I was born in North London, but at a young age before I could walk, my parents moved to the countryside, close to the sea. I have strong childhood memories of exploring the nearby exotic woods, the rolling London Clay downs with its ancient castle and the powerful aroma of cockle sheds and marshes alongside the Estuary.
On leaving college I had various occupations including laboratory chemist, oil-exploration geologist, hat-maker and the gilding of picture frames. Spare time was spent attending theatre workshops, learning how to play music and many long hours at the British Library researching evidence of street theatre from the time of William Shakespeare and thereabouts.
Playing the hurdy-gurdy began in 1979 as a visual and audio prop whilst acting in theatre performances. Some of these shows were at outdoor festivals where I did additional solo busking. As the repertoire was very small with this strange new instrument, I broadened the act with comic juggling, fire-eating and even laying on broken glass.
Cliff Stapleton with Chris Gunstone (bouzouki) and Paul James (bagpipes). Covent Garden, 1981.
In Spring 1980 I began performing full time as a street performer and by the end of the year was asked to join the folk dance band Blowzabella. The first album was released in 1982 and invitations to venues and festivals increased dramatically. A performance at the hurdy-gurdy and bagpipe festival at St Chartier, France, in July 1981 was another big turning point. I was not only startled with the fluidity and brilliant playing by French players but also by their music. Traditional folk tunes were being played in a modern, vibrant way and many were totally new compositions.
I began composing new music for Blowzabella, including The Man in the Brown Hat, a tune I wrote to accompany the English traditional rant step.
After three more albums and several memorable tours, including Canada and Japan, I decided to leave in 1985.
From then on, I broadened my experience with other styles of music, playing with a variety of groups, exploring improvisation and being open to being adventurous and experimental.
Also, I returned to theatre. Especially puppet theatre. Working as musical director, composer and sometimes as actor and puppeteer, I discovered an ability to create melodies and ambient sound by improvising with the action, the performers and the drama of the productions. Taking shows to many international festivals opened my senses to the sublime richness of cultures and people.
In early 2002, I was approached by Jhonn Balance and Peter Christopherson of the experimental musick group Coil, inviting me to be a part of a major European tour which included a performance at The Barbican in London. A specially commissioned electric hurdy-gurdy created by the maker Chris Eaton, merged organically with Coil’s strange and other-worldly music.
Cliff Stapleton with Ossian Brown of Cyclobe. The CTM Festival, Hau Theatre, Berlin, January 2014. Photo © James Welburn.
In the same year I began recording with Ossian Brown and Stephen Thrower from the avant-garde group Cyclobe and this continues to the present day. Their synthesised and hallucinatory electronic landscapes are intertwined with acoustic instruments (including hurdy-gurdies and bagpipes) to create layers of complex electroacoustic sound. One memorable performance was at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in July 2012 as part of the Meltdown Festival at the invitation of Anohni of the group, Antony and the Johnsons.
My present music and creative vision are the fruit of all these past experiences, and encounters with these remarkable people and places have always been and will continue to be a haven for inspiration.