The Brighton Fringe is fast approaching and here’s a round-up of the shows I’m bringing this year. There’s a solo show of archival oddities and music, exploring Britain’s 1980s nuclear survivalists; a Spacedog set at Jane Bom-Bane’s music café and a theremin jam with Leila Dear, curated by Strange Attractor and Disinformation.
Horlicks and Armageddon
This new, solo venture takes place in a sub-basement refuge, deep under the streets of Brighton. I’ll be using electronic music, automata and spoken word to recall the secret lives of Britain’s self-styled nuclear survivalists. In the 1980s, while most of us lived in fear of Armageddon, this small band of enthusiasts prepared for nuclear war with relish, as though it was an extended, underground caravanning holiday. This event includes rarely seen documents from the National Archives.
20:00: 7, 8, 13, 14 and 15 May 2013
Sub-basement, The Old Police Cell Museum, Bartholomew Square, Brighton BN1
Tickets £8.50/£6.50 Book on the Brighton Fringe website.
Seen at this year’s Port Eliot Festival, the Odditorium is a collaboration with a handful of other salon speakers who share an interest in the arcane.
The Odditorium is curated by David Bramwell, host of Brighton’s long-running Catalyst Club. David and I have performed together at The Last Tuesday Society, The Horse Hospital and TEDx – here’s how David describes our latest venture:
“The Odditorium is a portal to the fringes of culture, its mavericks, pranksters, adventurers and occultists.
Our team comprise Sony Award-winning broadcasters, musicians, best-selling authors, roboticists and comic-book heroes, here to share their passions through slide show lectures, musical performance, live experiments, audience participation and mischief.”
I’m back in Brighton after performing at QEDCon, a festival of talks and performances exploring science, technology and skepticism. Thanks so much to the organisers and volunteers for making the weekend run so smoothly – Stephen Hiscock and I had a fine old time.
Those of you who saw my talk ‘Voices of the Dead’ might enjoy this video. It features the voice recording I made on wax during the show, using an Edison phonograph. You can hear three voices. The first is Helen Chorley, reciting a poem, and the last is me, signing off. If any of you can pass on the name of the plucky individual who talks between Helen and me, I’d be really grateful.
The Pod Delusion is a fine, weekly podcast about science, skepticism and other interesting things. And this week, I’ve contributed a short piece on the phonograph – a taster of my talk at the Fortean Times Unconvention. You can hear it on the Pod Delusion site from Friday morning (11 November 2011).
The 7 minute piece starts with some curious words used by Florence Nightingale as she laid down her voice on a wax cylinder for the first time in 1890.
On 12 November, I’m delighted to be joining experts on the sasquatch, hermeticism and Gef the Talking Mongoose at the The Fortean Times Unconvention. Jon Ronson will be talking about The Psychopath Test, Jan Bondeson will be discussing some canine intellectuals and Gail-Nina Anderson will be presenting her popular history of the Egyptian mummy.
I’ll explore some of the stranger obsessions of the early adopters of sound recording as I immortalise a voice from the audience by recording it on wax, using an original Edison Standard Phonograph. I’ll also discuss a little-known sound recording method, one which was used to bring popular music into the home, 150 years before the phonograph. And I’ll reveal some outlandish experiments with radio, from the early 1920s, as I play some live aether music on the theremin, accompanied by fellow Spacedog Stephen Hiscock and Hugo, my ventriloquial sidekick.
I’m taking my theremin, phonograph and robot pal Hugo to Manchester in March for QED, a two day festival of skepticism and popular science. There are some fine speakers on the bill, Maryam Namazie, Steve Jones, Ophelia Benson, David Aaronovitch and Robin Ince among them.
I’ll be exploring some of the stranger obsessions of early adopters of sound recording as I immortalise a voice on wax, using an original Edison phonograph. And I’ll be delving into the archives to reveal a bizarre, long-forgotten recording method that was used to bring music into the home 150 years before the phonograph.
This Radio 4 documentary aired at 1:30pm on 5 July 2011. It’s repeated at 3:30pm on Saturday 9 July.
Now available on the BBC iPlayer.
For those of you who would like to know more about The Bird Fancyer’s Delight, here’s a bumper crop of references I’ve found over the last few months, including transcripts from the British Library, music excerpts, photographs of a serinette and details of contributors to the show. I hope you find them interesting.
Talking Canaries and Voices of the Dead
In December 1877, a journalist writing in Scientific American noted there was a now ‘a startling possibility of recording voices of the dead’. He’d just witnessed Edison recording sound on his new invention: the phonograph. And in 1922, a New York radio station switched on the microphones, exited the studio and broadcast nothing but dead air. To mediums and suggestible listeners tuning in, the crackling radio static was alive with voices from the other side.
