Steve Beresford

Steve Beresford

Steve Beresford: ‘Pianos, Toys, Music and Noise: Conversations with Steve Beresford’, by Andy Hamilton published in 2021 by Bloomsbury publishing.

Georgina Brett – So finally a year or so after the rather expensive hardback first edition, the paperback is now available at a more realistic price.

Steve Beresford – Bloomsbury are an academic publisher so they do books that are quite expensive. Andy Hamilton has another book out and that was around the same price, hardback. I don’t think of the book about me as being an academic book but having read it again I realise there’s lots of information in it.

GB – I agree for sure. So, I decided to have a look at the index to find what subjects were most mentioned.

SB – Good idea, I love indexes!

GB – It made me navigate the book in an improvisational way, quickly taking in that each chapter had a comprehensive introduction, and then the conversation. This gives the reader a great deal of context so you [SB] don’t need to explain too much in the conversation. It makes the discourse feel really spontaneous.

SB – He’s done a great job.

GB – Indeed, the extent of the index, the appendix, the photographs, the attributions, all the different ways of making a book very logical in terms of its title structures, the use of italics when he’s interviewing people about their work with you. Within a few minutes of investigation, you can see how comprehensive it is, and how much original material is gathered here. There’s so much ‘organisation’ in it. 

SB – Well, yes, because until David Toop’s books there was nothing about freely improvised music that was very reliable. They were either very badly written or just incorrect with important actors in history left out. This doesn’t claim to be in any way a total history.

GB – That’s not ‘Oceans of Sound’?

SB – It’s called ‘Into The Maelstrom, Volume 1’. It’s an extremely dense book, I could only read 3 pages at a time. It’s like eating very expensive chocolates, “That’s enough for now, I’ll leave it for another day”. Not only did he do phenomenal research, but he also had a way of contextualizing it, which was very new and extraordinary.

GB – Do you need to have quite a good understanding of the history of improvisation before reading it?

SB – No, but there is a lot of information in it, so subtle and complex that it will take you a while, but it’s a brilliant book. I am glad that mine is so different. It’s very casual like, “Oh, I forgot to mention him! Yeah, he was good.” kind of thing.

GB – Yeah, lovely, that’s good then, there are 2 tomes of different flavours in the market.

SB – Because with Alterations, (which is the group David and I were in together), the contrast between our approaches was ridiculous, but that’s what made Alterations. All 4 musicians had different ways of playing. That’s why the band was so good. 

Steve Beresford
Photo by: Blanca Regina

GB – Did you play regularly?

SB – Alterations was always a band that came together now and then. And we’d all go off and do what we did, it wasn’t like the Rolling Stones! We were together for 9 years then a huge gap and then Blanca [Regina] said “You guys should play again.” So, we did our first gig with Max Eastley, (the instrument maker), because he’s a friend of all of ours. It was the first ‘come back’, and we thought “Ok yeah, this works!”. It was almost like if you imagine – when you’re a little kid you spoke a language and then your parents moved, and you never spoke it again until you were 23 or something. It felt like that. “Oh, shit I used to do this! Oh my god I am fitting in with this way of working.” We still do things that make us go – “What the hell was that!”. For instance, we played on the first night of my 70th birthday [at Cafe Oto]. Everybody stopped, but we knew that wasn’t the end and I mean 20 years ago that was a huge cliché, particularly in London there was ‘the new London silence’ and then there was Echtzeit music in Berlin and something in Japan, but everybody was doing pieces with very small sounds and then having huge silences. So, we had a huge silence, we had never done that before.

GB – How long did it last?

SB – That’s a very good question. There is a recording so I could find out. It felt like half an hour, but it was probably 3 minutes or something.

GB – It’s bizarre how time contracts and expands depending on what you’re doing. 

Tell me about your work with The Flying Lizards.

SB – Ok well, The Flying Lizards is David Cunningham, who I still see sometimes. He works with Rie Nakajima quite a lot and he lives near Spitalfields Church, a kind of nice place to live. He still does stuff with lots of people. Anyway, his then-girlfriend, thought he’d like to do a Cageian version of a pop song. So, they chose Summertime Blues by Eddie Cochran. He put a backing track down with sort of creaky kind of robots falling apart and then realised his girlfriend couldn’t sing at all. She had no sense of rhythm…haha. 

GB – I remember you telling me this before, that’s why she’s speaking the lyrics. The way that she does it, in a deadpan kind of way, actually works incredibly well.

SB – She made the record, it did quite well. It got into the charts! A surprise to everybody. Then they made Money, the old Motown tune. People think it’s a Beatles song but it’s a Barrett Strong song. It’s very early Motown, a fantastic record, but before they had the Motown sound, so it sounds like a rough old R’n’B record. Brilliant record and I think the do-over is also extremely good, very funny. The piano player on that was called Julian Marshall and for some reason, he didn’t want to do tours or be on Top of the Pops and stuff, so I was asked to pretend that I was playing the piano. We were just miming, and then we put together a band with David Toop. I was in a sort of soul band at that time, based around Stoke Newington, and David Cunningham said, “Why don’t I use the rhythm section to that?” It just had me, drummer Dave Solomon from the band, and the 2 Davids. So, we did the subsequent records, none of which were hits, but we mimed on TOTP for the records that were more popular obviously.

