a column by
Helen Petts at Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbarn Courtesy of Helen Petts
There’s a long and vital relationship between improvised music and the visual arts, whether as inspiration, subject, or documentation, whether it’s the 1920s “jazz” paintings of Stuart Davis, Franz Kline’s King Oliver, or the loft tapes of W. Eugene Smith and David X. Young. In recent years the British artist-filmmaker Helen Petts has developed a remarkable interaction with free improvisation, both documenting it on an unparalleled scale and working with it in her own artistic practice. She has worked with guitarist John Russell with his Mopomoso improvising series and documented it extensively. She’s made a remarkable series of short video pieces in which she explores improvisers’ work close up – among them Russell and cellist Okkyung Lee. She has also integrated improvised music fully into her more extended works, like Sea Shanties and her current project, Throw Them Up and Let Them Sing, a film installation for the London Cultural Olympiad that follows Kurt Schwitters’ route from Nazi Germany to Norway and then the English Lake District, and which includes improvised music from voice artist Phil Minton and drummer Roger Turner, Adam Bohman on found objects and Sylvia Hallett on bicycle wheel.
The pieces may be contemplative, playful, intimate, or exuberant, but above all, they’re immediately available. While some of her works are made to be viewed in galleries, Petts has made liberal use of Youtube and other internet outlets, creating a vast and public video library of improvised performances. Her own pages (www.helenpetts.com and www.youtube.com/helentonic) have been linked through numerous other sites (like Emanem records’ homepage – www.emanemdisc.com – and those of several higher-profile subjects, like John Butcher and Mats Gustafsson).
What’s compelling about this work is not just its accessibility, but its quality and its variety, exhibiting the range and richness of improvised music in London, whether local or visiting, in large venues like Phil Minton leading a “feral choir” at a British Museum Exhibit for the Egyptian Book of the Dead to the intimacy of artist-musician Max Eastley playing a small, ratcheting, almost-sculptural toy in Piper of Invisible Fires Man, or Steve Beresford constructing a solo piece with two tiny toy drum kits – the last two being among several videos Petts created in tribute to the late artist/ percussionist Paul Burwell. There are free-improv super groups like The Thing and the Tarfala Trio of Mats Gustafsson, Barry Guy and Raymond Strid – and an Evan Parker Quartet with John Russell, trumpeter Peter Evans and bassist John Edwards. There’s an improvised guitar concerto with Russell and the London Improvisers’ Orchestra and the direct warmth of Lol Coxhill playing a soprano sax solo at a Mopomoso Christmas party.
Helen’s work resonates with a lifetime’s familiarity with jazz and improvised music and rises on the wellspring of her own creativity. John Russell, who has worked with Petts in both concert organizing and as a subject, says “I first met Helen when she came to a Mopomoso concert and later invited her to come and video the concerts and otherwise get involved in the running of it. I had been very keen on ways of documenting the concerts for years and almost all of them have audio records. Some of the musicians at first felt it might not be of benefit to have clips on Youtube as it was a relatively new thing for them and they maybe had only seen poorly realized amateurish stuff before.
“However this soon changed as more and more musicians got their own websites and could link to the videos and have a decent documentation of their music. It also meant that more people were aware of what they were doing and it increased interest in their work, sometimes leading to that most sought-after thing – a gig. We make both the audio and visual recordings available to the musicians which – as we have no real budget to speak of – means we can at least offer them something!
“A couple of years ago I was in Japan and a young couple said they were pleased to see me in the flesh: they had only seen me on Youtube. So it does spread the individual message. Also it lends weight to the Mopomoso project which is good for the potential audience. It has helped create a small but respected niche for our activities in the larger world.”
Some of Petts’ most remarkable videos are the “close-ups” that she has created of individual musicians. Russell is the subject of Guitarist, a nine-minute work in which the screen is filled by his fretting fingers on the fingerboard of his guitar, captured by a hand-held camera. Russell recalls the experience: “Helen has a like of 'small sounds' and asked if she could film me playing 'those pingy harmonic things.’ So I went to her flat and that's what I did while she filmed in close up. Very easy and very simple; and it’s exactly why she is so good at what she does. When she films she is listening to the music on headphones and I think this is a key to how she manages to get inside it and create a real bond between the image and the music.
