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fast+Dirty lab 2008

Ian Spink (director)
Rose English (guest mentor)
Craig Wallace (stage manager)
Simon Gane (production manager)
Jackie Adkins (project co-ordinator)
Jillian Thomson (Citymoves dance development)

Group 1: Ciymoves Dancespace
Coral Lee (choreographer / performer / creative leader)
Frank McConnell (dancer / choreographer)
Lucy Boyes (dancer / mixed media collaborations)
Julia McGhee (dancer)
Haworth Hodgkinson (musician / poet)

Group 2: The Lemon Tree
Claire Singer (musician / composer)
Jack Keenan (media artist)
Ani Tchakmakdjian (performer / choreographer)

Group 3: Children's Theatre
Ewan Cameron (writer / director / performer)
Karl Jay-Lewin (choreographer / performer)
James Jackson (dancer / vocalist)
Rosalind Masson (dancer / media / performer)
Pamela Donald (actor / performer)

fast+Dirty began life fifteen years ago in London hosted by the mixed-form dance company Second Stride. It existed as a workshop for professional artists of different disciplines to experiment with making performance work in a collaborative environment. Small creative teams would be formed and at certain stages in the research process, groups would show and discuss work they had created. The selection process has varied each year, ranging from specifically targeted participants through to 'all comers taken'. In 2008 the workshop covered a very short intense period. There were three preset targeted groups working in their own base site. Each group had lead creators who set out to explore a particular set of ideas combining elements of dance with other art forms — music, writing, video, design &c.

Haworth Hodgkinson's day-by-day reflective blog

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Day 1: Tuesday 21 October 2008

I set out from home in plenty of time to reach the Lemon Tree for the initial meeting with Groups 2 and 3. My group, Group 1, doesn't actually meet until tomorrow, but it seems a good idea to come and meet the others. Or at least it seemed a good idea when I first agreed to it. Scraping ice off the car windscreen before sunrise I'm not too sure. It's a while since I've driven into Aberdeen this early in the morning, and I'm expecting the worst of the rush-hour traffic, so I am surprised to find the roads very quiet, and I arrive half an hour early.

The Lemon Tree door is locked. There are lights on, but nobody answers the buzzers. Gradually, some of the other participants arrive. We try the buzzers from time to time, but still no reply. A fine welcome to the Aberdeen arts scene for those who have travelled to the city. No surprise to those of us who know it.

By the time Ian and Rose, our director and mentor, arrive, there is quite a crowd of us on the street. Ian presses a buzzer, and immediately we are let in, to be warmed by Lemon Tree instant coffee.

Introductions are informal, as we are still waiting for one or two to arrive, but it's good to meet again with past collaborators, as well as some folk I vaguely know, and many I have never met before.

As a slightly more formal introduction, Ian invites us one by one to talk about our recent work, a great way of getting an overview of each other's current creative concerns.

We then talk about the projects that will be starting today. One group will be working in the Lemon Tree on a highly technological exploration of dance, music and video triggering each other in a feedback loop. The other will be working in the Children's Theatre, and this group seems to have an interesting mix of dance and drama people, which should make for fascinating results. At this stage, as the sole representative of my group, I cannot say anything about my group's plans.

We are introduced to our technical staff, and the other two groups proceed to begin work. I head off in search of better coffee.

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Day 2: Wednesday 22 October 2008

My first full day is scheduled to begin at 9.30, meeting my group at Citymoves, which will be our workspace. Again I decide I'd better set off in plenty of time to allow for rush-hour traffic. I load the car with musical instruments. At this stage in the project it's hard to judge which instruments I will need, so I take a fairly arbitrary selection of favourites — recorders, djembe, gongs and tam-tams — along with a few wildcards — flexatones, slapstick, vibraslap. There is more ice to scrape from the windscreen, and again very little traffic.

The plan is to arrive and meet the team before unloading the instruments. I know some of the others will be going to Janis Claxton's dance class at 10.00, so I can unload then.

My group meets. Coral, dancer and choreographer, will be our group leader. The others, Frank, Lucy and Julia, are all dancers. I realise that as the only non-dancer I will be the outsider of the group, but that's fine!

