On a stage full of musical clutter, there's a man playing a harmonium. The drones emanating from the instrument are mournful, and as familiar sounding as the school assembly piano tinkles coming from the other side of the stage. Yet, only when a voice comes in does everything click into place. It's a voice that doesn't so much speak as intone in a doleful and deadpan baritone that's instantly recognisable as one Ivor Cutler, the Glasgow-born poet, songwriter and performer whose minimalist absurdism captured several generations of left-field humour-loving listeners to BBC radio. This relationship began in the 1950s and 1960s on Monday Night at Home, broadening Cutler's appeal in the 1980s and 1990s via John Peel and Andy Kershaw's shows before Cutler passed away in 2006.
The above scene opened the third day of a week's development at Inverness' Eden Court Theatre for Matthew Lenton's Vanishing Point theatre company's forthcoming show. This co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland has the working title of The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, and will be one of two Vanishing Point projects set to appear in 2014. The second, set to be produced with partners in Russia and Brazil, will look at old age and caring. Which, judging by the very early stages of the Ivor Cutler show, looks set to be thematically related.
As a four piece band led by musical director James Fortune, who worked recently on west end hit, Posh, stand by, actors Sandy Grierson and Elicia Daly sit opposite each other at a small square table bedecked with microphones and two water-filled glasses. With a flat-capped Grierson doing a pitch-perfect impression of Cutler's voice, the pair engage in a sad and sweet little dialogue that suggests the pair are saying goodbye for the final time. As their exchange reaches a natural impasse, Grierson and Daly circle their fingers along the rim of the glasses, setting off a set of amplified chimes which the band quietly pick up on, not just with harmonium and piano, but with violin, musical saw and brushed drums.
These underscore Grierson's funereal rendition of Cutler's song, I'm Going in A Field, a ditty first heard on Cutler's 1967 George Martin produced album, Ludo, recorded after Cutler appeared as Buster Bloodvessel in The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour film. The song was more recently heard in Paisley Patter, part of Scottish Ballet's 2010 Off Kilter dance compendium. As Grierson repeats Cutler's erotically inclined mantra with increasing abandon, its sentiments and melody may sound not unlike Louis Armstrong's take on Wonderful World, but, with Grierson up on his feet and pacing the floor like a pop star, the music rises and swells with equal abandon. The effect is spine-tinglingly elegiac. As a card-carrying member of the Noise Abatement Society, Mr Cutler, as he preferred to be called, would not approve.
“Now and again we're very intentionally disturbing Ivor Cutler's cosmos,” Fortune confesses, “but at the same time respecting his world view by trying to find justification for that. You can get away with it if you have the character of Ivor Cutler come onstage and say I hated that. I'm also thinking of it like a gig, in that we'll write down a list of songs, and think, what would that be like? He's got a lot of love songs.”
For Lenton too, the roots of the project are musical, dating all the way back to Vanishing Point's 2007 show, Subway. That show saw company associate Grierson onstage with a seven-piece Balkan band the company came across in a bar while on tour.
““When we were workshoping Subway, we had a violin in the room,” Lenton explains, “and would do improvisations where we'd just tell a story and someone would play some music. In all that improv we would always use that song, I'm Going in a Field, which I loved.”
Fortune observes that Cutler's distinctive musical style itself has its roots in klezmer, a musical form that combines the joyous with the melancholy in a way that chimes with Lenton and Grierson's outlook.
“The thing that worried me about it was of being too twee or too cosy,” says Lenton. “I talked myself around that by imagining if Ivor Cutler was Russian rather than Scottish, he'd maybe be thought of more as someone like Gogol or one of those absurd Russians.
Grierson goes further, likening Cutler to Polish-born Jewish American novelist, Isaac Bashevis Singer.
“Cutler was Jewish, “ Grierson says, “so you see his Scottishness, but his Jewishness also comes through in his work, and you see all sorts of similarities.”
If such sentiments tally with Vanishing Point's internationalist outlook, the company's second 2014 production looks set to make their approach even more concrete. Following previous partnerships with companies in Italy and Portugal on Interiors and Saturday Night, this new work with the working title of Growing Old looks set to be developed with collaborators in Glasgow, Brasilia and Moscow, before premiering at the Brighton Festival. Before this, Interiors looks set to tour to Buenos Aires, Santiago and Lima, with other possibilities beyond those dates.
“It's an interesting time to be doing all that,” Lenton says, “It's something that I've always wanted to do, and, instinctively, I've always looked outside this country for my influences, but at this time, you also get these different perspectives of Scotland from all these different places. With the independence referendum coming up, you get a lot of people in different countries who are interested in Scotland and ideas of Scottishness.”
Lenton, who recently decamped his living arrangements from Glasgow to Nairn, talks seriously about relocating Vanishing Point's operations solely to a highland base, where he would be able to operate in a manner which again resembles more holistically inclined European ensembles who step off the artistic production line to operate on their own terms.
“Part of me just wants to do the Pina Bausch thing, buying a barn up here, making the company based here, having a place where artists can stay, and having a partnership with Eden Court, where we can maybe present a show a year as well as touring work out from here. It's easy for companies to get too comfortable with a particular aesthetic, and I think that's dangerous. Not just with the work we do, but how we work. It's all about being curious, and not seeing boundaries or borders, and wanting to work with people from different places. Vanishing Point have always ploughed our own furrow, and found ways that we want to work. As an artist, and as a person, you have to keep moving forward, and you have to keep trying things that you don't know you can do.”
Mr Cutler might have approved.
Vanishing Point's Ivor Cutler project will premiere in co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland in April 2014.
Vanishing Point – Theatre, Music and Internationalism.
2004/5 - Lost Ones – Vanishing Point's breakthrough show featured original music by Alasdair Macrae, and featured an international cast who toured Scotland, Kosovo, Macedonia and Sri Lanka.
2007 – Subway – Sandy Grierson and a seven piece Balkan band discovered while on tour featured in this dystopian tale of a prodigal's return to the city he left behind.
2009 - The Beggar's Opera – This startling cyberpunk reinvention of John Gay's eighteenth century satire featured a live score performed by A Band Called Quinn.
Ivor Cutler in Words and Music
Ivor Cutler was born in Glasgow in 1923, and first recoded his songs and poems for Monday Night at Home, which he appeared on thirty-eight times between 1959 and 1963.
Paul McCartney spotted Cutler on a late night television show, and invited him to play Buster Bloodvessel in the Beatles film, Magical Mystery Tour.
Beatles producer George Martin worked on Cutler's first album, Ludo.
Cutler recorded his first session for John Peel's BBC Radio 1 programme in 1969. Another twenty-one followed.
Cutler released fifteen records on labels that included Virgin, Rough Trade and Creation.
Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Volume 2 was recorded live at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow, and released in 1978.
Cutler published twelve books of poetry, six prose works and fourteen children's books, before he passed away in 2006 aged eighty-three.
The Herald, July 9th 2013