Thursday 25 February 2021, 7.45pm
London 26 and 28 March 2020: imitation: inversion
by Caroline Kraabel
This film started as 40 minutes of shots of London during the first UK Covid 19 Lockdown (the strict phase of which began on 23 March 2020). These were taken on my phone during permitted exercise (cycling), just so my children would later have a record of the unfamiliar stillness, the emptiness of their city at a time we will now, inevitably, have ingrained in our memories for its sudden difference, and for the surfacing of fear, grief, and love it brought about.
I kept coming back to these shots of quiet streets: who was missing, who was still there, what was revealed when the tide of sound and activity went out?
As a musician, I undertook to make sense of these shots by playing their sounds, and their absence of sounds.
The shots from 26 March are “imitated”. On the alto saxophone I have recreated and recorded as many as possible of the original sounds from the (poor-quality) audio on my phone-shots, and thus replaced the original audio.
The shots from 28 March replace the original audio, too, but are “inverted”. I wanted to make a soundtrack that was in some definable way the OPPOSITE of the actual sounds recorded on my phone.
First, I divided the original audio into six “strips”, covering six separate frequency ranges, from low to high. Then, I recorded six “strips” of sax and bass chords, again from low to high, and matched the highest sax/bass strip with the lowest original strip, the second highest with the second lowest, the third highest with the third lowest.
I used the dynamics of the original “strips” to control the sound on the corresponding sax and bass strips, ducking out the chords where there was a sound on the original, and leaving the chords present when there was no sound on the original. Then I muted the original audio tracks for all but a few dramatic seconds of the “inversion” section.
This means that the chordal music you hear now in this section is loud where the original sound was quiet (which is most of the time), and high where the original sound was low: a sort of hollow mould, or impression, of the original.
Very many of the same sorts of sound occurred on the original audio in both parts of the film; I think this is still evident, perhaps even emphasised, in the very different results produced by these two approaches.
Made possible in part by support from UNCOOL, Poschiavo and Arts Council England; many thanks to both organisations.
LIVE TRIO PERFORMANCE
Maggie Nicols / voice
John Edwards / double bass
Caroline Kraabel / saxophones
Lockdown and distancing necessarily have made the intimate social bliss of live music impossible, as musicians everywhere have taken on the responsibility of NOT performing live, NOT getting together to play, while trying to find some way of continuing to communicate and, if possible, survive. Negative capability. Maybe improvisers are uniquely well placed to explore this, and maybe it's particularly painful for musicians who make improvisation their lives.
John Edwards discovered the London improvised music scene in the 1980s, playing some of his first gigs with Roger Turner and Maggie Nichols. He was one of two bassists in Kevin Martin’s heavy industrial juggernaut God, and became a mainstay in groups with Lol Coxhill, Evan Parker, Harry Beckett, John Butcher, Roscoe Mitchell, Charles Gayle, John Tchicai, Joe McPhee and many more. His solo album Volume came out in 2008; one of his recent projects is a trio with Mark Sanders and electronic musician John Wall.
Kraabel was born in the US and moved to the UK at the end of the punk era. She played a part in the creation of pioneering London sound art radio station Resonance 104.4 FM, and makes pieces for massed voices and saxophones. In the 2000s she began performing for radio with her saxophone and infant children, walking around (mostly) London. She conducts and plays with the London Improvisers Orchestra, and made the series Why Is Improvising Important? for Resonance FM. She has worked with Robert Wyatt, Maggie Nicols, Cleveland Watkiss, Louis Moholo, Charlotte Hug, Susan Alcorn and Hyelim Kim, among many other excellent improvisers.
Edwards and Kraabel have used the enforced break to improvise at home, with Edwards recording the solo album Just Another Day At Home, Kraabel's C19 responses Breath Clock and Unsung, and the rare duo recordings Day Night for Café Oto’s Takuroku label. They have also worked on Kraabel’s film, London 26 and 28 March 2020: imitation: inversion.
Maggie Nicols is one of the guiding spirits of UK improvised music, a huge influence on the other two players here, with whom she has been improvising for many years. Her extraordinary vocal skill, her openness, courage and inventiveness as an improviser, and her awareness that everything is improvisation, have inspired countless musicians, students and friends.
Caroline Kraabel came to London from Seattle as a teenager, just too late to realise her punk dreams and instead discovering the saxophone, street performance and busking. There were ideas about freedom in the air, including the punk ideal of music as something anyone could do, which led to music in which one could, with application and inspiration, do anything: improvisation. London’s vibrant improvised music scene and its many great musicians gave Kraabel opportunities to explore extended techniques (especially the use of voice with the sax) and to spend time thinking about acoustics and the interactions of electricity and music: reproduction, synthesis, and their implications.
Caroline Kraabel is committed to improvisation as a way of living and working, making music in unexpected ways and places (Taking a Life for a Walk; Going Outside) but also composing and playing written music (Mass Producers and Saxophone Experiments in Space for large groups, and many pieces for smaller groups). She has worked with Anri Sala, Maggie Nicols, Andrea Zarza Canova, Evan Parker, Annie Lewandowski, John Tchicai, Cleveland Watkiss and Susan Alcorn, among many fine artists, and was a director of the London Musicians Collective, which created Resonance 104.4fm, London’s art radio station.
Caroline Kraabel has been playing with and conducting the London Improvisers Orchestra for many years, exploring improvisation and conducted improvisation for large groups (up to 50 musicians).
John Edwards is a true virtuoso whose staggering range of techniques and boundless musical imagination have redefined the possibility of the double bass and dramatically expanded its role, whether playing solo or with others. Perpetually in demand, he has played with Evan Parker, Sunny Murray, Derek Bailey, Joe McPhee, Lol Coxhill, Peter Brötzmann, Mulatu Astatke and many others.
"I think John Edwards is absolutely remarkable: there’s never been anything like him before, anywhere in jazz." - Richard Williams, The Blue Moment
Maggie Nicols joined London's legendary Spontaneous Music Ensemble in 1968 as a free improvisation vocalist. She then became active running voice workshops with an involvement in local experimental theatre. She later joined the group Centipede, led by Keith and Julie Tippets and in 1977, with musician/composer Lindsay Cooper, formed the remarkable Feminist Improvising Group. She continues performing and recording challenging and beautiful work, in music and theatre, either in collaborations with a range of artists (Irene Schweitzer, Joelle Leandre, Ken Hyder, Caroline Kraabel) as well as solo.