Amble Skuse and Colin Clark on Opera and performing arts!
Kaveh: Hello, and welcome to the third episode of art and inclusion from the Quantization podcast. Quantization is a production of Arezoo Talebzadeh and Kaveh Ashourinia.
Arezoo: Opera is a climax of the Western classical music tradition, in which artists, musicians and singers perform a dramatic piece. We usually describe and remember operas with extensive and fine-tuned productions, which happen mostly in opera houses. Traditionally, all components of any opera should resemble the perfection of a part of the production. But how can we redefine the Opera in the current culturally complex societies? How about accessibility and inclusion? Or how about making, rehearsing and watching an opera in the time of the pandemic?
In this episode, we have Amble Skuse, conversing with Colin Clark, discussing her ideas and progress on creating and rehearsing an opera during the lock-down. Her Opera is called ‘We Ask These Questions of Everybody’ and is streaming online on January 29th, 2021. Her project is unique in many ways and leaves us with various questions about defining and performing this art form.
Kaveh: This is episode 15, art and Inclusion Volume 3, Opera in the time of the pandemic
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Kaveh: Hello Amble, and Colin, and thanks for accepting our invitation. Can we start with your introduction, please?
Colin: Sure. Amble, do you want to go first, or should I?
Amble: Sure. Yeah. My name is Amble Skuse, I am composer. I’m disabled in various ways. I work with live instruments, and electronics. I do field recordings. I make soundscapes, I make the soundwalks, and currently working on an opera. I’m doing a PhD in the UK.
Colin: Amazing. And I’m Colin Clark, I’m the Associate Director of the Inclusive Design Research Center. I’m a video artist, and sometimes composer, musician, also working in electronics, home-built software, and trying to create communities around open, and inclusive, creative tools.
Kaveh: Great, thank you. You just mentioned the opera. Could you expand on that, and give us a little background? What is the team, how has the project started, and how it sounds?
Amble: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I’m working with a company called HERA who are based in London, and they’re an all-female team. They set up to make more opera by women, both living, and dead. I’m not sure which one I am. I met Toria Banks, who’s one of the producers at HERA, through… I was doing a piece with the ParaOrchestra in the UK. And I was interviewing lots of disabled people about their experience of being disabled. And I wanted to make a soundscape of those stories, and perspectives, I suppose, because I don’t really hear those perspectives are very often in mainstream media, or radio. I was interested in hearing perspectives that I wasn’t used to talking about. And I also noticed that when I talked to other disabled people, it was super interesting, because everybody has to develop an individual way of approaching the world, and an individual way of dealing with all the both physical, and mental, and emotional obstacles that come up.
Amble: I interviewed around 20 people, and just have some fascinating conversations, really, really interesting people, really interesting conversations. And they ranged… we talked about society, and benefits, and money, and death, and pain, and optimism, and utopia, and community, and just everything. Toria was one of the people who volunteered to be interviewed. And then a little bit after I’d worked with that, I’d made a song for Steph West and Victoria Oruwari, who are both disabled singers to sing as part of this ParaOrchestra piece. I just sent it out to some of the people who contributed to the interviews to say, “This is what we’ve made, and I hope you like it.” Toria came back and said, “Actually, I’m an opera producer, and there’s some interesting opportunities.” I can’t remember what it was called.
Amble: It was at the Opera House in London, and they were looking for work by women to workshop and develop, and she said, “Would you be interested in partnering with me, and seeing if we could get some R&D time to work on the show?” I was like, “Yeah, of course.” It turned out we didn’t get that, but we did get an R&D session with Mahogany Opera, who also based in London, and they’re really awesome. They do community opera, and young people’s opera. And we spent some time with Frederic Wake Walker for Mahogany. We’ve ended up using the recordings that I made for the ParaOrchestra piece, the interviews, plus some new interviews that I did specifically for the show. Alongside it’s a verbatim recording of a PIP interview, which is quite a UK specific thing.
Amble: It’s called the Personal Independence Payment, and it’s relatively new, it took over from the Disability Living Allowance. Basically what it did was it reduced the bracket within which you are entitled to support from the British Government. People who used to get Disability Living Allowance money, were told that they had to reapply for this new thing called PIP, and that they would have to have an interview face to face with a nurse. And that nurse would assess whether they were entitled to this new benefit which had much tighter restrictions than the older one. There had been a lot of really disturbing media around the PIP interview. There were people saying that the transcript of the interview didn’t really reflect what they’d said, or that they’d made a case for something, and then the opposite had turned up in the paperwork. And they’d sent notes in from their doctor, and the doctor’s notes hadn’t been taken into consideration by the person making the assessment.
Amble: So there’s all these questions marks about it. And we got a transcript, and was donated to the show, along with the original recording of the interview. And what’s really interesting about it is that in order to record your PIP interview, you have to get permission from the DWP, which is the Department for Work and Pensions in the UK. And you have to record it on cassette tape, you have to make two cassette tapes. So you have to take two cassette recorders with you and they have to be battery powered, because you’re not allowed to plug anything in that hasn’t been PAT tested, which is like an electronic appliance test. So you can’t just take something and plug it in, in case it’s faulty and blows the building up. So they have to be battery powered cassette recorders, and you have two, at the end of the interview, you have to give one to the person that did the interview, and you keep the other one.
