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April 18, 2010 / The Frogweb

Erik Satie: Autour des Nocturnes

Erik Satie - detail from a self-portrait

To celebrate the Erik Satie Day held at Gresham College on 16th April, 2010, I recorded a Satie CD in collaboration with one of the world’s foremost Satie experts, Professor Robert Orledge, and fellow Satie enthusiast and composer Jamie Crofts. The CD consists of 35 recordings – a constellation of piano pieces orbiting around Satie’s celebrated Nocturnes, which are, to many minds, amongst his most beautiful compositions. 25 of these tracks are world premiere recordings.

Satie wrote and published 5 Nocturnes towards the end of his compositional career, each a crystallization of his precise, concise musical aesthetic, full of tenderness and classical restraint. A 6e Nocturne was found in Satie’s notebooks by Professor Orledge, needing only a couple of bars of bassline to make a complete piece. It was published in 1994. But Satie left us approximately 120 notebooks filled with musical ideas and drafts of pieces, and these included many ideas for nocturnes which he decided to leave incomplete for various reasons. One of the most interesting of these sketches are the 12 bars for a 7e Nocturne, for which Satie constructed a number of one-bar musical cells which he then assembled to create a very pleasing opening.

The CD contains three new ‘completions’ or continuations of Satie’s work, so that the 7e Nocturne now exists in three versions by the composer/performers involved in the project. A further five Satie sketches for nocturnes have been continued to full length pieces by myself, James Nye, and a sixth by Robert Orledge. Additionally, the CD contains other rare Satie material, including the first recording of a new edition of the 4 Ogives by their editor, Jamie Crofts.

[James Nye]

The CD  is available from www.wight-trash.com, and many of the scores can be obtained from www.soundkiosk.com. Transcripts and videos of the lectures from the Erik Satie Day are available from the Gresham College website: Erik Satie: His music, the vision, his legacy

Presented below are the full notes from the booklet for the CD, which is available in a first, hand-numbered limited edition of 200.

ERIK SATIE: AUTOUR DES NOCTURNES

01 Nocturne 1 – Erik Satie [JC] [3:16]

02 Nocturne 2 – Erik Satie [JC] [2:12]

03 Nocturne 3 – Erik Satie [JC] [3:15]

04 Nocturne 4 – Erik Satie [RO] [1:55]

05 Nocturne 5 – Erik Satie [RO] [1:49]

06 Nocturne 6 – Erik Satie, ed. Orledge [RO] [1:42]

07 Nocturne 7 – Erik Satie/Robert Orledge [RO] * [2:21]

08 Nocturne 7 – Erik Satie/James Nye [JN] * [4:38]

09 Nocturne 7 – Erik Satie/Jamie Crofts [JC] * [2:50]

10 San Bernardo – Erik Satie, ed. Orledge [RO] [1:11]

11 Nocturne (2002) – Robert Orledge [RO] * [2:01]

12 Nocturne d’un sorcier de sous-sol

– Erik Satie/Robert Orledge [RO] *[2:07]

13 Nocturne: ‘Sur l'<<Attachon>>’

– Erik Satie/James Nye [JN] * # [3:26]

14 Nocturne: Rêverie broussailleuse

– Erik Satie/James Nye [JN] * [4:20]

15 Nocturne: un de ces gens est un cheval

– Erik Satie/James Nye [JN] * [3:36]

16 Nocturne: Songe canin – Doggy Dream

– Erik Satie/James Nye [JN] * [4:07]

17 Nocturne: Chant du lapin à la lune

– Erik Satie/James Nye [JN] * # [5:09]

18 Nocturne: Ce que dit le hibou

– James Nye [JN] * [2:34]

19 La Mer est pleine d’eau: c’est à n’y rien comprendre

– Erik Satie/Robert Orledge [RO] * [2:13]

20 Nocturne 1 – Jamie Crofts [JC] * [1:10]

21 Nocturne 2 – Jamie Crofts [JC] * [1:08]

22 Nocturne 3 – Jamie Crofts [JC] * [1:07]

23 Nocturne 4 – Jamie Crofts [JC] * [1:09]

24 Ogive I – Erik Satie, ed. Crofts [JC] * [2:03]

25 Ogive II – Erik Satie, ed. Crofts [JC] * [2:20]

26 Ogive III – Erik Satie, ed. Crofts [JC] * [1:57]

27 Ogive IV – Erik Satie, ed. Crofts [JC] * [2:25]

28 Nocturne 1 (free version) – Jamie Crofts [JN] * [2:09]

29 Nocturne 2 (free version) – Jamie Crofts [JN] * [1:38]

30 Nocturne 3 (free version) – Jamie Crofts [JN] * [1:45]

31 Nocturne 4 (free version) – Jamie Crofts [JN] * [1:45]

32-34 L’Enfance de Ko-Quo

– Recommandations maternelles – Erik Satie, ed. Volta [RO]

I Ne bois pas ton chocolat avec tes doigts [0:50]

II Ne souffle pas dans tes oreilles [0:36]

III Ne mets pas ta tête sous ton bras [0:40]

35 Nocturne: Night Thoughts – James Nye [JN] * [2:07]

Total duration: [79:00]

Recordings Copyright © Robert Orledge 2010:

[Tracks 4-7, 10-12, 19, 32-34]

Recordings Copyright © James Nye 2010:

[Tracks 8, 13-18, 35]

Recordings Copyright © Jamie Crofts 2010:

[Tracks 1-3, 9, 20-31]

*First recording.

Performers: Robert Orledge [RO], James Nye [JN], Jamie Crofts [JC].

All items performed on the upright Steinway of Professor Orledge and recorded in Brighton (23rd -24th January 2010), except # recorded in East Cowes and performed on James Nye’s Eavestaff Minipiano (17th February 2010). Recorded and edited by James Nye.

Recording note: These are live recordings made in a domestic environment. Allow for some extraneous sounds and living-room ambience. Thanks to Patricia Howard, Stephen Nye, Jackson Taylor, John Cattle, and Tom Vernon. A Zinc Stoat Digital Recording.

Distributed by www.wight-trash.com

A first limited edition of 200.

Erik Satie – Six Nocturnes – and a trio of Sevens

Satie’s sketchbooks of August-December 1919 show that he planned to write at least seven nocturnes in 1919. He made many false starts, a selection of which have been completed by the performer-composers involved in this CD [tracks 12-17], including their three versions of the only real candidate for the 7e Nocturne all of which are here recorded for the first time [tracks 7-9]. For the 7e Nocturne, Satie wrote a series of one-bar cells in BNF MS 9609(4), which he grouped according to their melodic characteristics. With his unique sense of logic he then assembled twelve of these into the first section of a nocturne before abandoning the idea. Even more curiously, he virtually completed what must be the 6e Nocturne [track 6] in BNF MS 9609(2) – it was advertised by his publisher Eugène-Louis Demets in 1920 – apart from the left-hand part in bars 10-11. But this piece shows us that the nocturnes were to be focussed on D major (as in Nos. 1-3) with No.4 flirting with F# minor, and No.5 (the last one Satie chose to publish during his lifetime) in F major.

In the case of the 1e Nocturne, the listener might be surprised to learn that it was originally titled Faux Nocturne and was accompanied by a little story about ‘an old will-o’-the-wisp’ to amuse the pianist. But Satie realised he was merely continuing a tradition begun with the Gnossiennes in 1890 and which reached its zenith in the Sports et divertissements of 1914, so the story and title disappeared in publication while the music remained unchanged. After all, the nocturnes, like Socrate (1918), were to be a new beginning for him after his friend Debussy’s death. Satie was unusually pleased with his first three nocturnes, and he told his friend Valentine Hugo on 24 August 1919 that ‘I am coming to the end of my Third Nocturne. I am dedicating it to you. The three of them are not at all bad. The first serves as a prelude; the second is shorter and very tender – very nocturnal; the third, yours, is a more rapid and dramatic nocturne, a little longer than the first. Between the three of them they form a whole with which I am very pleased – though the first is the least good.’

