Sailing a Brave Ship

Sailing a Brave Ship

Monday, May 20th 2013

I have wanted to create more emphasis on music within the Wise Fools chorus.  We have done a fair bit of work with physical-theatre activities such as gibberish and puppetry.  While I want to continue developing the theatrical side of the Wise Fools, it seems that these projects crowd out the music.  When I first started with the group, I assumed that our ‘music activity’ would mostly revolve around experimental sound work in the style of Pauline Oliveros, or the Element Choir, but there are a few problems with this.  Namely, I don’t do very much of this work in my individual  practice, and the Wise Fools are highly sensitive to a lack of conviction on the part of the facilitator.  In general, I think that a good facilitator can interest a group of people in just about anything, but not when the facilitator has lost interest in what they are offering.

Alice the Wise-Fool Owl

Alice the Wise-Fool Owl

While I think that experimental choral music (soundscapes, vocalizations etc.) is interesting and fun to be a part of, it generally doesn’t move me at an emotional level.  I think that most musicians, and artists at large, experiment within their process, and I think that intensely-moving art generally arrives at great experimental risk to its creator(s).  I have caught myself on several occasions, however, adopting a sort of avant-garde sound while neglecting the spirit and structure of a good experiment.

In my individual and community arts practices, I usually find myself falling into my own bag of tricks when I don’t have the time or energy or courage to develop a project beyond its initial imaginings.  Within the musical realm of the Wise Fools project, I feel that I have consistently created out of what is immediately at hand, which usually turns up as something that I already know how to do but haven’t ever taken to the next stage of development.  In the spring we developed a few new tricks to work with, such as the tone-stealing game, but I have wanted to give my workshops more thought and preparation.  I have also wanted to strike a balance between collaborative creation and individual composition, and I have been reflecting on how this might be possible.

I have also been considering the possibility of creating/introducing a distinct genre into the Wise Fools chorus.  We seem to be developing a fairly clear visual aesthetic in Making Room/Sand in Water, and I have wanted to create a musical aesthetic that works in confluence with both the visual work and the pervasive themes.  Our most recent incarnation is somewhat vaudevillian, and we deal often with magic, paganism, the fantastical, the store at the edge of town that time forgot…I have wanted to create a performance troupe that invites the listener to enter some part of their heart that they haven’t visited very often, a place that is occasionally grotesque but also vastly shimmering, and then with a wink and a nudge the celebration is over because it was never really there in the first place (or has disappeared into thin air).

Brenda the Fortune-Teller

Brenda the Fortune-Teller

In my individual practice, I find that I am most successful when I find a selection of music that deeply moves me, and I listen and study and learn what parts of it create certain feelings, and then almost by magic something pops out of me that is quite different, but clearly rooted in what I have heard.  I have been attempting to practice this same strategy in relation to the Wise Fools, and so I’ve been searching for music that feels really good to listen to, fits within our general aesthetic, and is fairly simple to dissect and teach to others.

By accident I stumbled across a New Orleans group called, ‘The Valparaiso Men’s Chorus’ – they are a large group of men with loud, rough, and mostly out-of-tune voices, and they sing shanties, ballads and originals while accompanied by a brass, drum and tin-whistle band.  The music is amazing – the first song I heard was, ‘Hanging Johnny’.

What I find most striking about this piece is how bittersweet it is: there is a kind of catharsis in the ‘Boys Away’ refrain, singing with gladness about something really sad.  I also like how dead simple it is, and how the basic form allows the raw emotion to come through in the off-kilter voices and broken-jalopy instrumental arrangement.  The melodrama is also very funny, even though domestic murder is, of course, abominable. This is exactly the kind of music that could work with the Wise Fools, because they are enthusiastic and loud, and emotions are accessible.

Rather than copy exactly what the Valparaiso Men’s chorus are up to, I did some research on sailor shanties and I found one that I liked (The Liverpool Judies) and feel capable of messing around with.  I figured out the rhyming scheme, and then I took the melody and chorus of the song to the group.  I also came up with some questions related to basic shanty-story structure – who are the protagonists and what kinds of challenges do they encounter, who are the antagonists, how does the problem get resolved, what is the moral of the story.

Gerry, our official sailor

Gerry, our official sailor

I began by asking the group to brainstorm for characters and settings, asking them each to come up with a character or setting.  I found that these categories were too precise, because participants couldn’t think of where the character or setting would fit within the larger context of the song.  I think that I also wasn’t giving the participants enough storytelling credit – I was trying to make the process too easy for them, and they couldn’t connect with it.  Furthermore, I had made them individually uncomfortable by putting them on the spot in front of all the others.

I quickly changed tactics, and I asked the group to brainstorm for setting and characters in partnered groups.  This helped a lot – one person came up with a setting, and the other person came up with a character to fit the setting.  The list grew very quickly and when I thought that we had enough to work with, I introduced the rhyming scheme.  I posed an initial question: Where were we and what were we doing?  A few responses came in, and we decided that ‘We were swabbing the deck on a boat in the air’.  What rhymes with air? ‘John was using a sea urchin to take the tangles out of his hair’.

After the initial lines came out, the rest of the song came very easily.  It seems that The Wise Fools are natural storytellers, pun-makers and rhyme schemists.   I continued to ask questions to prod the story along, and sometimes I made the final editing decisions for a line.  For the most part, however, the activity was self-regulating – the song snowballed into a complete, absurd and profane sailor shanty.

Sounds of Progress:

We were swabbing the deck on a ship in the air

John was usin’ sea urchins to take the tangles out of his hair!

A dragon came up and blew the sails off the boat
and there was no one to save us except for a goat!


Roll, roll, roll Mateys roll!

Those bone-shakin’ ghosts have our fortunes in tow!

The wily old goat turned into a big witch

Said, ‘You’re on your own now you son of a bitch!’

We dropped like a stone right into a dark well,
and Alice declared, that ‘This must be hell!’


We were deep in the well and we thought, ‘This is it!’

When we suddenly heard a clickety-click.

There was a family of skeletons doing a dance,
and quickly we thought that this might be our chance!


The skeletons made ladders right out of their ribs,

Who would go first? We were all casting dibs.

And now that we’re safely tucked away in our homes

We raise up a glass to those life-savin’ bones!


So if ever you find yourself stuck in deep shit

If you call on a goat you’re a real dimwit!

And next time you sail don’t you dare be a lout

You’ll be rolling your bones in your grave there’s no doubt!


I have been left with some new discoveries, and also questions surrounding this activity.  I was well-prepared and I had something clear to offer – the activity was a success perhaps because of my confidence, which was based in conviction.  I wasn’t asking for group approval. I also think, however, that this was a very well-suited activity for the group – they are all writers and storytellers, and they like to make things up.  I have questions surrounding the use of structure – what level of structure is ideal?  How much structure is too much?  How much professional-editing is necessary?  How much is too much?  It seems that with any activity, there is a golden balance wherein participants feel that they have creative independence, without feeling unsupported by the facilitator.  This also impacts the aesthetic outcome of the piece – if the facilitator has too little control, the aesthetic product fails to communicate and the participants lose interest.  If the facilitator has too much control, however, the participants lose interest and the product looks like it belongs only to the facilitator.

More to come.



About lilman

Leftist Cowboy.
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