The name Paul Burwell first came to my attention in 1973. A Jazz in Britain broadcast on Radio 3 featured a session by Rain in the Face. I don’t recall if this was the original duo with guitarist David Toop, or a larger grouping, but I do remember being very taken with the extraordinary use of percussion.
I was no stranger to improvised music, having been exposed at an impressionable age to the likes of Spontaneous Music Ensemble and the People Band, so had already sat at the feet of master drummers John Stevens and Terry Day, but Paul seemed to be on a very different tack, utilising silence, sonority, an extended range of sound sources and repertoire of techniques that had taken him a long way from the frenetic ‘free- form-out-of-post-Coltrane jazz drumming’ that I was familiar with.
I kept abreast of developments on the improv. circuit, mostly through Musics magazine and the London Musicians Collective, together with my own tentative efforts at noise-making in Hull (encouraged by Eddie Prevost, another hugely influential drummer to add to the pantheon). But it was not until I began promoting experimental work as Other Musics from 1983 onward that the paths of Paul and myself finally crossed.
On 6 December 1984.I invited the Bow Gamelan Ensemble (Paul Burwell, Anne Bean and Richard Wilson) up to Hull for a performance at the Ferens Art Gallery. The startling transformation taking place in the usually tranquil marble centre court throughout the day, and the increasingly concerned expressions on the faces of gallery staff soon confirmed prior warnings that this was not going to be any ordinary evening. I was dispatched to forage for lengths of rope and burned-out fluorescent light tubes, probably in order to stop me fretting during the afternoon as work progressed.
A polite exhibition preview of holographic work was taking place in another part of the building at the same time, and well-heeled patrons could be seen picking their disdainful way through the scrap yard of our performance space. Before things even got underway I was obliged to placate a curator about the conspicuous amount of alcohol being consumed by the artists involved in the programme of events, although surprisingly not by the members of Bow Gamelan who were far too busy with elaborate preparations, right up to the moment when their set commenced.
About sixty people must have witnessed the event, jammed into what suddenly seemed like a very constricted space, especially when the performers advanced upon us, lighted butane torches raised to stimulate the initial low moaning sounds emitted by rapidly heated glass tubes. Large sheets of steel were struck, flexed and bowed, oil drums were thrashed and set alight, scrap metal and gravel was hurled into a bank of tortured tumble dryers, bag pipes suspended from the ceiling magically inflated themselves, twitching and wailing in protest. Gongs boomed, bells clamoured, sirens wailed and showers of sparks flew from a trio of screeching angle-grinders. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more intense, the sound and activity would progress to another level. Crescendo followed crescendo of industrial-scale mayhem, until at last three figures stood centre stage amid the carnage with flaming letters atop their protective headgear spelling out the word BOW.
As silence finally descended, a distant alarm bell could be heard somewhere in the building (no one had thought to instruct the attendants to turn the smoke detectors off in adjacent rooms), and even before the audience could reconfigure their disoriented senses, the sound of emergency vehicles could be heard rapidly approaching. As if on cue a dozen burly firemen rushed into the arena, breathing apparatus and axes at the ready, to be confronted by a crowd of wildly cheering, laughing and applauding spectators, while Paul, Richard and Anne stood grinning sheepishly in the middle of it all, smoke still billowing from their helmets.
To their credit the local brigade took it very well, and Paul, switching to diplomatic mode born of long experience, had soon smoothed things over. He happily explained and demonstrated the various pieces of apparatus in his arsenal to the bemused but intrigued assembly of fire-fighters. Needless to say, the gallery’s director was not so easily placated. There were ramifications, and as promoter I faced severe censure from the powers that be. The remaining Other Musics concerts were briefly under threat of cancellation, but eventually it was agreed the gallery was long overdue a proper fire drill, and the Bow Gamelan incident was grudgingly overlooked, if never entirely forgotten.
After that, Paul’s appearances in Hull became almost an annual event. He was a regular visiting lecturer at the Humberside College Art & Design Department. A Percussion/Performance piece with Jan Howarth took place at the Ferens Art Gallery in December 1985, and in January 1987 he gave a drum solo, and also played in an impromptu trio with saxophonist Paul Jolly and pianist Mike Adcock. In August of the same year he staged a large-scale outdoor event on Victoria Pier entitled Drums Along the Humber, following a series of workshops with the Fine Art students.
