Sunday, 6 December 2009

Arts in Transition Conference, 2 December 2009

Tomorrow is day one of the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.  Like others around the world I am crossing my fingers that the conference will result in a treaty appropriate to the danger level we are facing.

Of course we all know that crossing our fingers won’t do much, and that’s why we can be grateful for organisations like Centre for Alternative Technology, located here in mid-Wales.  The Centre was founded in the the mid-seventies as a reaction to the fuel shortages of the time, and these days the staff continue to track climate change science, while working to spread the word about how policy and individual behaviour may need to shift in the coming years.

To this end, the creative minds at C.A.T. are always finding new ways to engage the local community, a recent success being the “Arts in Transition” conference, held December 2nd in a wing of the new education building.  In my capacity as a songwriter, I was pleased to be among the local artists invited to hear a series of short presentations by C.A.T. staff, with plenty of time in the schedule to discuss the issues with the specialists, and with the artists in attendance.

BBC-commissioned radio playwright Sarah Woods facilitated the meetings, beginning with an acknowledgment of the difficulty artists face in forging a path between “finger-wagging and the hippie viewpoint,” when trying to portray relevant modern issues.

Long-term staff member Tanya Hawkes pointed out that in Wales sustainability is an integral part of politics, more than in the rest of the UK.  There is also the encouraging fact that other countries such as Norway, Iceland and Costa Rica have been making ambitious pacts amongst themselves, thereby getting a head start on the global treaty process.  So all is not doom and gloom!

Although I was only able to attend the morning session, I was stimulated the event, and by the presence of so many motivated local artists.  As far as I could tell it was quite theatrical bunch, but there were also a number of visual artists, many of whose work I had previously enjoyed. 

Some of my favorites:

Pippa Taylor, wood sculptor

Meri Wells, ceramic sculptor

Caitlin Shepherd, illustrator and textile designer

 Local film-maker Pete Telford covered the conference, and has posted an article on his Culture Colony website with photos and details of the presentations.

 Thanks to C.A.T. for an inspiring few hours; I have great hopes for the ability of artists to draw climate change into our collective conscience.  Now lets cross our fingers for Copenhagen. . .

Friday, 25 September 2009

Dysgwraig dw i! I'm a (Welsh) learner!

Autumn is with us, and like all good children, I’m back in class.  Have just begun my second of year of intensive Welsh language, taught by the inspiring Sue Evans, of Penegoes.   I must admit I was originally skeptical about learning from a non-native speaker, but within an hour of class, it was clear she could explain the ins and outs of Cymraeg as well as any native speaker -- perhaps even better, with the experience of having learned it herself.  Sue is a natural comedienne, and laughter is a big part of the class; I find this eases the frustration when those stubborn, aging synapses refuse to fire.

Faint o bobl sy‘na yn y dosbarth?    How many people are in the class?

Mae ‘na bymtheg person yn y dosbarth.    There are 15 people in the class.

 Yes, it’s rather large, for a language class.  But how can you exclude someone who comes along with a sincere wish to learn?  I can see it’s not easy.  Oh well, wish as luck as we delve into this beautiful and mysterious ancient Celtic language.  And as we summon up courage to use it in the shops and cafes of Machynlleth!  

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Otley Folk Festival 2009

Otley!  A playground for folkies one weekend each September, and Em and I were pleased to be part of the program, after a couple of years away.  Aside from the obvious thrill of playing on stage at festivals, we really value the chance to sit down and hear some of the other bands.  We definitely lucked out this time, as the organizers had booked a range of great talents --  many of them women, I'm pleased to say.
Some observations on what I saw and heard:

Mawkin Causley.  Of course I'd heard the name many times in recent years, and had been mildly titillated by the soft-core porn they handed out as promo material at Cambridge Folk Fest last year.   I had also heard Jim Causley sing with Devil's Interval, but was curious to see what "folk's boy band" would get up to.  And on this sunny Saturday afternoon, the boys didn't disappoint.  

Variety was the name of the game, with different combinations of the five musicians on and off stage, playing a mixture of driving tunes and sweet ballads.  Causley's voice surprised me again with its depth and maturity --and it was so English to my ear -- very refreshing, as I've just come back from the States.  They played a quite funky version of "The Cutty Wren," a melody I'd previously known as belonging to the incredibly driving revolution song "Ned Ludd" by activist group Seize the Day.   

Causley also insisted on singing a song about "summer girls," an elaborate description of a particularly lovely lady amongst many.  One can't help feeling it's a bit out of context, as he seems more inspired by men in chains, but he shrugged off any confusion at the end of the song by explaining it was about Dylan Thomas' life.  Perhaps it was the sailor aspect that had originally appealed to him.

The highlight came near the end of the set: an original tune that started out with just fiddle and button accordion.  It began with a pronounced French flavor, and as it progressed the grace and courtliness of the tune put me in mind of Baroque chamber music.  After a heavenly minute or so of this unusual, elegant stuff, the bass player and guitarist stepped back on stage and join in.  At first just a few gentle chords. . . and they were off . . . with another great jig.   Enjoyed it very much; will try to catch them in the evening next time, as I'd bet they'd be more warmed up.  And as they claim to be a boy band, could we hope for a few more dance moves?

Anna Shannon.  She's a statuesque woman with big, shiny 80's-era hair.  But close  your eyes, and she's a voice from war-time Britain: a somewhat  desperate hawker of black-market goods:  brandy, and a little salt for your meal.  "Sweet Home," the next song in the set, offered more room for the softness of her voice to emerge.  Throughout the set I was struck by the overall fluidity, and her ability to move from the tough nasal tones of Marianne Faithful,  to a more tempered, honey-like quality.  Always perfectly intoned, and with a steady, subdued guitar as her base, Shannon is an inspiring performer.  Exploring the consequences of infidelity in "Velvet Green" with a sinister intensity similar to Lal Waterson's "Midnight Feast,"  Shannon drew the set to a very satisfying close.  I must say it's encouraging to see a woman old enough to have grown children playing a main stage festival slot; I'm just surprised I never got to hear this award-winning songwriter before now.