Amble: Their argument for this is that you can’t edit a tape recording, a tape recording is a tape recording. And I would, as somebody who works with audio would say, “Well, if we did a digital recording, and you had a copy, you’d be able to prove that I’d edited it because you’d have the original.” I suppose the point is, I could argue that they’d cut things in maybe, I don’t know. But alongside that you have to have permission from them to do that. And so this person had had permission, they turned up with the tape recorder. The first time they’d gone along, they’d been told they had the wrong tape recorders and got sent away. And they had to make another appointment and come back with different tape recorders.
Amble: The second time it was all recorded, and then the person got it transcribed. When the paperwork came back, it was absolutely full of discrepancies. They then went through the transcription and said, “Oh, the note taker said this, but actually, if you look in the transcription, this is what I said.” And then the DWP came back and said, “Oh, we can’t find any evidence that you had permission to record this. So therefore that won’t be valid in court. And we suggest that the court disregards the recording, and the transcription.” Which is basically to say, “If you can’t prove that we gave you permission, then we can lie about it, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Luckily this person had actually made a voice recording when they phoned the DWP, and asked for permission, and they had a voice recording. And they were able to play it to the court and had the DWP on tape saying, “Yes, you have permission to record it.” Which meant the transcript could go through.
Amble: Surprise, surprise, the DWP reversed their position, and it didn’t end up going to court. But it’s this kind of really surreal kind of Kafkaesque world, that actually if you did have any learning disability, or if you had any cognitive issues, or communication issues, that whole process is set up to make you completely vulnerable. I think the other thing that’s really interesting about the interview is that it is so personal. And it’s so uncomfortable to have to sit in a room and tell somebody everything about your life. And they’re asking you really weird questions like, “When did you last leave the house? Can you chop a vegetable?” And it’s all those things that as a disabled person, you try not to think about. What you can’t do. You try not to think about how awful everything is, you try not to think about how lonely you are. You try not to think how vulnerable you are. And then you’ve got this really intense questioning where that’s all they want to know. It’s deeply disturbing, in a really uncomfortable way.
Amble: And it’s a really interesting interaction between the two people, because it really brings up the question of like, “Well, what do we mean by a human being? What does it mean to be a human being? And which of these people is being more human at this point in time? And what are we doing to each other by trying to judge each other only by how awful our lives are? And should that even matter when we’re talking about whether somebody should be able to afford to eat or not?” It’s all these really uncomfortable questions.
Colin: It’s like the power to decide what someone needs is always held in the institution in this model. It’s a deficit model where you’re being interviewed, and being asked, “What can’t you do?”
Colin: And that’s only the bureaucrats who get to decide what you need, so that there are things you can do. The power seems really, really out of calibration there.
Amble: Yeah, absolutely. And it went hand in hand… this change went hand in hand with this ramping up of media attention around disabled people as fakes, and frauds. TV shows about people faking it in order to get money, and hidden camera shows of somebody who’s so called got a bad back going swimming, and owning a house in Spain. This ramping up of suspicion around disabled people, like you can’t actually believe what they said, and so you have a situation where somebody says they can walk 10 meters, but the nurse writes down 15. And then later on, the nurse says, “Oh, you said you could walk 15 meters.” And then you’re in a position where you’re thinking, “Did I say 15, or did I say 10? I thought I said 10, but she’s written down 15.” And then you’ve got this position where you have to challenge her and say, “No, actually, I didn’t say that.” So Toria took this transcript and worked really carefully with it, and edited it down into a script. Can you hear that in the background?
Colin: Yeah, but it’s okay.
Amble: Sorry, that’s my cat, she’s decided that she’s going to go completely mental-
Colin: Good cat.
Amble: … and scamper around the house. She’s asleep for like 23 hours a day, and this is the one hour when she’s decided she’s going to jump around my bedroom, and attack things. The opera is like this really stark contrast between the way that disabled people talk about being a disabled person, and the philosophy, and the utopia and the way we communicate with each other, and the way we see the world, and the opportunities and the shared passions, and the shared thoughts. And then on the other hand, you have the way that the PIP assessment reviews disability is just, “Tick this box, can you chop vegetables? Yes, or no?” And it’s this constriction, and expansion of how we consider ourselves, which is contrasted throughout the opera.
Amble: I think I said before, it’s all verbatim. So the interview between the disabled person and the assessor is taken from a real transcript that we have audio for that was donated to the show. And all the stuff that comes in the choruses is real recordings from interviews that I’ve done. And again, I just really liked that model, because it’s not just me that’s a composer that gets to decide what people hear. I mean, to a certain extent, I’m filtering because obviously, we’ve chosen things from the interviews and from the transcript, but it’s also allowing a slightly broader voice that isn’t filtered, and isn’t just one person’s perspective, I guess.
Colin: What does the opera sound like?
Amble: Oh, that’s a good question. I’m not sure that I can tell you what is meant to sound like. I haven’t finished it.
Colin: Still in rehearsal at this point?
Amble: Yeah. Well, we’re in the recording stage. The choruses are soundscapes of interviews. And some of them are really grainy quality, and some of them are better quality. Some of them are really digitally compressed. So it’s obvious that we did them on Zoom, or Skype. And I like that, because that’s how a lot of us communicate. I’m not trying to make that sound like professional quality recordings from a studio because it just isn’t how we live. And then… and that we’ve got a clarinetist called Sonia Allori, who is disabled and Steph West is going to be playing harp as well. So the chorus parts are mainly soundscape with live instruments, improvising around that. It was important to us that it was improvised as well, because again, it’s about decentralizing the power that I have as a composer.
