MA, BA (hons, First Class)

The Dark Outside


On 27th of September,  2014, as part of Sanctuary, representatives of Broken20 - Ruaridh Law, David Fyans (me), Brian McGovern (our documentarist for the event) and David Coyle travelled to the depths of Dumfries and Galloway and undertook an 8 hour long, continuous improvised performance in a field, in the dark, from 10pm until 6am the following morning. The following is a personal account along with some thoughts on durational performance and documentation. The text has been written over a number of weeks. The author accepts no responsibility for accuracy, quality or relevance, the text exists as a subjective form of documentary, it has been written in starts and fits, plagued with self doubt and feelings of pointlessness and suffers from an almost complete lack of suitable editing.

Durational performance is an interesting thing, probably moreso for the performers themselves rather than the audience in most cases,  outside of a passing appreciation of the task at hand and the interaction with some grandiose agenda - particularly in the post information age we live in where mass ADHD is a commonplace thing, the compulsion to check what everyone else is doing constantly and to see how popular we happen to be at most given moments.


The 'aim' of this performance as set out in the agenda, was to 'keep the dark at bay' for 8 hours, throughout the night. The event co-ordinator, artist Robbie Coleman, coined the term 'digital hearth' with regards to our undertaking, a term which we were happy to go along with as the night unfolded. The concept of a beacon, a central point towards which waifs and strays could gravitate towards, stoked continuously throughout the long dark of the night by new ideas and directions, interventions and interactions with each other and the public. The beacon was lit in some of the densest darkness I have encountered, particularly outside of an enclosed space (I went through something of an obsession for a spell with the gloopy, solid dark found inside a decommissioned railway tunnel a few years back).

The whole process was a leap into the unknown and seemingly impossible. While certain logistical issues had been raised prior, we arrived still unsure exactly what/where/how our performance would be taking place. A few hours later, we were housed inside a 'Coleman Events Dome' and hooked up our 'PA' involving a HIFi amp, some speakers and a bunch of mixers (one of which was pretty set on shooting out sparks and cutting out with the slightest of movements until a bit of judicious field surgery resolved that) to four car batteries and a rather terrifying voltage inverter. And that was it really, as the darkness crept in we became far more aware of Robbie's beautiful neon installation 'Enclosure', in the field across the burn from us, our light and activity filled space became a perfect inversion of his glowing circle, the activity within, separated and offset from a demarcated boundary.

One of the main tenets of our was an attempt to bring an inclusivity to the performance, a democratisation and demystification of our workings. A conscious effort was made to bring instruments along which could easily be interacted with by members of the public.

Often, Time is against us, and time is always against us, but to be more specific, a performance usually takes place within the confines of an event, a proscribed timeslot within which events unfold in front of an audience that has purposefully come to witness them. In the past, whenever I have performed collaboratively, there has always been a temporal restriction, a set timeframe within which ideas must be expelled and reaction to unknown elements must take place. Normally, in a performance of. say an hour or less, I will have set aside a mental list of landmarks to reach - starting points or ideas that need explored, creation and reaction all crammed in.

With a durational undertaking, particularly an 8 hour long platform for improvisation (in a field, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere), these restrictions largely evaporate. I think my immediate internal response when Ruaridh came to me with the invitation was 'what would I actually DO for 8 hours?'. In preparation, I did nothing. Sure, a toolkit, a set of instruments, processes and utilities were divined by a loose set of criteria - the novelty and range of use, their flexible nature, accessibility to the public ('hit that, press there, twiddle that knob'), portability and, to a small degree of non-necessity to my day to day practice, give or take a few bits, that could conceivably, if it all went horribly wrong, be sacrificed to whatever lay outside in the darkness.


So what happened? Well, it's sort of hard to say. There must  be some sort of formula regarding distance in time from an event vs. our ability to accurately recall detail (as with all rules, exceptions stand). Realtime smudges into an indistinct gestalt, a nebulous cloud of sensation, the 'idea of things' and analytical hindsight. The following things are a subjective and inexhaustive account.

8 hours worth of continuous sound definitely happened, improvised discourses emerged, unfolded, branched off, turned into other things. Moments of unbounded confusion (at what, being operated on by who, was making a specific sort of a sound), drinks were imbibed, time moved, looped, pooled and flowed. A man stood at the threshold of our space for what felt like about 2 hours with his radio blaring out something else and speaking at an incredibly bored looking girl kept saying the word 'racist' so sonorously and frequently that it became some annoying rhythmic meter (at one point, Ruaridh took a live mic out to try to pull his voice into our mix in an attempt to exorcise how annoying it was getting). We had waves of drop-ins, spells of relative solitude (as solitudinous as a group of 2-4 people can get) were suddenly injected with groups of people (in various states of having been enjoying themselves) wondering who we were, what we were doing and having instruments and boxes thrust upon them. The participatory line was an interesting one to traverse, trying to work out how to include people without necessarily breaking the flow of the sound field that was currently on the boil. At one point I had to diplomatically wrestle my clarinet from the collective grasp of three people who ware pretty drunk and simultaneously failing to play it (one blowing, two hammering at the keys).


One of my personal highlights happened during a spell (it's pointless trying to define where in the night) had taken to their tent for a sabbatical, David Coyle and myself endeavoured to take everything right down, to get as quiet and minimal as we could. Soft, quiet washes of taped synth noise, radio/microtransmitter feedback loops and sparse, square wave clicks meshes with Coyle's subtle and measured responses relayed from scanning around on his Gradmother's old, absolutely beautiful (in both looks, tone and reception) radio.

