Reflections on Alan Courtis Workshop at Pyramid of Arts, Leeds. March 2018.

Image Credit: James Hill

Image Credit: James Hill

Last weekend I took part in a workshop at Pyramid of Arts for musicians with and without learning disabilities, led by Alan Courtis.  Alan is an Argentinian experimental musician and composer, best known as a member of ‘free rock’ band Reynols, whose drummer-singer Miguel Tomasin has Downs Syndrome. Reynols existed for 10 years and built a sizeable cult following, touring internationally and appearing on major TV networks. This experience led Alan to work at the intersection of music and disability. As a solo artist he has clocked up over 100 releases and is a key part of the noise experimental underground - an international alternative network that is almost entirely sustained through the dedication of spare time and, in the main, is unconcerned with mainstream recognition.

DAY ONE (workshop)

I arrived 11am with a baritone acoustic guitar, a kalimba (thumb piano), a delay pedal and small amp. The other participants included pianists, electronic musicians, drummers, guitarists, bass players, violinists, vocalists and general instrumentalists all with different levels of experience and ability. There was a roughly equal mix of Pyramid of Arts members and staff, facilitators or carers. The workshop took place in a standard room, not dissimilar to the Tasmin Little Music Centre at the University of Bradford that I help oversee, in a light industrial unit in South Leeds where Pyramid are based. There was a piano, hand drums, box of percussion and whistles, drum kit, amps, and a kitchen with food and drink making facilities.

We began seated in a circle and Alan quickly introduced himself and the idea that we were going to be making music together for a performance at 2pm tomorrow. Then, after a similarly brief round of introductions from the rest of participants, we began with a musical game in which sounds get passed around the circle from one member to the next. Alan later explained to me that as well as being a nice tension breaker this helps him to gauge the dynamic of the group and individuals.

After that we were pretty much straight into having a jam together. Everyone went back to their respective instruments. Scott on drum-kit, Alex on keyboard, Stuart on piano, Davey on foot-controlled sampler, James on effected guitar, Lucy on violin, another James and David on percussion and occasional guitar and bass. We started playing and pretty quickly settled into a Velvet Underground style dissonant rock and roll jam. After about 20 minutes Alan suggested we now had our first song and that we try something else. We went for something quieter and more ambient using the glockenspiels, marimbas, kalimba and electronic sounds which channeled some Steve Reich-esque contemporary classical vibes. That was another song done to be included in the set tomorrow.

Alan suggested we do some conducting games. Alex, Stuart and Scott took it in turns to conduct the group - using hand signals to tell us when to start playing, who should solo, and whether it should be loud or quiet. This started to incorporate some contemporary dance as the conductors got more into it. Later, Alan also brought in the idea of some word games. This, to me, seemed a bold move given the mix of language and speech skills in the room. Despite some initial discomfort and confusion, however, the exercise produced some great results with creative interpretations from John and Alex. We ended with another jam together which had a more psychedelic Krautrock feel and at 3pm everyone headed home.  

DAY ONE (Alan Courtis Gig in Bradford)

That night Alan performed a solo gig at Fuse Art Space in Bradford arranged by Lucy from Pyramid of Arts. Fuse has been the main venue for experimental music in Bradford since it opened in 2012 and I’ve used the venue for my own gigs as well as performing and attending there regularly. Over the last year or so their programme has become much more sporadic as the directors James and Sarah are setting up an ambitious residency programme in the French Alps. The venue is sustained mostly by the dedication of volunteers Chris, Stephen, Andy and Rowan.

The line-up for the gig brought Alan together with past collaborators and long-term associates from the Do-It-Youself (independent and not-for-profit) underground and noise scene. Gateshead’s dark drone specialist and occasional Skullflower member Culver performed. Vibracathedral Orchestra’s Bridget Hayden was down to play a solo set but cancelled due to illness. She was replaced by Martyn James Reid: a North Easterly noise artist going under the name Depletion. Between the workshop and the start of the gig it snowed heavily, meaning by the time doors opened Bradford was covered in ice and the high winds created a post nuclear backdrop to the bleak industrial sounds emanating from Fuse.

