Why I have stopped making art, in order to raise money for charity

I am lucky. By most standards very lucky. I am a full-time musician and artist and as such am living the dream. Yes, it’s often poorly paid and involves far more sales and admin type tasks than anyone likes to admit but I know I lead a charmed life. To some extent I do so because I am scratching an itch. I live through doing this stuff and I find not doing so for a prolonged period causes me to get like a stop-valve needs releasing.

For a long time now there has been certain background tension though, which stems from a sense that I am not giving enough back. Art is good. It enriches lives. It is often also radical and challenging. But with the broad political trajectory of the past few years and in particular very recent events that just didn’t seem like enough any more. So, for a while I have stopped making art to run this campaign: www.dancehowyoulike.co.uk

antonio

If I am honest, I didn’t plan to stop making art entirely while this 21 day campaign is running but it has proved far more all-consuming than I had envisaged. So far, it’s also failing pretty miserably. At the time of writing this the campaign has sold a total of 23 t-shirts. I paid £120 to have 20 t-shirts printed for the promotional activities, including the video below. At present, the charity donation will be around £100. MEH! Must try harder. It could only take one celebrity endorsement or some good press and away we go…but I have also decided that this first iteration of this project and that Dance How You Like will continue beyond this first 21 day campaign. I’ve learnt a lot, including that charity work is fraught with challenges and that you have to work your ass off because people just aren’t going to get to hear about it otherwise.

I will never run a vanity project, so I will quit this if/when the time is right to do so…or if I decide upon other ways to help make a difference. Dance How You Like exists to raise awareness of tolerance and integration issues in the UK – as well as money for Citizens UK. That’s it.

If any of this is making you think you could help an inexperienced soul in this world of fundraising, or maybe you just want to let people know about it, here is information on how you can support the project / get in touch: dancehowyoulike.co.uk/support.html

Oh and here’s that video I mentioned earlier…ENJOY!

I wrote this blog post in part to give myself permission to continue with the project and still avoid making any art for a bit. This may last the full 21 days of the initial campaign but I do have a couple of time-critical projects I will probably do some work on in that time. We’ll see. That itch is certainly getting itchier by the day!

Tumblr blogs

I started a couple of Tumblr blogs:

What’s He Building In There? is a place to house updates on what I am up to that don’t really warrant a full blog post on here. Work in progress / experiments etc.

Sounds From Outside features weird and wonderful sounds and musical instruments. A means of driving and logging my research in this area.

Halldorophone

I hope you might consider “following” them…

Creating Amplification 5

Amplification at Millennium Point

The final blog post detailing our work creating Amplification. Now on show in Millennium Point, Birmingham.

Overview

Week commencing 25th May
What a week! A bit of a blur really but we got there in the end. In fact, we had the van packed with Amplification by the end of play on Wednesday.

As ever though there was a lot of admin and surrounding stuff to sort out ahead of the installation on Saturday. OH and then within an hour of it being installed, somebody broke it…so we arrived at 7:30am on Monday to fix and reinforce it; so it opened at 9am as planned.

The early opening was because we got it installed early and thought we’d just go for it! It provided a useful phase of beta testing…

Day by Day

25th May

  • Buying parts for final tweaks – such as silver piping, plinth, polish
  • Cutting and test fitting plinth

 
26th May

  • Final work on aesthetics and strengthening
  • One last test build

 
last-studio
 
27th May

  • Packing up and loading into van

 
kit-of-parts-sm
 
in-van_sm
 
28th May

  • Project admin

 
29th May

  • Signage and paperwork
  • Final nice-to-have tweaks to headset &c

30th May

  • Installation at Millennium point, with David
  • As I arrive home I get a call to say it has been broken so make plans to come in first thing on Monday

 
start
 
end
 
1st June May

  • Fixed and reinforced piece opens to the public at 9am – BINGO!

All that remains is for people to enjoy it and for us to do the documentation and rounding off…yay! Oh and any further maintenance of course ;)

Have a look/listen at Millennium Point, as part of All Ears.

Creating Amplification 4

rush

Here is the fourth and penultimate weekly blog post detailing our progress creating Amplification.

Overview

Week commencing 18th May
Our penultimate week certainly had its ups and downs. Luckily our work on Saturday ended on a positive note.