I think we managed a good half hour of this until a cheery gent and young lady (later discovered to be Matt Baker and, I think, Katie Anderson of The Stove Network - http://www.thestove.org -  there's a bit of me chatting to them and them jamming with us on Brian's video) who, after a brief introduction to their instruments, led us into a lovely rhythmical, almost tribal direction. My notes here just say 'there was talk of spoons!' - I forget now what that was about. At some point a little later, a man who was thoroughly interested in the piezo contact mic in a box I'd given him to play outed himself as a 'Labyrinth Designer'. My tired and slightly rum fuelled brain struggled to escape thoughts of the Minotuar.

While we had plenty of visitors, interested parties and contributors throughout the night, much of the evening was spent dropping ideas back and forward, call and response, sometimes it was possible to undertake a personal odyssey within the confines of what was already happening, two or more individual solo performances, taking place simultaneously and then, a sudden leap into collective working.


Response, when there is no time constraint can be a fun and liberating process.At several junctures in the evening, I investigated and kept myself entertained with, for want of a better term, longform improv trolling. Ruaridh, working with a microphone and treating his vocal expulsions remained unaware for several minutes of my own, microphone based canonical loop of shooshing him every time he let out a noise, the self appointed parameter for these excursions was that once started, they could continue until it was either called out or it stopped being entertaining to me. Throughout the performance, Vienna, Lady in Red and something by Sade were all slipped sneakily into the mix in response to certain sounds, rhythms of patterns that were being made elsewhere, single notes or sung words, building serial style until either the stupidity revealed itself, or it spun off in a different direction and became the starting point of some other avenue of exploration. A good 5 minutes were spent in the final half hour of the performance sneaking note by note, phrase by phrase a clarinet rendition of the theme music for The Sweeney (which up until that point, I had no idea that I could play).

Nearing our 06:00 deadline, Guy Veale turned up, full of energy and regaling us with tales of his encounters up and down the hill throughout the night and, taking each of us in turn aside, marching us away from the safety of our encampment, away from the dirty voltages being smudged around by the collective electromagnetic field by our equipment and making us listen to the sound of all of the lightning strikes happening in realtime in the entire Northern Hemisphere via his VLF receiver.

Within this last straight, the last 20 minutes, the gravitational pull of time and dragging heels of inspiration really kicked in for me. It was time to try to steer the juggernaut off to the side of the road, was it possible to just stop something like that? As suddenly as it had fallen a lifetime/nightime ago, the darkness, held successfully at bay for a continuous 8 hours within our sacred space, finally cracked and stared to give way to a pre-dawn gloaming.

Inside the rapidly greying light of this last spell, I became increasingly aware of several things. The first was how tired and cold I was, the second, that some of my equipment was not operating within its expected parameters and finally, how damned damp everything was suddenly getting. Moisture, out of nowhere was running off the clarinet, a dew had formed on my reverb unit and the OS map of the area, set up on the table had become a soggy mess, just a little longer and we'd made it. Looking at the table of gear in the creeping light, inspiration felt miles away, everything had been explored inside and out, configured and reconfigured, i reduced my output to the notion of logic. Using a pair of homemade square wave oscillators, I generated only low frequency pulses, emanating as series of layered clicks, simplified sound, tone stripped out speaking in machine tongues, the boxes and I sharing one, acutely malfunctioning mind.

This all faded out into a moment of silence at 6am, the first since 10pm the previous night, heavy, grey, cold. A bird sang in the distance somewhere. It was time to unplug.


I came out the other side of this performance definitely feeling a sense of passage, of achievement. Something had happened, the challenge met and bested, the dark held at bay, a long dark night of the soul, a traversal of Chapel Perilous. It was a real change to be working with sound in that manner outside, closer to nature, it's probably the sort of thing that's easy to take for granted if you play the acoustic guitar, but the experimental electronics based musician the logistics alone can make it a tricky occurrence. The punctuations of interactions, contributions and discussions with visitors within the space of a creative act (as opposed to before or after) was refreshing although I feel if there hadn't been a few of us on hand at any time, it might have been a little overwhelming at times. It was a shame that the night was cloudy and we didn't get the benefit of being able to see the stars (the location is a Dark Skies Park and one of the furthest points in the UK from streetlight pollution) although it was nice to step away for a short break from the buzz and intensity of our space and observe the dark and the ritual hearth, the beacon that stood out through the night.

Video courtesy of Brian McGovern


Post Script:

Now that Brian's video documentation has surfaced, I'm put in a position where I'm forced into the strange awareness of the chasm between the internal and the externalised concepts of the self. On viewing documented time, it forms a sort of break between memory and 'reality'. There's a few points on that video where I'm talking and it makes me feel very uncomfortable. In my head, I've got decent chat and don't think too much about the physical manifestation of myself, when confronted by video, one is forced to see themself as other actually see and hear them. It's not very good for the soul (maybe unless you're a narcissist or something).


My setup for the performance was: Handmade triple square wave oscillator (red box), Handmade pulse generator in tin, Handmade clock divider synth (blue box), Kalimba with contact mic, plastic box with contact mic, clarinet, microphone, walkman, broken iPod, small shortwave radio, radio micro transmitter, Bugbrand uCrusher, EHX Holiest Grail Reverb, Boss DD20 delay, Boss RE20 space echo, Spirit folio mixer, Havana Especial 5 years

Thanks to Robbie Coleman, Jo Hodges, Stuart McLean and all the visitors and participants throughout the night.

Images appear courtesy of David Coyle (@davidncoyle), Patrick Ballanger (@ballangerp), D. Fyans.