The 4e Nocturne, dedicated to the Comtesse Étienne de Beaumont, is a strong contender for Satie’s most beautiful piece, with a sinister undercurrent in its imposing middle section, while the 5e Nocturne, dedicated to Jean Cocteau’s mother, is more fluid, sparse and enigmatic. As in his Rose+Croix years in the 1890s, Satie devised many compositional schemes for his explorations into the nocturne – some harmonic, some intervallic, one even ‘sur-atonal’ – but as always, he never stuck rigidly to any of them. [RO]

Erik Satie – San Bernardo

This title appears on the last page of a fair copy, dated 2 August 1913, of a piano piece also in the collection of Robert Orledge. The earlier part can be found in BNF MS 9619, which shows it to be a first version of the piece which Satie rewrote later that month as Españaña, the third of the Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois [Sketches and Teases of a Big Wooden  Fellow – again a reference to the ‘wooden composer’ – wooden heads being popular 19th century forerunners of waxworks in France]. Both versions are light-hearted waltzes with echoes of Chabrier’s España (1884), a piece Satie greatly admired and was certainly not parodying here. The San Bernardo of the title sounds Spanish, but is probably meant to be Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) who founded many Cistercian monasteries and established the Knights Templar. Near the end of the manuscript, Satie writes ‘Rue de Madrid’, referring to the Paris Conservatoire where he spent seven unhappy years in his youth training to be a concert pianist. Here Satie plays around with the clefs and pitches of the music, probably remembering the dictation and solfège exercises that were part of his daily routine there. [Track 10] [RO]

Robert Orledge – Two Nocturnes

Nocturne (2002) [track 11], a tribute to the nocturne style of Satie, was composed while on holiday at Cruz de Tejeda in Gran Canaria in July 2002, and recently revised for the present recording. It is an attempt to reconcile the F major of Satie’s 5e Nocturne with the prevailing D major of Nocturnes 1-3 and 6. Its central section also refers to the running parallel fourths of the 2e Nocturne, and it ends with an extreme example of the extended cadence that resolves at the last possible moment, which Satie especially favoured in the 1920s.
[Track 12] Nocturne d’un sorcier de sous-sol [Nocturne of a sorcerer from the basement] was composed in late 2009 and uses a mysterious, chromatic start by Satie from BNF MS 9609(4). In this case it attempts to reconcile a sort of D major with an ending in F# minor, the key of Satie’s 4e Nocturne. Satie’s numerous drawings show that he was fascinated by sorcerers and their practices: the ‘sous-sol’ of the title is both meant to alliterate with ‘sorcier’ and to refer to the notepaper Satie had printed in 1912 (but never used) headed ‘Disunion of musicians from the floor below (of low origins)’ [Désunion des musiciens de bas-étage]. The sorcerer here seems to have a few malevolent incantations up his sleeve, but everything resolves itself in the end. [RO]

James Nye – Eight Nocturnes

Night Thoughts, the last of these nocturnes [track 35], was the first composed and is the only one with little or no connection with Satie. Written in 2006, it is dedicated to the memory of my late friend the poet David Gascoyne (1916-2001) who spent much of his early adult life with the Surrealist movement in Paris, and who loved the music of Satie. Owing more to Ravel, Debussy, Messiaen and Stravinsky than it does to Satie, this nocturne has tolling bells throughout consisting of repeated Ds and Gs. The title is borrowed from David’s epic radiophonic poem Night Thoughts which was broadcast in 1955 with music by Humphrey Searle, the only English pupil of Anton Webern.

Whereas Robert Orledge and Jamie Crofts have gamely wrestled with Satie’s prescribed melodic cells in their versions [tracks 7 and 9], for my completion of Satie’s 7e Nocturne [track 8] I decided instead to attempt to write in the middle section something sympathetic and complementary to the material, and then forge unity in the third section, a modified repetition of the opening. This is a pattern I have tended to follow in my other continuations of Satie’s starts. Rather than attempt to directly imitate Satie’s style, I have opted to write in a way that acknowledges my love of Satie, and my debt to his often mysterious and beguiling music.

Sur l'<<Attachon>> [track 13] begins with four bars by Satie and is the only one of Satie’s rejected nocturne openings to which he gave a title. At present, its exact meaning remains obscure, unless it refers to one of the many drawings he made on little cards of flying-machines, ships and trains and stored carefully in cigar boxes. Of the four thousand or so found after his death, only about 150 survive. Examples include: “L’Invisible” – Large transaerial vehicle by Dr Paillon, Sorcerer; “L’Étoile” – Large Five Masted Ship, Polar Excursions; “Le Rapide”, Brass Airship. [Illustrations can be found in A Mammal’s Notebook (Atlas Press 1996), and Écrits (1977, 1981), both edited by Ornella Volta, founder of the Fondation Satie.] This title, and the rejected ‘Faux Nocturne’ title and text for the 1e Nocturne, give some justification for the titles I have given this collection of Satie-inspired nocturnes.

Like the previous nocturne, Rêverie broussailleuse [Brambly reverie – track 14] begins with four bars by Satie, whereas un de ces gens est un cheval [one of those people is a horse – track 15] has only two. Songe canin – Doggy Dream [track 16], which is dedicated to my Bedlington terrier Thelonious, also begins with two bars by Satie, this time with a distinctly Debussyan flavour. Satie enjoyed the companionship of strays, and made much of dogs in his writings. As well as several flabby preludes for dogs, Satie wrote, in Le Réveil de la mariée (from Sports et divertissements), of a dog dancing with its fiancée, and in one of his Peccadilles importunes (Naughty Pranks) Satie recalls a dog he had who upset him by secretly smoking his cigars and getting tummy-ache.

Chant du lapin à la lune [The Rabbit’s Song to the Moon – track 17] again has two bars by Satie – this time unusual in that they are in common time – which were the second of three rejected starts for the 5e Nocturne. In continuing Satie’s opening, I have played with the harmonic and metrical sense, and also extended the form to include a final restatement of the the opening with its own silhouette embroidered in high notes. The title perhaps came from a memory of Satie’s text for La Chasse (again from his Sports et divertissements): ‘Can you hear the rabbit singing? What a voice! The owl is suckling its young. The nightingale is in its burrow. The boar is getting married. And I am shooting walnuts with my gun.’

Perhaps the nursing owl above is the one in Ce que dit le hibou [What the Owl Said – track 18], although the title was borrowed from one of many projected pieces Satie jotted down in 1914 (in this case on the cover of BNF 9588). The piece does not use a Satie start, but those with deft ears will hear some interpolations of Satie’s infamous Vexations of c.1893. This suggested itself when I realised that the opening that I had improvised used all twelve chromatic pitches in each hand. Listeners might like to refer to Professor Orledge’s analysis of Vexations which has been reproduced on Niclas Fogwall’s Satie site: www.af.lu.se/~fogwall/satie.html.  Throughout the rest of the piece I have continued using the chromatic scale as a pitch set ordered only by purely aesthetic, harmonic and melodic choices rather than the exigencies of an abstract, non-musical, mathematical system. The piece follows Satie’s basic nocturne design, in having a contrasting middle section sandwiched between the statement of a theme, and its modified repetition. [JN]


Erik Satie – La Mer est pleine d’eau: c’est à n’y rien comprendre

This little piece, The Sea is full of water: that is to understand nothing [1915, track 19], Satie began as an item for an orchestra consisting of two clarinets, cor anglais and a few strings. His famous remark after hearing the première of Debussy’s La Mer in October 1905 immediately springs to mind, as cited by Hélène Jourdan-Morhange in Ravel et nous. Referring to the first movement ‘From Dawn to Midday on the Sea’, Satie cried out: ‘Ah! My old friend! There is above all a little moment between 10.30 and 10.45 that I found amazing!’

His own aquatic evocation is of gently lapping wavelets, miles distant from Debussy’s often exuberant triptych, but I could not help thinking, as I completed the last 30 or so bars, that Satie might perhaps have put in one or two disguised thematic references to Debussy’s masterpiece somewhere. Perhaps a few listeners may spot them in the piano version, which is here recorded for the first time. [RO]

Jamie Crofts – Four Nocturnes

Composed in 2009, these four nocturnes can be seen as a series of alternative views of the same subject. Many of Satie’s sets of his pieces (usually grouped in threes) are said to do the same. The Four Nocturnes exist in two versions: the first set (performed here by Jamie Crofts – tracks 20-23) in which a series of two note chords follows a fixed rhythm throughout; the second [tracks 28-31] in which the pitches are the same, whereas the rhythm is fluid, following the pattern “relatively long/relatively short/relatively long.” This second version is performed by James Nye. Although the material is very sparse, the pianist can use the pedal to combine notes into larger chords to create a richer sound. This pedalling is free, so any performance will be unique. [JC]

Erik Satie – Ogives

The four Ogives were published privately by Satie in February 1889 and advertised in the journal of the famous cabaret Le Chat Noir as follows:

The indefatigable Erik Satie, the sphinx-man, the composer with the wooden head, announces to us the appearance of a new musical work which, up to now, he holds in the highest esteem. It is a suite of melodies conceived in the mystico-liturgical genre that the author idolises, with the suggestive title: the Ogives. We wish Erik Satie a comparable success to that formerly gained by his Third Gymnopédie, which is actually to be found underneath every piano.

