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Clive Bell

Bell Labs: Sole Music

March 2014

Clive Bells laces up his travellin' shoes and goes for a wander through the clips, clops and squeaks of footwear in music.

The travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor died in 2011, aged 96. In the early 1930s, still a teenager, he set off from London to walk across pre-war Europe. Boots and footwear naturally preoccupied him. Mixing with high society in Romania’s capital, he acknowledged “my bourgeois lust for a new pair of shoes.” One pound was all it would cost to have a pair made, he was told – but beware of the squeak! In certain circles the shoe squeak was highly prized as a sign of smartness and opulence. “Cu sau fara scartzait? – the bootmaker asks: With or without a squeak? The squeak costs more.”

Did men’s shoes used to be noisier? It seems some time since I heard the clip-clop of leather soles or steel tips, proclaiming the importance of the wearer’s progress. Shoe noise was of course refined into art in tap dance: nowadays a hobby for children, but previously a major dance form. What memories were running through Derek Bailey’s mind when he performed with ‘bebop hoofer’ Will Gaines?

Sound artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan choreographs ten-strong groups of marchers, all fitted with shoes enhanced for striking out a clear tattoo. They parade through squares and streets, activating the sound of the city environment. Although there’s a military, square-bashing tinge to this project, it simply amplifies what everyone wearing loud-soled shoes must have felt when entering an arcade or a cathedral. An odd pleasure: my shoes are drawing attention, but all I’m doing is going about my business. Sorry, but I can’t be held responsible for my shoes.

The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet is West Coast experimental jazz, 1956-style. The LP begins and finishes with the clarinettist playing along with a rhythm section that consists solely (if you will) of his tapping foot. Giuffre, previously known as a saxophonist, wanted to signal not only that he was now concentrating on the more intimate clarinet, but also that however much you stripped down this music, it could still swing. Giuffre probably did his own toe-tapping, but he could have hired a Foley artist. Equipped with a battery of floor surfaces, various footwear and endless props, the Foley artist has long been an anonymous backstage perfectionist. But recently some of them have moved centre stage: in 2013 I watched intricate Foley work in the theatre during Katie Mitchell’s Fräulein Julie (an reimagining of Strindberg’s Miss Julie), as well as Complicite’s staging of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Complicite’s Foley artist, Tom Espiner, even gets a speaking slot in the trailer. Even though the whole point of Foley is that you never see it, the activity is fascinating to watch. Maybe part of its appeal is that it’s a backroom skill totally associated with recording, filming and so on. So to simply watch it performed live produces a strange, almost taboo-busting frisson – this should be invisible and recorded, but it’s neither.

Something else I watched in 2013 was a stunning run-through of John Cage’s complete Sonatas And Interludes for prepared piano, performed by a team of five Royal Academy students on London’s South Bank. The five threw dice, on stage, to determine who should play next. I confess to being distracted when the first pianist rose aloft on canary yellow eight-inch heels and strode, clicking assertively, piano-wards. She preened glamorously over the keyboard, as if about to unleash a torrent of Rachmaninoff. Just because it’s Cage doesn’t mean you have to wear flats, was the message.

As for favourite shoe-related songs, on my desert boot island will be the wonderful Gumboot Guitar: Zulu Street Guitar Music From South Africa, on the Topic label. Gumboot is a dance – synchronised boot-slapping and heel-kicking – developed by black gold miners over a century ago. But it’s also music for guitar and concertina, with the job of maintaining the dance’s punishing tempo. Informal and full of character, these street recordings were made in the 1980s by the British Library Sound Archive’s Janet Topp Fargion, as part of a research project with her colleague Carol Muller. At a Durban hostel, Fargion and Muller met a guitarist called Blanket Mkhize, who invited them to join his gumboot dance team. “We jumped at the chance,” says Fargion.


I always loved the Unitone Hifi tune (i think Funki Porcini claimed it as a remix) Guiding Star, for its film noir footsteps

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