Archive for the ‘Midnight Llama’ Category

Here are the recordings from the Hepworth concert. I’m only posting my pieces her because .. well, it’s my blog. If you want to see the rest then head over to the YouTube channel. For complex reasons the YouTube channel does not include Leaving Rome – but this blog post does. That’s life.

I’ll present the three pieces of mine in a semi-random order.

First is Wrong Way Home which is a solo piece that I premiered at the “A Whispered Shout” concert in Croydon. Technically this went better than the first performance as the Max for Live patches worked correctly this time. My playing is slightly rushed on this version though so it’s shorter than I’d have liked but I generally I think it came out rather well. The video is slightly blurry as I’ve enlarged it from the original (non-HD) recording so you’re not mostly staring at the rows of seats in front of the camera 🙂

Second is Market Hill which I wrote for mezzo soprano Dorothy Taylor and a static backing track that I prepared. The sounds are based on wind noises and church bells recorded on Market Hill in the town of Hedon where I grew up. Dorothy did a wonderful performance of this piece that I’m immensely pleased with. There’s no video only audio, but there’s not much to see unless you want to watch a classically-trained singer eating an SM58. The truth of the matter is that I filled the camera SD card with Leaving Rome and the other pieces.

Lastly is Leaving Rome which I have labelled a ‘Talking Opera’ because the only words in it are spoken; there is a singer but she just sings syllables taken from the text – which is by Juvenal. I have mixed emotions about this piece. I started it two years ago now and my style and abilities have developed quite a lot since then. If I was to do this piece again I very much doubt it would turn out like it has here. Having said that, there are parts of the music that I still like and think really work, but there are also bits where I cringe and go “what was I thinking!?“. Karen Kirkup’s acting and staging rescue a lot of the substandard music – they give you something more interesting to concentrate on. And that’s the intention to some extent, it’s a music-theatre piece that you’re supposed to watch – a sound-only recording would be pointless.

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It seems ages since we did a Midnight Llama concert. Actually, it is ages since we did a Midnight Llama concert – December 2011 was that last one, in Colchester. This time we are playing much closer to home, at the fabulous Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield on 25th September. Yes, it’s a Wednesday.

The concert is part of Artwalk, a great idea where various venues around the city are open providing free art of all kinds, including music, obviously. We’ll be playing 3 sets of around 35-40 minutes each at 5pm, 6pm and 7pm.

The programme includes a variety of pieces. The first set includes premieres by Laurence Rose, Karen Kirkup, Elaine Levene, then I will be reprising my piece “Wrong Way Home”, first performed at A Whispered Shout.

The second set is dominated by my 35 minute ‘talking opera’ Leaving Rome – for the full ensemble, followed by a piece I wrote for Mezzo-Soprano and electronics called Market Hill. Both are premieres.

The final part will be a single piece, Visual Song. This is the long piece from our 2012 album “See“, which is a structured improvised piece based on a drawing by New York artist Rosaire Appel.

I will be taking a video camera to the concert so I hope I will get some results suitable for posting here afterwards. But being there in person would be much better, of course!

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The Midnight Llama album is finished!

As I mentioned before this was quite a large project for me, not only playing on most of the tracks but engineering at the time and also having to do the mixing afterwards too.

The fun one to mix was “Short”. Partly because I wasn’t playing on this track but also because I was adding effects to the voice. The effects to use were decided in advance at rehearsals so I had a good idea what was going to happen. In fact I added few more effects to the start to make it seem more consistent with the ethereal feel of the rest. The piece is performable live with vocal effects but I was mainly trying to save time, effort and energy on the recording day.

The two long, full ensemble tracks took a long time to get right, not just getting the sounds coming out as I wanted them but managing the balance and – to be quite honest – fixing some less than stellar playing in places. The original recording was done in a very limited time and the long piece “Visual Song” was recorded in a single take – so that’s our excuse! Karen Kirkup came over to help me with some of the musical decisions I had to make, which was very helpful so I didn’t feel I was taking decisions on behalf of the whole band. I recorded a few small overdubs in my studio and added some synthesizer playing to add extra life and improve some places, I also added some field recordings to “Visual Song” We did originally plan for a one or two of these but I actually added three as it seemed to make sense.

I’m pretty pleased with the results, there are things I have learned and will do differently next time but generally I think a good job was done. I don’t know when we’ll do another, it depends what sort of interesting projects come along. And next year we actually want to play some more gigs!

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This week I went in to the studio (well, actually a church hall) to record an album with Midnight Llama – my contemporary music band. There are four tracks on this album, all interpretations of drawings & paintings by New York artist Rosaire Appel. As such they are largely improvised, but we spent a lot of time in rehearsal discussing the interpretation and structure of the pieces so, while each recording is still a capture of one performance, it is not really a free improvisation. I prefer this way of working for something that is to be captured or performed in public. While I put improvisations up on soundcloud I generally don’t regard them as ‘pieces’ and don’t give them names – these recordings do have names and they are pieces … in our opinion. Another performance might not be identical to the recording but it would be substantially similar in sound, and identical in structure.