GB – And your work with The Slits?

SB – Viv Albertine started coming to ‘Company’ gigs at the ICA, she was very interested in improvised music.

GB – That was Derek Bailey’s thing.

SB – That was Derek Bailey’s thing, and she was one of the few women in the audience, usually with her boyfriend, Gareth Sager, so he was playing with The Slits but he was also in The Pop Group, so for some reason they didn’t want Gareth anymore I don’t know why, and they got me. The first time I met them all was in Munich, of all places, I was playing with The Flying Lizards. I think there’s a video from Munich, The Slits were on the same bill so I met all of them.

GB – And the drummer was Palmolive?

SB – No, Palmolive had left by then. She’d left quite early, and then they got Budgie. Budgie did the first album, then left. He’s the drummer from Siouxsie and the Banshees. A really good drummer. The first album has Budgie, then they got Bruce Smith who’s not so rocky as Budgie. He had a lighter touch, in those days. I saw him later on, he joined Public Image and he’s kicking the shit out of the drums, but when we were playing with The Slits one of the things, I liked was the lightness of the drums, the diversity when he was playing. I thought he was a good choice.

GB – So what were you playing, mainly piano?

SB – I played electric piano, they had a Farfisa VIP 500 two-manual, such a great organ and euphonium, maybe flugelhorn and second guitar sometimes.

GB – So how long were you in The Slits?

SB – I think it was about 18 months, not all that long.

GB – Was that the end of the band?

SB – Yes, and I took the organ, so it’s in Syd Kemp’s studio on long term loan. It’s too fucking heavy to do gigs with!

GB – That’s a big factor I think, I found myself with backache, always carrying things around. 

Moving on to talk about your work with Christian Marclay. You’ve collaborated with him several times in the past, but you finished a project recently where he sent images for you to improvise.

SB – He would walk from the Barbican where he lives to his studio, which is in Somerset House. He’d take photographs on the way, and he sent me one and he said, “Can you think of something inspired by this picture?” There was a bunch of things that looked like note-heads on a gate. I sent him something, so he started doing this. He sent me maybe 23 or something and I’d just do it on my phone. I’d usually record an improvisation, but the early ones were notated. Very simple notation like Howard Skempton, I sort of grew up on that tiny book of Howard Skempton’s piano music. I knew it quite well. I like particularly his early music, which is more like Feldman. He loves Feldman. So, I recorded and sent them on my phone. 

Christian was talking to a publisher in The States, and they said, “Yeah, we could do a book of the music on one side and your picture on the other.” There’s a book by Erik Satie called ‘Sports et Divertissements’, which is a set of 20 nice illustrations of people. This is 1912 or something. People playing tennis or going for a walk. Kind of ordinary things, with Satie, in his own hand. Very short piano pieces which go with the illustration. There’s one called ping-pong or something, where the left-hand jumps over the other. Some of them use sliding down shapes suggesting movement. They are beautiful, some of my favourite Satie pieces, very easy to listen to. There’s a little tango which is incredibly simple, really lovely. 

So I said, “We could use that as a model.” Most of Christian’s stuff was taking the photographs and writing a paragraph of explanation. Mine was transcribing my improvisations, Damn! That’s hard, if I had known I was going to be transcribing them I would have played simpler music!

GB – So you transcribed them all and you’ve brought the finished publication for me to see which is wonderful. A very tactile hardback book with a simple cardboard cover. 

SB – There is very little unconventional notation. It doesn’t have barlines that are stolen from Satie, but it has treble and bass. They are not technically difficult. You need a toy piano as well occasionally and I think there’s one with a little sample from a Casio SK1.

GB – So it was very much a covid lockdown activity?

SB – Very much. It’s called ‘Call and Response’ and is due for release on May 17th this year.

GB – Moving on to ask you about the two-concert series you co-host with Blanca Regina ‘Strange Umbrellas’ and ‘Unpredictable’.

SB – We haven’t done a Strange Umbrellas for a while, I enjoy them, Katy Carr came along and sang songs in Polish with her ukulele, and we had a Bavarian musical comedy act who was funny, and if we go south of the river, for instance, we make sure we have people from south of the river so it has a sort of local feel to it. We haven’t done anything like that for a while.  We do have two things under Unpredictable coming up. March 16th is the launch gig of the paperback, there will be various acts, Pat Thomas and Angharad Davies will play, Andy will be there doing a half-hour Q & A about the book and I’m very hopeful there will be copies of the book available. Then the next day we have a gig at the Vortex, they do hour-long sets. Alex Ward and Blanca will play, so that’s the 17th of March. 

GB – Definitely hope to come along. 

I tell you what I’d like to ask you about because I was just remembering that the first time, I heard Ivor Cutler was on a cassette mixtape that a friend of mine gave me when I was about 20 something. was such a wonderful discovery and then finding out that you played on a record with Ivor Cutler poems, he is just reciting, isn’t he? He doesn’t play an instrument.