There were other events, promoted by Hull Time Based Arts, in which I took little part, but Paul always seemed pleased to see me.
Around 1992 I took some time out from promoting in order to concentrate on art historical research and playing double bass in more conventional contexts. A decade quickly passed, and I was surprised to learn that Paul had moved to the area, taking over the old Kingston Rowing Club buildings on the banks of the River Hull in 2000 together with locally-based artist Harry Palmer.
It would be another couple of years before we renewed our acquaintance. He invited me to take part in a series of interviews with local live art and music practitioners for the on-line radio station ResonanceFM, entitled Hull on Earth (broadcast July-August 2003). We chewed the fat about a wide range of disparate topics, from Philip Larkin (Paul introduced me as one of an illustrious line of local jazz-loving librarians – not strictly accurate but flattering none the less!) to creative arts education in the 1970’s; from the first generation of British improvising musicians to public and interventionist art and the work of Welfare State International. There was lengthy digression by Paul as to why the city of Hull should have such a disproportionately high national profile for a city of its size (does it really?). We laughed a lot, but came to no serious conclusions about anything. I selected some obscure examples from my vinyl collection and personal sound archive to illustrate critical moments of my musical development.
From that point on we began to make music on a regular basis in the KRC boat shed, which Paul had converted into a rehearsal and performance space. These included a crazy little brass band with local poet and trombonist John Robinson; an ill-fated blues outfit with four-piece horn section; a duo spawned at Rob Gawthrop’s fiftieth birthday party with the tongue-in-cheek working title of A Concise History of Drum’n’Bass. There was a particularly tasteless country group featuring Corona Smith, alternatively called Sunny & The Sheeites or John Carey & the Bushwackers, who mangled a set of mawkish aeroplane-related songs at one of the KRC’s more provocative events ‘Ye Olde Twin Towers (or The Real 9/11)’ which took place on November 9th 2004.
Other highlights for me mus
t include a performance of Bob Cobbing’s sound poem ‘Tan Tan’, together with Paul, Anne Bean and John Robinson, incorporating: “… a nice little Tibetan middle-eight”, as Paul put it in his introduction; the dramatic appearance of a ‘Japanese Conceptual Sound-Artist’ in the KRC swimming pool; Paul drumming on my bass strings during a rendition of ‘Big Noise from Winetka’; and an impromptu trio with the Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad at the inaugural Hull Art Lab event.
We experimented with new ideas for instruments, coming up with the KRoCo, a 13-stringed instrument with moveable bridges based very loosely on the Japanese Koto. A giant heavy-metal version was proposed, drawings made and materials acquired, but it was not to be.
Paul’s health was already beginning to deteriorate. The few performances during 2005 were increasingly shambolic and distressing for those of us who had known him for any time. However, he marshalled his resources for one last public appearance, at a major civic spectacular in York on 5 November 2005 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the gunpowder plot. The organisers failed to provide an adequate pontoon, so Paul was forced to take to the River Ouse on his own hastily repaired raft of steel drums, laden down with percussion and pyrotechnic equipment. It soon began to ship water and list badly, flooding the circuits and switches required to detonate various devices, which then had to be set off by hand. By all accounts his performance, part of a large scale ‘Symphony for Bells, Brass and Percussion’, was a triumph in the face of adversity. He was completely exhausted afterwards, and somehow never seemed to regain his strength.
I think it’s fair to say that, in the main, we shared good working relations rather than a close personal friendship, and for that reason I saw little of him over the last year, a fact I now much regret. All praise must go to those who remained close by and loyal to the end.
In gathering memories and material for this piece, my natural instinct was often to pick up the phone in order to ask Paul for information and anecdotes on certain key dates or band line-ups. I miss his generosity of spirit, his encouragement, enthusiasm, resourcefulness and abrasive humour, his endless fund of knowledge and huge multi-faceted talent. My life has been made richer for knowing him.
Dave Ellis February 2007.