This article was originally written May 19, 2014.
A rumination on the relationships between sound, geography, musical heritage and cultural belonging in Sheffield and South Yorkshire
That’s what I read on my program as I stood in the cavernous space of S1 Art Studio last Thursday. At one end of the room was a makeshift stage with a dozen or so music stands on it. In front of the stage was a table, which propped up an array of ominous electronic equipment. I had been invited to the evening’s event, A Long Walk to Grimethorpe, by local arts platform, Hand Of Sheffield. The description of the event on their flyers was more succinct: ‘a performance for brass band, sound recordings and film’. I was still unsure what a marriage of these incongruous elements would bring.
The lights dimmed. Louise Snape, founder of Hand Of Sheffield, described the evening’s program in a little more detail. The second half of the program would feature a musical composition written by her brother, aspiring electronic musician, Joe Snape. But first we would be treated to a documentary exploring the music’s composition.
The documentary was projected onto the industrial expanse of wall behind the stage. In the film, Snape told us of his lifelong affinity for brass music, and how he intended to search for creative stimulus in the 20 mile journey from Sheffield to Grimethorpe – the Nirvana of brass music. But in a twist, he planned to complete the journey whilst wearing a tuba stuffed with microphones. If he pointed the bell of the tuba at whatever was making noise, the microphones inside would pick up and record the sound.
Interspersed with scenes of Snape awkwardly lugging his tuba over wooden stiles, or aiming the bell of his tuba at a miserable stream, were interviews with long-time brass band members. The interviews were invaluable: the scions of brass laid out the history of brass bands in Yorkshire, commented on the current state of brass music, and informed us of the unprecedented burst of popularity brass music received after the film Brassed Off was released.
Director Ismar Badzic deserves credit for the documentary: light hearted, comedic and without a whiff of pretentiousness. It was the right approach, reflecting the modest origins of brass music, and successfully countered the highly conceptual nature of Snape’s composition. In his interviews, Snape was also reassuringly straight-talking.
During the documentary, Snape said that the best noise he recorded was the sound of an aeroplane flying overhead.
The sound featured in the opening stages of the composition, where a whine grew into a roar that was combined with thunderous chords from the University of Sheffield Brass Band. The wall of sound seemed to make the rickety tin roof shake.
Another memorable section was when the brass band played staccato notes over the sound of drizzling rain. Snape discovered that one of the side effects from rigging his tuba with microphones was that they recorded the rhythm of his walk. The ‘thump’ of the brass managed to capture the repetitive nature of the hike, and evoked long stretches of field which Snape summed up as ‘monotonous’.
But the composition wasn’t monotonous. Anything but. The staccato notes produced a meditative, rocking quality; the soaring ambient tones reminded me of the never-ending landscape around Yorkshire.
The indefatigable Louise Snape deserves merit for her contribution towards the event. Hand Of Sheffield managed to pull off a seamless evening of thought-provoking music.
On the second day of Doc/Fest, I went to see Life Itself: the biopic of acclaimed American film critic, Roger Ebert (you can see the trailer, here). Director Steve James shot the film in the Autumnal years of Ebert’s life; the first decade of the millennium was disastrous for Ebert’s health, and he suffered furious bouts of cancer which rendered him hospital bound, unable to speak. This lost, jovial man is a giant leap from the outrageous, acerbic wit that James depicts through interviews with colleagues and friends, archival footage and photos.
Ebert was born to an electrician and a housewife, and from high school, worked prodigiously to elevate himself beyond his working class background. Despite this, he never truly lost touch with his roots. He spent almost his entire career as film critic of the Chicago-Sun, which – in opposition to the patrician Chicago-Tribune – catered to African-Americans and the working class. In the early days of his career, Ebert would ‘hold court’ in bars, where he and his colleagues became riotously drunk. Famed for his boisterous antics amongst the local press, a friend reveals that Ebert would occasionally walk home in the early hours of the morning, ‘wishing he was dead’ – one of many small but humanising touches of the documentary.