The Ogives were put on sale in the music shop of Satie’s father, Alfred, at 66 boulevard Magenta, Paris 8e, and it is likely that their inspiration came from the ogival windows of the nearby church of St Léonard where Satie went to admire the Gothic architecture. Each Ogive consists of a plainchant style melody, a full harmonisation of this, which is repeated almost exactly at the end, separated by another quieter and more restrained version. As the manuscript of the Ogives has been lost, the present edition by Jamie Crofts was made from a very rare copy of the 1889 publication, with autograph corrections by Satie in red ink, in the collection of Robert Orledge. As such, it marks the first edition and recording of the Ogives as Satie intended them, performed here by their editor, Jamie Crofts [tracks 24-27]. [RO]

Erik Satie – L’Enfance de Ko-Quo (Recommendations maternelles)


Ko-Quo’s Childhood (Motherly Advice)
[tracks 32-34], dating from 27-28 September 1913, were the first set of three children’s pieces (Enfantines) from the prolific year of 1913. Firstly Ne bois pas ton chocolat avec tes doigts [Don’t drink your chocolate with your fingers] a slow, slightly Debussyan piece (the two composers being musically at their closest that summer); then Ne souffle pas dans tes oreilles [Don’t blow in your ears], a little march; and finally a slow waltz, Ne mets pas ta tête sous ton bras [Don’t put your head under your arm]. Satie claimed, with his habitual blend of serious comment and whimsical humour, that ‘These pieces were written with the aim of preparing children for the sound patterns of modern music. They have won me congratulations from the Shah of Persia and the King of Yvetot’. (Le Roi d’Yvetot, according to Ornella Volta’s notes, being the title of an 1813 song by Pierre-Jean Beranger, who was imprisoned many times for his satirical writings).

Three sets of Enfantines were published in Satie’s lifetime, and a further set posthumously (edited by Nigel Wilkins, and published by Eschig in 1972). However, Satie never published L’Enfance de Ko-Quo set, perhaps because he thought they were too sophisticated for children, and they were discovered and edited by Ornella Volta for Peters Edition in 1999.

Ornella considers that the ‘Ko-Quo’ of the title may be a childish pronunciation of  ‘Que quoi?’ (What’s that?), and the stories that each piece tell take the form of a conversation between mother and son. In the last piece she tells him that if he doesn’t behave himself, his ‘head might be blown off by a cannon-ball’, making him into ‘an old soldier with a wooden head.’ [RO]

The Artists

Eric Satie – known as Erik Satie – was born in Honfleur (Calvados) on 17th May 1866. He was a very poor student at the Conservatoire de Paris, and belatedly a pupil of Messieurs Albert Roussel & Vincent d’Indy. Satie came to notice in 1892 with some absolutely incoherent works: Sarabandes, Gymnopédies (orchestrated by Claude Debussy); Préludes du Fils des Étoiles, (orchestrated by Maurice Ravel), etc . . . He also wrote some fantasies of rare stupidity: Truly Flabby Preludes (for a dog), which Ricardo Viñes encored at  the Société Nationale; and then the Dessicated Embryos which Jane Mortier similarly encored at one of her concerts. Monsieur Erik Satie is justly taken for a pretentious cretin. His music makes not a jot of sense and provokes laughter and the shrugging of shoulders. [Adapted from a note by Satie, 8th May 1915]

Robert Orledge was born in Bath in 1948 and educated at Clare College, Cambridge where he gained his doctorate for his study of the composer Charles Koechlin in 1973. Between 1971 and 1991 he rose from Lecturer to Professor in the Music Department of the University of Liverpool, publishing books on Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy, Charles Koechlin, and two on Erik Satie, as well as numerous articles, editions and reviews. As a historical musicologist, Professor Orledge specialised in the way composers composed, which led to Satie the Composer (CUP, 1990, reprint 2009). Since taking early retirement in 2004, he has concentrated on completing and orchestrating Debussy’s unfinished works, including his opera The Fall of the House of Usher (1908-17), which was successfully premièred at the Bregenz Opera Festival in Austria in August 2006. It has since been performed in America, Portugal and Holland, as well as being broadcast throughout Europe. A DVD of the Bregenz première is available on Capriccio 93517, produced by Phyllida Lloyd and conducted by Lawrence Foster.

Professor Orledge has also discovered and edited various pieces from Satie’s sketchbooks in the Music Department of the Bibliothèque Naionale in Paris for Salabert and Eschig, including the 6e Nocturne in 1994, and Embarquement pour Cythère, begun for the violinist Helen Jourdan-Morhange in 1917, and published in 1996. Some of his other more recent discoveries and completions are included on this CD. For performances of his own works and completions published by the Ego Parade Press, Brighton, please contact robertorledge@gmail.com.

James Nye was born in Ipswich in 1966, but has lived for most of his life on the Isle of Wight. An award-winning writer and composer, he gained his B.Mus (Hons) from the University of Surrey with a dissertation on the music of iconic jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Sphere Monk, for which he was also the first recipient of the Peter Whittingham Award. He followed this by becoming a Master of Music in Analytical Musicology, specializing in analysis and composition with a survey of the music of Vic Hoyland.

He has a particular passion for the music of France and America, but, echoing Henry Cowell’s declaration “I want to live in the whole world of music”  he has explored and drawn inspiration and sustenance from many different musical genres and periods. Refusing to be pigeon-holed, he has written for, and performed with, groups as diverse as orchestras, saxophone quartets, rock groups and choirs. He is currently working on a new version of David Gascoyne’s radiophonic poem Night Thoughts, and completing an electro-acoustic piece for chain ferry, voice and trombone. For more information, please consult: https://thefrogweb.wordpress.com/

Jamie Crofts was born in Nottingham in 1961 and studied Creative Arts at Newcastle Polytechnic. He has been writing music since 1977, and has given concerts involving the work of Erik Satie since 1979. Jamie has written “furniture music” for numerous exhibitions, including a commission from the V&A Museum for their Cutting Edge exhibition (50 Years of British Fashion). He has written a series of portraits in music, including portraits of the artists Gilbert and George, and broadcaster and writer Paul Gambaccini (who said his portrait passed the “Old Grey Whistle Test”). Jamie Crofts is currently working on new editions of Liszt’s Recitations (melodramas). His music is in the English Experimental tradition and is part of the New Eclectic. For more information, please consult: www.soundkiosk.com

Publication details:

Satie: Nocturnes 1-3 (Rouart-Lerolle, 1919; Salabert; public domain)
Satie: Nocturnes 4-5 (Demets 1920; Eschig; public domain)
Satie: Nocturne 6 (edited by Orledge, Eschig, 1994)
Satie: Nocturne 7 – (continuations by Orledge, Nye and Crofts, SOUNDkiosk, 2010)
Satie: San Bernardo (edited Orledge, limited edition, Aerial Kites Press, 2002)
Orledge: Nocturne (2002) (Ego Parade, 2002  – SOUNDkiosk)
Satie/Orledge: Nocturne d’un sorcier (Ego Parade, 2010 – SOUNDkiosk)
Satie/Nye: Eight Nocturnes (Zinc Stoat, 2010 – in preparation)
Satie/Orledge: La Mer est pleine d’eau: c’est à n’y rien comprendre (Ego Parade, 2010 – SOUNDkiosk)
Crofts: Four Nocturnes (SOUNDkiosk, 2009)
Satie: 4 Ogives (edited Crofts, SOUNDkiosk, 2009)
Satie: L’Enfance de Ko-Quo (edited Volta, Peters Edition, 1999)

Satie's monogram, one of many he designed

POSTSCRIPT [12 September 2011]