“I should also mention the small cameras that are available these days. Helen can be very unobtrusive, leaving the musicians to concentrate solely on the music. In the post-production stage she can play with the film ... altering it very subtly in a way that illuminates the performance rather than adding to it or changing it. Although Helen's collaborative films are made over a different time scale, she works like a good musician in the way she illuminates what is going on. Good musicians don't play to show how good they are but how good and where the music is and Helen's work does that. It stays true to its intentions and as a result it’s authentic and has integrity.
“I know a number of visual artists and 'getting the music' while having a keen visual awareness is a rare quality. In the same way as you can talk about a musician's musicality being brought to a playing situation, I suppose you could say she brings her visuality to the process.”
The drummer Roger Turner echoes Russell’s view: “Helen has a very good eye for detail and composition of shots that’s both creative and unobtrusive, consequently letting the music speak for itself.”
Turner and Minton have partnered in Petts’ most ambitious works Sea Shanties and her current work on Kurt Schwitters. Sea Shanties had its inception in a series of works dedicated to to the late percussionist and performance artist, Paul Burwell. The ultimate version of the piece is a 17-minute series of tableaux that revolve around a bowl filled with liquid. The original idea was Turner’s, for whom, “it worked off the facts of his education in a naval school, and his work with fire and water in Bow Gamelan.”
The Schwitters Project, Throw Them Up and Let Them Sing, has found ideal collaborators in Turner and Minton, dovetailing with Turner's long familiarity with Schwitters’ art and with Minton’s intense sense of the continuity of art, politics and experience. Long well-versed in the sound poetry of Schwitters’ Ursonate, Phil reflects: “Until recently I was not aware of Schwitters’ greatness as a multi-media artist in a period in recent world history that was more weird than the Crusades.
“I come from a family culture of Protestant hymn singing, with Germans dropping bombs on me, Hitler and Churchill vocals on the wireless, and through all this shit the sound of Louis Armstrong. “Wild Man Blues” is still my template.
“Schwitters cured my prejudice of the German language ‘sound,’ the opposite to jazz, or what jazz was before it was taught in colleges, ducking and dodging, never on the one, impossible to control an army, so German music was not to be taken seriously for me, until the hooligans from Wuppertal. If you wanted to invade someplace, the sound was Wagner, but if you’re after sense, it's Schwitters.
An interview with Helen Petts:
Stuart Broomer: When did you first become exposed to and interested in improvised music?
Helen Petts: My father is a jazz pianist and I was an only child. I spent many, many hours just listening to him practice – mainly improvising alone on evenings when he didn't have a gig. And I remember records by Miles Davis and Oscar Peterson in the house. But it was mainly my Dad's playing that trained me to listen to all those spontaneous shifts and changes. I loved it. Then when I was a teenager I had a jazz drummer boyfriend who introduced me to jazz-rock: Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin. All that '70s stuff. When I was 16, I went to Amsterdam and stayed on a houseboat for a couple of months and discovered all sorts of European avant-garde literature and art and went to see Lol Coxhill, Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink play at the Concertgebouw.
That was my first pure free improvisation gig. I was appallingly precocious, very intellectual, getting involved in left-wing and feminist politics, and this music seemed to fit. Then when I was 18, I moved to London to live with the drummer again who was working in a large musical instrument suppliers and he knew Tony Oxley and we always had stuff for Tony in our room. I remember a massive set of Chinese gongs. We sort of hung out in Ronnie Scott's every evening as we were permanently on the guest list. It was the late 70's, I was still a teenager, and it was great fun. But I was always just the drummer's girlfriend and it was free jazz not free improvisation. Then I went to live in Paris for a while as part of my French university degree but sort of lost touch with the jazz scene for a while as I discovered feminist politics.
SB: When did you reconnect again?