Amble: Partly, I think the thing for me about access is that disabilities can be so variable, one of the things that’s really difficult about being a disabled performer is being able to guarantee that you can do anything on a given day. So it’s like, “Well, one day I might be able to play the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, another day I might just be able to honk.” And actually I want that to be okay. I want the performers to feel like they can give me what they’re capable of giving me on any given day, and that’s absolutely fine. The piece flexes to accommodate changes in the performers. Like we’re a network of nodes, and the nodes are all responding to each other, and accommodating each other. It’s not about saying, “Right, the show’s going up. You have to be at peak performance now.” Because for a disabled person, that’s an unrealistic thing to try and achieve.
Amble: I wanted to import a model which allowed the performers to be real, I guess, and to give me what they could, and what they wanted to give me. And not what I was trying to impose upon them. The sung parts are quite intimate, less electronic. There’s… Steph West is a folk singer, and she plays the role of Hannah, who is the disabled woman. And Victoria Oruwari, is a classically trained singer. So she has a more trained voice, and a more typically operatic background, I guess. And she’s playing the role of the assessor. And we really wanted to question what voices were heard, and what’s a valid voice to put in an opera. And so those two are singing with a very minimal sparse harp, and electronics background.
Kaveh: Let’s listen to Amble’s work, and then we will continue.
Colin: This question of opera is an interesting one. Why an opera, do you think opera can be in some way redeemed through making a work that’s so different like this? I think of opera, in one sense as being the pinnacle of a certain Western classical elitism, that this simultaneously it’s a musical tradition that is hyper athletic. As you say, emphasizes being ready, doing it exactly perfectly a certain virtuosity, on the other side of it regularly pilfered from other musical cultures. Well, denying that they’re as serious, or as legitimate as opera itself. So you’re in a pretty fraught political realm with opera, and it seems to me you’ve got a critique, and something else there.
Amble: Yeah. I had this chat with Toria, and I was like, “Is it an opera, though? Should we be using that word?” And Toria was really like, “Yeah, actually, we can use that word to mean anything we wanted to use. We can decolonize the term opera. We can take it, and apply it to what we do.” And there is a questioning in there of hierarchy, and validity and assumptions of what is a valid piece of work, and what is… I don’t know, niche, and I think within new opera, there are some really interesting things happening and people trying with different techniques, and using electronics and stuff like that. I think within opera, it is supposed to be the pinnacle of musical achievement, everything that’s sought after by western classical tradition. But in doing that, we go through a series of eliminative processes.
Amble: So when we’re training people, it’s a case of, “Can you meet the grade, yes, or no?” And if the answer’s no, then you’re out. And through doing that, then we eliminate people so that we get this particular voice, this particular idea, or this particular way of singing, this particular way of thinking, this particular way of acting. And I guess what I would like to question is, who decides what that definition of quality is? And ultimately we’ve had centuries of that sort of decision being made by white men, basically, and rich white men at that. And it is a definition of quality, it is a definition of beauty. But I question whether it’s the only one. And so I think that for our opera there’ll be a number of audiences. And I think one of the audiences will look at it and go, “This isn’t opera, and if it’s trying to be opera, it’s not very good opera.” Because we’re not going to meet those definitions of quality.
Amble: But by our very existence, the fact that we are disabled, means we’re very unlikely to have ever succeeded to jump through all the hoops needed to get to the level that they want us to get to. And so that idea of higher hierarchy, and musical superiority is based on having sufficient resources, and sufficient energy and sufficient access to get there. And the fact that I can’t go to music college and sing for 10 hours a day, means I’m never going to get there. But does that mean that I can’t write an opera, does that mean that what I have to say isn’t a valid thing to say? So I think in reducing the amount of people who get through that filtration system, we also reduce the things which are said, and the perspectives that we hear. And I think that’s… I’m interested in that.
Amble: If we look at the process of learning classical music, it’s like an EQ filter. It’s like, ultimately, every time you have to go through a new process whether that’s getting a good teacher, getting a good instrument, being able to afford the lessons, being able to go to Summer camps, being able to get into music college, knowing which college to go to. Being able to afford to live in the city where the music college is. Every time you have to go through one of those things you start to filter out people from different backgrounds, people who don’t have the financial resources, or the cultural background, or are disabled, or don’t have the energy to do it, or maybe people who are single parents, or working class, and never knew that singing, opera was a thing until it was too late. And so we end up with this very just mid-range honk of perspectives coming out, because we’ve actually filtered out all the other perspectives and thoughts in the very model that we’ve used in order to try and find quality.
Amble: And I feel like if we’re looking for quality, there’s a couple of things we need to do. One is that we really need to think about what we mean by quality, and who defined that, and whether it’s a valuable definition that we still want to live by. And secondly, does the model that we’re employing in order to find that quality actually enable us to find quality, or does it just enable a certain person to get to the top? And for me, it’s about shaking those models up a little bit. I think that’s why I’m interested in what I’m doing with Toria, and Hera, it’s because we’re trying not to be prescriptive, we’re trying not to be the director, the composer saying, “Here’s the score, go sing it, and I want it perfect. And you’ll do it again, until I get it perfect.” It’s saying, “Actually take this and be you with it, and bring it back to me using the lines you want to sing, you play the lines you want to play, you respond to the bits of the script that work for you. And let me have what it gives to you.”
