Reflections on 10 years of Daylight Music
Daylight Music is now 10 years old. It has become an indispensable part of my weekend and a vital part of the London music scene. I thought I would reflect on what it makes it so special.
About 7 years ago, a friend recommended a Saturday afternoon music event at the Union Chapel. That event was Daylight Music and the event has been a big influence on my weekends ever since.
If you are not aware, Daylight Music is an eclectic music series that runs at the Union Chapel for about 30 weekends each year. Music covers everything from classical to indie, folk to jazz, experimental electronic music to sitar. This ‘pay what you can event’ opens at midday and it welcomes families.
The word eclectic is used by people who like to put things in boxes and label them. I, like most music fans, like my boxes. I have to admit to often restricting my music listening habits to music that fits in genres I am comfortable with.
Over the years my collection of boxes has expanded. Watching a friend singing in a choir at the Proms opened the classical box. Only for me to find ‘classical’ itself is dozens of boxes defining radically different music styles, leading me off into music as diverse as Pärt and Xenakis. A band like Led Zeppelin opened the door to Blues, Blues led back to 50s rock and roll, rockabilly, and Elvis and Elvis led to… and so on. We all have a spider diagram of our discoveries and for most of us, there is a clear logical procession and it’s very rare that we jump too far from what we know we like.
So imagine an event that takes all your nice comfortably arrange boxes and throws them in the air. Putting a post-classical pianist next to a folk musician and an experimental electronic artist. That’s Daylight Music. Think of it as a genreless curated musical discovery service designed to open your ears to new music. I don’t think there is anything else like it in London.
Let’s back up a bit and head back to the beginning and my connection to Daylight Music.
7 years ago, I was backing away from working seven days a week, trying to become a normal person. I had found gigging stopped me working and I was at the time, looking for weekend activities to keep me away from the computer at weekends. The Daylight Music suggestion came just at the right time.
The first few months, I selected sessions based on the description and I pretty much stuck to weeks where there was music in genres I was comfortable with.
My first event was in November 2013 and it was also my first time attending a daylight gig at the Union Chapel. I instantly fell in love with this amazing venue. But initially. less so with Daylight!
Based In Islington, the Union Chapel has a pretty middle class catchment area. I know it’s my problem, but I still find it difficult being around the middle classes. Even after 30 years of living in the South, I often still feel like an imposter if the density of middle class people is too high and this is after all based in Islington, and I admit at first, I took my prejudice into the event and I allowed it to feel a bit alien to me.
Oddly, my first Prom had the opposite effect. Because of ‘Last Night’, I was so sure everyone would be dressed-up, I was mightily relieved when everyone was dressed normally, so I only experienced a very short-lived uncomfortableness (plus my friend sang an Thomas Adès piece that had the word ‘fuck’ in it, which seemed very un-Prom-like).
To some extent my comfort with Daylight Music changed at the first Christmas event where the Trans-Siberian March Band were playing and everything seemed a bit more relaxed. I had gone along before Christmas shopping and while the Trans Siberian Orchestra weren’t really the type of music I would normally listen to, they were just really good fun. I’m not sure why, I think it simply because this was busier, but it felt different and I started to feel more comfortable with this Islington Chapel.
Around this time, I also decided I had to lose weight. Yes I know, lots of info here, but context is everything. I decided at weekends I was going to start to explore London on foot and going to Daylight Music forced me to get up and catch the train into London, ready for my afternoon walk. In doing so, I stopped selecting sessions based on my genre boxes and handed curation of my musical discovery to Daylight Music…… And so started a new musical adventure.
Daylight Music runs for about 30 weeks each year and is split into three seasons. Ben, who runs Daylight Music spends a ridiculous amount of time putting together each season. He has a much wider knowledge of music than me and I’ve found he is a very capable guide through these new musical landscapes. I am impressed how he sets out to curate interesting lineups each week. He doesn’t take the easy option of putting on the same artists each week. If an artist plays Daylight more than once, it’s because they have something new to listen to, they never come back to play the same set as before. Sometimes a week will have a theme. Other times, Ben is simply trying to bring great music to a wider audience.
