats later became synonymous with urban decay and crime, and were also the scene of several widely-reported suicides.

It is contradictions such as these which have been both a cause for concern and a driving force behind my new work Elbow Room which I have written for the Red Note Ensemble as part of my Sound and Music Embedded residency with the group. Although not specifically about Red Road, the piece is about Glasgow’s redevelopment more generally and tells the story of the real-life mid-twentieth century plan to re-build Glasgow as a concrete paradise of skyscrapers and motorways. Although never fully realized, the plan did lay down some of the principles which shaped the development of the city in the coming decades.

I live in Glasgow, the city which has a motorway running though its heart. As a composer I feel it’s important to engage with the world around me and writing about this road, and the other radical improvements made to the city, is of great personal importance. But it’s a big, complicated topic that needs to be completed with great sensitivity, particularly for someone like me who lives in Glasgow but is not Glaswegian. Finding a way into the subject, and working out how I was going to be able to write music about it, proved to be very difficult.

My solution was to use period films made in Glasgow about the proposed urban regeneration, alongside sound recordings of today’s city. The films I have used were essentially propaganda tools to convince the people of Glasgow that the proposed years of disruption to their lives would be worth the new, healthy, futuristic city that would be created around them. The plans for the city were bold: one envisioned the total destruction of the centre of Glasgow, and the building of the motorway itself (now the M8) required the razing of many healthy, attractive parts of the city. Rather than underscoring the films, I wanted the music of Elbow Room to reflect the optimism and sense of progress inherent in them. I then re-edited the films to fit the music whist also allowing them to contributing to the overall narrative.

There were undoubtedly many problems in mid-twentieth century Glasgow that needed to be solved, including slum housing and poor health. However, looking back from 2014 with our ideas of efficiency, usability and sustainability, many plans for the city now seem completely over the top. With the benefit of hindsight, the optimism of the period films seems misplaced: although many improvements were made, the promised Utopia never materialized. It remains a fantasy on a drawing board and yet the remnants of these improvement schemes still affect the day-to-day lives of many in the city.

The key to completing Elbow Room was this fantasy. If the first two movements of the piece are concerned with the imaginings of architects and town planners, the third and final movement would be my fantasy: a musical reinterpretation of the sounds of the city recorded this year at locations still affected by the plans drawn-up in the 1940s.

Elbow Room will be performed by the Red Note Ensemble at Summerhall, Edinburgh, 8pm Wednesday 21st May and at The Arches, Glasgow, 8pm Thursday 22nd May.

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