Alice Fraser: Audiences, Consent and Experiences

Last week I had my Masters graduation. Ending one era and beginning to think forward to the next, I’ve been thinking A LOT about my own practice. Two key themes have stood out: how do we as composers/producers best gain consent from an audience when producing ‘uncomfortable’ music, and how can art help foster understanding and ‘getting to know’ a composer/performer. In the midst of these thoughts: Alice Fraser.

A fortunate turn of events (or unfortunate as they were created by illness) meant I was in London on the day Alice Fraser was recording her show Ethos. I’d first heard of her through The Bugle, a weekly satirical podcast. She was brilliant. Then I found her own podcast Tea with Alice - also brilliant. Then I listened to her trilogy of stand up shows: Savage, The Resistance, and Empire (which are all free podcasts as The Alice Fraser Trilogy). I’ve said before that I often write her about art I’ve fallen in love with and I already knew on the way to Ethos that a blog would likely follow. Alice Fraser produces the sort of work that makes be want to sit down with her and ask all sorts of questions. What was the process behind this? Why did you phrase it like that? How do you respond to this? It is thoughtful, intelligent, creative. It is good art.

As luck would have it, a twitter comment about part of her show led to a small discussion on twitter which was then summarised and expanded in places here. Both worth reading, and I’m going to do a similar thing from my side of the conversation here.

Brief Mentions

“we're all complicated people who use different voices in different spaces, and I don't want to be a larger than life character. I want to be myself, more or less.”

The distinction between ‘fans’ and ‘people who like my work’ is really nice. It’s nice to see an alternative to ‘artist as brand’.

I wanted to be able to do that bit at club nights in the middle of nowhere and have hyper-masculine blokes humming a consent anthem the next day.

Writing something in a way that can convey a message and carry that message out of the performance space - genius!

Audience Consent

Those who know my recent work also know how important audience consent has been. Words is my latest piece and uses different types of literature discussing sex and relationships. The six movements and their texts were: Choice Words, Erotic Fan Fiction; Sacred Words, Song of Songs; Community Words, Yahoo Answers posts; Professional Words, Agony Aunt Columns; Policy Words, Government Sex and Relationship Education Guidelines; Medical Words, Grey’s Anatomy - first edition. These words then spoken (I will write more about the workings of the piece when there is a recording to share) cover love, erotica, abuse, worry, confusion and many more themes. At some points it is subtle and at some points, particularly where yahoo internet trolls become involved, it is blunt and vulgar.

With this in mind a good portion of the piece’s performance directions are about being clear with audiences and performers about the nature of the piece. I aimed to have gained audience consent to these themes before the piece started.

Alice Fraser has created shows that directly ask the audience for consent to discuss uncomfortable content mid-show, and offers them the opportunity to leave. Her shows are even structured in such a way that if you do leave at these points you will still have experienced something that structurally works as a completed form. I find the idea of giving the audience a level of control in order to bring them with out on the journey fascinating. I’d love to explore this more within my own work, but equally am unsure if music (even my contemporary music) works like that. Comedy has an interactivity within it that concerts do not. Although, we’ve created a more interactive experience between composer and performer. Why not audiences too?

The other thing that particularly interested me was only briefly mentioned…

“I wanted it to map my own experience”

I don’t want to spoil the content of any of her shows. So I’m being deliberately vague in saying that Savage maps her experience in a unique way and that the audience consent discussed in the tweets contributes to this. But, it maps her experience really well. With my series For… I’ve sought to write pieces unique to people. In There will be Dread we sought to create stories interactively for people. But in Savage, and The Alice Fraser Trilogy in general, the audience is taken on a journey that portrays her experiences. And in some small way captures them in a microcosm. I’m currently thinking about how my music can be used to portray a performer’s personality, or an aspect of a community or location. I have many thoughts, and nothing concrete yet. But I know I will be listening to the trilogy again as I develop them further.

If you’re new here

and you’ve read this far, thank you. I hope you enjoy what you see and hear throughout the site. I’m a composer creating art and music using text, amongst over things. If you find it interesting or have questions feel free to get in touch. If you’re interested to hear more about Words let me know- there is a score available, in PDF and book (yes, a literal book) form. I’ll be blogging more about it as I create a recording but I have no set date for that, so feel free to use my contact form or twitter if it piques your interest.

Finally. If you were at the Ethos gig (or if you’re Alice Fraser). Yes, it’s still stuck in my head and its been nearly a week.

Darlings with Fringes

My blogs tend to fall into one of two camps: this is what I'm doing, or this is what I love. I've written about a number of art works that I've essentially fallen in love with. Some have changed my practice, many just inspire me to make the best art I can. So, can you guess which type of blog this is.

One of the many joys of living in Bath is that every year the Bath Festival comes to town. And with it comes the Bath Fringe Festival. Unfortunately,  I was out of town for most of the festival. Then, as I was thinking about how I wanted to see some of the fringe before it was over, a woman standing near a puppet stepped towards me: "Do you like theatre?"