HP: When I got back to London I started going to feminist fringe theatre and music and I gave up on men for a few years! I went to Maggie Nicols' Feminist Improvisation Group, Irène Schweizer gigs, and I hung around at the old Vortex Jazz Club quite a bit which was in Stoke Newington then and always had a lot of women musicians playing. I didn't really know about free improvisation as such – I just thought it was all feminist jazz really. But I really responded to it. I now understand that there was a definite rebellion against the male jazz scene. I hated all that virtuoso soloing with everyone else nodding their heads in reverent appreciation. Of course there were lots of male musicians rejecting all that too. The free improvisation I love came out of a desire for a more egalitarian music and left-wing politics.
Around 25 I started studying film making at the London Filmmakers Co-op which was in the same building as the London Musicians' Collective, the centre for free improvisation at the time. I knew I liked weird music, so I walked in there once but felt totally intimidated, nobody spoke to me, and I felt it was just for musicians. There didn't seem to be anyone in the audience as such and you couldn't hide at the back!
So I never went back. I probably just went on the wrong night. I was a working class girl from Yorkshire, I didn't have a music degree and I didn't feel it was for me. I also thought it was elitist. I was working in a women's refuge by then, also very involved in anti-racist politics and organizing benefits with music, all the usual left-wing stuff. I started filming benefit gigs, and making funny feminist videos with the new cheap video cameras, often with songs, which I shot myself and my friend recorded the sound. I wanted to speak to the masses and change the world at that time. I thought avant-garde music and art was bourgeois. Of course I now know that the people I now film were on exactly the same wavelength politically and I was missing out. I should have been hanging out with them at the time.
But ironically, when one of my feminist films won an award and was shown on TV, I disappeared into a career in the mainstream TV industry. I also worked on commercial music videos which I loved doing but there were no women directors then. (I did work as an assistant director for Godley and Creme though.) I didn't have time to go to gigs. I sort of lost myself completely to be honest and forgot who I was. It seemed important to have a proper career and money. Though looking back on this time I ended up making some very eccentric arts programs and never really fitted into mainstream TV.
This all stopped at 35 years old when I was involved in a serious road accident. I had been asked to make a funny TV arts documentary with the music journalist Paul Morley as part of a series of ironic looks at certain phenomena in popular culture for the UK Channel Four, which was quite experimental in those days. I was doing “Weddings.” I needed a composer and I was given the choice of either David Sylvian or Steve Beresford. I chose Steve as I remembered him from the Vortex days and also had an idea he could write funny, ironic, camp music which was what I wanted. He was perfect. He got Alex Balanescu to perform very schmaltzy solo violin. Working with Steve, we talked a great deal about music and I remembered my past and my time at the Vortex and how much fun it was.
Then after leaving a restaurant one night with Steve I was involved in a very nasty road accident that ended that career. I have severe memory problems, concentration and I'm very tired a lot of the time. I was diagnosed with a head injury and later also with chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s called ME [myalgic encephalomyelitis] in the UK.
I was pretty much a write-off for a few years, but listened to an enormous amount of music. I realized that my sensibilities had dramatically changed and I decided to make a film about it. In 1996 I was awarded an Arts Council grant under a scheme for disabled artists to make a film about stillness and perception. It was called Poleaxed and it was much more abstract than my previous work and thanks to Glyn Perrin, the wonderful classical composer who worked on it with me who became a sort of mentor for a while, very influenced by the music of Morton Feldman and the theories of John Cage. The film has very sparse piano music played by Glyn and clarinet played by Roger Heaton. I now find the dialogue very embarrassing but the visuals were much more abstract than anything I had made before, leading me towards making work for the art gallery world.
SB: What was it that triggered your interest in documenting free improvisation?
HP: That happened only 6 years ago. I can remember the exact moment that I decided I had to film free improvised music. Steve Beresford, who had stayed a friend – nowadays he is also a massively supportive sounding board for everything I do--invited me to a gig at the now closed Red Rose club in London to see the Recedents – [drummer] Roger Turner, [saxophonist] Lol Coxhill (again), and Mike Cooper who I remembered as a blues guitarist from my younger days. I thought it was one of the best gigs of my whole life. It was incredible. There were 6 maybe 7 people in the audience which was not unusual in those days. At the end Roger scraped a few strange sounds with a plastic fork on the surface of the floor tom-tom and there was a really interesting shadow on the skin.
