A transcript of Ed Cookson's introduction to the premiere performance of The Black Page at the Tyneside Cinema on 24th September 2009.

'Hello everyone and thank you all for coming to what is a truly special event for us, one that we’ve been building towards one way or another since The Sancho Plan was formed. The project was founded on the ethos of integration, but right from the start it was our desire to excel in every aspect of craft being integrated – the idea, the visuals, the music, the technology and the performance, and we’re just indebted to all the amazing talents in these varied fields that have contributed & continue to contribute to the project.

We’re also careful not to underestimate the craft of integration itself. We don’t see it so much as simply choosing the best music in isolation, but the right music to match the right visual and so on, for when these things come together in the right way to create a unified work it truly is a beautiful thing. Our aim is the perfect immersive experience. I have a vivid memory surrounding one particular painting at the permanent Dali exhibition in Barcelona, but my memory isn’t so much of the painting itself but of the experience of the painting. For sure, the painting was a beautiful surrealist landscape but coincidently positioned right above my head was an air-conditioning unit that emitted this almost musical rich ominous drone like something from a David Lynch film that for me perfectly complimented the painting, almost sucking me into that unusual landscape. Looking back I was also aware of the other elements that had contributed to the moment – while the rest of the exhibition was in fairly large bright rooms, this painting was in a much smaller, darker room to which the only entrance was through a red curtain. And it’s all of these factors and I’m sure others which were subconscious elements that contributed to my recollection of the experience.

And with today’s rate of technological hardware and software development, as artists we have an amazing array of integration tools available to create the unified immersive experiences of tomorrow. New technologies in themselves aren’t enough however; I’ve always been less attracted to work that seems to exist primarily to demonstrate a new technology. Technology and media are tools to be used to transmit an idea and the skill is to choose the right tool for the right job – or choose when to not use the latest technologies at all.

In The Sancho Plan, we have a belief that to get the best work out of the various artists involved we should let them use the best tools available to their craft, and these are often the ones familiar to them. Anyone who’s worked with a one-stop-shop videogames engine in which you create graphics, sound and interactivity knows that it rarely excels in any of these. Thus our visual artists can work in their favourite 3D package, or stop-motion or traditional hand-drawn animation; our musicians work in their familiar music software; our programming is done in languages such as Actionscript and Lingo; and our interfaces can be any electronic musical instrument or non-musical input capable of sending MIDI. And it’s MIDI, a simple protocol defined in 1982 to connect musical synths that binds everything together.

 
Justice Unplugged
 

Electronic interfaces do bring a certain responsibility however, and one I feel well summed up by this picture here of the great French electro band Justice performing live. This picture caused a minor furore around the internet when it was posted the day after one of their high energy gigs - if you look at the back of the instrument of the guy on the left you’ll see it’s completely unplugged. Justice have claimed it was a one-off accident, but what’s interesting was more the reaction and question of the notion of the live performer in electronic music. Humans used to go to watch musical performers on stage because that’s the only way they would be able to hear certain types of music. With recording technology, which lest we forget is a relatively recent blip in the history of music, not only is this need for the performer undermined, but in a lot of cases there was no live performance in the first place. Unless you’re watching Kraftwerk, seeing bobbing heads behind laptops can lack a performative relationship between audience & musician, and risks creating a disconnect between the performers we see and the music we hear.

This in itself doesn’t at all mean you can’t put on an amazing show and many of my favourite shows have been done this way - but as our work is all about the live, the here and now, the thrill of the unique, we wanted the human in the performance. To do this we need to show the audience a language in which we play a hit onstage and the sound and image reacts – this is why we chose to focus on the simplicity of the drums as our starting input mechanisms.

The Black Page is the first piece in which we’ve begun to integrate a keyboard and bass controlling background elements of the visuals. To explain how the black page first came about, two years ago we were due to perform at the Ars Electronica festival, and some months before the performance I got a call asking if we played any Frank Zappa music and if so would we like to form part of the festival’s Zappa-themed evening. I laughed this off as at that point we’d never considered ourselves as the kind of band to do covers, but had a conversation with our drummer Joel, who told me that he’d been spending the last two years learning this legendary Zappa drum solo, The Black Page.

 
1a TheBlackPageScore-Inv.jpeg
 

Zappa wrote the black page as a challenge for the drummer in his band, Terry Bozzio. Since then it’s handed around from drummer to drummer, almost as some kind of ultimate test of one’s drumming prowess. Because Zappa himself admitted that the solo isn’t the easiest listen, he wrote a second slightly more melodic version, The Black Page No.2 which he dubbed the teeny-bopper version and tonight you’ll be hearing our take on both of these pieces No 1 followed by No 2.

It just seemed a perfect match to The Sancho Plan’s ideal to use this challenging musical performance integrated with a new standard of visuals. You’ll see a clear Dali inspiration in our imagery tonight – I once read a story that Dali and Zappa met only once in New York in the 60s when they decided to head to Dali’s studio to create a piece together. Apparently they got to the studio but Dali had lost his keys so they never made it in and never met again, so I like to imagine something of an idealised what-if had they got in there. And thanks to the funding we were able to call on the wonderful resources at Golden Square post-production company based in Soho London to help realise this vision.

But we were also aware that as we create new pieces, we want to keep our audience interested and emotionally invested through a longer show, and are keen to develop central characters and an overarching narrative over the length of the feature, and approach these aspects with as much respect as we would when developing a linear film. As such, for The Black Page we engaged a variety of scriptwriters, storyboard artists, character designers, model-makers and we are very much imagining this as the beginning – a single chapter from a potentially longer show.

As exciting as this chapter is for us, so are the vast potentials for future chapters. The next piece could be controlled by a 40-piece orchestra, or dancing troupe or a single gamepad. Or it could be controlled by the audience – either something cosmetic passing around positionally-tracked beachballs to pan sounds or change colours, or something that more directly influences narrative. All technically possible, but we shall always ask– how will these decisions serve the audience experience?

Of course we’re not limited by the single screen either – stage design, lighting and overall choice of venues all become factors to consider whether a cinema, a church or an underground icecave – something Peter Greenway so eloquently touched on from this very stage at his Pixel Palace talk back in March. I’d really like to tip my hat towards the Tyneside, for their recognition of the importance of the challenges facing cinemas in supporting work that stretches beyond the screen, while not losing sight of the joy of the traditional cinematic experience. But I for one am loving this recognition of the joy of coming together to enjoy new forms of live entertainment communally. This focus is of course being driven partly through music & film industry necessity in their forced shifting business models in the days where the free sharing of data is hard to control, but this is not a wonderful opportunity and not a threat to the future evolution of art and entertainment.

While I can’t ever imagine not enjoying the music & cinema of yesterday and today, I can’t wait to see, hear and experience the forms of live, communal and immersive entertainment not yet imaginable.

With that I’d like to thank again the Tyneside & all their staff, in particular Mark Dobson for his vision leading back to a single conversation in the Roxy upstairs. Thanks to Tom Harvey for taking a punt, and to all our funders who have given us this special opportunity – we hope you can see and hear your money well spent. The production team, too many to mention but credited at the end, and our wonderful producers Beckie and Georgia who through their generous passion & energy have made this happen. Special thanks to the ever unsung heroes – family, friends and partners in the audience today. And again thanks to you for coming - we hope you enjoy The Black Page.'

Ed Cookson, 24th September 2009