Press: play

The Morpeth Carol

Sleepdogs (my inter-wotsit and cross-thingummy collaboration with Tanuja Amarasuriya) are showing our sound play The Morpeth Carol at a Bristol Old Vic near you, this December.

Developed through the really quite wonderful Ferment programme, it’s a funny and scary show where we tell the audience a bedtime tale in the near-dark, complete with a blanket of cinematic sound effects. And OK, whilst it’s not exactly the most visually spectacular piece, it’s still visceral and vivid in that way Sleepdogs have made our own… mostly because of how intimate and direct the show is. The idea is to strip the live experience down to its bare essentials*: if you want, you can just close your eyes and drift into the world we create; but if not, then never fear, because the cast are – for the most part – a right bunch of lookers.

*We did, at one point, speculate about performing the show nude. You know… for the publicity and that… maybe just to wind up the Bristol Evening Post. But this was quickly – and loudly – vetoed.

Sleepdogs have just completed a commission for Forest Fringe’s Travelling Sounds Library, too, a headphone piece with the unwieldy title of The Bells Of Vysehrad Church Explode And Become As A Cloud Over Prague. We’re also touring our 1-man-and-a-dictaphone space odyssey Astronaut, and our next project for Bristol Ferment in 2012 is The Bullet And The Bass Trombone, the story of a symphony orchestra trapped in a city during a coup d’etat.

So yeah — music and sound are integral to our work, and these elements are often conceived or designed in detail alongside the text itself, well in advance of any ideas as to how the story might be physically staged. Sometimes, as with The Morpeth Carol, the sound takes over completely.

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Maybe it’s not surprising — given that I began my career as a composer and still think of my script-writing more as ‘scoring’. But I think it goes deeper than that. As a teenager I read Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, and went to see the last version of the play that Beckett was directly involved with (when it toured to the Haymarket Theatre studio in Leicester.) The action of Krapp’s Last Tape consists of an old man alone with his collection of audio diaries, recorded over many years onto spools of reel-to-reel tape.

The play enchanted, unsettled and inspired me. After years of middling Shakespeare, naff social comedies and bad musicals, I was finally seeing what theatre could REALLY do, experiencing something truly magical, vital and alive… and great big chunks of it were simply a bloke listening to a tape recorder. It remains my favourite text play. I think I’ve seen it about 5 times live, and have collected as many broadcast versions as I can find.

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As a result much of my theatre and live art work is as interested in the act of listening as watching. And I’m constantly on the lookout for different material and situations through which I can explore the emotional impact of recording, its resonances and consequences.

There’s a term in audio technology: “lossless”, meaning uncompressed sound. It refers to recordings that haven’t had elements of their frequencies shaved off in order to make the digital files smaller and easier to store or transmit (your common-or-garden MP3 is a good example of a ‘lossy’ format.)

But I never hear a recording I ever think of as “lossless”. Something is lost the moment you play it back. Something has changed, something has been obscured, and it requires you — or even forces you — to imagine a substitute for that absence, alongside what you’re hearing. And I love that act. I love taking part in it when I’m in an audience, and equally I love presenting it as a invitation.

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Where do the sounds come from? Sometimes the source material has as interesting a real-life back story as any that Sleepdogs could dream up. In 2011 I did some work at the BBC that involved listening to stacks of field recordings made by the Natural History Unit, made up to 20 years ago and lurking in cardboard boxes ever since their parent programmes had been completed.

The brief was to find anything on those old DATs, cassettes and 1/4 inch spools that might be worth committing to the Beeb’s permanent archive. And sure, those actual sounds (rainforests at dawn, huge cronking flocks of penguins in South Georgia, spinner dolphins singing underwater at frequencies almost beyond perception) were wonderful in their own right… but almost as interesting were the whispered interjections of the recordists, holding the microphones to their mouths and giving perfunctory little monologues on weather, landscape, type of microphone in use. And often these became joyously funny, in a deadpan sort of way — especially when they sketched out the difficulties they were experiencing in sneaking up on unsuspecting wildlife, or cursed repeatedly at intrusive aircraft.