As I attended more events, my music taste widened, admittedly, often building upon genres I had partially explored. But also new opportunities opened up and I made some good friends.
I already took a lot of gig photos. At that point, I attended around 100 gigs a year, but it was rare for me to use my SLR due to venue restrictions. As Daylight Music is relaxed, most weekends I was taking photos from the crowd. Most were just ‘snaps’ as I never took long lenses with me. However, a member of the Daylight team contacted me and asked if I wanted to photograph an event for them. Hell, why not?
So early one Saturday morning I turned with my camera bag and everything changed. Daylight Music took on a much bigger picture (no pun intended). I discovered Daylight Music is much more than a music event. It truly is an opportunity for many.
At my first event, I quickly became aware how much effort goes into Daylight Music. There is a team of volunteers who make sure this ‘pay what you can event’ happens every weekend.
I quickly realised, Ben is providing an opportunity to many talented artists to play one of the best venues in London who otherwise would never have the opportunity. Inspiring both audience and the artists.
Each weekend Daylight volunteers give up their time to set up the chapel, work on the door, provide a friendly welcome, support the artists, make sure they are looked after, work the march desk and ensure everything is safe.
The excellent sound engineers are always there very early to soundcheck each artist and with the range of music styles covered, mic’ing instruments can often be challenging. They always do an excellent job and I don’t think I have ever heard poor sound at the Union Chapel.
I also discovered the effort the Chapel staff and their volunteers put in each weekend to ensure the cafe run by their Margins Project feeds and waters the Daylight audience. Generating funds for the Chapel’s homeless projects. The chefs are usually already hard at work when I arrive about 9.30. If you have not been to a Daylight Music session, then one thing you should know is the food, especially the cakes are amazing. Almost all the food is vegan friendly (I did say this was an Islington crowd, didn’t I?) What more can you ask? Music, tea, cake and a warm fuzzy feeling.
Most importantly I realised this wasn’t a music event for the ‘middle class Islington audience;. This was a vital cultural event that supported so many good causes. My initial prejudice masking the wide range of people who attend.
With it’s inclusive policy, you will regularly see families at Daylight Music. At Daylight, no one tells children to be quiet. It gives families an opportunity to introduce children to live music and it is always a pleasure watching children come down to the front and be totally wrapped-up in a performance. Something many in the audience don’t realise, this is often the first time an artist’s children have had to see them play. How nice is that? And thankfully, because Daylight Music shows respect to families, the majority replay that respect.
From a music perspective. The music is nearly always for adults, but just occasionally, when Ben is being his most mischievous, he puts together a fantastical session that is for the child in all of us and has featured things like musical dummies, an automatic piano and even the odd event where children themselves make the music through programmes, like the School of Noise.
It has also been a great pleasure to discover how many people, who like me, attend regularly and are happy to put themselves in Ben’s capable hands. You find them dotted around the chapel sitting in their favourite place, reading a book, sketching, eating their pack lunches, or simply enjoying the music. Daylight Music seems to attract people who love music and find the relaxed atmosphere in the chapel and the ‘pay what you can’ policy means they don’t feel excluded from live music. Something for Daylight Music to be proud of.
I have been involved with Daylight Music for nearly 6 years. I go most weekends. At the time or writing, it has been running for 10 years and 330 sessions and I have attended around 150. With a small team of photographers, we take turns to photograph and document each session for Daylight. Often, when it’s my turn to photograph the session, I try to capture the spirit of the event and I try to capture the volunteers who help make this great event happen. I feel it’s important people understand why this event is so vital.
So what makes this series so special musically? I thought I would look back at some of my favourite sessions over the last few years. This isn’t an exhaustive list, all Daylight Music sessions have something for everyone and this list is missing many of my favourite Daylight Music performers who are too many to mention. Hopefully this list gives you an idea of the scope Ben brings to Daylight Music and is enough for you to give it a try.
