If a piano becomes silenced through dereliction, keys detached like so much loose kindling, is it still a piano? I asked that question, silently to myself, watching Annabel Nicolson’s Piano Film (Camden Arts Centre, Film in Space, group show selected by Guy Sherwin) and asked another, more troubling question, of whether Annabel’s work is still her work when she is not present? “It is what happens to things when they are not being looked at that puzzles me,” she once wrote.
I had not become unconscious of her work, not turned away from it. Last summer, after lengthy deliberation and equivocation I wrote an extended essay on the subject of Circadian Rhythm. This concert was devised by Evan Parker as a continuous 24-hour performance for eight players – himself, myself, Paul Lytton, Paul Lovens, Max Eastley, Annabel Nicolson, Paul Burwell and Hugh Davies – for Music/Context, the festival of environmental music that I organised for the LMC in 1978. Edited sections had been released on an Incus LP in 1980 but now Evan was proposing a release of the complete 13 hours of playing achieved on that July night 35 years ago. Paul Burwell and Hugh Davies had since died; in preparing my essay I spoke to the remaining players but Annabel’s communications dwelled only on the difficulty of beginning to speak about it, then on the impossibility of the task. She was living in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland, “with gales to listen to often.” Perhaps in the spring, she said. I am ashamed to say I could not wait any longer.
Escaping Notice was the title of a book she published in 1977. Prophetic, maybe? I spent time with the fragments on display at Camden – all silent amid whirring clamour – trying to find within them my own memory of Annabel, finding only tantalising wisps of her presence stuffed into that most abject means of archival display: the PVC display book. Escaping Notice also possesses that fugitive quality: its thin translucent papers through which texts and photographs are faintly visible; the events which are as nondescript as the flatness of Norfolk she describes with such cunning wit; the modesty of her anecdotes undermined by their doubtful veracity, and a detached third person self-anthropology which documents the artist, Miss Nicolson, as log rolling down a hill, or film star in the company of Mike Leggett, or sweeping the sea. As far back as 1974, she was engaged in low-key pursuit of the now earnestly fashionable practice of ‘walking’ (or should that be ‘practice of walking’?), though we may surmise that these walks were not strenuous, encompassing as they did visits to jumble sales, buying postcards in the Garrigil post office or the observation of stick insects flying in strict formation, noted while Miss Nicolson lay in a cornfield above Corton Denham. In many of these works she calls upon the humble medium of local newspapers to recount the exotic life of a stranger, passing through rural communities as a woman of mystery, searching for the ineffable, the minor incident barely worthy of comment, or the more serious business of vanishing footpaths. Her observations of the woman sweeping the sea in July 1975 form a brief document worthy of the disinterested observer, perhaps a man detained for a few moments while walking his dog: “Her lack of direction was plain and she seemed to have plenty of time. After a while one realised that she was less distinct, though not actually further away. Perhaps it was deliberate this trick of making herself part of the background of being just slightly out of focus.”
Now she is more than slightly out of focus, a subtle commingling of dry wit, ephemerality and modesty conspiring with her physical absence to render her almost invisible. Of course I am happy to see her represented in a London exhibition, in a context to which she belongs, yet I remember her differently, as somebody who thought deeply about convergent strategies in the 1970s and created opportunities as an organiser, publisher, writer, curator and artist to open up spaces to those strategies.
Much of her thinking seemed to embrace that which is not there or cannot be objectified, and so she was drawn to sound, to smoke, to light and dark, to silence. In a recorded conversation between Annabel, Steve Beresford and Paul Burwell (MUSICS, no. 8, July 1976), conducted at the old Piano Factory in Camden Town, north London, she spoke of finding a piano in the yard of the factory: “It was deteriorating and when it rained the keys started to float. It played by itself and the keys moved around quietly.” Magic is always present as a possibility, quiet magic in the background, and the possibility of the artist slipping away quietly, to become anonymous as the work becomes autonomous. Phenomena are left to take care of their own work of entrancement.
For a later issue of MUSICS magazine (no. 20, December 1978) published after the Music/Context Festival, she contributed a page that collected together the sources of her participation in Circadian Rhythm but also captured the non-dimension field of its unfolding, as an event within time and darkness. So there are marks, evidence of charring, fibrous plant materials, and references to the song of women pearl divers of Taiwan, sparks thrown into water, a hidden fire, lights in trees, the room filled with smoke, and from Mark Twain perhaps, two stories: the frogs of New Orleans whose song would rise in volume when the steamboats passed, and then thick fog on the river, people in small vessels banging tins pans so the steamboats wouldn’t run over them. Hidden drumming, she wrote.
Even then she was rather hidden herself, one of the only women in a cluster of male dominated scenes. Again, her anthropology came into play, particularly in the improvised music setting of the London Musicians Collective. “One of the things that puzzled me,” she wrote in Resonance magazine (vol. 8, no. 2/vol. 9, no. 1, 2000) was just how little the musicians, all men at that time, seemed to talk to each other. Often they would meet and with barely a word prepare to play together. There appeared to be very little communication in any recognisable sense. Then somehow out of this apparent absence of communication would come the most wonderful sounds.” At the same time, she was acutely conscious of her own voice. Her essay – Transcript from indistinct recording of a talk performed in the reading room of Slade School of Art 13/3/79 (MUSICS, no 22, June 1979) is an object lesson in what we now call reflexivity, or performativity, the question of the voice (particularly the female voice) as social medium, performance tool, expressive and reflective marker of the self, along with the necessity of listening with a willingness to understand. “I’ve been thinking recently,” she wrote in 1978, “that performances are almost like lectures, focussing thought as a means of sounding out what is most urgent in one’s mind.” Reading that again took my breath away, since it is almost exactly what I have been thinking about my own work in recent years. Sometimes we internalise a borrowed thought, unconsciously make it our own, and there it lies sleeping for years, until shaken awake by the right circumstances.
What her talk at the Slade made clear is that there was no such thing as a definable ‘practice’ or ‘intact’ work, as she put it; rather an evolving form of performance which might take many forms. For this there is no validation, no archive, only the ghostly trace of somebody fishing in darkest night in search of a quarry barely distinguishable from its environs. When sound art is discussed, or improvised music, or performance art, or the voice, or writing about sound, ‘Miss Nicolson’ has somehow slipped the net, despite her centrality to the evolution of these interrelated arts. This seems to me to be a profound injustice, but also the way of things. Monuments are constructed and under cover of darkness small chisels chip away at their presumption and perfection.
MUSICS magazine (spanning the years 1975-1979) is a treasure trove of ideas and information but one of the pieces I treasure most is a conversation between Annabel and Max Eastley. They are two of my favourite artists and much-loved friends, that’s one reason why, but they have a sensibility in common which is strengthened by their exchange of ideas, and the ideas are as intoxicating as they are fragile: the night-blooming sirius that opens only one night of each year; a tree shadow frozen in ice; the blazing tar barrels of Shetland Island rites; Gaelic song not as folk music but as reverence for the phenomena of its subject; a raft of straws; fireflies in cages and oily birds, threaded through with wicks, flame spouting from their mouths; the effect of Galloway dykes on frightened sheep; the projected image of a bird that was, in fact, a crack in a glass roof; the shock of twigs cracking very loudly as she walked on them. Coming and going. The presence of materials. Scattered images but potent, they exemplify the open work. In the sound of the voice they find cohesion. “Nothing else is needed, just the means you have, like your voice,” she wrote. “Performance is a struggle and in a sense things are coming from far away because they are coming from something silent and making a huge leap towards being audible. Something very ancient about it.”