The most heartbreaking tape I found was a series of recordings made of an African Grey Parrot, supposedly one of the most intelligent in captivity. The programme-makers were attempting to have the bird perform a famous series of cognitive tests; Alex (for that was his name) could identify shapes, numbers and colours when prompted. But Alex wasn’t interested, and whenever the cameras rolled he would repeat the phrase “Wanna go back” in the American tones of his owner Irene. It emerged that this was a request to go back inside his cage when Alex was tired; but you couldn’t help hearing it as a plea to return to the trees he’d been taken from. “Wanna go back,” he croaked quietly. “Wanna go back.”

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But most beautiful of all: a 5-minute stretch of DAT captured just before a thunderstorm in Sumatra. The sound of a dense jungle, crickets and the occasional whoop of orang-utans, flies headbutting the microphone… and floating above it all, soprano-high and steady, a repeated eight-note refrain that sounded strangely human, with long pauses in between.

“That,” whispered the voice of recordist Sue Western, close up into the microphone, “Was the famous whistling bird.” So eerie and timeless, this little song, that it inspired and shaped whole sections of The Bullet And The Bass Trombone. When the recording is played during the show, many people still don’t believe it’s an actual bird.

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The Morpeth Carol, meanwhile, is set in the Yorkshire of my parents — windy moors presided over by electricity pylons, sodium lights failing to illuminate the gloom of the nearby industrial estate. So it’s choc-full of audio memories from my own past, crackly 45s on a dansette record player, the low drone of cityscapes in the middle of the night.

For the last decade or so I’ve carried portable recorders around with me (first minidisc, now SD card) and have often peeled off from holidays and show tours to grab a few seconds of whatever I can find… a temple prayer call in Singapore’s Little India… or a set of bells in a Prague church. Yep. I’m the weirdo with headphones lurking, stock still, in the crypt.

Sometimes you capture these sounds to be used ‘as is’. Other times they’re just an interesting texture that you can later warp or modify to become something completely new. In The Morpeth Carol a buggered fridge becomes an electricity substation, and a motorised pencil sharpener is employed in ways I can’t reveal without seriously spoiling the story. The helicopters are from New York, the cutlery is from IKEA, and some automatic doors we needed didn’t sound quite right until I combined elements of those found at BBC Bristol and a service station next to the M32.

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But then there are the sounds you just can’t fake: the noise of feet on snow, famously, can only really be replicated using large amounts of custard powder (reminding me of that moment in The Simpsons where Hollywood film-makers make a cow ‘appear real’ by painting a horse black and white.) I don’t WANT to buy a heap of custard powder, thanks… so last winter, you might have seen me in Mina Park after December’s first snowfall, running around or stamping up and down in a peculiar crouching position, with a big microphone pointing at my feet. But then no doubt I wasn’t the weirdest thing in Mina Park that day. Despite my best efforts, I rarely am.

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The Morpeth Carol is at Bristol Old Vic December 8th – 17th December 2011 and you can get yourself some damn tickets here.

You can read about how illustrator Alex Bertram-Powell created the images for The Morpeth Carol here.

Image credits / justifications / explanations / apologies:
1. by Alex Bertram-Powell.
2. Picture of a lovely Ferguson reel-to-reel tape recorder, being used to do unspeakable things at Angel Tech’s studios.
3. Minidiscs used in the Sleepdogs show The Freelance Magdalene. The red minidisc contains roughly 40 minutes of Finnish pedestrian crossings, especially wide stereo examples of the multiple units found at crossroads. Sorry.
4. Logging natural history DAT recordings at the BBC.
5. Alex the African grey parrot. Image credits unknown but Alex’s owner was animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg; get in touch if you’re the image owner and rightly offended by this blatant parrot picture theft. Sorry.
6. From work-in-progress of The Bullet And The Bass Trombone at Bristol Ferment July 2011, photo by Paul Blakemore.
7. Portable recording through the ages, from pre-history to spangly, solar-powered world of tomorrow.
8. A grand old Studer reel-to-reel tape player, waiting patiently in the dusty depths of the BBC.