9th November 2013 (DM146?)
I think my first event was November 2013 with Frank Chicken, Dead Flowers and Ben Calvert and the Swifts. I admit I left perplexed. I wrote a one word note on a photo of Frank Chicken from the event. It just said ‘weird’. I guess this was the perfect introduction to Daylight. It clearly didn’t put me off as I went to the next few weeks.
17th May 2014 (DM162)
My first time covering an event was in May 2014. This is when my view of Daylight started to change. I remember turning up during the soundcheck and enjoying watching the Stuart Masters play some amazing guitar music while I explored the chapel. It felt a privilege to be there listening to the soundcheck (and still does).
I have to admit early on, I very much turned up, took photos and then left. Initially my interaction with the volunteers was limited as I felt I was a guest and didn’t want to get in the way of anyone. Now, I get under the feet all the time.
My first full set is available on Flickr
1st November 2014 (DM176)
This was a good lineup. Musically, everything worked. Digitonal played classical inspired electronica, combining violin and harp. Harps always sound beautiful in the chapel and it was great to be able to photograph a harpist up close. Dean McPhee played a great guitar set. But it was Rachael that made the set so special. She plays some enchanting folk music, often with her husband, Japanese artist ICHI.
As mentioned, I love photographing the soundcheck. The soundcheck is an opportunity to grab performance photos without disturbing the crowd with my shutter sound (although sadly, far too often artists change clothes for the live performance, and I have to get more shots anyway). What was extra special about this session was that it was the first time I saw an artist take a short timeout to prepare themselves for the event and take in the amazing space. After her soundcheck finished, Rachel literally lay down on the stage and stared at the amazing chapel roof. It was at this point that I realised that the artists themselves really love playing the space. And it’s still one of my favourite photographs.
I think the first time a Daylight Music artist took my breath away was Poppy Ackroyd.
I think Poppy had played Daylight Music before, but this was my first encounter with her music. If you are not aware, Poppy is a violinist and pianist who uses a loop pedal to build up beautiful multi-layered music.
Often with artists who use loop pedals, it feel laborious as they build up the layers and you lose interest before the piece gets goings. But that isn’t the case with Poppy. It’s fascinating to watch her move between instruments building up each layer. This was my first encounter with her and I immediately bought everything she had released an made sure I caught her solo performances.
For DM273, I was lucky enough to be photographing that weekend, so had a double dose, catching the soundcheck too. Also on the lineup was Matt Emery, a composer of some equally beautiful music who is another favourite Daylight discovery.
Daylight Music 190
Daylight Music 273
Emily Hall with Ana Silvera (DM236)
Often, the audience isn’t aware that some of the performers come together to create special pieces for Daylight Music. It happens more often than you think. These collaborations often break genre boundaries. For example last year Britten Sinfonia Academy combined with folk artists Stick In The Wheel to produce really interesting results. Other times, it’s simply the first time a piece has been played by artists and they need to tweak the performance in soundcheck.
Occasionally when this happens, it’s an honour to see a performance come together at soundcheck and the reaction of the audience. This Daylight Music session was probably my favourite session of this kind.
Composer Emily Hall was joined by the Khoros Choir and Ana Silvera to perform her music. Clearly it had been rehearsed but in soundcheck Emily was able to clarify how she wanted it performed, tweaking in little areas, improving the work ready for midday. It was clear from soundcheck that it was going to be a stunning and to this day, this is still one of my favourite performances. Okay, I know I am lucky to be around the soundcheck. But I feel so much gratitude that I get to experience these little moments and it makes Daylight Music all the more special.
I knew nothing about Jherek before I covered this event. He is an American composer and musician who has worked with the likes of Amanda Palmer. He has played twice at Daylight and both sessions featured Jherek playing bass with an ensemble.
