Theatre • Art • Music • Spoken Word
Putting on Modern Jazz and Improv in Stourbridge
There hadn’t been very much of it. Once or twice a month, there was a jazz evening at a venue called The Bonded Warehouse. But the styles and melodies were all from traditions firmly established in the 1950s. Since then, British jazz has done quite a lot of different things – things well represented only a few miles away on the Birmingham scene, but unheard in Stourbridge.
Something needed to be done.
It helped, of course, that there was an interested venue. Claptrap has taken over from Scary Canary, preserving a valuable performance space in Stourbridge. In both manifestations, the place has succeeded in being something other than the usual town centre vertical drinking establishment; Sky Sports, male strippers and gallons of Carling Black Label are in plentiful supply elsewhere. No. This place has locally produced art on the walls and locally produced beer in the fridge.
There was a band looking for a Midlands gig, who happened to be very very good. And so improv in Stourbridge was born…
Deep Trouble are improvisers – dedicated and enthusiastic. Little if anything is composed before they step on to the stage. With a line-up of trombone (Sarah Gail Brand), drums (Mark Sanders) and seven-string upright bass (Paul Rogers), some might expect little more than a noisy racket. That’s not what happens, because these people listen to each other very carefully indeed. All that is played responds to what has been played before and builds towards what’s coming next. And, when the improvisation is as good as this, they always finish in the same place – sometimes, admittedly, to their own surprise; this is far from being a wholly conscious process of creation.
The event proving a success, we decided to do a few more. There was a screening of Nosferatu, the original from the 1920s, accompanied by Walt Shaw’s band Alchemy Schmalchemy: gothic, atmospheric, haunting and all music improvised in real time. Pei-Ann Yeoh’s violin/bass/drums trio: funkier and with some pre-composed melodies. Paul Dunmall, saxophonist, clarinettist and bagpipe-player, who shares a drummer, Jim Bashford, with Ms Yeoh, had a cold the night he played. You wouldn’t have known. Those who have not heard him should have a listen on Youtube: start with Deep Joy Trio.
And, not quite finally, we had a festival: three hours of music on a Sunday afternoon in April. Pianist Steve Tromans, master of getting an acceptable sound out of distressed pianos, coaxed real beauty out of Claptrap’s modest little upright. Two bassists (Trevor Lines, Chris Mapp), three drummers, a guitarist, a violinist and… How many saxophonists were there? They certainly included Mr Dunmall, Xosa Cole and Bruce Coates, who astounded with an unaccompanied solo on a straight alto. What? You’ve never seen or heard a straight alto saxophone? Neither had I.
Perhaps it’s also worth noting that, by chance or design, this series has not been a part of the ‘boys club’ that was, to an extent, a fair description of the free jazz and improv scenes in the past. We’re living in times when a new generation of female improvisers are proving themselves able to match their most imaginative male counterparts. I hope that with, among others, Sarah Gail Brand, wildly different violinists Pei Ann Yeoh and Sarah Farmer and saxophonist Alicia Gardiner Trejo, the Stourbridge events have contributed to this.
Steve Tromans’ musical version of Allen Ginsber’s Howl will be performed at Claptrap from 2pm on 14th October. Meanwhile, look out for a number of the players mentioned here at the Ideas of Noise Festival in Digbeth, 3rd – 5th August, curated by Sarah Farmer and pianist Andrew Woodhead.
Richard Bruce Clay
Clangers, Bagpuss & Co at Wolverhampton Art Gallery
What an unexpected treat it was to dip my toe into the sepia-coloured waters of my 1970s childhood at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery.
The Clangers, Bagpuss & Co exhibition, which is on the ground floor of the gallery, has brought out of the closet a number of much-loved TV characters from the last century.
The collection on show, which is part archival and educational as well as simply entertaining, includes some of the original models; well-loved puppets, and carefully-preserved artworks from TV animations of a time past.
Memories aplenty flooded in as I took in the sights and sounds of Button Moon, Professor Yaffle, and a much larger than expected George from Rainbow. It was like visiting my old childhood book collection: fascinating, mesmerizing and utterly absorbing. I could almost conjure up the musty smell these artefacts should surely have.
The only way to view this exhibition is slowly. There is so much to see and to remember and the beauty lies in its variety: models sit alongside drawings which jostle for attention with antiquated equipment used to create the animations.
The highlight for me has to be the display of original drawings of one of my personal favourites: Ivor the Engine. Vividly coloured and larger than expected, upon examining them closely I was immediately taken back in time. Jones the Steam in his bathing suit will bring a smile to the face of anyone old enough to remember him, and surely also to anyone too young.