The film covers a bizarre moment in Ebert’s career when, at the bemusement of his friends and colleagues, he collaborated with famed chauvinist and breast aficionado Ross Meyer to create the sex-ridden flick, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The film flopped hard, despite receiving a cult following today. In a grainy glimpse of footage, Ebert admits, ‘I just wanted to get laid’.
Perhaps the most iconic period of Ebert’s career is his affiliation with rival film critic, Gene Siskel. Together, they presented the bi-weekly film review show Sneak Previews which helped transform film criticism into a reputable, serious discipline. The pair were hugely competitive: they trade verbal barbs with each other off air, and Siskel’s wife treats us to a memorable anecdote which humorously captures the awkward and often frosty relationship between the pair.
The interviews with Ebert’s family are the most telling moments of the documentary. Despite his caustic reputation on screen, Ebert is a man clearly capable of great warmth and enthusiasm. The film serves as a meditation on death as much as a biopic of Ebert, and it is somewhat ironic that the lucid, flapping-jawed critic is forced to communicate through a computer towards the end. But don’t expect the wisecracking Ebert to wallow in self-pity: he remains upbeat all the way through.
More than a fantastic documentary of one of the world’s most influential film critics, but also a life-affirming tale.
According to reports, British jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq are becoming increasingly disillusioned.
Since 2011, an estimated 500 British citizens have travelled to Syria to join groups affiliated with Islamic State (Isis). The head of the International Centre for Study and Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College, London, believes that up to 20 per cent of British jihadists could be trying to find an exit.
The reason is simple: conflict between splinter rebel groups has distracted them from their goals – the overthrow of Assad, the jihadist cause – and resulted in bitter sectarian violence. A British citizen in Syria described it as ‘gang warfare’ to researchers.
There could be contributing factors for their despondency. Few British jihadists could have predicted the nature of the atrocities they would be encouraged to commit. British citizens are also given the lowliest jobs in Isis, due to a poor religious record and lack of combat experience.
260 jihadists have already returned to the UK, and with numbers surging, it is no surprise that David Cameron feels he needs to strengthen measures allowing the police a tighter grip on Islamic extremism.
The new powers will allow the police to seize passports of suspected terrorists at borders, so that they can ‘investigate the individual concerned’. They can also be relocated: London is so vast it would be difficult to track a suspect in the capital.
These new powers are paramount. Whether they are disillusioned or not, the British jihadists returning are likely be more radical, and less compassionate than they were before their stints in Iraq and Syria. Their influence on young people could supplement the successful juggernaut that is the social media campaign of Isis.
If this sounds patronising, it shouldn’t do. I don’t doubt the resolve for a moment of the vast majority of Muslims in the UK. It just so happens that high production values and social media can be very effective at persuading people to forget logic and latch on to a simple message. Think of the Kony 2012 fiasco.
Besides, the notion of jihad and martyrdom hardly need any advertisement. Their messages are perhaps the oldest and simplest in history.
So who are these British citizens heading over to fight?
You might assume they’re badly educated social outcasts, attracted by ‘jihadi cool’ and the sense of companionship on display in the online videos of Isis.
But Aqsa Mahmood doesn’t fit this mould. Educated at the £3,500-a-term Craigholme School in Glasgow, Aqsa is described as ‘popular’ and ‘fun’ by her friends. Since disappearing last year, she has travelled to Syria and married an Isis fighter.
Aqsa has made many stark call-to-arms via twitter. Under the pseudonym ‘Umm Layth’, she has incited others to re-enact the Woolwich murder, and dispatched such nuggets of wisdom as: ‘If you cannot make it to the battlefield, then bring the battlefield to yourself.’
Her parents responded this week, saying that Aqsa had, ‘ripped the heart out of the family.’ They describe her as a bedroom radical, who had left a secure and loving household.