Now we are into the phase of final tweaks – which always take ages – and nice-to-haves before pack down; ahead of installation at Millennium Point on Saturday. It’s going to be a exhilarating and tiring week. Let’s hope everything goes to plan…and then let’s hope people enjoy using it.

Day by Day

18th May

  • Day off; pondering

 
19th May

  • Plinth arrives – yay!
  • Setting out plinth and elements to go on it
  • More welding
  • More ordering of parts

 
Laying out
 
20th May

  • Drilled lots of holes in the plinth – EEK!
  • Set stuff out on the plinth
  • MORE ordering of parts

 
21st May

  • Spent all day tweaking, hacking and installing our first proper test rig – and it failed. As a test that is pretty useful; just a tad demoralising

Setting up
 
22nd May

  • Going round trading estates buying parts to fix some of the issues we were experiencing
  • Bonus: found a great local micro-brewery on a trading estate ;)

23rd May

  • Modified a few things and set up a test rig again. MUCH better. We even had it tested by some almost genuine punters; who loved it
  • Onward!

Sanding the base
Making new clamps

Knackered and exhilarated; in equal measure.

To follow: Creating Amplification 5…the final week.

Creating Amplification 3

happy

Here is the third weekly blog post detailing our progress creating Amplification.

Overview

Week commencing 11th May
As you can see from Phil’s face and thumbs, this week went pretty well. We got a serious amount of the production sorted, resolved a few issues and generally got a lot closer to finishing the thing. My role was sourcing the advice and parts we’d needed, consulting with Phil and holding/shifting stuff as required, trying to find someone to document it and making coffee; all of which I did! Phil just cracked on, as he does, with the making!

The main thing that remained outstanding at the end of the week was the lack of the main stage / plinth, which was a nightmare as that’s what it is all constructed around. I was chasing like mad but it still hadn’t arrived by the Friday. Somewhat stressful.

Day by Day

11th May

  • Researched and ordered flange bearings that could go on top of the platform
  • Chasing plinth

 
12th May

  • Spoke with Chris Keenan of Prime Objective about video documentation and he agreed to do it – yay!
  • New flange bearings arrive and are tested
  • Uprights polished and tweaked for use with new bearings
  • Chasing plinth

 
pole
pole1
pole2
 
13th May

  • Welding; lots of welding
  • Sent demonstration video and audio to Chris to check it was correctly set up for video – bingo!
  • Chasing plinth

welding
welding2
 
14th May

  • Ordering more parts
  • Chasing plinth

 
15th May

  • Set up ear trumpets on stands, using retort stands to clamp; Adjust, repeat…
  • First full mock up. Testing audio routing, via pipes through chair and into ear trumpets on stands. It only worked!
  • Found new local supplier for nuts, bolts and other hardware. Great!
  • Chasing plinth

As with last week, we actually did a lot more than that…including head scratching, coffee drinking and other actual work but sometimes we were too busy doing it to write it down ;)

To follow: Creating Amplification 4…

Creating Amplification 2

amplification2

Here is the second weekly blog post detailing our progress creating Amplification.

Overview

Week commencing 4th May
We made significant progress this week. Many things started to fall into place and many of those things you can only really assess once you put stuff together were tweaked accordingly. Gradually we are reaching the tipping point where it goes from rushing around trying to source stuff and work stuff out to just bolting it all together. That’s not to say that it will all work when we bolt it together and there is still a background chance of total failure but that’s always a feature of making ambitious new work. Sometimes making art is scary; not only in terms of getting it finished – for example, this week we drilled through a very expensive chair. EEK!

In addition to the development of the piece itself, we also had – at last – some positive discussions with someone who might video document it. Yay.

Day by Day

4th May

  • Researched and ordered: hearing defenders, p bone mouthpieces, pipes and fittings

 
5th May

  • Researched: bearing options, pipe milling, machine shops

 
6th May

  • Received steering wheels
  • Drilled into expensive chair
  • Desoldered and reconstructed custom sousaphone pipework for routing audio via stands
  • Bought more tools
  • Received various items in the post – a now daily occurrence
  • Sent pillars to be machined
  • Discussed ideas for linking rotation of stands – David Morton as technical consultant

holes
heat
valves
build
 
7th May

  • Made base for chair
  • Made headset
  • Made base pivots / bump stops
  • Tested headset via pipework through chair

 
base
headset
 
 
8th May

  • Pillars returned, fitted, and tweaked (to eradicate wobble)
  • Found a new supplier (Acorn) for bearings and other parts – they actually took us seriously and want to feature the finished piece in their promotional materials!

