Thoughts on Wind Resistance by Karine Polwart

Thoughts on Wind Resistance by Karine Polwart
SPOILERS (IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE SHOW)
 
Isn’t there a way in which we are all alone inside our brains, brains whose singular purpose from birth is to recognise patterns and make links between things? And as well as seeking help in making meaningful connections between things aren’t we also programmed to seek genuine real connections out of this solitary place to other real, thinking, feeling, caring people in order to feel less alone and afraid?
 
The way people share their inner worlds with others varies hugely - some never do it or hardly at all. Some do it in a way that reveals something others might call madness - ie the urgent linking together of, and finding meaning in, links that to others seem mere accidents or trivial coincidences. And others share links that evidence a view of the world one just instinctively feels isn’t true or honest, or is actually plain wrong or even malevolent.
 
Great observational comedians do this thing where they talk about something mundane and done a thousand times and find the humour or surreality in it. Your laughter is one of recognition of truth, of something shared and confirmed, of the comedy of our everyday reality, plus an admiring recognition of “I missed that but you didn’t”.
 
Karine Polwart (and her collaborator Pippa Murphy) do this wonderful thing of showing us great vistas by sharing what they see when they stare at what is beneath all of our feet. By using their skill, inquisitiveness, craft and intelligence they weave a presentation of the small, the personal, and the local and by doing so they present a compelling view of two great, interconnecting and important arcs - that of human history and progress to date and that of the natural world, our relationship to it, and our effect on it.
 
And by telling the personal story of the central human protagonists’ journey- a couple named Will and Roberta - through a different turbulent war-riven time, a story gleaned from their daughter Molly who was Polwart’s neighbour - they make those arcs personal and real, and give a sense of both looking back at real people inside their history and how we might contemplate ourselves inside our own.
 
The other star of this show is Fala Moor itself. We hear from the tiniest waterboatman making shaker noises only audible if a pair of female geeks shove a hydrophone into a small pool in a peat bog not visible from the A68.
 
We see the different kinds of seed dug up from the archaeological site of a nearby medieval hospital run by monks and midwives, seeds from plants used for pain relief in pre-NHS childbirth.
 
We see in lovely back projected visuals, and hear the sound of, geese migrating and hear the sound of floorboards and bedsheets burning on a 1920s Midlothian farm’s bonfire.
 
We hear the story of the birth of Karine’s son Arlo and feel the sense of the frightening timeless mystery of her own body as it enters labour, and how midwives and obstetricians and epidurals helped bring Arlo safely into the world.
 
And this is juxtaposed with the story of Will’s beloved Roberta’s post-partum tragedy in their farmhouse with her blood soaking the floorboards, which after her death he ripped up and burnt with the bed linen. And we could hear the sound of the cracking and splitting of the burning wood through the speakers and imagine so much more.
 
And delightfully on the night we went to the show Arlo was in the audience, as was Roberta’s granddaughter.
This isn’t fiction.
 
Of course they aren’t geeks - there are carefully considered reasons they are collating these sounds and stories and showing them to us. Just looking and listening to what is there is a political act, telling the stories that get missed or forgotten, whether that of the water boatman or medieval healers and midwives, or the brutality of death in childbirth for women like Roberta with no access to modern medicine.
 
The connections and links you look for, see and then share is telling a story for a reason, and the skill and care in how you tell that story matters. The stories one chooses to tell is a political act, and the bigger darker stories one doesn’t mention directly but alludes to just the same is an act of political skill.
 
This is a week when 60,000 young people march in Warsaw chanting “clean blood” or some variation thereof. There are nativist stories afoot whose goal is mobilising people, telling them a story as if it is theirs and saying it is the one that has really been forgotten, that the connections they are making are true, the choices they must make are clear, and that they have reasons to march. These young people aren’t irretrievably lost, any more than is an otherwise marvellous young French person I know who supports Marie Le Pen - much to my shock and worry. A story is powerfully speaking to her and someone needs to counter it with different stories. One can feel there are malevolent forces pushing narratives of divisiveness, hatred, and ethnic purity, and we don’t know if we are entering a time as turbulent, bloody, and disastrous as that which Will and Roberta lived through. I fear we really may be.
 
There is a big complex laugh in the show, a show which has lots of laughs (some much simpler than others), when Karine mentions in passing that her beloved Fala Moor Peatbog is protected by EU legislation.
 
It was a rare overt nod at the changing uncertain political times we live in actually in the show, and the laugh was part recognition that there was a lot Karine wasn’t choosing to discuss, part relief that we were able to escape from the 24/7 unfiltered churn of our current affairs to this calmly curated journey into a enchanting world of migrating geese and robins with a broken wing conversing with larch trees. And also part recognition that making sense of our dark times was exactly what this show was about. That was my take on the laugh anyway!
 
The marvel of a Karine Polwart song has always been her skill and craft of choosing and placing words about something local or personal or everyday to make poetry and beauty, partly in the pure pleasure of the words and language itself, but also to reveal something deeper or more widely resonating. This combined with the exquisite choice of chord and cadence and melodic hook, plus her wonderful voice and calm, unassuming, very scottish delivery. And it all happening so perfectly and seemingly effortlessly to make something so richly pleasurable.
 
And in this show that craft is only displayed on a bigger scale, with a range of similarly skilled collaborators, with no sense at all of overreach. She shows more of herself as a performer, adding a mastery of spoken word, and unselfconscious dance-like movement, and comic timing, and the ability to hold an audience. It is very impressive.
 
And like a Russian doll, there is a nesting set of core metaphors, or layers of meaning, in this show centred around, and named for, migrating geese.
 