Radio and gramophones are transmitters of disembodied voices, a feat that seemed so remarkable to the first users, it inspired some curious claims about the paranormal and unlikely alliances between scientists and diviners of the spirit world. In this talk and live demonstration, I’ll explore some of the stranger obsessions of the early adopters of these sound machines, as I immortalise a voice from the audience by recording it on wax, using an original Edison Standard Phonograph.
This event includes tales of ventriloquism, trained budgies, fake psychics, dead air and a little-known curiosity from the eighteenth century, one which may have been used to record short segments of sound 150 years before the phonograph. I’ll perform some live ‘aether music’ and play genuine voices from the grave: ’message records’ posted by soldiers who were lost in battle in the Second World War.
This weekend, Spacedog are playing at BEAM – Brunel University’s festival of electronic and analogue music. I’ll be performing with my fellow Spacedogs, participating in a pecha kucha session and running a drop-in workshop on optical flow. Very briefly, optical flow is a trick we can borrow from nature to detect moving objects in a scene, with relatively little computing power. It’s how bees and some other insects navigate their world. I’ll be using some free software libraries to play with optical flow, using a musician’s movements to control music live.
I’ll be writing more about optical flow in a day or so. In the meantime, here’s a fascinating video piece from Minoru Fujimoto which uses optical flow algorithms to track a dancer (video from drpopeyee):
As I untangle the cable salad, I’m remembering a few highlights from my long weekend of gigs:
I was lucky enough to perform on theremin in front of the Babbage Difference Engine No 2 (in the Science Museum) and to share the bill with Professor Elemental and a gingerbread man (at the Absinthe Ball), an electronic pig (at Interesting 11) and Randoph Matthews and Byron Johnson (at Cabaret Futura – Randolph has an extraordinarily beautiful voice).
Interesting 11 was a day of geeky pursuits in the Conway Hall, London, that well and truly lived up to its name. The day was put together by Russell Davies and it was in the morning’s Hack Circus, curated by the marvellous Leila Johnston, where I did some theremin wrangling. Accompanied by my robotic vent doll Hugo, I talked a little about my approach to live performance with automata and spoke one-to-one with assorted interesting folk who wanted to try the theremin for themselves.
The Circus included a fine song about 16k computers from MJ Hibbett which brought back fond memories of my first computer, a 16k ZX Spectrum which my dad won at a carpet trade show. Other highlights included a tomato caviar workshop; a beautiful drawing machine from Sandy Noble, based on a pen plotter; an encounter with the Domesday Project, something I hadn’t seen since the early 1990s; and a giant modular synth built by David Cranmer.
The Domesday Project
This was a compendium of words and images about life in Britain, stored on laser disk and largely collected by school children. Run by the BBC, the project was completed in 1986. This Domesday Reloaded site tells you a little more about the project but it doesn’t show many of the photographs themselves. The amateur photographers went around their shops and homes, snapping their living rooms, coats and scarves hanging in the hall, the loo brush and bleach behind the cystern – all the trappings of everyday life. The result is extraordinary: an archive of images, depicting Britain in the 1980s, as it would look if something had spirited all the people away. The photos have a wonderful, eerie Cold War charm about them. I would love to work with Domesday Reloaded on a live performance to accompany some projections from the disks.
Nine Owls in a Baguette
David Cranmer is the maker behind Nine Owls in a Baguette. Our paths have crossed before – we both played at the Steampunk evening 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas, for White Mischief a few months ago. David brought along his famous pig and a huge, old-school modular synth that he’d built from scratch. This made sounds so fruity, it took your breath away. The synth can be controlled using CV (control voltage), a system that was used to make synths communicate with each before the advent of midi.
As a theremin player, I find CV is much more satisfying than midi as it offers a continuous signal, rather than one that works in midi-like steps. I can use it to play slides and fine tremelo effects. My Etherwave Pro synth also has CV out so we were able to link the two up and use my theremin to control the sounds of David’s synth. The right hand controlled pitch and the left hand controlled filtering. It’s a shame we didn’t get a recording – it was a wonderful effect. I hope David and I can link up our machines again for a live performance somewhere. I’ll bring the capes and dry ice.
Oh – and I also had time to visit the Fryer’s Delight, one of London’s finest cafés. Although the street has been annexed by identikit global coffee companies, this family company is still going strong on the Theobald’s Road. Fishcake and chips in the Fryer’s Delight made Interesting 11 a perfect day.
Tomorrow morning I’m performing at Interesting – an event curated by Russell Davies where I’m not sure what’s going to happen but I hear the name is on the tin.
