Supper’s Digests: An outsider’s outsider

It’s time for a musical interlude. Not knowing what to expect, and at the behest of friends whose obsessions, like mine, intersect literature, nerdiness and everything musical, Michelle and I attended the UK filk convention last month.

Filk music eludes accurate description. It’s more of a mindset than a genre. Over a weekend steeped in its world, trying to identify what it is and why it exists, we were hurtled through a fairground of musical styles, and pondered the nature of people who keep filk alive.

Originally a misspelling of ‘folk’, filk assimilates as many interests and personalities as it’s able to touch. Practitioners are united by common loves that include music, beer and wordplay. An outsider art, performed by people who know they’re outsiders and don’t care, filk music was once rooted in English and American folk idioms, but today it ventures farther.

Fundamental to filk culture is the concept of the circle, a gathering where anything from four to thirty people elect just to listen, or to take it in turns to play music to one another. A democracy of nominating and volunteering evolves; listeners at once become backing singers or instrumentalists, trading songs and sharing harmonies. Fresh material is revealed, and shy newcomers are heard and honed. These circles sustain themselves through the night, pouring forth music and holding court until breakfast.

Starting in 1987, the annual convention now resembles a family reunion, but its atmosphere remains one of unconditional support and appreciation. Music is treated seriously enough for huge stores of material to be composed and practised over the year, but personal eccentricities are taken for granted. The quality of songwriting and professionalism varies hugely. A few hesitant bars of ukulele scraped from a chord chart by a novice may introduce a song performed by a professional chorister.

No matter what its influences, though, this remains folk art simply because it is not mainstream. Filk is weird, but the longer you stare at a subculture, the weirder it always seems. There are plenty of examples from the recent past: modern opera; psychedelic rock; disco; the New Romantics of the Eighties. As soon as they enter the mainstream, they seem less barmy. Rap music is a pertinent example. The self-aggrandising misogyny, violence and materialism that characterises much of rap is at once a billboard and a sticking plaster. Regardless of the salary earned, nothing is masculine about improvising rhyming couplets against a recorded drumbeat. For all the firearms and swagger, The Notorious B.I.G. was basically Percy Shelley, but with less privileged parents.

Where was I? Yes, filkers are absurd, but no more so than anybody else. Knowing this, they lovingly poke fun at most of the things they embrace. Songwriters may be science-fiction and fantasy enthusiasts, or irascible folkies belting out nasal renditions of protest songs in the Dorian mode. They may just as easily draw influence from the news, musical theatre, the Great American Songbook, or a trashy video box-set. Nothing is too cherished or too tacky for assimilation.

Much of the craft is in the performance, so filk music is best caught live. We beheld, for example, a marvellous arrangement of a Tweet about the theft of a Catholic relic, rendered as a doleful sea shanty. It was strongly reminiscent of Ivor Cutler. Another group shoehorned the theme of raising an adolescent boy into a Pete Seeger song (‘Where has all the Kleenex gone? Gone into the teenager’s room.’)

A novelty song about a German immigrant struggling to learn the delicate art of English understatement won a prize, as did a poignant ballad about what becomes of superheroes when they age. Given a room and time slot of her own, someone set the back-story of a computer game to a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. There’s a lot of effort in arranging, rehearsing and performing such a work, but considerable patience is demanded of an audience to bear the hour-long punchline. The jokes are not always apparent to a newcomer: with many hours of such programming, one can overdose on filk.

Would I recommend it? Only to some. Subcultures are subcultures because they don’t set out to please everybody. You have to be a geek, a good musician, or a collector of cultural curios to be a filker: preferably all three. Would I go back to the convention? Yes. I admire it for the same reason I enjoy my walks through Hackney: there’s so much of the Earth’s flavour crammed into such a small space, bumping together, that sparks of inspiration are cast in all directions. Most of these sparks do nothing useful, but occasionally there’s a glimpse of something transcendental.

