Kate Romano reflects on her year with OCM

Sometimes a single word is enough to set you off on a totally new creative path. Early in the Oxford Contemporary Music BOOM residency, I was talking about the things that I loved to my mentor Jo Ross and she made a pertinent observation for which I will be forever grateful. ‘Your world…its all very theatrical’ she said. Theatrical. Did I have a ‘theatrical’ conception of music? Did I, in fact, love the ‘theatre of sound’ more than music itself? It seems so obvious in hindsight. My childhood had been spent making endless shows, working with puppets, creating other worlds and telling stories. My great passions included music, but many other things besides: architecture, field sounds, maps, paper theatres, self-made instruments, birds, old technology.

It was with an underlying spirit of adventure and uncertainty that I first applied for the BOOM residency. ‘A new scheme for artists and producers, supported by Oxford Contemporary Music’ said the publicity. I applied as a ‘producer’. I wasn’t entirely sure what one was or whether I was it, but I was delighted to be given a place on the new mentoring programme after what was probably the most pleasant, engaging and enlightening interview ever. We just chatted. I found out about OCM and they found out about me.

During the interview I admitted I wasn’t sure what a producer was or whether what I was doing came under this title. Tim Hand and Jo Ross nodded sagely and sympathetically. I have, in fact, spent the best part of the year working out what it is I do and where my skills lie. It felt so creative, yet job descriptions for ‘producer’ in the press often read as rather static things, focusing largely on highly efficient levels of organization. They bypassed what I felt were core essentials; that to ‘produce’ was a fluid, responsive, entrepreneurial, risk-taking thing. A chance to be part of What Happens Next. I love the feeling of skipping between ideas, sounds and images, driven by an innate curiosity. I am constantly energised by the process of working my way through the web of chaotic ideas in my head to extract something coherent and realizable. There is a true thrill of bringing two or more unlikely things together, a catalyst for something totally new. Its rather like composing actually - but with bigger blocks. You are still playing around with and making order out of textures, shapes, themes, images, movement. You still have restrictions (always a good thing) and a responsibility to deliver. With great gusto I embraced all the eccentricities of what I loved in my BOOM year. I went to theatre and dance shows, I visited exhibitions and galleries. I read avidly and I rediscovered the sheer creative joy of writing words in response to what I was finding. How did I really want to experience music? How did I want my children to experience music?

I wondered what my own job description for ‘producer’ might look like. Yes, it is true that there is a great need for much organisation and efficiency. There are funds to be raised, invoices to be paid, spreadsheets to be updated, schedules to be confirmed, crises to be resolved. There are many meetings - so, so many conversations with artists, venues, funders, friends, people from all walks of life. It is often the latter that prove to be some of the most inspirational connections. There is also lot of daydreaming to be done. I like to set my alarm clock an hour early. I often hit upon my best ideas and solutions during that drifting period of half-sleep half-wakefulness. I make visual scrapbooks as each project starts to come to life in my mind and it is in these books that dominant themes or strands start to emerge from the original labyrinth of ideas. I make one for each production. And I have a private one for unrealised ideas (currently standing at around 20). Despite being a trained musician who is ever curious about sound, images are very important to me and I find that they help other people understand quite quickly what a production is about.

Does it sound rather self-indulgent? Certainly I’m pursuing my own tastes and curiosities with a passion - yet entering deeply into an artist’s world is a real privilege and there is a huge duty of care when revealing that private word to other people. There is something very special and unique about a role that asks you to be equally appreciative of art and to respond creatively to it at the same time. I hope that I am doing something useful, purposeful and enabling. Adding something extra to what an artist might achieve alone. J G Ballard’s phrase ‘junction maker’ comes to mind; a producer is someone who suggests connections or narratives between sounds, images, words or spaces. Someone who creates junctions between artists - composers, performers, designers, painters, choreographers. And then there are the deeply fascinating junctions between art and those who use it; visitors, audiences. Once I noticed these intersecting junctions, these repeating patterns of ‘nodes’ as I first thought of them, I began to understand my own pull towards art and artists who fell between the gaps, not easily labeled or contained. Producing often felt like traversing a map, orienteering a hinterland of connected points where different things could happen – and frequently did. I like a production to have a degree of artistic uncertainty. I’ve realised that I’m not only resilient and responsive to change, but I actively seek it and am keen to set off down new roads. This is one of the most rewarding, compelling and enigmatic things about art - it changes, it changes you, and it leads you down its own unexplored paths if you let it.

