My Pop Life #87 : Prélude a l’àprés-midi d’un faune – Claude Debussy

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Prélude a l’àprès-midi d’un faune   –   Claude Debussy

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There used to be two working piers in Brighton.  The Palace Pier, which still stands and contains the Victorian helter skelter and a pub ‘Horatios’, and the West Pier where I saw my first gig (The Barron Knights – see My Pop Life #63) and which was closed in 1975 due to high maintenance costs.  Built and designed by Eugenius Birch in 1866 it was Grade 2 listed despite slowly rotting away, and in the late 1990s a little momentum gathered to apply for English Heritage and Lottery money for a full restoration.  The owners of the Palace Pier, the Ignoble Organisation (sic) were not happy at all, scenting competition.  In 2003 not one but TWO fires occurred on the West Pier’s rotten structure, home only to bird’s roosts and the odd pop video, and it burnt to a shell.

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It felt like the entire population of the town was on the beach that morning to watch it burn away.  Earlier, a speedboat was spotted leaving the scene of the crime, and in my view the Latin phrase ‘cui bono‘ is the appropriate pointer to who was ultimately responsible.  After the fires English Heritage deemed it unfit for restoration, and it was partly demolished to make way for the i360 which may also be a cause of competition for The Palace Pier, (unnecessarily re-named Brighton Pier for similar ugly reasons).

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But before the fires, Andy Baybutt and I used to enjoy sitting on the stones and watching the starlings wheel and spin at sunset every night in a glorious and mysterious ballet before roosting in their thousands beneath the structure.  We decided – in a moment of stoned genius naturally – to film this local safari and so for twelve almost consecutive evenings in 2000 we shot the birds wheeling and falling through the air on their singular and collective missions with two mini-DV cams.  The lighting was hugely different each night.  We asked and received permission to film the spectacular event on the pier itself from Rachel at the West Pier Trust, and walked down the rickety iron walkway through the derelict ballroom to the theatre at the end, shooting through broken glass at the starlings flying in their thousands past the decay.

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We’d already shot a pop video for The Crocketts on the West Pier with local mate and actor Mark Williams for a song called “Host” which you can find on YouTube – we also shot on the Palace Pier for that video…so the pier filming wasn’t unique, but the idea of filming nature was.   There’s a mini-murmuration in the “Host” video, but now we were after the full thing.  {Murmuration is the collective noun for a group of starlings}.  They gather just before dusk and start flying in random but stunning formations over and around the pier, splitting, soaring, swooping, changing direction and shape like a shoal of fish or a galaxy exploding, atomic particles under a microscope;  it really is quite mesmerising (whether you’re stoned or not).

One day before shooting we sat there watching it with various songs in the headphones wondering what would work.  As soon as Claude Debussy‘s flute line came lilting through my ears I knew it was right – and once the orchestra starts to play, in the same tempo as the birds are flying, the music really found its purpose.

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Claude Debussy

Written in 1894 and inspired by a poem by Mallarmé, this impressionistic piece of music – Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun in English – is often cited as the start of modern music in that it never concludes or resolves itself.   The poet was unhappy about someone writing music to his poem – until he heard it.  Claude Debussy himself spent time in East Sussex and wrote another impressionistic masterpiece “La Mer” (the sea) in Eastbourne in 1905.

Featured imageDebussy was a hugely influential composer, particularly on Ravel, Gershwin, Delius, and Stravinsky among the classical composers, and Ellington, Miles Davis, Monk and John Williams among the jazz and film composers.    Prélude a l’àprès-midi d’un faune was danced as a ballet in fact in 1924 by the great Nijinsky and caused much furore when he appeared to masturbate as part of the production – despite this being one of the themes of the piece.  In the original poem a satyr or puck-like figure follows some nymphs one summer’s afternoon, becoming aroused, but cannot catch them and have his wicked way so instead falls asleep in the afternoon sun.  It is a beautiful piece of music and immediately accessible, even with its key changes and tempo adjustments, the flute keeps reappearing and serenading us into bliss.  When matched with the starling’s ballet some serendipitous magic appears to be at work – surely they can hear it?