Ian repeats the process of introductions by talking about recent projects, then the others go off to their dance class, and I tackle the complicated matter of bringing the instruments into Citymoves. The venue has no parking, so the process involves bringing the car to the front door, getting a volunteer (in this case Rose) to help get the instruments into the entrance way at the bottom of the stairs, then leaving the volunteer to stand guard over the instruments whilst I re-park the car. By the time I return, Rose has completed the manoeuvre by loading the instruments into the lift and transporting them to the dance space, which is on the top floor.

I now have a leisurely hour and a half to set the instruments up in my chosen corner of the space and to carry out a few acoustical explorations of the working environment, as well as checking the instruments for acclimatisation. I don't know if it's the shock of the cold weather, but the drums and recorders are a bit sluggish.

It's only after setting up all the instruments that I notice a beeping jacklift outside the window, lifting workmen to and from the roof, where there is much hammering. I try to decide if the opposite corner of the room is quieter — it is, most definitely — and if it is worth moving all the instruments to avoid the distraction. After hesitating for many minutes I am on the point of accepting that it would be sensible to move, when one of the workmen comes upstairs to announce that they have finished working on the roof. Phew!

I now have a few minutes contemplation time to enjoy the autumn sun streaming through the windows whilst I await the return of the dancers.

Coral, as group leader, has the difficult task of finding a way of beginning the whole process of creation and development. We talk about some of her ideas involving leaves, the feeling of being a stranger in an unfamiliar place, and the idea of filming and projecting people about their everyday business on the streets of Aberdeen. She then invites me to talk a little about the instruments. I slightly sidestep this and find myself demonstrating friction sounds on drums, tam-tam, and the wall and floor of the building.

We move into a game of movement in which we find ways of responding in detail to aspects of our working environment, including each other. For some reason this suggests to me a parallel exploration using tenor recorder, which seems to fit the atmosphere of what we are trying to explore.

A narrative begins to emerge, with a stranger reacting to characters on the street. The dancers develop a structure to what they are doing, and I try an accompaniment using gongs and tam-tams. After a while my collaborators politely suggest that this accompaniment isn't quite appropriate. They are right, and I am glad of the opportunity to move to a different instrument. I choose another recorder, this time the great bass, not least because the dancers seem to have set up their action quite distant from where I have set up the instruments, and I can move closer with a recorder.

The sequence develops — the stranger (Lucy) walks on leaves, picks them up and lets them fall to the ground. The others walk past, reacting as to strangers on the street. Lucy is drawn into the action, and the interactions become more involving. I set this against a sort of modal flutter-tonguing backdrop on the great bass recorder, expanding the modal content each time Lucy leads the action.

I realise that having spent so much time improvising in recent years I now find that when I try to repeat something it becomes less interesting, so as we work on this sequence I have to find ways of varying the musical content whilst preserving the form. Nonetheless I find myself falling into a predictable foursquare groove, which I have to make a conscious effort to cut across with syncopations and varying length phrases, all of which came naturally the first time we did it. I decide that my sudden and surprising tendency to improvise in conventional four-bar phrases is somehow related to the narrative nature of the developing piece — I'm used to working in a much more abstract sense, particularly with dancers.

We make videos of a couple of versions and watch them. Rose arrives and joins us first to watch the video, then to see the live piece. We discuss the need to position the piece relative to its audience. Rose suggests that the whole room could be the performing space, with audience interspersed. This would bring my corner station back into the action.

The time has come to rendezvous with the other groups. There are introductions for those who haven't met, then updates on the work. It appears that the Lemon Tree group has been largely taken up with the technical aspects of setting up their feedback loop. The Children's Theatre group meanwhile has been exploring ways of using the whole building, and so has been considering the matters of audience placement that our group will also have to address.

We then retire to Ma Cameron's, where the discussions continue, those from outside the area commenting on how much is going on in Aberdeen, whilst the locals amongst us slip into the usual moans about the fragmented nature of the local arts scene and the lack of support from the official bodies.

I arrive home late to the reality of unanswered emails, and a reminder that I had said I would write a daily blog for this project. Well, here it is for today, with a retrospective entry for yesterday. I can't guarantee I will have as much to write on subsequent days!

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Day 3: Thursday 23 October 2008

No frost to scrape this morning. It's been one of those roaringly windy Buchan nights that we get so many of in autumn. Clouds fill the sky, though not so as to obscure the daylight, and as I drive into Aberdeen I am struck by the contrast between this morning's stormy sea and yesterday's shimmering reflection of the morning sun.

