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Julie Tippetts: Didn't You Used To Be Julie Driscoll?

Duncan Heining By

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"That grew out of it. Shadow Puppeteer was extraordinary to make. Our dear friend John Tippet—no relation—gave me unlimited time to record. John had so much patience because most of those things were built up track by track, improvisation on improvisation. It all began to take shape and the story-line came out of it on the spot, though it was a three-year spot (laughs). So, something had to develop. It was extraordinary what he allowed me to do and I've never been able to pay him back."

Shadow Puppeteer derives its musicality not just from Tippetts' voice but from the layering of voices and simple instrumentation—recorders, zither and thumb piano. I suggest to Tippetts that the music would seem to emerge from the process of recording itself, with its emphasis on counterpoint and unusual harmonies.

"Some of it did. Take for instance, "Lament" that was one voice improvising to which I then added another voice and maybe two others. I was responding in the way I felt it should go. The harmonies that come out are not things that anybody would actually sit down and write. They appeared organically. In "Torch Song," that began with just the one voice. I did no looping. It began to develop almost like a big band. It's over six minutes long, I just built it up from this one sung motif."

But it also contains elements of the blues. Is that a case in point of earlier influences persisting over time? Tippetts agrees readily with the suggestion.

"Absolutely. You can't rub out your roots. Things that you loved in your youth, that really hit you, you will always love. Why does something emotionally either make you feel like crying or laughing? It's because something touches you. That is the magic of music. This whole thing of hearing and seeing is a constant source of wonder to me. Even now, one draws on all resources—on all the things that you are and have been. I always see music as a reflection of who and what you are and what your life is."

I ask Tippetts how she and Archer came to work together. "We met when Martin invited Maggie Nicols and me up to Sheffield to perform our duet "Sweet and S'ours." Then several years later, he booked me for some sessions for his two collaborations with Geraldine Monk. Anyway, after a time, I suggested we might do an album together and before I knew it we were working on Ghosts of Gold."

Tippetts tells me that when Archer sent her some music he had recorded with this in mind, she was astonished at how easily it seemed to fit a collection of (as yet unpublished) poems that she had written. It should be noted, however, that Tippetts' role in the duo's work together goes beyond lyricist and vocalist. She also develops the melodies from the soundscapes that Archer provides.

"Ghosts of Gold, every single track on there, the lyrics are taken from a collection of poems I have compiled under the title Mirror Image," she says. "It's extraordinary how it happens. I'll be playing something Martin has sent me and I'll think, 'Oh, that's "The Winging."' I knew immediately that had to be the one. The only one that hadn't been written before, it was last knockings, I was going home and Martin said, 'I've got another track, you might like to hear.' As soon as he played it, I said, 'That's "Rainsong"!' So, we just did it."

This is something that is key to Martin Archer and his approach. On the one hand, he is able to take the contributions of others and shape them to his own musical vision. But on the other, as heard in the duo's collaborations, he is equally adept at thinking himself into the creative world of his collaborators. He seems to know what they need musically. In fact, I had heard about from someone at an independent label, who had been offered and rejected the record. Let's just say that they were not enamoured, describing it as 'poetry set to electronics.' Respecting the guy's ears, I prepared for disappointment. My reaction was completely different. Not only did the music and lyrics combine to fine effect but Ghosts of Gold seemed a natural progression from 1969, Sunset Glow and Shadow Puppeteer.

The lyrics are often oblique but no more so than say those of Bjork or Kate Bush. They have a similar hypnagogic quality to those of, say Robert Wyatt, though more obviously poetic in intent. Some may be encouraged to apply the epithet 'ethereal.' However, there is nothing fey about Tippetts' words. Indeed, they are quite dark and, once one grasps their meaning, have their genesis in real world events.

The music that Martin Archer has composed and largely performs on the CD—Tippetts adds some percussive sounds—knows no musical boundaries. There is free improvisation built from the overdubbing of a woodwinds on "Parchment Dust" and "Daydreams and Candle-Light," something more industrial on "Rainsong" and "The Winging"—New Phonic Art, Popol Vuh, Faust, perhaps—minimalism on "The Ghostly Apparition"—Terry Riley, maybe. Yet, these are my reference points—they may or may not be influences filtered through Archer's eclectic brain. Some might call this bricolage. I would call it the product of a creative mind.

