Angus Farquhar has had quite a decade. This is something the former driving force behind environmental auteurs NVA and post-industrial agit-provocateurs Test Dept. might wish to mull over in the unlikely event he can find a quiet moment on Hogmanay next week. Farquhar will be seeing out the year playing as one half of Second Citizen, his new marimba-based duo formed with classically trained percussionist Cameron Sinclair, who make their live club debut as part of Optimo’s End of the Decade Party in Glasgow.
Second Citizen was launched at Dear Europe, an internationalist performance cabaret presented by the National Theatre of Scotland on the day Brexit was originally earmarked to take place. Farquhar introduced the performance with a spoken-word prologue that expounded on what Europe meant to him on both a personal and professional level, following it up with a mesmerising duet of rhythmic physicality.
“It was my response as a European to what’s happening in Britain, and the belief that we’re becoming second class citizens,” says Farquhar. “We were lucky to grow up in a world with lots of co-operation, and leaving Europe is a retrograde step. I responded with words, but I also wanted to respond with sound.”
On Hogmanay, Optimo will effectively create a one-night republic at 69 Nelson Mandela Place. All door money will be split between the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights, anti-racist refugee and migrant homelessness charity Positive Housing in Action, and Drumchapel Foodbank. For Second Citizen’s performance, the beats will be ramped up even more by the presence of Keith McIvor, aka Optimo sonic revolutionary JD Twitch, who will add electronics to Second Citizen’s already provocative mix.
“I love drumming,” enthuses Farquhar of Second Citizen’s back to basics approach. “Once it’s inside you, it never goes away. With Test Department, we spent hours and hours and hours in basements of abandoned squats playing found percussion for years, so it’s imprinted on you. I can pick up rhythms I first played thirty-five years ago.”
During their lifespan, Test Dept. performed in abandoned factories, made a record with striking miners, provided the live soundtrack for Welsh epic, Gododdin, at Tramway in Glasgow and reconstituted Beltane as a mass May Day celebration on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. With Farquhar taking on the mantle of NVA (an acronym of Nacionale Vita Activa, expressing the Ancient Greek ideal of a lively democracy), over the company’s 26-year existence, they produced a series of increasingly ambitious outdoor spectacles.
These included Stormy Waters, which took place on the banks of the River Clyde, The Path, which reimagined the locale around Glen Lyon in Perthshire during a night-time gorge walk, and Speed of Light, a late-night animation that took audiences up Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. NVA were instrumental too in an attempt to reinvigorate St Peter’s Seminary, the abandoned modernist masterpiece near Cardross.
All that ended in 2018, however, when Scotland’s arts funding body Creative Scotland turned down NVA’s bid for regular funding. The company closed down operations, with work at St Peter’s no longer sustainable.
“Nobody thought we could do what we tried to do with St Peter’s,” says Farquhar. “It was a hugely ambitious project, but we became handcuffed to it.”
NVA has clearly left its mark on Farquhar.
“I would say I’ve got bruises rather than scars. I certainly feel more creative than I’ve been for years, and that’s a joy. I’m poorer, but it’s great learning new skills, and having to take responsibility for things. I don’t have a team of eight incredibly committed people around me anymore, but this is really good for me, even though it’s hard. But I don’t want to run something on that scale again, because in the end the company ends up running you. I learnt a lot in that period, and in a way NVA ending mirrored the disintegration of Britain, but it was also very liberating.
“I think a lot of people in their 50s go through that sort of thing, and NVA is still very live as a presence. I look back at some of the things we did, and I think, how on earth did we do that, taking people to the top of mountains and everything else? It was wonderfully ambitious, but it’s good now to work at different scales. There’s something very pure about being able to work with your hands and two sticks and do something simple. With NVA, everything had to be complex, but this is a much simpler way of putting joy out into the world.”
Collaborating with Sinclair is crucial to Farquhar’s reinvigoration.
“Cameron came through a classical background, and can play Steve Reich from memory,” Farquhar says of his Guildhall-trained band-mate, a prestigious composer and conductor in his own right. “I thought, okay, let’s see what happens when someone from a classical background plays with someone from my background, and the result was complete freedom. It’s like we’ve been playing for years.”
McIvor’s presence adds something else again.
“Throwing Keith into the mix was a dream,” says Farquhar. “He’s always resisted doing live stuff, but Test Dept. was one of his favourite bands, and he’s created these really interesting electronic rhythms to play with, so the set we’re doing in Optimo works really well in a club setting. There’s a real physicality to we’re going to be doing, so you get a really primal sound.”
Farquhar’s comrades in Test Dept. reactivated operations in 2014 for DS30, a multi-media performance at Newcastle’s AV Festival to mark the 30th anniversary of the Miner’s strike, and have remained active. Second Citizen have similarly picked up the flame of oppositional activity. Plans are afoot to release a single through Optimo’s record label, and visual aspects of the band’s live show are also being developed for the new decade. In the meantime, Optimo’s End of Decade Party is a show of strength on many levels.
“For us playing, I want it to be a pure celebration of life,” says Farquhar. “For Hogmanay, I feel free, and I feel happy in our response to the horrific position Britain finds itself in. We can be hedonists for the night.”
Second Citizen play Optimo End of the Decade Party @ Room 2, 69 Nelson Mandela Place, Glasgow, December 31, 10.30pm.
The Herald, December 26th 2019