His first session was a real pleasure. Jherek was working with an ensemble of young musicians. He had no airs and graces and was completely down to earth and a thoroughly nice person. He seemed to genuinely want to help these young musicians develop as musicians. These collaborations seem to happen regularly at Daylight Music and Ben seems to find thoroughly nice people to play his event who are interested in other artists. The music they produced reflected the warmth of the soundcheck. The bass became it’s own unique voice complementing, never competing with the ensemble. It turns out not only is he a great composer, he is also a brilliant bass player.
The second session was equally impressive. For the last three years, Daylight Music has been part of the the London Jazz Festival. These sessions are a good example of how Ben challenges our genre boxes. Jazz isn’t something I listen to very often and much of my idea of what jazz is, is constrained by the kind of jazz I hear on TV or radio. Daylight’s LJF seem to try to challenge our preconceived ideas of jazz aiming to explore the spaces where jazz is pushing against other genres creating something unique. For example, jazz overlapping with folk music and post-classical.
Jherek’s second session, was one of these LFJ events.
The lineup was as I would expect, one trying to push our ideas of what jazz is. Robert Stillman on sax and Andres Holst on 12 string guitar explored how two quite different instruments could complement each other. A young artist, Rose Frazier-Taylor stuck to a more traditional jazz sound but showed there is a new generation of artists finding their voice through jazz.
Jherek, accompanied by a string quartet combined his amazing bass tone with violins and cello to explore the dark edges of jazz, with some heavily Twin Peaks inspired music. The Wolf, a piece from his Cistern album has a Jherek’s bass acting like a possessed metronome, constantly ticking and increasing in loudness and aggression. While strings weave a dark tale around him gradually taking over the lead, as his guitar fades away into the background. I think this is my favourite piece ever to be played at Daylight.
As if this wasn’t enough. Terry Edwards, joined Jherek to bring an early, but very dark Christmas twist. Playing a Twin Peaks inspired version of Silent Night.
Official video from DM252: Jherek Bischoff – Cistern
8-bit special (DM256)
The 256th Daylight took its inspiration from computer music and the chapel echoed to the beeps of synths and old computers. For example Deerful, (Emma Winson) played music on gameboys. While the film composer David Julyan and Héloïse Werner combined analogue synths and cello. A perfect illustration of the risks Daylight Music takes. A simple idea excuted brilliantely and fascinating to watch.
‘The foghorn lady’ (DM267)
Now on to one of the weirdest Daylight sessions I can remember. Often the curration of a Daylight session is handed over to record labels or individuals. This session wsa handed over to Laura Cannell and her ‘Modern Ritual’ series.
Laura Cannell is a musician who has chosen the recorder has her instrument. Not the nasty little plastic recorders we used at school, but the classic wooden versions. Her music is always interesting and she isn’t afraid of taking her music into different environments, often supporting indie musicians playing over noisy crowds. So this session was always going to be interesting, I’m just not sure I was ready for how interesting it would be.
The sessions expored rituals through words and music. This session featured a whole bunch of weird. Charles Hayward simply drummed on a snare drum for 30 minutes. With the speed and pitch increasing and reducing. It really was something to behold. It was also something I really didn’t like! (I always skip drum solos!)
These Feathers Have Plumes, used electronics and played wine glasses to create a facinating soundscape.
Then there was the ‘foghorn lady’ as we call her. Jennifer Lucy Allan performed ‘Foulis’s Daughter: A short history of the foghorn in 30 interrupted acts’. In the performance, Jeniffer traces the history of the forgon and performance combines spoken word with the sounds of foghorns captured round the UK. It was initially really interesting, then started to drag and it just didn’t work for me.
But that isn’t the point. Daylight Music isn’t simply trying to regugitate music they know everyone will like. It give artists the chance to perform pieces that will challenge us. In this case, it didn’t connect with me, or some of my friends. At times, it permits itself the risk to be a glorius failure by being adventurous. This session was one of them and I’m glad I was there to experience it.
