Back in January I was given the opportunity to review a live performance at Imperial War Museum North by one of my favourite bands, Field Music. The band would be playing a specially commissioned song cycle written for the museum’s Making a New World season, which explores themes of remembrance and how the First World War has shaped today’s society.
For initial inspiration, the Brewis brothers were shown a ‘sound range’ image from the IWM archives that illustrates the very final moments of artillery fire on the Western Front.
The band said, “The image shows the minute leading up to 11am on the 11th November 1918, and the minute immediately after. One minute of oppressive, juddering noise and one minute of near silence. This was the starting point for our suite of new songs. It was also the start of a new world.”
You can read my full review for Louder Than Warhere.
Field Music to perform a suite of new songs at Imperial War Museums
[This piece original appeared in edited form in The Quietus]
I was born of 11th November – Armistice Day. My
parents instilled its importance in me. My maternal grandfather fought in the Second
World War and was injured in the Normandy Landings. We were always told not to
ask him about it, although he did once show me a belt he had taken from the
body of a German soldier. As an adult, I am conscious of the lingering
influence Grandad’s trauma had on my mother’s upbringing, and, indirectly, on
my own. There are lines that can be drawn. I grew up understanding the shadows
both world wars cast across our lives.
I was particularly interested, then, to discover that one of my favourite bands, Field Music (David and Peter Brewis), had been commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to create an evening of sound and projections exploring how the First World War shaped the society we live in today. The resulting 18-song suite of brand new material would be performed against the dramatic backdrop of IWM North in Salford on 24th January as part of the museum’s Making A New World season.
For initial inspiration, the Brewis brothers were shown a ‘sound range’
image from the IWM archives that illustrates the very final moments of
artillery fire on the Western Front.
I spoke to Field Music’s David Brewis to ask him about the
creative process behind the commission and what the Salford audience can expect
from this unique event.
“We used the sound
range image as a starting point. There are six parallel lines on that image
from six microphones that were spread out across the front in order to pinpoint
enemy artillery. We are imagining following those lines of vibrations. We are
looking at the vibrations from that time that have continued on and spread
across all aspects of human life.”
To represent these ‘vibrations’ David and Peter have
highlighted events, moments, or technological advances that happened during
WW1, or immediately after, and then twinned them with directly related
developments from the following 100 years. Each moment has its own piece of
music, forming a compelling suite that is reassuringly Field Music in sound,
and not without the odd ‘pop banger’, according to the boys.
One song deals with the story of New Zealand-born surgeon Dr
Harold Gillies, who, during the war, pioneered skin graft techniques in order
to perform facial repair operations on wounded servicemen. Gillies became known
as the father of plastic surgery, and in 1946 performed the first
female-to-male gender reassignment operation.
Another, ‘Only in a Man’s World’, deals with the story of
Wisconsin-based company Kimberley-Clark, who mass produced ‘Cellucotton’ for
use as a surgical dressing for soldiers. Later on it was adapted to create
Kotex, the first modern sanitary towel.
Whilst not all the technological developments the brothers
have covered could be described as positive, the songs have an optimistic air –
was this a conscious thing?
“I think we were trying to be neutral about it. The
consequences [of WW1] were incredibly varied, ranging from plunging the Middle
East into a century of horror to finally just having a sanitary towel that
works. We didn’t want to put too much of a moral slant on these stories. Good
things and bad things have happened… the consequences of war are absolutely
still present. Wars, or other cataclysmic events, just have a habit of speeding
things up. Someone would have figured out how to send a radio signal from an
aeroplane at some point, but it happened in the First World War because they
really, really needed it to. They definitely weren’t thinking ‘well, this will
be great for the future of the aviation industry’. It just so happened that
that’s how consequences go. That’s the chaotic nature of these things.”
Field Music are working on film projections to accompany the
music. What can we expect from these?
“It was important to us to have the text telling the stories
within the visuals. Otherwise some of the songs may have seemed a little vague.
We’ve written instrumental sections at the beginning of each song so there is
time for [the audience] to digest the story before the song starts properly.
We’ll have imagery to represent each moment and then those six lines from the
sound range graphic are going to continue vibrating and wobbling throughout the
whole piece to tie it together. Our guitarist Kev Dosdale has the job of
putting these visuals together and I have a feeling he’s going to be working up
to the last moment on them!”
How were the stories unearthed?
“A lot of it was internet noodling – we chased stories we
thought were interesting, and then started to look for an echo of that later in
time. For example, we wanted to do something about tanks. Tanks are a big part
of the imagery around WW1, because that’s when they were first used, but we
were both conscious of what the subsequent imagery around tanks has been across
time. The most iconic image – arguably – is a student standing in front of a
tank in Tiananmen Square, but how do you write a story about that without it
being trite or downplaying the importance of it? Peter decided to focus on the
photographer who took the actual picture, and once that angle emerged, the song
The penultimate song in the suite, ‘Money
Is A Memory’, imagines someone in a back office at the German treasury
gathering up the paperwork for the final payment on Germany’s war reparation
debt. (The final instalment of $94million was paid in 2010. Hitler had
made the injustice of reparations a central part of his rhetoric). David
“I became fixated on
the idea that someone in some finance office in the German treasury had the job
of making sure that this payment gets paid, you know, the really boring
bureaucratic job, which deals with this thing that affected the whole course of
the 20th century. But his job is just to make sure that the paperwork is right.
So many of these things are spun around these little details. I couldn’t get
that idea out of my head.”
When David mentioned this, it reminded me of watching They Shall Not Grow Old – the recent Peter Jackson documentary
that uses colourisation techniques to bring First World War footage to life. So
much of the power of that film is contained in the little details. I wondered –
was it an influence on the Field Music project?
“I have avoided watching it… it was on the telly when we
were deep into the writing and I just thought ‘best not’, because if we had it
might have changed the direction. We scored a film (14-18 NOW’s Asunder)
a couple of years ago to commemorate the Battle of the Somme centenary, which
was about how lives in the North East were affected. That probably influenced
us quite a lot in that it was about very small stories that were almost at a
tangent to the war, but dependent upon it.”
I mentioned to David that one of the main things that stayed
with me about the Jackson documentary was hearing servicemen say that after
they war they didn’t feel able to talk to friends, family or to any civilians
about their experience in the trenches – that it was easier not to speak about
it at all than try to communicate it to people who simply had no ability to
understand. I thought again of my own granddad, and how ‘bottling it up’ and
tough guy archetypes are still considered a major factor in today’s male
suicide rates. Could David comment on this?
“The granddad I knew was too young to fight. He was
evacuated in WW2. My wife’s granddad apparently had a great time in the war
driving lorries around Italy, but he still didn’t talk about it! I’m part of a
generation that has never experienced anything like that. War is professionalised
now. The people who experience it are ‘apart’ and that might be an issue for
them, but the mass experience that deeply affects an entire generation… that’s
not going to happen again in the same way. This is why Peter and I didn’t want
to write directly about the war. We can’t. We don’t have the context or the
experience to do that in a way we could justify. I’m glad we found other things
to write about.”
And what about plans for the music you’ve written after
“Once we’ve done the performances, we’ll get the band
together in the studio and record what we’ve done…because to me, this sounds
like an album that could be as good as any of our other albums! I’m very
enthusiastic about what we’ve managed to do. But the first step would be to see
if we can capture it in a recording.”
Field Music play:
IWM North, The
Quays, Trafford Wharf Road, Manchester M17 1TZ on Thursday 24th January 2019at
Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ on Thursday
31st January 2019 at 9pm.