So a skein of migrating geese are an example of nature’s fundamental belief in socialism because of how these animals instinctively work together rotating who does the hard work of leading the V formation. The lead bird's toil creates the pockets of wind resistance reducing the workload for those flying behind, enabling them together to make incredible journeys no goose could do alone.
 
And inside that is the vision of two women Polwart and Murphy camping on Fala Moor and looking up at the geese and making these connections to share with us, by their work carving out of our turbulence pockets of meaning, nuance, and clarity for us to fly into.
 
And inside that is the history of the ecology of that Moor, and the nearby medieval hospital, and the nearby farm where Roberta died and Will and their daughter Molly lived on and the ways those stories and the research set off our present in much-needed perspective.
 
And inside that is us (or at least me!) sitting in the theatre, escaping from the turmoil and anxiety of the seemingly brand new instability of our world, and the fear and disorientation of recognising that many people in our world are also fearful and uncertain but are either making irreconcilably different connections and identifications to ours, or worse are being manipulated to do so. And they are almost certainly thinking the same about us....
 
So thank you Karine Polwart , and Pippa Murphy, David Greig and all the other skilled storytellers who contributed to this. Thankyou for sharing the content of an artist’s mind in this way. It felt rare and special.
 
And for once seeing inside someone else’s head is warm, magical, thought-provoking, inspiring. I found being so skilfully and gently shown these vistas of history and nature, and reminded of our place in these very long arcs, both inspiring, very moving, and somehow reassuring - despite the dark forces and powerful tides that are still there waiting when we leave the theatre.
 
This too will pass. There are worse times behind us. There is wisdom, constancy, gentle power, and progress in this world.
 
But there is much work to be done and a long journey ahead, and stories to be heard and told and passionately opposed, and we must find our own reasons to fly in formation and share that load of leading.

The Necks and the BBC SSO

When I have seen the Necks play they have always made me reconsider what music is and what it is for (both as a listener and a player) in a way that I have always found really cool, and I had that same experience this time but also with the symphony orchestra within that territory that is being redefined - it is redefining roles and expectations and demands on people (including audiences) and certainly orchestral musicians. It is fascinating to watch their body language and so many levels of meaning. And the bottom line was there were many moments where the orchestral element sounded really cool and to me it was a real sonic success. I saw Butch Morris doing his conducted improvisation with jazz musicians and really enjoyed it and I really enjoyed this too. That there will likely be very mixed opinions on it absolutely comes with the turf but for what it is worth that was mine!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05274dq

Mairi Campbell, Mhairi Lawson, Damp Hoody etc

After so many years working in music isn't it great when music yet again displays it's power to shock and stun you and reduce you to tears.

I was at an already wonderful concert of scots tunes set to classical music by great classical composers - Haydn Beethoven Ravel etc and played by some wonderful musicians who I toured with in Off-Kilter. Mhairi Lawson Adrian Chandler Jan Waterfield and the irresistibly fucking cool Su-a Lee . This stuff isn't normally my cup of tea but they do it so incredibly well and their grace and precision avoids the sentimental or clichéd - it is just very beautiful with restrained subtle undercurrents of emotion. Seeing them play Beethoven every night with Mark Morris' beautiful choreography and dancers was a revelation to me in Off Kilter. Mhairi Lawson's voice is like quicksilver in it's brilliance and precision. Adrian Chandlers violin sings out so precise so in control. Jan and Su-a are lovely players. Mairi Campbell was also playing viola and singing and adding a more folky slightly darker earthier voice to the occasion both on the larger fiddle and voice.

In the first set she did a lot of duos with the other Mhairi (with an h) and it was cool but you didn't really get a sense of the full musician.

Then at the start of the second set Su-a sat next to me as she wasn't on for a few tunes. First was a piece by Ravel- the piano chords sounded ridiculously jazzy. Amazing - Ravel was definitely a jazzer! Then a James Macmillan arrangement of a butns tune which was also very beautiful and stripped down. Then Mairi stepped forward to do a solo set and just plucking her viola let out this other worldly ethereal sound . You had this instant physical reaction. Hairs on the back of the neck and a pressure in the chest. It was mouth music I think, a very scottish thing, lyricless vocal improvising. But it had echoes of Meredith monks experimentalism, Jay Clayton, as well as traditional voices from Bulgaria and Africa. It was incredibly powerful moving sound.

She sang another incredibly beautiful song and played viola - wow. The she talked a while about her family, there was this growing sense of electricity in the room of emotion. This story about her great grandfather who was a missionary to china and died there aged 30. Then she sang this song about her grandmother, his widow, returning to ascotland with theit children including her mother. That song had Jan on the piano. Me and Su-a were in tears. Su-a was grabbing the sleeve of my hoody and wiping away tears. She totally blew us away.

Of course many people already know Mairi is a mega, master musician and don't need me to tell them. I already knew Mairi is a mega master musician. It is just great to see it and feel it and be reminded and to be blown away like that -quite remarkable. Gonna have to get my hoodie cleaned as well.....

The other thing I reflected on later was the impact of Mhairi', Adrian, Su-a, and Jan's more controlled, less emotionally up front music had for creating the setting out of which Mairi's very personal music could so devastatingly burst. And also the way you heard the ensemble's music differently after Mairi's solo set was finished, with this powerful emotion hanging in the air and linking up with the undercurrents and nuances in the more classical material.

You know the thing that happens when you get a set list for a gig just right so the last few tunes really kill the audience rather than a sense of slight anti-climax, and sense of there was another gear there we didn't quite hit. Or if you play a dark fractured crazy tune it can make a simple beautiful song after it sound much more powerful. There's something in that for sure. I believe because of the way music can trigger and resonate with this different states we all pass through.

The combination of these different styles really brought out the best in both. It was wonderful. Should be more of it.......cross- genre synergistic audience killing....