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Take Me To The River – in conversation with composer James Hamilton

11th March 2022 by Morven Macbeth

In conversation with James Hamilton about his work creating the original score for Take Me To The River, a new installation piece which is part of the Festival Finale of North of the Tyne, Under the Stars in Newcastle City Centre, March 10th – 13th 2022

James Hamilton started out as a performer and as a jazz composer and his work has branched out from there, taking him in lots of different directions. He’s worked extensively in education contexts and done a lot of teaching, which has definitely influenced his current practice. He has a real focus on what’s enjoyable. If the people he’s working with are having a good time, and really engaging with making the material, then the final ‘product’ if you like, will take care of itself. He’s headed up a jazz orchestra, plays in the band Hope & Social, and now his composition work has really started to take off, he’s enjoying his continued relationship with imitating the dog, as well as beginning to work with other companies too.

Morven: James, how did you first start working with ITD?

James: Simon Wainwright (co-artistic director of imitating the dog) and I are in a band called Hope & Social together, so we met through that. Simon asked me to get involved with Hound of the Baskervilles, an Oldham Coliseum production which ITD were designing, so I did the music for that, and then he approached me about writing the music for an ITD installation piece called Trespass, commissioned by Light Up Lancaster and Brief Encounter in Preston. The premise for that was wanting to work with a community choir and to make the sound design and the approach that bit more special, to bring something ‘extra’ somehow. Simon had asked me to come on board because of the education work I was doing and projects I was leading with bands, community ensembles, in schools, could we bring some of my skills in these areas to a video-mapping piece.

The idea we came up with on that first project working together was to create a sort of scratch community choir, made up of all sorts of different groups, different people, and it was a live looping piece. So all the sound loops were made live on the night, in performance, by the choir. It was great because it meant that for people who were really into singing, they could really engage with that part of joining the choir, but if your bag was more moving, dancing, whooping, with a bit of singing thrown in, then you could still absolutely be part of that performance. It was quite a big ask really, for a scratch choir to perform. It was a case of asking them to clap for four beats, now stomp your feet for 4 beats, yell “YEAH” on count 3, at exactly the right time, to sync up with the projection, whistle, get a kazoo out, do a bit of dancing, and yes, it was really good fun! It certainly got me excited about working with ITD on their installation projects going forward and together finding new ways to bring in live performance, whether that’s working with community choirs, brass bands, singers, spoken word artists or performers.

MM: How does it work when you and Simon are developing an installation piece? As you’re composing the score and Simon is developing the storyline, the characters, the visual elements, what shape does that process take?

JH: Every project is slightly different but we always start by talking about the story. If Simon is telling me about his ideas for the overall narrative of the piece, then often I’ll start thinking of ideas for the sonic landscape of that story. How we could tell that story musically, what might that structure be? We were just talking about this the other night actually. It’s a really interesting format, the video-mapping installation world, because you’ve got between 10-15 minutes usually to tell a story, that has a nice arc, but is also concise and doesn’t get too complicated, because we’ve only got 15 minutes to tell it in! And the format is so specific: a very visual piece lighting up a big building. A piece we made together which is a really interesting example of this was LEAP, because it’s quite a complex story. It works really well. It’s like an opera almost, but sung in a sort of indie, pop-y way.

MM: LEAP had a really epic quality I thought.

JH: Yes, and it deals with a lot of stuff in 15 minutes! We’ll work from a storyboard in the early stages to get a rough idea of a timeline. It could be that we know that this finale section will definitely need a certain thing from the music, so I might take that as a starting point, and work my way back from that. In Trespass for example there were really clear sections, so it was coming up with themes for each of those sections. With LEAP it was three really clear songs, and a finale. In each case, it’s about coming up with a rough draft and the passing it back and forth between me and Simon, working out what’s needed and where. He starts to animate along to what I’m composing. So the animation builds with the music. Simon responds visually to the music. But he’ll also tell me, “Ok, I think this section needs something really fast” so I’ll go away and come up with ideas for that.

MM: And for Take Me To The River?

JH: Like a lot of the installation work we make it’s a journey story. When Simon first went on site visits Newcastle, he happened to get talking to a woman who told him a story about swimming pools closing down in her area when she was a child, this is years ago now. So, as a kind of protest, local families all got together one day at the city fountain and the kids swam there. This inspired the story we tell in Take Me To The River. Three characters go in search of a place to swim. There’s the journey using lots of amazing archive footage from the North East Film Archive and Yorkshire Film Archive from all around Newcastle, some beautiful images of the Wallsend Shipyard, which is in the process of being closed down now in fact. Our three characters go in search of a swimming pool in the city, which takes them on a journey down to the river, onto a ship, and out to the sea where they can finally swim.

We discussed the tone of each section, the rhythm, the pace of each part of the story. The brass band we worked with bring a kind of nostalgic gravitas to the beautiful, grainy, archive footage, there’s something really pleasurable in that. And of course we really wanted to work with a brass band because there are so many in this area.

MM: So how was it working with Ashington Colliery Brass Band?

JH: Good! They’re a great bunch. One thing I love about this work is that, so far, (touch wood), you never turn up and think “Oh no, this going to be rubbish’! It’s great because everyone’s really up for it, for doing something a little bit different. It’s a slightly unusual way of recording a score, a soundtrack, because everything is going to be set to animation. So when we got into the recording session, I’d written the music, which is sort of mocked up on a computer and then we add the live stuff to that. It all has to be absolutely bang on time. And the way we keep everything absolutely on time is to give the band sort of silent disco headsets so they can listen to the click track, the backing track, as they play and we record.

At first everyone is like, “What? I can’t wear these headphones and play!” but by the end they’re all like, “Oh okay, I get it”! And again, as I always say to the people I’m making work with, it isn’t really about the music as such, it’s about us having a nice time. If we’re all enjoying ourselves, then the music will take care of itself.

MM: The Ashington Colliery Brass Band recorded score is obviously a huge part of the storytelling of Take Me To The River and the participatory element of ITD’s work in this area is always crucial to the success of the work. When there’s a live element in the final piece, what do you think that brings?

JH: It’s really interesting. I think when there’s a live element you engage with the piece differently, it becomes more 3D and becomes that bit more ‘human’. It adds that extra dimension to the work. With Trespass, it was just a choir providing a backing track at first. But the more we worked, we more we brought dancing and movement into the performance, more shouting and hollering, that brought a massive emotional aspect to the piece. With LEAP, there was one live singer, and two singers on the video mapped onto the building. Somehow that lone live singer, performing as part of this massive projection piece all around her, brought a much more emotional response from the audience I think.

Find out more about all the installation projects mentioned throughout the conversation here

Photo by Ed Waring

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