Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Congregation Of Vapours

This article originally appeared in The Visual Artists Newsletter, Sept/Oct 2012, describing the process behind the creation of my album, A Congregation Of Vapours, for Farpoint Recordings.

Anthony Kelly of the Dublin-based Farpoint Recordings label approached me in January 2011 with a proposal to produce an album of my work. I had been working on some new pieces involving electronics and field recordings, so this was an ideal platform to really expand and develop these investigations, and build towards a thoroughly thought through and finished body of work. I had been putting work out on my own CDR imprint, Room Temperature, since 2005, so this was also a very welcome opportunity to produce work without having to manufacture it myself, as I usually do all the designing, printing and CD burning myself, which is a fairly labour-intensive and time consuming process.

My recorded work has involved various combinations of field recordings, invented instruments and electronics over the years. Each new body of work either builds on and consolidates previous work, or is a conscious change of tack to keep things fresh. As an improvisor, in a live context, I work with a particular set-up and series of sound sources. This has a certain lifespan that comes to a conclusion once I feel I’ve exhausted all the possibilities it has to offer. Shortly before Anthony invited me, I had been experimenting with a new set-up, partly inspired by the work of Nicholas Collins, whose excellent book, Handmade Electronic Music, had given me a few inroads into DIY electronics. I was particularly taken with speaker feedback as a means of generating sound.

This involves placing contact microphones either directly onto speakers, or inside resonant vessels placed on speakers. The feedback is generated and controlled via the volume and EQ (tone) controls on the mixing desk. With just one vessel, it’s possible to achieve a rewarding series of rich tones, rattles and buzzes, which can be further manipulated according to where the microphone is placed, applying pressure, or moving across the vessel surface. Considerable complexity can be introduced when the number of vessels and microphones is increased.

I had collected a large number of metal containers of various dimensions, which I set up in a series of elaborate configurations. I made various recordings over a number months, improvising with these set-ups. I then forensically combed these recordings for worthwhile material. Feedback is a volatile element, which takes a fair degree of control to manipulate successfully, so a lot of experimentation was involved. A substantial series of edits were made, which formed a large percentage of the album’s sonic vocabulary.

Another approach that got the hook in me at that time was the use of no-input mixing board. I had been aware of this ‘instrument’ since seeing the masterful Toshimaru Nakamura perform with it in London in 2000, but it wasn’t until seeing San Francisco-based sound artist Joe Colley perform with it in Dublin at the I&E Festival in 2007, that I was really taken with the possibilities it offered. Colley’s performance was inspirational. We swapped CDs, and his recorded work became a particular touchstone for me, amongst other things.

In layman’s terms, the no-input mixing board involves connecting your inputs and outputs the ‘wrong’ way so they create feedback inside the desk itself, which is manipulated with volume and EQ controls. This can be very lively and difficult to control, far more volatile than speaker feedback, but when you manage to tame the beast, the results can be quite wonderful. It creates a pretty powerful range of pulsating tones, which, because of their monophonic nature, establish an especially monolithic and insistent presence. This can be best heard at the beginning of the album’s fourth track, Pattern Recognition.

The next stage in the album’s construction was the editing together of the feedback and no-input edits, and further processing this material in ProTools editing software. This is where the material really began to find its form. A deliberate strategy was to take some of the building blocks and subject them to considerable extremes of intensive processing – taking sound as raw, malleable matter, stretching it to the point of collapse, pulling it inside out, further distilling and cross-hatching it where it breeds inscrutable new forms, at once physical and phantom in nature. Chasing the process along a Moebius strip of endless decay and regeneration, where sound is repeatedly cannibalising itself, the tracks were grown from residual traces of empty spaces, ventriloquised into being – a void given voice – where feedback makes dimension audible. As a starting point, I liked the idea of beginning with nothing – pulling matter from emptiness, sound from silence. The appeal here is also connected with the punk spirit of DIY and experimentation, and the idea of using basic materials and rudimentary approaches – a considerable influence on my practice as a whole. No need for hi-tech gadgetry.

The lengthy editing process created a broad range of disembodied, atomised artefacts, which were then woven together in layers to establish their own space for the listener to navigate, volatile and capricious as the weather. Threaded through this speculative fiction was documentary reality in the form of field recordings, which augment and galvanise a particular sense of place and narrative flow, sitting uneasily between the created and the real.

Field recording is an activity I’m constantly engaged in; just as some people use photography, I have built up an extensive archive of recordings from all manner of environments, to stitch into future work. The recordings used on the album date from various points in the archive, the oldest being a thunderstorm recorded in New York City in August 2006, which features in the closing track, Breathing Room.

