Triangular Trade

Triangular Trade Schematic

Arnolfini, 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol, BS1 4QA
Friday 18 March 2016, 20:00 to 22:00
£6/£4 conc

The Arnolfini and Bang the Bore present Triangular Trade, a new commission composed to thematically accompany John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea, alongside a talk by UWE Associate Professor of History Madge Dresser regarding Bristol’s legacy of involvement with the Atlantic slave economy.

Triangular Trade (2015-2016) – Seth Cooke

“… diasporic lives (are) characterised by an absence of ruins. There are no monuments that even as ruins attest to your existence, of your passing through a space. This then means that the intangibles, be they sound or words, become necessary building blocks. Lives that are not legitimised in the official monument can then be given a certain kind of legitimacy.” John Akomfrah, interview with Sound and Music

Triangular Trade takes its name from the system of trading between three ports or regions, the most notorious example of which was the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The composition addresses the significance of situating the UK premiere of John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea at the Arnolfini in Bristol, a city that has yet to reconcile its current consciousness with its participation in the slave-based Atlantic economy. Its geographic co-ordinates triangulate inward, connecting themes of slavery, migration and climate change – from West Africa, the Americas and England; to Liverpool, London and Bristol; to our local ambivalence towards Edward Colston, Bristol’s historic benefactor whose wealth was built, in part, upon the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

The piece will be performed by a contrabass ensemble of local musicians accompanied by bowed seashells, djembe resonance, thwarted field recording, a virtual acoustic model donated by Mach Acoustics and prepared material referencing Bristol’s response to the globalising religion of hip hop. Each aspect of the instrumentation was chosen to accommodate the themes of the composition, to be detailed in an expository schematic that will be made available on at the concert.

Seth Cooke is a Bristol-based artist and musician whose work explores perturbed environments, feedback processes and aberrant models. He is a founding member of the Bang the Bore collective. His work, as an individual and with the collective, has been performed at Bradford’s Gallery II, Southampton’s John Hansard Gallery, and Medieval Vaults, Oxfordshire’s Supernormal Festival and Bristol’s Arnolfini. His music has been published on Another Timbre, Hideous Replica, Compost and Height, LF Records, 1000füssler and Organised Music From Thessaloniki.

Madge Dresser

At their best, Art and Music cut to the chase and convey truths about the human condition more elegantly and widely than academic treatises can ever hope to do. But Art and Music without historical consciousness are limited in what they can say. That’s why Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea which uses the past to inform the present has such depth and vision. And it’s why I am especially grateful to be asked to collaborate with Seth Cooke about Akomfrah’s work . Both artists deal with subjects close to my heart-slavery, migration and identity.

My accompanying talk will try to set these themes in some sort of historical context and will explore their particular resonance for Bristol. Was Bristol really ‘built on the blood of the enslaved”? What precisely did the city owe to forced African labour? What is the legacy of slavery? How does it relate to environmental concerns so dramatically evoked by Akomfrah’s piece? To modern day migration? To current controversies over public commemoration of figures like Colston?

Madge Dresser is Associate Professor of History at UWE and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Her publications include Slavery Obscured: The social history of the slave trade in Bristol (2001, 2007), and Black and White on the Buses: the Story of the 1963 Campaign against the Colour Bar on Bristol’s Buses (1984, 2007,2013); Ethnic Minorities and the City: Bristol 1000-2000 (2007, 2009), with Peter Fleming; Slavery and the British Country House (edited with Andrew Hann for Historic England 2013). She also edited and co-authored Women and the City: Bristol 1373-2000 which was published this March.


The below is the full version of an interview with Sam Francis of the Arnolfini, intended to accompany the performance and provide context for an audience who might be unfamiliar with my music. A shortened version of the interview appears on the Arnolfini’s website.

Arnolfini: Could you start by talking a bit about your practice as an artist – what are some of the subjects that inform your work?

SC: For the last ten years my day job has involved working a lot with maps, either analytically or remotely co-ordinating activity. That depends a lot upon straightforward accuracy – the output has to resemble the location and what you’ll find there, it has to provide useful, transparent direction. So I allow my artistic practice to play with that. Sometimes I’ll amplify the process of mapping or representation, deliberately aberrating false-to-fact qualities, e.g. my interpretation of Sarah Hughes’ piece Architectural Model Making, recorded in Cabot Circus. Sometimes I’ll work with one place in order to destabilise another, e.g. using a field in Gloucestershire to displace and ambiguate London by annihilating the River Thames, as was the intention with City of London Mirror Displacement. And sometimes I’ll use what I call no-input field recording, which is the practice of recording the empty channels of the recording device at specific locations – making recordings in the field, but not of the field (at least, not in any easily recognisable sense). I have an album coming out on Notice Records later in the year, an instantiation of Stefan Thut’s composition Aussen Raum, that uses the no-input technique to contrast the diverted and culverted River Frome with the symbolic River Frome fountains and cascade that flow alongside St. Augustine’s Parade.

Arnolfini: Could you explain the triangular reference?

SC: The term ‘triangular trade’ refers to commerce between three ports or regions. It’s a means of resolving supply and demand issues arising when a country’s exports aren’t required in the country providing its imports, so commodities from one region are used to make payment for commodities from another region. The Transatlantic Slave Trade is by far the most famous example of this practise, to the extent that the terms have attained a virtual synonimity.

