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The messy magic of The Beatles and Ben Corrigan’s fascinating podcast

What happens when you invite a bunch of talented musicians to make music but then take away most of their tools? Ben Corrigan brought 17 composers to his podcasts to find out

Of all the things I loved about Peter Jackson’s documentary series The Beatles: Get Back, and I loved practically everything about it, the thing I think I loved most was this: the way in which it managed to explode the mystique and romance of music making, and yet somehow still leave us feeling like we’d witnessed true magic. 

Music making, as anyone who has ever tried it knows, is a process and not simply an end product. Never does a song or a composition ever come to anyone completely fully formed, without the requirement at least for some tinkering and fine-tuning (Yesterday did not wholly come to Paul McCartney in a dream, despite what legend might tell you).

What Get Back made engrossingly and enchantingly – if also sometimes patience-testingly – clear over 468 minutes, was that even for the greatest band ever, music making was lots of very humdrum things, done over and over again – such as the following, in no particular order.

It was gibberish placeholder lyrics, half-formed riffs and chord sequences and wonky vocal harmonies, traded, repeated and refined in a strange, intuitive language which only the musicians involved could really understand.

It was copious cups of tea and cigarettes. It was at least one person being too bossy (Paul) and someone else goofing off all the time to ease the tension (John). It was strops (George) and the occasional fart (Ringo).

It was all of these things, round and round, day after day, until the moment and the chemistry and the stars all aligned, and suddenly the words “this version featured on The Beatles album Let It Be” appeared along the bottom of the screen and, without anyone present perhaps even realising it at the time, they captured lightning in a jar.

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Every song you’ve ever heard and loved is the product of a process not unlike the above. And yet, how often are we even remotely conscious of it as listeners? Practically never. And with good reason – quite apart from boring most people stiff, it would only shatter the illusion. 

But if you’re someone with a possibly masochistic curiosity about the human and technical methodology of music making – and your love of The Beatles: Get Back may be a useful gauge of this (I could easily have watched another 468 minutes and more) – the process can be revealing and intriguing all in itself.

It’s one of the reasons why I’m enjoying catching up with the award-winning podcast Excuse the Mess, following the recent release of a two-volume compilation of music created during the making of it, via Stroud-based contemporary classical and avant-garde record label, Hidden Notes. 

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Dating back to 2018 and 2019, respectively, the two series of Excuse the Mess saw musician Ben Corrigan – the podcast’s creator, host and in-house composer – spend a day each with 17 unique voices from the contemporary classical world, including Hannah Peel, Anna Meredith, Oliver Coates and Gold Panda.

He not only interviewed them about their lives and work to date, but also created a piece of music with them, to the same set of three pre-defined rules. Firstly, they had only one day to make their composition; secondly, they couldn’t pre-plan anything; and thirdly, every sound had to come from one instrument only, which the composer brought with them (they could, however, manipulate the material electronically).

It was a way of scaling the music-making process down to miniature and spontaneous form to help us wrap our heads around the various ways different musicians approach it. “The individual building blocks, workshopping of ideas and discussions that went into the music is revealed,” wrote Corrigan. “A rare opportunity to learn how these musical minds function.”

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There was Hannah Peel, with her signature, joke shop-bought, hand-cranked, miniature music box, making resourceful use of even the hole punch needed to make holes in the paper roll that feeds the music box to create a percussive loop. There was Anna Meredith manipulating and exploring the resonating pitch of, of all things, a pesto jar. There were no strops nor bodily emissions captured in any of the sessions that I’m aware of, although there was a lot of strange intuitive language spoken (Meredith: “The squareness is more apparent at the start. How about we focus it?”) and it seems as if a lot of tea was definitely drunk.

Now available to buy via the Hidden Notes compilations – lovingly presented as stylish packages together with limited-edition books featuring podcast quotes, photos and Risograph prints – the 17 tracks written and recorded as part of Excuse the Mess stand up as a fascinating and very enjoyable collection all in their own right. Proof, perhaps, of how sometimes limitations can be freeing and focusing for artists when their abundance of creativity might otherwise leave them lost in the process for too long. 

The Excuse The Mess compilations Vol 1 and Vol 2 are available now
Listen to the Excuse The Mess podcast here

Malcolm Jack is a freelance journalist

@MBJack

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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