I’ll be part of Leila Johnston‘s Hack Circus – an hour of music, robots, performance and geeky participation.I’m travelling light, just with my theremin and my old pal Hugo, the robotic vent doll. I’m looking forward to the adventure and can’t wait to see who else is on the bill – I’m also very happy to be meeting some of my former Twitter pals in the flesh (still pals – but I no longer Twitter).
Leila (aka Final Bullet) is a writer, podcaster and all round good egg, into geek culture, games, comedy, space travel and more. One of the team who made the brilliant Shift Run Stop, she’s also the founder of the Hackers! newspaper and shares my admiration for crows. There’s a great interview with Leila here on the Made By Many website.
Mosying around Russell’s website, I spotted his very helpful pages on where to buy egg, bacon, chips and beans and good places to have a cup of tea and a think. In Brighton, I’d recommend The Bubble Kitchen – or on a sunny day, The Madiera Cafe on the beach. In London, I still mourn the passing of The Saddler’s Grill, at Angel, and The Modern Tearoom at the top of Drury Lane.
Russell’s talk at Next 11 also caught my eye – it’s about putting computing power into real-world objects and the culture of hacking everyday things. I’m always reppropriating and wiring up handbags, toys and other old tat (or if you’re buying: ‘Found Objects’) so I loved this talk. This exuberant, free and easy open attitude to hacking is something Russell’s colleague Andy Huntingdon called ‘the Geocities of things’:
It’s a busy weekend as Spacedog are performing in Lewes at the Absinthe Ball tonight (Friday 17 June) – we’re playing our uptempo party set – the one with extra cheese. It’ll be a hoot – Professor Elemental and The Las Vegas Mermaids are also on the bill. We’re back to our usual dark and spooky fare, as seen and heard in Televisor, at Cabaret Futura, Kensal Rise, on Monday night. Oh and if you’re in the Science Museum on Sunday afternoon, you might spot me demonstrating the theremin to families – do say hello!
Eerie musicians Spacedog summon the spirit of John Logie Baird as they perform with flickering projections, created live on their working reconstruction of Baird’s original 1920s televisor.
There will be a crackle of static as Fringe regulars the Angliss sisters evoke the earliest days of television in their new evening of deliciously unsettling music. Televisor is the latest retro-futuristic treat from their band Spacedog, mixing theremin, saw, vocals, waterphone and live action from the group’s famous, uncanny musical robots. And this year, their music is given an extra kick from tip-top percussionist Stephen Hiscock (Ensemble Bash).
Technically cranky, faltering, and even a little dangerous, Baird’s televisor was a world away from the bland plasma screens we see today; a perfect match, in fact, for Spacedog’s trademark, homespun electronica, haunted by an analogue past.
Steampunk favourite, gentleman wordsmith Professor Elemental, will be guesting – he’ll perform a brand new number with Spacedog as well as a couple of his classics. Other highlights include a new torch song for variety star Tommy Cooper and a high-energy anthem to the awe-inspiring Soviet Ekranoplan (aka The Caspian Sea Monster).
“A word of mouth wonder”, the Londonist.
“Like a classic surrealist object from a dream”, FAD magazine
“Spacedog…generate the kind of gore-free spinechilling terror that mainstream cinema seems to have forgotten”, the Londonist.
Spacedog will be reprising some of the Televisor set as we squeeze our theremin and musical robots into Bom-Bane’s, Brighton’s most beautiful and diminutive music venue. Limited space – booking advisable!
For Laika (a song from Spacedog featuring theremin and robotic bells)
Spirit Broadcasts and Ghost Trains
Ocean Rooms, Brighton 11 May
Ticket details tbc Two talks for a special Fringe edition of Catalyst Club, hosted by Playgroup and Dr David Bramwell
In the early 20th century, radio and gramophones seemed so remarkable, some tried to use these inventions to explain the spirit world and telepathy. Engineer and theremin player Sarah Angliss reminds us of a strange time when a handful of leading physicists flirted freely with the paranormal. Sarah’s talk includes live aether music mixed with genuine voices from beyond the grave – recordings of soldiers who were lost on the battlefields of the First and Second World Wars.
Starting with the ghost train on the Palace Pier, Colin Uttley examines how the 18th-century phantasmagoria became this classic fairground ‘dark ride’. He also examines a Victorian railway disaster, deep in a tunnel just outside Brighton, which inspired Charles Dickens to write his haunting tale The Signalman. Includes classic ghost train special effects – hold onto your seats!
Radio listening in the former USSR, c1954. Photo: Sergei Polishchuk.