Amble: In that way it feels more like a model that might work for disabled people, where we can say an eight hour day in a building is not necessarily something you can do, what can you give me? Let’s create a working model that works for you so that you can give me your best, because people have things to give, but they can’t get through the models and the systems that we’ve created. I think that’s one of the things we’re trying to do with this opera, is unpick the way things are done, and do them in a way that allows our musicians, and our writers, and our composers to give their best without destroying them. And it’s an interesting balance because we’re all disabled. We’ve all tried to come at it without expectations of what a rehearsal means, what a recording means, what a script means, what a score means, what an improvisation means. It’s like all of that is up for debate because we all have different needs. And we all have different ways of working. We all have…
Amble: I think I’ve used this metaphor before and in a piece of writing, but it is… I’m really into gardening. And there’s no point putting a cactus in a pond. And there’s no point taking a pond plant and putting it in a desert. If you want something to flower, you have to know what soil to put it in, you have to know how much water to give it, you need to know how much light to give it, you need to know how hot it wants to be. I feel like that’s the way we need to think about disabled people, and broadening our idea of how we work, especially in the arts. If you want people to flourish, and give you something unique, and valuable, and creative, and vulnerable, and beautiful, there’s no point putting them in a box, and saying, “Right, here’s a grow light, do your thing.” I don’t think that’s where beauty comes from necessarily.
Amble: Like we think about the arts as an industrial machine, I think because we’ve been so industrialized over the last 150 years. We think, “Well, here’s a model.” You slam people into it, you go through that process, and at the end, the good ones come out. I don’t necessarily think that’s true. I think the people that do come out of that process are very good. And absolutely not critiquing their talent, or their commitment, or their hard work. Not at all. But there’s also a lot of people who could have given us interesting stories who gets spat out of the machine because it just didn’t work for them. I think that’s probably like the next stage of arts. Training of arts, thinking of philosophy thinking, of academic thinking that we need to start opening up.
Colin: Do you see your role as a composer in this different model as like a gardener? To use your gardening metaphor.
Amble: I don’t know, really. In the sense that I chose the seeds, I chose the plants, I worked with Toria to find a place that we’re going to put it on. So in the sense that this isn’t a wilderness where the plants are just growing where they want to grow. I’m very much in charge of the garden in the way that a human is saying to a tomato will grow in that pot, and not in that pot. But I don’t know, I think you’d have to ask my musicians if I’m a gardener. If I’m not nurturing their real self, or whether I’m just going, “I need this song.” I don’t know, it’s like nodes. It’s like nodes in a network. That’s how I see it. And it’s like… I don’t know, if you’ve ever seen like a geodesic dome, or something, but it’s a bit like that.
Amble: But before it’s all set, because geodesic domes get really rigid, but it’s before that bit where you haven’t quite got all the bits in. And if you move one bit, the rest of it all shifts. If one node moves to the left, the others all have to accommodate it a little bit. And I think that’s how I like to think of working with disabled people. Is saying, “Well, what shape do we need to be in order for you to work? And what shape do we need to be for you to work? And how do we create a three dimensional shape, which creates a space for everybody to work without anybody feeling too squished, or too squashed?” Yeah. So it keeps moving. And it moves every day in every rehearsal. We get to points where one person needs a break, or another person needs something sent over, or another person can’t hear something properly. So we have to find another way of getting it to them. And that happens throughout the rehearsal. It’s not like a case of going, “Right, we’ve got a captioner, let’s go.” There’s constant negotiation between us.
Colin: Amble, I’m curious about what the process has been like. I mean, you’re making an opera in the middle of a pandemic. And you’ve mentioned a few things. You talked about doing rehearsals on Zoom. What’s the process been like to actually go from, I assume, writing some notes on a page, into almost being finished recording an opera?
Amble: It was kind of crazy, really, because we got the email saying we’ve got the funding, about a week after the lockdown started. In fact, I’d gone to stay at my mom’s because we were going to be doing a presentation of the R&D week in London. And then we got the email saying, “You’ve got the money to make an opera. Can you tell us how you’re going to do it in a pandemic?” And we were like, “Actually, yeah, because I live like I’m in the pandemic all the time.” In a weird way, it’s like the bell curve of normal moved, and I’m now right in the middle of it, I’m actually totally in my comfort zone. I do pretty much everything from bed, I do pretty much everything online. I go out once a week to the supermarket, or I have stuff delivered if I’m not well enough. I very rarely go into cities, I very rarely go into places where there’s lots of people.
Amble: I’ve had 10 years of practicing this lifestyle. And it was quite weird, because it was like I was working with you, when I was in Canada, and we were like, “Oh we should look at how to get disabled people so that creating this software so that people can collaborate from home, and we could have the world’s first online ensemble.” And before we had a chance to get anywhere with it, it was like, bam! Global pandemic, everyone’s online, and there’s billions of global ensembles all rehearsing online. And we’re like, “Oh, that our idea.” So in a way, it was like we built these very careful little universes which were all unique and delicate, and required negotiation. And then suddenly, the whole world moved, and everybody was doing it.
Amble: And in a way that’s really positive, because it’s like all the time, we’ve been asking for more online access because we couldn’t get to things. And then suddenly, everything was online, and it was like, “Oh, awesome.” But then on the other hand, it’s like, “Yeah, and as soon as this is over, you’re all going to forget about it again.” But yeah, so that was quite weird. But what was really nice about it was we’d planned that we would do most of it from home anyway. We hadn’t really planned that we were going to have weeks in a rehearsal room, as you would with an opera. We always knew that I was probably not going to be present. And that we’d have to do a lot of it by network, and also because of how I live, and because a lot of people that I’d interviewed for the show are very home based. I wanted them to be able to interact with it, and to be a part of the show.