As I arrive at Citymoves I notice one bright green leaf lying on the pavement. I take it up to the studio and carefully place it amidst the brown leaves that have become part of our set.

The others are already away to their dance class with Janis. My self-appointed task whilst they are away is to acquaint myself with the Citymoves piano. I am never very confident with keyboards in public. I make no claim to the keyboard as my instrument in the way I might claim recorders and percussion. I am therefore slightly nervous when I realise that there are other people in the building, and my tentative attempts to tame the beast will be overheard. I decide the only way to deal with this is to ignore the presence of the others, and proceed anyway. Despite this intention, my explorations are influenced in a subtle way, as I find myself beginning my journey from semitone dissonances instead of the open octaves that would be a more natural starting point. Once started though, I am untroubled by the presence of Jillian in the office and Rose warming up in the studio. First I explore the keyboard, before moving through damped strings to sounds inside the piano. By the time the others return, the piano and I are on good terms.

How do we proceed then from yesterday's achievements? Frank suggests a base running game as a variant of the stranger / crowd theme. This develops into a kind of rondo form in which the four performers walk around the space until their alignment becomes such that one is in the middle, two others are together staring at the one in the middle, and the fourth is on the opposite side, also staring at the one in the middle. Once the one in the middle realises they are in this configuration, they are released to perform some kind of solo response to the feeling of being stared at, whilst the others watch. When the solo finishes, the walking continues. For this, it feels appropriate to accompany the walking sections with rapid finger patterns on the djembe, moving to a more distinct rhythmic pattern, or even to a different instrument for the solos. Sometimes I respond to the movements of the soloist — Julia's solos are especially spectacular — and other times I let the music go its own way.

In discussion of this exercise afterwards, Ian suggests that I try accompanying the walking section by walking myself across the performance space, dragging across the floor the rubber half-ball on a stick that I have been using to elicit friction sounds from various percussion instruments.

We break for lunch, some characteristically fine soup from Books and Beans, conveniently located along the road from Citymoves.

As we are gathering to begin the afternoon session, Lucy is curious about the half-ball on a stick, and she tries it on the floor. Because it is a dance floor, this produces a resonant effect that we all feel through the floor as well as hear. Coral meanwhile tries out the instrument that I call güiro blocks, a pair of wood blocks with serrated edges to allow scraping effects. As Lucy explores the friction ball on the floor, I suggest she tries it on the djembe. She takes to it naturally, and immediately starts producing a rich array of grunting sounds. I observe that she very quickly discovers the figure-of-eight technique for producing a continuous unbroken sound without twisting the wrist into a spiral. Coral is still playing the güiro blocks, and I join them with some sounds from inside the piano, with occasional percussion. The interaction between the three of us rapidly develops into something very powerful and emotively intense, with Frank on the dance floor rolling in the leaves. Julia enters, having missed the beginning of this, but is soon drawn in with her own games of movement under constraints.

We spend the rest of the afternoon trying to analyse what it was that made this spontaneous outburst so strong, and trying to find ways to recreate its energy.

For the first attempt at recreation, we try to integrate the musical instruments into the movement by placing them in three distinct stations in the performing space. We try to improvise from similar starting material, and this time video the result. The spontaneity is lost, and with it the emotional intensity. The atmosphere is further disrupted by a friction device malfunction. The half-ball detaches itself from the stick in Lucy's hand and proceeds to describe a graceful spiral around the floor. Frank and Julia both move to rescue the situation, but there is no getting round the fact we have been upstaged by our equipment. We keep going, and the performance seems to divide itself into three distinct phases, none of which, we agree afterwards, really worked.

After watching the video we decide that separating the instruments was a bad idea, as it hindered eye contact and communication. For a second attempt at recreation the instrumentalists are reunited. This helps communication between the musicians, but I find that from under the piano I can only see half of the performing area.

Time has defeated us for one day. Ian, Rose and Jillian join us for some very helpful feedback on our discovery and subsequent loss of that unforced spontaneity that had come so naturally when it was unplanned.

This discussion leads to the obligatory visit to Ma Cameron's before I head for home and attempt a repair of the friction device with superglue.