Two of the pieces feature the full four-piece ensemble, and two are duets. We’ve also varied the instruments a little, I play amplified nyckelharpa, octave electric violin and viola d’amore on the three tracks I appear on 🙂

I am also responsible for producing and mixing the album. This is an exciting challenge for me, I’ve recorded myself before and sometimes duets, but this is quite the largest thing I have done all on my own – so I hope it turns out OK! I must admit I was exhausted by the end of the recording day. Performing all day or producing would be been a full job, but I had to do both, as well as all the setting up and setting down as none of the others dare touch the equipment – well, that was their excuse anyway.

We hope to have the album ready before Christmas. This obviously depends on me having time to mix it all together and make sense of it and make it sound as good as I can.

Watch this space, my twitter or the Midnight Llama facebook page for an announcement.

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“Leaving Rome” is a piece I started … oo, ages ago. Maybe the start of this year, probably earlier. I’ve been working on it on and off since then and it’s becoming quite a major composition.

It all started when Karen, percussionist from Midnight Llama, suggested someone write her a piece for three triangles. I can’t remember why she wanted this now so I will gloss over that part! Someone else was originally going to write it but they never did, so I decided that I might like to have a go. At the same time I was trying to resurrect an idea I had a very long time ago to write a piece setting some of Juvenal‘s Satires*. I had given up on this several times, mainly because I am not trained to set words to music and have real problems writing such music. I have tried writing ‘songs’ (both classical and pop/rock) with no success. All have been rightfully discarded leaving no trace.

Combining these two projects gave me an idea. As Karen is a trained actor she could read the words while playing the triangles! And I could have other members of Midnight Llama playing along too where needed. This gave me the spur to start writing.

The piece is now at quite an advanced stage. My stated goal was to finish the piece by the end of July, I doubt this will happen now but I hope it should be done by the end of August. We’ve had a hiatus with Midnight Llama anyway so this won’t cause any problems and we are busy on another largeish project anyway.

The basic idea behind Leaving Rome is to have a semi-staged piece with Karen reading four sections from Satire IV “Leaving Rome” sometimes accompanied by instruments, with an instrumental interlude in between each section. I have estimated that the whole piece will last around half an hour, maybe more. Which makes it, by far, the longest thing I have ever written.

It’s written to be played by Midnight Llama; I see no point in writing for non-existant ensembles and as as I’m very far from being a ‘known’ composer nobody else is going to play my music. So the instrumentation will be narrator, triangles (these don’t have to be the same person), octave violin** (or cello, but we have an octave violin!), mezzo soprano and sampler. The mezzo will not be singing words, just syllables that appear in the text, and the sampler (which I will play) will be loaded with processed samples from Karen playing the triangles.

The staging has yet to be decided, I will rely on Karen to come up with ideas for this as she knows stagecraft far better than I do. The score will not have any stage directions in it as , if by any chance somebody else plays the piece, I would like them to stage it as they want.

I’d better get back to writing it now 🙂


* Juvenal was a Roman writer who wrote satires of ancient Rome that seem very contemporary – I recommend them.

** An octave violin is a normal sized violin that is tuned an octave below a normal violin and has special strings and adjusted soundpost. They work best amplified.

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My spirits always dip when I hear the phrase “improvised comedy” – the sort where the audience is invited to shout out a topic or an object and a comic routine is improvised around it. At best the comedians will bring out some good joke from their repertoire that fits the situation, at worse they will make up some terrible routine that is only funny because you know it’s made up on the spot, so you give them the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t have to be like this, I’m currently reading Stewart Lee’s book where he points out which bits of his routine are improvised or not. I’ve seen him perform and you can’t tell the difference, and more to the point … you don’t care, all that matters is that it’s funny.

It’s similar with music. I perform a lot of improvised music, with Midnight Llama and solo, but never announce it as such. I think the music should succeed or fail on its own merits, it’s either good or bad. How it got that way shouldn’t bother the audience unless perhaps they are other musicians who are interested in your technique. And improvisation (much to the surprise of some promoters) isn’t just turning up and playing stuff, a lot of work goes into it. Both honing your skills and learning to improvise with particular musicians so that the result is good music and not just “improvised music”. The way I improvise there is usually some sort of structure which is worked out beforehand or, at least, some idea of the textures I will be working with. I can do totally free improvisations too, but I see those as mainly exercises in the form rather than finished performances.

My point is that, for me, improvisation is a technique, not a style – a way of filling in the notes between the beginning of the piece and the end, the liquid that you pour into the shaped vase of a structure, one spot on the spectrum of a blank sheet of paper and a totally prescriptive score. The audience, for the most part, doesn’t want to know how you wrote out a fully-notated piece or what chordal or structural devices you used, they just want to enjoy some music. So why say “this is an improvised piece” unless perhaps you are making an excuse for it being substandard?

