Martin Green is never content with the humdrum. He tells Duncan Seaman about his latest project inspired by migration
In his role as accordionist, piano player and electronic experimenter in the trio Lau, Martin Green has helped produce some of the most adventurous folk music of the last ten years.
Now he’s branching out even further with a multi-media project inspired by first hand stories of human migration around the world.
Flit involves a string of collaborators, from songwriters Karine Polwart, Aidan Moffat and Anaïs Mitchell to musicians Adrian Utley of Portishead and Dominic Aitchison of Mogwai and singers Becky Unthank, Adam Holmes and John Smith as well as animators whiterobot.
First staged at this summer’s Edinburgh Festival, it’ll be visiting the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds next month on its UK tour.
Green says “three things happened at once” to inspire Flit. The first involved him collecting stories of migration from his own family, including his grandmother, “mostly for my children”.
“That set me off on going and talking to other people that were around the world for one reason or another,” he says. “They seemed like fascinating stories.”
He was keen to work with Unthank and Utley again after collaborating on another project, Crows’ Bones, for Leeds-based Opera North. “That felt like the start of something, not the end.”
This time Green also wanted the Edinburgh-based animation duo whiterobot on board, as he’d “loved their work for a long time”. “I knew we wanted to do something together that was a kind of integrated element into the show.”
Green’s grandparents came to London as Jewish refugees from Austria in the 1930s. “In terms of migration that was not particularly contemporary,” he says, but as he talked to others their stories gradually advanced towards the present day.
He says: “It was quite a broad range chronologically. There was quite a mass exodus from the Scottish islands in the 19th century and a woman who’s about 40 years old now, she’d grown up in East Berlin and as a child had seen the Wall come down, her family had all moved around at that point – it was fascinating.”
Green wanted to examine migration as a “universal phenomenon”.
“Although it’s obviously extremely timely to be thinking about that now it wasn’t directly triggered by contemporary events,” he says. “The show doesn’t really talk about time or place, there are no direct references historically or geographically, it’s just about that sense of moving around and the circumstances under which people do it.”
He continues: “We’ve been working on this for two years and in that time it’s become an increasingly inflammatory word migration, which is a shame because I think it focuses so much on people’s fear of not being in control of their own immediate environment and also the circumstances around how people are forced to move. What gets ignored I think a lot of the time is that a) this is just a natural phenomenon, it should be assumed as a given, really, that people should be able to move around and b) there are hugely beneficial aspects to everybody for churning up the global population and moving it around.”
Working with Utley and Aitchison, Green built up around 30 musical ideas and gathered them with the stories he’d collected – some of which he’d re-written as prose “in a kind of fictional way to knock some of the facts out of them” – then sent them to the songwriters. He says it was an “interesting process”.
“They picked the stories they liked and the tunes they thought they could work with and started writing songs on top of those bits of music.
“Part of what worked well, particularly for me, was you lose quite quickly a sense of personal ownership of these things. They’re all quite Frankensteinian in the way that they were created and I think that really helped us to not be precious. You don’t feel like you made this thing yourself and you’re not resistant to changing it even for the better.”
What Green hopes has emerged is a show that’s multi-dimensional. “We were talking with whiterobot at the beginning how we didn’t want to make a film and perform a live soundtrack which is some thing that I’ve done but you’re not making the most perhaps of having a live band. You end up just watching a film.
“Likewise we didn’t want to reduce what they were making to just abstract visuals behind a band, like you would do in a stadium rock show. So trying to work out where that middle point was was actually the most exciting thing for us.
“One of the things that we found out from the show we did before was that audiences are quite happy to shift their focus between following narrative in a film then if you turn that film off and light the singer then they’ll pay attention to the singer, so long as you keep guiding people with light and don’t give them too many things to focus on at the same time it seemed natural to move between these elements. The way that the set works the animation is quite three-dimensional, it comes forward through the set, it’s not stuck on a back wall so these characters can kind of be amongst us on stage. That was something else which excited us, them making a film which doesn’t need to fit a square box.”
Green is quietly hopeful that people will enjoy the project. “Immersive is a word that gets over-used – everyone hopes their show is immersive because if it’s not that probably means the audience is bored – but I hope the audience isn’t bored,” he chuckles.
Flit is at the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on Saturday October 29, For details visit https://www.operanorth.co.uk/productions/flit. For details on Flit the album visit http://martingreen.bigcartel.com/
Whiterobot’s animations are an important part Flit. “I’d seen a couple of their films and I’d found them very beautiful,” says Green.
“What they’re able to do is bring inanimate objects to life, they bring humanity to things that in this instance are made out of paper. That seemed both very human and also very hand made. Coming from folk music, that seemed aesthetically similar in as much as a visual form can be similar to a musical form.
“I met up with them and it seemed immediately like a band, the three of us. That made sense straight away.”
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