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Sculpt A Rodin From Mashed Potato: On Tour With Ecstatic Material
Jennifer Lucy Allan , February 20th, 2019 10:51

Outlands is a new network of promoters, arts organisations and curators putting on strange and wonderful performances in the corners of New Weird Britain. Their last tour featured Beatrice Dillon making a racket to splatter sculptor Keith Harrison's Play-Doh - Jennifer Lucy Allan reports

We are touring Ecstatic Material, an installation and performance constructed from reused plastic crates and upturned car speakers filled with the constituent parts of Play-doh. Sound is moved and manipulated, cymatics dance in the liquids and salt leaps six inches in the air. We have twelve stacks, seven Genelec speakers, twelve industrial strip lights, and our expanded tour DJs Copper Sounds have a workshop's worth of etched copper and ceramics plus four turntables. We are loading and unloading this show in and out of a Luton van for the next nine days, doing back to back shows in a loop around England for new touring network Outlands. It would be the least tourable tour conceived of if it wasn't for the dolly wheels, and Alan.

Al Cameron and myself commissioned composer and producer Beatrice Dillon and sculptor Keith Harrison to develop a piece around a title we had been working over for three years. We were interested in the sensory tangling and transmutations and between sound and material, and the vibratory potential of sound and substance, and had a title: Ecstatic Material. Al and I are the curators, producers, and roadies. We also have Alan Burgess from Amber Audio with us, whose ears and brain are pulling these things together from the sound desk. (It quickly becomes clear that Alan is a hero). Copper Sounds, a young Bristol duo, are also running a wax record making workshop.

Thursday, 7th February - Plymouth

Ecstatic Material opened at Keith's home studio, Karst gallery in Plymouth. The lack of centre stage, and the visual cues like a lights down meant that it was treated more like an art installation.

There were a million details, plans, logistics to do with movement and transportation that had to be resolved for this show to work, and that's even before Beatrice started playing with these rattling six foot stacks and boisterous bass bins in a hollow gallery space. One of the things we couldn't predict was how an audience would react. It is like setting pigeons among a herd of cats.

Keith was going to adjust the stacks as Beatrice performed, filling up salt in the stacks and stirring pink goo. He had bought a white suit especially, but upon trying it on ten minutes before curtain up, we found that it made him look like a children's magician and ditched it.

The first packup was a struggle. Karst was freezing cold, We weren't sure the van was big enough, didn't know where anything went and the floor was full of Keith's glycerin, but let me tell you, I have never enjoyed cleaning so much as I did Henry-hoovering up half a kilo of salt from the upturned bowl of an 18” speaker cone. The shutter broke at 1am, just as we thought we were finished. Jesus wept.

Friday, 8th February - Bristol

At the Arnolfini Centre, Alan explains the physics of the stacks to me. Because the crate walls are plastic grills, there is what he says is a 'short circuit', so that some of the stacks that are rumbling at ear level effectively cancel themselves out, so that you can't hear the bass sounds until you get close to them. He points out that the speaker stacks are instruments in themselves, in a way. The fact that the speakers we're using are quite cheap might be adding to the effect on the materials, he explains, because their inherent non-linearity – the fact they don't perfectly reproduce the input waveform – creates its own harmonics.

These so-called imperfections in Keith's speaker stacks mean that we start to recognise them as individual characters. Some rattle like agitated children, others seem sturdier and more severe, which lends them certain characteristics, so we have named them. The short orange stack with the 15” bowl speaker filled with pink liquid is called Beyoncé, she is the star of the show as it is in her that Beatrice generates the graphic cymatic patterns. The two bass bins are King Tubby and Missy Elliott, one has sharp swagger, the other is more dubby. The two tweeter stacks are Salt n' Pepa, because the ratchet straps look like red braces and they are filled with salt. The blue 15” speaker Keith has called Old Blue Eyes (Frank Sinatra) when we empty out the glycerin each night, splashing vomit like into a bucket, Keith rubs his back and promises to get him a taxi.

'Tour DJs' Copper Sounds have a steel frame on which hangs a large, flat piece of copper, four decks, two huge terra-cotta pots full of water, and a kitchen's worth of their own thrown white studio ceramics with facets cut in that create rhythms against contact mics. They layer reverb rock scrapes on rhythmic white noise from the copper discs and thrown bowls faceted mimic hi-hat and snare. The rhythms are rough and resonant and slightly out of sync.

At first we were terrified by their huge setup, but they are speedy, and can get in, set up and teach a workshop without making a peep in a few hours flat, and just need a few chocolate hobnobs to keep them going. People love the workshop, the blue wax discs are beautiful objects. All hail Copper Sounds!

Saturday, 9th February - Birmingham

In Birmingham there are stairs and no lift. This means unloading the entire contents of the van, and taking half of it up a set of outdoor stairs. In the rain. Then we will take it down again at the end of the night. After the tension of making the first two shows work, getting up and down the stairs is a breeze. We're all learning how to set the thing up, and are getting faster.