The exhibition is on until 29 April.
APNA Heritage Archive – Punjabi Migration to Wolverhampton 1960 to 1989: a photographic journey in 600 images
Visiting this exhibition offers insights into archive images of family life spanning three decades.
There is such a wealth of detail gathered from family albums, now digitised to provide access for both research and viewing. Large-scale projections offer a visual comparison across three decades, revealing different camera and film formats.
Black and white images from the sixties are displayed alongside the first colour images taken in the seventies and the brightly-saturated colour of the eighties.
The visual timeline offered by the photographic projections is augmented by three archival wall charts, giving a flavour of the curation involved in the construction of this archive: the nuancing of considerations of difference; the making of choices in the selections; the creation of a performative catalogue of analogue family photographs.
Display cases house the original family albums, engendering an interest that is not just prurient but backed by a genuine curiosity about domestic settings – the front rooms of other families, but also the shape of family. There are stories here, attached to material photographs of family, that echo with our own memories of posing for snapshots often associated with status: photos of the home, the car, the holidays and day trips.
There is much evidence of assured photographers constructing and staging the family in its everyday guises at celebrations, performing rituals of group photography, capturing the extended family at play.
The archive in this setting creates a new museum of memory, demonstrating the power of a collection of material photographs as records providing information about place and people over three decades. This record now exists in both the physical form of an exhibition and in the liquid realm of digital capture.
Contemporary portraits of schoolchildren are reminiscent of projects set up by the photographer Sebastio Salgado. His Children: Innocence on the Run (2004) looked at identity and migration, depicting children and young people wearing their own choice of clothes in an affirmation of identity. As with Salgado, the gaze from the exhibition photographs is outwards, the intention being to confront the viewer with the potency of each individual presence.
Identity, as this exhibition unravels, is a complicated and unclear concept that nonetheless plays a central role in ongoing debates about gender, ethnicity, and nation state, both inside the archive as historical document and beyond in our everyday lives as yet undocumented.
We are described as active agents in the remembering process: what we remember depends on the processes we ourselves engage in when we encounter a photograph. The Apna Heritage Archive is both an act of salvage of the material photograph and a visual repository. It is an act of record and an act of encounter that values the private life of family and its geography of kinship.
Su Fahy is an academic in Fine Art and Photography at Wolverhampton School of Art and Principal Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Wolverhampton
Hedda Gabler, Wolverhampton Grand
The National Theatre on tour brought Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler to Wolverhampton Grand, 23-27 January. It’s very pleasing to find a production so uncompromising and challenging in a venue that’s usually forced by pressures of funding to play it safe.
Olivier Award-winning playwright Patrick Marber and director Ivo van Hove have given this classic play a contemporary twist with Lizzy Watts in the title role as the newly-married Hedda, Abhin Galeya as her unsuspecting husband Tesman, and Adam Best as the charismatic Brack.
The set was stark – and looked all the more so against the warm Victorian browns and reds of the Grand’s interior. Much white panelling and fluorescent light placed events in the 1960s or later, but kept the ambiance distinctly Scandinavian.
The black-garbed servant Berte remained onstage throughout, which lent her the role of an ominous harbinger of death not, to my knowledge, in the text. The rest of the cast’s entrances and exits happened through the ‘fourth wall’ and down into the auditorium – a more successful device; this was a setting difficult to escape, spiritually or physically. Hedda was trapped.
The production began as a portrayal of what was happening to the characters, but ended as a portrayal of what the increasingly damaged Hedda perceived as happening; as a result, the acting in the early scenes was comparatively naturalistic, but grew more overstated as the evening progressed.
In the final act, emotional blackmailer Brack had taken on the movement and posture of a villain of Victorian melodrama. Those who see Ibsen’s mature work as a rejection of such styles will not have liked this. And, indeed, the text gives us little reason to suppose Brack is aware of how badly his subtle cruelties are affecting Hedda; he is casually and thoughtlessly callous – he is not, in his own mind, vomiting blood over her. The production, however, put the audience inside Hedda’s mind, where the red mess Brack spewed forth was absolutely real.
Ultimately, it is a matter of taste whether one feels such details of staging are valid or whether they make the whole thing come over like The Murder at the Red Barn. But the production certainly made a brave attempt to put us inside the mind of an increasingly vulnerable woman, trapped in a family and a society which gave her no chance to strengthen or defend herself.
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