In the context of the composition, ‘triangular trade’ is also the basis of my compositional technique. Every aspect of the piece has been chosen in accordance with thematic and geographic triangulations. So thematically it co-ordinates between migration, slavery and climate change. Geographically it triangulates West Africa, the Americas and England, then Liverpool, London and Bristol, then a trio of local reference points that ask questions about Bristol’s history of monuments and migration. And there’ll be other trios and triangles scattered throughout.

Arnolfini: Who else will be joining you for the event and what will they be contributing?

SC: Madge Dresser, UWE’s Associate Professor of History, will be joining us to present a talk on Bristol’s legacy of involvement with the slave trade. I asked her to be involved because I valued her insight into the continuity of the history of slavery – how it informs our present, how it relates to modern day migration and community cohesion.

The composition will be performed a double bass ensemble featuring local musicians Dominic Lash and Joseph Kelly. Dom’s one of the most sought-after players around in terms of free improvisation and contemporary composition, as much for his critical thinking and enthusiasm as his considerable musicianship. He’s provided a lot of help with the pitch organisation aspects of Triangular Trade. And Joe is a student of composer Michael Finnissy who plays in the the bands After the Rain and Etao Shin. The last time I had them play together was for the premiere of Twelve Tapes, which was also at the Arnolfini. Dom’s been part of the Bang the Bore collective for a few years, and Joe has been playing Bang the Bore events since way back in our Southampton days.

Another partner for this event is Mach Acoustics, a firm of engineers and acoustic consultants based in St. Pauls. They’ve donated their digital acoustic model of an iconic Bristol location that will be used in the piece. Their work has been central to realising the themes of the composition – I’m hugely grateful to them for their skill, ideas and support.

Arnolfini: What can audiences expect from the event?

SC: Your other questions cover the subject matter, so I’ll talk about the sounds. My work, and the output of the Bang the Bore collective, occupies a very small niche where free improvisation and open composition meet noise and field recording. Each of those scenes is tiny in and of itself, yet we’ve managed to find an even narrower scope!

So an audience unfamiliar with what we do can expect a tension between openness and direction in the performances – there is a score, but there will also be a level of expressive freedom and performance choices for the players. There’ll be unconventional instruments (seashells, taken from a beach in Ghana and given to me by family members specifically for this piece, in which they’ll be played with violin bows) and there’ll be some conventional instruments played in unconventional ways (sine waves resonating through a Ghanaian djembe). There’ll be some pre-recorded material, including controlled use of a feedback process and some of the aforementioned no-input field recording. And those who stick around long enough might even be rewarded by something they might recognise.

Arnolfini: Could you talk about the connections with John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea?

SC: Triangular Trade was composed specifically to accompany Vertigo Sea. When the Arnolfini asked me to respond to the film with some kind of concert or event, I felt strongly that there was an elephant in the room that needed to be addressed. In short, that a film that dealt so strongly with themes of slavery was receiving its UK premiere in Bristol, a city that hasn’t come to terms with the legacy of its historic benefactors and their involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. So Triangular Trade is about that context, to such an extent that it probably can’t be performed anywhere else, at any other time. It makes sense in this place, in this moment, and that’s not easily transferable.

The original pitch from the Arnolfini was to rescore Vertigo Sea, live in concert. I found that problematic for a couple of reasons. Firstly there’s a fraught history of the erasure of black experience by white people, and secondly Akomfrah’s soundtrack and spoken material choices are vital to his film. The only way I could conceive of moving forward with that was to lampshade it, which is a term borrowed from critiques of genre fiction that describes the incorporation of counter-arguments into a narrative. It’s technique I use a lot – to present the argument against the work as part of the work itself, which at best destabilises the work in an interesting way, or at its basest allows me to play the fool and hopefully get away with it. As it happens Akomfrah declined the pitch, so thankfully Triangular Trade will be presented separately, away from the screening room. But that idea of choosing to implicate myself in an act of erasure wouldn’t let go of me, and I’ve ended up incorporating that in several layers throughout the piece. I have benefited from slavery. I don’t mean that I’ve traced my family history and found a trail of trade and compensation money, I’m speaking as someone who was born by chance into a country that benefits and has benefited from exploiting and enslaving the people of other countries. That wealth and power imbalance and their material and structural instantiations haven’t disappeared – what’s disappeared is our consciousness of our connection to those things.

Arnolfini: What other projects do you have in the pipeline for this year?

SC: Mainly record releases this year! I run a Bristol-based record label called Every Contact Leaves a Trace, which will be releasing four records from Bristol artists in the first half of the year – including Henry Collins, Simon Whetham and Helen White. The fourth release is the aforementioned Twelve Tapes, which was recorded by the Bang the Bore collective at the Arnolfini in 2014 and features twenty-four recordings of car parks in and around Bristol, including the iconic Prince Street NCP.

There are a few things of my own that are coming out too. The aforementioned instantiation of Stefan Thut’s Aussen Raum, which uses his composition and the no-input technique to explore the River Frome, will be released on the Portland/New Orleans-based Notice Records. I’ve got two releases coming out on Mexican label Bala Perdida, an offshoot of Lengua de Lava; An Agoraphobe is an exploration of feedback techniques with no-input field recording; while Cloudbuster is a filesharing collaboration with Bruno Duplant. There’s also a release in the pipeline of Bastard Insensible, the first no-input field recording I ever made, on the New York-based label Copy For Your Records. And finally I’m really happy with a new electronic feedback release that I’m tentatively calling Black Box, although I haven’t had time to look for a label to release it yet.

Triangular Trade - S Cooke, M Dresser - BtB 180316