The textures of field recordings and electronics have an interconnectedness for me, and a parity of presence. The ceaseless surf of traffic, the hums and drones of supermarket fridges and myriad other machine presences – sounds we daily swim through with varying levels of awareness – intersect on this album with magnetic fields of prepared noises, aural detritus and sonic fallout, to form a climate of disturbance and disruption. A seepage of spectral broadcasts, corrupted signals and insidious transmissions – tactile yet immaterial – suspends us in sound.

Listening is a really important part of the editing process. I would usually put rough mixes on CD and audition them at home for a period of time, let them settle – hearing them in much the same conditions as the listener. If there are areas where I find I’m losing interest, then it’s got to be pruned. I shouldn’t lose interest for a second. I’ve got to be totally involved all the way.

The next stage of the project involves titling and design. This goes through a similarly intensive process for me, where a large range of options are tested and trashed until I arrive at something I’m happy with. I keep a notebook of potential titles, and words and phrases which might become titles. The inspiration for these can spring from a number of sources: a book I’m reading, a film or exhibition, a magazine or online review / article, a snatch of conversation (misheard or otherwise), public signage / posters.

Sometimes the compositions will suggest titles, or words and phrases, which need developing to become proper titles, rather than simply reference points. Quite a bit of the time I’m completely stumped. It can take weeks for titles to emerge that feel right. Titles are important as they seal the work, give it an identity and act as an entry point. I tend to avoid literal titles, preferring them to maintain a bit of openness, ambiguity, uncertainty and mystery, whilst still feeling absolutely right for the work – organically linked if you like.

What interested me about the phrase ‘a congregation of vapours’ was not the Shakespearean reference (where Hamlet, melancholic after his father’s death, describes the earth as "a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours”) but the suggestion of the album’s soundscapes being a gathering of elements as insubstantial as gas. I’m fascinated by the dichotomy between sound as both a physical presence and a ghostly emanation.

Similar to titling, the design also acts as an entry point. The cover image is from a painting of mine from a number of years ago, where the source photo was processed to create a lot of dropout, putting it on the cusp between abstraction and figuration, not unlike how the soundscapes work. Though it’s not illustrative in that sense, it works in parallel.

A key aspect in Farpoint’s approach was the inclusion of a written element. This is done with a view to the future archival / curatorial value of the project and, as such, enriches it and provides another entry point for the audience. Paul Hegarty’s impeccable credentials as purveyor of and writer on noise meant that his response was entirely apposite and intriguingly articulated, for which I was very grateful, as indeed I was for the input of Anthony Kelly and David Stalling of Farpoint throughout the project. They were a great pleasure to work with, conscientious and professional to a fault.

Farpoint organised a launch at The Goethe Institute on May 23rd 2012, where I performed a solo set, improvising with some of the elements employed on the album. I also created a sound installation, Breathing Room, for one week in The Goethe’s darkened bunker space, using speaker constructions and fluctuating light. As a development of soundscape compositions previously created for CD, this work took the space inside the compositions, turning it inside out, to become a space to walk into and occupy, to be enfolded within the soundscape. Many thanks to Jonathan Carroll and Barbara Ebert for facilitating this.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Interview with Brian Marley

The following interview took place across a series of emails with Brian Marely during 2011, looking at the background to my practice, my influences, my approach to composition, and some of the ideas behind the Long Range album. Sincerest thanks to Brian for his encouragement and patience. 

What do you do and why do you do it ?

I am a visual artist and improvising musician. I trained as a painter, but also tried various media including sound, installation/performance and photography during my studies. My visual work since leaving college in 1987 largely centred around photomontage, and in recent years has moved into painting (still using photography as source).

I began using sound pretty much from the start in college, using found metals, initially to record with, and later use in live work, inspired by the work of Test Dept., Einsturzende Neubauten, z’ev & Bow Gamelan. I was also inspired by the work of Dome, :zoviet*france:, Hafler Trio, Strafe Für Rebellion, Nurse With Wound and others, and began constructing very simple tape collages which were used for tape/slide works and installations. 

Apart from a brief flirtation with guitar in my teens, I am not musically trained. I got the hang of drums some years later and really enjoyed the physicality of that instrument, but never played in a band. Since college, I have continued in the vein of constructed and adapted instruments and tape collages.

