While facing a day with nothing to do until 4:30pm I fell back on an old habit from over 30 years of touring: I put on my walking boots and tramped through the city for an hour or so: 6.5 miles with no destination in mind. Process, not outcome.
North over the river, then east up the Strand to St Paul’s, back over the wobbly bridge…
… (so named because when it was built, the architects hadn’t predicted that the effect of a few hundred people walking over it at the same time would make it sway and wobble alarmingly. It was subsequently altered to damp down the swaying but the name has stuck and I like the idea of crossing the river on what amounts to one massive guitar string.) to the Tate Modern, and along the river to the South Bank Centre and then my hotel.
As ever, London provoked and entertained, with these two signs offering sound advice
and the low spring tide revealing the city’s industrial archeology. What dark Dickensian tragedies were played out on this old jetty? What tearful goodbyes, forbidden hellos, furtive transfers of goods took place here?
This pastime frees the mind wonderfully and gave me chance to allow the shape of this blog entry to coalesce in the foetid recesses of what remains of my mind. It is one of the most intriguing paradoxes (paradoces?) of creativity that the best way to open your creative flow is to do absolutely nothing that could be construed as “trying” to achieve it. I write this blog of my own free will, because I like the sound of my own keyboard and I inherited from my teacher-preacher-musician father an urge – no: a need – to communicate. It earns me no money and thus my motivation remains pure, a matter which we’ll explore further in creative contexts in a paragraph or two later. I write the way I play: whatever is in my head is allowed to flow out onto the page or the stage, although obviously with writing I can edit it afterwards… I am honoured and gratified that people read it and in some cases have asked to be included in it, but, just as with my playing of music, as soon as I stop doing it purely to please myself and am motivated by the need to please others, my intent is no longer pure and the flow is affected. Like playing, if it ever becomes a chore, I will stop doing it. Regular readers will have detected a theme in my work : that of profound laziness. If a blog post concerns other colleagues, I offer them a preview in order to avoid traducing, libelling or slandering anyone: otherwise “Publish and be damned” is my motto.
However, as I pounded the streets, the shape of it began to appear and here it is…
The constant chirping of the cricits (see what I did there?)
Ah, reviews: don’tcha just love ‘em? The problem with being a performing artist (well, one of the problems apart from bouts of poverty, mental health challenges, the ever-decreasing perceived value of what we do and the challenges of persuading potential employers that hiring an older performer with facial warts and thinning hair means you are getting someone with more experience and expertise than a follicly-unchallenged 18-year-old with great skin) is that unlike in sport, there is no objective measurement system by which we can be judged and judge ourselves. (One of the many madnesses of the popular music industry is that the more experience you have, the less likely it is that you’ll be offered work.) All we have is our own fragile (sic) self-esteem and the occasional published review of our performances. Of course, the reviewer also has no objective yardstick against which to measure us, so how much notice should we take of their work?
When I was a university lecturer/course writer there was a learning outcome which appeared frequently in creative (as opposed to technical) modules: “the student will learn to respond non-defensively to critical evaluation.”
Yeah, well: fuck that! It is obvious to me that anyone who criticises my abilities is a knuckle-dragging dunderhead with the IQ of a fence post whereas anyone who, as our American cousins so delightfully put it, “blows smoke up my ass” (anyone knowing the origin of that phrase please supply it in the comments, but maybe without illustrative pictures!) is a perceptive genius, a towering giant of critical evaluation and a rattling good bloke or blokess to boot. This has proven to be a useful way to proceed and has served me well over the years.
However, the serious nature and dedication to academic rigour of this blog demands a less frivolous approach to the matter under discussion. Fellow performers, do you read your reviews? If they are less than fulsome in their praise for your towering talents how do you deal with it? One of the performer’s most useful skills is the ability to monitor yourself during your performance as though you were in your own audience. You recognise when you’re getting boring or when you’re “smashing it” (as the young folk say) and change what you’re doing if the first is true or leave it alone if the second is the case, but sometimes a fresh and independent view can inform your practice considerably. Praise or … ( I’ve just discovered there is no synonym for negative criticism beginning with the letter ‘P’: who’d have thought it?) the trick is to treat these two imposters just the same. Ultimately we are our own judge and jury, which leads to the question “on what criteria do you judge yourself?” If it’s not possible to measure outcomes, all that’s left is process, and I judge myself on my intent. Did I go into (and carry out the whole of) the performance with good intent? Were my motives pure or purely egotistical? My ongoing enquiries into the mental aspects of performance has revealed that for many performers, process is more important than outcome, and this has come to be my yardstick.
(Ah, the ‘E’-word. I love it when young musicians complain that their singer/guitarist/whatever has “a hell of an ego.” Well, good! What use is a performer without an ego? Who would pay to see someone who gets up on stage and mumbles “OK: I’m not very good, but I’ll have a go at singing a bit if that’s all right.” I want my performers to tear the room apart, wring its neck and wrestle it bleeding to the floor, leaving me drained like a wrung-out dishcloth. The trick is to learn that your ego doesn’t belong in the dressing-room, hotel bar, band-bus or business meeting, but it most certainly does belong on stage, though it shouldn’t be your primary motivation: just one of the tools you use.)