Amble: The idea that we would put it on in a theater, and only people who could make it to the theater at a given time and sit through two hours of it could see it seemed completely wrong for the very people that we’re talking about. It’s like, I don’t want my show about disability to not be accessible to the people who’ve helped me make it. That’s crazy. So we’d already thought we’d love it to be online, we’d like some interaction. I’m going to be doing quite a lot of it remotely and sending stuff to people. And so we wrote back and said… The main difference was that we were going to do it live. And a lot of it was going to be live streamed, and there was going to be like bits of video, and bits of interactivity which fitted into that. And we just said, “Well, actually, let’s crank down the live angle and crank up the digital angle.”
Amble: But apart from that, we didn’t have to change very much. Apart from obviously, on our mind’s eye, we were seeing it as a theater show. And now we were seeing it as a website. So that was quite big sort of, “Oh, so we don’t need costumes, we’re not going to have a set. I’m not going to see her sing this under a beautiful light. These things aren’t going to happen. So what are we going to do?” So we brought onboard a woman that does creative captioning. And so basically, there’s not going to be any visual element because we want… a lot of the interview is about your home. Like do you have stairs? Do you have a toilet upstairs, do you have a toilet downstairs? Where’s your shower? How often can you have a bath? Can you lift a saucepan, or a pot? So she says in the script. And we wanted people to think about themselves in their homes.
Amble: And we felt that if people were watching some video, they might actually not be as centered in their bodies, and in their homes, as if they were purely audio. So we’ve got a creative captioner who is going to be captioning all the verbal audio, and some of the sound so that people who have hearing impairments can also enjoy the context of the show. But without people feeling like they have to sit and stare at a screen while the show is happening. That was like the major change, really, was thinking we don’t film people singing an opera in their living rooms, we just didn’t feel like that was what we wanted our audience to experience. And we really wanted to put the audience in their bodies in their homes. Again, it sort of really worked for us in a weird way because that makes more sense than people coming to a venue, and sitting in the dark, and watching it in a chair. They can sit in their bed and listen to it.
Amble: Then in terms of making it. There’s been lots of different processes, which have really stretched me as a composer. Some of it is chopping up audio, making soundscapes, which I love doing, and I’ve done quite a lot. So that’s been loads of fun, and I’ve been in my comfort zone. And that’s just lovely. Other bits like once Toria had decided on the script, I then had to go through and chop those bits of audio out of the original recording of the interview. And then I had to sit down and notate the conversation with a keyboard. So just listening to a phrase on loop and playing it back. And obviously, the more you do that, the quicker you get it. Your fingers just go doo be doo beep doo be doo bup. But it also… it drives you a bit insane because then every conversation you hear is a pitch, and you can see the stage in front of you with everyone you’re talking to. That also then becomes really interesting when you talk to people with different accents because you can see how different cultures, and different accents articulate pitch, and rhythm differently as they speak.
Amble: It also had quite a traumatic effect on me because I was listening to this awful, awful thing on loop for months. And it was also a really bad quality recording because it was a cassette tape. And one of the things that I find really difficult with my disability is focusing on complex sound, which is ironic because I’m a composer. Maybe that’s why I’m a composer, I like to organize the sound. But it was really tiring trying to pick up the rhythms, and the pitches of what they were saying. And hearing all that tape hiss, and all that room noise, and it just bores into your brain. And then the content of it as well, which is enraging, and upsetting, and traumatizing all at the same time. That process of notating it was difficult.
Amble: There was also questions about well, how much do I quantize this in terms of pitch, and rhythm? Are we using 12 semitones, and are we using standard notation? And when the singers sing it, how much do I want to have tidied it up? And so it wasn’t really a case of notating it once and saying, “Yup, that’s done.” It was like the first time I did it, I notated it as much as I could exactly how it was said. And then I was like, “I can’t give that to singers, that’s mental.” So I tidied it up a little bit, and then it was like, “Actually, I can’t score it like that because, A, it will take a really long time because it will change key signature in every bar, and then, B, it will be virtually impossible to read, or rehearse because it changes tempo, and key signature in every bar.
Amble: So there’s these compromises, you have to do layers, and layers, and layers of it to the point where you’re like, “I don’t want to make two 4/4 F major, but at the same time, like how far can I push this in terms of difficulty. And it’s not that our singers can’t do difficult. They really, really do do difficult, and they’re doing very, very well. But it’s about how much I want to put people through, I think. So there have been those sorts of things. And I’ve learned a lot as I’ve gone along. And I think if I did it again now I would do it a lot quicker, but I didn’t know those things when I did it so I had to do it four times. That’s been the process of writing. It’s been really interesting working with Toria as well because I work a lot with texts. But it tends to be pre-written text, or text that I’ve written, or interviews.
Amble: And this is the first time I’ve worked with a writer, and I tend not to collaborate because of my disability. And because working with people that don’t have energy impairments is just really, really hard because I work really differently from people who don’t have energy impairments. I tend to just work alone, because that means I can protect my energy, I can make my own decisions, I can decide how things go, I can make it once, and just do it once and not have to make it 10 times. Whereas people who don’t have energy impairments are like, “Oh, can we just redo this?” And I’m like, “No, I’m going to die.” But it’s been really interesting working with Toria because she is also disabled in a very similar way to me. And so it’s the first time that I’ve collaborated in that way, I think. And it’s also the first time I’ve collaborated with another disabled writer.
