3 November 2020
Alone in Switzerland.
Three weeks in residence at the UNCOOL house in Poschiavo, Switzerland, including ten days of self-isolation. An unusually long (for me) period of uninterrupted solitude and work. After practice and before work on street noises I often record short pieces, using not street noise, but simple material. The wood-panelled room has a beautiful warm sound.
Heartfelt thanks to Cornelia Müller, UNCOOL, and Arts Council England.
Going Outside: Observation and reproduction.
Since lockdown began, towards the end of March, I’ve been thinking even more about the sounds of the streets, planning some work that a project grant from Arts Council England has now made possible.
I’ve been walking and playing the saxophone in London for twenty years, but now I wanted to concentrate on listening and relaying what I heard as closely as possible. I planned four saxophonic walks, one in each quadrant of London, to begin to learn and reflect the sounds around me – sounds that have kept shifting their make-up and densities over the past seven months. To hear a sound is one thing, but to really understand it I have to try to play it.
Having read that wind instruments, or even enthusiastic speech, might increase the spread of potentially dangerous airborne droplets, I made a mask or veil that covers my nose and mouth as well as the entire saxophone, but still allows me to play.
I recorded the walks so I could listen back and work out how to do better. The first two walks (South and West) didn’t go too badly – in south London there was a lovely dog barking in F#, and a lot of variety in the sounds (ventilation shafts, traffic, construction work, birds), though only a scattering of human voices. In west London it was all motor vehicles, and very difficult to come even close to capturing with the saxophone, but the challenge was productive.
A few days later I set out to play towards the east, planning to go from Blackfriars Station to the City near London Bridge. I began timidly, having realised that while the sax-mask doesn’t hinder my playing at all, it makes it harder for people to understand what’s going on (like face-masks do), and although no one had yet objected, their bemusement was often evident in a new way, different from the reactions to walks where the sax was visible. Maybe this is also to do with the long months of worry, uncertainty and fear taking the elasticity out of all of us, making us more prone to irritation and impatience.
I had chosen the route for the tunnels there, which sound so beautiful. As I was approaching the end of the first of these – a cycle tunnel, parallel to the tunnel for cars that does not allow for pedestrians – just playing isolated mimicking sounds and enjoying the echoes of the traffic and the sax, a tall, very disgruntled man approached me at speed from a small empty access road sloping in from the left. He was holding an electric iron and swearing at me, radiating anger. He threw it at my head, and I managed to dodge, then he pushed me over, trying to pull the saxophone away from me, and succeeding in grabbing the mouthpiece and throwing it to the far side of the road. Fortunately, in part because I had the sax case on my back like a carapace, I was able to keep the sax safe and scramble away, running to where the iron had landed (he had had the same idea) and picking it up to keep him from getting it back and clobbering me. All along, my front was draped in this sort of white curtain/mask.
Several cyclists were approaching; I went into the path and waved at them. The first just looked at me oddly, but the second one stopped; both had to have seen me being pushed to the ground. He asked if I was OK.
– He attacked me!
– Don’t you know him?
My mind boggled to some extent at the assumptions behind this, but maybe the somehow excusable domestic dispute is easier to conceive than the veiled ambulant saxophonist ambushed by disturbed (in several senses – he obviously objected to my contribution to the soundscape) person.
With the cyclist standing by, I went and recovered my mouthpiece, miraculously unchipped, and he walked with me a little way down the road, out of the tunnel in the mouth of which my assailant remained standing, looking after us. I was still holding the iron. A bit farther there was a church with a City of London rubbish bin in front of it that had a sort of pivoting container for a mouth. I’ve never seen such a bin before, but it was perfect for disposing of the iron safely. The cyclist carried on (thank you, whoever you are) and so did I, discovering that I’d hurt my left hand – not badly – and that my sax was playable but damaged in two places. I kept going for another half-hour or so, coaxing out an increasing range of possible sounds, initially very shaky but eventually feeling better, and good to still be playing (relieved).
Having to take my sax to be mended delayed the fourth walk, but it played smoothly when we did it, and the walk was joyous.
15 October 2019, early afternoon.
Going Outside, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.
Alerted by the dull unvarying drone of helicopters circling, walked with my sax to the Extinction Rebellion camp whose occupants, lawful and peaceful protesters, were being evicted by police resorting to Section 14 of the Public Order Act of 1986.
I had already been playing, just put coat on over sax and went out. Walking through the back streets towards Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens the sonic landscape was dominated by the two circling helicopters, whose pitch hovered (yes, thanks!) around a D. Interesting texturally, but overly dominant, and going on far too long. Hours later I can still hear them overhead, which makes me aware how the sounds of state control can contribute to an atmosphere of fear.
As I get within a couple of streets there are dozens of police vans parked in long lines. The white vans of the Met and some dark blue vans – Tactical Support Group (who are they ?).