I enjoyed making ensemble versions of Satie’s 7e Nocturne and my collaboration with him on the Nocturne – Chant du lapin á la lune and thought they worked pretty well. So I set to work to arrange ensemble versions of all of Satie’s published piano nocturnes, including the posthumous 6e Nocturne (edited by Robert Orledge for publication in 1999). Here they are:

 

December 11, 2009 / The Frogweb

KEN CAMPBELL – FURTIVE NUDIST

YOU’VE GOT TO GET HOLD OF THE THREAD OF MARCHING TIME
AND PANG YOURSELF TO THE INFINITUDE OF ABSOLUTE MIND

Ken Campbell (1941-2008) was an enthusiast of the writings of Charles Fort (after whom The Fortean Times, is named) and an extraordinarily intelligent, funny and perceptive commentator on the weirdness of human experience. He can be seen playing a policeman in the film Saving Grace, a barrister’s assistant in A Fish Called Wanda, and Mr Johnson, Alf Garnett’s neighbour, in Johnny Speight’s In Sickness and in Health. He also appeared as the irritating Roger in The Anniversary, a classic episode from John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers (BBC), and presented the Channel 4 science shows Reality On the Rocks, Brainspotting, and Six Experiments that Changed the World. Michael Coveney’s official biography of Ken Campbell, The Great Caper, was published in April 2011 and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as Book of the Week. What follows is an interview Ken Campbell gave to James Nye way back in 1991. . .

‘What? Look, who is this?’

Suddenly I’m not too sure myself. The voice on the phone sounds alarmingly like the surly Devil who, on the telly, emerged from a lift a dozen times a day to share a Kit Kat with Quentin Crisp’s Angel. ‘I don’t get many adverts,’ Ken tells me later. ‘You see, any association between me and a product seems to have a negative effect – even if I’m the guy who uses ordinary washing powder.’ Thinks: Somehow in my imagination he is always a rather manic character with veins throbbing in his temples. ‘That’s all I can do,’ he says, resignedly.

‘I’d like to write an article on you,’ I tell him. ‘Okay,’ he says. ‘So long as it’s all lies.’

Ken’s show Recollections of a Furtive Nudist is a network of sychronicitous events and disturbing thoughts that leaves the mind in unassailable (but joyful) knots. It’s an amazing yarn; I found myself believing in it’s surreality, totally immersed in a temporary psychosis, such is his commitment to, and involvement in, the performance. It’s a powerful effect. So how did Nudist come about?

KC: It’s basically autobiographical, but I had no worries about putting things in the wrong order. It’s irrelevant whether it’s true or not. It’s just whether it adds up in the story sense. The way it goes whacking off in various directions is just for a sensational story – the dictates of what you set up seem to demand something of that order.

JN: I got an overwhelming sense of dèjá vu as it unfolded . . .

KC: That might be because it’s so constructed, like a piece of music. Patterns please an audience. When the symbols come back, you really get a reaction from the audience, even if it’s slightly obscure. The more I repeat it, the more positive reaction I get from it. But I have many more synchronicities than in life. I’ve left out all the months when things aren’t linking. I look back over fifty years, leave out everything that doesn’t link, and then things get interesting because the story’s got an over-balance of links.

….The voice had spoken to me, reminding me of the place to which Horselover Fat had gone. As we had been told, originally, long ago, to do; I kept my commission…….Philip K. Dick, VALIS

……..What have I been put here to do on this Earth so terrestrial and terrible? Have I tasks I must perform? Am I to accomplish a mission – a commission? Have I been sent to amuse myself? To distract myself a little? To forget the miseries I no longer remember?…………Erik Satie, Écrits, No 332

JN: How important is Philip K. Dick to the story?

KC: He used to be mentioned much more. It’s a very Dickish or Phildickian story. I got the phrase about commissions from Dick’s novel VALIS. He uses it there quite a lot. It was quite a long time until I got the ending right. I used to end it by reading a bit of Dick in my best voice. I thought that was the best I could do. A sort of consolation ending. But it seemed to me you ought to have some sort of great epiphany. I couldn’t think of anything until I came across the phrase THE INFINITUDE OF ABSOLUTE MIND, and I thought if I could end it with that, I’d probably done it.

….In Fort’s opinion everything in the Universe is linked with everything else – so a full stop is a lie – or a Hyphen coming straight at you….

JN: How did you become an actor?

KC: When I was 15 I went hitch-hiking in Germany to improve my German. My father didn’t think it was a very good idea because he still thought of the Germans as the enemy. I told him that my going over there would help contribute to a lasting peace. He said, “I doubt whether that’s true, actually.” Anyway, I went. And it seemed to me that I ought to entertain the drivers. They’d ask me what I did at school, and then what I was going to do when I left. I had no idea really, but I enjoyed doing school plays and was in the Renegades Theatre Company in Ilford, so I used to say “I shall become an actor.” And this really passed the time because all German drivers thought this was an absolutely RIDICULOUS idea. Miles would go by as they tried to dissuade me. I learnt lots of vocabulary and got really good at “being an actor”. Then I got bored with it and decided to be a writer. And when I was doing quite well with that, I decided to become a director too. I’d have my own theatre and a kind of Molière/Brecht business. And now I could get from Munich to Vienna and keep the driver well entertained with my plans for the future. It was a useful trip: I’d learnt German and got my whole life mapped out. I had to translate it though, because I’d planned it all in German.

..Saunton Sands – one is reminded of the Moon – I was stripping off – down to my underpants. And the Voice said: “Why’ve you got your underpants on?”…..

KC: So I went straight from school to RADA. We did voice, movement, fencing and mime. When I look back on it all, I was singularly fuck-awful at all of them. Voice was quite a thing there, because training was towards the classical stage. There were these extraordinary exercises, and once you’d developed this voice (does deep, resonant, Simon Callow-type RADA voice) you were encouraged to uses it at all times – on the bus, in the pub and so on. I’d made some good mates it seemed, but once they all started talking like that – well I found it all really freaky. I thought, I can’t do that! and I got called in to see the governor. He was quite understanding and said, “You’re a comedian really – we don’t do enough for comedians here.” And he gave me a couple of books on comedy and said I was doing well with my voice, and that I should just think of it as one from my repertoire of funny voices. “And you don’t have to do it on the bus.”

……I took down my underpants literally CIRCUMSPECTLY – making sure, round 360 degrees, that I was unobserved – And I took pains to MEMORIZE THAT BUSH………

KC: Then I joined the Colchester Rep and understudied Warren Mitchell before answering an ad which said: ACTORS WHO CAN SWIM WANTED FOR AQUATIC VERSION OF TREASURE ISLAND. You see, I was very conscious of what I’d promised the German drivers, and it gave me the chance to act Long John Silver, and direct and script the shallow-end acting bits. It was a brilliant two summers in Bournemouth. We did Gulliver’s Travels the second year. I shared a flat with two dwarfs. It was great.

…We got through a whole bottle of whiskey – EACH – Once I was in the corridor I knew it was medically advisable to CRAWL – And the Voice said: “Well you know what to do!” – So – I took my clothes off….

KC: After that I found it very difficult to get a job. People always asked what I’d done last. I’d say, “Well, I was in charge of the shallow-end acting bits at Bournemouth.” I didn’t know if they believed me or not, but they certainly felt I wasn’t the sort of person they’d want. After some months, Peter Cheeseman asked me to act in a one act play, write another, and direct another at the Victoria, Stoke-on-Trent. Then I wrote a play about the great escape artist Jack Shepherd, from 1723. He did some sensational escapes – hadn’t done any enormous crimes, but they used to hang you for anything in those days. Or chop your ears off. . . No, they’d just hang you. Anyway! I’d finished the script and I thought it was pathetic. I tried to convince the director not to do it, but ended up having to direct it myself. I went in with a fortnight to go, put the scripts on the piano, and said, “It’ll be a sad day when we have to open these.”

Lindsay Anderson had told me about Brecht. I hadn’t seen a production that had thrilled me – far from it – but it sounded wonderful, so I thought I’d do one! So I attempted to get them to improvise. But they couldn’t. They were hopeless at it. So what I had to do was to actually write what I thought they would have said if they’d been able to improvise! It was better than the original, anyway. It had quite a run. Lindsay Anderson said it wasn’t quite what he’d meant, but it was terrific – and he asked me to direct it at the Royal Court. But I couldn’t stand the leading man, and Lindsay ended up taking over the production. The result was rather good and had my name on it. But I found it rather humiliating. In fact, I thought, Fuck it, I don’t really want to do this sort of thing any more if it’s all like this. So I put a lot of energy into my next effort; there was a need to bounce back or give up.

