Songbooks and Seaweed: Learnings from creating in an unknown world.
31 July 2020
Song and seaweed. They are not what you’d call naturally occurring. However, in my world they have occurred twice. They first came together in BurtonNitta’s, The Algae Opera (2011), where I created the role of Evalga, the algae opera singer who produces algae with her breath. The second occurrence is more recent with a mixed media piece created for the Victoria Gallery and Museum, University of Liverpool, Time was away and somewhere else (2020), which received its YouTube premiere on 5 June 2020. This audio-visual work brings to life 5 paintings in the VG&M collection through the medium of a relaxed music concert. Below I share insights on the creative process used during COVID-19 lockdown.
At the start of lockdown, Dr Helen Thomas (Artistic Coordinator & Public Engagement Officer at the School of the Arts, University of Liverpool) approached me to discuss how we might bring to life a set of landscape paintings by Margery Knight to engage the VG&M’s ‘at home’ audience. The landscapes were of the Isle of Man where I was brought up. We chatted about ways we could musically respond to these paintings, creating a relaxed music concert to highlight the culture that echoed in the landscapes. Coincidentally, I was working my way through the Manx National Songbook as a creative exercise during lockdown. The two ended up meeting.
The synchronicity on this project has been astounding. The lessons learnt, rapid. It took a month to make from initial concept through to YouTube premiere. Because I had to shift my creative practice to producing during lockdown, I went through multiple cycles of iteration. Eventually the fast cycles of failure, some of them epic, eventually led to success. My top seven learnings can be summed up like this:
From the very start I felt my vocal performance needed to be captured in audio rather than film. Firstly, I felt that the artist had gifted us with spaces where we could find stillness. With all the chaos of lockdown, I felt stillness was important; a space we could get lost in and breathe a little deeper. Wanting to be true to this, I decided that juxtaposing a film of me singing in my home against the coastal landscapes would break this truth. Secondly, from a technical point of view, it was too much of a stretch for me to make good quality film at home, I could, however, make good quality audio. Thirdly, I wanted to create a journey through the landscapes, therefore the location needed to be fixed to the paintings and the world of Knight.
2. LEAN INTO THE QUESTIONS
When I first spent time in the paintings, I was unnerved by an unknown. I knew these landscapes. I had walked in the hills and along the costal paths that feature in Knight’s landscapes. So why did a place so familiar feel unfamiliar? What was the artist seeing that I was not?
To answer the question I researched the botanist and painter, Margery Knight. There isn’t a wealth of information in terms of biography, so I found her in her work. I acquired a 1931 first edition of Manx Algae, a lovingly detailed study of Manx seaweeds. I stumbled across an article by Geraldine Reid From the Shore to the Sublittoral: Liverpool’s Algal Women. From these readings, I started to pick up themes around community, scientific contributions that impact today, precision in work and thinking, and a personal resilience of remarkable depths.
And then the golden nugget appeared…
I discovered that all Knight’s landscape paintings in the VG&M corresponded to a map in Manx Algae detailing the best areas to hunt for seaweed. From this map emerged the narrative spine of the relaxed concert; a trail that we could adventure with and hang content from.
3. SUBVERT TO ADAPT
Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art. Claude Debussy
The format of expression was a relaxed music concert at home. I wanted to see how far I could stretch and subvert the principles of the form in order to achieve the sense of a journey during a time when we could not journey.
To break down the boundaries of form and expectation of the relaxed recital, I took a blended approach. I used the medium of film to house the experience and then added:
- a host, often used in relaxed music concerts, re-imagined as a narrator to walk us through the story
- the signposts of a recital structure: Programme led, opening song that sets the mood, middle songs that explore the theme/journey, finale and encore to energise.