I decided at that moment that this was exactly what I was trying to do in my painting but it was sound and movement as well and I had to film it. It's about a particular engagement with texture and rhythm of course. It’s also a fascination with very, very small sounds and the space around them. It’s exactly that which intrigues me. Not the musicians themselves, not the personalities, not the good-looking ones. You have no idea the misunderstandings that can arise sometimes! You would think I was some kind of groupie the responses I used to get. I was 50 years old for heaven’s sake!
SB: You were finding your own ways to interact with it?
HP: Yes. I discovered if I wore headphones I would lose myself completely in the music. And if the light is interesting and the music allows for space in which I can interact, then I find those rhythms , textures, colors, shadows, reflections--formal interactions--with the music. I'm improvising, too, of course. Sometimes it’s just a technically good little Youtube video, but at other times something magical happens and I just feel a shift or connection – exactly what happens on the rare occasions I do a decent painting. I hardly remember it afterwards.
SB: How do you feel this interaction has affected your work?
HP: Well it’s given me a new career. That's what's really amazing. I can't work in any mainstream TV or film work anymore. My health isn't up to it and I would hate that work now anyway. I'm not a consistently good enough painter and I'm way too sociable to spend all my time in the studio, which I find claustrophobic as well. I much prefer being up a mountain or at a gig.
When I first started filming concerts, the guitarist John Russell asked me to film his monthly gig Mopomoso which had just moved to my old favorite, the Vortex Jazz Club, on a regular basis. My partner had just died and I needed something to get me out of the house. I didn't like being alone in the studio and I wasn't painting much at all anyway. It helped me out of the bereavement at first. I started to help John with publicity and sending out emails, did a grant application and just supported him a lot. We now get quite decent audiences.
I made films every third Sunday of the month at Mopomoso. I put them on Youtube and there is now a massive archive of free improvised music online. For me this has led to actual paid work and commissions, so I don't always have the time or energy to film our gigs. We've started a dedicated Mopomoso Youtube channel; separate to my own [http://www.youtube.com/user/mopomoso]. A member of the audience called Andy Newcombe who runs his own Youtube channel called "Shuffleboil" [http://www.youtube.com/shuffleboil/] now shares the work with me. So there is still an archive, but it’s not all filmed by me now.
Working with John Russell and Mopomoso has given me extraordinary access to brilliant musicians who trust me because of John – who is loved by all, I have to say! He does so much to help other people and he has been a massive support to me.
SB: You’re using Youtube as a vehicle for art as well as promotion.
HP: I think so. Youtube’s development has been very interesting for me. It happened at exactly the same time as me filming the gigs and it was really the reason I decided to do it. There was some hopelessly amateurish footage of free improvisation on Youtube and I felt I owed it to the music to make a decent archive of the performances. Derek Bailey had recently died and a few other people. I regretted not filming him. At the same time the introduction of small stills cameras that shoot good quality HD video made a massive difference.
My former TV colleagues are always amazed when they see the quality of my images shot on a camera that costs £200. Now, all sorts of artists and film-makers are using online sites like Youtube and Vimeo and there are masses of archive footage of music. I was sort of forced to make work for the web as I couldn't do a formal job. I wanted my work to be seen by an audience and this online audience was ready and waiting on Youtube. I got so many messages from people all over the world.
And now I have been told that I have developed some new strange hybrid visual art and music art form that exists predominantly online. It’s a very private viewing experience and that leads to a different kind of work: it’s small, intimate, short, close-up. At its best it’s like the sonnet used to be – a private poem. I now also show my work in galleries and in festivals, projected large ... but most of it was primarily made for viewing online, small and intimate.
SB: And that hybrid is very much tied up with improvisation?