Less well known are brothers Polad and Lahur Talabani. They travelled to north east Iraq, to join the Kurdish forces and fight against Isis.
The pair spent their childhood hiding from Saddam’s forces in the Kurdish mountains, before finding refuge in south east London. They love the UK – Polad has a penchant for Scoth whisky – but felt they had to return to the Kurdish region to protect their homeland.
Polad now leads the Kurdish Counter-Terror Group, the peshmerga, while Lahur has an equally prestigious job in Kurdish intelligence. They both owe their political acumen to their uncle, Jalal Talabani, who leads one of the most important political parties in the region.
Everyone travelling from the UK to Iraq and Syria have personal reasons for making the trip. It’s likely many of them have had to do things they didn’t want to do. Yet how do we distinguish between those genuinely repentant, and those spilling crocodile tears?
The new powers Cameron is introducing are a step in the right direction. If jihadists become rehabilitated, they could become the most commanding opponents of extremism. Yet severe caution is needed. Isis and Al-Qaeda are canny, and know how to play politics. The last thing we need is a naïve and over-trusting government.
‘In the near future I am quite confident that individuals, such as Alex Calderwood will be seen as the lowest of the low’ – commentator NottinghamFlorist
The other day, I was stunned when I read an article in The Guardian about Alex Calderwood. My shock wasn’t at the content of the article – after all, I only skimmed that as I had no idea who Alex Calderwood was – but at the comments nestled at the bottom of the page, where Calderwood was being fried in a vat of cruel remarks. Sure: I had only cast a cursory glance over the article, but nowhere had I seen the words ‘paedophile’, ‘dictator’, ‘mass murderer’- as you might expect considering the bludgeoning he was receiving. Instead, the article created a portrait of an innovative entrepreneur whose relentless schedule had caused his stress-induced premature death at the tender age of 44. But he couldn’t have died. Surely not. For the lack of compassion in the comments at the bottom bypassed all sensitivity. I couldn’t help being reminded of the scathing public reaction to Maggie Thatcher’s passing.
But Alex Calderwood had died, and many of the commentators didn’t seem satisfied at dancing on his grave, but pissing all over it too. Bemused, I read the article properly. According to the article, Calderwood had finished school in the 1980’s, and launched an, ‘ever-diversifying career, involving fashion design and retail, nightclubs, a barbers’ shop chain… and most recently, an international chain of hotels that successfully overturned many of the rules of the hospitality trade.’ In the eyes of the commentators, Calderwood’s crime wasn’t his ravenous appetite for capitalist success, but the way in which he achieved it.
The same article states that Calderwood’s, ‘broader tastes and enthusiasms – vintage clothes and tattoo parlours, reclaimed furniture and buildings, a more relaxed service culture, army surplus and Americana, comfort food and graffiti art, fancy coffee and retro typography – helped redefine what many people think of as an appealing urban life’. Indeed, many of these aspects can be seen in Calderwood’s chain of hotels, named Ace Hotels. In the newest hotel, located in London’s Shoreditch,the industrial chic reception room is dominated by jagged straight lines – from the reclaimed factory table to the giant rusty A’s suspended from the ceiling. The bedrooms are typically sparse, save for a striking decorative element: on one bedroom wall is smeared the words ‘You could already be a winner’; on the shelf of another sits a prim copy of Nabokov’s Lolita. Let’s pick apart this last example. What kind of a person (except, perhaps, for Alan Partridge) would stay in a hotel long enough to finish a 370 page novel? How do we describe its presence in the room? It’s there as a symbol of poignancy, introspectiveness, intellect – except that, due to the sheer impracticality of using it in its intended way, it serves merely as a superficial decoration.
