Another two Sound On Sound readers reveal what they get up to with all their hi-tech gear.
This month the spotlight falls on Sound On Sound readers Andrew Claxton and Pearl Marsland, who regularly tour the country presenting an unusual mix of performing arts and hi-tech music workshops.
You are involved in something you describe as 'the hi-tech performing arts project'. Tell us about it.
AC: It's called Peacock Epoch. The aim is to explore ways of integrating the performing arts of music, drama and dance - or if you prefer sound, light and movement - specifically through the use of new technology.
SOS: You are performance artists?
AC: We are performing artists as opposed to recording artists, but we have little in common with that way of doing things called 'Performance Art'. We are not conceptual artists, nor a pop group, nor minimalists. But, like everyone else, we keep our eyes and ears open. We're influenced and inspired by what others are doing.
SOS: Anyone in particular?
AC: Well, taking musical influences they come in three forms: there's music you loathe; there's music you admire - but that's as far as it goes; and there's music you both admire and love. The first and last are the most important influences. The first type influences you because you'll do anything not to sound like it yourself! The last type is the most difficult. It's the music you listen to for the sheer pleasure of it but it also pleases you in every other way. You have to do this balancing act between loving, admiring and knowing it, and keeping it at arm's length.
SOS: So who would you consider to be in the last category?
AC: The Cocteau Twins, Scritti Politti, Kate Bush, Janacek, Varese, Messiaen, Purcell are some who come to mind immediately. Then there's a host of names who've produced one or two things I love but the rest of their output doesn't have anything like the same effect.
SOS: A mixture of pop and classical...
AC: As is our work in Peacock Epoch.
SOS: So what does Peacock Epoch actually do?
AC: We present daytime workshops and evening performances of our own works. The workshops are predominantly on aspects of hi-tech music making - synthesis technique, MIDI, multitrack recording etc. This is what people want at the moment but we are also beginning to develop workshops with a more integrated arts and creative slant to reflect what we do in our performances. The workshops might vary from a 3-hour 'taster' session to a course lasting three days or more involving 'residence'.
SOS: And where do you hold these workshops?
AC: In schools, colleges, arts centres, unemployed centres, summer schools, residential centres. I first moved into hi-tech music specifically to meet the demand for a touring educational facility. That was in 1983 and since then we have presented workshops in every conceivable venue and to all age groups and abilities.
SOS: That was quite an unusual reason for first getting involved in electronic music. Had you had any previous experience such as playing in a band?
AC: I've never played in a group but, funnily enough, I will be for the first time this year. I'm playing on Dead Can Dance's new album and their tour. But I had a conventional classical training - National Youth Orchestra, Royal Academy and Bretton Hall - and like thousands of others became a teacher and local musician. I was actually a peripatetic brass teacher in Oxfordshire but also did a lot of playing, composing and working as a musical director in professional theatre.
SOS: Then you had a lucky break?
AC: Yes. Quite unexpectedly I had the chance to take a year off teaching to do further study. I went to university and took a Master's degree in Performance but the real benefit was the time it gave me to try out new things and think about what I was doing and where I was going. I also met Pearl Marsland, whose wide experience in drama and theatre and ideas on experimental performance complemented mine in music. The idea of Peacock Epoch was born and so I left teaching.
SOS: So what does a Peacock Epoch live performance entail?
AC: Well, for the tour in July, each performance will consist of a major work and perhaps a couple of 'warmup' pieces. The major work is called 'HYPE' and it's about the effect of advertising, 'opinion', crises, scandals and scares, the News, the TV soaps and the media in general on the proverbial person-in-the-street just trying to get on with life. Like all our work it's a mixture of pop and classical, improvised and scripted, live and computer-controlled styles. It's hilarious and serious.
SOS: How many people are involved?
AC: Two of us as performers and one technician.
SOS: That's a very small company for a staged performance.
AC: Yes, but that's the challenge, being able to attain the whole range from intimacy to grand spectacle. It's a theatrical problem rather than a musical one. In essence, Pearl is the performer and the focus is very much on her. As we develop in what is still new territory, technically and artistically, we will add other permanent members who are specialists in their own fields - perhaps a dancer or mime artist.
SOS: Tell us about your equipment set-up.
AC: It's a Yamaha KX88 master keyboard (the only keyboard I use) into Roland MC500 MicroComposer, then into a MIDI patchbay and out to 14 units of rackmounted sound modules of various types and digital effects units. I also have a drum machine, a Portastudio and a custom-built speaker system.
SOS: Can you expand on that?
AC: Knowing what specific things I use is irrelevant and the more musicians who think that the better. But I will say something about what I look for in sound sources. We are predominantly live performers who don't have the benefit of technical backup, so a reputation - even the slightest hint - for unreliability immediately discounts certain makes of equipment and technical approaches, no matter how much I would like to use them. The same goes for ease-of-use, and onboard sound capacity should be high with easy re-loading. I'm afraid that discounts sampling machines for me at present, until onboard capacity is greatly increased. I'm very happy that 1987 is bringing a greater number of alternatives to FM, and I'm really looking forward to trying the new Roland D-50 and Kawai K5-M digital synths.
SOS: How do you use your set-up then?
AC: Think of it as a duet between me as live performer and the MC500 as controller. My ability is in spontaneity and improvisation. The MC500's is in more practical areas like program changing, MIDI mixing and tempo control. We are exploring ways of using the MC500 as a master controller of lightmixing and theatrical effects to co-ordinate with its control in the sound domain.
SOS: You've said you're predominantly live performers. Have you no interest in recording?
AC: We use tape in our performances but I think you mean are we interested in writing an album, say.
AC: We're in no hurry to do so but certain aspects of our work are eminently recordable - the songs, for instance. It's something that doesn't interest me at this moment but could well do in a year or two's time. Video interests me more but it has little to do with live performance and that is what we are really about. Quite apart from having no record deal, we have no management, agent or publisher.
SOS: You prefer to be independent.
AC: Very much so. And we have no links with the various electronic music studios of university music departments or the so-called 'new wave'. We're not members of the Composers' Guild, SPNM, EMAS or ISM. We have nothing to do with what's unfortunately become known as 'music theatre' as in Berio, Birtwistle and Maxwell-Davies. We're self-financing and haven't applied for funding, though we are hoping for a place on one of the Arts Council touring networks in a year or two's time.
SOS: But being independent, and being difficult to classify, can bring special problems. How do you get work, how do you sell yourselves?
AC: The problem is solely one of description. If I said we were a psychobilly band... no problem. People know what to expect. If I said we were a music theatre group... again, no problem. But we're not short of offers. Our work is not 'difficult'.
We are communicators and our work is highly accessible and appealing though it covers a wide range of style and feeling. We simply make a direct approach to potential clients, maybe send off a demo tape, receive an engagement fee and pay our way. We're offering something fresh, something a little different, and people seem to like it!
Peacock Epoch will be touring all July and some of August in the Oxford, Reading, Swindon, London and Bedford regions visiting schools, colleges and arts centres to give a mixture of daytime workshops and evening performances. Contact: (Contact Details).
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