After the long hiatus between 1969 and Sunset Glow (6 years) and even longer gap between that and Shadow Puppeteer (13 years), this spate of activity—four records in five years and another in production—seems almost frenetic. However, despite the absence of recordings (until recently, that is) Tippetts has been constantly engaged on her own artistic journey. This has often been in the company of her partner Keith, whether as one half of their Couple in Spirit duo, as one third of the Dartington Trio with saxophonist Paul Dunmall or as a contributor to Keith Tippett's small and large ensemble projects. As noted, she contributed lyrics to her husband's Septober Energy LP. More recently, Tippetts has written texts for his Octet CDs From Granite to Wind and The Nine Dances of Patrick O'Gonogon and before that, in 2004, she provided the highly evocative libretto for The Monk Watches the Eagle commission.

The contrast between her work with Martin Archer and the way Julie Tippetts and her partner Keith work together is instructive. The choral piece The Monk Watches the Eagle, a commission for the BBC Singers shows this clearly. Keith would compose sections in one room of their cottage in rural Gloucestershire and pass these to Julie working in another room, who would then listen and begin constructing the libretto. Julie came up with the idea of a narrative based on the idea of a monk in the last hours reflecting on his life, using the title that Keith had proposed to use for another work. Essentially, that is how the work evolved—through a creative process that is both evolutionary and independent but built on shared artistic sensitivities.

I ask her how she would describe her work with Keith in Couple in Spirit. She uses the term "total improvisation" and says that the musical form emerges from the interaction and is not predetermined.

"The fixed element is the piano. Keith brings the wood blocks and maracas for placing in the piano to colour the instrument. I take a selection of percussion instruments and my book of poems. Everything that is on the table may be used or, maybe, I'll just sing. It is that whole sense of freedom of improvisation of whatever you can pluck from the air." The differences between this approach and her recordings with Archer will be obvious to readers. However, it is important to stress that those recordings are informed by all the other aspects of Tippetts' work, including that of "total improvisation."

The second album that Tippetts and Archer made together was Tales of Finin. As with Shadow Puppeteer, it is built upon a narrative. The music is again beyond category fusing electronics and dub reggae on "The Battle of Finindene" and "Taunts of the Fallen," rock filtered through heavy compression on "Finibrook Bridge," folk music and jazz on "The View from Finintor," "The Other Side" and "Fininsridge," while "Fininscreek Castle" draws upon free jazz and contemporary classical music. The beautifully melodic "Should I Go Home" would have sat perfectly on Sunset Glow.

The double CD is graced by a series of paintings by Tippetts herself and is a work of art in itself. Indeed, this is sense that one holds a quality product is a feature of all recent releases on Archer's Discus label. I suggest to Tippetts that the Gothic narrative of Tales of Finin is more like, say Mervyn Peake and Gormenghast than Tolkien and Lord of the Rings but, as she explains, it also has its origins very much in real events.

"People have said things like that about it. There was a period when there were a lot of TV programmes with people talking about their experiences of war. That whole thing of wartime that lives with people forever, of facing someone as an enemy but recognising something in their eyes that was akin to you. It's another human being. It was the whole tables turning experience really. The whole of Tales of Finin is completely made up. I loved making up all those names and places. It's almost non-human—it's not supposed to be pixies and fairies—but it's not related to particular wars but drawing on those programmes about survivors."

I ask if the music inspired the narrative.

"Yes, I think so," Tippetts replies. "It began with the "Battle of Finindene." I'd never written a battle song before—it's not in my nature. But it just happened to fit what Martin had sent me. That was the one that kick-started the idea of a narrative about this fantasy place of Finin. I could see these things. Lots of things came from pre-written poems but others were written for the music. "Battle of Finindene," that was prewritten and done with different workshops and it just fitted perfectly and there were other things as well."

I suggest that many of these tracks and those on the next album Serpentine would probably be accessible to fans of, for example, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Bjork or, at her best, Annie Lennox. The problem is more getting such people to hear the music.

"I think they are accessible," Tippetts says. "Being totally inaccessible in our position is a bit daft really. I'm a human being, so I hope that people will hear it and, in their way, find it accessible. So, it doesn't surprise me that you say that. When you compose music, of course, you hope that people will find a connection and be moved and affected by it. Otherwise, there is no point."

Perhaps the problem is that the distance between more avant-garde music and the mainstream seems far greater than it was in the late sixties or seventies. Record companies and the media control and limit what is heard. People have access to so much through the internet but many respond to this surfeit of information by sticking with what is familiar. Tippetts acknowledges the point but adds,

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