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Day 4: Friday 24 October 2008

Another windy morning, not as windy as yesterday, but colder and clear. Before setting out I collect a bag of leaves from the garden. These will travel 25 miles across two rivers to join their Aberdeen counterparts on the dance floor. In Aberdeen I find one more attractive leaf on the pavement, so I add it to the bag as a wildcard. I arrange the leaves in a circle next to the strip of leaves from yesterday, separating out the Aberdeen wildcard and placing it alone. The leaves that have travelled from home are noticeably darker in colour than the Aberdeen leaves.

The others are away to their morning dance class, so I use the time to make some more adjustments to the positions of the instruments. I then go through my own warmup routine — recorders first, then percussion, and finally the piano.

Coral, Frank, Lucy and Julia arrive from their dance class bringing more leaves, including some very striking red ones. These are added to the arrangement on the floor. We now have two rectangular banks of yellow leaves, my circle of dark leaves, and Frank's patch of red ones.

Coral is interested in including text in our work, so she leads a text generating exercise in which we each write answers to a set of given questions. Rose arrives and joins in the process of answering the questions. We then exchange answers and read them out. By mutual agreement we select material from the answers. I am then nominated to take on the role of editing the text down to something that can be used in our performance.

Lunch brings another visit to Books and Beans for soup. I remember to take away a plastic spoon.

After lunch, we work on separate tasks. I have the text to edit, Coral and Lucy take the video camera out to sample the streets of Aberdeen, and Frank and Julia work on another dance scene involving leaves and voices.

We come together again and start assembling some of the material we have created so far into a structured sequence. We revive the walking scene with great bass recorder as a potential opening. Lucy takes her solo in this piece before moving to the relocated instrument station to play djembe and bodhran with the newly superglued friction stick, whist Coral plays güiro blocks and I play piano and percussion, including a new and spectacular sound produced using the Books and Beans plastic spoon. The video plays across the performance area, lighting the space with interesting textures — more leaves — and the sequence now concludes with me reading the text.

We now suspend work to head across to the Children's Theatre to see a showing of the work produced by the group based there. They have produced an intriguing piece informed by the disciplines of dance and drama. The performance begins and ends on the stage of the Children's Theatre, but most of the performance takes place at other locations in the building, which we as audience are invited to explore. There is much humour in the various human installations, but also some touching quiet moments. This group includes no musicians, but there is imaginative use of voices, and a scene with curiously poignant knocking on the staircase. An essential element of this piece seems to be the fact that we as audience members will each see a different perspective on the show, perhaps missing some elements whilst lingering over others. The sequence is ingeniously structured so that the audience is marshalled into the right place at the right time, without needing to be told where to go.

We move to the Lemon Tree to see the outcome of the group working there. Three mutually perpendicular projectors play onto the back wall, a side screen and the floor. This defines the performance area for the dancer. The musician and video artist are in near-darkness at the back of the stage. The dancer's movements are tracked by the video artist and the musician uses a cello as a sound source fed into electronically processed loops. The concept is intriguing, and there are some visually striking moments, but this team appears only to have reached a creative starting point. Maybe if they were to work together for much longer they would produce results of originality and artistic interest.

After the showings and discussions, my group retires to the Illicit Still to continue discussions of the way forward with our piece. Many interesting ideas emerge, which will form the basis of tomorrow's work. Some of us then proceed to the Meze Bar for excellent food and a late night.

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Day 5: Saturday 23 October 2008

The final day begins in a rush. The morning comes as a shock after the late night before, and I have no time to collect more leaves from home. The night has been windy, and as I drive to Aberdeen I see evidence of this in both the stormy sea and the profusion of leaves, twigs and broken branches everywhere. In Aberdeen I find one large red leaf outside the Police Station, and decide it will be my contribution to the set for today. I place it in the centre of my circle of dark leaves, still miraculously intact.

There is no dance class with Janis today, so we all warm up in Citymoves, before setting to work on putting a show together.