….The Voice says to Hans: ‘Move the stones’ – The stone tells him where it wants to go – The Fat Important Man asked Hans this: ‘Have you a commission?’ – Hans didn’t know – but he answered: ‘Yes’ …..

KC: The Bolton Octagon had been given a small amount of money for a touring group which would go to working men’s clubs, women’s knitting circles – anything really, and spread the good news of the Bolton Octagon. I’d seen ‘Living Theatre’ at the Roundhouse – quite an extraordinary business – so I asked if I could do it. And that was the genesis of the Ken Campbell Roadshow.

..Invisibility is merely a matter of being able to hide in front of things…..

KC: I was into modern mythology and urban myths around 1969. The Roadshow was based on things like FOAFs (friend of a friend stories) like the vanishing hitch-hiker and so on that get reported in the Fortean Times. “My brother, well no, a friend of his at work. Well anyway, his cousin. Well not him, but a friend of his went on a camping holiday. And they’d taken their grandmother with them, and she died, and they were miles from anywhere in Spain. So they stuck the corpse in the back with the kids. But the kids got very upset by it. So they wrapped her in the tent and stuck her on the roof-rack. They got to a little town, put the kids in the cafe to have a lemonade, and found a policeman. But no one could speak English, so they had to mime what had happened. And when he seemed to understand, they went out to show him the stiff, but somebody had stolen the car.”

….I do not believe anything I have ever written. – Charles Hoy Fort

KC: So that’s the sort of thing I did as a show. I dramatized large numbers of these things. Bob Hoskins was the leading man. And we became so arrogant and successful that we wondered whether we really ought to be attached to the awful Bolton Octagon, spreading its “good name”. It was a bit of an embarrasssment that they’d be hugely entertained by our modern mythology show, and then truck off to see some feeble offering at the Octagon. So the bloke slung us out. And so, to be annoying, we kept going as the Ken Campbell Roadshow.

….I could find no clothes to suit my mood so I put none on…

JN: How did the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool come about?

KC: It began with Brian Aldiss turning up at one of the Roadshows – he was at an SF convention at the time. I didn’t know him – he didn’t half look like a miner! I hadn’t read much SF, but I went to a convention after this merry evening with Aldiss. I’d written a play that I thought might be science fiction, and the convention was really a good lark. I chatted to Brian Aldiss in the bar, and he talked of the “bifurcation of British Literature” which he said happened in 1939.

JN: Did he know the exact date? It wasn’t July 23rd or something?

KC: It might be. I didn’t know what he was talking about. But according to his researches, SF had detached itself from the mainstream in 1939. Before that, H. G. Wells etc could write anything. After that it was no longer allowed. The lines were drawn. I thought that was really interesting, because all theatre had completely followed the mainstream apart from a couple of years with the Absurd. So I thought, I’ll invent a science fiction theatre!

JN: It’s funny that you weren’t sure whether your play was SF or not. Flann O’Brien wondered the same about some of his books. And Gulliver’s Travels and so on read like SF in parts. Maybe SF is just a name for a genre which allows you to talk in a mythological allegorical way, and er . . .

KC: Well, I just rather enjoyed drinking with these guys actually! I didn’t found the theatre for any High Reason. I wanted an excuse to fanny around with them. Cos they were much more fun than playwrights. Actually. Much more. I mean, times about ten, really.

….. A naked man in a city street … -the mystery of reindeers’ ears . . .  -showers of frogs and blizzards of snails- and why, if I am going to tell of hundreds of these, is the ordinary so regarded? – Charles Fort, Lo!

KC: We did it in Liverpool because Peter O’Hallaghan had come across a dream in Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections. The dream changed Jung’s life, persuaded him to buckle down to the Unconscious for the rest of his life. Anyway, on page 223 he says something like: I was in a dark and grimy city. It was clearly Liverpool. It goes on . . . And this began to obsess Peter who was a proud Liverpoolophile. He found no records of Jung ever having been there, but he did discover that Hitler had been to visit his aunty in the Crosby area when he was 17 or 18.

JN: I wonder whether there are any Hitlers around there now?

KC: You think he might have spawned some while he was staying at his aunty’s?

JN: I wondered whether his aunty’s name was Hitler. I supposed she’d have changed it . . .

KC: Aunty Gladys Hitler? . . I used to have the same agent as Hitler. I think Curtis Brown is still Hitler’s agent. He’s not out of copyright yet, and there’s sales of Mein Kampf and Whatnot – something has to be done with the royalties. Probably goes to young Fritz Hitler or something . . . Anyway, Peter scoured Liverpool, and even though Jung had never been there, Peter declared he’d found the site of the dream to be a conjunction of warehouse roads – one of which is Matthew St where the old Cavern was. He got hold of a derelict warehouse there and called it the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun.

And I was in Liverpool drinking about my idea of the SF theatre with him, and later he asked me if I’d call it the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool and do it on his premises.
I went down to Compendium in Camden and bought a whole pile of books. But right by the till was the first volume of Illuminatus! by Wilson and Shea. It had just come in, and it had a yellow submarine on the cover – which fitted Liverpool nicely – and they make a lot of the number 23, and Jung’s dream had been on page 223. Peter was into synchronicity because of his Jung readings.

…It may be that occult transportations of human beings do occur, and that, because of their selectiveness, clothes are sometimes not included ………… Charles Hoy Fort

KC: Robert Anton Wilson and Bob Shea were sub-editors at Playboy, so they had a lot of access to research staff. And so under the guise that it would be helpful writing articles for Playboy (I don’t think it was really) they got into the Illuminati. Wilson would bung these memos to Shea as material came in from the researchers – like the memos in the book. When they got to memo 23, Shea said, “If we imagine a New York cop came across these memos, I think we’ve got the basis for a fine thriller!” So the next one Wilson wrote was episode one of the thriller. Shea replied with episode two. They were playing a game really. Like, I bet you can’t continue this! The answer is, “No I can’t, so we’ll continue with this!”

In 1976, when asked what he thought of Campbell and Langham’s production of Illuminatus!, Robert Anton Wilson said: “I was thunderstruck at what a magnificent job they did in capturing the exact tone and mixture of fantasy and reality in the book. I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t literature. It’s too late in the day for literature. This is magic! The most overwhelmingly powerful moment is when Saul Goodman realises his guilt in sending people to the electric chair. And the way they play it- it happened by accident. The Xerox machine made two copies of one page and the actors found themselves going through the scene twice. And Ken said, “Wait – that’s good!” They do the scene once without emotion, then with emotion. I think it’s tremendously powerful. (Every time something chaotic happens, we Discordians say: ‘Hail Eris!’) . . . That scene made me cry. I’ve always been against capital punishment, and that was one of the most deeply felt scenes in the book . . . . Since my daughter was murdered, people frequently ask me, ‘Are you still against capital punishment?’ And the answer is . . absolutley.”

“It’s not true unless it makes you laugh, but you don’t understand it unless it makes you weep.” – Illuminatus! page 291

Ken Campbell and Robert Anton Wilson in London, 1991.

Image copyright (c) James Nye, 1991.

KC: We did 5 shows – 4 and a half really. The fifth was really scrappy. Robert Anton Wilson came over to see us at the National Theatre and took part in the witches’ sabbat scene. It was the opening production of the Cottesloe Theatre. They’re fuckers actually, because in the RNT brochures they never mention it – it’s like it never happened. It was good – Chris Langham was a dream of a performer as George Dorn, Jim Broadbent was Jim Cartwright, David Rappaport was Markoff Chaney and Prunella Gee (with whom Campbell later produced daughter Daisy) was Eris.

After that The Warp by Beat poet Neil Oram was our biggest production. It was about a man who had made sure his life was memorable because he was “cursed with memory”. He’d been at the forefront of everything – otherwise he was doomed to remember the exact configuration of washing-up. He was one of the first to be Scientologically audited, he was over there with the Beats, he was in and out of drugs, communes, God and Flying Saucers – I mean he’d covered the entire business. At the moment he lives in a teepee on the banks of Loch Ness with three wives.