From Call to Choir (DM309)
Possibly one of the most adventurous events Daylight Music has put on was ‘From Call to the Choir’. It was a simple premise. Could one singer bring the chapel to one voice?
Throughout the afternoon, starting with one singer, the size of each act grew, one became two, two because four, one choir became two choirs. A ‘scratch choir’ formed from amateur singers who only met the night before, combined with these artists, bands and other choirs to perform one large piece. Eventually for the last piece, the audience joined in. It was a thrill watching the performance build from one person up to the the entire chapel.
I photographed the rehearsals the night before and it was a pleasure to see how excited the volunteer choir were. It was also great seeing so many Daylight alumni giving up their time to make the event work. Chatting to several of the choir, many hadn’t sung before in public and were thrilled at the opportunity to sing in such an amazing venue.
This is probably the best example of what makes Daylight special. How many events would take a risk and give a composer a chance to perform a piece on such a scale and give so many people a chance to participate?
Majestic Euro-Musical Showcase Special (DM223)
I am not a fan of Eurovision. But in 2017, Ben decided to invite many of the international artists who have played Daylight to celebrate Eurovision by playing playing their own songs and covering one Eurovision song. It was great to see so many musicians collaborate to produce a great feel good event. And, the highlight was a live rendition of Father Ted’s My Lovely Horse. Unusually, I tried to capture a video to give people a favour of the event. You can tell, I’m not a videographer from the whacky clips and sound quality.
For the last few years, Piano Day has been an annual highlight. Ben loves post-classical and early Daylight’s featured now world renown artist Nils Frahm who created Piano Day. It takes place on the 88th day of the year, or in Daylight Music’s case the nearest Saturday to it.
The piano is a wonderful instrument and Daylight Music always makes an effort by hiring in a baby grand piano which when combined with the wonderful acoustics of the chapel, is always special.
Some of my favourite discoveries have come via Piano Day. I have already mentioned the wonderful Poppy Ackryod, who I had already seen before a Piano Day session.
Another talented disovery is Xenia Pestrova. My first experience of Xenia was when she played a tiny toy piano at her first appearance. Over different sessions, we have had the opportunity to see how Xenia experiments with how the piano can sound. One amazing session she brought a magnetic resonance piano that sounds like an electric guitar, where each note can be held indefinetly.
What I’ve foud amazing, is the often subtle ways each pianist plays the piano and interprets each piece. Often watching their hands is like watching a ballet. Each hand dancing around the keys hypnotically.
Piano day is always a special Daylight. If you want one session to try. I would always recommend a Piano Day session. They are always special.
Closing off why I feel Daylight Music is so special. Let me introduce you to the Pictish Trail and more precisely Lost Maps Records.
As mentioned, Daylight Music regularly explores building relationships with small record labels. Lost Map Records is a Scottish label based on the Isle of Eigg, with a great stable of artists such as Rozi Plain, Callum Easter, Bas Jan, Alabaster dePlume, Tuff Love, Ed Dowie, plus the inimateble Pictish Trail himself. All have their fan base, but none of them would be able to sell out the Union Chapel.
Several of the label’s artists have played at different sessions. But every few years, Daylight effectively hosts Lost Maps Christmas party. Each of these sessions is a fun event. If you have never seen the Pictish Trail, Johhny is extremely charismatic and extremely enthusistatic about his artists. These Christmas events are usually very popular.
It’s these close relationships with small labels that makes Daylight so important. It provide labels and artists with an audience who are willing to listen to something new and they in return provide Daylight Music with new and interesting artists that keep the sessions going.
I’m sure many of these small labels appreciate the efforts Ben goes to keep Daylight Music going, allowing their artists a chance to play an amazing venue. I know I appreciate Ben bringing these artists to me.
Daylight Music is special. Come along and see for yourself.
Daylight Music takes place at the Union Chapel at midday on Saturday’s. It is a ‘pay what you can’ event, with a suggested donation of £5. For more information see www.daylightmusic.co.uk