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Behind the Skin: a year of music and movement

Exercise #1: To move from one end of a room to the other, shedding our skin as we go. I lower myself to a crouching position, feeling the cool wooden floor beneath my fingertips. My breathing is anxious. I feel myself pulled flat and begin to crawl slowly forward, each limb taut as cheese wire. I pause frequently and place my pulsing forehead on the floor. My entire body feels compressed, sore. I stretch one arm out in front of me and one leg behind me. This offers some relief. The other arm is stretched out in front of me now and I’m dragging myself forward by my fingertips. The sensation is what I imagine pulling myself through quicksand might be like. I become vaguely aware of tears and snot pouring down my face. I’m perhaps a quarter of the way across the room when I turn, painfully, onto my back. I spread out each limb and gaze upwards. My breathing is steady and calm. Days later I’ll remember when, as an undergraduate music student, I studied the score for Arvo Pärt’s De Profundis.

de profundis

My earliest experience of working with dancers and dance choreographers was in 2009 when I was offered the chance to compose original music for a project by Claire Penҫak, titledLisbon Diaries. The project was extremely ambitious in its scope in that it contained over forty different sections. Working alongside another composer (Louise Rossiter), we produced a considerable body of music in a relatively short space of time. I was immediately attracted to Claire’s methodology – a highly improvisational practice in which, at the most creatively intuitive moments, it became unclear who was responding to whom – dancer or musician. In hindsight, I realise what a fortuitous introduction this was for me and what a rare and wonderful occurrence this kind of instinctual relationship between dancers and musicians is.

Some months later, I had the brass neck to create my own work for a solo male dancer. Reproductions, which was to feature in my final PhD portfolio, was inspired by Rene Magritte’s painting, La reproduction interdite, which depicts a man regarding his rear-facing profile in a mirror. After putting out a call for a male dancer, I met with Jack Webb whose twitchy, seemingly anguished contortions were exactly what I was looking for. The aesthetic for the work was one of glitch – from Jack’s convulsive movements, the corrupted audio data files that provided Reproduction’s musical basis, to the heavily-pixelated video projection (compiled from experimental sessions recorded from Skype communications with Jack). Reproductions was featured as part of Dance Live festival in 2010.

Following the performance of Reproductions, I was contacted by dancer and choreographer, Thania Acarón, who was looking for someone to create video accompaniment for her project,IN-FILLED-HER. Thania and I quickly developed an instinctual working relationship and it was clear from the start that we were ‘on the same page’ creatively. We continued to collaborate on the development of IN-FILLED-HER and would work together again on several other projects.


Exercise #2: To focus on a part of our bodies that we rarely think of. I cheat a bit for this one. I focus on the small of my back which has given me trouble for over a year now. I remember an exercise a physiotherapist gave me that involved standing against a wall and tightening my stomach muscles and flattening my back against the surface. I explore that exercise again, but this time keep pressing backwards with the conviction that the wall will bend and breathe with my pressure. I shift the pressure upwards, in a kind of rolling gesture, to my upper back, shoulders and neck. When I feel like the stone wall has become malleable enough, I twist to the right and press my temple and jaw into it then repeat the same motion on the left side.


Uterine Symphony and 2-1-2

Uterine Symphony was a collaborative project that arose from a series of experimental movement, sound and visual art workshops, titled Fast+Dirty, and led by Ian Spink and Bill Thompson. During the course of those workshops, held in November of 2013, dancers Rob Heaslip and Aaron Jeffrey, musician Simon Gall and I explored concepts of vibration (aural, visual, physical) and sensory deprivation. We felt that by the end of those workshops we had created the germ of something exciting and worthy of developing much further.

In May, we reunited for a week-long residency in Aberdeen and revisited some of our original experiments. I was particularly interested in the idea of aural and visual displacement – an example: video of Rob singing an Irish folk song and being accompanied by Simon on piano is projected onto a wall. The audio of this footage is muted and accompanied instead by a completely different soundtrack, entirely unrelated to the projected visuals. Meanwhile, Aaron would stand flush with the wall and move in response to the movement of the video and soundtrack.

We were also keen to explore various methods of audience participation. During an informal showing of the work that we had developed throughout the residency we distributed headphones to the audience and invited them to download a previously-composed piece of music and walk freely around the performance space, listening to it. Throughout this, Rob responded in a series of contorted movements to music being played through loudspeakers within the space. Again, we were working with the notion of displacement, but with this particular section, there was also a sense of experiencing privacy – perhaps even isolation – despite being within a group of people.


In many ways, the residency served as a continuation of our initial Fast+Dirty experiments rather than the full realisation of a work. There is still much to be explored. As a collaborative project, Uterine Symphony was, and is, particularly appealing to me as it does not give any particular preference or focus to dance, music or visual art, or to the practitioners within our group specialising in those areas. It is very much about a free expression and exchange of ideas with a view to producing something challenging and compelling.