I have been left with strong but abstract inspiration. Art always plunders art, and artists fall into spirals of self-regard in a frenzy for inspiration. Filk can do this too, but that doesn’t diminish it. What I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t matter what you’re into. Hang around and listen. No matter how impoverished or dirty or incomplete your contribution, add it to the world. Catch enough sparks and you’ll make some of your own. Who knows: you too could be Percy Shelley, but with less privileged parents.

Supper’s Digests: The Parable of the Caretaker

One of the most engaging classes at university was Recording Techniques. I credit the lecturer, Dave Fisher, for inculcating me with the science of audio engineering and, just as importantly, the culture of the industry. He provided an idea on which the following thought experiment is based.

As a music producer, you have been commissioned to record a few obscure pieces of orchestral music for a documentary series. You have hired the orchestra and engineer, and secured a local hall with excellent acoustics. When the day arrives, the morning goes as usual. The engineer sets up and tests her equipment. You both agree a schedule with the conductor. Later, the orchestra arrives to rehearse. This gets them used to the acoustics and seating arrangements while the engineer makes a few adjustments. Eventually, it sounds great in the control room, and all’s set for the recording to start in the afternoon. Everybody takes a break for lunch.

Suddenly, a white van pulls up. After a brief conversation with the caretaker, the driver lifts a pneumatic drill from the back, and starts cutting up the road outside. The building’s gas supply is being repaired. An air compressor emits a steady rumble while he rattles the building for minutes at a time, ripping up the tarmac to diagnose and fix the problem. Meanwhile, the caretaker has disappeared.

You talk to the contractor. He is not in charge of his work schedule, but tells you that local rules dictate that the noisy work has to finish by 5pm. He gives you a phone number, and you try to reason on the phone with the building’s owner. Apparently, they have been coping with a reduced gas supply, and have been waiting for a month to get it fixed. Without today’s repair, another month of dining functions will have to be cancelled. They assure you that they’ll have a word with the caretaker for not telling you about the situation when you booked, and they’re sorry. You cannot re-arrange the session, but the owner compromises by agreeing to rehouse a local society’s meeting tonight so that you can, at least, continue to record into the evening. Just one thing is in your favour: the orchestra and engineer have been paid an initial fee, but most of the money they’ll get depends on the completion of today’s recording.

Now there’s a choice. You could try persuade the orchestra to prolong their lunch break for the entire afternoon, cancel their social arrangements for the evening, and stay late to finish the session. Or you could arrange to record in infuriating piecemeal, brokering short truces throughout the day and stopping whenever the drilling has to recommence. This will drive everybody mad: you, engineer, orchestra, contractor. Or you could threaten to phone a solicitor unless the contractor is sent away, leaving the venue with an administrative headache, cancellations and fees, no gas supply, and a caretaker who’ll possibly lose his job. If they relent, none of this would be your problem, and the momentum of the session could continue to its original schedule. Happier musicians make better music.

This is all hypothetical, but the same kind of situation happens all the time: people you’ve just met will force you to make quick and unreasonable decisions with big implications. Live with the noisy drill and you’ll annoy the team you hired. They’ll feel that their contract has become a ransom note, and they might refuse to work with you again. Send away the driller with a threat of litigation, and you will seriously upset the caretaker.

Which answer were we given? Let the drilling continue. Tell the owner to go easy on the caretaker for your sake. Give the orchestra the final choice about which of the remaining unpalatable alternatives they’d prefer.

Here’s why: the professionalism of an orchestra will carry them through almost any adversity. No matter how difficult the session, their income and reputation depends on finishing the recording and doing a good job. Keep within the Musicians’ Union rules, or stretch them with consensus, and you’ll go home with a session master that will pay the mortgage. They’ll get their money and a useful anecdote about what a prat you are and how soul-destroying it is to work for the bourgeoisie. Upset the caretaker, though, and you have a powerful enemy with nothing to lose. He may now feel entitled to ruin your session, and can do so in a hundred ways. He’ll prevent the engineer from running her cables, will insist on seeing a council permit that you don’t need or you’ve never heard of, or find some excuse to cut off the electricity. Perhaps he’ll lock you out of the control room during a break and disappear for the rest of the day, impounding your equipment.