This analogy is at the heart of why hipsters rile people up. To many, Calderwood and his ilk exploit things of artistic value for their own ends, and in the process of doing so, strip them of merit. They take innovation – minimalism, vintage, works of literature – and mix and match them into a commercially viable package where image is king and content significant insofar as it bolsters the image. Calderwood’s detractors called him a hipster. But what is a ‘hipster’? Similarly to all contemporary subcultures, it’s difficult to pin down a concrete definition because we don’t have the advantage of being objectively isolated from them through history, as we are with, say, the Pre-Raphaelites (the hipsters of Victorian Britain). They are a product of today’s society, meaning our view of them is tainted by the kaleidoscope of personal experience. However, this video provides quite a funny example.
I used to consider all hipsters liars. What I mean by this is that their fashion sense can be deceptive, leading you to believe that there’s more to their character than there actually is. I’ve always been a writer, and in the past – whilst attempting to meet people of similar interests – I’ve fallen into the trap of assuming that the bloke dressed like a bohemian artist wants to talk about writing or theatre, or that the girl wearing a bomber jacket so puffy that it looks like it’s concealing a Quasimodo disfigurement must be the creative type. No such luck – you can’t judge a book by its cover. The pale, slender chap with flowing locks and sporting those 3D cinema glasses is just as likely to have a genuine passion for film, literature, art, as anyone else. The only way to truly find out about people is to talk to them.
I currently live in Sheffield where there has been a mass invasion of bushy beards and t-shirts with the sleeves rolled shoulder high (you know the look I’m talking about). They have their own specific hangouts, such as The Great Gatsby and more recently Brew Dog. If you’d normally avoid these people like the plague, worried that they might spit a string of pseudo-intellectual chatter at you – don’t. I’ve made a concerted effort recently to never judge anyone by what they look like. It’s paid off too, as I’ve met a lot of interesting people I usually wouldn’t have made the effort to talk to due to the assumed differences in our personality. It’s wrong to condemn a person based on their style and taste. If you do, you’ll become bitter and cynical, face beetroot-red and lips flecked with spittle as you furiously pound the keys on your laptop in response to an article which should really require your condolence.
I realise that I haven’t updated this for bloomin’ ages. I say this a lot, but I plan on contributing articles fairly regularly from now on. At least, I’ll try. I have a few creative projects coming up, but as I want to enter journalism, it’d be good to get some article practice!
Anyway, I entered a competition in honour of the World War One centenary recently. I didn’t end up winning anything, and have a feeling that the slightly unusual form and style that I went for probably didn’t help my chances. Oh well, you live and learn.
The story is somewhat sprawling (probs a little over-ambitious), and I did so much research into my subject matter, that it became a little bogged down in detail and exposition. I thought I’d publish an extract, and if there’s any interest, I could upload the entire thing.
That evening, a huge bonfire was constructed in the town square. We linked arms with fathers in caps carrying children on their shoulders; pipe-smoking old men; young girls wrapped against the chill in army-issue blankets. Every time something new and unseen was thrown into the fire – a collection of rifles made to order, a crate of German uniforms– a loud cheer went up from the crowd, although the glow of the fire revealed how gaunt and hardy their faces had become. A big deal was made of the burning of travel passes, which had prevented anyone from leaving the city. Before throwing his pass into the fire, one man turned to the crowd and shouted, ‘I, Gautier, am a free man, and I choose to go where I like!’ and afterwards it became habit for each person to repeat this same statement before throwing their own passes in the fire. At one point, a truck laden with unreleased issues of Gazette des Ardennes – the dogmatic newspaper which drip fed its propaganda to everybody throughout the region – slowly backed through the crowd. A gang of soldiers stabbed each tightly-bound stack with gardening forks and cast them into the flames, while people from the crowd called, ‘Lies!’ – ‘The Gazette of Lies!’
What was the symbolic nature of the bonfire? As a poet, I cannot help but search for the significance in seemingly trivial things. The bonfire, it did not destroy these symbols of evil, but rather transformed them into cathartic tonics: heat to melt the icy core in their hearts which had become frozen through four years of obstinate resilience; ash to bury the climate of fear and smoke to billow down the alleyways and chase away the toxic fumes of imprisonment.
