Sound and Vision
Musician and performer James Foz Foster goes to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2009, and here reflects on music and sound design in relation to puppetry and animation
I'm sitting in the front row of the main auditorium of the
C Venue in Edinburgh for a performance by Zic Zazou of Brocante Sonore: The Mechanicians. The large stage is an impossible clutter of workmen's tools, machines and materials forged into a large sculptural edifice, with a mechanical timepiece at the back. The whole thing looks like a faithful representation of a Heath Robinson contraption. The set is brimming with potential, every object on the stage looks like it may have a use, and we sit and contemplate what that use might be.
‘Wow’ says the person sitting next to me. ‘Wow’ I say back. Then the performance begins with the sound of workmen banging and beating with their tools and machines, making an impossibly beautiful rhythm.
This would be a good point to register my interest and the main theme of this article. I'm a musician and designer who likes theatre, puppets and the creative use of objects. My brief was to report on theatre at The 2009 Edinburgh Festival Fringe that uses both music/sound and object animation as integral elements of the performance and the coming together of these different disciplines; and also have a personal interest in the pleasingly difficult task of defining which is a theatrical piece, which a music concert or which an art installation, or indeed musing on whether definitions matter at all.
A concern is when musicians or artists think they can make theatre without the experience or skill required to create dramatic tension, or when theatre-makers use objects without art, or make music without soul. Yet when everything comes together it can be magical.
So back to Zic Zazou. Enter nine men of different ages ranged between 20 and 60, looking like workers in a factory workshop going about their daily routines. The foreman starts the day by giving orders to the workers and setting the clock (the complicated contraption at the back of the stage). The performance cycles around the room as each small group of workmen take a turn at centrestage to smoke and chat using Jacques Tati-esque guttural sounds and gestures. As they work the objects become incredible, ingenious musical instruments and the main focus for that section's piece of music. As an example; A 20-foot-long section of pipe is pulled to the front of the stage; the workmen fix, bend and drill holes in it; and when this is complete one of them blows it while the others cover and uncover the holes they have drilled. The result is like a deeper more powerful oboe. Each object
on stage is examined, handled, worked on – its creative, visual and comedic value explored whilst it is played, beaten and bounced. The drama is in the relationship developed between the men, their work routine and the fallibility of the machines they operate. Chaos ensues when the clock goes haywire as the men try desperately to fix it before the end of the working day (and thus in time for the finale of the show!). As a sometime nine-to-five worker I really felt for them – this piece had a lot to say about the nature of men's work. Concert or theatre? I bought the CD.
Power Plant, produced by Simon Chatterton in association with Sound and Music, was an activated installation created by a group of artists, technicians and musicians at the Botanical Gardens on the outer edge of Edinburgh. Although there were no visible performers and the objects and installations seemingly not directly manipulated during the performance (some of them were there, but hidden or unobtrusive), this was a deeply moving theatrical experience. This was the theatre of space, objects, sound and light. Each room of the gardens was curated by a different artist and the audience walks through the spaces unguided. Inspiration came from the tropical/exotic plants and the glasshouse buildings themselves, these being the main site of the piece, although some work was placed outdoors.
Some spaces took inspiration from the British colonial past that inspired the building of the gardens. A row of standard lamps light a path while wind-up gramophones play records made of broken glass that make a sound reminiscent of cicadas and jungle insects. The horns of the gramophones are lit to mimic the bell shaped exotic flowers of the plants in the glasshouse. Others are inspired by the alien nature of some of the plants: giant metal stems firing jets of petal-like flame in to the air creating beautiful undefinable music. The objects have a life of their own and help the audience view the building and the plants in a different light. Like all good theatre, the piece generates a suspension of disbelief and a sense of awe and wonder. You are fully in their world whilst in the gardens and are taken on a journey that informs, questions, entertains and creates a platform for discussion on the
issues surrounding its subject matter. This was an art installation, yet in some ways a performance… a theatre of performing objects and sounds. Perhaps best not to give it a tag and just enjoy and experience it for what it is. They had no CDs but I would have bought one.
The common link between these two very different shows was that everything was perfectly integrated, a total experience. During each of these shows, the experience was everything; it was onlyafter leaving that I thought about how much I liked the objects or the music.
So now, out of the gardens and back indoors…
As a lover of jaunty song, cardboard props and amateur dramatics I had great expectations for Little Bulb's folk opera Sporadical, which took place nightly at Edinburgh’s hippest new ‘fringe-of-the-Fringe’ venue, the Forest Fringe. Set around a family reunion, of which the audience is a part, Sporadical is the story of how the two sides of the family, the Welles and the Ferrys, are joined. Little Bulb were artists in residence for the Forest Fringe and the show was devised during the residency (so something of an ongoing Scratch performance). But even so, I found the outcome disappointing. When using song in a show it should help drive the narrative, but the songs here didn’t seem to do that, and weren’t particularly memorable. Cardboard props have become the shabby
chic of theatre and are great when used creatively. This show used them to help convey the make-and-do aesthetic of a family reunion in the local village hall, which conceptually made sense, but they looked and felt like what they were – a badly-painted boat and some wobbly signs with little artistic merit. The amateur nature of a family reunion re-enactment was a difficult theatrical device to pull off – it takes a great deal of professionalism to play an amateur, and it is a difficult line to tread. There were some good feisty performances and a well-handled technical hitch, but ultimately I felt I had been on the wrong side of a local village hall production. If there were CDs, I wouldn’t have bought one.
A good example of making theatre that combines puppetry, object
animation and music is the children's show Jumping Mouse by Unpacked Theatre. In relation to this article’s theme they provide an excellent example of the integration of the musical and visual elements. They use traditional puppets, objects, junk, sound and music, all in the service of telling the story in an apparently effortless way. The onstage musician/prop-man provides musical backing and sound effects with impeccable timing, the characters burst in to song at unexpected moments – and the songs leave you smiling. Great puppeteers with the inventiveness, playfulness and professional delivery that is needed to transport the audience when using objects – old crutches will only become a soaring eagle in the right hands! When in the show you’re in their world, it's only when you come out that you realise what they've done and how they did it. They had no CDs but they had finger puppet mice for sale, and I still a mouse in my pocket.
Also seen in Edinburgh was Xavier Mortimer's Shadow Orchestra, one man with a projected shadow orchestra of his own silhouette behind him, each playing a different instrument. During the show he takes the role and instrument of each of the orchestra members and interacts with the silhouettes; each instrument becomes the vehicle for a series of clowning, juggling and magic tricks. The clarinet blows bubbles which he proceeds to juggle, you guess he has replaced the bubbles with glass balls and then he pops them. The skills are polished and professional, the music sounds like – and is of the quality of – the Amelie soundtrack. The live and animated antics of the instruments and props are quirky, charming and perfectly timed A chair gallops about on the screen with the animated musicians and then is perfectly in place when the screen rises to reveal the real prop. A suitcase walks around like a dog on screen, then comes out from behind the screen and proceeds to 'walk' across the stage. Every prop and instrument is animated on screen and on the stage, everything perfectly timed with wit and charm. The show was more a series of cabaret acts than a whole integrated show, and had little narrative or dramatic tension, but was still charming, drawing the audience into the world created onstage. As light as a feather but none the worse for it. I'll buy the CD when I can find it.