Talking to Helen Petts in a London Flat, June 2013

Helen Petts is an artist film-maker who often works with musicians. Since 2007 she has helped guitarist John Russell run his Mopomoso series of free improvisation evenings at London’s Vortex. Her YouTube channel “helentonic” (see link below) is a fabulous resource, featuring films of performances by many improvisers including Lol Coxhill, Evan Parker, Steve Beresford, Phil Minton, Sylvia Hallett, Gino Robair, Akio Suzuki, Roger Turner and Adam Bohman.

15.08 / 2013

“I’m interested in exploring the moment when a sound is created,” says artist film-maker Helen Petts. “I started filming musicians because Derek Bailey died, then Paul Rutherford, and I thought there should be an archive.” Her involvement with the London free improvisation scene initially gained impetus when Steve Beresford, who had composed music for some of her earlier work, invited Petts to a gig by the Recedents (saxophonist Lol Coxhill, guitarist Mike Cooper and percussionist Roger Turner). “That was a truly extraordinary gig, but there were only about six people in the audience. When John Russell then invited me to film gigs at Mopomoso I jumped at the chance, and ended up running it with him. That gave me a structure to meet amazing musicians, and also liberty to get on stage and get in close. So I’ve created this block of well-shot performances with good quality sound. I don't often film gigs these days, but my YouTube site still gets over 10,000 hits a month.”

Petts still works closely with musicians, but her aim is not to make documentaries about them. “I’m interested in a more abstract approach, in the interaction between a movement and the sound that it creates; the light around the action, the space around the sound.” She identifies her footage of vocalist Phil Minton performing a traditional folk song, ‘The Cutty Wren’, as a moment when she started to film in a different way, the impulse to make an archive evolving into an art project. “It was a private party not a public performance. I held the shot very tight on Phil’s face so it almost bursts out of the frame and his grimaces and eye movements are exaggerated.”

“The room was dark and I hadn't learned about shooting in low light then, so the film was really underexposed. I turned it black-and-white and push it electronically to get a clear image, which made it grainy. I put it on You Tube which in those days had a lower frame-rate; the movement was slightly jerky, adding a strange otherness. I’ve shown that film at lots of festivals since then, and in big cinemas, and I just love it - Phil’s face, those incredible gurning gestures. It was the most electrifying performance. I had forgotten the microphone lead, so his voice is off-mic. For him that’s a mistake, but I think it adds something: the extreme intimacy of the image and the distance of the sound. It’s the mistakes that make this film work.”

I ask Petts about the structuring of ‘Ute on the Marshes’, a remarkable seven-minute film made in 2012 for The Voice and the Lens, a festival at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham. Ute Wassermann deploys her astonishing vocal artistry to explore the echoey acoustic properties of a London railway arch. The motion of the camera as it seeks out visual correspondences for those extraordinary sounds appears carefully choreographed and thought through. But Petts assures me there was no pre-planning. “We did about five takes and I chose the beginning of one and the end of another – there’s only one cut, or maybe two. Ute was wearing stereo personal mics. I put my tiny compact stills camera on a monopod and kind of danced with it. I don’t ever plan what I’m doing. I respond to what I see in front of me. It’s not usually a subject but, say, the way light is reflecting on the edge of a leaf and flickering, the rhythm of the flicker. It’s not something you can actually predict or set up. Everything is improvised, although I have got a kind of repertoire that I draw on. That’s why I like working with free improvisers - I feel they work in a similar way.”
An entire evening during the 2010 Hannover Jazz Week was devoted to screening a selection of Petts’ films at a local cinema. She was invited to talk about this work and to take along a couple of musical associates. She chose guitarist John Russell and percussionist Roger Turner. “Roger is a fan of Kurt Schwitters, the visual artist and sound poet, who was born in Hannover,” Petts explains. “He had lent me a book about him. The day after the gig I went to the Sprengel Museum, where there is an incredible Schwitters archive, as well as a reconstruction of his first merzbau [a room transformed by Schwitters in accordance with his own idiosyncratic practice of collage]. I fell in love with his work. I’m not the first person to notice an affinity between Schwitters' visual art and free improvised music. And it's the same language that I’m using when I do really blurred close-ups of Roger Turner’s drumsticks or hands creating rhythms and textures. So I thought I would make a film exploring this.”