I’ve been passionate about music from an early age, and my love of the post-punk spirit of DIY and experimentation found a crossover with the farther reaches of sonic exploration coming from the Fine Art approaches to sound as a sculptural medium. I then discovered improvised music and was smitten.

I have pursued this area of exploration for over 25 years because it’s really where my heart’s at. I’m in my element. It’s a completely obsessive and highly fetishised world for me. I’ve always loved the idea of making something from discarded materials, the idea of transformation, base metals (literally) into… not quite gold, but something beautiful or intriguing at least.

The materials inspire a particular approach with all their tactile and evocative qualities. Whole worlds can be constructed with these sounds with the compositional possibilities of the computer (4 track in the early days forced a particular discipline that’s served me well since). That’s the other side of it for me: the idea of making your own unique soundworld, evolving a voice that establishes a particular presence, one that hopefully moves beyond your influences and into something different, something engaging and satisfying.

Brian Eno’s work in the 70s and early 80s was another significant inspiration for me, especially his On Land album. In his liner notes, he speaks specifically about the idea of landscape, memory, and a sense of place. He also mentions the notion of psychoacoustic space—the idea of using recording technology to create imaginary spaces and atmospheres: the suggestive power of sound. This absolutely got the hook in me.

When making a piece, what do you begin with – a sound, an idea, an instrument? You say the ‘materials inspire a particular approach with all their tactile and evocative qualities’, but what comes before that?

It usually starts with the intention to use a certain combination of materials, whatever I’m particularly keen on at the time, let’s say found metals, which I use a fair bit of on Long Range. For that album I quite methodically made high quality clean recordings of a lot of individual metals in a close-miked fashion to really capture all the resonance and texture. A lot of variations of each metal were recorded – struck with wooden and rubber mallets, creating drones on surfaces with fans and rubber balls, scraping with various items and so on. This meant that I had a load of separate files that I could move about in Protools and edit together in various ways.

   The Sky Above Our Heads by Fergus Kelly

Did improvisation play an important role in the making of the pieces on Long Range? If so, how did you then use this material?

I made recordings of improvisations on the contraption I was working with at the time, which incorporated a frame drum, a large coiled spring, an egg slicer, alarm bells and other metals. I then forensically combed all these recordings for useable material, some of which I edited into loops, some of which was used in longer forms. Another previously unexplored element I wanted to experiment with for Long Range was inside piano, which I did after I made a number of preparations with large screws jammed between the piano wires. Shortwave was also an element I wanted to incorporate as I’ve always loved its textural warmth, a quality like fireside crackle. On top of this I had a bunch of field recordings going back a few years that I hadn’t used yet.

When I began I had absolutely no preconceived idea about how I might structure the material, apart, as always, from the idea of moving on from and either developing or switching gear from my last finished product. The starting point was establishing a sound palette, and then using Protools as my canvas. The process of making various combinations is where things really start to spark my imagination and ideas start flowing from that. This can then involve bringing in additional sources, like bass for example, which I hadn’t used in many years (my first improv set-up involved a prepared bass). For Long Range I used it in a more musical, though minimal manner, as a kind of anchor.

Rough structures start to emerge once I start to articulate the material. Sometimes I will deliberately decide not to use processing, to keep everything clean, as a kind of discipline. Processing was used a fair bit on Long Range, but combined with enough clean material so that it’s not too biased in one direction. I decided to employ a larger, more varied palette than I had done in quite some time for this album, and allowed more overtly musical and rhythmic structures to enter the work. Sometimes I work with a deliberately more limited palette, which does force a particular kind of lateral approach.

Improvisation is essential in building the material from the ground up, mainly because I can’t conceive of structures in the abstract as someone traditionally trained would do. But then that is only one system. Mine is another, admittedly more labour-intensive and time consuming one. I’m approaching it from an artist’s perspective – painting and sculpting with sound. Sound as raw, malleable matter to be manipulated - prodded, poked, pushed, pulled, beaten, hammered, scalded, stretched, scarred, chopped, diced, dessicated, burnt, and glued, taped, nailed and bolted back together again.

The editing of the material is where the pieces find their form. The painterly/sculptural analogy is apt as the sounds get built up and hacked back quite brutally, cross-hatched with other material, further distilled and recombined, depending on what’s working or not. Pieces can start out relatively long and end up a fraction of their original length, which is what happened to Sweating Rust, which was about 9 minutes originally. And sometimes shorter pieces that weren’t strong enough to stand alone end up being stitched together into a larger piece, as in the case of the longest track on the album, Wavelength, which is comprised of edits of about 3 or 4 shorter pieces.