Each day we actually did a lot more than that, including head scratching, coffee drinking and other actual work but sometimes we are too busy doing it to write it down ;)

To follow: Creating Amplification 3…

Creating Amplification 1

Amplification

This is the first in a four-part series of blog posts to document the final stages of work towards the installation of my / MortonUnderwood‘s most ambitious sound art installation to date. I must confess that for a while now I haven’t felt the urge to spend time writing about my work; as you can see from the date of my previous blog post on here. There are various general reasons for this, from not wanting to spend my time in front of a computer to wondering who would be interested in reading this stuff anyway.

Where this project is concerned though, there is one other thing that has held me back from documenting it: fear. Specifically, fear that it won’t be completed on time and what I will be documenting is in fact a terrible failure. Suddenly, last week – with four weeks to go until the installation – I had a change of heart regarding this. This stems from the fact that I think the chances of failure are now somewhat diminished, that I am bound to documenting it as a condition of the funding I received, and crucially, that I feel documenting even total failure might be of interest and help to others. So here we go…the first of four blog posts documenting the creation of Amplification.

(Unlike the remaining blog posts on this, as the first, this documents the process so far; rather than just the week prior.)

The story so far…

As an introduction to the project itself, let’s start with some blurb from the press release:

Amplification is a stereo acoustic amplification system, developed to encourage deep listening to environmental sounds within a space. Users of the system will augment their listening through two large ear trumpets. In addition, they will be able to adjust the stereo field of what they can hear by swiveling each horn; creating a distinctive and unusual listening experience.

During their time exploring the collection at the Birmingham Museums Trust, MortonUnderwood was struck by the efforts made by developers of the music boxes, gramophones and orchestrions in the collection to amplify the sound output. In a world where we can easily dial in more electronic amplification, many of the innovative approaches seen in the collection are now obsolete. Through Amplification MortonUnderwood hope to highlight the beauty of passive, acoustic amplification systems.

That’s the plan and I put this idea to the Arts Council, who duly supported the idea via their Grants For The Arts scheme.

grant_jpeg_black-sm

I am so pleased to have received their support; and at the first time of asking as well.

I could finally make something where money didn’t pose so much of a constraint. Where cobbling together could be substituted with professional fabrication. Where taking a few images and posting them online could be substituted with full video documentation.

BUT, as I know from years of running my own businesses, with every opportunity comes risk. Any step-change presents many challenges as well as openings…and that has been the story of this project so far.

The first thing my colleague David Morton and I had to do was make it a solid idea that properly sparked our interest. We played with a few ideas and prototypes before deciding on the approach outlined above. I suspect most people have seen or even used mono acoustic listening devices before and with David’s experience of using a mid-side microphone array we were confident we could create some interesting effects by making a stereo listening device, with a matched, stereo pair; where the user could alter the stereo field. It sounded easy enough at the time!

amplification3-sm

At the same time as developing a prototype of this ourselves, I started to look for firms to fabricate it and contacted someone I had used before about documenting the project. I anticipated that finding a fabricator might be hard but sadly even the chap who we had hoped would document it was unavailable, due to personal reasons.

In the end I wrote/drew a full specification for the piece in order to take it out more widely to fabricators. I was soon reminded of the benefits of cobbling together. In the words of one fellow artist I contacted regarding this, “It’s usually communication issues with commercial outfits in my experience, different mind-sets etc”. And so it went on…until one day, with time rather tight, we found a fabricator. Sadly, it took us two further weeks to discover they weren’t the right people for the job either, at which point we took the bold / scary decision to try and find another fabricator with only five and a half weeks left…

The only reason I feel able to write this now is that our new, and final fabricator, Tuba Phil (pictured below) and I are making reasonable strides now and will have something to present at the end of this month. I kick myself that I didn’t think of Phil before. I play in Collective43 with him but for some reason I didn’t consider him for this job until pretty late in the day. So far it has been a great pleasure working with him and I can see much good coming out of this in future. For one thing he acts as a conduit between what’s in my mind and the means of making this a reality…but also, we have a mutual respect and understanding.