“In the year of the London Olympics, the Cultural Olympiad committee were asking for ideas for art projects. I applied, partnered by the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle, where a wall of Schwitters’ merzbarn is preserved [Schwitters transformed a barn in the northwest of England]. I got the commission, with generous funding, to make the film as a gallery installation with surround-sound, as part of my first solo exhibition. The film took a year to make and has subsequently been exhibited alongside the Schwitters collection at Abbot Hall Gallery in the Lake District, and at London’s Royal Festival Hall and Tate Britain. It will be presented at Trøndelag Senter for Samtidskunst, Trondheim, 22-27 August 2013 (

The film is called Throw Them Up and Let Them Sing. “That’s what Schwitters said he did with his merz material - his collage stuff and found objects. That’s how I work too, but with moving images and sounds,” Petts enthuses. During the late 1930s Schwitters fled Nazi persecution and sought refuge in Norway. Later he settled, and eventually died, in England’s Lake District. “I went to the Lake District on many trips over a year and filmed in and around the merzbarn,” she continues. “ I shot masses of film, just responding to what I found there, the light I saw, the sounds I heard. Initially I was working with texture, shape and putting certain colours next to one another. Then I went to Norway and travelled on the same ferry route as Schwitters. I visited places where he did more commercial paintings of tourist spots, and I spent a week alone on Hjertøya, an uninhabited island near Molde, where Schwitters lived in a tiny hut. An extraordinary place with astonishing light. When I went to the recent Tate exhibition, Schwitters in Britain, and saw the Norway room I went really shaky because I recognised the blue, the green, the textures, the rhythms, the way the light reflects on the water – I recognised it all. In both these countries I found the footpaths, fells and lakes where Schwitters loved to walk and I followed where he had gone. My presence is in the film, in the sound of my footsteps. And I kept a Blog, an online diary with photos, which formed part of the exhibition and is now published as a book.”

In addition to images shot in Norway and the Lake District, Throw Them Up and Let Them Sing incorporates some striking performances of improvised music. “When I went into that little hut on Hjertøya it was creaking and I thought, this hut makes sounds that Adam Bohman might make,” Petts explains. “I showed Adam what I’d shot in Norway and he improvised to the images. Just perfect. In some of her improvisations Sylvia Hallett bows a bicycle wheel - such wheels are a recurring image in Schwitters' work. So I got her to respond to footage of fjords, seen from the Hurtigruten coastal ferry. Sylvia works a lot in Norway and knows that landscape. Later in the film she plays hardanger fiddle, and that wild sound together with a ferry horn is suggestive of Schwitters' escape on the last boat from Nazi-occupied Norway.”

Petts spent nine months editing this evocative material, together with an exuberantly theatrical contribution from Phil Minton and Roger Turner that seems to distil the essence of Kurt Schwitters. “I worked as an assistant sound editor recording effects for the film Mamma Mia!”, she confides, “and some of those sounds of water and wind, recorded in national parks in Spain, are used in my film, along with sounds from other films that I’ve made myself. The ferry horn is sampled from YouTube. That soundtrack is a real Schwitters collage. I’m sure he would have approved.”

“I kept the visuals quite simple, although everything is colour graded; there’s nothing that hasn’t been changed. So when there is intense colour, it has been made intense, purposefully. When you see yellow seaweed coming in with the rush of a wave, I’ve made a specific decision to use colour in that way. It’s like painting. When I was a painter my work was often about how one colour interacts with another, often just two colours, or monochrome. A phenomenological investigation that is continued in my films. Schwitters used a chromium red that is repeated a lot throughout his work so I picked out similar reds on the table-top where Adam Bohman is improvising. Black-and-white images reference old photographs - the waterfall, the glacier and the mountain tops in Norway. In the Schwitters Catalogue Raisonné there are lots of archive photographs by his son Ernst, as well as all the drawings and visual artwork.”

Petts took up painting seriously a little over a decade ago, while studying Fine Art as a mature student at Goldsmith’s College in London. It was part of a slow process of recovery from a road accident that had left her incapable of pursuing her established career as a director of arts documentaries for television. Before that she had worked as an assistant director, helping make pop promo videos in the early days of MTV. “My experience as a mainstream television director totally informs my work now, ” she acknowledges, “but now I use a camera the size of a cigarette packet, which I can carry at all times. I know pretty much how a shot will work, and I know what I want to do - instinctively. I improvise, but with those years of experience backing me up. Also I grew up listening to my father, who used to play jazz piano for weddings and dances. I think my ears got trained listening to him, improvising for hours.”

I suggest to Petts that her four-minute film ‘Half Penny Steps’, viewable on her YouTube channel, is reminiscent of the lyrically restrained work of Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu, with its fixed camera position and play of shadows across a lattice of railings and brickwork. “I don’t think I’m much influenced by film directors,” she responds. “I might perhaps be influenced by Maya Deren’s Meshes Of the Afternoon ... possibly. But I’m not good at narratives - I'm too busy looking at the lighting! I was a tv director in the days when you could still be really creative, and I made quite surreal films. When asked to do something more conventional I invited someone else to structure the story, because I’ve always had a problem with that kind of narrative.”
“In terms of the images I create, I’m working more in a tradition of visual art. Artists such as Eva Hesse, who was really interested in texture and strange shapes and forms. Also the post-minimalists who came after Donald Judd and brought a rather neurotic emotional edge - Robert Morris, Robert Smithson. And the land artists and the walkers. I went walking with artist and photographer Hamish Fulton once. His influence is definitely in my films. Max Eastley too. Max is part of that post-minimalist generation, and explores sound as well. They all work with absence and traces, making a mark, erasing it, shadows. Even when I’m filming a gig I’ll sometimes film shadows or reflections. There’s a nice one of Wadada Leo Smith, with Louis Moholo and Steve Noble, where there are lots of shadows and reflections on the floor. I guess I’m interested in absence.”