 Listening is a really important part of the editing process. I would usually put rough mixes on CD and audition them at home for a period of time, let them settle – hearing them in much the same conditions as the listener. If there’s areas where I find I’m losing interest, then it’s got to be pruned. I shouldn’t lose interest for a second. I’ve got to be totally involved all the way.

Do you have an ideal listener (apart, of course, from yourself)? What should the listener bring to the experience, and what might be gained?

I’m not sure if there is such a thing as an ideal listener, as each carries their own baggage, and is therefore out of your control, but in terms of what they should bring to the experience - they should approach the work from an open perspective and be attentive to the detail as much as the broader picture, and allow the work the breathing space to grow with repeated listens. In terms of what might be gained, I always find that the music that has really engaged me and has had lasting power has been music that creates a very particular and unique space, somewhere you literally inhabit, that really fires the imagination, and is somewhere you want to keep returning to over the years – part of an ever expanding and enriching constellation of musical reference points built up over long periods of time.

Does your politics influence the way you make music? Are ethical considerations brought to bear?

I suppose choosing to make music from discarded materials could be construed as taking an oppositional stance­ ­- opposed, that is, to the given orthodoxies of music making and instrumental training. I don’t know if I’d go as far as saying it was a deliberate stance against traditional approaches, just a more attractive and exciting one for me. The post-punk spirit of DIY and experimentation had very significant influence on me in that regard. The possibilities just seemed wide open. There was a directness and a simplicity that was really appealing. It was also a much quicker route to producing music by sidestepping years of training. Of course, it’s not just musical ability you bring to the table, it’s imagination and intelligence too.

Ethics wouldn’t be consciously brought to bear… but could the use of waste material be construed as an ethical decision ? Does the fact that I use other non-waste materials weaken that ? Does it matter ? Ethics would apply more to improvising with others – parity between players, an openness of approach, listening as much as playing, no hard and fast rules, no grandstanding etc.

Should art be subsidised by the state, or by corporate sponsors?

The state should most definitely support cultural production as a matter of course, as any country should do who value the arts. Art will always exist outside of this, but support structures are vital to allow things to develop and flourish. It hardly needs to be said how profoundly impoverished our lives would be without art (in the widest sense, across all media). Believe it or not, as I type this, I’m listening to a compilation I made a few years ago, and The Ex song Listen To The Painters is now playing, where GW Sok implores: We need poets, we need painters, we need poetry and painting…

Corporate sponsorship is another fact of life, and pretty important when it comes to larger scale events, such as film and theatre festivals, which rely heavily on corporate sponsorship as well as Arts Council support.

How does your music change when you present it in performance? Is it important that the musicians playing with you know your music intimately? Do you bone up on their recordings prior to the gig?

The music changes to something which can be played in real time, so it’s a purely pragmatic approach – what can be activated, played, kept going with two hands. And also what I can reasonably transport – all the better if I can get it all in a kit bag or two, slung across my back on the bike ! It’s been a years-long battle to reduce the amount of gear I hoof to gigs. Unlike studio composition, where you can spend days, weeks, and months finessing material, on stage you are one of a number of voices composing in the moment, and responding accordingly as things develop.

Musicians’ prior knowledge of my music I wouldn’t necessarily regard as important – more important to listen and engage in a fruitful way. This works both ways – I like to jump in the deep end without much in the way of preconceived notions, keep things fresh.

What were your most profound influences – musical and otherwise? Have they stood the test of time?

There’s a range of influences across the spectrum that would have had influence in general terms, and an influence in terms of what I’ve produced. Here’s a handful, nothing exhaustive. This lot have certainly stood the test of time:

The side project of two members of Wire - Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis, working under the name Dome, made a deep impression on me. Coming from artschool backgrounds, they were basically approaching composition in a very healthily open-ended, lateral and exploratory way. I first heard their albums in foundation year in artschool and I was really inspired. There was a simplicity and inventiveness borne out of that friction between technical limitations and creative freedom. But with considerable imagination and intelligence they forged utterly unique soundscapes that were, by turns, industrial, poetic, bleak, absurdist, surreal.

One LP they made for Cherry Red in 1982, Mzui, had a particular appeal for me. This was based on an exhibition they had been involved in the year before with visual artist/designer Russell Mills where they made an audio visual installation from discarded material found on site which they invited the public to interact with, as well as playing it themselves. Edited highlights were compiled for the album.