Amble: One of the things that’s really interesting is deadlines. Because as a disabled person, I tend to work forwards in terms of deadlines, I’m like, “I’ll do what I can when I can. And that’s all I can promise.” Whereas with this, it’s like we have a show going out. And it’s gonna go out on this day. And so there’s this constant tension between what our bodies can do, what our minds can do, and how much has to be done by a certain day. And negotiating that between a team of disabled people is really quite complicated because you’re trying to work in a non disabled way, but also give people the freedom to be disabled and to listen to their bodies on a daily basis and say, “I don’t think I can do this today.” And so that to be okay. But then internally as a producer, you’re going, “Oh my God. The schedule.” So it’s like how do you negotiate?
Amble: It’s been really interesting dealing with all of those kind of conceptual questions around how do you make work which is actually disabled friendly? What is your process? That means you don’t end up slamming your disabled people through a wringer at some point, which is what we absolutely don’t want to do.
Colin: It does seem like flexibility, especially when it comes to time, you talked earlier about how industrialization has narrowed our ways of thinking, and of course, as a musician, you probably think a lot about time. And it seems like time is the one thing that’s contracted, and hardened because of this industrial approach. Like you got to make your deadlines, you got to work 9:00-5:00, and being able to have those conversations about, “Well, when do you work best? What happens if you know it’s a bad day, and you can’t work today? How do we work around those things?”
Amble: Exactly. I mean, this is one of the reasons I work by myself because I’m like, “Well, I know that I can make good stuff, I think.” Now I think I’ve done enough to be like, “Yeah, I think I can do good stuff. But I definitely can’t do it if you need me to be somewhere at nine o’clock and do it until five o’clock, and then go home and do it all again the next day.” That correlation between making a good thing, and making it in a framework that is expected are two completely different things, and I’m sort of used to that, that if you wake up at 3:00 in the morning, and you’ve got some energy, you just make some of the thing. And then you might sleep all day, but that’s fine. Obviously, then when you’re working with another person, or five, or six, or seven people, that becomes a really interesting thing to negotiate.
Amble: But yeah, I think it’s one of the interesting things that I think we’re learning as a society through the pandemic, is that, “Oh, actually, you can do really good work if you’re in your pajamas under a duvet, stroking a cat.” It doesn’t mean the quality of your work goes down. So these ideas that in order to be a professional, you should be wearing a suit, and you should be in at quarter past eight in the morning. And you should only take half an hour for lunch, and you should blah, blah, blah, blah. But it’s like that’s got nothing to do with the quality of work, that’s got nothing to do with output at all. It might be important in some circles where that’s what your customer expects. But again, we’re talking about expectations as opposed to reality. I could say something really weird about diamonds.
Colin: Do it.
Amble: It’s like the way we present diamonds, we have these flashy adverts, and these beautiful women, and they’ve got these diamond rings, and everything’s shiny and sparkling, and perfect. That’s not where diamonds come from. If people actually saw how diamond mines work. And the people who work in the diamond mines, and the conditions that they’re working in, it’s like, “Oh, in order to get that beautiful product, all of this is happening behind the scenes.” It’s not quite the right metaphor, because that’s talking about exploitation, is the opposite of exploitation. It’s about saying to people, “If you work in the way that is most comfortable for you, I believe you will give me the best product that you can give. And a product that doesn’t destroy you.” We talk a lot about well-being in the workplace. But what we don’t talk about is why people are becoming ill just by going to work every day.
Amble: And why it is the individual’s responsibility to then take time out of their leisure time to try and fix the problem that the work environment has caused them. Like rather than talking, saying to people, “Oh, you better do more yoga, so that you can cope with your work life.” Why don’t we look at the work environment and say, “This is really toxic, actually. And if people have to spend the rest of their free time doing yoga, and having counseling in order to cope with it, maybe it’s not actually a very good working environment.” And if we could allow people to define their own working environment a little more, maybe we would save money in terms of mental health care. And we would also get better work production from people. That’s the perspective that I’ve got through being a disabled person, is that actually I can make really good work, but I’m not going to turn up in a suit and be there five days a week, it’s just not going to happen.
Amble: But it doesn’t mean that I don’t have something, hopefully, interesting to say, and it doesn’t mean that I can’t contribute to academic conferences, and take part in a conversation, and contribute philosophical ideas, and contribute to the way we think about the world, and the music that is made, and the way we think about music. And I’m hoping that’s like a shift that we can start to understand. Is that you don’t need all the process in order to get the product.
Colin: Maybe you need different processes, and with different processes, different technology supports, and tools and ways of working and negotiating with each other as well.
Amble: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s not something I’m particularly good at. I’m not hugely good at people, to be honest. I just walk in I’m like, “This is what I need to do. I’m going to get on with it.” Some people are really skilled with human beings, and I have full awe of those people. But yeah, you’re absolutely right. When we’re working in a team of people where we’re all trying to respond to each other’s needs, how do we actually talk about that? And also, how do we let go of a lot of the ingrained stuff? Because one of the things that’s come up in these rehearsals is that we’ve all been like, “Oh God, I’m really sorry. Oh, I forgot something. Oh, I’m really sorry I messed up. Oh, sorry, I’m tired.” And we’re constantly reminding each other, “No, don’t apologize. This is you, this is who you are today. And that is completely acceptable, that is completely fine that you didn’t hit record, or it’s completely fine that this is the first time you’ve done something like this.”
