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Magnetic North Blog

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Taking A Walk

At the beginning of June 2013, Ian Cameron, Tristan Surtees, Charles Blanc and I sat down in a room in Edinburgh overlooking the East Coast mainline and a rather rundown velodrome to start work on a new piece that had nothing but a title. By the end of the month, we were giving the first performance of A Walk at the Edge of the World at Mull Theatre.

A little over a year later, we’re back at Mull Theatre with a revised version of the production – part of a tour that will take the company around Scotland between now and the middle of September, including three weeks at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art as part of the Edinburgh Festival fringe.

A Walk…, like a lot of the work Magnetic North makes, began as an idea that nagged away for a while. In 2001, I read W.G.Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn and it cast a strange spell on me. I’m not alone in this: many others have been similarly in thrall to it in a way that reminds me of the way people bond over cult films or bands – “You’ve read it too? But I didn’t think anyone else knew about it.” And, like an obscure 1960s Italian movie, The Rings of Saturn is also heartily disliked by those who find it dull and pointless. What entranced me about the book – and what I suspect the Sebald-haters find so irritating - was its intangibility. What is it really about? Is it true? Is the narrator Sebald himself? Did he really go on this walk? What do the pictures mean? To me, it captured the tangential nature of thinking that walking provokes, and wove together seemingly unconnected events and memories into a web of narrative that left any conclusions up to the reader. It alluded to the holocaust - one of the trickiest subjects for fiction to approach – but by stealth. Every reader of the book has their own take on it – Will Self gave a talk about it at the Edinburgh Book Festival three years ago in which he suggested that its central theme is the environment. To me, the most fascinating aspects of it were the use of black and white images as a counterpoint to the text, and what I saw as its central concern with the fragility of memory.

Over the twelve years that elapsed between reading the book and making A Walk at the Edge of the World, I thought a lot about walking and how it might be used as a starting point for a new project. I read many books about walking, I listened to music inspired by walking, I read poems inspired by walking and absorbed more ideas than I can remember. At Rough Mix in 2012, I made a first attempt at doing something with the ideas: I used some of the elements of the final piece – projected images, memory, direct address – but in a very different way, creating a movement piece with four performers speaking fragments of stories culled from the description of different walks. I tried to use Schubert’s Winterreise as a soundtrack, but, as Ian Spink succinctly observed after the session where I tried it out, ‘Schubert’s always going to win.’ In other words, Schubert’s romantic minimalism needed nothing more added to it and would overwhelm anything that was put near it. One lesson learned.

the performer and director Ian Cameron came to see the Rough Mix showing and told me afterwards that he had a copy of The Rings of Saturn. Later, we met to talk about the project and I asked him if he'd like to work on it with me. Although I wasn’t intending to adapt the book - like Schubert, Sebald needs nothing added – it acted as a sort of touchstone for the mood of the piece. I developed a framework to construct a narrative around that shared the central image of The Rings of Saturn – a coastal walk – but be a new piece of work. The framework was that of an illustrated talk, the audience going for a walk together, and the idea of a man who doesn’t realise that the long walks he has dedicated his life to are a means of trying to get away from something in his past that he doesn’t understand.

I asked Tristan Surtees and Charles Blanc – the environmental artists Sans façon with whom I had worked on Walden in 2008 and 2009 – if they would join me and Ian in working on it, and they said yes. So it was that the four of us came together in the strange surroundings of St Margaret’s House – a building that doesn’t hide its past as an office block, which is part of its charm – and began to try and pull together all the many threads. We had all brought with us images that intrigued us, and I had a pile of books that were connected with the idea. We created a wall full of images and ideas – far too many for us ever to include – and improvised around walks. We would set up an idea, which Ian would then try to lecture about while Tristan and Charles rummaged through images on their laptops and projected them onto the wall. Every evening, I would write up what I had taken from the day’s work and bring it back in the next day. We ended up with a series of episodes with simple titles - “Lost Ways”, “Ice Journey”, “Night Walks” - that we then built into a structure. We had to lose a lot of material which we were very attached to – I was particularly fond of a sequence about airships – as we edited the talk down and shaped the hidden story that is revealed. It was a fascinating process of creating a character about whom we knew nothing initially other than that he loved walking.

My initial idea was that the talk would be followed by a communal walk in silence. On the second day, Tristan innocently asked “Why is the walk at the end?” The answer was that it was there because that was where it had seemed obvious to me to put it. But the strength of collaboration in the creative process is that there is someone else there to ask the really obvious question that hasn’t occurred to you before. Of course the walk had to be at the beginning! What on earth had I been thinking about? From the two performances last summer – on Mull and Iona – we learned how much the performance is affected by both the walk and the character of the place where it is performed, and understood more about how audiences engage with the storytelling.

When we returned to re-rehearse it this summer, it was like meeting an old friend who has done something different to their hair. Although I had done some re-writing, the piece was fundamentally the same, but there were things none of us had seen or understood about it before. As so often happens, the piece has revealed itself to its creators gradually, as if it has a life of its own.

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Reflections on Rough Mix 2014

Rough Mix 2014...