“But I am also interested in texture, line, rhythm, repetition – those formal qualities. And the chance event, of course. I work with a fairly abstract visual language that doesn’t use literary references and isn’t about the facts or story-telling. What I like about free improvised music is that it works outside Western rules of rhythm and harmony. I remember watching Roger Turner play, about seven years ago. He was creating squeaky, tiny sounds using a plastic fork and there was an amazing shadow from the prongs of this fork on the surface of the tom-tom. And I thought, yes - this is the language that I try to use in my visual art. I couldn’t have made ‘Half Penny Steps’ if I hadn’t spent years doing paintings. But I did an awful lot of listening to Morton Feldman when I was at art school, painting. Feldman’s work gave me courage to leave things silent, to leave empty space. Pianist John Tilbury was teaching at Goldsmith’s College, and I spoke with him a little about this. John’s touch, playing Feldman, that kind of delicacy of tiny movements fascinates me.”

“It’s funny - when I was at art school everyone else was working in video, but I wasn't interested at all. I used to be a professional film-maker, so I thought - I don’t want to be messing about with this amateur stuff; I’m a painter now. It was only after my partner died and I found painting too solitary that I started to make work with cameras again. I needed to get out of the studio and I took up, very seriously, walking alone in the landscape. I made a film, remembering him, that is like my paintings – stark, minimal, one long shot on a remote beach of the sea coming in, washing back and forth for half an hour and then covering the camera. It’s quite hypnotic, with the sound of the shingle too, sucking in and out.”

“Artist Ann Bean saw that and asked me to make some work with her, in memory of musician Paul Burwell, who had also recently died. That turned into the TAPS project [a major celebration of Burwell at Matt’s Gallery, in South London, in September 2010]. Involvement with TAPS was another crucial move away from filming in order to make a record of gigs, towards making films with musicians specifically as artworks. I’m very grateful to Ann for creating a situation in which that could happen, and for introducing me to the art world as a film-maker. TAPS moved me into doing things with galleries.”

Petts is currently working with Octopus, a sound art and music collective formed in Cumbria, in northwest England, in 2009 by John Hall, Andrew Deakin and Glenn Boulter. “Octopus saw my exhibition at Abbot Hall Gallery and said, come and do whatever you like. But it’s really nice to have their input. They came up with the idea of showing my film as an installation in an old cigar factory which has a humidor, a rectangular room with a curved wooden-panelled roof. It has a lovely acoustic.” Petts decided it would be a suitable location to show a film made in memory of inimitable soprano saxophonist Lol Coxhill, who died in July 2012. Along with Mike Cooper and Roger Turner, the other Recedents, Coxhill was the first free improvising musician she filmed.
“You’ve caught me at a moment where I’m trying to work out what I’m doing with this project. Currently I’m telling everyone it will be about half an hour, an installation piece, played on a continuous loop. Lol used to be Musical Director for Welfare State International [a radical and celebratory communal arts group founded by John Fox in 1968] and played in the streets of Cumbria. So there should be people there who know who Lol was. I could simply show him playing a solo and that would probably work really well, without me doing anything else,” she laughs. “I’ve actually discovered a tape of a performance I’d forgotten I’d filmed. It was at the Freedom Of The City festival, in London, in 2009. Lol played a 30-minute solo – or rather a 28-minute solo with applause and then a two-minute version of “Lover Man”. I watched it with Steve Beresford and we both sat here just saying, ‘Oh my God!’ At the moment I don’t know whether I should make that piece the whole film. But I think the people who are booking it, unseen, will want something about Lol’s history, and this is where I get into that dilemma about how much I work totally as an artist, acting on my own decisions, and how much I work in respect of other people's expectations.”

“My instinct is just to use Lol’s music, but the films of him on my YouTube channel are performances, while unedited material in my archive actually shows Lol being Lol, making cheeky comments. Also I’ve spent five days filming at his London flat, sorting through stuff with his wife Ulrike Scholz - endless photographs, press cuttings, gorgeously designed album sleeves, toys, junk, instruments, so much. That will end up in the work.”

“I actually saw Lol play at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam when I was 16. He was playing with Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink. I was a Frank Zappa fan by then, but it was still a really hardcore gig for a 16 year old. I’m sad that Lol has gone. He wasn’t young, of course, and had looked ill for a long time. That’s partly why I always filmed him, whenever I could, especially the solos. Lol was somebody quite extraordinary, a lovely, generous person, really wise and kind, with enormous integrity. But, at the moment, I don’t know what the film is going to be.”

I left Helen Petts weighing up the nature of her project, remembering a friend and his music, his physical movements and the sounds they created, the light around the action, the space around the sound, his traces, his absence.