I start playing different sounds from my head a bit more, since chiming in with helicopters only makes their dominance worse. In the park many tents are already gone, leaving squares of pale green against darker green grass, decorative, Klimtesque. Not much mud or churned-up ground. Portaloos have been there for a couple of days because Lambeth Council gave protesters permission to camp, but they’re now being removed.
People: protesters and police (present in their hundreds), and bystanders, workers, locals, all standing around. A few tents are still up, and those inside are being spoken to by groups of police officers who are trying to persuade them to leave. Pinned onto the tents are notices saying they have been there over 48 hours, and claiming squatters rights, which means (in theory) police need a court order to evict them.
Otherwise, campers have packed up or are packing. There’s no litter, people are collecting it very carefully. Much tidier than, say, a festival site, or even Hyde Park on a summer Sunday morning. One of the protesters tells me he will take his stuff to a ‘safe house’ and keep protesting. Another says that some tents belonging to people who are in other parts of London protesting have been taken down by police, and the owners will find it hard or impossible to track down their stuff. I play Going Home. Voices, all quiet, snatches of music.
A suited cyclist stands astride his bike at one end of the path, motionless and dismayed: how will he get through? He looks frightened, which is hard to understand. Other people are wheeling their bikes through the straggly crowd… On my left a van and some hi-vizzed and hard-hatted workmen:
‘Play some PROPER music !’
‘Get a job !’
So I go over to them. Nothing to lose, right?
‘Did one of you say something to me?’
‘It was him (hahaha)!’
Older guy walks away, leaving four of them. One says, ‘Yeah, but what’s the point? It’s the USA and China that do all the polluting, nothing we do will make any difference.’
‘That’s like saying it’s OK for you to hit someone if you’ve seen other people doing it.’
‘But look, they’re killing the grass, look – it’s all yellow.’
‘That’s not true, it grows back just fine when you uncover it. Not like a tree when it gets cut down.’
‘You can just plant another tree.’
‘Isn’t it better to save the tree AND plant a tree?’
‘But are you a vegan?’
‘I am, actually, but this is just whataboutery.’
‘Yeah but where are you from?’ (Ah, here we go, I think)
‘But where are you FROM?’
‘I’ve been British for fifty years (I exaggerated, it’s actually forty) – where are YOU from?’
‘Can you look at yourself in the mirror if you don’t do something to stop climate change – for yourself, your kids, your grandchildren?’
‘My grandchildren will be FINE. It’s China, it’s the USA, it makes no difference what we do.’
‘But look! On your van! It says ‘Metal Recycling’ (true, it does, pictures of folded metal strips) – that makes a difference!’
‘Oh that, yeah. We recycle plastic, too, ‘cos it’s expensive. It’s a start, isn’t it.’ (Quit while we’re ahead, I think)
‘THANKS SO MUCH!’
I carry on, twittering from nerves. People staying in their tents, helpers with ‘legal support’ written on their tabards, manifestos of peaceful protest and positive suggestions… some people are packed and getting ready to leave. I hope they have someplace to go.
I meet a friend, who lives around the corner and came when she heard the helicopters. Like me, she’s not a member of ER, just a concerned supporter:
‘I’m just keeping an eye on this stuff (a BIG tarpaulin, piled with bags, tents, frames for marquees, etc.), because it belongs to people who are off protesting.’ (At the Department for Transport, maybe.)
So, after two circuits I head for home. The TSG vans are lined up nearest the park, and their occupants seem to be swapping places with the ordinary police, many of whom are returning to their vans. I spot four doing a sort of dance together outside their van, kicking their feet out forward and bouncing their heels on the ground. I guess trying to get mud off their shoes. This is quite fun to mimic and play along with.
Walk home. People sing to me and I sing back. Helicopter overrides us. About an hour later I get a call – the police are hauling people out of their tents. Old, young, they’re being dragged out, unresisting, and handcuffed before being taken away. Even though, I know, they have a lot of support, it must be lonely and frightening.
© Giuseppe Tamponi
Caroline Kraabel is an improviser: Going Outside.
On 28 March 2019 at 12.45 I walked to Westminster, with saxophone, to hear and play through the sounds around the parliament buildings. So many sounds. The chewy shifty human sounds of busy streets, elusive as they slide past : engines in motion, walkers, piper on the bridge. Often their complexity and density boggles the ear, the playing sense – like translating a dance, a lake into mere words. Turn the corner to walk along the front of the parliament building, see the memorial stone for the policeman, Keith Palmer, killed almost exactly two years ago, a few hours after I’d crossed this same bridge in the same way, just getting on with my own life. The stone is new, clean, beflowered. Touching.
