Thank you to Neil Cooper for forwarding the full text for his Glasgow Herald article which appeared in the print edition today, but has yet to surface on the Herald website…
Avant-garde music has never been a staple of civic festivals, with performances inside ancient churches even rarer. Yet this coming Wednesday’s Night Afore celebrations will see St Giles Cathedral open its doors on Fragile Pitches, a newly commissioned piece of music set to be performed by Michael Begg and Colin Potter, both stalwarts of the underground experimental scene.
The piece will form the Winter Light strand of The Night Afore’s Light Night series of events, which include ghost tours of John Knox House, tasting sessions at the Scotch Whisky Experience and evening tours of Mary King’s Close. For Winter Light, however, Fragile Pitches looks set to be by far the most radical performance of the entire Edinburgh’s Hogmanay season.
“The cathedral will be open for three hours,” East Lothian based Begg explains. “That’s a long time to expect people to sit still, so we’re hoping to create an atmosphere where people will feel free enough to drift through the space. It’s a rare opportunity to get into St Giles at night, and we’re wanting to take advantage of this as well. Some sounds will be heard from the moment the doors open, then in the middle of all that, Colin and I will play live for ninety minutes, where we can respond to the space as well, and bring things up a level from piped-in ambient music.”
Anyone familiar with Begg and Potter’s music will recognise their output as something infinitely more demanding than background wallpaper. For the last decade, Begg has recorded and performed with Deryk Thomas as Human Greed, while Potter has been a long-standing contributor to Steven Stapleton’s Nurse With Wound project. Both outfits have roots in dark, drone-based industrial folk, with fellow travelers as diverse as David Tibet’s Current 93 project and Estonian composer Arvo Part.
“A lot of what’s dubbed experimental music is viewed as very cerebral,” Begg points out, “but we’re more interested in Fragile Pitches having an emotional impact. Emotional responses to music have been hi-jacked by melody, which has brought about a naïve and sentimental reaction. We try and generate that emotional response without melody. The illustration I always use is when you walk past a road drill digging up the road. It’s a horrible sound, but it’s also a really powerful sound, and there’s a lot of melancholy there.”
Fragile Pitches first came about when a member of the Unique Events team behind Edinburgh’s Hogmanay heard an album by Fovea Hex, a loose-knit project based around the other-worldly songs of Irish singer Clodagh Simonds. Both Begg and Potter are regular contributors to Fovea Hex alongside such luminaries as Brian Eno and Robert Fripp. A concert with a full band was originally mooted, but was eventually ruled out in favour of a looser, more atmospheric approach that was as much a sound installation as a performance. The only brief was that the end result should attempt to embody notions of fire, light and space. Begg and Potter met up at Potter’s London studio for a brain-storming session involving samples and found sounds. Since then, the pair have been exchanging sound files via the internet, and will only have two hours preparation in St Giles itself.
“We’ll be using three laptops, lots of processing and effects pedals,” Begg explains, “and there’s a possibility that I may be bringing out a guitar as well, though it will be used in such a way that it sounds like a church organ.”
With the piece’s title an anagram of the three words that inspired it, in spirit, at least, Fragile Pitches resembles some of the work produced by left-field music festival producers, Arika. Their team are responsible for the annual Instal and Kill Your Timid Notion events, as well as Resonant Spaces, which toured musicians around a set of natural landscapes with unique sound properties.
“I see Fragile Pitchers as the start of something that can run and run,” says Begg. “There’s no shortage of spaces that can be reimagined in this way, whether they’re old civic buildings or cathedrals.”
Fragile Pitches won’t be the first time Begg and Potter have performed in unusual venues. With Fovea Hex they’ve played on top of an Italian mountain and in the garden of the Cartier Foundation in Paris. Human Greed’s recent London show took place on a boat, while Nurse With Wound have played underwater sets in lidos. In terms of sacred spaces, in November of this year Begg somewhat incongruously shared a bill with Phil Cunningham, Dougie MacLean and First Minister Alex Salmond at St Mary’s Cathedral, Haddington as part of a Homecoming year event. With Begg testing the water for Fragile Pitches, the First Minister’s response to such Sensurround activity isn’t on record. Volume, however, may well have been an issue.
For Fragile Pitches, Begg suggests that it will be “Half as loud as I want it to be, but I don’t want to overwhelm the space. It won’t be background ambient music, but we won’t be handing out earplugs at the door either.”
Winter Light, St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, December 30th, 7pm-10pm. Entry is free but places are limited.