Friday, 28 October 2011

My Experience with Samekhmem

Last Friday evening, I attended The Event – a night of simultaneous creative expressions at various spaces across Digbeth. The programme was extensive - too much so to see all, so I started at the Western most location - Curzon Street Station - and moved east to Lombard Method. I allowed the movement of people on the streets and blind chance to suggest the route.

The first venue held my attention for a just few minutes, but was well attended. I recognised a few faces and tried to remember names to begin conversation. Without succeeding, I left and tried to determine if people were purposefully heading somewhere, which led me to Fazeley Street. Outside the Minerva Works, I saw a familiar face, but with an unusual white shape painted on his forehead. I gestured to it with a an expression of curiosity, but he was talking on his phone. Intrigued, I entered the space alone.

When we enter any new space, we very quickly look quickly for cues to know what to do there, and how to behave, or memories of how we have behaved in similar spaces. Cues beyond signs and words. I saw a laden merchandise table and a smiling someone advancing towards it. There seemed to be some interesting offerings here, some in Hebrew, but my usual strategy in this situation is to retreat in suspicion from any immediate direct help from humans. I moved quickly into the space where I could better work out where I was and what I wanted to do.

The long space was rather dark but not uncomfortably so. The room was divided in two by a transparent, red film which reached from floor to ceiling. This thin screen entirely enclosed a group of five musicians performing in a circular space, surrounded by rugs and cushions. A few people stood or sat listening quietly to some powerful (if metronomic) drumming and droning instrumentation, all on the other side of the screen. For a few minutes I watched and listened through the red haze, happily accepting my place on the near side of the screen, but wondering how it would feel on the other side.

After a few minutes of becoming acclimatised to the space, I became aware of a black curtain at the far end of the room and another in the red half of the room. What I had regarded as deliberately inaccessible perhaps had a way in after all. I approached the curtain and was gracefully shown into a small antechamber by a bearded gentleman. Inside a young woman stood inside a white circle.

She spoke to me – I listened carefully but tried to assess more about the small room as she did – a bowl of milk and a large, partially consumed loaf of bread sat on a table inside the white ring (which turned out to be salt) and large, unidentified black symbols were drawn on the floor.

While I tried to take in details of the space, I was asked to repeat half a dozen statements about the nature of the group – now identified as Samekhmem. I usually struggle to remember sequences of words longer than about 5, but these words came to mind again easily. If I hesitated at any point during the recital, a smile from the host was enough to bring the words back to mind. I also forget names immediately, especially if I don't see them written, so I determined to hold on to this one. Thinking back, I can only specifically remember that the understanding of Samekhmem as being "beyond regular thought" and the last sentence uttered: "It has always been heard by you and you will always be part of it."

Having completed this, I was invited into the salt circle and asked to break off a piece of the bread, soak it into the milk, before moving into the next room. There was a pause. "Eat the ...pap?" I asked inelegantly and she nodded. I was aware that I was quite happy to follow suggestions that I may normally avoid. Had my mother warned me not to accepting goats' milk from a stranger? Finally, a shape was painted onto my forehead – I assumed this was the mark I had seen on my friend. Curiously, when recalling this sequence of events later to people, and myself, I would often forget to include this last detail which was surely the most intimate aspect. I would see others later with this mark and only then be reminded I wearing it too.

I was ushered into the final antechamber and invited to meditate before entering the performance space, in the presence of the seed of silence - that seed enclosed in a box on the table. More of the strange symbols were drawn onto the floor. I knelt quietly and contemplated the seed.

A few minutes, another dark curtain and I was finally on the other side of the red screen. But from here, the space of course seemed normal, and those on the other side of the screen appeared set apart and remote. I recognised a friend there and smiled at her through the haze. The music had changed to a slower pace and I settled on the mat and cushions. The members of the band had changing roles- a bass guitar may be swapped for a singing bowl or microphone, or an oboe introduced. I became aware of a large egg timer in the middle of the assembly – eggs and milk; I wondered about the significance of dairy. When the sands ran out, it signalled a change in pace of the music. I sat and listened. Sounds moved in and out of view, their shapes clearer when my eyes closed. When hearing new music I naturally try to identify a style, a theme, a cultural influence, an intention or experience my own doubts about enjoying the music, assessing it aesthetically or even just treating it all as a muted backdrop to my usual anxieties and fractured thoughts. Now, I didn't feel I needed to do this. Before entering, I imagined I might stay for a few minutes until I'd worked out what the intention or message was, then move on. Now, I realised that I wanted to stay. The latest expensive bauble at IKON or shoddy offerings of Eastside Projects could easily wait for another day. Samekhmem I repeated to myself – I didn't want to forget that name. I felt I would just hear one more minute and move on, then one more minute, then one more minute...that egg never felt quite done. I had the sensation of each successive moment being familiar for that moment alone, then seeming strange when having passed. I stopped being aware of the red screen or anything behind it.

Aspects of the performance were very close to an arrangement I had envisioned for a band I formed a year ago, but had recently been kicked out of (my experimental approach had not sat well with the classical training of the other members). I had imagined a scene with large hanging percussive weights and a selection of drone generating acoustic instruments, inside a circle.

I left some time later, my creaking muscles becoming louder in the sensory. I exited quietly, feeling I had not yet understood what Samekhmem was but that I had been it and seen that it was close to something I wanted to explore myself, for a long time. I left with the demeanour I'd assumed during the performance – one of quiet contentment and translucence.

My next engagement proved to be a strange counterbalance of the Samekhmem experience. On Floodgate, I arrived for the Supersonic festival, where (until recently) I had been expecting to be perform with my tuba group. As a gesture of goodwill, I was to remain on the guest list for free admittance. Our creative allegiance had grown sour and silent over the year, after an exciting beginning. It came as little surprise to be ejected when it happened. They were not like me. As I sought admittance as a guest of the festival, a pause and silence gave way to a feeling of quiet dread: despite my confidence, calmness and assurances to the young woman, no record of my name appeared on their papers. As my spirits ebbed, her suspicions grew. I'd kept (or forgotten about) the mark on my forehead, which seemed to cause her some concern. My insistence that I was there legitimately sounded less convincing with each iteration – even to me. I was not supposed to be there, and wasn't going to be allowed in. I was deceiving them. I was not an artiste I wasn't with the band. I had again been thrown out.

I uttered something about making some phone calls, and saw relief in the young woman's face as I moved away

I began the long, cold walk home, low and empty, wondering how this had happened. I thought of, and felt like, the last grains of sand falling through Samekhmem's egg timer. On that journey to the dry soft warmth of home, I reflected on the two spaces I had been to that evening. One had been unexpected, the other anticipated. One proved accommodating and embracing, the other hostile and judgmental. One seemingly "theirs", the other – I had believed – "mine". The values of these spaces and their boundaries melted and reversed in my perception of them. A felt red glow inside and outside me and the darkness seemed to lift. I imagined the large egg timer, grasped it and reset the sands to flow again.

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