Dec 18 2009

As One Adventure Ends.. So Another Begins…

Hello folks,

Well the last few months have indeed been an exciting time. As you’ll know from my last post, the National’s production of Mother Courage & Her Children has officially finished now. I must say it was a rather sad day when we played the last two performances. They were definitely the best shows of the run and the audiences were fantastic. There is all manner of talk regarding the possibility of touring the production next year and I shall of course let you know when anything becomes definite. I’m pretty sure that it won’t be the last we hear from Mother Courage.
Incidentally, there is a marvelous article on Fiona Shaw in todays Independent. Well worth a look if you have a spare five minutes. And don’t forget to order your copy of the Mother Courage album form the Duke Special Store. We’ve had some great feedback about the album. And an exciting development is afoot on the Duke’s website. Fans can now become more involved with the release of the new three-disc boxed set via Duke Special Pledges. This is a brand new way to get hold of the Duke’s music and gain access to exclusive demos, rough mixes and live tracks to videos, tour diaries and photographs from the road. And a percentage of the Pledge will be donated to DePaul Ireland. You can find more information on the Pledge Music website.
As one adventure ends… so another begins…
I have been interested in Indian classical music since I was a teenager and have always listened to classical artists such as Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and Vilayat Khan, as well as the more jazz-influenced artists such as Trilok Gurtu and John McLaughlin’s band Shakti. As Mother Courage came to a close, I was looking for a new project to occupy my (now considerable!) free time. So I decided to learn sitar!
A couple of weeks ago I ventured forth into Southall to the fantastic Jas Musicals where I met the lovely and very knowledgeable owner Harjit. I discovered that they hold classes (both individual and group lessons) in a space under the shop and then went about the tricky business of buying an instrument that I have no idea how to play!

Luckily Harjit was incredibly helpful and put me on the right track. I went for the slightly more expensive ‘Super Deluxe’ model (essentially a prettier version of the one below it seems) and booked my first lesson. I returned to the shop last week to meet my teacher Gush without a clue as to even sit with the instrument properly. It is amazing how much misinformation there is online regarding playing the sitar. I have found numerous websites giving me completely different accounts as to the tuning, sitting position and playing technique. I was also determined to learn properly from a teacher from the outset rather than form a host of bad habits from YouTube!
In my first lesson Gush showed me the proper half-lotus sitting position and how to tune the sitar properly with the aid of an electronic tanpura. Having demonstrated various playing techniques, we then moved on to the Indian solfege (the Sargam) and a series of exercises to get me used to playing up and down the neck. Just so you know (and partly to remind myself), the Swaras are as follows;
Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa.
These are the Shudha notes (ie; natural). And seeing as the Sitar is generally tuned to a C#, they translate to Western notation as follows;
C# D# E# F# G# A# B# C#
In Indian music notation, the Swaras are represented by the letter names rather than notes on a stave as in Western music. Flattened notes are known as Komal (only Re Ga Dha and Ni can be Komal) and Ma can be sharpened to Ma Thevar. Singing is integral to learning the music so learning the Swaras will be my main objective this week through the exercises I have been given.
I have already booked my next session with Gush for next week and have been practicing all week. In fact, I haven’t enjoyed practicing like this for such a long time it has already proved incredibly therapeutic. Gush also recommended listening to lots of different musicians which has given me a great excuse to walk around with my iPod for hours on end. Joy!
I’m intending to post fairly regularly here about my experiences as I learn to play the sitar. Both as a kind of online practice diary for myself but also for anyone who might be learning. I have discovered some useful websites (having sifted through all the dross) which may prove useful to anyone with an interest in either the sitar or Indian music in general;
Sharda has possibly the best beginners lessons and some useful Alankars for those interested in learning the sitar.
SitarsEtc has some good information as to some of the tuning alternatives (Ravi Shankar or Vilayat Khan style)
The University of California at Berkeley has a great Hindustani music resource page which I have used to download free tanpura loops to practice with (until I get an electronic tanpura). And let me tell you, practicing with a proper tanpura drone is a joy. I really recommend it if you are starting out.

And here are a few of the exercises I am currently working on…
S.ND, NDP, DPM, PMG, MGR, GRS (The dot after/above Sa denotes the higher octave)
Should keep me busy until next Tuesday. I’ll let you know how I get on. Until then…

Dec 2 2009

The Long-Awaited Mother Courage Post (Better late than never..)

Hello folks. Now, I realize that in my previous offering I promised a post regarding all things theatrical to follow soon and here we are nearly two and half months later. So sorry about that folks, but things have been rather hectic of late… I will try to keep it concise. Those of you who have been following my updates on Twitter will be well aware of all the day to day action. Incidentally, although the Duke himself has been tweeting (and how much do I despise using that word?!) for quite some time now, you can now follow Paul Pilot and Ben Castle to keep up with all the backstage news and shenanigans.