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As to why the starlings fly in this way – we do not know.   I have researched it a great deal – they are my favourite birds – and theories abound.  They’re making a defensive formation against peregrine falcons.  They’re enjoying themselves before they go to bed.  Fish do it as a defensive collective measure.  So perhaps.  Best theory I know is this :  they’re trying to get a roosting position next to the strongest flyers, the ones who can turn speed and direction fastest, because they’ve eaten best that day, and in the morning they’ll wake together and follow them out to the feeding ground.  Who knows ?

Andy Baybutt and I met as mutual friends of Mark Williams, an actor I’d met at the RSC in 1990 (my last time on stage until 2009) and who’d moved to Brighton just before Jenny and I.  Mark had surrounded himself with young people in Brighton – still friends of ours many of them : Josh, Keith & Yarra, Andy & Jo (then together), Patrick, Kirsty, Sorya, Louise.    Andy and Jo got married shortly thereafter.   For some inexplicable reason I always treated Andy B like a long-lost younger brother, possibly because I have two younger brothers.   When he and Jo split up later on it felt like all of our mutual friends sided with Jo.   I always want to stay friends with both parties, but this naive approach has got me in trouble in the past.   Somehow I managed to do it in this case, and Jo Thornhill and Andy Baybutt are still two of my close friends to this day.   Andy is a camera expert and and a very good director in his own right (see Something For Nothing : The Art Of Rap) and we made three short films together in those Brighton years –  “The Murmuration” is the best of them and quite probably the best thing I have ever done.  No words, no people, just starlings and music, a perfect match.   When we edited the footage on my computer in 2001 the music gave us a finite timeline – just over eleven minutes – and the differing skylines and colours of those 12 sunsets had to appear to be the same day – and so we had our work cut out.   The wind was also a factor, any gust of wind would cause a tremble in the picture (no tripods!) – so the edit was a major challenge in retrospect.   The finished product isn’t perfect but it does work as a piece of art – ‘ambient film‘ perhaps.   I always wondered if it could be a pre-flight soother, or play in dentist’s waiting rooms.   There is untapped commercial potential but my hustle isn’t really built for that.   For a while Andy and I sold DVDs of the film at The West Pier Trust office but that fizzled out – there must be a few hundred out there somewhere.   I don’t actually have a copy of the film myself anymore.   Andy and I talk often about putting it on youtube, but we never do.  Extra footage was shot by Amanda Ooms‘ sister Sara Kander while Andy and I were on the Pier itself, she was on the beach when tens of thousands of birds were wheeling around the crumbling structure, that was an amazing day, and some of our most spectacular footage.   Help with production was generously offered by Jo Thornhill, Jenny Jules, Steve McNicholas & Luke Cresswell.

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The last day of filming was a little overcast.  Andy thought it wouldn’t match for light, but I was a little addicted to the process and went out in drizzly weather and staked out a position at 90 degrees to the pier, looking directly out to sea.  After shooting for some 35 minutes, the battery light started to flash red.  At that exact moment the birds appeared to fly together in a series of mesmerising turns just to the west of the pier, with a section landing at each turn, the mass murmuration becoming gradually smaller and smaller.  I watched in alarm as this beauty unfolded in front of me – the camera was balanced on a 10p piece on the railing – the light flashed, the starlings dwindled, the light faded and finally the last few birds settled beneath the pier and all that remained were the grey waves and the derelict structure.  And then the battery ran out and the camera went dark.  Luck, magic, faith, love…   But there’s more.   When Andy and I realised that the footage from that day had to be the final shot of the film, as the music gently relaxes and fades, we lined up the last bird landing with the last note of the music, and then watched it back.  On at least three occasions the birds turn precisely in time with the music.  Quite extraordinary…

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There are many many versions of this online, ranging from 7 minutes (Paganini – ridiculously fast!) to over 11 minutes, which is my personal preference, and the preference of the starlings themselves I believe…

If anyone reading this has a copy of The Murmuration perhaps you could let me know…

POST-SCRIPT !  In the final moments of 2015 Andy made a digital copy from the master beta tape, and uploaded the whole damn thing onto YouTube.  So here it is pop-lovers, starlings, the West Pier, and Debussy…

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