Following this residency, I was contacted by Rob and asked to compose new music for a work that he was currently developing, titled 2-1-2. In comparison to Uterine Symphony, the process for this project was considerably more intense. With only three days to write 20 minutes of music for a dance work that was completely new to me, the sense of urgency was oddly appealing – I think this is also due, in part, to the form and tempo of the physical movement that Rob was choreographing.

2-1-2 is a dance trio (performed by Joanne Pirrie, Fiona Jeffries and Laura Murphy) and was performed at Merchant Square in Glasgow on the last day of the Commonwealth Games. One of the most surreal experiences of 2014 for me was performing an extremely abstract work not only on the same bill, but immediately after a crowd-pleasing dance-a-long with “Clyde” the Commonwealth Games’ mascot.

Exercise #3: To become acutely aware and interact with the space around us. In a crouching position, my outstretched hand begins to trace the shape of a silver fire extinguisher mounted to a wall a few metres away from me. At the same time, and without looking, I try to recall the window and window frame directly behind me and trace those dimensions on the floor with the forefinger of my right hand. I do this successfully for a time but the motion of my right hand begins to lose momentum. I rise to my feet and slowly gravitate towards the fire extinguisher, continuing to outline its shape in mid-air. As I move, I become aware of a cream-painted old-style radiator in my right peripheral vision. My right hand becomes a loose fist and I synchronise the divisions of my fingers with the ridges of the radiator. Eventually, I am stood in the centre between these two objects and balance both steadily and comfortably.


Ellie and The Visit

I had been interested in the concept of “dance film” since I first edited the footage gathered from the performance of Reproductions. That experience had revealed to me the power that an editor has: to be able to show, with great precision, exactly what he/she wants the audience to see, including the desired angle and duration of focus.

In 2014, I was given the opportunity to compose music for two dance films created by Elementz Community Dance Company and filmmaker, Paul Foy. The first was Ellie. I had come on board after the choreography had been completed and all the material had been filmed. The short film focused on the titular Ellie – who I didn’t meet until after the screening. The unedited footage that I was initially sent presented a solo female dancer in a space, empty other than the coloured lights which were projected with great precision, indicating some, as yet, unclear significance.

With each new draft that Paul sent, I began to form my own interpretation of the film and regarded the coloured lights as seasons which held certain memories for Ellie. Certain moments suggested warmth and comfort, others seemed to be conveying a yearning, homesickness perhaps? The final score was very much a response to the surface visual elements of the film: minimal, abstract, ambient. I was also careful in my attempts not to give the film too much of an emotive soundtrack in hopes that it would remain as open to interpretation as it had been for me.

The Visit was a very different project. I was enlisted before any filming had taken place. I joined Mhairi Allan and Alison Peddie from Elementz and Paul Foy on a tour of Toulquhon Castle near Ellon which would serve as the location and a kind of secondary character in the film. In contrast to Ellie, The Visit was very much a narrative-based work: a young female tourist visits the castle, wandering through its corridors, seemingly unaware of the “ghosts” that reside within the space.

The final draft of the film opens with the tourist’s arrival at the castle. Her journey through its walls is intercut with dance sections performed by the “ghosts”. I decided to give the music a slightly baroque feel, with instrumentation of harpsichord and strings and, sometimes, a very stately rhythm.

Exercise #4: To move as if holding a sheet of tissue paper between both palms. At first, I focus on the closeness between my hands, trying to avoid making contact. I walk, unsteadily, forwards, right hand above the left then gently twisting until the left is above the right. I very carefully allow my left hand to fall to my side and walk, as if on a tightrope. At some point I forget about the sheet of tissue paper and realise that I’m imagining an unborn child is curled in my outstretched right palm.


Temporary Blindness

At a gig I did in late 2013, I was introduced to a dancer/choreographer who had enjoyed my performance and was keen to discuss the possibility of collaborating on a project she was developing. Gabriela Sanchez is a Chilean dancer and choreographer currently based in Edinburgh. After many Skype communications, exchanges of ideas (often very abstract in nature), we secured a week-long residency in Aberdeen during November through Citymoves Dance Agency.

Our collaboration was an extremely interesting process in that we barely spoke during the residency – due, I believe, only in a small part to Gabriela’s limited English. Much of what we produced was based on instinct and reaction to each other’s output. The majority of the final performance involved Gabriela’s interaction with eight different jackets: trying each one on and responding as if they were new skins – some made her itchy, some made her act in a clown-like way, some she battled with like they were feral animals, one or two seemed to offer her comfort, while others were simply rejected.

Towards the end of the piece that had been developed, she tied one sleeve of a jacket to another until they formed one big chain (a bit like those paper accordion-type things you make when you’re a kid). These linked jackets were thrown around, whipped violently against the ground and swirled Sufi-style until they enveloped her like a snake and she collapsed in a heap.

In addition to the general absence of verbal communication, the only light we allowed ourselves was a desk lamp. Imagine five days of grey Aberdeen light and looking forward to 3.30pm when, each day, the natural light would die away and your focus could be drawn entirely to the violent shapes being intermittently illuminated! I often got the impression that Gabriela was responding to the grey oppressiveness of this unfamiliar city – (at one point I was playing layer upon layer of low industrial-sounding drones while she plodded heavily across the space wearing all eight jackets).