Tonight the Duke Special band will return to the National Theatre for our last short run of the marvelous Brecht play Mother Courage & Her Children. There are only seven performances left out of about 65, so I’m pretty sure we’ve got it down now… Although it was amazing how after nearly a month off I had lost all concept of the pacing of the show; lurking nervously backstage waiting for cues like a novice…

Anyway, back to the beginning. We started rehearsing this monster of a play back in mid-August, both at rehearsal studios and at the National. It wasn’t until quite late in the process that we were actually able to rehearse the music with the actors. Tony Kushner’s recent translation of the play had been put on once previously in New York with Meryl Streep as Mother Courage with the songs scored by Jeanine Tesori. Peter was asked to write a brand new score for this production after he met Fiona Shaw at an awards ceremony in Los Angeles.
During the rehearsal process the songs went through so many variations, cuts and key-changes as director Deborah Warner’s staging came into play. The Olivier Theatre (the largest of the three performance spaces at the National) is a vast space and the band were to be split between the stage itself and the two ‘ashtrays’ either side of the stage (two large raised podiums where we stationed ourselves permanently with percussion, keyboards and my main bass). It wasn’t until we joined the actors in one of the National’s huge rehearsal rooms that it became clear who could be on stage during each song and who would be positioned off stage in the ashtrays. Hence further re-orchestration! It was a fascinating process to go through and this continued right through into the technical rehearsals and even during the previews.
It was the long period of previews and tech rehearsal that proved the most arduous. We would arrive at the theatre in the morning for a full day of rehearsing onstage; refining the flow of the play and the scene changes, and then go on to perform the whole thing in preview each night. We spent the lion’s share of the tech rehearsal traipsing back and forth inside an enormous tent for scene two, which proved to be one of the more ambitious scene changes. At one point the entire band was meant to surreptitiously emerge on a lift inside the tent once it was in place and we must have spent at least two entire days going up and down and back and forth before it was decided that this was entirely impractical… Ah, how I will miss that tent!

The play had it’s official opening at the end of September after the previews were extended. Once we were up and running, Peter started a series of free gigs in the foyer every Friday and Saturday night after the performance. These proved a massive hit with packed audiences (often including cast and crew) treated to impromptu sets from the entire band, featuring both Duke Special songs and one-off covers that we’d cobble together during the day. A lot of these performances were captured on video and are sprawled all across YouTube if you are that way inclined. We also had the great fortune to be joined by some very special guests including Fiona Shaw, Paul Pilot, Foy Vance and the marvelous Foreign Slippers.
Being a part of this production has been a real adventure. Until now I had done very little work in the theatre and I’d certainly never done a long run like this before. It’s been a fascinating experience seeing the production come together from the beginning, and being involved so deeply in the rehearsal process was a real privilege. Just watching director Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw (Mother Courage) work was an education in itself.
This was my first proper encounter with in-ear monitoring. As we were playing in various positions around the stage, all of us were using IEMs and most of our instruments were equipped with wireless systems so we were free to move about with the action. The wireless pickup on my stunt bass (ie; the one I parade around the stage with) was brilliant; I’ve worked a few little bass spins into the action over the last week as a tribute to the joy they bring! The IEMs took a lot of getting used to for me. I seemed to have the most trouble with wireless reception up in the ashtray (It reminded me of my old T-Mobile days!), but it was fantastic for vocals with my little Madonna mic strapped to my face.
At the beginning of the long run in October Peter and Paul began working on the Mother Courage album. This proved a rather exhausting project for the boys as they squeezed every last spare minute out of their busy schedule between shows to dash to the studio. The finished article finally arrived last week and the results are beautiful. If you don’t have your copy yet, you can pick one up at the Theatre or order it online at the Duke Special Store. The songs have been given the full Duke treatment for the album with some excellent additional string and brass arrangements from Ben Castle. We’re all very proud of the results. The Mother Courage and Her Children album is also available as part of the Duke’s The Stage, A Book & The Silver Screen boxed set, which also features The Silent World of Hector Mann and the Huckleberry Finn EP. In fact, I’d recommend you all go forth and buy this instantly; it really is quite fantastic…
So what have I learnt from this experience you may well ask? Well, I now know that I am not a big fan of tents and will probably not be going on a camping holiday anytime in the near future. I have discovered that I am not very good with ladders (I have virtually knee-capped myself at least a dozen times and had a big bruise on my right calf for at least half the run; it’s amazing how you don’t think about these things until you need to go up and down in a hurry). I have also come to the conclusion that in-ear monitors are not really my bag. I miss the trouser-flapping presence of a big bass amp behind me. And the length of the run and the number of shows was perfect for me. It was long enough to really get into the production and really feel part of the team at the National, but not too long as to take over my life. I’m not sure how I would fare in a long-running West end show…
So there’s still seven shows left starting tonight if you haven’t seen the show yet. I’d get booking your tickets straight away if I were you; I think it is virtually sold out. As it should be.
It just remains for me to give a big thanks to Peter for involving me in this amazing project and thank everybody at the National Theatre; the staff, cast and crew for all their help over the past few months and for making this whole experience a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable one. The National really is a marvelous institution. Here’s hoping they invite us back sometime in the future!
Until next time…