At the Midnight Llama concert in December we played a piece by Manchester composer Eric Craven. He couldn’t be there and we’ve only just managed to get a CD of the performance to him. The ‘score’ for the piece was just a set of notes, which we were allowed to play in any time we liked and allowed repetitions, variations etc – very non-prescriptive. At rehearsals we worked out our strategy for playing the piece, imposed our own structure and rules on the notes we had and decided on textures and ideas we wanted to include. We didn’t write down exactly what we were going to play, we improvised the notes and most of the rhythms and interactions. To the audience it looked like we were playing from a written score and, we hope it sounded like it too. When Eric received his recording he certainly thought so: “… the performance … is so controlled. It gives a distinct impression that the performers are playing from a more standard score”.

This is the impression we wish to give, not that we are fooling anyone into believing we are doing something we are not, but that we are just producing music, not “improvised music”.

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I am very pleased to announce that our new contemporary music band Midnight Llama is playing its first gig this Saturday in Colchester. We’ve all put a lot of work into this and are really looking forward to it.

It’s interesting to do it so close to the end of Huddersfield Festival, contrasting and comparing our style of not only music but presentation. I’m not saying we are totally unique … but there were things I was seeing at Huddersfield and thinking “we mustn’t do that” or “yes, I like that!”. We do want to put on a show, and not just turn up and stare at notes for an hour. I have no problem with ensembles that do that – provided they play really well – but I do like to have some stage presence. Karen will find this the easiest, she is also an actress, maybe I will find it the hardest. Although I play with rock bands I am still, basically, quite a shy person and don’t chat easily, even in closed company, never mind on stage!

We have, what I hope will be an interesting programme of acoustic, electric and mixed pieces some will be very loud and some will be very quiet. Karen has been working on some lovely percussion effects and Brigitte (a new recruit) will play clarinet, so we will have winds at this gig, despite what I said in my first blog post. I have two pieces at this gig, both have distortions and loud amplified passages in them but they are very different pieces and I hope they will go down well. The other pieces are by two composers I ‘know’ via twitter, Lauren Redhead and Caitlin Rowley, and Manchester-based composer & pianist Eric Craven.

In the afternoon before the gig, I am hosting a composers’ workshop on violin – mainly 5 string and electric instruments. Which means I’m taking ALL of my effects pedals and equipment with me, so that should be fun. I will be talking about, and demonstrating the effects of, my various pedals and their interactions, and will explain how The Quahog Stalker is put together. I want this to be an interactive, workshop though so I’m hoping people will ask lots of questions and ask me to try things too.

I want to thank Stuart Russell, whose idea all of this was and for having the belief in me and the Llamas. I hope we repay that belief, I think we will.

It’s at Slackspace in Colchester, The workshop is at 2pm and the gig starts at 7.30pm. The first half will have sets by Stuart Russell and Sam Grinsell. Come along… it’ll be great!

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Back in the halcyon days of the CoMA Yorkshire ensemble we would pretty much tackle anything music related. We did graphic scores, text scores, free improvisation, theatrical piece and even, in extreme circumstances, things written out as dots on 5 lines. We did audience participations, online concerts and audio/video collaborations and we had a great time.

That ensemble petered out to nothing when the number of members fell down to just three, and its wonderful conductor and inspiration Peter Moran went back to Ireland. As a CoMA ensemble it wasn’t viable to pay for rehearsal space, find another music director and do all the organising (which Peter mostly did, to be honest), so we reluctantly folded. We were never much of a typical CoMA offshoot anyway – we had been upbraided by head office for not toeing the CoMA line and not playing enough from the library. I think the last piece we played from the CoMA library was a piece I wrote that I submitted to the library after the performance 😉

CoMA Leeds has now started up which is more focussed on ‘standard’ CoMA type repertoire and it’s just not adventurous enough for me, or the other ‘old Yorkshire’ members. Another problem with CoMA ensembles (and this might sound really snotty, sorry) is that they are explicitly “all-comers” bands, so there is no minimum standard of musicianship. That’s an admirable thing in itself, of course, but I really want to be producing quality music as a first priority rather than being part of a community project.

So … we’re getting the band back together!

We call ourselves “Midnight Llama” (don’t ask), are independent of any organisation and we want to play interesting exciting and NEW music. We don’t do second performances of works already played by other people, though we will do repeat performances of things we premiered and liked – in exceptional circumstances. We want this to be a new and exciting group – we have acoustic and electric instruments, expertise in electronics and improvisation and some strong players, as well as a network of talented friends we can rope in to join us should they be needed.

The core members are the last 3 members of CoMA Yorkshire (Elaine, Karen, me) with the addition of Karen’s highly talented daughter, Amy. Amy is a stunningly good (far better than me – she has qualifications an’ everythin’ – if maybe rather less wild) violinist and also a very good pianist and composer in her own right.

So, we have strings, we have percussion, we have keyboards. We’re a little light on woodwind but, hey, who needs them anyway? We will be writing our own music for ourselves to play as well as free improvising but we are also very keen to play music we are sent by other composers. We can record (audio or video) it for you or you can invite us along to a concert or festival and we will play it there. We are all about the music – if it works, we’ll like it. and if it doesn’t we’ll probably tell you. You can chat to us about the music, ask questions and even get us to try out unfinished pieces you are working on.


Our website (warning .. it needs some work) is here – so feel free to contact us via me on this blog, or email or twitter.

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