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Raven Burrows: An Old School Happening

5 Dec

RAVEN BURROWS Banner Image (first version)

The artists’ studios where I have my office, Primary, recently staged its annual Open event, and it so happened that our turn to deliver another part of the ongoing programme in the building coincided with it. Early in 2013, a series of public events titled Old School Breaks was launched, pairing the 30 or so artists who work here into fifteen randomly selected partnerships, each to create some kind of collaborative event on whatever terms seemed to work best in one of fifteen randomly allocated months. Some gave talks, others collaborated over a whole month then showed the work they’d made at the end, others delivered a performance or small exhibition and discussion. As I’d been teamed up with the performance artist and pug painter Simon Raven, we decided to create an immersive environment inside the semi-derelict Blue Building (a disused modern school block) and then explore it over five hours, spread across the three nights of the Open Studios event. With no budget and not much time, the fact that we’re both, if nothing else, hoarders of vaguely interesting things – slide projectors, masks, 78rpm records, BBC radiophonic LPs, a toy Tardis, perspex mirrors – meant we managed to suspend fabrics, build a hidden Ubu room, set up projectors and light sources, installed record players, negatives, light-boxes and detuned radio sets…then waited till it got dark and opened the doors.

On the first night, a big crowd arrived at the start and watched our inhabiting of the space as if it were a performance, which slightly missed the purpose of the exercise, which had always been more intent on generating an atmosphere to be explored rather than a spectacle to be watched: fortunately, once that initial crush subsided, the smaller groups of three or six tended to enter the space as required, watching us for a bit, then making their own way around all the nooks and crannies of the building: a small installation of modified record sleeves under the stairs, labelled ART GALLERY: MIND YOUR HEAD. The Ubu room, with a seven foot figure of Alfred Jarry’s anti-hero staring down at whoever entered like a gigantic crowned bird surrounded by dunce’s caps (and with one or two photocopies of Alan Dixon’s woodcuts on a nearby shelf). The old toilets, with a laptop playing a loop of rehearsal footage from a choral collaboration with composer Hilary Nicholls called ‘Breath‘ while candles flickered on a cistern. Simon’s film of himself as a grotesque blue grub, The Bookworm, crawling through London towards a library. But most of the activity was in one particular space, where it seemed, over the three nights, we moved from ghosts, haunting the space under sheets, to something like Batman villains’ henchmen in face masks, to just doing strange and (hopefully) visually interesting things with mirrors, light and the room we were in.

Was it a performance? Yes and no. With its ambition to be immersive, to generate an atmosphere rather than a meaning or narrative, it was probably closer to the old 1960s arts lab style of improvised happening than anything more formally categorisable, and perhaps the mostly analogue tools reinforced that link. Either way, it was an interesting experiment and certainly produced a result that neither of us would have come up with individually, and I suppose that’s most of the point of the Old School Breaks series (next up in the Primary Old School Breaks series, incidentally, are Frank Abbott and Lauren O’Grady – there’s more information on their collaboration here).

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Breath Variations (Britten in Oxford, November 2013)

10 Nov

On the 9th November, Britten in Oxford, in association with the John Armitage Memorial Trust, staged a Festival of Choirs at the University Church of St Mary on the High Street, to premiere six works made as part of the Writing for Voices project. Six writers were teamed with six composers and each allocated a choir, then tasked with producing a five minute choral piece. Nine months on from the starting point the completed settings were performed and recorded, with the project set to feature on Radio 3’s The Choir to be broadcast on December 8th. Ahead of that, the text for the piece I worked on with York-based composer Hilary Nicholls is given here, alongside the programme note putting the bare lyric into a bit of context. The finished work was sung by the Schola Cantorum of Oxford last weekend.

Britten_in_Oxford_Concert

Programme Note:

Our starting point for Breath was a fragment of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Eighth Elegy, from The Duino Elegies, which Hilary had already begun to set before the project began: “Immer ist es Welt/Niemals Nirgends ohne Nicht” (“Always world/ Never Nothing without No”). Taking Rilke’s line as an oblique starting point, its sound and the negative affirmation of its meaning, Wayne created a series of fragmentary texts which celebrated breath as the essential physical element of the voice and as a force both inside the body and in the world beyond it. The mystical abstraction of Rilke’s affirmation is returned to flesh and desire through a series of images built around ripening and growth. Hilary’s setting employs elements of the Messaien and diatonic modes and is primarily polyphonic, with significant solo elements.  Four part writing at the beginning broadens to eight parts at the conclusion. The whole uses breath as both its subject and material.

[Hilary Nicholls & Wayne Burrows, October 2013]

Breath Variations

“Immer ist es Welt/Niemals Nirgends ohne Nicht”

Rilke: Duino Elegies – Eighth Elegy (c.1922)

(i)

Hear this – our breath

(ii)

we speak blown leaves
alveoli swell with air

Hear this – our breath

(iii)

no sound not ours
no flow inside

our skins not us

no voice of ours
not raised

Hear this – our breath

(iv)

These notes shift
where buds grow
on green vines

words drop
in clear space
as fruit falls

Hear this – our breath

(v)

Our throats fill
with blown leaves

a wind shakes
lungs                  trees

Hear this – our breath

(vi)

our flesh                       warm breath
these lungs                     grow leaves

words rise                      clear space
shall float                     through us

words breathe                 on skin
desire                          new growth

Hear this – our breath

(vii)

Hear this – our breath

as breath falls             still

Britten in Oxford (BB Portrait)