 

It's been a great adventure, with many new approaches I've not been exposed to before, and the excitement of working with a large group of creative artists everyday for a long period. This is something rather new to me; as a composer a great deal of my time is spent working alone, so this was a great change. It was also fascinating to get a look into how other artists develop work and put it together - and interesting to see this unfolding out in front of you. Usually I don't show work unless it is fairly fully formed, so it was both humbling and inspiring to physically see and hear the ideas pour out from every direction , to see them tested, succeed and fail (also stimulating my own ideas process as we went along). For me, often the 'failures' or ideas which fell by the way-side were as exciting as those taken forward.

 

The great thing about collaboration, especially with people you've not worked with before is how you find different things about your own practice emerge. For me, especially during the second week as sound became more of a part of numerous projects, it was a challenge staying on top of the constant flow of ideas, and contributing from different angles. It certainly kept me on my toes, and pushed me to come up with clear ideas quickly, which varied drastically during the course of a session - sketching out a soundscape for an imaginary peninsula centered around a literal giant beating heart for Morna Young's 'Edge', finding a bed of sound for Claire Willoughby's raft and dance moves, live speech sampling and manipulation for Tony Mill's 'truth creature' followed by a score encompassing epic and tragic aggression for Ian Waugh's audio-visual performance based on the 1984 Miner's Strike. I'm confident I would never have produced this work without the other artists and I've already come up with a number of future ideas inspired by these blasts of ideas and energy. Hopefully these pieces will grow and I can be part of them again in some way, and witness how they develop from these sketches into the fully-formed, brilliant pieces I'm sure they will be.

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The penultimate day

This week, everyone has been really focussing on what to present on Friday but still leaving room for play and experimentation around their ideas. As these pieces are works in progress, the artists and performers seem keen to keep the ideas alive and not set anything in stone. 

The morning began with a dance routine rehearsal before each group begins outlining the logistics of what they'll be presenting tomorrow night. There's also a sense of sadness that we all only have two days left together on what has been such a unique collaborative experience. I think everyone has learnt a lot from observing each other's practice, and a lot of this has informed the work which will be shown tomorrow night.

Unfortunately there are no more tickets available for tomorrow night but I'll be working on creating access to a series of photos and audio as a document of the event.

Katherine

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Rough Mix: Week 1

It’s been an intense, stimulating, challenging and exciting week. My project spirals and meanders around the myth of Echo and Narcissus; I’m exploring (in no particular order) mimicry, repetition, echoes, stones, birds, parrots, circles and landscapes. I generally have quite a solitary practice, so having the opportunity to collaborate with so many other people is fantastic, although it can be a little terrifying too, and I’ve definitely felt out of my comfort zone several times this week. I’m working with some ‘cut-up’/collaged texts and some texts that I’ve written, working with spoken text is a new direction for me but is something I’ve been keen to experiment with for a while. I’m interested in exploring how live text and performance could form part of my installation practice, co-existing with drawings, objects, video and written texts. It’s been great to observe and participate in some of the other sessions and workshops, and the morning work that Nick has been doing on Viewpoints has been a really interesting way of thinking about connections between different practices and processes. 

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darkness and us

 

For the past week in Rough Mix 2 I’ve been investigating in two main concepts. First of all, darkness, second, us. The first one questions what happens when you put out the lights in a performance, in a theatre, in a room. The second thinks on how do we tell the story of ourselves nowadays.

 

Each day, all the team of RM, has met as the work time comes to an end in the T4 space of Tramway to jump into the darkness. It has, in a way, become a sort of ritual, day after day, meeting each other as a last action, and spending some time together deep in obscurity.

 

There is something compelling in a community of people inhabiting a space where they can’t really see each other, reaching to one another, trying to stay together in a place where solitude is extolled by the surrounding and thick darkness.

 

Darkness, as I see it, has two main characteristics related to the individual and the community. On one side, it makes oneself more aware of himself, his physicality, his loneliness, his voice, his thoughts, his actions. On the other hand, it equalises everyone, sharing a common reality where we are blinded, dissolving our outlines into a sort of totality where we are one, where our edges can`t be really defined.

 

It is this duality that links for me darkness with the story of ourselves nowadays. Where we need particular stories, private anecdotes, confessions, dreams, that touch our individual being next to songs, events, facts that define a common background, history. A place where what is told has this dual characteristic, it has a personal link, told by a voice, attached to a personal life, but belongs to no-one, as there is not a body to link it with, it flies through the darkness and hangs there, like vibrating, resonating in all the bodies. Saying it belongs to no one is also saying it belongs to everybody, it has no owner or it is owned by all of us, to the community. We are free to feel addressed, identified, with it, as it doesn’t belong to anyone.

 

This path from individuality into community provoked by darkness and worked through storytelling takes roots in a long ritual tradition that can be traced into tribal feasts and shamanic events and somehow, in a society where this apparently doesn’t exist, still echos in us. 

 

 

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Latest Comment

J. Sharp Taking A Walk
07 September 2014
Very much enjoyed your show at the Brunton Theatre last night and the silent walk to start was an excellent addition, creating the perfect atmosphere....