This record was an epiphany for me. It made connections on a few levels: the notion of sound as landscape, the narrative qualities of sound—the idea of sound articulating a sense of place. The simplicity of using the space itself as the source was really appealing. There was a certain DIY punk aesthetic to that, which is, of course, predated by the idea of the found object in various twentieth century art movements. Then there was the nature of the sound itself: cold, gritty, matter of fact.

It's very evocative—there's a sense of the inevitable somehow, the feeling of events overheard almost, rather than recorded specifically. It often has an icy, brutal, almost terrifying beauty, wrought from the simplest of base elements. The record is seemingly random at times, yet at others carefully composed and intelligently articulated. There's a wonderful sense of depth, like the deep shadows of a Caravaggio painting, with some sounds occurring very far away, whilst others literally brush past the microphone.

On a similar level, in terms of creating utterly unique, skewed soundscapes, the work of :zoviet*france: knocked my block off, especially the ‘mid period’ work of such albums as Misfits, Looney Tunes And Squalid Criminals, A Flock Of Rotations, Assault And Mirage, Gesture Signal Threat. Their means were really simple, and very DIY: some non-European traditional instrumentation, fed through various effects, looped and processed, some vocal sounds and a fair dose of quite odd media clips, one of the most memorable being from a preacher’s broadcast about the truth behind the Jonestown massacre. 

Like Dome, this music was completely unlike anything I had previously heard. It had a very strong voice – it could only have been produced by :zoviet*france: I always get a very isolated, abandoned, cold war ambience from these albums, a paranoid, haunted/hunted quality which continues to inspire me.

Like a lot of improvisers, the music of Morton Feldman has had a lasting influence. I find it repays repeated listens, and grows each time. I never get tired of his music. The simplicity, the grace, the intelligence, the austere beauty, the space between the notes, the sense of scale, from micro to epic… endlessly inspiring.

The Bow Gamelan had a huge impact on me when I first came across their work via an Audio Arts cassette circa 1984. They appeared on some of the early years of more adventurous arts programming on Channel 4. One particularly memorable bit of film on Alter Image showed them playing in rapidly advancing tide waters, till they were quite literally up to their neck in it. I had also read about them in Performance magazine, and was very lucky to get to see them in the ICA in 1986, with Bob Cobbing. They also played on a pontoon by the Ha’penny bridge in Dublin in 1990, an appearance marred by a particularly persistent car alarm that would not stop, despite Paul Burwell’s and z’ev’s vigorous attempts to silence it.

Superficially, there was a continuity with the music of Einsturzende Neubauten and Test Dept., but Bow Gamelan had a more playful, restless spirit. I just found their music incredibly exciting, the clamour of metals and fireworks, the animated machinery, and the core trio running around, more like technicians than musicians, keeping the whole enterprise from total collapse. Someone once memorably described them as a cross between Turner and Apocalypse Now. Sums up their shows up pretty well.

Some of the metals, especially the beer barrel ‘caskophones’ (which sounded like a cross between temple gongs and church bells) had a particular sound colour that, to this day, still brings me out in goosebumps. It really connects deeply with me for some reason, right down to the marrow – I’m completely in my element, lost inside it.  Another instrument they used that had a similar effect were pyrophones – metal pipes ‘played’ with blow torches to create incredibly haunting, mournful drones, somewhat like a cross between aircraft engines and organ pipes.

I used to work summer jobs in London during my years in college (no summer work in recession-hit 80s Dublin). I was going into my final year in Fine Art after Bow Gamelan’s ICA show, and it completely fired me up to make metal percussion contraptions, including making beer barrel gongs by slicing them in two with an angle-grinder, and cutting metal pipes for pyrophones. The sculpture department became my new playground. Over 25 years on, I still have the beer barrels, which feature on Long Range, along with various metals collected over the years.

My introduction to the music of AMM came when I got a copy of The Inexhaustible Document, which really had a profound impact on me. Here was music as geological event. As subtle, capricious and occasionally violent as the weather. Glacial movements and tectonic shifts. Music as séance. The interplay of three very distinct personalities was a highly combustible mix, an equation so much more than the sum of its parts.

What really got the hook in, when listening on record, was not really knowing who was playing what, even though the instrumentation of guitar, piano and drums was what you might call fairly straight ahead. Never had these instruments sounded so unlike themselves. It was an intriguing and fascinating approach to music. Seeing them perform on a number of occasions further enhanced my enjoyment of the music as I could see how the music was constructed in real time.

