Have you ever wondered what it would be like to lose control of your hands?
I never had until mine went haywire.
Playing music can quite literally make my hands dance. Which is unfortunate, given that I was doing it for a living. When I was diagnosed with music triggered epilepsy the essence of my life was shattered. I no longer knew who I was.
After years of training to perform classical pieces perfectly, without the slightest error, the twitches in my hands were unwelcome to say the least. Initially I thought I was getting multiple sclerosis or another similar degenerative disease, but when I spoke to doctors about it I was dismissed as ‘another neurotic musician’.
Instead I was one in ten million- the proud possessor of a diagnosis of reflex epilepsy. For some people, their seizures are triggered by brushing their teeth, or hearing a fragment of song. For me, patterns of movement in my hands will cause a short circuit in the front of my brain, the area called the supplementary motor cortex. It can cause my hands to twitch, and if it spreads, I can black out, a full tonic-clonic seizure. When I was first diagnosed, I truly thought that I would never perform again.
Looking back now though, I can see that without my epilepsy I would never be playing the music I am now or have had any of the opportunities I have benefited from over these past years. In a strange way, I am now grateful for it.
It took a long time before I was ready to write about what had happened. Besides which, when I was first diagnosed I didn’t play at all for a number of years. Then by chance I saw a post on Facebook:
Recorder player wanted for last minute music video shoot tomorrow! Music very easy.
I hadn’t lifted a recorder for a good many years, although it was the first instrument I learnt aged 4, but something in me wanted to live dangerously and go and do it anyway. So I did, and ended up playing with The Memory Band for quite a number of years. I was feeling my way at first, but gradually I learnt how to improvise without setting off the tangled short circuits in my head. Not reading music seemed to help, so I stopped doing that completely and concentrated on what felt natural and easy. In other words, the complete opposite of my many years of classical training.
After I started playing again, it became possible for me to contemplate writing about what had happened. Before that, it had been far too painful to even think about. A mere snippet of Mozart’s clarinet concerto heard in a public toilet could send me into floods of tears and sometimes even interrupt a perfectly good poo.
The idea for Innervate was nestled in the back of my mind, half formed, and when I heard about the Fusion Fund, it sounded like the perfect opportunity to make it happen. I’d talked the ideas through with David, Dan and Catalina, who were excited about the prospect. We put the application in, sat back and hoped.
My first reaction when I heard that the Fund had given us the money to actually do it was utter delight followed swiftly by terror. How on earth were we going to create a piece about music triggered epilepsy? It seemed completely unachievable.
I wanted the music to reflect the unpredictability and lack of control I can experience while playing. Past that, I had very little idea how it was going to sound. While pondering and somewhat procrastinating over these questions, I had been touring with the electronic artist James Holden and had become increasingly intrigued by his setup. The first time I went to his studio I confess to being completely baffled by exactly how he managed to persuade such an impressive array of wires, plugs and knobs to produce such an incredibly organic sound. Obviously I nodded and smiled but it wasn’t until his fourth or fifth explanation that I started to grasp what was actually going on. Very occasionally when we were first performing, his delicate self-designed software would crash and he’d have to completely reboot. I often felt that it was quite similar to my brain, which worked well for 99% of the time while playing but could go into overload at any moment.
I realised that the computer was the perfect tool to simulate the random glitching and twitching I experienced. I just had to work out a way to use it.
After downloading the software, Max for Live, I already knew that there was no hope whatsoever of me creating anything nearly as accomplished as he had with his years of programming experience, and as someone allergic to click tracks (the artificial beat used to keep in time with the computer) I wasn’t sure how I was going to get it to work. I wondered what would happen if I could get the computer to listen to what I was playing and respond to it with pre designed patterns.
I had been trying for weeks to write a patch to do this. Finally I admitted defeat and asked James to help while on the train to Italy and he dashed it off in around 5 minutes flat.
Building on this with a combination of my own half baked code and a variety of wavetable synths and effects buses, I came up with the setup we used to create Innervate. Adam (drums), David (bass) and I had many rehearsals, each one sounding more out of control than the last, before we managed to get a good balance between spontaneity and coherence.
Meanwhile, I had seen another intriguing post on social media- this time Leafcutter John was looking for someone to advise him on building an electronic woodwind synth. After chatting on the phone, I went up to his studio and tried out the miraculous machine. Looking at how he had made it, I thought it might be possible for me to create something similar on my tenor recorder and John very kindly agreed to help.
A couple of months later in Sheffield, having come up with a rough design and with careful instruction and help from John, I sat down and soldered a Teensy circuit board and some pieces of copper tape onto a freshly purchased plastic Aulos tenor recorder. I was worried about trying anything with electricity on a wooden recorder, it seemed like asking for trouble, and I felt we had enough glitching on stage already without the potential of starting a fire too. We successfully created the beast which I christened the robo recorder with seven MIDI outputs. Together with my Softstep pedal I now had enough controls to be able to operate the computer at the same time as playing.
I had already written the story, which almost wrote itself. It’s much easier to write about such a tale in the context of a fantastical dystopian world- it seems to make much more sense there than it does here. All that was left was to write the music.
At the time I had recently gone through some personal stress due to a horrible breakup and was struggling to write anything at all. I even went to Australia for Christmas to stay with one of my best friends as a tonic and instead of chilling on the beach sat in a small room staring at the computer through a thick grey fog desperately trying to come up with some good ideas.
In the end I managed to write just one song about a close friend, and decided to base all of the music for Innervate around this, although the song itself doesn’t form part of the installation. I wanted to keep the harmonic structure very simple and it ended up that all of the synth patterns are triggered by the computer listening for just two notes, D and A.
Once the basic ideas behind the music had been finalised, I sat down with Dan (visuals) and Catalina (graphic design) to brainstorm ideas. Dan’s abstract and ever changing kaleidoscopic patterns together with Catalina’s brilliant tropical designs seemed perfect to communicate the mind blowing nature of the experience of reflex epilepsy. Together we chose some key parts of the narrative and words which were to be included in the final visual, with Catalina customising graphics and fonts for this purpose.
I used video synthesis techniques, rather than any lens based imagery because I wanted to imagine how the brain might generate images and colours without external stimulus, making a closed loop of generative imagery within an environment. Amongst those smooth fields of colour I wanted to add in moments of hyperactivity, or glitches where the field breaks up and manifests itself in new forms to make a parallel to epilepsy, where people find their brain patterns glitch in a way that makes it impossible to process the outside worldThe colour palette and texture was inspired by the lyrical and narrative content of the music and story, to this end I wanted to include some text in the climax of the piece. However this text is distorted and manipulated so that it becomes a mark or a visual rhythm rather than being a piece of language that should be understood in its pure form
Finally, we went into the studio….and you can see what we came up with! You will be reassured to hear that there were only two very minor seizures incurred during the course of recording this music, and the take we have used for the installation was created completely live and unedited. The long suffering Adie Hardy deployed pretty much all his available tracks while engineering the sessions before sending the music to be mixed by the amazing David McEwan.
You can watch some footage of us in the studio here:
Thanks to the Fusion Fund and Help Musicians UK I’ve had the opportunity to work with people who are the very best at what they do and I am enormously grateful for that.
I hope that you find something in Innervate to inspire you to learn to love your limits, and instead of feeling confined by them, to use them to climb to greater heights.