SB – No, no, ok. David Toop and I both knew about Ivor Cutler, from various things. We knew he’d been on Magical Mystery Tour and John Peel had him on a lot. Ivor was Scottish/Jewish from Glasgow and wrote very short poems and very short songs that he usually performed on a ‘so called’ portable harmonium, like the ones that missionaries took to India. You try transporting it anywhere, it’s so heavy. He was incredibly funny. Geoff Travis came to us, (the boss of Rough Trade Records), and because we’d been recording different things for different labels he said, “Would you like to produce something for Rough Trade?” and we said, “Yeah, ok.”, “No guitar bands please.” So, he said, “How about Ivor Cutler?”. “Oh yeah of course!”.

GB – Goes without saying, doesn’t it!

SB – So the album was made in Dennis Bovell’s studio, which was just south of the river near London Bridge. He’d asked Linda Hirst to sing on the album, Ivor was on harmonium. I chose Dennis Bovell’s studio because I had worked there with The Slits and it’s a big room. So, David and I tried quite hard to convince Ivor that you are allowed to record songs that last more than 45 seconds. It was very difficult, he said, “That’s where the poem stops.” I’d said, “Yeah but that bit in the middle you could call it a chorus Ivor and do it again.”. Ivor said “No.”.

SB – And we killed ourselves laughing, even he because he’s famous for being very funny and always looking really stern. He corpsed, as they say. 

We always use Dave Hunt from White City; I knew him from Berry Street Studio. I did lots of reggae sessions there mainly with Adrian Sherwood and Prince Far-I. Dave Hunt was one of the engineers, then he had an 8-track in the basement under his house in Stokey, not far from where I lived. I introduced him to Diamanda Galás, she did a fantastic track there for her first record, “The Litanies of Satan.”

GB – Great title.

SB – Yes, great title and then he moved to White City, and he sort of became the guy to go to for recording unusual music. I suppose you could say Ivor Cutler was unusual! So, the lineup was Dave and Linda and then David Toop and I tried to do a tiny overdub of maybe 3 single notes on the piano, and he had this song called Jungle Tip no. 1. David Toop had some wonderful jungle recordings, so we used some of those and he occasionally played maybe a note or 2 on the flute, maybe we added a tiny drum to something.

GB – So basically there was a lot more appreciation and laughter than playing?

SB – No, no there was a lot of music! We only laughed very much once and then Dennis Bovell showed up at one point and had shades on, he was known as ‘Blackbeard’ but now it’s kind of ‘Silverbeard’! It was a long time ago.

GB – What’s the name of the Ivor Cutler album?

SB – It was called ‘Privilege’, apparently it was his worst-selling album ever and then it came out on CD. It’s a bit like The Shaggs, how different generations discover the Shaggs and go “Oh my God”. I did this when I was with The Slits, I didn’t know about The Shaggs and then someone played it to me and I said to the Slits, “Do you know this band?”, they said, “Yes of course we do!”, “Why didn’t you tell me”. So, it’s a bit like that. People somehow hear Ivor or see Ivor.

GB – I’m interested in your involvement with the London Improvisers Orchestra. Were you a founder member? 

SB – It came out of the project by Butch Morris, who was an African American trumpet player, arranger, cornet player. He wrote arrangements for David Murray for instance, but he had a thing called ‘Conduction’, he didn’t say he invented it. He always said that Charles Moffat, the drummer in Ornette Coleman’s band, had the idea, he just built on it, and he had various ensembles around the world always called ‘Skyscraper’ and somehow, we got together this tour, we put together a 15-piece band. The first time I met Orphy Robinson, I rang him up and said we’re looking for a vibe player. He was hugely enthusiastic; this is a long time ago now. So, we did this Contemporary Music Network tour with Butch Morris doing improvised conducting, this was 23/24 years ago in 1997. It was a very diverse band in terms of attitude. What we liked was playing in a large ensemble, it was very unusual for improvisers. He conducted the whole night. And a year after we finished that we (myself, Evan Parker and Ian Smith) decided it was really good and everybody really enjoyed it, so we started London Improvisers Orchestra. Straight away we had a slightly different angle on it. So, we decided that anybody could conduct and there would be pieces without conducting, just free improvisation pieces that would be central to it

GB – It works well having different conductors, each one has some kind of idea of the shape of the piece they are creating. It’s really exciting to have the variety.

SB – Yes, I’m glad you like it.

GB – I do! And I know there’s so very much more to talk with you about! Your musical associations/recorded music/gigs/concert series/teaching. Quite a formidable feat for anyone’s lifetime!

And just to recap… 

The paperback edition of ‘Piano, Toys, Music and Noise – conversations with Steve Beresford’’ by Andy Hamilton is now out on Bloomsbury as of February 2022. 

The Christian Marclay/Steve Beresford ‘Call and Response’ book is due to be released on May 17th. 

Unpredictable and Strange Umbrellas are holding regular concerts.

London Improvisers Orchestra meet once a month.

And Steve can be found guesting at many other concerts in and around London, and often further afield. 

Thank you, Steve, for your time, you are such an inspiration! I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you today. 

Words by Georgina Brett 

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