We discuss the final sequence of the piece, in which I will read the text compiled from our answers in Coral's exercise, whilst Coral performs her very slow walk across a bank of leaves, scooping up a handful, studying them, dropping them, then walking on. I try reading the text with different accompaniments on congas and bongos, varying the delivery; we try it with Frank reading the text. We settle on a sequence in which I read the text in a fairly matter-of-fact way, introducing a gentle conga roll halfway through. At the end of the text, Lucy strikes the large tam-tam and I begin a modal tenor recorder solo whilst Coral walks on the leaves, turns, picks up a handful and lets them fall slowly. As the last leaves fall, my recorder solo hovers around the note E, without quite settling. This reflects the opening of the show, in which, until Lucy begins her solo, the only note I play is E. Coral then finishes her walk with just the sound of the leaves.

Coral and I spend some time working on this scene, while Lucy offers some choreographic input on Frank and Julia's duet earlier in the show.

We now assemble the full sequence of the show. The video plays as the audience arrives, leading to the opening scene with Julia and Frank walking across the space in front of Lucy, to a great bass recorder accompaniment on the note E. Lucy begins her solo and the music expands to include more modal material. Next comes Frank and Julia's duet, then the musical trio with Coral on güiro blocks, Lucy on friction effects and me on the piano strings. Next comes the text, leading to Coral's walk.

By this time we are ready for lunch. Frank heads off to collect more of his amazing red leaves from his secret source, and I go with Coral and Julia into Union Terrace Gardens, where there is a plentiful supply of browns, yellows and greens liberated by last night's storms. We spot one or two red leaves amongst them. Coral looks up and spots a red leaved tree way above us. I scramble up a steep bank to get to the red tree, wondering how I am going to get down again. When I make it to the top of the bank I find there is a fence, and on the other side of the fence a path offering much easier access. On the path is Frank, collecting red leaves.

We deliver the leaves to Citymoves, then head to Books and Beans for soup. Lucy is feeling nervous about the show, and when I realise that the audience will be arriving in less that three hours' time, so am I.

After lunch we make some final adjustments to the performing space and discuss the audience — where we will place them, and what they will see as they arrive. Seating seems a radical idea, as neither of the other groups has had a seated audience. We discuss ways of beginning the show so that there is no definite moment at which it starts. The audience will be shown to their seats as they arrive. Frank and Julia will be sweeping leaves and moving objects into position, I will be warming up the great bass recorder on the note E, adjusting it and moving other instruments around, and Lucy will move into her starting position. At some imprecise point this setting up activity will be transformed into the opening scene and the performance will have begun.

Rose suggests that we are worrying too much about the audience. She thinks we should concentrate on the piece. We run through the whole piece for the first time. It lasts about fifteen minutes. We gather to discuss it.

Rose offers her feedback first. She says the piece has become dull. It has lost its energy and become polite and sentimental. She is right, of course, but this is not what we want to hear less than an hour before the performance. She makes a radical suggestion. We should ditch the video — it is merely distracting. We can then remove the blackout covers from the windows, using natural fading evening light as a much more interesting backdrop. She then makes a more radical suggestion. We should ditch the structure. We should be spontaneous, improvise. Instead of a tight fifteen-minute piece we should be expansive and fill the time available to us. We should use our prepared material in new ways. We should use each other's material. The time for discussion is over — we should just perform. We look to Coral for her reaction. Frank begins to suggest a compromise, retaining some elements of structure. Rose urges the rest of us not to listen. The time for talking has passed. It is now time to do. It is 4.15pm. The audience will soon be arriving, expecting a 5pm start. Rose suggests we start now, and just keep going until 6pm.

This concept both frightens and excites me. I like the idea of improvisation, and as a group we seem to come alive when improvising. I also like the idea of starting before the audience arrives, so that the audience misses the uncertain establishment phase that often begins a session of improvisation. I am willing to go for it if the others are. They seem to be. Frank suggests stopping after half an hour to see how we feel, but realistically the audience will be arriving by then. We remove the blackout covers from the windows and begin. Before long, audience members start arriving, and the show is on!

How to describe the show then? A lot can happen in an hour and a half, and a lot certainly did happen in this particular hour and a half. The other performers, or our audience, would probably remember and describe it very differently, focussing on different elements of the complex whole.

In the early stages before the audience arrives there is much dissipated energy, and the wildest and most extreme events pass best unwitnessed. Some of these, however, return in a more refined form much later in the piece. Fragments of our prepared material appear in dream-like distortions. Material that had been tried and rejected earlier in the week resurfaces. Some elements relate to conversations and discussions that have taken place between us outside of the working space, in the evenings or over lunch. And there is much material that is completely new. For me it seems that the whole sprawling epic has a curious unity, a kind of atmosphere arising from the themes of strangers and alienation, walking, and the ever-present leaves.

