ghost dance -michael giles, jamie muir, david cunningham
David Cunningham's account of the collaboration.return to: piano catalogue
One morning in 1983 I was sent a Japanese music magazine which contained an interview I'd done (I was looking at the pictures) and over the page from me was a piece on Jamie Muir. That afternoon the phone rang. It was Jamie. I knew his work, or some of it; King Crimson and Music Improvisation Company. He suggested meeting with himself and Michael Giles and maybe doing something.
Sometime in late 1982/early 1983 Jamie and Michael had been trying to work as a pop group, at least that was my impression. They had tried a collaboration with David Toop and Steve Beresford with whom I had previously recorded the 'General Strike' material. It didn't seem to work and Toop had suggested they try me instead.
Ten years previously in 1973 my record collection amounted to 5 albums. One of them was 'Lark's Tongues in Aspic', probably the most influential music I had heard on record at that time. Stretching out, exploring in a friendly way, neither the overcomplexity of jazz or the mechanistic minimalism of most of the German groups around at that time but an adventurous music that didn't sound like anyone else. Later, seeing King Crimson minus Jamie led me to think that his contribution had given that music a vital lightness of touch, a freedom and humour, probably the elements that initially attracted. That and the active and imaginative input from group improvisation.
So that phone call from Jamie presented an opening into a friendly and exciting musical territory that was miles away from most of my previous work (the notable exception being my production collaboration with This Heat).
The three of us met and talked about the world and played some things to each other. I was very impressed to meet Michael, who from my 28 year old perspective, didn't think or behave like other 42 year olds, instead he was wise, optimistic, contructive and adventurous. Many of these qualities in different ratios applied to Jamie, who a year or so out of the monastery, presented a number of worldviews which were fresh and new to me.
We decided to do something but we didn't know where to start. We couldn't play live. Jamie didn't want to cart all his gear around, Michael, sensibly enough, wanted to get paid properly and I was a liability who couldn't play the same thing twice unless it was a tape loop. Michael and Jamie had some (primarily rhythmic) material worked out between them, colour coded pieces, 'Red Rhythm' 'Blue Rhythm' and so on. These eventually became the basis of sections of 'Ghost Dance'. I had nothing prepared. We discussed improvisation and there was some idea of becoming a commercial pop group with a girl singer but all I remember of that discussion was that the singer should be blonde and that I was horrified by the idea that we should waste our potential in a marketplace which at that time was dominated by some of the most insipid and vacuous pop music I have ever heard.
I had done the music for Ken McMullen and Stuart Brisley's documentary film 'Being and Doing' and Ken had been talking to me about a film about cargo cults. The newly-formed Channel 4 offered Ken a minimal budget for this film which had become 'Ghost Dance' and when he came back to me about the music I suggested these two musicians that I wanted to work with. In those days Ken didn't write scripts in the conventional sense. Certainly nobody was ever allowed to see his scripts. He improvised a lot during shooting.
So sometime around April 1983 the trio decided that a film soundtrack was where to start. I think Michael suggested the solution to our performance problems was that we should be a 'media group'. And given our histories, and preferences and the lack of script - improvisation was a viable approach. We went round to the editing room and saw a rough cut. There was no question of working to picture on our budget, we couldn't afford a proper studio even if we had wanted one. So it should be improvised. A good precedent; outside of his day job, Ennio Morricone was involved with a free improvisation group in Italy - this suggests the origin of some of the more exotic instrumental combinations in his earlier film scores.
Michael took the structuring of the film score very seriously, making notes and plotting and planning all sorts of specific sections and scenes. Jamie and I thought we'd just make it all up on the spot and use it as an excuse for improvising. On the 3rd May 1983 we started recording in the upstairs room at Jamie's house at Highbury Corner. Jamie's collection of drums, metal sheets, toys, household objects and percussion instruments ringed the room, Michael's small drumkit sat in the middle and I squeezed in a corner balanced on top of a guitar amplifier. The first thing recorded became 'The Trial', a central theme in the film. Recording continued for two more days. We used a reel to reel 4 track to record live, improvised with directions like: 'quiet and slow' 'sustained sounds' 'everyone play percussion' and directions more specifically oriented towards the narrative shape of the film from Michael. This was with an eye to the future; Michael was aware that our development as a trio could probably not be sustained by improvisation alone.
