Paul Burwell

Experimental performance artist


Paul Dean Burwell, artist and musician: born Ruislip, Middlesex 24 April 1949; (two sons with Sheila Cobbing); died Hull, Yorkshire 4 February 2007.

Paul Burwell was infamous for his exuberant fusions of fine-art installation, percussion and explosive performance. He was a staunch advocate of, and passionate participant in, all forms of experimental art.

In 1983 Burwell, the sculptor Richard Wilson and the performance artist Anne Bean formed an unholy alliance as the Bow Gamelan Ensemble, a multi-media urban-junk-and-pyrotechnics percussion trio. Their first appearance was at the London Musicians' Collective, and for the next eight years the ensemble performed with sublime violence and spectacular anarchy, rattling teeth and window panes in venues all over the world.

"If one had to make a pantheon of Bow Gamelan heroes," Burwell said in 1990,

they would include the great engineers Sir Alec Issigonis of the Morris Minor and the Mini, Thomas Telford, Brunel, and Sopwith of the Camel. Our creed comes from the Balinese: we don't have any art, we do everything as well as we can.

The joy of the forbidden echoed against ritual incantation with improvised fanfares of industrial chaos, always with Burwell's insistent pulse beneath, drumming up the explosions and the steam-whistle screams, the sirens, the bagpipes, the arc-welding halos and angle-grinding gongs and bells. The performance stages, like Burwell, were never very far from water, especially his beloved Thames.

Born in Ruislip, Middlesex, in 1949, Burwell was drawn from a flourishing career as a Barons Court gravedigger into the creative turmoil of Ealing College of Art, where he joined the improvisation workshops of the jazz drummer John Stevens. He also took lessons under Max Abrams. Such diversity was encouraged in the English art schools of the late Sixties.

The musician David Toop, with whom Burwell later performed in a long-running trio with the sound and visual poet Bob Cobbing, tells of Burwell's passion for the physicality of music, especially when ripped out by lone players; one-string growlers, mavericks with a determination to be heard. He devoured influences as diverse as Bongo Joe, Black Sabbath, the Johnny Burnette Trio, Scottish pibroch, Tibetan Tantrism and Sun Ra's Solar Arkestra.

He spent the Seventies unwinding music and dislocating sound, playing alongside other great and irredeemable denizens of the experimental. His jack-in-the-box enthusiasm was never still. Even on the Leo, the fishing boat he kept moored on the Thames at Limehouse, he would constantly pick and tamper; worrying at the engine, tapping the depth gauge, tying knots, transmuting her solidity into a passable impression of The African Queen. Burwell's love for boats and adventure had been there from an early age, and when in 2000 he left London, it was for the deserted building of the Kingston Rowing Club, sheltering in the bleakness of post-industrial Hull.

Paul Burwell might have easily been found aboard the Pequod. He certainly seemed to have landed out of time and between journeys. Those who knew and worked with him could yarn all month about his shape-shifting: from bilge rat to silk-waistcoated dandy; from slicked-back rocker to Fluxus saint.

Once, we were returning from a charter into a storm, on a river trip with his friend the writer Iain Sinclair. This time, the freak wrangler Sinclair had surpassed himself and the members of the ill-assorted ship of fools were already retching long before Burwell navigated us into the shipping lanes.

By the mouth of the Thames, the boat was bucking in all directions and Burwell murmured the C word to those sheltering in the cabin's green cigarette smoke: "Capsize," he said, with the ease of somebody offering a biscuit, as if it were the mildest of possibilities. We skidded from shore to shore dropping off the anxious crew until the empty boat bobbed in the aftermath of the storm and we yawed back towards London in a subdued mist of whiskey and night. Without warning, Burwell glided the Leo into the gloom of the Rainham Marshes, where he moored her and leapt ashore.

The day was gone and the fog closed in. A chalky white bass note shivered the river and stopped the blood. Fast-lapping rhythms echoed and smouldered into a vast and unknown space. Burwell was playing the river. In fact he was playing a fleet of marooned concrete barges. Sticks in hand, jumping between their different pitches, fluttering their cadence with consummate skill. The music was eerie and solid, a combined sounding of place and dream.

There exists a BBC recording of Burwell playing on the Thames. When it was first aired, it so startled the ears of the listeners that it was asked for again and again, so that they might hear once more a resonance so perfect and so generously given. It is the sound of Burwell which endures, the drummer's flux between delicate whisper and furious vibration.

Brian Catling

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