New Water Old Water

A performance by Red Stone Trio, Clare Crossman and Max Loth at Tullie House Museum 30th November 2019

The occasion was a rare performance from Phil Furneaux’s latest collaboration – Red Stone Trio, the Gelt River project having only been performed once before in a shortened format at the Star and Shadow Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne. Tonight’s event promised to be a fully fleshed out multimedia event including poetic interpolations from Clare Crossman and an introductory address by Max Loth. It was clear from the moment the audience began to arrive that an atmosphere of eager anticipation was building and that the performance was going to be attended by a packed house (the concert was in fact sold out.)

To have so many audience members attend and knowing many travelled great distances must have been very gratifying to Phil, given that the New Water Old Water project had been many months in development. This concert was to be a culmination of numerous video shoots, writing sessions, editing bouts and rehearsals.

The concept promised to be an immersive one for me as the River Gelt holds a special place in my memories and sense of communion with Cumbrian countryside and culture. From a young age I have enjoyed rambles along the banks of Lower, Middle and Upper Gelt, including swimming at Hynam pool and long days spent carrying out conservation work for the RSPB back in the eighties. This connection with the riverside and woodland habitat was further re-inforced through taking VIth form students there on field trips during my time as a teacher. So, one could say I had a vested interest in this project and, I have to say, I was not to be disappointed.

After introductions by Heather, the compere, Max Loth treated us to an insightful, informative and entertaining introduction to the geography, history and cultural significance of the River Gelt. Currently conducting a PhD in Modern Polish History at Durham University, Max has a track record of delivering talks on Roman Cumbria and the Border Reivers, and was an ideal choice for setting the scene. Considering he didn’t employ any visual aids, he was able to hold our attention through his narrative that spanned a rich profusion of material in a short space of time.

We were given two further presentations; one from Clare Crossman where she recounted her introduction to the project and how she became inspired to write the nine pieces of poetry that featured tonight. Clare came to my attention over a year ago when she released her biography of the celebrated artist and sculptor, Lorna Graves. Her book, ‘Winter Flowers’ (available from Bookcase, Carlisle) is a must read if you appreciate how landscape and human experience has an impact on a life devoted to creativity and expression. Clare has, of course, published many anthologies of her poetry over the years and you can investigate these further by visiting her website. It was to this branch of her literary output that tonight’s showcase owed much of its richness to.

Penny Callow then took to the floor and gave an extemporaneous account of her collaboration with Phil. She related how she had always been a ‘queen of inauthenticity’ in that she applied her musicianship on the cello to original and often unique contexts earning her the title ‘flamingcello.’ The New Water Old Water project gave her the opportunity to enjoy something new and innovative, and to recapture a sense of ‘fun’ in her writing and performance.

After a short break, we were into the performance proper, which began with an opening scene showing the Geltsdale vista as seen early in the morning. This ongoing video — projected on to a screen behind the trio of musicians — was accompanied by Rosh Singh’s emotive soft tabla-drum beat and the first of Clare’s poems: Green Shelter.

My only previous experience of having listened to tablas was on Led Zeppelin’s first album and the song ‘Black Mountainside’, but to hear them in this context was to realise that Phil had made the perfect choice in employing Rosh to provide the rhythm to his evocative soundtrack. I was fortunate enough to have a close up view of Rosh’s playing, and marvelled at how he coaxed an incredible variety of sounds using every square centimetre of his hands and fingers. These ranged from resonant bass notes through to delicate and intricate tapping in the high register with his nimble fingers.

This was a true multi-media experience as the audience was treated to a progression of scenes depicting the flow of the Gelt as it traversed through its ancient course: under the nine bridges, over roaring waterfalls and through narrow defiles lined with limestone potholes. The music was played live as the scenes unfolded and produced a meditative and immersive experience as melodies and rhythms added a further dimension to the scenes observed. At carefully selected moments, Clare would start reading another poem, each of which drew out qualities in the river’s landscape and history that sometimes personified the ancient torrent. At other times a poem would hint at a relationship between the waters and their myriad forms of wildlife. Two favourites of mine were ‘Earth Psalter’ and ‘Potholes.’ The first of these succeeded in conveying a sense of the River Gelt’s ancient geological impact as a force of nature, while also hinted at past tragedies, conflicts and inspiration on local artisans. The second summed up the feeling one gets when traversing down the steep banks of the Lower Gelt and experiencing first-hand the raging torrent as it cuts out ‘cannonball’ shapes in the rock.

The musical dimension (I avoid using the term ‘accompaniment’ as it is so much more than this) is an unlikely but successful synergy between the tablas, cello and saxophone. Penny coaxed some incredibly diverse sounds from her cello and put to rest any preconceived notion that the instrument is somehow ‘mournful’. As well as her bowing technique, she plucked at the strings, employed string-bending, vibrato and what I can only interpret as a kind of harmonic tremolo effect on the gentler passages. Each technique was used with great flare to evoke different moods and descriptions to the video’s vistas. As such, the cello provided both rhythm and melody components that allowed Phil’s saxophone to express its more solo contributions.

I have observed Phil’s playing evolve and progress over the years to incorporate a host of elements including jazz, blues and soul. More recently he has become increasingly experimental and this project has allowed him to use the instrument creatively, in a sense —  without boundaries. Although he was clearly following a written score, there were many times when he seemed to improvise, bouncing off the other two musicians in true jazz-honoured tradition. It was delightful to see the smiles on their faces during these playful sections, seeming as it did to reflect the jauntier aspects of the River Gelt’s flow. I particularly enjoyed a scene depicting a grey wagtail pottering through the shallows accompanied by the whimsical playing of the trio.

The audience were invited not to respond with applause during the hour long performance to allow the quieter segments of the performance to be fully appreciated. Yet, once it was finished, they could not contain their appreciation by offering rapturous applause and whoops of delight. This clearly touched a nerve as Phil gave an emotional address at the conclusion, thanking all involved for their support and contributions.

I understand there are further elements to the project in the pipeline, including some recordings and a further concert in Newcastle but, for now, all of us present have a night to remember that we can draw upon when finding ourselves in a reflective mood. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeking out some of the locations featured in the video that I’ve never explored before. Seeing as the event was captured on video, perhaps you too will have the opportunity to view it and discover the River Gelt anew.

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