Recording techniques involved trying to attach small microphones to Jamie's drumsticks to solve the problem of trying to keep him on tape as he scurried around the room hitting things (flew off immediately and I think hit Jamie in the eye). I was also recording on a little Uher recorder and making loops which we would use as a basis for improvisations, notably on 'Screenwash'. This was a slow form of sampling, cutting out little bits of tape and looping them between takes. Michael mostly based his contribution on his immaculate and fluent kit playing but additional instrumentation involved clearing the floor and getting out such things as 'The Bow', Jamie's construction from a springy plank, a length of piano wire and a guitar pickup. This combination gave us the material which became the gated loops of the main 'Ghost Dance' theme.
We would arrive about 10.30, drink tea all morning in the kitchen, and then go for lunch at a cafˇ on the Holloway Road. One discussion involved what we should call ourselves as a group. As we had an Englishman, a Scot and an Irishman 'The Joke' was mooted. This was dropped because of what the NME would be likely to make of it. In the event we have never been mentioned in the NME. Within his flow of off-colour rumpy-pumpy jokes and surreal epigrams Michael spent a lot of this tea and cafˇ time thinking about the film and the music whilst Jamie and I didn't appear to worry about it at all. As a result, Michael would often lead us into afternoon improvisations specifically themed towards sections of the film. These didn't necessarily end up in the right place in the film but it was still a productive way of working.
Stage two of recording was in my shed in Brixton, from 10th May 1983. We brought the box of tapes from Jamie's house and began to mix some sections, copying other sections to 8 track for overdubs and treatments. The other two sat patiently as I fiddled with ancient and arcane bits of studio equipment, eventually to produce new sections of the music as a looped improvisation passed through a noise-gate or some other device and assumed a new shape. Michael injected his virtuoso baritone kazoo into a long repeat delay system, Jamie found a piano in the street outside so we dragged that in, completely out of tune and played harmonics on the bass strings. One day, whilst working with the door open there was a sudden and dramatic thunderstorm which became the closing moments of the CD; I stood in the rain with a microphone while Jamie tinkled a glockenspiel inside in the dry.
Evenings meant visits to the editing room where Ken McMullen and film editor Robert Hargreaves played cassettes of mixes against bits of the film; Robert making most of the decisions on music placement, often strikingly different to our original intention but always with a sure eye and ear. Robert does something that other editors forget, if you want to repeat a piece of music within a film - to use as motif or whatever - you don't need to run it from the start every time, just pick a later section and drop it in. Especially with our stuff. His music editing is still a surprise to me. The cut of the film would change from day to day, sometimes very radically. Our strategy to cope with this was simply to overproduce, we finally delivered over three hours of tape.
The next project came from another Ken, this time Ken Campbell making a film for Central TV. Discussions started with Central and then collapsed as a technician's strike aborted the shooting schedule. Next project was the soundtrack for an electronic animation from After Image for Channel 4 in September 1983. Jamie was on holiday. So Michael and I reworked unused material from the May recordings into the piece that became 'Blue Dance'.
Some tension which I could not identify was emerging between Michael and Jamie around this time and as further work was not immediately forthcoming, the motivation of the trio began to diminish. After that Jamie and I briefly tried recording as a duo, very freely improvised music, missing Michael's centre, enjoyable but not really accomplishing much. We kept in touch as Jamie gradually moved from music to full-time painting, our last recorded material was some music I wrote for a French science fiction film soundtrack in 1987.
Michael and I rescusitated the CD out of the innumerable boxes of tape in 1996, ploughing through everything and remixing some sections, Jamie contributing the design format, images, many helpful suggestions and the bulk of the sleevenotes.
David Cunningham 2001
an interview with jamie muir
michael giles information
david cunningham -discography
'ghost dance', a film by ken mcmullen
© piano 2000