While Dave Fisher’s intended conclusion was ‘never piss off the caretaker’, there are some wider implications. One: no matter how gingerly we avoid burning bridges, life demands that occasionally one or two get chargrilled towards a nobler end. Two: the balance of power often lies in the most surprising places. Get used to this, learn to embrace absurdity, and don’t take dignity too seriously.

Supper’s Digests: In and around Dalston

Last week, I looked at parks. I continue the ‘free Hackney’ theme this week, turning my attention (mostly) indoors.

Ridley Road Market: Opposite Dalston Kingsland station lies another Dalston. Ridley Road Market is some half a mile long. Barrows run down the middle, and the shops on either side are essentially open-fronted cubicles. The last terrifying, blotchy Cockneys shout from their stalls, while first- and second-generation immigrants browse and patter amid the salted cod, bootlegged music, and strange, strange vegetables. A cluster of North African butchers display an astonishing magnitude of slaughter, garnering their windows with plucked poultry still replete with heads and claws. Pallid lower legs of goats and cows teeter stickily on trestle tables outside, foretelling bowl after bowl of marrowy, greasy soup.

Easily the most enticing wares are the towers of plastic bowls filled with cheap fruit and vegetables, in one case stacked six feet tall. The familiar leitmotifs of a British market are, of course, in evidence too: tatty clothes; chunky jewellery; the guy who cracks phones. There’s a bored-looking lady who appears to be playing Patience with the underwear she sells, arranging them lovingly in three fanned columns, preciously straightened over her trestle table.

Hackney Museum: The council’s museum is aimed principally, but not entirely, at children. It chronicles Hackney’s history as a Saxon village, then a town, then a part of the Greater London sprawl. In this century, wave after wave of immigration has changed whole quarters of Hackney before dispersing, assimilating, or being bombed into oblivion. All have left their bric-a-brac in the museum, and there’s too much to cover in one review. A Yiddish printing press that stopped turning a century ago asks questions that Jews and poor immigrants still ask today, about Communism and Zionism and charity and life back in Eastern Europe. The arrival of war is symbolised by a static display with a gas mask, enamelware, and a cutaway diagram of the V-2 rocket. Bombs hit Hackney particularly hard, and the scars they left are still evident in Dalston.

Arguably, the slum clearances after the war damaged Hackney as much as the Nazis. The utopian planners who filled Hackney with high-rise communities lived to see their shiny vision fall to pieces, and could only cringe as their buildings were dynamited. We are still playing the high-altitude game all over London of course, but the tower blocks of tomorrow have never seen a Socialist. Commissioned by investment fund managers and bought by private landlords, they are inhabited by the nouveau riche. These new visionaries really understand human psychology, and the recent story of Hackney is, in large part, written by them.

This might be why a cute replica of a 1990 squat is particularly memorable. The Thatcher-excoriating decor and grubby domesticity might intimidate a school child, but its nostalgic comforts are almost romantic to anybody who remembers the demise of the Cold War or the Poll Tax Riots. The world may have seemed cruel and elitist then, but squatters would find fewer sympathisers in Parliament today. They’d be back on the street before their Blu Tac hit the wall.

Dalston Library: Hackney Council’s haphazardly-curated birdcage of the muses illustrates why libraries across the country are quietly closing forever. A walk through the maze-like shelves prompts questions that start ‘Is it just me … ?’ After some time, the Dewey Decimal shelves yields A-level textbooks, spin-off publications from faded TV celebrities about how to paint your house and sell it at a profit, and less fathomable choices of subject matter that (with a few exceptions) add a pitifully sparse garnish to the gestalt of human endeavour.

The Kingsland Road Oxfam Shop is both more coherent and more interesting, while the Internet promises a cheap lifetime of second-hand reading. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend a visit to the library. If only because you’ll have to tell your grandchildren one day why we sold all their libraries to Costa Coffee.