The DIY aesthetic in art as much as music has always been important. I was really into the work of the Dadaists and Surrealists as a teenager, and artschool broadened my frame of reference to other work in the areas of Arte Povera, assemblage, and photomontage. In particular the work of John Heartfield, Ed Keinholz, Christain Boltanski and Anselm Keifer. Performance was also important, as a direct means of engaging an audience, and the employment of very rudimentary materials and processes, unusual locations and extended timeframes. In particular the work of Joseph Beuys, Stuart Brisley, Alastair MacLennan, and Andre Stitt had considerable impact.

I’ve always been really keen on film, and certain filmmakers made a particular and lasting impact, such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Stanely Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Terence Davies, Derek Jarman, Jan Svankmayer, and the Coen Brothers.

As a keen reader my first hugely important point of reference would be Beckett, who I was introduced to in my final years in school, and would account for most of my limited theatre-going. More recently, writers I’ve found particularly inspiring would be Iain Sinclair, Will Self, Chris Petit and Derek Raymond.

I’m struck by the sound in “Double Blind” – my favourite track on Long Range, by the way – that seems to be made by a human voice (it has something of that quality) but is more likely to be a rubber mallet rubbed on piano strings generating a principal sound and a harmonic halo. “Double Blind” seems a very simple track, but I suspect, from the range of sound sources listed on the CD sleeve and from the title itself, that it has quite a complex structure. Can you say something about how you made it?

You’re right about the rubber mallet – it’s rubbed on an aluminium lid that has a coiled spring stretched across it (it’s in the header image in my blog). The spring in this instance acts as a resonator for the mallet sounds, giving them a particular depth. The sharp attack sounds are bowed telephone bells. The sound leading directly into them is the sound of mallet-struck piano strings prepared with a large screw, which has been reversed, sounding like it’s magnetically attracted to the bell sound, which acts like a release, being on a symmetrically opposite volume curve. The panning loop that occurs some way in is a battery-run coffee whisk moved rhythmically between the left and right microphones.

Titling usually is a painful exercise for me, with the odd exception of titles that seem to come from nowhere, yet make perfect sense, in a way that’s hard to explain – perhaps it’s an openness and ambiguity, a level of intrigue that makes them stick. Anyway Double Blind, for me, had a somewhat inscrutable and opaque feel. It was giving nothing away – take it or leave it, hence the title. 

I know you’re a lover of Balinese and Javanese gamelan, and there are numerous bell sounds and other tuned metals on Long Range. In the main, they seem to mark off blocks of time rather than contribute to the more rhythmic elements in the music; or, as in the latter stages of “Wavelength”, there’s a feeling of broken melody, like a music box losing more of its teeth with every turn of the handle; or there’s the slightly more ritualistic one-note tolling that anchors “Sweating Rust”. Is that how you see things?

I like that image of the music box… It’s a question of structure, dynamic and atmosphere, and what feels like the right way to achieve a good balance of these elements. Continuity between tracks on the final cut is as much a part of this too – the overall structure and dynamic shifts in the entire body of work. I’m one of those people who likes to hear albums all the way through.

Many years ago I used to create very rhythmically dense music – tons of layers, lots going on. Now I like to strip it back, create a bit more space for sounds to breathe, allow sounds to sit longer. It’s not an absolute rule, as I still like to create a richness through layering, but individual sounds are very carefully chosen. It’s interesting for me to approach things from the point of view of how little rather than how much I can put into a piece.

In terms of atmosphere, I perceive the metals (at least on this album) more in terms of sound colour than rhythm, so the single note tolling allows the particularities of individual metals to ring out in a way that’s very satisfying for me. That’s possibly Feldman’s influence too, amongst other things.

With a track like Sweating Rust, there was specific intention to see how reduced I could make it in terms of instrumentation, and also to create a somewhat more extreme dynamic by making it very quiet. As well as the sound colour and ritual quality of the bell sounds, there’s also their close perspective, in contrast to the sense of distance the rest of the sounds evoke. A bit like a ripple in a still lake, or a drop of ink on wet paper.

Your work is strong on atmosphere and each track has a distinct presence (distinct from each other yet distinctly yours). Do you have a particular atmosphere in mind when you start to compose a piece? If not that, what’s the first thing that gets a composition going? And when does the title of a piece come into play?

The choice of materials would be the kick-start to a composition and they would suggest atmospheres once I start to articulate them, and I would develop pieces out of that. The feel of the work gradually becomes apparent, even despite one’s self, and a signature emerges from a particular approach, like a drawing style, your musical personality is embedded in it.