Truth be told I was aware of Darlings before this point. I'd looked at the fringe website, saw Darlings, saw "brutally vulnerable … look at modern relationships, manipulation, and how they are tied into our childhood experience", decided this looked too dark, closed the site. Still, after a short discussion about theatre, music and Freud I'd decided to be in the audience that evening - and I'm glad I was.

One of the things I love about writing this blog is that I don't have to be a critic. I can write about what I love and about what excites me without having to look for negatives. In line with that, there's a lot I could write about the show but I'm just going to mention a few things that particularly stood out. I'm not sure how these relate to my practice, but I loved them and I'm sure it'll feed in at some point - watch this space. 

Foreshadowing and Puppets

First off these puppets are beautiful. In finding the pictures below I realised that that's not an inherent quality of the puppets. The actors manage to give them such humanity. The vulnerability in a small, silent puppet was captivating. I feel like I could have stayed in those puppet-led moments for hours (although it's worth remembering that, in all art, without the wider context moments like these lose their power)

Once they've made their first appearance they are unforgettable. And every time they return they bring with them a sense of foreshadowing. Without giving spoilers, they provoke an "oh, we're going there again".

This feeling is strengthened by the use of music throughout. Largely a collection of diegetic sound, those non-diegetic moments cut through and create an immersive experience. Before we finished our first iteration of There will be Dread I was concerned that non-diegetic music could remind people that they're in a fictional space. Instead, it drew them deeper in and that was the same in Darlings.

Unreliable Narrators

I'm going to try and keep this spoiler free, so it could be vague.

At the end of the show, I realised I couldn't tell you the facts of any scene. I wonder if I'd have a different experience if I knew nothing of the themes beforehand. I spent some time trying to decide if the relationship was manipulative - I'm not sure it actually matters. How much does Eve project onto Gabe? How much is Gabe a liar? Are childhood memories accurate portrayals of events? Eleanor Hope-Jones has written a work that raised all these questions and, wonderfully, answered none. But isn't that the point of art? To ask questions, to provoke thought, not to give definitive answers.

Creative Use of a Bathtub

Throughout the performance there is an ever present bathtub centre stage. This has spoiler heavy meaning far beyond anything I'm going to say here. But, it occurred to me towards the end of the show that I don't think we ever see Eve and Gabe in the actual bathroom. I've seen less conspicuous objects used in staging, a stage block can be any number of things. But a bathtub has a specific purpose, that it could be used in place of any household furniture without seeming weird is a credit to the team.


I saw this on it's last night at the Bath Fringe. Palomar Theatre are next taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe, and am so glad they reached all the crowdfunding targets they needed. As I mentioned at the start of this blog, experiencing art can sometimes be a little like falling in love. Looking back at pieces such as Mothertongue, Nico Muhly; In the Light of Air, Anna Thorvaldsdottir; Do You Be, Meredith Monk; and many more I can see this. Once again, by the end of Darlings I knew - I'd fallen again.

Curiosity Inspired the Cat

Curiosity killed the cat, and yet creativity relies on it. And I recently came across two works that this is true of more than ever. Curious?

Recently I've been privileged to have a piece workshopped with Plus Minus Ensemble at Bath Spa University. I blogged about the process of writing that piece last month. But while there I was also able to see my colleagues on the Masters and PhD courses have their work performed as well. One of these pieces was Community of Objects by Caitlin Rowley. The piece involves the opening of beautifully crafted paper boxes, each with an instruction to be followed inside. This description, while accurate, doesn't do justice to the experience created. As performers open these boxes the audience is drawn into their curiosity. As they carefully examine and unwrap their objects, we were drawn to experience the event vicariously through them. The whole exerience was brilliant.

Then, this week I visited the Bath Spa Art Degree Show - where all final year art students are able to showcase their work. I was keen to see the work of the visual artists I'd recently worked with as part of the shortlist for the Bath Spa Porthleven Prize 2017. One of these artists was Summer Coleman, and when I found her name it directed me to a door. A torch hung on the handle, and a sign invited me to enter a small dark room. The torch illuminated a small space in the darkness, and I was surrounded by pebbles? Looking closer they weren't pebbles, they were sculptures. Each unique, some glazed, some coloured, all made by hand. Once again the work was one of curiosity - what does this next piece look like? I wonder how she made this one? Each piece bore it's makers prints, your fingers could rest in the marks left by the atrists. 

Reflecting on these two works now, I see the great level of intimacy involved. When the viewer is brought into the process of curiosity they share a unique experience with the performer/composer/artist - even if they are in completely separate locations.

My own work shows the end result of curiosity. I explore the world around me, and once I find something interesting I comment on it through my music. But these works invite the audience into that process. They still comment on the world, but in a way that equalises the positions of power. The artist is made vulnerable and the audience is invited to explore alongside them.

Can I explore this in my own work, or is it just a different style to mine? Who knows. But, I'm curious...