The Birmingham show is wonderful – it is an enthusiastic and curious crowd and the piece feels tight and feisty in the warehouse space at Centrala. We celebrate with Mezcal in the hotel ibis, courtesy Outlands tour manager Sam Francis.

We're laughing, and working, and everything is joyous, considering we have to move house every day. I feel like I am laughing through the entire pack up and loud out. The piece continues to change too, Beatrice has worked out more ways to send specific frequencies through the materials to create various patterns – pink goo cymatics. It appears a simple act, but is basically like trying to sculpt a Rodin from mashed potato.

This show is plastic – it is literally built from reused plastic crates – but is malleable and adjustable in its formations and patterns. It has to work in a space the size of the De La Warr (where we'll be on the night before Razorlight) and Fuse in Bradford, a small shopfront turned into art gallery. In Birmingham Beatrice went dubwise, the warehouse space feeling low and heavy. In Bradford we arrange the stacks tightly, so they look like tower blocks, and the effect is to make the sound dense and hard. We designate this night pirate radio night, the rattle of the stacks on the outside responding with rough rattles like decaying signals in contrast to the hard tweeters and solid bass bins.

There are things to observe about the subtleties of audience dynamics in different venues. There are cues we follow and unspoken rules and expectations that define the way we encounter a show. Lights down is a cue for 'shut up, the music is starting'. A run of white kitchen vinyl on under the speaker stacks is enough to designate a space that should not be walked on. No starting cues means it's perceived more as an installation than a music performance.

Monday, 11th February - Salford

On Monday in Salford we play at Caustic Coastal, where we set up the stacks in the fridge section that smells like old raves and has a five second reverb. It's jungle night on the stacks. Copper Sounds are outside in the low-lit cavernous warehouse space tonking it out, and from the door outside it sounds like a gammy weekend rave that still hasn't finished. It's fantastic: hard and textured and feral.

Ecstatic Material is part way between an artwork and a performance. The materials are making the sounds and the sounds are filling the space as a material. The composition has to happen in time and in space - something happens here, now and over there, then. Ostensibly this is an artwork by Keith that Beatrice is playing, but long ago such a simple parsing of the project broke down, because the artwork's solid components are sonic, the sound is a visual – the material is sound and the sound is material. It is unparsable and we make no announcements and set no rules for the audience. As such, things that people do to the stacks include: pouring a beer into Frank Sinatra; dipping a finger in as if from a font on the way out of church; stirring the salt to make perfect circles in the tweeters whilst lamenting a lack of tequila; putting a palm to the chest of one of the taller stacks as if taking a heartbeat.

Tuesday, 12th February - Cambridge

In Cambridge Copper Sounds play on stage for the first time, veiled in blue light and haze. Their huge orange pots look incredible and the copper shines. Tonight they sound like Container, or a support band for Faust or Neubauten. We thought this would be the wrong space to make the show work, but Keith's drapes – five metre strips of lino hand drawn with an ecstasy of black dashes – give a shape and a backdrop to this huge venue.

While we tear down in Cambridge, a four star review is published on The Guardian of the Manchester show. Keith and Beatrice are ecstatic and Keith reveals it's his birthday, which explains why he incongruously pulled out a box of champagne truffles when we stopped at a petrol station on the A14. We buy a caterpillar cake and I try to persuade the country house B&B we're staying at to keep the fire on past 10:30pm for a ceremony and some more of the Mezcal. They refuse.

Wednesday, 13th February - Milton Keynes

By night seven, at the new Milton Keynes gallery, we are all a little frayed and giddy, speaker stacks included. The 18” bass bins have small splits in the edges. Alan shows me how to fix them with some glue and a strip of black material torn from the edge of the riser left from a past performance. The glue has to be elastic to move, and the fabric has to hold the gap and stop it splitting further. The fix is somehow bodged, domestic, and we like it – this is not and was never meant to be a hi-tech show. Its about sound and movement. We have to rechristen Missy Elliott, now Gabrielle.

By now, we are collectively short on socks, all our clothes are spotted with Keith's cream of tartar, Keith only has one bag of white powder left (cream of tartar), and Beyoncé is caked in pink goo. We have to clean her up with baby wipes. It is the seventh night in a row, and there are two shows left.

Thursday, 14th February - London

We unload into South London Gallery under spring sunshine through a garden heavy with the smell of honeysuckle and I begin to feel sad about the imminent end of this tour. I will miss trundling these rattling stacks to the van, miss keeping an ear out for my favorite boingy earworm, miss emptying out Frank every night. Nobody has lost their temper, got in a strop, or slacked off for a minute. We are a fantastic team. As we open a teardown beer, and Beatrice routes Fleetwood Mac through Frank and Beyoncé, I realise I really, really like all these people. I am not sure if things will be as fun without them, or the stacks. I do not want to go back home.

For more information on the Outlands Network, please visit their website

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