The bonfire burned white hope at its core. Into that molten core I cast my self-doubts of cowardice and guilt, and the fire transformed them into particles of soot which bore my soul on the transatlantic winds all the way back home. To you, I sent my memories of Reg – both of us naïve and happy – as we sat together by the pool and he sketched swallows in his notebook.
When it comes to video games, I’ve never been much of a dudebro.
If you’ve had any exposure to video games in the past five years, then you probably know what I mean. They’re the kind of people with ‘X_x_QuikScope_x_X’ as their username, who like to play depressing games like Call of Duty, and scream eardrum-punchingly inane statements down the microphone to foreigners, along the lines of, ‘Your military’s shit!’, while filling their opponents with lead before mercilessly teabagging* them to oblivion. All while cackling the sinister laugh of a 12 year old.
I’m being unfair. This kind of adrenaline soaked shooter can be fun to play, but it’s never really been my cup of tea. But what is my cup of tea nowadays? To be frank – not a lot. I don’t have the same urge to put my feet up and play a bit of ‘Jump On Platforms 2000’, or ‘Kill Generic Aliens’ as I used to. When I occasionally do feel like playing something, all I can think of is: should I be looking for jobs? Sorting out my student loan? Writing this blog? In other words, I feel a sense of guilt. Depressing, isn’t it.
When I was a kid – packed lunches, snotty nose, an inexplicable fear of girls – I had a pretty overactive imagination. My granddad had a large collection of Terry Pratchett novels, the covers of which were aflame with colourful illustrations of all the characters and creatures from the book caught in the midst of some intense moment of action. When I went round to his house, I used to entertain myself for hours by grabbing a book from the shelf and gazing at these illustrations, imagining endless battles or adventures for the characters to take part in.
Around this time, a friend of my parents showed me a computer game called Myst. The concept was simple: you were dropped in the middle of a world full of bizarre artefacts with no knowledge of how you got there, and had to complete a series of puzzles in order to escape. I was never any good at the game, but the world was eerily atmospheric and seemed to contain a thousand secrets. I used to lie awake at night with images of the claustrophobic world flitting through my mind. The only difference being that it was me turning over the earthen pots, crossing ravines and searching for Mayan symbols in the starry cosmos.
One Christmas, my granddad bought a gargantuan pack of over 50 CD’s for my sisters and me. On each CD was a full length game (today’s retail value: upwards of one million pounds). 99% of them were utter crap, but there was one – a game called Dungeon Keeper 2 – which got us hooked. The game is what the industry calls a Real Time Strategy (RTS). You control a sinister-looking floating hand, which can pick up and drop an assortment of evil creatures; you use them to attack the strongholds of heroic knights. Not only did the monsters and knights cater to my love of fantasy, the game was hilarious – black comedy gold. Throwing a morbidly obese demon onto a goodly knight, only to see the flatulent demon fart all over his armour never got old – at least for me. I liked the game so much that the first story I wrote in primary school was inadvertently a piece of Dungeon Keeper 2 fan fic. It was about a Warlock named Claude who was trying to light his pipe, but burned to death a goblin instead. Claude thought he was in trouble, but it turned out the other creatures shunned the goblins anyway because they were eating all the chickens, so they threw a party for him instead. I got a gold star for the story, but wouldn’t be surprised if my teacher had also written a quick note about me to the principle: Warning – displaying worrying early symptoms of clinical racism.
The reason I discovered the Final Fantasy series was because I had a stone in my stone collection similar to the one on the front cover of the game Final Fantasy IX. The stone was shaped like a dagger, and was gold on top and white at the bottom. As you’ve probably already been able to work out, I was a pretty cool kid.
So I whined at my parents until I got the game for my birthday. Screw celebrations, as soon as I had that game, it was a done deal. The only way I was going to leave that TV was if the chuckle brothers were having a get-together in the street and Mr. Blobby and pre-Operation-Yew-Tree-shenanigans Rolf Harris were invited.