I keep a notebook of potential titles, and words and phrases which might become titles. The inspiration for these can spring from a number of sources – a book I’m reading, a film or exhibition, a magazine or online review/article, a snatch of conversation (misheard or otherwise), public signage/posters. It’s very interesting how some of these notebook entries will suit so well music which has yet to be formed. It’s a  question of feel. Solitary Latitudes jumped off the page from Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Very poetic. It was perfect for the track in question as the piece felt like it was orbiting some forgotten space.

Sometimes the compositions will suggest titles, or words and phrases which need developing to become proper titles, rather than simply reference points. Quite a bit of the time I’m completely stumped. It can take weeks for titles to emerge that feel right. Titles are important as they seal the work, give it an identity, and act as an entry point. I tend to avoid literal titles, preferring to maintain a bit of openness, ambiguity, uncertainty and mystery, whilst still feeling absolutely right for the work – organically linked if you like.

Long Range is a good example of a title that came from nowhere, but immediately felt right. There was an openness and ambiguity there that I liked. Long range what exactly ? Long range weather forecast ? Long range missile ? Long range lens ? Long range thinking ? The image chosen for the cover was an important part of the title and overall identity, and also acts as a visual entry point. It’s a Stellavox reel-to-reel tape recorder that I photographed in my studio. It’s a particularly beautiful example of streamlined late 60s/early 70s utilitarian design. It has a cold war feel to me, reminiscent of Coppola’s The Conversation. On the other hand, it could be used for field recording for film or TV of the time, so it has an archival feeling too. Part of the reasoning behind the image was to do with what I designed before, and trying not to repeat that. The previous covers had followed a certain model of industrial imagery – rust, decay, dereliction etc. I felt it was time to shift gear somewhat, even if what I produced still has a somewhat industrial feel, albeit more muted.  

As Room Temperature is your own label, you get to control every aspect of production – look, feel and sound. Is that degree of control of great importance to you, or would you be happy to hand over certain aspects of production to other, interested parties?

The control is paramount as I’m an obsessive perfectionist – it has to be right, in every aspect, no matter how long it takes (within reason of course). Why sell yourself short ? Long Range went through two complete cover changes – in other words two ideas were brought laboriously to completion, mock-ups made etc., but something didn’t feel quite right, so I changed tack.

On the other hand I wouldn’t be averse to handing over certain production aspects, like design, on the basis that it then became a collaboration with someone whose work I liked, so that aspect is seen through different eyes, adding another layer to the work.

Friday, October 02, 2009

New releases on Room Temperature

 Fergus Kelly: Swarf  (2009)


Fergus Kelly: Fugitive Pitch (2009)

The culmination of about six months work has borne fruit in the form of two new CDRs on my Room Temperature label this month. Swarf is an 20  minute EP of four compositions created with acoustic recordings of bowed steel rods with sheet steel resonator.

I improvised with four six foot steel rods bolted to a free-standing steel sheet which acted as a resonator, using a double bass bow. The recordings were edited into a series of loops varying in length between a few seconds to about 20 - 30 seconds. These loops were then edited together in a series of cross-fades. No processing was used. No need. The variations of tone, texture and timbre through differing applications of speed and pressure resulted in a sound palette of a roughly hewn beauty. There was plenty in there.  The compositions came together quite quickly. They felt right. I let them sit for a number of weeks. They still felt right. After a few months I still felt the same way. The work was finished.

A full length album, Fugitive Pitch was  different kettle of fish entirely. Worked on over about a six month period, this was created from recordings made in cellars underneath Dublin's Henrietta Street, featuring myself and David Lacey improvising with assorted metals, plastics and drums. This material was extensively edited and processed to create the raw material that would be shaped into the finished compositions.

 Cellar percussion set-up:
(click on images to enlarge)

Currently I'm working a series of solo compositions using studio improvisations, electronics and field recordings as raw material, with a view to putting out a full length album in 2010. The process behind this, which is outlined below, is very similar to that behind the creation of Fugitive Pitch.

Improvisation I see as composing in the moment; an immediate interplay between gesture and surface, touch and texture. Though I have performed solo, I've not done so for many years. I usually improvise in a group context as I enjoy the interaction with the various sounds and approaches of other players, as it often draws out unexpected elements. So improvising solo, I'm playing against myself, so to speak, there's no-one else to respond to. Derek Bailey called it 'that manic dialogue with the phantom other.'

