“In writing these songs, we felt we were pulling the war towards us — out of remembrance and into the everyday — into the now.” – Field Music
During the last five or so years, while ever more finely honing Field Music’s precise, astute art-pop over 2016’s compellingly funky Commontime and last year’s warm but sharply observed Open Here – alongside various side projects – David and Peter Brewis have found another outlet for their remarkable, inventive compositions.
Beginning with 2013’s Music For Drifters, a live soundtrack to John Grierson’s herring-fishing “epic of steam and steel”, the Brewises have a sideline in soundtracks by commission, which has encompassed Asunder, an alternative social history of the First World War and now leads – neatly, but apparently coincidentally – to tonight’s performance, commissioned by the Imperial War Museums as part of their WWI centenary Making a New World season.
The band explain, in the notes handed to us as we step into the imposing atrium, a Spitfire and Harrier Jump Jet in suspended flight over our heads, that they were presented by the IWM with a graphic record of the moment the guns fell quiet, on 11/11/1918. Produced using sound ranging, a method of locating enemy artillery using six microphones, vibrating wires and a graph captured on photographic film, the contrast between the vibrations recorded in the minutes either side of 11.00 a.m. couldn’t be more stark.
Using the idea as a jumping-off point, the end of one thing being the beginning of so many others, the band’s concept imagined the parallel wires continuing to vibrate over the last 100 years, with moments – however small – from the war and its immediate aftermath continuing to resonate and find analogues.
If there’s a throughline in the Brewises’ commissioned work to date – which certainly ties in with recurrent themes in their songwriting – it’s the focus on the quotidian: on the quiet industry of Grierson’s fishermen, or the narratives in Asunder, which kept the horrors of the front at arm’s length to look at the effects of The Great War at home. Here, unlike the instrumental …Drifters or Asunder – wordless aside from a trad. arr. interlude – these narratives inspired songs, which the band perform in one 45-minute suite, against a backdrop animated by the band’s guitarist Kevin Dosdale, showing the six vibrating wires oscillating over contextual words and images.
Opening, the metronomic Coffee or Wine, pictures the figures around a table who signed the agreement bringing about the end of the war, while Only In A Man’s World (“Things would be different if the boys bled too”) takes in Kimberly-Clark’s development of the first sanitary towel, based on the use at the front of their material cellu-cotton, and the invention in 2000 by Indian social entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham of a machine which could produce pads for a tiny fraction of their normal cost. The performance ends with the discord of An Independent State, which juxtaposes the Balfour Declaration, expressing British support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland within Palestine, with the Trump-ordered relocation of the US Embassy in Israel.
It’s all a brilliant mix of Field Music’s typically playful, inventive rhythms and counter-rhythms, with melodies reflecting the optimistic as well as the darker subjects of focus. Best Kept Garden’s tightly-wrapped melodies take in the social reforms of Dr Christopher Addison and the Becontree Housing Estate (“So la-di-da to have a lawn / 11 miles from everything I’ve ever known”), while the angular guitars and wonky piano lines of A Shot To The Arm illustrate the founding of the Dada movement in Switzerland in 1916 and the work of the artist Chris Burden, willingly shot by a friend for a 1971 Vietnam protest piece.
If there’s a downside to the performance – aside from its relative brevity (Peter explains afterwards that they just didn’t have any more songs about the First World War) – it’s that the level of intricate detail thrown up by the pieces would benefit from a little more context and time for closer examination. The suggestion that the 13 songs which comprise Sound Ranging could form the basis of the next Field Music album, then, is particularly welcome; and we can but hope that the Brewises’ parallel career as musical documentarists will continue, long after the final chords of tonight’s rather unusual gig have ceased ringing out.