One further thing I realised through this is that giving up the production of one of our pieces is going to be harder than I anticipated. Event pieces like A Word In Your Ear – where the idea was predominantly David’s, the box was produced by our friend Neil and all I did was manage the process and install the electronics – I had to play some part, beyond just the conceptual side of things. Maybe this will always be the case but I hope I will one day accept that the art is in the idea and you can happily let others create the piece itself, as they are probably better at that bit…

tuba-phil
Photo: Dave Grubb

To follow: Creating Amplification 2…

The spice of life

I have a few gigs and events coming up and as usual they are pretty varied. I can hold opposing views as to whether more focus or less focus is best. At the moment, I am just enjoying the stuff I have coming up – including:
 

The Eternal Drone

This Friday, in Worcester I will create an hour-long drone in St Martin’s Quarter. This will be an improvised piece composed of electronic, acoustic and environmental sounds. As part of the Clik Clik Collective Victorian Fair programming.
 

Funeral March

On Saturday, I will be joining Collective43 and Clik Clik Collective in Worcester for a funeral march. Something along these lines:

I feel very lucky to have found the likes of Collective43 and Clik Clik so close to where I live. That’s not always the case when you live out in the farther flung parts of our fair land. We are on the same page and definitely hope to do more together!
 

If Wet #20

On Sunday it’s the last of our If Wet events for 2014, in Callow End Village Hall. We have the wonderful Rosanne Robertson presenting her work and we will have a bit of a celebration of our second season too…before heading to the pub afterwards.

Rosanne Robertson

Here is a preview of the event.
 

DunningWebsterUnderwood début at Vortex Jazz

I am playing at Vortex Jazz for the first time on Tuesday the 2nd of December. I’ll be playing tuba in a new trio formed of myself, Graham Dunning (turntables and effects) and Colin Webster (bari sax). We have an album out next year, called Bleed and have some further recording planned for next Monday evening. Here is a taster:


 

Glatze at Capsule Xmas Cocktail

Lastly, I am looking forward to another Glatze gig this year at the Capsule Xmas Cocktail party on Saturday the 13th of December! I am delighted to be on such a great bill and I look forward to some fun-at-all-costs live music making!

Glatze

Why am I so happy?

Happy Sam

Things have been going rather well of late. OK, I haven’t reached Nirvana yet but things have been building nicely from the time my sabbatical ended. It’s this sense of progress and momentum that is at the heart of making me happy. A wise man once said that it’s not where you are at but the way things are heading that matters, or something like that. In those terms things are going rather well. It’s fair to say that almost everything I am involved in at present is pushing at the edge of my comfort zone but I consider this very positive indeed.

Here are a few examples of how things have progressed of late…in no particular order:

THSH Artist-in-residence

In April 2013, I was appointed Artist-in-Residence at Town Hall Symphony Hall Birmingham; a great honour. One or two things have been a bit slow to get off the ground as I am their first appointment to this kind of post, but things are really picking up momentum now.

It’s proving nicer than I had envisaged to be part of a wider team and the title itself has helped me to forge some new links. Pretty soon there will be some exciting tangible outcomes, including plans for a large-scale sound art piece and the MortonUnderwood Augmented Big Band. Keep your eyes and ears open for these.

I really believe this will be a fruitful relationship for both parties. It is pushing us both outside of our comfort zone but in ways that can only be good. For example, tomorrow I play at the At Your Own Risk event in the Town Hall Birmingham. I find this rather scary but also very exciting!

I keep regular monthly blog posts of my progress on the THSH website. Here is the latest if you are interested: thsh.co.uk/news/blogs/sam-underwood-october-2013

If Wet

After a couple of years of moaning about the music scene in my locality, which consists largely of blues/rock covers bands, I decided the only decent thing to do was to STFU or DIY. The catalyst for me was when I experienced the Wire Salon, as a panel member in early 2013. Until then I knew I wanted to do something but I wasn’t sure what. Suddenly the idea of a grand show and tell and discussion forum event popped into my head. I discussed this with my colleague David and we decided to at least try it out.

So, since April, on the last Sunday of the month we have met in Callow End village hall to hear a range of sound artists, musicians and musical instrument builders discuss their work and approach; all accompanied by home-made soup, local ale and WI cake.

Callow End Village Hall

Thus far it has been really great on many levels – not least providing us with insights and demonstrations in areas we are not experts in ourselves. Plus we have witnessed a multitude of rare and bizarre objects, instruments and performances.

