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In Writing

Alan Courtis and the Mumbling Wolves

April 2015

Mumbling Wolves live at Cafe Oto, London, 1 March 2015

Mumbling Wolves live at Cafe Oto, London, 1 March 2015

Mumbling Wolves live at Cafe Oto, London, 1 March 2015

"To have no idea is a technique but also an attitude; it means the best approach is to listen carefully to what comes from the group and to start working from there." The Argentinian guitarist on performing with musicians with learning difficulties and what they bring to the experimental music scene. Photographs and video by Julian Hicks

The flight was from Brussels to London Gatwick, towards the end of a really long tour that had seen me play concerts in Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and all over Europe. The schedule in London consisted of a Saturday workshop with a group of young musicians with learning disabilities from Croydon followed by a weekend residency at Cafe Oto: one evening to present my new LP with Aaron Moore on Dancing Wayang; the other to play a concert with the Croydon workshop group. Some months in advance I had had to come up with a name for the Croydon project, and since I hadn’t met any of the participating musicians before, nor did I know how many would be coming to the workshop, the first thing that came to my mind was: Unlimited London. Aaron agreed to be part of the workshop in order to help me, and during the flight, he asked me, with a mix of intrigue and worry: “So what will we do tomorrow?” My honest answer was: “I have no idea. We will see that with the group in Croydon.”

I’ve been making music with people with ‘disabilities’ for more than 20 years, and it’s always a challenge to work with a new group, even more when you are supposed to come up with a show after only one session. But definitely it was worth a try. Of course, to have no idea is a technique but also an attitude; it means the best approach is to listen carefully to what comes from the group and to start working from there, so in fact there’s not that much to set up in advance. The plan was a bit risky but I’ve always trusted my intuition, and to take some risks sometimes seems to be the only way to make things go ahead. As it turned out, it was the right approach: the Cafe Oto concert with the kids from Croydon was one of the highlights of the whole tour.

We arrived in central London from Gatwick late and stayed near St Pancras. We went to a pub to relax after the journey but didn’t stay for long since we had to be up early the next morning to get to the workshop in Croydon, which would take an hour by train. We didn’t know exactly how to reach the place, and the rainy weather made everything even more difficult, but eventually we got to the right station to get a train to Croydon and departed. When the train was delayed halfway through the journey I started wondering why I’m always trying out these intrepid projects: why not come up with something easier? But the delay didn’t give me enough time think this through, and we finally arrived at East Croydon station. From there we had to walk in the rain and find the venue that had been booked for the workshop. It took us a while but we made it. And there they were!

Matt and Joe were tuning the guitars waiting for the other kids to arrive. Alexander was coordinating. James and Richard – both drummers – appeared a bit later, and then the whole group was finally assembled. The kids were members of two existing bands, The Carbonators and We Rise From the Fallen. Both bands were part of Club Soda, a Croydon organisation which, as it says on its website, “produces arts events and activities led by people with learning disabilities”, but here they were collaborating for the first time. Duncan was there filming to document the encounter.

We started playing in a rock mood, close to their usual music, and that was a good beginning. From there we proposed trying out some other stuff that was somehow new for both groups: firstly a song without a clear beat, drums working with textures on the cymbals and the guitars exploring the sonorities of a slide over the frets. They were surprised but liked it. After a break James came up with a song based on his spontaneous and creative lyrics. Later on we brought out some small electronics and proposed making a dialogue using these sounds that were unfamiliar for them, so it was a funny thing to try out. Then we continued in a band mood and gave some room to Matt and Joe to check out what they can do on their guitars: they found really interesting sounds. Finally, James proposed a rhythm and some lyrics for a song called “Time Goes Slower”. Everybody was having a lot of fun, but it’s always amazing how time goes faster when you’re making music. We had started at 11am and it was already 3pm! Me and Aaron had to leave to make the soundcheck for our duo gig that night. When we got to East Croydon station we discovered the trains to Dalston in East London (where Cafe Oto is located) weren’t working, so in the end we took a taxi. It was a bit more expensive than the train but a lot more comfortable considering all our baggage.

We did a nice show on the Saturday night, and the next afternoon we waited at Cafe Oto for the crew to arrive for Sunday night’s show. Oliver, the coordinator of Club Soda, appeared with some of the kids; Alexander and the rest turned up later. The soundcheck turned into a workshop itself; Richard played an amazing solo to test the drum kit and James asked to play the nice piano we had already set up onstage. In the end we decided to include both things when writing down the set list. We all ate together and waited for the audience.

The kids in the show were a blast; they made the music flow so naturally, so simply, that is hard to know how it happened. We started slowly with the drums and cymbals and guitar textures with Aaron helping on trumpet. A long crescendo was gradually growing until James started with the first sung song called “Have No Fear”. That was a long and pretty strong track to start with. James’s talent for playing with words was so fabulous that in fact he changed the name of the band from Unlimited London: minutes before the start he came up with the name Mumbling Wolves, so what could we say? The band was renamed!