ENORMOUS SWIMMING BATH – VEGETATION AND FOLIAGE IN IT – I found it! – THE SITE OF THAT DREAM!……..

JN: How did you set about doing Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman?

KC: I decided not to have any Irish people in the cast. I felt a bit tired, and I knew they would all know more about it than I did – and I just didn’t think I could cope with that. So I used my regular team. Then I heard there was excitement about the production in Dublin and that two chars-a-bancs loads of Who-Knows-Most-About-Flann-O’Brien Competition were being sent over to see it. So I thought Fuck, I better do something about all the accents – cause they were all over the place. Not Irish at all.

There’s a lot of talk about teeth in the book, so I got a dentist to make false teeth that go over your own. And the whole business of trying to keep your teeth in unified the accents. And also the fact of seeing your colleague looking like some sort of cousin of himself . . . It quite radically changes people, teeth. Gave the whole thing a kind of brightness – because they never quite got over the look of each other . . . I can’t imagine putting it on without the teeth now . . . The SF and Everyman things were enthusiast pieces really. No one made any money from them. After that I ceased to be an innovator at all.

JN: You appeared in Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts on a bicycle . .

KC: Yeah, only just. I was going to have a bigger part, but I couldn’t get to Rotterdam on the day of my major scene.

JN: Is it you that stuffs a rotting shrimp down Jim Davidson’s neck? I’ve always wanted to do that . .

KC: Oh fuck knows. I was in it, but I don’t really know what was going on, to be honest. He’s a rather good bloke though, Peter Greenaway. He’s a really good weird fellow.

…Real or unreal, originating within the percept-system . . .the unshared world which we call “hallucinatory” is destructive: alientation, isolation, a sense of everything being strange, of things altering and bonding – all this is the logical result, until the individual, formerly a part of human culture, becomes an organic “windowless monad.” One doesn’t have to depend on hallucinations; one can unhinge oneself by many other roads. – Philip K. Dick

JN: Can you explain your Janus Theory?

KC: It’s based on the fact that people’s faces aren’t symmetrical. They have different personalities on both sides of the face. For instance, you might be a clown and a nun. I used to do this with actors, and get them to act according to which side of the face they were showing. It was suggested that others might benefit – that it could improve people’s lives. So we took a bunch off for a weekend. They fixed us up with a video so they could fuse two sides together so that you could see yourself as a clown or nun or whatever. (Listen, don’t think I’ve just analyzed you and that’s who you are!) There’s quite a queue of people wanting to do another weekend so I’m hoping to make some money out of it!

JN: The next thing is to write a book like Dianetics or something. Give a scientific ring to it. You could be the next L. Ron Hubbard!

KC:You think so? No, I think Fuck it! I don’t think I’ll bother. I only do it as a caper. But it’s quite good to run a growth weekend which is actually a laugh, that people get off on the idea without any ‘loving care’ and all that stuff.

. .Schwupps! Mein Gott, sie ist verschunden! . . . . .

JN: What about your latest mondrama, Pigspurt?

KC: Pigspurt is a malevolent demon which possibly infested Philip K. Dick. Dick was bathed in pink light or living information in 1974. At times he thought it was St Thomas, sometimes St Sophia the gnostic gnoddess, and all other times he posited it was this malevolent daemonic spirit Pigspurt.

If you analyse my face, on one side I’m an inept housewife, and on the other side I’m a spanking squire. And it was by contemplating the notion of Pigspurt that I let in this daemonic infestation into my left side which had been the spanking squire.

I’ve decide to call it Phrenological Pphorming – or two-faced acting. Dick found in himself a malevolent force that “filled him with fear and a craven attitude toward governmental authority” and it was this combined with the Jungian definition of Enantiodromia – the sudden transformation into an opposite side form or tendency – like Jekyll and Hyde – that partly inspired Pigspurt. Is this getting too technical? Anyway, this has echoes of my two-faced acting theory, which has nothing to do with Stansilavsky, Method, or motivation. Or Brecht. You’ll be jiggered to hear that, no doubt.

James Nye

All unidentified quotations are taken from Recollections of a Furtive Nudist by Ken Campbell, published as part of  The Bald Trilogy by Methuen in 1995.© Ken Campbell.
Interview Copyright © James Nye/IncanDestiny Press 1992, 2002 & 2009.

First published in Gneurosis, Issue 1.

Afterwords:

 

Ken Campbell (1941-2008) was an actor, writer and director whose many one man comedy shows entertained theatre audiences worldwide. The above  interview was condensed from hours of recordings I made over the course of a couple of days. In early 1991 I’d written Ken a fan letter, having seen him perform the first of his major one-man shows, Recollections of a Furtive Nudist. He’d liked my letter – particularly the bits I’d written about deja vu – and immediately replied by postcard, inviting me to get in touch again and meet him. I thought it would be best to have a pretext for such an encounter, and asked him if he’d grant an interview. After much editing, it was first published in a short-lived surrealist magazine, Gneurosis.

Ken had liked the way I’d put the piece together (which was essentially to let him ramble on, much in the way he liked to anyway!) and invited me to work with him as a researcher for his next one-man shows. I transcribed for publication several of his shows from tape, wrote music for others, and acted as a kind of test audience for his stories and jokes. I researched, read and summarized books and articles he didn’t have time for himself, and spent many happy and hilarious weeks with him over the course of the next 17 years in what became one of the most important and rewarding friendships of my life.

Ken admired my encyclopaedic interests in the peculiar corners of life, science and art (which mirrored his own) and was always enthusiastic about my own work and interests (‘Keep you genius warm!’ he’d often say as he saw me off to the train). He was understanding when I was struck by depression, and much entertained by my occasional bouts of hypomania. He could be very difficult and shouty, particularly before he gave up alcohol, but I was very rarely the recipient of his fury, more often the shocked and embarrassed witness of someone else’s verbal demolition and humiliation.

Early on in our friendship, when I’d moved back to the Isle of Wight from a brief period in London, Ken gave me a key to his house by the River Lea near Stamford Hill, and invited me to come and go as I pleased. Over the years, I spent many happy weeks mooching about there, meeting visitors like his ex-wife (actress Prunella Gee), his daughter (actress, playwright and director Daisy Eris Campbell), his many friends and admirers, and walking with him and the dogs. I gave moral support when he was giving live performances, and helped him assemble the threads of his shows from the extraordinary profusion of ideas that came to him. Occasionally I’d get promised a fiver if I managed to contribute a one-liner that tickled him.

Later, the misbehaviour of one of his dogs necessitated a move from his house at Watermint Quay, and, after an idyllic walk with the dogs through Epping Forest, it was I who pointed out Swiss Cottage, the wooden chalet house in Loughton that became his final home. He’d already put in an offer on another house, but it looked far too ordinary, I thought. Swiss Cottage, on the other hand was perfect for Ken: an eccentrically extended, idiosyncratic place in which he could build chicken-wire tunnels for his artistically inclined parrot, Doris, and bed down on his sofas with his dogs Gertie and Max. He wanted it immediately, and we got the details from the estate agent. It was going to be difficult to raise the full amount, and Ken invited me to sell my house to buy a part-share of the Cottage. There was much that appealed about the idea, but in the end, perhaps wisely, I declined. I visited him often though, and made a film there of his penultimate show, Ken Campbell’s Meaning of Life. It was at Swiss Cottage in Loughton that he died suddenly in 2008 from a heart attack. I still miss him terribly. [James Nye, 2009]

December 4, 2009 / The Frogweb

Derren Brown Interview

(c) James Nye 2004

Here’s  an interview I did (as Jack Phoenix) with Derren Brown. It was published in Fortean Times 185 in July 2004. Derren’s position on some things has modified – sometimes quite subtly – in the intervening years, and I hope to meet up with him again to do another interview sometime. For now, here it is pretty much as published.

Portrait of a Modern Mentalist

Derren Brown has reinvented TV conjuring and amazed viewers with his mind control acts. So, is he a psychic or just a master manipulator of our need to believe? Jack Phoenix (James Nye) met him to discuss perception, illusion and spoon-bending.