Anyway, enough of the slings and arrows of outrageous scribblers: what about the reason we’re here in the first place: the music (or in my case the act of counting 37 bars rest in 15/4?) We’re back in the theatre after a 2-day break. We miss the now-departed film crew from IBB media who’ve been filming the rehearsals and first few shows. They’re making a documentary and a movie of the actual performance – ‘The Doing of…’ and ‘The Making of the Doing of…’ and have been a reliable source of entertainment and alcoholic refreshment throughout. It takes a great deal of skill to film such an event without being obtrusive and Martin and his crew have demonstrated that skill. I receive and have received no financial incentives from IBB Media, though boss Martin bought me dinner one evening during rehearsals. Of course, like all film-makers, they seek out controversy and I hope they don’t mind me giving away the answer to the most burning question among the Mike Oldfield fan community: Spoiler alert! I use Jim Dunlop 1mm picks and Elixir Skinny Top, Heavy Bottom strings. We did two shows yesterday, unheard of for we effete rock’n’rollers but quite common among the Thespian community, I’m given to understand, and we have the measure of it now. We also have the measure of the room and I’ve found that it sings better up at the dusty end (guitar-speak for ‘high up the fretboard’) so in the opening piece (‘The Gem’ by Robin Smith) I do plenty of wailing (critics of my dietary habits would call it ‘whaling’) in that area.
The reviews have mostly concentrated on the acrobats, which brings up the fact that in one way, this gig has become the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced: how to get the audience’s attention over a troupe of highly-trained acrobats? I consulted an actress friend who used to deliver a class in my Live Performance Skills module on ‘How to Dominate the Stage/Auditorium’ and she provided an enhancement or two to my existing stagecraft arsenal. Choosing when and how to move when I have a space the size of a paving slab to work on is critical, as is the old actors’ favourite of finding a circuit of friendly faces in the audience to work to. The further away they are, the better. If I look directly at someone 20 rows back from the stage, all the people around that person will believe I’m looking directly at them. Prince’s stagecraft also provides many a useful lesson. Despite being knee-high to a grasshopper even as an adult, he made all his gestures grand enough to be seen from the furthest reaches of the stadium and directed his attention to the so-called ‘nose-bleed seats’ as much as to the front row.
Apart from the physical techniques, there is a whole raft of mental strategies, mostly aimed at establishing in the audience’s mind the fact that from the moment I step onto this stage to the moment I leave it, this is my room: I control it. I may allow you to interact, but I also control that interaction, and I will end it when I see fit. I learned a lot from Westernhagen, a German artist I worked with for 25 years. He could command football stadiums (stadia?) and one of his tricks was that he’d come up to one of the musicians and interact in some way, but he would never allow the other person to end the interaction: it would always be him who walked away. (He also generously directed the audience’s attention to any of the band who was taking a solo at any given point, in stark contrast to Sting, who, when I last saw him play, had an irritating habit of making sure the audience’s focus remained firmly on him during the solos.)
Musically, as I say, we have the measure of the piece now and have begun to explore the nuances. My favourite section is the Ambient Guitars bit at the end of side 2. This is where fellow guitarist Maxime and I can trade phrases and create soundscapes through the gift of the electric guitar: a shimmering smorgasbord of shards of silvery Stratocaster… (alliterative asshole!)
If there’s one thing I hate with a vengeance (apart from alliterative assholes, musical theatre, trifle, cooked liver and chemical beer,) it’s the notion of the guitar battle. For the uninitiated, this is a section of improvised music in which two (or heaven forfend, more) guitarists trade their fastest, most technical tricks (known in the trade as “hot licks” – don’t ask.) My strategy for dealing with this is to answer the inevitable blizzard of semi-demi-quavers with slow long notes. The more the other guitarist flings at me, the further I retreat into minimalism. Fortunately, Maxime shows no sign of wanting to enter into a battle, but I hope he doesn’t read this and adopt the same approach as me or this section will put the audience to sleep.
The day finished with a seriously good show. There was plenty of energy in the room and we received not only a warm hand on our entrance, (oo-er, Missus) but a standing ovation at the end of side 1 of TB and another at the end of side 2.
Today’s yomp followed this route:A walk through Dickensian London of which I completed just over 7 miles, finishing at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub sitting at Dicken’s’ reputedly favourite table. The pub could be a location in a Harry Potter movie and is tucked away down one of the many alleys (called ‘courts’ ) off the north side of Fleet Street.
There is a surprising number of these remnants of old London off Fleet St and it is rewarding to explore them.
The walk also took me to Lincolns Inn Fields, where among the sedate English benches surrounding an immaculately-manicured English lawn, this…
… sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. It looks like how I expect my first attempt at the classic Adirondack chair design will turn out.
I don’t have much left to say about the music now: I’ve managed to get Mike’s technique of playing with the fingernail of the right hand third finger but still revert to my rock vibrato 90% of the time. There are far more authentic Oldfield clones out there but I never wanted to be and nor do I want to become a carbon-copy. I interpret, not repeat. Whether you agree or disagree with my interpretation is of no importance either to me or, I suspect, Mike. It’s more important that I do it with impeccable intent, and in this regard, I always do my best. I’m grateful for the many kind words I’ve received both privately and publicly.