Mumbling Wolves at Cafe Oto

The second piece was the ‘electronic conversation’ between Richard, James and Alexander, a really funny interaction using small synthesizer boxes that the audience seemed to enjoy a lot. Then it was the turn of the slow and textural ‘bowed guitar piece’ played by Matt and Joe, with some help from Aaron on drums and me on the piano, which provided a good contrast with the previous pieces. Richard’s memorable long drum solo came later. It was so hypnotic that even he was hypnotized by it; Aaron had to make an enormous effort playing mouthpiece-straws to make him naturally find a way to end it. Next was James’s solo piano song, extremely beautiful and sensitive, and so extraordinary that it reminded me how underestimated these kids usually are. After the announcements, thanks and presentation of the musicians, the long final song came, an expanded version of “Time Goes Slower” with the full line up: four guitars, two drummers, vocals, piano and effects. It was more than enough to make an epic ending to a show that lasted a little over an hour. And the audience was fantastic.

That’s a brief personal description of what happened at the London workshop and show, but of course there are still many questions out there. The first point to make clear is this: the question here is not about ‘disabilities’ but ability; the ability of these kids to get in touch with music on a real level that in my opinion is beyond doubt. It’s possible to discuss the aesthetic or technical aspects of what they play, but from the expressive point of view their performance was so intense that it leaves me lost for words. If what we are searching for are adventurous forms of music then here is a vast universe to discover, and over the years many projects have been exploring these boundaries, from Gyaatees to Wild Classical Music Ensemble, from Daniel Johnston to Station 17, from The Otoasobi Project to Astéréotypie.

In terms of my own experience, and beyond my work with Reynols, I’ve worked with groups made up of people with special needs in diverse countries. For instance with Les Harry’s, the group from the Hôpital de Jour d'Antony in Paris. Their work has been always fascinating and it’s evolving: they now have their own radio show (Radio Tisto on Radio Libertaire) and are about to release their first album (Ggots on Sonic Protest). Workshops in Norway with DNA? AND? from Oslo and Electroability from Stavanger have been taking place for at least three years and getting good responses from the groups and the audience, and releases are also expected to happen at some point. In Belgium the experiences with Créahm in Liege and in Cherleroi with Club Théo Van Gogh and Institut René Thône at Le Vecteur were very interesting as well. In Australia the meeting with The Amplified Elephants from Melbourne was also remarkable. It’s worth mentioning Sur Les Rails (Doki Doki CD, France, 2014), a compilation which gathers tracks from some of the above mentioned projects, and others like Atelier Mediterrannée or Électrogène, and is a good companion to the Musics In The Margins comps on Sub Rosa and the Wild Things comp released by Stay Up Late.

On this tour I have been switching between playing concerts with people like Keiji Haino, Otomo Yoshihide and Gert-Jan Prins, and coordinating special needs workshops-shows. I’ve often been asked if there’s any difference between playing with professional improvisors and people with learning difficulties. Despite the fact that we might find some peculiarities, I’d say from one vital point of view there’s not a big difference: they are expressing themselves through music as any other musician does. But then the question is: what can people with learning difficulties and the music they make offer to the complex musical scene of today? In my opinion they have a lot to offer: they are doing experimental music without thinking or even knowing it’s experimental, so their position is unique. But also their approach to music is so open, so fresh, so unpretentious, so joyful and playful. They are a refreshing rush of energy for the whole music scene. So I think we have a lot to learn from them, in particular from their expressive potential and from the way the get in touch with sound. But are we prepared?

Maybe things are changing. For instance, the fact that the Finnish punk band PKN (Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät) was chosen by a TV audience to represent their country in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest might be a milestone. And they are still punks! The band’s bass player Sami Helle told The Guardian: "We don't want people to vote for us to feel sorry for us, we are not that different from everybody else, just normal guys with a mental handicap." Yes, it’s totally true they are normal by their own standards, but out there there are still a lot of people without the ability to understand it. So to give special needs bands the opportunity to be onstage is not only something fair but necessary.

After the Cafe Oto show, James’s happiness on receiving his fee was so intense, I don’t think I will ever forget it. Before leaving they asked me when we would be playing together again and I was not sure what to answer. I live in Buenos Aires, around 7000 miles away, but I have no doubt that there’s no better plan, no better fun, and that the next time I am in London, I will play again with Mumbling Wolves.


Maybe it's time for a festival if there are so many bands with disabilities playing around the world

Alan, this is fantastic. I hope you can keep it up. It reminds me of something we did over 40 years ago. My high school friends and I would get together and play improvised music. Our only disability was we had no ability on our instruments. Everybody would bring whatever instrument they could dig up. saxophones, clarinets, violins, percussion and usually the house we were at had a family organ. We even had one friend that would scratch Stockhausen records. It was so much fun creating without knowing. I've been playing improvised music ever since with a group of people that grew out of this. I hope you can continue this endeavor. I'm sure all those involved gain a lot from it. Thanks

Anla - this music sounds so vital and authentic. I really appreciate the work you are doing and agree with Scott, I feel like I can hear the meaning in it! That connection you all have in the music between 11m and 12m in "Time goes slower" (maybe that was James' idea?) -- it's incredible. The listening and communication in there really comes through. Beautiful work!

Beautiful stuff, Anla / Aaron! Inspiring and lovely music.

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