“Everything that deceives may be said to enchant.” (Plato, The Republic)

People often protest that they’re not mind readers, but Derren Brown is – or at least appears to be. Born in Croydon in 1971, Brown was an imaginative and precocious child, and, as a teenager, went on to study Law and German at Bristol University. Despite the formidable psychological skills which would have made him a demon lawyer, Brown abandoned the Law on leaving univeristy to take up a career in magic and mentalism:

“I saw a hypnotist perform in my first year at university and got very interested in the subject. I performed hypnosis for a couple of years, but I didn’t want to do full-time stage hypnosis as some of it struck me as a little tacky, so I started doing close-up magic. Slowly, what I was performing changed from classic magic in regular formats into soemthing a bit different. Unlike card tricks, which you can do in front of a mirror and it won’t make any difference to the trick, with mentalism I don’t really know where it’s going when I start off with someone. I size people up as best I can, and then work with what’s going on. It’s a feedback loop – creating certain psychological effects in their heads, geting them into a certain state – which isn’t necessarily belief as such, but a matter of getting them to play the right sort of game with you. Maybe that partly grew out of the fibs and stories I told as a child.”

Derren's flat, with his portraits of Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, and Bertrand Russell. Copyright (c) James Nye 2004

The walls of Brown’s house are adorned with his stunning, immense acrylic caricatures of, for example, Uri Geller, Franz Kafka, Orson Welles and Bertrand Russell. “I see somebody and can see a completed image in my head and want to paint it. I like faces – and obviously the face is the key to reading the psychology of a person – and I’m interested in what lies beneath the facade. It’s easy to think that you’re really capturing someone else’s essence when really you’re manipulating the surface. Maybe in doing so, the illusion of some captured essence comes through: you get an illusion of depth.

“What I do in my act is manipulate the surface in a similar way; there’s an illusion of power, of depth, and it’s quite convincing. But all you’re really doing is manipulating people’s behaviour. Hypnosis is just a mixture of social conformity, suggestion, response expectancy, charisma, and a whole load of quite ordinary surface phenomena given a short-hand name. Whilst I’m very passionate about what I do in performance, there’s a level where it does become a job, and there’s a limit to what I can get out of it personally. Art is something else. With painting, wherever I go with it, it will always be something I do more for myself. I’m moving away from the caricatures now to do more serious stuff.”

In Brown’s shows, he has produced hypnotic amnesia, anaesthesia, command compliance, hallucinosis – and, although it is currently illegal to show hypnotic induction on British television, he insists that there is no hypnotic induction anyway:

“It’s about getting people in a psychological pattern of response which has to do with their belief in the situation and the way they are being handled. This can happen very quickly as opposed to taking half an hour with an induction script.”

Stuffed birds with gramophone (c) James Nye 2004

His performances challenge widely held notions about both human behaviour and what hypnosis really is. For many years an academic debate has raged over whether hypnosis is a distinct state, or simply a collection of compliant behaviours. Brown’s performances, and his statements about them, suggest that he subscribes to, and demonstrates, the latter viewpoint. Certainly his performances show that people – or at least, the ones he selects – are more compliant and manipulable than is commonly believed. In Mind Control 3 he got shoppers in a mall to raise their right arms by simply giving an apparently regular sales patter over a loud-hailer. But  in this patter were disguised embedded commands: “Come right arm up!”

In another show, he predicted the exact campaign that two advertising executives would come up with, and in a rare departure, showed us how he’d done it. Brown and his team had put pictures and phrases on T-shirts, parcels, and pub signs the execs would encounter on their route to the office. The execs were unconscious of the information they had absorbed on their journey, and amazed at how predictable their response was.

Derren with his parrot, Figaro (c) 2004 James Nye / Jack Phoenix

Brown says he has never really used hypnosis on himself. “I’ve attended NLP courses and things like that, and although there’s some interesting and useful aspects to them, they’re generally so evangelically packaged and full of self-fulfilling nonsense that it put me off. If you haven’t come across that way of thinking, it can, perhaps, be life-changing. But if you’re reasonably adept with other people and have a level of self-awareness, then it seems to suck the life out of those things. The classic example is people who learn ‘rapport skills’ and then use them on you; it can be extremely irritating to have all your body language mirrored back at you in an attempt to enter a rapport. And the irritation is the complete opposite of what’s intended. Also, the idea that each movement in body language always has the same meaning regardless of context is false. A person who scratches his nose may not be lying – he may just have an itchy nose.

Fox and pheasant (c) James Nye 2004

“What I do is form a behavioural picture of the person I’m working with which doesn’t necessarily conform to those interpretive ‘rules’. I just look for the patterns in a person’s behaviour; if someone’s telling you something that’s happened and repeatedly performs a pattern, and then that pattern breaks, that may well be the point at which they lie. You can test this by trying to manipulate them into saying something that you know must be a lie. The trick is entirely about forming a picture of an individual and not having preconceived notions. With experience, it becomes more intuitive, but doesn’t cross over into anything esoteric. It becomes like driving a car: you’ve done it so many times you just don’t think about it. But with that comes the risk of laziness – that you fall into the trap of misjudging someone and getting them wrong.”

(c) James Nye 2004

Television is a kind of illusion itself, particularly in terms of how material is edited, but Brown says that in making his Mind Control TV shows, he always gets his editor to show things that don’t work. “Obviously, things have to be edited to fit time-wise. We spend two weeks rehearsing, then three weeks shooting. Occasionally, I will do an illusion with two groups of people, just in case one group isn’t interesting or their reactions are poor. But in most cases it isn’t practical for financial reasons to just film a stunt over and over again until the right response comes forth – that just doesn’t happen.”

Brown has made a point of saying that his powers are psychological, not psychic. I ask him how he feels about mentalists who do claim psychic talents. “I’ve seen performers like Uri Geller, and there’s a real humour to what he does. There’s something really arbitrary, silly, and funny about spoon-bending. To make millions out of that is fantastic – a testament to him. If you reduce it to an argument about whether he’s real or fake, you miss the fact that he’s very entertaining. I don’t personally believe in psychism, and I think Geller is backing off from that somewhat.”

 

Chimera (c) James Nye 2004

I wonder whether Geller is unaware of the nature of his skills. “It’s complicated,” admits Brown. “My angle is sceptical and psychological – that’s why I did cultery-bending in MC2.” (Brown’s ‘victims’ saw the forks bend, the viewer sees them stiff and unchanged.) “People will see and experience these things bending, but that’s not the same as things happening in the real world. The weak link is the mind of the intepreter, and that’ my attitude towards Geller. I find the idea of looking at what people are perceiving more interesting than the claim of psychic abilities. If you decide it’s fake, you lose sight of how effective it is; if you decide it’s real, there’s a danger of becoming a mindless believer. I avoid that polemic by saying I’m not psychic.

“The value for me is in the fact that this sort of thing happens, that people can behave in this sort of way. People betray their own thoughts and you can put ideas into their heads. I’d much rather present it as it is than pretend it’s something it isn’t.”

The problem with Brown’s assertion that he doesn’t use psychic powers in his performances is that, like all good magicians, he rarely reveals how he achieves his effects. He does say that he uses psychological techniques, but the examples of this he gives still allow audiences latitude to invent paranormal causes, particularly given his admission tha the is “a good liar”. (1)

(c) James Nye 2004

In the absence of widely distributed information about how his effects are achieved, the credulous are free to invent their own explanations rather than be left with the insecurity of having no explanation at all. Obviously, if Derren Brown reveals all his tricks, he risks losing the awe of the audience confronted by his talents, and it would be naive to suggest that he is unconsciously psychic hismelf.

Brown mentions that his friend, the illusionist Ian Rowland, was on a chat show demonstrating that he could achieve the same results as the other guest, a self-proclaimed psychic. “Afterwards they had a phone-in, and everyone still wanted to speak to the ‘genuine’ psychic!”