For the unlearned among you, Final Fantasy is a long-running series of Japanese games. The characters in each game are different, but they share many of the same overarching themes. The games are all set in a fantasy-cyberpunk universe, and are notoriously dialogue heavy with complex stories full of twists and turns.
Final Fantasy IX is now 12 years old, and compared to today’s videogame releases, the product looks laughably primitive. But this is what made the game special to me. At the time when the fruits of my imagination were ripening faster than a sweaty old man’s Y-fronts, the technical limitations of the game meant that I could fill in any gaps with my imagination. Take the graphics. At the time of release, they were hailed as a major step forward. But, let’s face it – the main characters are made up of pixels the size of breezeblocks. There was also no voice acting because of the Playstation’s technical limitations – this meant that the vast swathes of dialogue were all scrawled into little speech bubbles. But for me this was great, as it was like reading a sophisticated picture book: the graphics and dialogue resembled a blank canvas with a few sketches on it, rudimentary enough to work as simple prompts for the imagination – no overkill with unnecessary detail. This was all supported by an absolutely excellent assortment of midi medieval tunes.
That’s not to say the game was great just because of its technical limitations. Yes, at first glance, the characters and other animated models appear slightly crude, but the non-interactive backgrounds were simply drop-dead gorgeous. The backgrounds worked much like a set in a piece of theatre or pantomime, with the action left to take place at centre stage, and a sense of the scale of the fictional world provided by the backdrop. In Final Fantasy IX, much of the beginning of the game is spent running around a ramshackle old city. While your character is poking their head in and out of shops, occasionally engaging in dialogue with the odd citizen, in the background they are dwarfed by the city beyond: cobbled paths drowning in the blinding sun, sprawling networks of wine-sodden alleyways, twisted chimneys and missing shingles on terracotta roofs. All this helps suggest to the player a world far more expansive than is actually present. I yearned to discover what was beyond this small slice of the world I was permitted to see – what was behind that door, down that pathway. It left me wanting more, and with a tangible pang of loss that I wasn’t able to receive it.
The focus on realism in a lot of modern videogames (largely FPS games) is misguided in my opinion. Testosterone fuelled games, such as the Battlefield series, are intent on giving the player instant, vein-poppingly gratuitous fun, but with little appreciation for artistic style. Graphics in games nowadays are simply incredible, but aside from saying ‘wow’ once or twice, you might as well look out the window. Sometimes, the level of detail developers go to is ridiculous – are you and your dudebro mate really going to go mental over the realism of the light fixtures in the kitchen of a semi-detached bungalow? Or is that just silly, unnecessary detail?
There is hope, however. Thanks to websites such as Kickstarter, which allow you to pledge money to a project if you like the sound of it, more quality Indy titles are in development than ever before. This is great news, because Indy studios often have a greater focus on art style and storytelling than many top-of-the-range studios. A non-Indy game that is a refreshing departure from the current trend of mindless shooters is that fantastic Dark Souls. The game could literally take up a whole blog-post by itself though, so I’ll just say a few things: the sense of atmosphere you get in this game is beyond compare, but do not play it unless you are willing to die – a lot. And I really mean that. Don’t come crying to me when you get your face smashed in by an eight ton mace.
I’m glad there’s hope, even if it probably won’t mean much to me in the years to come. I’ve always loved gaming, but just can’t afford to sit around for the hours it takes to become fully absorbed in a game anymore. Even if I did have the time, games just don’t seem to keep my attention as well as they used to. Lame as it sounds, I take a bit of pride in being a gamer. I may not be over-enthused with the way the industry is headed, but at the same time, I’m glad the industry’s consumer base has grown from a clique of neck-bearded man-children to the surprisingly normal masses.
*If you don’t know what teabagging is, please don’t look it up. Or do. It’s your choice.