Building The Brewband…Marc Brew at Renfrew Town Hall, Renfrew, January 19 and 20
I am a Marc Brew Company writing roadie, invited into the studio as Marc continues the creative process developing his new work BREWBAND. The company describes the work as, ‘Scotland’s new super band — that blurs boundaries and challenges people’s perception of identity.’ BREWBAND is being created in the glorious, high-ceilinged Renfrew Town Hall by award-winning choreographer Marc Brew and brings together the musicians Graeme Smillie (Unwinding Hours/The Vaselines), Jill O’Sullivan (BDY_PRTS/Sparrow And The Workshop), Peter Kelly (Galchen/The Kills) with dancers Martyn Garside (San Francisco Ballet), Marta Masiero (Scottish Dance Theatre) and Alice Sheppard (Axis Dance Company).
The first week is primarily about building confidence and trust between the performers; Marc is consistently asking them to go to places that are unfamiliar but the way he holds the studio and frames the workshop tasks is supportive and this checking in — asking if everyone is OK and making time for care — reaps enormous creative rewards.
Even the trio of post-rock musicians are involved in the physical exercises. None of them has encountered zip-zap-boing and blindfolded touch exercises before but immerse themselves fully before offering these responses: “In the blindfold exercise I was tracing lines on Martyn’s body — it was like a constellation; I was totally buzzing and decided to throw myself in and say touch me, pull me,” and “Being touched on the face is so unexpected; I use my fingers a lot but never really think about them — this is about bringing attention to our body.” This physical and emotional bonding acts as a shortcut and is right out the MIT leadership guide to building a new team; Brew ensures the mission, goals, rules, language and communication are clear and open which leads to a happy and productive team.
Graeme is the only musician who had participated in the first research period in 2015 and offers a thread back to some of the original thinking: “Collaborations are really fertile ground for me because we’re trying new things, challenging habits, and with the introduction of Jill it adds really strong vocals into the band which we didn’t have before. In the improvs I have to be more comfortable about not always trying to remember everything all the time as it isn’t important at this stage; it’s allowing room for experimentation but trying to get that feeling/energy back when it comes to the making.”
The creative tasks involved in the presentation of dance challenged Jill’s preconceptions: “I had some trepidation before the project started. There’s something in musicians, we play in the dark in dingy places and don’t have people looking at us. Marc commented that a lot of musicians have hair that covers their face and I suppose we do. What we’re doing with our bodies here is nothing like I’ve done before. I thought I was fit, but I’ve discovered new muscles that ache at the end of the day and it’s shattered my preconceptions of what dance is in a great way. When I see a dancer respond immediately and physically to what I’m playing — which is really unusual — it makes me play better as I am not only aware of myself, the song and other musicians but of the dancers as well. I’ve already noticed after 4 days that I’m a better musician because of this process.”
In creating BREWBAND there was some discussion from the musicians around repetition; how their bodies default to certain positions whilst playing a song 50 or 60 times before it’s familiar. Humans encounter a lot of repetition in daily routines; familiar faces, habits and pathways enable a certain level of comfort. Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, director of the music cognition lab at the University of Arkansas, has spent time investigating why repetition has a profound effect on us: ‘One of the reasons this kind of repeat exposure can cause an earworm to burrow in our mental soundtrack is because repetition actually changes the way we listen to music. Repetition changes the way we orient to sound and it tends to draw us into a participatory stance so that we’re imagining the next note before it happens.’
Repetition makes us listen and see things differently; it offers a chance to pay more attention to the nuances and subtleties in the choreography and composition as we are no longer occupied with just trying to process the main melodic or visually harmonic content. Each day Jill led a short vocal warm up mixing do-re-mi scales, lip-rippling-exhausted-horse exercises and joint head humming all the while stressing the importance of not over-warming up the voice: 10 minutes is often enough. After the warm-up ended it melted into a rich and unforeseen vocal improvisation; with Bjork’s Unravel playing, Alice began riffing in and out of the melodies before passing the mic to Martyn who brought acres of emotion and richness into the speakers. 15 minutes later there was a set of material that was stage ready, demonstrating the mutual trust and each person’s ability to respond to the delicate energies in play.
The structure of each day focused on a morning of skills development and bonding, working towards a creative something in the afternoon which may or may not make it into the final work. Peter offered an insight into how Marc created this mutually supportive environment: “When you join a new indie or rock band there are some salty road dogs who’re in their 60s, on cocaine every night and part of a clique. Here everyone is equal, slightly unsure but also so encouraging. I don’t think about each limb doing different things when I’m on the drums — you’d just fall apart if you did. You zone into it. We did this exercise with a deconstructed drum kit spinning on risers; playing was almost dizzying and a little like Tommy Lee from Motley Crue where he’s in the cage upside down in the audience. We’re working out how all the fills, flourishes and the ends of the tracks work, as well as working out how people work together. Touching strangers sober isn’t something you normally do.”
The shared musical palette of Mogwai, Nils Frahm and Godspeed You! Black Emperor offer a clear set of influences from which the music burrows under your skin and when they played live for the first time in rehearsal their movements — if you removed their instruments — were so compelling to watch. Melodies, rhythms and time signatures pulse through bodies: their physicality is mesmerising and BREWBAND is building.