The extreme weather also effected the turnout for the gig making it a more ‘intimate and focused experience’ as us promoters of unpopular music like to say. The attendees of the gig were people from Leeds, Bradford and the surrounding areas that are familiar faces and contributors to the DIY underground. One was Rob Hayler who runs a blog called Radio Free Midwich and has popularised the term ‘no audience underground’ for the noise scene, being that most of the (generally small in number) audience tend to be people that are also musicians or otherwise active participants in the scene. The sets were all fine examples of the emotive and aesthetic power of focused applications of minimal technologies - ranging from headcleaning, earsmashing synth frequency explorations, processed tape gunk, cat samples, amplified stones and objects, and black metal guitar. What set them aside from less successful instances of similar music was an uncompromised, honest approach that avoided being performatively ‘transgressive’, ‘challenging’ or ‘absurd’. The thing is the thing, as Filthy Turd once told me. 

Image Credit: James Hill

Image Credit: James Hill

DAY TWO (workshop)

A few key players were unable to attend the second workshop because of the weather including Alex and John: performers of the chance poetry piece we’d been working on. Matthew was a new addition to the group who brought an acoustic guitar and a desire to sing. We ran through a couple of the numbers from the previous day with added vocals from Matthew. He sang through a Zoom recorder rather than a standard microphone which made it sound more like The Fall. The rest of the workshop involved rehearsing and re-performing some of the spontaneously composed works. The ‘songs’ were based on what instruments or sounds are being used, with perhaps a directional note for the key and feel, rather than a typical song structure that everyone is adhering to. 

Around 2pm family members, carers and other staff arrived and the room was rearranged to have a seated audience and performance area. The group performed the full set that encompassed nearly all the things we had experimented with. It began with a conducted piece by Scott, before the first banging rock and roll number now named ‘Walk On The River’ after Matthew’s lyrics, a duo between Stuart on Harmonium and Matthew/Lucy on violin, a spacey ambient piece with Davey’s electronic samples at the centre, a group drumming piece, a piano solo from Stuart and a final noise rock out ending with a monster drum fill from Scott. Everyone was super happy and agreed that there were some great moments and a lot of talent in the room on show. The gig was recorded on multiple recorders and cameras and will be broadcast as part of this year's Beyond Festival

Image Credit: James Hill

Image Credit: James Hill

DAY TWO (debrief in the pub)

After the workshop I went to Wharf Chambers Co-operative Club for a drink with Alan and we had a talk about the session, his practice and our shared interests around the politics of underground music and experimental art. We were both agreed that the band was great and has potential to do more stuff. I asked Alan about the time-scale and legacy of his projects. They are often quite short and intense. We also talked about the relationship between what he does as a facilitator and as an artist and musician. He arrived at working with disability quite organically; Miguel from Reynols was in the band due to his approach to music, not because of his disability. Alan didn’t have a background in care or social work either and in this sense he’s learned as he goes along. Like untrained musicians who disregard the rules because they don’t know them, Alan’s approach to working with people with disabilities has also been productively unorthodox.

I was also interested to know if there is any crossover between the audience that will come to see him perform a solo set and those that take part as participants in the workshops. There often isn’t. This led us to a conversation about the resonances between the DIY musical underground - a scene characterised in its more militant factions by a refusal to be ‘economically productive’ or ‘useful’ to mainstream society. People with disabilities often have no choice but to be seen as economically unproductive. In this sense disability reframes and pulls into focus discussions about alternative or non-capitalist notions of value, productivity, social benefit and so on. We also talked about Universal Basic Income, Arte Util, ageing and working with dementia, the labour of care work and how arts facilitation sits alongside or rubs up against that. 

Most interestingly for me was Alan’s take on music therapy which he sees as a valid but different practice to his own. For Alan, working with music and disability isn’t a means to cure or normalise the participants, but rather to challenge accepted parameters about what is and isn’t music, how it is made and who can make it. And from the last couple of days I can say that he and everyone else involved has a lot of fun doing it too.

You can read more about Alan’s and Pyramid of Art’s work here: