Nova’s latest documentary telling the story of free improvisation pioneer Paul Burwell

For the last 6 years Nova has been working on a feature length documentary about the life of the artist Paul Burwell, who died in Hull in 2007.

Burning Bridges – which has been funded by the radical arts organisation Future’s Venture – will be premiered at a private event at the Queen Mary University’s Bloc Cinema on Mile End Road in London on 24/04/24, celebrating Burwell’s 75th birthday.

Burwell was a respected figure in avant garde performance and music in London from the late 60s through to the late 90s before moving to Hull and slowly slipping into alcoholism and dying of hypothermia in Hull Royal Infirmary in February of 2007.

“The world’s first fine art drummer”

Described by saxophonist Evan Parker as “The world’s first fine art drummer,” Paul started his career in a duo named Rain In The Face with musician and writer David Toop, who he first met at a midnight jam at Camden’s famous Roundhouse. The pair worked closely with the influential poet Bob Cobbing, who also happened to be the father of Paul’s girlfriend Sheila. In the later 1970s Burwell and Toop were founder members of the London Musicians Collective.

In the 80’s Burwell teamed up with the now-internationally acclaimed artists Anne Bean and Richard Wilson to form the Bow Gamelan Ensemble, making huge musical sculptures from junk and playing large scale events all over the world, gaining wide coverage in newspapers and on TV.

Paul’s work, which involved magick, explosions, amazing drumming, and death-defying acts of danger, blurred the lines between life, entertainment, performance art and improvised music, “He was regarded as having a kind-of Samurai nature.” says Paul’s closest friend, collaborator and sometime partner, Anne Bean, “People were scared of him, but he could be very gentle and thoughtful too.”

UK art and music that was rooted in the DIY culture

Burning Bridges tells the story of Paul’s remarkable and exciting life and work, but also throws light on a period in British art and music that is often overlooked.

“Well before punk there was an exciting underground movement in UK art and music that was rooted in the DIY culture that punk claimed as its own.” explains Burning Bridges director Matt Stephenson.

“These artists and performers were exciting and iconoclastic in the way they challenged the boundaries of safety and acceptability, but the work also explored a dark side too. People often regard punk as a kind-of ground zero, but the rebellion, the cut-and-paste, kick-down-the-walls, junk-as-art approach was being employed by Paul and his friends long before Malcolm Mclaren and the Pistols.

Internationally influential contributors

The guest-list for the BLOC screening this month reads like a who’s who of that generation of improvised and experimental artist and musicians – Paul’s friends and collaborators coming together to see aspects of their own story portrayed on screen, but also to remember Paul, an important artist and friend whom they loved, respected and who inspired them.

“The people we’ve interviewed for Burning Bridges have shaped artistic expression and popular culture not only in the UK, but across the world.” explains Matt, “They’ve been very kind to share their time, their thoughts and their recollections of Paul with us. People have been incredibly generous with their time.

“Anne Bean, for example, whose work was recently featured in the Women In Revolt exhibition at Tate Britain, has been integral to the project, along with the sculptor Richard Wilson, visiting us regularly in Hull and welcoming us in London, always on hand to answer questions and help out with archive images. The film’s title – Burning Bridges – was Anne’s idea.

Click here to read more about Nova’s documentary projects.

“Paul’s first collaborator David Toop is not only a highly regarded improvising musician, but also a leading music writer – David has worked with us to provide the atmospheric soundtrack for the film and also helped and advised us throughout the production process.

“Similarly Paul’s sons Titus and Piers have given us complete access to Paul’s archives, meaning we get an unprecedented glimpse into the unusual mind of a truly unique artist.

“And many of the friends that Paul made in Hull, amongst them Brian Gilson, Lee Merrill, Glynnis Neslen, Dave Ellis, Yol and Jez Riley-French, feature in the film and have helped by supplying archive photography and video from the last years of Paul’s life.”

A labour of love

Though Burning Bridges received £27,000 of funding from the Future’s Venture Foundation, the documentary has been a labour of love for Nova: “The initial funding covered the cost of shooting the 30 or so interviews in the film – which amounted to around 40 hours of footage alone – but the edit started in lockdown and has literally taken 4 years, fit-in around the evry-busy demands of our commercial work.

“On top of that there was a large amount of archival photography, video and documentation that all needed to be scanned and catalogued before they could be placed in the timeline. It took ages and ages – but it was worth it. We’re very proud of the film and can’t wait to screen it in London – and hopefully soon in Hull.”

The BLOC screening of Burning Bridges on 24/04/24 is already at capacity, and a date and venue for the Hull premiere will be announced soon, with further festival screenings still to be confirmed.

Burning Bridges will also be screened at the music venue Café OTO in Dalston, London on September 18.

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