- character work to create the spoken voice of Margery Knight so she could have an audible presence
- a coastal and mountain soundscape to audibly anchor us to location
- the assemblage techniques seen in Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes re-imagined in an audio-visual world whereby folk songs, dialect poems, botany extracts and paintings are layered to share culture and environment
- a narrative structure that wasn’t linear and could be easily re-joined
- folk songs in Manx and English, accompanied and unaccompanied, to show the genre range of the Isle of Man’s National Songbook
4. NEW WAYS OF WORKING
Try again. Fail again. Fail better. Samuel Beckett
Due to the restrictions of lockdown, all the processes that I would usually use to create and produce fell away. Rather than visiting the areas featured in the landscapes, I used Google Maps and Culture Vannin (the guardians of Manx Culture on the Isle of Man) to help get best estimates of locations. I re-walked the landscapes in my mind to engage my senses. Unable to hire a recording studio and engineer, I converted a walk-in store cupboard in my home into a recording studio (imagine a tent made out of blankets to create a low acoustic floor) and used audacity to create a layered soundscape. Working with a pianist had to be done digitally; the piano part was performed and produced by Richard Black, sent to me as sound files which I then sang to as backing tracks and later synced in post-production.
At any given moment I was the writer, sound engineer and performer. This mix of roles, particularly going from sound engineer (setting up the environment, checking sound levels and pressing record) to performer was difficult at first. I had epic fail after epic fail.
What helped was adopting a beginner’s mindset.
Being gently curious about what was causing me to feel unsettled redirected me away from a potential block and towards an open space. I realised that the juncture of transforming from technical to performance was splitting my energy and focus as each role required a different headspace. So, I took a Brechtian approach, whereby checking sound levels and pressing record became a ritual towards stepping into the performance space. Once I hit record, I took time to breathe, find my way to the mic, breathe again, centre, and find the character. Only when I was ready, did I perform.
5. THE PURSUIT OF EXCELLENCE NOT PERFECTION
I share some things in common with Margery Knight: the Isle of Man, the University of Liverpool, we both like precision in our work – indeed my friends lovingly call me ‘Precision Ashcroft’. Sometimes, my precision can tip me over into perfectionism. So, imagine the fresh hell I found myself in when sound engineering my own voice. I quickly learnt that if I was going to make this out alive, I had to step away from perfectionism and head towards excellence; listening out for authenticity because this is where connection and engagement exists.
6. TEST BED
I collaborated with Kim Fisher (Visitor Services Team, VG&M) to make the film. It was her film-making eye and expertise that turned the ideas in the script into a visual journey. Because our ways of working had to shift, we decided early on that we needed to create a test piece to practice and refine our creative process and ideas. To this end, we created a short piece called At Home with Dr Margery Knight as part of the LightNight Festival. This piece was a great test bed in understanding where the gaps were in our process and to understand the engagement factor of our ideas. This piece played a crucial role in helping us not create in a vacuum and find our way to the final piece.
As musicians, we transcend technique in order to seek out the truths in our world in a way that brings meaning and sustenance to individuals and communities. That’s art for life’s sake. Yo-Yo Ma
This quote is listed on my bio page. It’s a principle that underpins my creative practice. During lockdown, I felt this belief more profoundly than in previous years. So how did it direct me this time?
It’s true to say that I have learnt a great deal from responding to seaweed in song form. The Algae Opera asked me to consider the redesign of a vocal genre as a future food provider. Time was away and somewhere else challenged me to work in an accelerated space to rethink story and recital structures to create a journey that we could experience from our armchair.
After cycles of failure came success…
We reached out across lockdown:
“An oasis of calm amongst the turmoil of COVID. Enormous thanks for bringing this lovely piece to brighten and soothe my day.” Lesley Wilson
One audience member, who connected to Knight’s story, created a Wikipedia page to acknowledge and honour Knight’s scientific contributions.
Dr Margery Knight, welcome home.
To discover the work:
Attend a relaxed concert
Time was away and somewhere else
15 mins armchair adventure, part of the VG&M Culture Bite concert series
At home with Dr Margery Knight
3 mins imagined conversation, part of the LightNight Festival 2020
Grab a cuppa and some ideas
5 min read sharing insights of the paintings, the relaxed concert and Margery Knight
5 min read showcasing what museums have achieved during the difficult circumstances of a lockdown.
Header Image a collage of details from: Coastal View with Cottage, Margery Knight, oil on board, date unknown, © The Copyright Holder. Stills from Time was away and somewhere else, Louise Ashcroft, mixed media, 2020. Courtesy of VG&M.
Main body image: Research document from Time was away and somewhere else: Map II from Manx Algae by Knight & Parke (1931), © and courtesy of University of Liverpool Press superimposed with Knight’s paintings in the VG&M Collection © The Copyright Holder.