Like the artist who needs to know when to stop painting, it is perhaps also useful to think about where the job ends. If a producer is a curator of ideas, an ‘enabler’, where does the enabling stop? At what point do you hand the art and experience over to the audience, the visitor? I thought and wrote a lot about audiences during the year (http://corymbus.co.uk/applauding-audiences/). I wince when I think back to my early funding applications which must have looked like I was about to inflict a perfectly primed set of ‘answers’ upon my poor unsuspecting audience, who never knew that such pressing artistic issues needed to be addressed in the first place. Fortunately, thanks to my fine artistic colleagues and collaborators, these well-intentioned thoughts never fully materialised in the final shows. Experience has quickly taught me to relax on the ‘catalyst for change’ bit and focus more on creating memorable events for audiences that allow them to think for themselves. No one wants art to tell them what to do or how to behave, nor can it. I took a leaf from my own book. Museums and galleries are constant source of inspiration and aspiration for me because I like to be able to wander at my own pace, spending more time on things that hold my attention, making the experience of art relevant to my own life. Live music, like film, usually does not always allow us to go at our own pace. I’ve experimented by thinking of concerts like walks through a gallery, playing around with apparent and less apparent links between sounds, images, textures, technology. Gaston Bachelard, one of my favourite writers, suggests that too much detail robs us of the power of intimacy and imagination; that a fleeting glimpse, a light passing of an idea is all we need to start making our own connections with what we are hearing and seeing and the world we live in. Perhaps the producer stops at the point of suggestion. That sits well with me.

In July I took a big step and resigned from my 13-year academic post at the Guildhall School. It was a difficult decision. I have nothing but affection and respect for this wonderful institution that has been ‘home’ to me for over a third of my life. I left without a replacement job and without a plan, guided mostly by an intuitive feeling that I had to leave to work out what to do next. Over August, with time to think, it became clear that I needed to repackage what I was doing into a Production Company that placed ‘adventures in sound’ at its theatrical heart. I’m currently in the process of setting this up whilst managing umpteen projects at various stages of gestation.

The BOOM year has also seen me complete the 2-year Tokaido Road http://kateromano.co.uk/portfolio/tokaido-road-a-journey-after-hiroshige touring opera production. I wrote and directed a children’s show (The Music Box http://kateromano.co.uk/portfolio/the-music-box ) seen by over 1500 young people and I worked with Cheltenham Music Festival on two events. I still perform regularly as a clarinetist and chamber musician – it feels very important to retain this physical and emotional connection with making sound and music and to be honest, performing is still one of my greatest pleasures. (I’m also pretty useful at turning my hand to all manner of self-made instruments that need a gung-ho player…) I was very pleased to be able to work directly with OCM towards the end of the residency year when we collaborated to put my current Ritual In Transfigured Time http://kateromano.co.uk/portfolio/ritual-in-transfigured-time touring production in to the OVADA gallery at Oxford. It is a joy to work with OCM and their trademark mix of ambition, hard work and common sense. I was very impressed by their marketing which resulted in a sell-out success at OVADA and their level of care taken over every aspect of the production. I am using my BOOM grant mostly for site visits and artist meetings for current and new productions for 2017 and 2018. I don’t want to give too much away at this point, but none of them are ‘easy’ venues, as the amount of emails in my inbox from demolition companies might suggest! I have especially enjoyed writing this year. I tentatively started to blog in August, just one piece to test the waters. I’m now writing articles for the online journal Corymbus, I review for The Cusp and I’ve just had a (small) BBC commission.

I wanted to end this piece by saying how much the BOOM year had enabled me to work out who I was, what I was doing, how I was starting to feel reasonably confident about being a ‘producer’ (whether it's my own interpretation of the role or a wider one perhaps matters not). But then - I was offered another Residency for 2017-18 at the beautiful Stapleford Granary in Cambridge. Not as a musician. Not as a producer. But as an Artist. Hmm…. sometimes a single word is enough to set you off on a totally new creative path…..

Kate Romano, October 2016