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Interview: Ascension Band

With Dave Edwards and Nigel Patterson

(February 2004)

On the eve of the Wellington Fringe Festival I spoke with [band organiser] Dave Edwards and [composer / conductor] Nigel Patterson, two of the main culprits behind the Ascension Band, a ‘Chamber-Orchestra’ ensemble pushing electronic and standard instrumentation in usual avant garde directions with their performance ‘electric symphony’. Firstly we have Dave Edwards introducing the ensemble and how things came together.

Dave: I’d played solo at the 2002 Meatwaters festival, doing my songs/spoken-word/guitar/weirdo thing, and Kieran Monaghan (Meatwaters organizer and Mr Sterile frontman) invited me to do something for the 2003 event. i’d always wanted to play with a big group so that was my opportunity.

I wanted to get a mixture of people from different backgrounds, with and without musical training, and tried to think of something that everyone would be able to get behind. John Coltrane seemed like a good reference point since most of the local people into ‘interesting music’ (Kieran’s preferred term) get into Coltrane on some level. Some people have a grasp on the amazing harmonic structures he’s using, while self-taught punks like myself can just enjoy the visceral kick. And there’s the whole thing of Coltrane as a beacon of artistic integrity, always pushing forwards etc.

So the idea I came up with was to play something based on his big-band piece ‘Ascension’, since that was kind of his inter-generational summit meeting. we took the opening melody as a reference point for people to throw in here and there, and used his structure of alternating sections of everyone playing at once with solo sections where each person could make their own individual statement. Except it didn’t quite work like that on the night; we didn’t have a rehearsal and so it was a bit chaotic and didn’t reach as high a level of energy as it could have. definitely good in parts though. We had about 12 people in the band, including a conductor. one interesting phenomenon was that some people who said they’d be in couldn’t make it on the night, but others joined in at the last minute. We got Campbell Kneale (aka Birchville Cat Motel) on drums and Clayton Thomas from Sydney on double bass, so they were great surprise additions.

So with that performance standing as an odd curio or interesting failure rather than a brilliant masterpiece, when Meatwaters 2004 came around i was keen to give it another try. I kept the ascension band name but came up with a different piece, which was a loose structure in three movements: first movement everyone improvises together, second movement just one or two people at a time, third movement big monster rock riff that i’d come up with years before on a nylon-string acoustic guitar. I’d been meaning to write a song using it but never did. so we had a rehearsal this time and played the gig, with about half the band from the previous year and half new people. Nigel asked to take over as conductor which was fine by me as he’s got a lot more ensemble experience than I – I’m not really a musician as such, more a writer/artist with a guitar, and there are big gaps in my technical knowledge.

We were lucky enough to have Ian Goldsmith catch that performance on video, and there was a good sound mix from the desk so it became the ‘Live 2004’ album on DVD. I’ve been making on average an album a year since i was 19 (i’m 26 now), and I try to make each one a reaction to & development on from the last one. My previous album, ‘Loose autumn moans’ was mostly acoustic guitar with a bit of cello, violin and harmonica, deliberately sparse, so going into electricity & bigness (and adding the visual dimension) was the logical reaction to that. it’s going from sepia tones to full colour. But everyone in the band has their own idea of what it all means, that’s just my particular angle.

From there it seemed like something worth keeping going so we’ve been jamming semi-regularly since and played another gig in December at the Newtown Community Centre which is kind of our home base. there’s always someone who can’t make it on a given night but then someone else joins in – it’s never had the same lineup twice. and now we’re in the fringe festival.

You’ve mentioned the Meatwaters festival quite a bit – can you give our readers a little detail?

Dave: Meatwaters is an annual event organised by Kieran Monaghan who leads the punk/cabaret ensemble Mr Sterile. it’s a real mix of stuff – punk bands, electronica, alt-country, death metal, free improvisation etc, usually over about three nights. it’s hard to say what they all have in common but the festival always has a definite ‘feel’ to it. it’s been going since 2001.

How you actually go about physically performing?

Dave: Everyone’s got their own performance style. It can be anywhere from a full theatrical presentation with costumes and stage moves down to someone sitting completely still. Personally i like to move around a bit, I do get slightly annoyed at a gig when the performers turn their back to the audience or sit in front of a laptop and their only movement is the occasional swig of beer. But that’s just personal preference.

One good thing with Ascension Band is that there’s such a range of different approaches and individual styles, in movement as well as sound. We should also have some video projections to illustrate the piece we’re doing for these shows (which Nigel can tell you more about).

Nigel: “Evolution” is a five-movement symphonic piece tracking the history of evolution, and combining a macro classical form with modern orchestration. It’s basically a symphony in the standard form – but instead of using violins and woodwinds etc, we use two electric guitars, two keyboards, two bass guitars, two vocalists, two trumpets, computer, tone generator, piano and drums. “Evolution” draws its sonic palette from experimental, free-jazz, noise, industrial, punk and contemporary classical musics. It’s less free-improvised than our previous performances – it’s an attempt to compose a piece allowing for improvisation within a macro structure.

Often with modern improvised music the listener is almost totally reliant on the absolute properties of the music: E.g. the new weird and wonderful noises that you never knew that instrument could make. But by utilizing a programmatic approach we hope to create a piece of music that is both stimulating in an absolute context – I.e. sounds and textures – as well as realizable in a programmatic context, by telling the story of evolution. our main objective: A realizable statement of modern music.

How you see the Wellington fringe festival (and the musicians involved in the ‘Happy’ scene) fitting in domestically and in an international scope? creation are actually planning a Christchurch fringe festival for later in the year, so i guess in general the New Zealand underground seems to be pushing towards consolidating our fringe cultures at the moment.

Dave: The fringe seems to be mostly theatre events but there’s always music in it too. it’s up to anyone who wants to do a show to make something happen. i’m just hoping we can get a bit of an audience along – our tickets are cheaper than most other shows so people will definitely get their money’s worth. it’s also going to be my last project in NZ for a while as i’m heading over to Melbourne after the shows, then hopefully further afield to do my OE. trying to go out with a bang maybe.

One of the ideas with a big band is that there are so many interesting musicians in wellington it would take months or years to collaborate with all of them, so why not get them all together at once? Having said that, Ascension Band contains only a small fraction of the interesting players in town, and it’s also partly about bringing some new faces onto the scene (which can look a bit incestuous at times).

As far as the international scene goes, getting the music out around the world has to be the goal – NZ’s just too small in terms of number of people who enjoy ‘Weird shit’. It’s something i’m just starting to get into, and it’s not really any harder than finding an audience locally. The internet’s a great tool. and there’s bound to be a good album from these fringe shows.

On the other hand playing live is where the most fun is, and that has to be for the locals & visitors. it would be great to take ascension band on tour later in the year if we could get some funding for it. A three or four piece band on tour can find couches to stay on, but a ten or twelve piece would need some outside help.

Touring would be great though – I do feel it’s easy to get blase in Wellington since there is a lot of good stuff happening on a regular basis. The best live venue I’ve come across is the Kaponga Backgammon Club in South Taranaki. But that’s another story.

Ascension Band plays on Friday 25th of February, 10pm at happy, and Friday 4th and Saturday 5th of march at Newtown Community Centre, 7.30pm. Admission $6 full price, $5 unwaged, $4 fringe card holders.

The band also has a DVD available, ‘Live 2004’, of their performance at the Meatwaters festival last September.

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