We have one event left to complete our first season; an extended fundraiser on the last SATURDAY of November – to give people chance to celebrate with us – or just donate to help keep us going. If we fail to raise enough money through this and other means I am afraid If Wet might not make Season #2. We have received huge support from artists (all friends and associates), audience and volunteers thus far but we need to make this a more viable option financially next year. We couldn’t be happier with the event and the support received so far, so let’s hope we can keep it going…

More on If Wet here: ifwet.org.uk

Capsule / Library of Birmingham

As many of you will know I have a long-term relationship with the wonderful Birmingham-based promoters, Capsule. This has been central to my development as an artist and I am delighted to report that this is very much on-going. As MortonUnderwood we recently completed one of the residencies in the Library of Birmingham, curated by Capsule.

Sound Trolley

It was a rather manic time but we were left with a very positive feeling about the state of things in Birmingham and more widely. The library struck us as a really vibrant place and people responded really well to our work. Children of all ages had fun making bonkers noises before heading off to explore the wider wonders of the new library. Oh, and as ever Capsule helpers were a delight to work with.

Next up for me and Capsule is likely to be Supersonic 2014.

One Water

I write part of this on my way back from Sweden where I have been for the last week rehearsing and performing with the One Water instrument we built as a special commission for composer Jonas Asplund last year.

Jonas - composer

This is the second time I have worked with this group to deliver a concert, and more are planned in 2014. It’s always a delight working with people who excel at what they do and it’s a bonus if they are very kind and pleasant to be around too. Also, Sweden strikes me as a delightful place to work as a musician/artist; you seem valued!

One Water - trio

I look forward to further performances of One Water next year, planned for Sweden, Finland and England. Plus I aim to tie this in with my Guest Composer work at EMS, which is likely to involve a field recording tour with my colleague David Morton.

Oh and despite visiting the venue before as part of my time on the PRSF New Music Incubator I had somehow missed the existence of a huge and extensively specified pipe organ there. 9000 pipes and this from the Fanclub of the Studio Acusticum Organ project on Facebook:

The Acusticum organ, quite apart from the microtonal stop slider positioning available for almost every stop, also has a number of “Sperrventile” which can be used to limit the air supply to the various divisions of the organ. There are separate valves for the bass and treble of each division; furthermore, the Sperrventile can be set to any position from “fully open” to “completely shut” and every shade in-between.

WOW!

Southbank Centre

Speaking of organs, our latest commission as MortonUnderwood is our highest profile to date and involves the newly refurbished pipe organ in the Royal Festival Hall in London. We were recently selected by the Southbank Centre to deliver a version of our Huge Feedback Organ as part of Pull Out All The Stops.

We are one of four instrument designers that will complete an instrument each to perform alongside the organ in a concert next year, with music composed by members of Bellowhead. We are creating a Huge Feedback Organ, building on our previous testing – shown below.

Huge Feedback Organ

In our latest development the pipes and speakers are bigger and so too has the sub-bass; very happy-making indeed.

ORE

Things are going great where ORE is concerned too. We have a 7″ with our friend KK NULL coming out on Endtyme very soon

KK NULL & ORE

AND we have some great gigs coming up. Including:

// OM & ORE – delighted to be playing with OM again, after a previous support slot last year
// Intersect – taking place across Servant Jazz Quarters, The Vortex, Cafe OTO and The OTO Project Space
// Early next year Full of Noises Festival are planning to put us on at Cafe OTO. Joy.

Details of forthcoming performances, here: oretubadoom.com/performances

Workshops

Lastly, I have run a few instrument building workshops recently. These come and go but I always enjoy giving something back by passing on some skills. Hopefully people leave these workshops with a new found willingness to build stuff and even if they don’t they’ll have a nice finished instrument they built.

 

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I have only included the most recent / current things in this summary because this is what’s making me happy right now, but exciting stuff has been happening for a while now. I hate starting such lists as I always forget something but this includes: playing at Full of Noises in Barrow, Hacking the Saconi Quartet at Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol, Playing tuba as part of Together We Breathe for the opening of the new Library of Birmingham, and playing tuba in a gimp mask for the Companis Rude Food Fiesta!

So the things I am getting to do and the people I am doing it with are making me extremely happy at present. To top this all off the generosity of everyone towards me and my harebrained ideas over the last years has been astounding, and very heart-warming. I won’t start a list for this or I will get in trouble…but THANKS EVERYONE!

*SMILES*