Sep 20 2009

The Duke, The Duckworths and Mother Courage…

Oh deary me I really have been entirely slack in posting on the blog of late. I do apologize dear readers…

I must say though that this is not due to laziness (this time), as recently I really have not had a spare minute to sit down and write to you all. As those of you who follow my deluge of updates on Twitter will know I have spent the last month firmly ensconced in the depths of the National Theatre rehearsing and previewing their production of Mother Courage & Her Children with the marvelous Duke Special and his band. Peter has written some beautiful music to accompany the songs in Tony Kushner translation. In fact, we will be recording these songs fairly soon. The Duke newsletter is estimating a release date of around November 20th so keep your eyes peeled.

I have managed to shoehorn in a few other little excursions into the real world during this period. The Duckworth Lewis Method played it’s last show at Electric Picnic on 4th September. I am (not so) secretly hoping that the band will at some point in the future be resurrected for a little tour, but at the moment the official line is that it won’t. I will of course let you know the instant that this changes.. Electric Picnic is a fantastic boutique festival about two hours out from Dublin and they had such a great lineup including The Flaming Lips, Bat For Lashes, Brian Wilson, Zero 7 and Madness. As is often the case with these festival scenarios, I didn’t get to catch any of them (apart from a bit of Zero 7 and Villagers). We played the Crawdaddy stage and the tent was rammed by the time we went on. We had a great show and it was great to see Neil, Thomas and Tosh again. Hopefully we’ll do something together again soon.
In the meantime, you’ll be pleased to know that Neil has gone back to work on the new Divine Comedy album and Thomas’ band Pugwash are releasing a UK compilation of their first three album (previously only available in Ireland I believe) TOMORROW!! It’s called Giddy- A Ride Inside The Wonderful World of Pugwash and is out on Ape Records. I really can’t recommend Pugwash highly enough folks. I have all their albums and Jollity and Eleven Modern Antiquities are always on heavy rotation here at Little Towers. Go forth people.
On another note, I noticed that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are also releasing an album tomorrow. It’s called White Lunar and is a compilation of their collaborative music written for films and documentaries. I mention this because it looks like it features some of the music I played on for the documentary film The English Surgeon a few years ago. I really hope so anyway, that would be incredibly cool and certainly wouldn’t look bad on the discography. My fingers are, as you can imagine, very much crossed right now. Also, I’m reading Nick Cave’s new book The Death of Bunny Monroe at the moment (as is Mr Special it seems!) and keep looking longingly at the audiobook version read by the Cave himself (with music by Cave & Ellis). Might have to splash out a second time…
Aside from the rigors of rehearsing Mother Courage, the Duke Special band had a mad weekend of four shows at the end of August. We played the Liverpool Academy on the 28th, then it was Dukebox in Belfast on the Saturday. We then came back over the water to play the marvelous Greenbelt festival followed by a show at London’s ULU on the 31st. A hectic weekend indeed, and a real feat for Peter to put on four shows and curate Dukebox at Belsonic amidst all the work involved in the Mother Courage production.
We reunited the seven piece band for the four dates. The highlight for me was definitely Dukebox (There’s a nice write-up on the BBC’s ATL blog here). The show was brilliant and it’s always such a joy to play with Peter in front of his home crowd. It was also a rare opportunity to watch some of the other artists performing during the day. I loved seeing The Magic Numbers and Dan Michaelson & The Coastguards again. Also really enjoyed seeing David Kitt for the first time.
We had a really good experience at Greenbelt too. It turned out to be quite a welcome rest (!) as we were there all day and staying overnight so no rushing off to contend with. We all had a few friends to catch up with at the festival too so it turned out to be a really lovely day. I’ve never played Greenbelt before but I know Peter has been playing there for years. It’s on the same site on the Cheltenham racecourse as the Wychwood festival. We were headlining the Sunday night and got a great response. I’m really hoping to play there again next year.

Regular readers will remember my mentioning the gig with the lovely Kate Eden in my last post. I did mean to post again to remind you all, but have obviously failed to do so as the gig was on Friday. Big thanks to all of you who made it down the the Bull’s Head in Barnes. We had a really packed crowd and a great time was had by all. We’re already looking at putting on another show there sometime in the next couple of months so do watch this space for news. Also, Kate’s MySpace page is finally up and running so you can all scoot over there and befriend her. You can hear some tracks from the EP we recorded earlier this year and see some great photos from the Jersey shows we played in June.

Anyway. I’m acutely aware that this post is starting to drag on a little and I’m probably losing your attention by now. And I’ve barely scraped the surface with Mother Courage, which let’s face it, is gonna be my life for the next few months. If you aren’t following me on Twitter, then frankly you are missing out. I’m using Twitter to keep the bloggery ball rolling in some fashion. Expect another post in the near future concerning all things theatrical…

Until then x