HP: Oh, yes. Working with some of the best musicians in the world has taught me a great deal. The visual art world in London – and especially my old school Goldsmith's College – is very much dominated by a conceptual art approach, the belief that an artist must have an idea thoroughly worked out before the work is made. I could never do that. Making any kind of art work, I begin with a response to a particular tiny formal aspect of what I am looking at regardless of the medium or the subject. In fact the subject is usually an investigation of the way a particular light or shadow interacts with a particular rhythm. But whatever it is, it grows quite intuitively. For the musicians I work with, that is totally understood and I feel like I have found my group, my home, the place in which I can make work and be understood. So that has given me the confidence to do what feels right for me.
I hated the mainstream film-making world and I have never been very good at narrative structure or facts. I have never felt very happy in the very conceptual visual art scene in London, so this has been great to find my artistic family. I worked with Max Eastley early on. Max is both a visual artist and a musician. I learned a lot from him about where I fit in the art world.
On a very practical level I work alone as a one woman outfit, recording my own sound on a Zoom recorder - usually with a separate mic on a stand if the musicians agree - and now also filming with small stills cameras. This makes the whole thing much more portable and I can be very mobile.
SB: As I’ve looked at the Youtube and Vimeo sites, I’m amazed at the amount of work you’ve documented: the Mopomoso series; Phil Minton and the Feral Choir at the British Museum; Evan Parker’s quartet at Freedom of the City. It’s a remarkable gift to a community just in terms of making a record of it, but also spreading the word. I think sometimes people are much more responsive to improvised music when they can see it being made.
HP: Thanks. It's really nice to hear that. I have filmed Phil Minton quite a lot. He's amazing, the most extraordinary singer ever. But I also love what he does with his face. It’s a gift for the camera. I filmed him 4 years ago singing the folk song “The Cutty Wren” at a small party. I didn't have a clue what I was doing. It's very underexposed and off mike, but somehow it’s great just like that.
It's gone crazy! It was one of the first pieces I put on Youtube and it went ballistic! It’s had over 20,000 hits and many other blogs and websites have recommended it. It’s not really free improvisation – it’s just genius. There is nobody else like him. And Veryan Weston's piano playing is gorgeous. Phil doesn't speak much – I just turn up and film him. I have no idea if he ever watches it afterwards. I showed it last week in a theatre in Zürich and it’s amazing seeing him so big on the screen and through such a good sound system. The facial grimaces were massive!
Your comment about a gift is nice. It's a strange thing. When I first started, some musicians, the younger ones, thought I was doing them a favor making free videos for them that they could use. The older ones thought they were doing me a favor letting me film them for nothing. If I just film a gig straight, it's like a session for me. It's their gig. I have to fit in with the audience and the lighting and usually that's not really very creative for me. But I do it because I think it’s an important gig and also--to be honest--because it will bring viewers to the site to see the less well-known musicians. Like this concert with Evan Parker. I hated the camera position and the lighting was like a school concert – but the music is great and it’s had over 19,000 hits.
SB: Do you find a lot of difference in shooting from one site to another?
HP: Oh, yes. I do what I like at Mopomoso because it's my gig and I can change the lights and I feel I can sometimes put the camera on the stage if I ask the musicians. I wouldn't dream of doing that anywhere else. Cafe Oto [another London venue] has a fantastic program but the lighting is horrible – way too dark. It's hard to film there, so I only do it when it’s a very important gig as it takes a lot of work afterwards in the edit to get the image decent to be honest. The Tarfala Trio was filmed there Mats Gustafsson wrote about my Youtube site on his blog which brought in a big new audience.
SB: What first inspired the extreme Close-up pieces? It’s almost as if the camera is playing the music.
It was watching John Russell that first made me want to do something much more close-up. He's an extraordinary musician who plays in this very intimate way. I asked him to come and play in my living room so I could do the first of a series of specially filmed pieces just for me – no audience.
And thanks to John Russell and Steve Beresford introductions, when someone like Okkyung Lee is in town I can just invite her round and ask her to let me film her. She's incredible. I consider myself very honored to have had this opportunity.
SB: I particularly enjoyed the pieces with Gino Robair –Gino Robair in My Kitchen and Knife Bin. There`s a sense here of abstracting the domestic into another form. I also suspect some form of Heisenberg principle is at work here: This music exists in part because of the process of collaboration and documentation. How do you view these performances?