Amble: I think especially as musicians, we are so heavily programmed that you must walk in, and have this air of perfection and competence. I think also because musicians are quite precarious, and everything’s freelance. And there’s this fear that if you mess something up, you won’t get booked again. It’s like how do we strip ourselves of those ideas to be like, “I am going to mess something up, doesn’t mean we’re not going to have a great product by the end of it. But yeah, I’m probably going to mess something up at some point.” We’re human, it’s fine. And I feel like that’s something as a music industry we could probably get better at, instead of people are so hypercritical of themselves, I don’t think it’s massively good for our mental health to be constantly feeling the James Brown effect. If it’s not perfect, you’re out the band. That’s not helpful, I don’t think, I find that toxic.
Colin: No kidding. I’ve been struggling talking to people during the pandemic about music with a normativity around what music is and should sound like, which I think relates to your notion of quality that you’ve been talking a lot about here. But lots of people just say to me, “You can’t make music on Zoom. You can’t do music.” And I think, “What do you mean? How can you not make music?” Well, you can’t make… the rhythms don’t match up because with the internet, there’s latency in different ways on different people’s computers. And the… I’m on a podcast, so I have to describe what I’m doing, but …
Amble: The meter?
Colin: … pulse here and yeah, that those pulses aren’t shared anymore. To me, I gave a talk a couple weeks ago, trying to argue that that was actually a musical possibility. That there was an aesthetic to making music on Zoom that maybe we’d never taken seriously before. It also strikes me that then how we first met looking at tools for remote collaboration, particularly for people with disabilities, there’s still something missing around what tools and ways of making music we have available to us. Did you face any of these kinds of challenges with using Zoom and getting people in sync, or out of sync in the ways you wanted them?
Amble: Okay, one of the things that I don’t really do very much of in my work is beat, meter, rhythm. So for me, I’m like, “Do it when you like.” Because a lot of my work is based around like the breath, and things falling when they fall, and how people speak, even speak really quickly, and then there’s a pause, maybe. Not massively interested in anything with a 4/4 beat. It’s fine, but it’s not what I do. I’m not very good at it. It’s working with soundscape, it’s more about textures and forms, and things coming in and out of phase with each other. And so for me, I think when we talked about the disability ensemble over the internet, I wasn’t massively worried about that. Apart from we would need to say, if anyone wants to do beats, it needs to be just one person. And then everyone else can just wish and wash around it. Well, the other thing we talked about is like this… Oh, should we say this on the podcast? I should patent this.
Colin: Do it.
Amble: That idea of actually, when you send your audio through, there’s like one person who’s centrally hosting it, and their computer clock finds the beat and syncs it, and puts it out. Obviously doesn’t help you as a performer. I think you’re right. I think when we say you can’t do music over Zoom, we’re talking about a specific type of music which requires a beat, and requires us to be in sync. And luckily for me again, the bell jar moved to somewhere where I was really comfy. I was like, “Yey, no beat, no problem.” But for a lot of people that is a definition of music, and without that, it becomes incredibly difficult to do what they do. I think it’s something we can definitely explore in terms of texture and timbre. And even getting around it. I mean, with the opera, we don’t really have a beat. And we’ve got… I think there’s one song where the singers are singing in harmony with each other. But apart from that, it’s all question and response because it’s an interview.
Amble: And so it’s one singer, then the other one, then the other one, then the other one. So over Zoom, we can actually do that. And we shipped microphones, and an interface to the singers, and to the musicians, and got them to plug up and they’re recording themselves in their houses. In terms of doing that over Zoom, that’s fine actually, there’s enough time, because we’re all so used to talking to people on video calls. I’m sure the first people who use the telephone found it really, really weird. But we don’t now. We just talked to somebody on the phone. And it’s the same with singing over Zoom. Because they’re not singing to a beat, it doesn’t really matter if their beat isn’t the same. And if they were, what we were doing yesterday is that we sent everybody a click track, and everybody had that click track on their, on their computer, on that iTunes, or something, and they all hit play at the same time.
Amble: Might be slightly out, but at least they’ll be playing to the same beat. So when I get the recordings, I should be able to sync it up. And then with the duet, what we’re planning on doing, we haven’t recorded it yet, is getting one of the singers to record theirs because it’s free time as well. It’s going to be really, really hard for the second singer to sing in time without being in the same room without having that eye contact. So what the first singer is going to sing her line, and then send it to a second singer. And that second singer, who is an absolute legend, is just going to learn the feel of it in her bones, and then record her line over the top of it. I couldn’t ask for better musicians on this. They’re really taking it in their stride. They’re really having a go. They’re getting in there. They’re singing vocal patterns, and learning things that change key every two notes and pitching stuff.
Amble: They’ve got absolutely no… There’s no harmonic structure for them to follow. There’s no piano, there’s no chords, it’s like, “Here’s a G, go.” And they’re doing it. It’s incredible. And they’re doing it over Zoom, and they’re home recording themselves at the same time.
Colin: It seems to me in some ways, this is the sound of that flexibility, that negotiation amongst people that you were talking about earlier, that there’s actually in the end, the piece is going to sound different as a result of all that.
Amble: I hope so. Yeah, I hope. What I’m really trying not to do is to be too prescriptive. I think just because of the way we’re working, it would be ridiculous if we said, “Right, we want this to sound like a studio produced album.” And I think because we’ve all been in the pandemic, in a way that’s easier for us again, because people have got used to the homemade aesthetic. People are really used to people filming TikToks in their bedroom, or recording podcasts from their basement. And so I feel like it’s okay to leave that aesthetic in the recordings, we don’t have to try and live up to ‘normal’ quality levels, because everybody knows what home based recording, and home based mixing, and Zoom rehearsing is like. It has allowed us to inhabit that space without being told, “Oh, but it’s just not very good.” It’s like, you’re not measuring it against something, which would have been normal before.
