Interview: Thomas Butler, composer of Elbow Room

The project, comprising archive clips and field recordings, explores the psychogeography of cities

Your theme seems strangely apt in the wake of the recent Red Road flats controversy, was that deliberate?
Actually, no. Red Road was coincidental. My project began over a year ago, during my residency with Red Note Ensemble, and was looking at Glasgow in general, and how city developments affect us. How the buildings around us make us feel, daily.

Of course the Red Road flat situation really interests me. Like a lot of people, I was totally aghast when I heard of the plans to demolish them as part of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony. Those buildings are loaded with so many meanings; they’re a high point of modernist living for some, an eyesore for others. They’re synonymous with crime for many Glaswegians, but also a home to many who need them.

The thought of demolishing them, in an artistic context … I couldn’t get that. You can’t explore the issues around those buildings by knocking down social housing in a spectacle. Yes, a conversation needs to be had about housing and urban development. But destroying the homes of the poorer, for the entertainment of the richer… No. I actually wrote a blog post about it, where I explain more.

Your composition will be mixed with extracts from Scottish Screen Archive footage about Glasgow urban planning – one from 1949, and another from 1971, showing a futuristic vision of what Glasgow would look like in 1980. What parallels can be drawn between those plans and the Red Road ones?
I was interested in the fantasy of the planners. There’s a real energy in their optimism – and a very patronising tone too as they address the people of Glasgow, which I felt I needed to keep in!

It’s also scary to see how far the plans could actually go. The 1949 film was made by Glasgow Corporation – the plans never came to fruition; I think they ran into money problems. It spoke of ring roads, and ambitious plans to alleviate the city’s poverty problems. The later one, made in 1971, looks forward, and explains how wonderful the 80s will be. I do think there was something genuine behind those plans at the time. In the context of 'now’, it’s easy to be cynical, but I don’t actually think those plans were. Obviously, with hindsight it seems ridiculous to listen to their demolition plans – flattening these amazing, historic buildings, when buzzwords like ‘sustainability’ and ‘heritage’ have come to mean so much.

Perhaps the parallel is extreme reactions to problems of terrible living conditions.

Where did the title, Elbow Room, come from?
There’s a line in the 1971 film – which is filled with voiceovers of plummy English voices and even plummier Scottish ones – about creating more residential areas on the outside of the city. To create more ‘breathing space and elbow room’.

What will the performances involve?
There are three movements: 1949, 1980 and 2014, performed by cello, violin, clarinet, bass, electric guitar and percussion. It’s a mix of live and electronic percussion – for the middle movement about the 80s, I really wanted those 80s synth drum sounds. I was influenced by a lot of 80s synthpop riffs while I was writing – people like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, The Normal and Fad Gadget. I like the fact that back in the 80s, bands were inspired by the dark urbanism of writers like JG Ballard. But there was also a lot of energy in the music. And that optimism again.

There will be clips mixed in from the Scottish Screen films, and I’ve worked in my field recordings of cars and motorways in Glasgow. It’s weird; even in parks, you can always hear the traffic in Glasgow. I’ve lived in Glasgow for seven years now, and I love it. I’m so lucky to call it home. But the first thing I remember thinking when I came here was, ‘Why is there a motorway in the middle of the city? Who thought that was a good idea?’

Have you seen the Telly Savalas BBC film for Birmingham in the 80s, where he gets really excited about the new ring road?
Yes! It’s amazing. Hilarious, and also very disturbing. I love all those films. They are what got me in to all this, they are great historic artefacts.

Elbow Room, Summerhall, Edinburgh, Wed 21 May; The Arches, Glasgow, Thu 22 May.

Telly Savalas Looks At Birmingham - BBC Radio 4

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