HP: An ideal situation is where the musician appreciates what I do and we have an equal collaboration and a creative dialogue – which does not mean talking a lot, just exploring each other’s creative language. I have that with Gino. He was already playing kitchen knives and pots and pans and stuff in the States. He had looked at my work online and really liked it. So he got in touch and asked me to work with him. He just asked if he could come and do it in my kitchen while he was in London and see how it might work if I filmed it. It was very simple and very easy. My visual language of strange quite abstract close-ups added itself very well to his sounds and the way he makes them. The tiny camera creates a whole new viewpoint of an E-Bow!
For Knife Bin I had already wanted to do something with a percussionist on the canal near my house as I thought the space had a very strange resonant acoustic. So I asked him to play there and I tried out a new double lavalier mike I had on him while he played. The separate mikes on his lapels added to the sound as they create a slight reverb. And he discovered the hollow, empty knife bin sound which of course I had missed. He's a drummer and he likes playing in urban spaces, so I suggested the location and then just followed him.
SB: Sea Shanties, the piece for Paul Burwell, seems to go even further as a collaboration?
HP: It was commissioned in 2010 by Matt's Gallery – a publicly funded gallery in London – and Anne Bean the performance artist. Looking at my Youtube site she realized that many of the musicians were Paul's former colleagues. She asked me to collaborate on a large compilation film with them and other visual artists also collaborators of Paul’s. Paul was her former Bow Gamelan Ensemble partner who had died in a very tragic drink-related death. I was commissioned to make the films with 11 musicians. Roger Turner and Phil Minton were two of them.
SB: It seems to develop the movement of liquid as a kind of analogue for musical processes in time.
HP: The original idea came from Roger Turner who found the bowl and the water and used some of his found objects that make interesting sounds. (I can never ask the musicians what to play. It always has to come from them.) We improvised the whole thing in my living room. I had already worked with them many times by then. We were only intending to contribute the first piece of the close-up on the water but Anne used clips of the other footage and a few months later I decided to re-edit the whole thing into a longer piece – a series of tableaux with title pages. I have often made TV arts programs in that format actually. But its Phil and Roger's performance that makes it so good. I showed this film at a music festival in Zürich and I never cease to be amazed at their performance both as musicians and as silent comedy actors!
SB: Your current project for the Cultural Olympiad – Throw Them Up and Let Them Sing – traces Kurt Schwitters’ journey from Nazi Germany to Norway and explores some of Schwitters’ domestic art projects – his Merz concept and the way he would turn junk into art and his living spaces into expansive works of art. It seems like a wonderful coming together of different kinds of improvisation. I take it this was planned from the outset with improvised music?
HP: I thought of it as a follow-up to Sea Shanties with Roger and Phil that would also incorporate the landscape film work I had begun the following year while I was in Nepal. I was a visiting lecturer at Kathmandu University music department for a few weeks and I went trekking in the Himalayas alone with a porter. I discovered Schwitters' collages through a visit to the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, Germany, after a screening of my films at Hanover Jazz Week.
Roger Turner had loaned me a book about him a couple of years earlier and I liked the story but didn't really see what all the fuss was about with his work. Then I discovered the collages and was totally blown away and decided I wanted to make a film that references Schwitters’ art work and his obvious love for mountains, lakes, rhythms and textures in the landscapes he went to, intercut with similar musical rhythms and textures from Minton and Turner's music with a little added Merz-type humor visually from them. I decided to add Adam Bohman to the mix as he is the most Merz-like person I know and I wanted his little scratchy sounds he makes with found objects with contact mikes. And Sylvia Hallett plays a bicycle wheel that sounds just like bleak empty Norwegian fjords where Schwitters first lived in exile. Also Schwitters used the wheel as a recurring motif in his work, so it’s a visual reference. But it’s still being made so I don't really want to say any more about it.
But there is one final thing I feel I have to say. It is hugely flattering to have an interview with Point of Departure and to have what I am doing recognized – but at the end of the day I am not a musician and my music films are only ever as good as the musicians I am filming. They come first. It's all down to them in the end.
Text © Stuart Broomer 2012