Hordes of people. Some on traffic island with megaphones, howling for brexit. Man in yellow vest (I did not realise until this moment of writing that it might have had some significance) approaches me– a suspension, curiosity, sniffing at me like a dog… but deciding there is only one possible response, ‘Are you with us or against us?’ I just played, as I had decided – here to listen and play, not to speak. TRAITOR TRAITOR TRAITOR he shouts and keeps shouting, TRAITOR TRAITOR, again and again, tentatively slapping at the bell of my saxophone. I play or reflect his sounds back at him and after a last slap, easily evaded (but a jolt to bell can cost teeth) he turns away disgusted. Carry on. No one else says anything though a few stare or laugh, at him, at me… Farther down on the other side of the road the pro-Europe demonstrators stand, ranks of flags blue and gold, blue and red and white. A man’s voice hoarse keeps slowly shouting S T O P B R E X I T… but I don’t see him, he’s elsewhere. I leave the obvious indicators of conflict behind and try to hear engines again, their glissandi, density of coloured sound, shifting harmonics. Tiny scraps of birdsong appear in any gaps – I’m walking past Victoria Tower Gardens. Spring, after all. (Re-) birth of what ? I write this 36 hours later and the people and government of the ‘U’ K seem exponentially more divided even than yesterday. For 40 years, inequality has been carefully nurtured and anything standing in its way ruthlessly disposed of. Now these few days during which the Tory Government’s poorly realised spectacle of venality, self-interest and refusal to listen, based on the true story behind their accumulation of affluence and power for the few, could be the fulcrum for a drastic and very rapid change for the worse, as the most aggressive, thoughtless and unscrupulous seize upon their scapegoats and the vacuous moment.
29 March 2019
28 June 2020:
In two versions, both with words by Caroline Kraabel. Music on You Can't Afford This by CK; music on You Can't Afford This 2 by John Edwards.
Recorded in lockdown on 12/15 May 2020 and released on the Takuroku label from Cafe Oto.
Kraabel piece for LIO July 2020: Together Alone
For London Improvisers Orchestra in pandemic isolation, in lieu of live performance on Sunday 5 July 2020.
Devised, prepared, conducted and combined by Caroline Kraabel (Vauxhall).
'I miss the glorious web of connections formed by the London Improvisers Orchestra improvising together live. Could some aspects of those connections be maintained even if we didn't hear or see each other? For ten days I visited LIO musicians in lockdown, or on video-call, in order to conduct each of them in their own version of a score, broken up into 30-second segments, each having a single cue (not necessarily the same order for all the musicians). Memories, the experience of having played together, and great skill at improvisation made these segments recorded in isolation into something that, when combined (the parts were simply aligned to start at the same time), sounds recognisably like the LIO. It was a privilege to be able to see everyone, and to hear the miraculous synchronicity and surprises in the music.'
Kraabel-devised pieces for LIO June 2020: Chain Reactions
Kraabel piece for LIO, April 2020: We Stay Apart Because We Love Each Other. Love Is Stronger Than Greed.
For the London Improvisers Orchestra, which was, for the first time, obliged in April 2020 to cancel the monthly live performances of large-group improvised music that they have been doing for nearly 22 years, Caroline Kraabel created or devised several pieces for digital release.
27 April 2020: Going Outside (Happy Birthday Resonance 104.4 FM)
Summer 2019 sees the release of MARCH, a duo CD featuring Caroline Kraabel with Neil Metcalfe (flute), recorded (in March) with great care and finesse by Philipp Wachsmann and lightly mixed by John Edwards.
The entire session is on the CD in the order in which it was played.
Price £10.00 plus £1.50 postage
CD Released on the EMANEM label, featuring live large-group and quartet versions of Kraabel’s piece LAST, for improvisers with occasional interjections from the pre-recorded voice of Robert Wyatt singing a song composed by Kraabel for this purpose. Musicians' profits from sales of this CD will go to two NGOs working with migrants in northern France, Care4Calais and Utopia56.
Price £10.00 plus Royal Mail postage £1.50
A 20-piece saxophone/voice orchestra, all women. Caroline Kraabel has made 4 long pieces for this group since 1998. Mass Producers has recorded one CD, Performances for Large Saxophone Ensemble 1 and 2, and one analogue (vinyl) LP, Performances for Large Saxophone Ensemble 3 and 4, featuring guest Maggie Nicols (voice).
A duo with pianist Veryan Weston. One CD, Five Shadows, of live concert recordings in acoustically interesting venues; many live performances.
This project went on for a couple of years. Phil Hargreaves (tenor and soprano sax, flute) and Caroline Kraabel recorded duos in a variety of very different-sounding spaces in Liverpool – a road tunnel under the Mersey, an anechoic chamber at the university, a huge dome, George’s Hall, etc. One CD, Where We Were, Shadows of Liverpool, where these recordings are crossfaded and intercut to become an acoustic portrait of Liverpool.
A solo performance work using: some live tape-recording of improvisations, subsequently to be re-improvised with; a giant sheet of newspaper; dance; songs; fake blood; 10 metres of red fabric; spoken poems and also improvised and composed solo saxophone/voice parts. Toured across Europe, Canada and the USA, released as a CD. This piece was a precursor to Mass Producers.
Some elements of Kraabel's work during the Covid19 pandemic can be seen in this short film, prepared for a remote RCA lecture.