Colin: Yeah, absolutely.
Amble: Yeah. It’s given us the freedom to be able to say, “Yeah, this is what it sounds like when you work from home.” And that actually, that’s interesting, and it’s fine. And it’s not a case of it being lower quality than a studio recorded album. It’s just a different aesthetic. And it’s made out of truth. And it’s made out of our realities.
Colin: Your practice as a composer is predominantly electronic. Is there a role for instrument building in the work that you do? And if so, how?
Amble: I don’t know, really. I think a few years ago, I was like, “I can do a bit of Max, I could make instruments, I could work with disabled people.” And I think actually, that’s not me. It’s not what I’m good at. But having said that, I think absolutely. So for the opera I’ve made this sampler for Clarence Adoo, who’s an amazing musician. He was a trumpet player, and he had a very serious accident and is now paraplegic and places instruments through a head mouse. So it’s basically a tube that you put in your mouth, and you blow, and the different pressure, and the clicks that you can make on the mouse with your tongue controls the mouse on your computer.
Amble: He’s had an instrument built for him. And I think it was built using Max MSP. And so I have used my limited knowledge of Max MSP to build him a little sampler trigger. So basically, in some of the chorus sections, the samples are going to be triggered live by Clarence in an improvised way. So each sampler has 28 samples loaded into it, and he knows what they are. And he can choose which samples are played in which order, and how often, at what sorts of volume. He’s sort of live soundscaping, I think there’s always this problem with instrument making when we end up talking about who’s making what, for who? I think that’s a really key question. The dynamic we have very much at the moment with disabled instrument making is that it’s non disabled instrument makers making things for disabled people without necessarily asking the disabled people what they want, or what works best for them.
Amble: And it’s all done with great fanfare announcement that we’ve made this amazing thing that disabled people can use. And even just saying, this could be used for disabled people, it’s such a broad range. It’s like, “Well, which disabled person.” Because me and Clarence are very different musicians, we’re very different performers, we’re very different physically. We have very different ideas about what we want to do musically. And so just say, “Well, this is for disabled people.” Is like, “Oh, we made the buttons big, so job done.” There’s always this awkwardness around things being made for disabled people because it’s such a ridiculously wide term. I feel like wouldn’t it be amazing if disabled people could make their own instruments, actually? And if they’re not, why is that?
Amble: Is it that the training you need in order to be able to make instruments using Max MSP or any other coding is not available to disabled people? Or is it that disabled people want to be musicians and not makers? And are there people who want to be coders in the disabled community who could help make these instruments? Or is it just such a niche thing that we haven’t come across anybody who does it yet? One of the problems that we have with making instruments is sustainability, and sustainability for the performer, because it’s one thing to have an instrument made for you using Max 5, five years ago. But what happens now that we’re using Max 8, and suddenly your instrument stops working, and you can’t upgrade to Max 8, or you can’t upgrade your operating system, because suddenly your instrument is going to stop working.
Amble: We find excitement and funding in like, “Oh, wow, we made this amazing thing for a disabled person.” But we don’t put lots of support and funding into making sure that that instrument continues to develop, and making sure that that instrument continues to be fit for purpose. And then you have a situation where a musician is doing paid gigs, and their instrument breaks, but actually, there isn’t anybody who can fix it. Or the person who could fix it is currently busy doing something else. And the skills aren’t built into our community so that somebody can then just go and build their own instrument. Or even be aware of what possibilities are available for their instrument, and co-build things. I know Jon Kelly did a really interesting thing with Charles Matthews, and with the Kelly caster.
Amble: I think there’s that level of integration, and collaboration is really important, because I did some research last year where I interviewed disabled people about electronic instruments, or disabled musicians specifically about electronic instruments. And two of the things that came through were completely contradictory. And one is that we want to be able to get results quickly, because actually, we don’t have much time, and we don’t have much energy. And we, if it’s going to take me more than a couple of days to get it working, I’m not going to have the energy or the time to do that. And then the other thing was that actually, once we get proficient on our instrument, we want it to be progressive, we want it to get harder, and harder. We want to be able to do new things with it. We want to be able to build our skills, we want to be able to express more complex elements of musicianship through it.
Amble: And a lot of stuff is built like you press the button, and the cow goes, “Moo.” And it’s great for like a week, but then what? And so there’s this idea of building simplicity, and complexity into an instrument at the same time.
Kaveh: And lastly, could you share the access information today opera, where could people find, listen, and watch it?
Amble: Okay. The opera is being performed as part of Sound Festival, which is a new music festival in Scotland. It’s usually in Aberdeen in October, the end of October, but because of the pandemic, they’re having two Sound Festivals this year, and we’re in the second one. We are on the 29th of January, and it will be online. If you go to the Sound Festival website, which is sound, S-O-U-N-D, -Scotland, S-C-O-T-L-A-N-D, .co.uk. And we are on the 29th of January, and it will be online so that’s where you will find us. The opera is called We Ask These Questions of Everybody.
Colin: That’s a great title. Can anyone listen?
Amble: Yeah, of course. If you want to find out more about the opera, you can go to the wearehera.co.uk.
Kaveh: It was Episode 15, Opera, in the time of the pandemic.
We want to thank Amble for accepting our invitation and Colin for hosting this episode.
Marshall Bureau is the composer of all tracks for the Quantization, except the piece we heard from Amble.
We appreciate the continuous support of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University.
For more episodes and full transcripts, please check out our website, quantization.ca, and come back for upcoming episodes.