Heart Of Improvisation by Ian McMillan

Ian McMillan’s article for AVANT Magazine about The Shed and the Yorkshire Pudding Boat Race . The piece was used as the basis of the Press Release for The Shed -‘far removed’ weekend in June 99.

Think of improvisation. Think of a village hall. It’s a difficult one: the two don’t often go together. Maybe an interesting piece tapelooped from squabblings in the scout group and the clinking of tea cups. An album of the noise suggested by the steam from a thousand kettles at a thousand meetings.

Think of improvisation. Think of The Shed. Not A Shed, but The Shed, and the The makes all the difference, as it often does. The Shed has been described variously as “The Best Venue in England” (David Thomas of Pere Ubu said that, and he should know) “The UK’s most offbeat arts centre” by The Independent and, well, they might know, and “Britain’s Liveliest Venue” by BBC Radio 4 and hey, what do they know? The Shed itself is a piece of improvisation…

The Shed is the sparkling idea of Simon Thackray, sculptor and ideas man. He wanted to create a venue that you could just walk to down your village street past your village bench and your village telephone box. A village hall, in fact, but a village hall with Factor X. The Factor X in question is a shed door that stands at the back of the village hall at every gig, surrounded by white cloth and brightly lit and giving each gig the feel of The Shed.

For the past few years The Shed has presented a wide range (given that it only seats seventy and draws from as far afield as Pickering and Scotland) of Avant-friendly music including Tony Moore, The Justin Vali Trio, the aforementioned David Thomas with his two pale boys, Theo Travis, Jim Mullen, Jan Kopinski, The British Saxophone Quartet and Craig Peebles. I made that last one up. The Shed also presents a mix of folk and poetry, but over the last couple of seasons (how long is a Shed season? From the hinge to the doorknob!) Simon has got more and more into the idea of music that doesn’t sound the same two days running, and that’s where the idea for the ‘Far Removed’ weekend came from. Well, it came from that and an evening of music and words with me and guitarist Janet Wood and bass player Kubryk Townsend where the second half of the evening was a spontaneous creating (with the audience) of a new piece called Shed Cycle.

So the Far Removed weekend is about things that only happen once, or that might happen again but next time they’ll be different. It happens from the 11th – 13th June and it features all kinds of music that have rarely been heard in a village hall before. Artists booked include Marshall, Travis, Wood, the amazing percussionist Mark Sanders, who will be performing with Mrs.Boyes from Malton who will be calling out bingo numbers, a perfect basis for improvisation since there’s no point ever planning bingo numbers because that would take away the whole point of bingo. Yes, that Mrs. Boyes. Bob Cobbing, one of my poetic heroes since I was a sensitive sixth former will be performing with Paul Hession, Alan Wilkinson and Simon H. Fell, Billy Jenkins with the Blues Collective will be squeezed in as well, and I’ll be there with Kubryk Townsend presenting a brand new piece called The Yorkshire Pudding Boat Songs.

Let me tell you about the Yorkshire Pudding Boat Songs: they’re the essence of The Shed, somehow. They’ll be happening at the Yorkshire Pudding Boat Race, naturally. Simon Thackray discovered (it’s obvious, really) that if you varnish yorkshire puddings they become boats. If you launch them carefully they’ll float down the river. If you put a little motor in them you can be in charge of them. If you put a Barbie or a Ken in them it looks like Barbie or Ken are steering them. And so they float down the river in a little race and me and Kubryk Townsend perform our partly improvised/partly written Yorkshire Pudding Boat Songs. And that’s why The Shed idea works. Isn’t it the case that the kind of music we love often scares people away when it needn’t? Wouldn’t we rather have crowds at our gigs than bunches? Bingo and Yorkshire Puddings at the improvisation weekend: two cultures bumping together, smiling. Improvisation at the village hall. Lovely!

© Ian McMillan 1999