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 came through.”
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 continues:
“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 these gigs?
“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 2019 at 9pm.
IWM London, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ on Thursday 31st January 2019 at 9pm.
Tickets cost £22 and are available here.