Tin Men and the Telephone: The Birmingham Residency

Last week the Amsterdam based trio Tin Men and the Telephone spent a week in the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire developing new material, playing a live broadcast and running three sharing sessions to present their work including the new material to audiences, and finally running a workshop for Conservatoire students of Music Technology, Composition and Jazz.  This residency is part of a three year programme of residencies that is being co-ordinated by the Third Ear organisation.

tin men
Tin Men and the Telephone

I had heard Tin Men and the Telephone a couple of times at European festivals, and, although I found their shows to be very entertaining and good fun, I remained unsure about whether their approach of engaging with the audience through their app was a really important contribution to jazz.  I then heard them at Ronnie Scott’s London earlier in the year and began to be convinced; they had developed new material that really did engage the audience in creating something with the band.  I was also struck by the enthusiasm of the audience and their willingness to participate in the various activities.

The residency at The Conservatoire finally convinced me.  What brought this about?  I felt that the interaction with the audience through the app has become much more natural and fully integrated into the show.  I loved the new ideas and the refinements of their different approaches: firstly, the development of a process by which pianist and leader of the group Tony Roe can use his piano keyboard to type words onto the screen, so that, for example, he can start the show by typing Hello onto the screen from the piano.  By the end of the week Tony could react to and play random words put on the screen by the audience through the app.  Then there was the use of recordings of world leaders of a populist persuasion to create musical representations of their speeches.  I was really taken by the way their creation showed how rhythmic Trump’s speeches are.  They took his announcement of the withdrawal of the USA from the Climate Accord and played on his short asides and showed how they can be translated into a rhythmic pattern played by the piano trio.  It struck me that they have captured something that political analysts have not focussed on, and pinpointed one of the reasons why he has been successful in elections.  The Democrats should immediately sign up the trio to work on their 2020 campaign.

tony roe
Tony Roe

Then there is the creation of a whole piece of improvised music from the input from the audience, again through the app.  I had first heard this at the Ronnie Scott’s gig mentioned above.  The app presents the audience with the chance to create a melody, then the harmony  for it, and finally a rhythmic pattern.  It does this through presenting on the app a circle and series of dots which the audience member moves into the circle, firstly for the melody, then for the harmony and finally for the rhythm.  Each of these is done separately, and the trio improvises on each one before improvising a whole piece based on the three aspects.  I particularly enjoyed the way that drummer Jamie Peet (depping for the regular drummer Bobby Petrov who was on paternity leave) interacted with the rhythms created by the audience.  Also I have to admit to a feeling of triumph when my particular melody was chosen as part of the piece on one of the nights.  I should also mention a very exciting duet between Jamie Peet and Brian Duffy of the Modified Toy Orchestra, who came in to advise on the third day of the residency.

The improvisations generated through this process are generally fresh and attention holding, but, of course, there is the danger that they just don’t come together on a particular night.  That seemed to be the case on their third night when perhaps the melodies, harmony and rhythms created by the audience weren’t so interesting, or maybe the band just had an off night.

The live broadcast on the BBC3’s Jazz Now show attracted a good audience with up to 200 listeners from several countries downloading the app and participating.  It is available on the BBC IPlayer, you can listen here. 

There was also a short feature on the residency on BBC Midlands Today, you can access that here.

Tin and the Telephone will return to the Birmingham Conservatoire next year on Thursday 7th February for a full concert.


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