Star Interview with Richard Blackledge: All-night music set to herald new dawn for cemetery chapel in Sheffield

Mark Fell is hosting a music event in the newly refurbished Non-Conformist Chapel at the Sheffield General Cemetry.
Mark Fell is hosting a music event in the newly refurbished Non-Conformist Chapel at the Sheffield General Cemetry.
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“This is a brilliant venue in an amazing spot,” says Mark Fell, his voice reverberating around the clean, white interior of the restored non-conformist chapel in Sheffield’s General Cemetery.

Stepping out into bright sunlight, where muted birdsong and a pleasant breeze are all that’s disturbing the peace of the tumbledown graveyard, the electronic artist explains that the Victorian building feels like a place with potential he hopes to fully realise this weekend.

As dawn breaks at the cemetery on Sunday, the unusual sound of ancient English musical instruments will greet the new morning – the culmination of six hours of acoustic performances and audio works from across the world happening as part of a free two-day event called Lush Spectra, the first big occasion at the chapel since its reopening last year.

Following on from the wider Sheffield Makes Music celebration on Friday, which promises to involve 1,000 musicians playing across the city in 24 hours, Mark is curating a programme featuring some of the world’s foremost experimental musicians and composers, creating what’s billed as a ‘mesmerising journey into the night’.

With his flat cap, T-shirt and rucksack, he cuts an unassuming figure – indeed, he prides himself on working under the radar of mainstream music – but Mark’s a highly-respected international presence.

He still lives in Rotherham where he grew up, but has exhibited work at every major city in Europe and America – his list of performances and exhibitions for 2016 took in Berlin, Mexico, Moscow, Venice and Seoul, South Korea, finding room for an installation at the disused Link pub in Park Hill.

However, Lush Spectra should be something particularly special, he admits.

“If it goes according to plan it’s going to be insanely brilliant.”

First there’s the name.

“It just popped into my head,” says Mark. “Spectra refers to the spectra of sound – like a rainbow is a spectrum of colours, it’s to do with the frequencies that are present in sound.

“For me, the key thing is we needed to find a really interesting space, and build around that. When we saw the chapel I thought it was perfect.”

For more than half a century the Samuel Worth Chapel – named in honour of its architect – stood unused and derelict.

Its £270,000 restoration took three years, a project largely led by the General Cemetery Trust, which managed to get the building taken off the national ‘at risk’ register.

Lush Spectra’s programme will start at 3pm on Saturday with a workshop and performance by German sound artist Limpe Fuchs, and at sunset Mohammed Resa Mortazavi – hailed by Mark as the ‘world’s best hand drummer’ – will play, leading into the night session from 11pm to 5am, during which people can ‘dip in and out’. Food and drink will be on sale, including a bespoke, green tea ale.

Mark is contributing to a piece based on a lost Indian tuning system, and another for the gamelan, an Indonesian set of percussive instruments. Clare Salaman will play the ancient English music – on the hurdy-gurdy, nickleharpa, tromba and more – at around 4.20am.

“It will be almost ritualistic, I guess – kind of pagan,” says Mark, who was approached by Sheffield University to act as curator.

The event is backed with funding from the Arts Council’s Cultural Destinations scheme.

On Sunday the music will run from 1pm to 11pm.

“It will draw a lot of attention, I think. What I’m concerned about is there might be too many people. It’s a small venue and quite a substantial programme. It’s accessible to anyone – I’m not making it for experts. I don’t want people to feel intimidated.

“It’s a great thing for families to do, rather than be stuck in some stuffy auditorium or whatever.”

Mark was born in Brinsworth; his father, from Darnall, was a steelworker at Brown Bayley, and his mother worked at various different shops.

“I had a typical working-class upbringing, but had parents who were quite thoughtful and progressive.

“When I was 13 and said I wanted a drum machine and to learn about electronic music, they got me one. I was never pressured to do anything I didn’t want to do.”

His experiences, and the political climate of the early 1980s, influenced him greatly.

“In 1981 my dad lost his job, and we had a lot less money. Electronic music for me was kind of an alternative world, connected to literature and film and what things might be like outside the little bubble I grew up in.”

Mark, aged 50, met his partner, Jackie, a psychotherapist in forensic mental health, in the ‘early days of techno’.

They had their first child, son Ryan – now 29 and following his father into art and music – relatively young, when Mark was 20. The couple later had a daughter, Connie, 20, who’s a science student in Manchester.

“We had this shared interest in radical politics. I think we would both have described ourselves as anarchists then. And then along comes a kid! It never stopped us going out to parties, we’d just bring him along.

“Sheffield’s had this history of being really active in unusual, independent electronic music, through the 80s and up to people like Warp Records. What’s interesting about the city is the mix of working-class culture and the art world. I love this region. It’s really nice to come back to somewhere so culturally grounded.”

n Visit www.ourfaveplaces.co.uk/events/music/lush-spectra for more details.

‘These guys built this building because they wanted to be different’

The Samuel Worth Chapel has begun attracting some ‘really exciting things’, says Janet Ridler of the General Cemetery Trust, which led the building’s restoration.

“People are beginning to notice it now and realise that it’s here. The thing that captivates people is its unique location.

“It’s really been so symbolic of Sheffield, with the non-conformists - the idea that these guys built this building because they wanted to be different. In a way that theme comes through everything we do.”

Art exhibitions are lined up, the building is hosting live jazz music, and a wedding is booked this year.

Sheffield’s enthusiasm has made the project ‘worthwhile’, Janet adds.

“It has a knock-on effect. More people come in, the more welcoming the cemetery becomes, and the less anti-social behaviour you get.”