How to hypnotise someone

But of course, the fact that alleged psychic phenomena can be duplicated by a competent mentalist is merely suggestive of the idea that the psychic power does not exist, not a proof. Reviewing a duplication of ‘psychic surgery’ by James Randi, Robert Anton Wilson commented: “[He] claimed that because this performance was a fake, all similar performances must be fakes. There seems to be an undistributed middle in that syllogism; or does the fact that one duck is brown prove that all ducks are brown, and does one counterfeit dollar bill prove that all dollar bills are counterfeit?” (2)

Eye fixation with hand clasp

Asked whether his experience in hypnosis informs his opinion of alleged encounters with, for example, ghosts or aliens, Brown comments: “Definitely. Hypnotic phenomena can be quite fascinating becaus it’s so difficult to know whether a person is really experiencing what they’re expressing, or whether they’re really playing the role of a person who’s experiencing that! There’s such a wide range of experience with hypnosis. But I’m used to seeing how easily people will experience things that are suggested to them when they’re left to make certain connections for themselves, and how frighteningly predictable people can be with things that I know aren’t real, because I’m creating them as illusions. On the other hand, if I say that UFOs are hypnotic phenomena, I’m falling into the same pattern as people who see UFOs and say they are definitely alien craft. [But] my feelings are certainly sceptical. I’d need to experience it, or be close enough, to make an informed judgement.

If all else fails, poke them in the eye.

“I’ve worked closely enough with the whole New Age crystal healing scene to have very clear views that I feel are well informed, to be able to defend my scepticism and not feel I’m spouting some materialist rant. You can be as much a true believer in scepticism as you can in anything else. However, I know a couple of people who claim to have seen ghosts, and they’re serious, solid people who don’t strike me as particularly hysterical. It was really interesting to hear, and I avoid making any rash judgements about meaning.

“I’ve had no such experiences myself. You see, I do one trick where I hold a card and ask someone to name their favourite card. If they guess right, I show them and move on. if they’re wrong, I find the card in the deck and do a trick with it. If they’re right though, they see it as an absolute miracle. Such ‘miracles’ can sometimes permanently affect the way people perceive the world. Coincidence, perception, false memory, and anecdotal autosuggestion are all things I’m familiar with and use in my work. On the other hand, one guy I know worked in a yoghurt shop where a spectral woman in period dress walked in every Friday! It’s interesting, and very specific – but it’s still in the context of his memory of it, his embellishment of it, and the kinds of things that happen to memories.

“I’m open minded, but you can be open-minded to the point where your brain falls out. For example, you don’t want to be too open-minded about the laws of gravity if you’re flying a plane with hundreds of passengers in it! You have information, so make use of it. With regard to the New Age thing, we have information; we understand processes like suggestions, placebo, and coincidence. A refusal to bring that knowledge into play isn’t really open-mindedness. The idea that you can intuit your way, that what feels right must be true, frustrates me. It’s not open-minded. It’s horrifically narrow-minded and ultimately arrogant. Criticisms may be made against Western scientific method, but in essence it’s based on constantly trying, testing, and moving forward. If it made for worthwile performance I’d have taken a very hard line debunking some New Age stuff – but it just doesn’t work; you end up seeming an embittered person. The key is to pursue your own positive line, but a line that is incompatible with psychic ability – which is what I do. I feel very strongly about the whole area of woolly thinking.

“My performance does rely on people’s willingness to be deceived, but at the same time, the message is that though it may look paranormal, it’s actually based on ordinary, everyday things that we do all the time. I’m just good at them. I’ve practised a lot. However, people are very resistant to changing their beliefs. It seems to me to be a lively thing that there are con men out there, as long as they’re not hurting people. Equally, you’ve got to have the other side striving to debunk them – that’s a healthy dynamic. But, when you look at it, there are huge moral problems with the psychics and a lot of witless unpleasantries associated with the debunkers.”

Brown has no interest in the occult side of magic. “I was quite religious when I was younger,” he says, “so found all that stuff rather ‘dodgy’. I’m no longer religious, but I do feel that the possibly intriguing and stylishly macabre facade of the occult dissolves on touch into the same circular, vapid nonsense that any New Age True Believers will spout. I imagine that the occult appeals more to the social outcast with a grudge, rather than the standard do-gooder, lobotomized flower-fairy. And possibly the former is more interesting. Certainly few things are as genuinely funny as seeing modern-day British witches doing a bit of PR for the coven on Trisha-style chat shows!”

Brown views other claims of psychic phenomena with similar scepticism. Discussing remote viewing (RV), he comments: “Like so many apparently psychic demonstrations, there arises that curious phenomenon that a man in a tuxedo doing it on stage is not as convincing as a scruffy, nervous type doing it away from a theatre – especially if it can be shown in grainy documentary footage. As if the clothes one wears, or where one stands, makes any difference to whether the known laws of physics can be upturned!”

I comment that in the USA, the CIA and NSA were involved in RV research (Operations Stargate, Grillflame, etc), but Brown is unimpressed. “The US government is enormous, sprawling, and full of people wanting to spend their budgets researching various schemes. There’s a world of difference between what passes as ‘government funding’ for a project, and any sense that the White House or the CIA are actually engaging in important, priority research. People who confuse the two make the same mistake as those people who say that the healing properties of crystals or other nonsenses have been ‘scientifically proved’ – and they normally say this in the same breath as denouncing every aspect of Western scientific method.”

Does Brown ever get taken in by what other illusionists do? “Sure – yeah. But what really excites me is good performance, not so much being tricked. I may not realy care how a trick is achieved, but a good performer will make you care about it. I’ve made a decision to leave behind traditional conjuring. My interest is still there, and I’ll still watch good magic on the telly, but it doesn’t feel right for me any more – I find it a little bit silly. Perhaps that’s unfair. Certainly there are a lot of magicians who wouldn’t care to hear me say that, but I find I care less and less about card tricks and things disappearing and appearing. It’s whether the performer brings it to life – which is one of the reasons I do what I do now.

“I felt I wanted to make something new out of magic, make it more interesting, and connect with people more, so that the audience isn’t suspending disbelief, but really engaging in belief and being made to think. Of course, if you make the Statue of Libery disappear, it’s fantastic – but it’s also something that’s obviously ‘just a trick’, whereas I wanted to get under people’s skin more. This meant downplaying it a lot, letting people in, but not quite far enough to explain exactly how it’s done.”

Broadcast on Channel 4 last year, Brown’s ‘live’ Russian roulette stunt was rather atypical of his work; a large-scale spectacle, which divided his audience into those who were sickened, and those who were exhilarated by his showmanship and nerve. As to the issue of whether he used live bullets or not, he says he is limited in what he can say about it due to the risk of a police inquiry. But, again, the impact of the spectacle itself is more important that it’s ‘reality’. “People like to be fooled,” he comments, “but resent being cheated.” Or made fools of.

 

(c) James Nye 2004

This year Brown returns to what he does best: a tour of live shows followed by a West End run, a new TV series, Trick of the Mind, and a TV special going out at the end of May. The special, involving 12 participants filmed in a secret location, will be an attempt to recreate a seance on television. Brown is reluctant to give away any details at this stage, but says that while he will employ some of the props and paraphernalia associated with the traditional seance, his intention is neither to hoodwink nor to debunk:

“I love the whole interaction of genuine psychological techniques and fraudulent psychic ones. I’m not interested in debunking spiritualist claims about contact with the afterlife so much as replicating some of these techniques and providing alternative explanations. Debunking is essentially negative, and not as interesting.

“Instead, I’m working with a group of modern, sceptical people and seeing to what extent they are taken in by it. It’s a psychological experiment, and it’s ultimately the psychological trip that the participants take – their own journey through the experience, that will, I hope, make it fascinating.”

Talk of a opportunity for viewers at home to get involved –  and a live phone in – put me in mind of Uri Geller’s TV appearance in the 1970s, but I suspect Brown has something rather different up his sleeve.

I for one am looking forward to being further deceived and enchanted – but Brown’s version of magic is not merely entertaining, it challenges you to examine your own beliefs. To me, it also suggests that a radical shift in the way we examine and interpret many fortean phenomena is long overdue.

Text and photographs copyright (c) James Nye / Jack Phoenix 2004

(1) Quoted on Derren Brown’s website, www.derrenbrown.co.uk

(2) Robert Anton Wilson, “The Persecution and Assassination of the Parapsychologists as Performed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science under the Direction of the Amazing Randi,” in Right Where You Are Sitting Now (Ronin Publishing, California, 1982).

December 4, 2009 / The Frogweb

DO NOT LOOK AT THE DONKEY

Good morning. I am James Nye – sometimes writing as Jack(son) Phoenix.

This is all part of my plan to transfer the content of my Frogweb site to a new blog format, which will hopefully make it easier for me to keep it up to date.

But this is all I can be bothered to do today.