From my perspective we seem to work very well as a team, allowing each other our moments, supporting where necessary and moving on where appropriate. There seem to be very few awkward transitions. There are many aspects of this process that contrast with my more usual experience of solo improvisation, or of improvising with other musicians. I find my theatrical instincts draw me into the performance space with the dancers, and the dancers find the confidence to contribute musically. The presence of both visual and sound elements enables much more complex textures than in purely musical improvisation.

The pre-determined time scale also affects the development. I cannot help but to think in terms of a three-phase structure. The first phase, before the audience arrives, is experimental — things are tried out that may or may not resurface later. The second phase, as the audience is arriving, is more developmental, but there is still a sense of holding back. The third phase, once our audience is in place, is the "show proper", in which things can develop fully, and there is time for some surprisingly long paragraphs to unfold.

I cannot describe more than a tiny fraction of the actual content of the performance. There are some striking moments involving the blackout sheets that we have removed from the windows — Julia crawling around under one sheet like a giant slater, or Lucy constructing a garden shed that may contain a duck or a washing machine. Like the leaves, these sheets contribute both visually and in terms of sound. Another moment sees a cluster of us gathered round a leaf that has some Chinese characters on it. Coral is teaching us to say "Today it is Saturday" in Cantonese, which I try to replicate on the tenor recorder. I don't know if that elegantly inscribed leaf ever made its way into the audience — I hope it did — but much later in the show Coral and Julia are chanting the phrase loudly and teaching it to the audience.

The text that we had written for the performance only makes fragmentary appearances. One occurs after I have delivered a series of solos on nightingale whistle from different parts of the performance space — nightingales from different areas speak in different accents. I place a music stand in front of an empty chair in the audience, place the printed text on the music stand and attempt to play it on the nightingale whistle. The nightingale song is now awkward and mechanical. Frank approaches, striking a vibraslap. I give him a disapproving look and show him the text. He plays differently. I then hand the printed text to an audience member (Karl Jay-Lewin, no less!) as if to say "Here, you have a go!" and I wander off to see what the others are up to.

One particularly long paragraph begins with Julia running around the perimeter of the performance space as I provide a gentle sustained roll from a medium-sized tam-tam. Gradually, Julia gets faster, and the tam-tam louder. This continues for several minutes — Julia runs; the crescendo intensifies — until eventually Julia collapses in exhaustion and I bring in more gongs and tam-tams. Frank now starts another crescendo on a bigger tam-tam and I take up a frame drum and join Coral and Lucy under the piano. I play some melodic material on the frame drum by varying the skin tension as Frank builds his crescendo. Soon he seems to be struggling, so I move to the keyboard of the piano, which at this point has its sustain pedal wedged open, and build a third sustained texture at the bass end of the keyboard. I gradually let this rise to the middle register of the piano and become much gentler. Frank and Lucy embark on a danced duet as I let the piano texture, still hazed by the wedged sustain pedal, drift to the top of the keyboard, then slowly downwards again. As I move back into the lower register I knock out the wedge, allowing a sudden shift to clearly defined rhythmic patterns with a certain jazzy element that is reflected in Frank and Lucy's danced duet. All this lends a challenge of co-ordination — the piano is placed for sightlines from underneath as I hadn't expected to spend much time at the keyboard, which means I can only see Frank and Lucy in the mirror wall of the studio.

And, yes, the Books and Beans plastic spoon gets its solo spot in the performance, though a signal from Coral indicates that she doesn't think I should keep it going for long.

The performance ends with the dancers exiting to the staircase. I am left at the wrong side of the performance space, so I cross it one last time, picking up a few leaves, studying them, throwing them away, then departing to join the others.

We have a brief discussion with the audience. We tell them how the piece in the form they have just seen came about. Some of them hadn't realised the whole structure was improvised, and I wonder how the discussion would have proceeded if we hadn't told them. There isn't much time for discussions with Ian, Rose, or the rest of the group, because we have to clear the space of leaves, I have to dismantle and pack the instruments, Coral and Lucy are leaving, and the rest of us are heading across to the Cowdray Hall to see Janis Claxton's show.

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