Musically, there was a certain degree of improvisation – no two performances were ever identical – this was particularly the case during Gabriela’s initial explorations and interactions with the jackets. For certain sections, the requirement to musically adapt was relatively straightforward, particularly where the music was more drone-based. The more energetic sections, however, which were accompanied with electronic, beat-driven music, required a much greater deal of precision in terms of responding to physical cues and changes in tempo.

Exercise #5: A variation of the first exercise: to walk from one end of the room to the other, shedding what needs to be shed behind us and imagining a cord stretching out from our chests pulling us forwards. There are eight of us, moving at our own pace, but, more or less, in line with each other. Around halfway across the room, I become aware of someone to my right sniffing, to my left a man is wiping his eyes. I realise that tears are pouring down my face and that these tears are clear water and not the polluted tears of the first exercise. The person to my right is sobbing and has stopped walking. For a moment I’m filled with an urge to take her hand and encourage her to continue (that I chose not to bothers me for a day or two afterwards until I eventually realise that this was, of course, the correct decision). We all, but one, reach the other end of the room and are invited to turn, face the distance we’ve covered, contemplate what we’ve shed, and bow to it. What follows is whatever movement comes out of us.


The Witching Hour and Orphaned Limbs Collective

My biggest undertaking of 2014 was The Witching Hour – a work I had formed the original concept for in the summer of 2013. After receiving funding from the Made in Aberdeen Prize, I contacted my friend, Thania Acarón, a dancer and choreographer with whom I had collaborated several times in the past, and invited her to help me make the The Witching Hour a fully-formed piece.

The work is inspired by the folklore and dark history surrounding Aokigahara – a dense forest located at the base of Japan’s Mount Fuji. Aokigahara – also known as Jukai (“The Sea of Trees”) is the world’s most ‘popular’ destination for suicides – second to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The forest has a long association with yūrei – tormented spirits, said to have died in violent circumstances (e.g. murder or suicide) and who appear during ushimitsudoki (the Japanese ‘Witching Hour’ (2-3am)). Aokigahara forest is regularly patrolled by wardens whose purpose is to prevent suicides and to report those that they find. Very often, what the wardens find on their patrols are ribbons tied to branches, apparently breadcrumb-like trails for the undecided, as well as remnants of the people who made Aokigahara their final destination: photographs, letters, clothing, etc.

The Witching Hour first began to take shape in May of 2014 over the course of two residencies (one at Woodend Barn, Banchory, and the other at Rosemount Community Centre in Aberdeen, in conjunction with Citymoves Dance Agency. Thania and I worked together intensively over this period on establishing an hour-long work with local amateur dancer, Richard White. The original narrative I had in mind was relatively simple: a man arrives at a clearing in the Aokagahara woods at 2am. He reflects on his life as he prepares for suicide. At various points he is visited by a yūrei – both tormented and tormenting – who interrupts his train of thought. The man and yūrei form a relationship-of-sorts, but the precise nature of that relationship is always unclear. The man regards the yūrei with both horror and reverence. The yūrei regards the man as both pitiful and as prey. Finally, the yūrei absorbs the man in a killing embrace. Whether the yūrei is a true presence or a manifestation of the man’s suicidal resolve should remain unclear.

The Witching Hour had its debut performance at Woodend Barn, Banchory on the 26th June 2014. As well as choreographer, Thania took on the role of yūrei, while Richard portrayed the man. I was also extremely fortunate to have the input of poet John Mackie who kindly composed the poem The Ribbon and the Limb specifically for the work. A recording of his reading was incorporated into the soundtrack and served as a kind of overture to the proceedings.


Following this performance, we were commissioned by Robert Gordon University in association with Dance Live Festival to develop The Witching Hour as a site-specific piece to be performed in their new Riverside East Building. Reimagining and setting a large-scale work in a space occupied by hundreds of students and staff was extremely challenging. However, the notion of having the work’s process being public rather than what would usually occur (i.e. a private residency in a dance studio with only the artists present) was quite appealing. Thania, Richard and I spent two weeks at the Riverside East Building and eventually established the piece as an interactive performance in which the audience would be guided by “wardens” through three different areas of the building.


(Photo by Colin Thom)

Two sell-out performances were held on the 16th October. Once the dust had settled slightly, Thania and I decided that The Witching Hour was a work that deserved to be toured and that the site-specific and promenade-style elements were essential. Leading up to the festive period, we spent many hours filling out funding applications in the hope that we will be able to tour The Witching Hour nationally throughout 2015.

We also decided that, with two established works and a number of smaller collaborative projects under our belts, it was time to form our own company: the Orphaned Limbs Collective. The decision was an exciting one and, personally, a fitting end to a year which had involved so many exciting music and movement collaborations.

Exercise #6: We sit in a circle, in the dark, imagining energy rising up from the earth, travelling up through our spines and into our mouths. I breathe out.

[“Exercise” descriptions refer to a Butoh workshop I attended on the 21st December 2014 in Glasgow that was led by Paul Michael Henry.]

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