Improvisation is also a constant process of self-questioning and re-invention, as materials are deployed over a period of time and pushed to the limit of what can be drawn from them before repetition sets in. Naturally, certain gestures and approaches will become habit to a certain extent, but one always endeavours to push past this to keep things fresh. Whatever contraption I'm working with will generally have a certain lifespan before I get tired of it, then everything is dismantled and reconfigured.

Lately, I've been trying to reduce the set-up to absolute essentials, and draw out a lot more subtlety from fewer elements. Often too many choices just results in option paralysis on stage. Limits can be more creative, enforce a bit of lateral thinking. The question is: what do I need ? And what's surplus to requirements ? A good dynamic range within the set-up is the first thing, and a manageable array of tools. Are there a number of tools that do the same thing essentially ? Chop 'em out ! One will do ! Why clog things ? Even just a clear arrangement of paraphernalia can help with a clarity of approach.

Bringing the recordings into Protools I regard as an extension, over time, of the compositional process, where material can be further edited, shaped and variously treated. There is a school of thought that would regard this process as a dismantling of the integrity of the original improvisation. But what are the various tools in the editing process other than more ways to form the material ? Software as expansion of improvisational tools. Some of the live gestures involve circular motions on surfaces to create kinds of loops, albeit with subtle variations. The only difference between live and studio electronics is the degree of control and time spent tweaking the processed material. 

Under the sonic magnifying glass of pitch-shifting, subtle nuances and harmonics can be amplified and extended, and broaden the dynamic range within a composition. Arranging material can be conceived of in painterly terms: sound as a series of marks and textures, colours and forms, all of varying intensity and subtlety, and the laying out of this material across a surface, except instead of a surface, it's across time. The aim is to strike an interesting balance between these elements.

The visual nature of computer editing allows the material to be easily grouped and arranged, chopped back, shifted, and scrutinized with forensic clarity. Looping is like patterning: the repetition of forms draws out subtle details. I generally like the loops to sound as organic as possible, not machine precise, but a little frayed at the edges. The only machine precision being the edit point that allows it to flow without immediately sensing the join. Looping can also be used in such a way that it doesn’t seem like looping in the more regulated sense, but with loops of longer duration layered together staggered, so that the changes occur much more loosely and gradually - a slower overall rhythm - with phase changes owing to the different loop lengths, creating subtle variations over time, not unlike the music of Morton Feldman.

The arrangement of forms and sections have parallels with film editing, with ‘jump cuts’ to emphasise contrast and keep material fresh, ‘lap dissolves’ (cross fades), to make smooth transitions, maintain apparent continuity. Some jump cuts can have an almost sculptural presence, where a block of dense material, rising in volume, suddenly gets chopped, and the split second transition, the synaptic leap, to silence, or subtler sound can have a kind of gravitational pull, almost like teetering at the edge of a precipice and peering into the void.

There’s also the horticultural parallel when composing, where ‘slips’ are cut from the main body of material, which are ‘seeded’, grow, and are then harvested into new forms. These forms, in turn, can be broken down, ‘decomposed’, composted (processed to within an inch of their lives), to provide a rich soil for new blooms. Interesting how the words composing and composting are right next to each other in the dictionary. John Cage noticed how his two principal interests, music and mushrooms, were also near each other in the dictionary.

Composing also involves a lot of close listening over extended periods, away from the computer, where tracks are put onto CD and listened to at home, to gain a fresh perspective. The difference between studio monitors and home stereo is an instructive one, and a truer indication of how an audience is likely to experience the work. Also, it’s very useful to be unchained from the screen, where events unfold in front of the eyes as much as the ears, as ‘watching’ the material, anticipating edit points as the cursor glides across the waveforms, is a kind of distraction to pure listening.

When the tracks have been listened to extensively, returned to after a period of time to gain a fresh perspective, and I feel there’s no more changes to be made, then it’s down to the business of arriving at satisfactory titles. This process will have partly begun anyway, as I become familiar with the material and it suggests certain images and sensations. 

Titles are important as I feel they finish the work, seal it, give it a certain identity, and hint at ideas and associations outside of the purely sonic that broaden the scope of the work. The sounds can suggest certain words or phrases, or I can make note of certain words and phrases at another time that subsequently seem to 'fit' the work. Material can jump out of something I'm reading, which in turn can suggest variations or further ideas. Generally I like titles to be sufficiently open ended to allow for various interpretations, yet still feel somehow specific to the work. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wire: The Scottish Play

I decided to add some old reviews to the blog, starting with this one of Wire's DVD The Scottish Play, originally reviewd for Wireviews in February 2005, including some of my photos of the gig:

Oh Lord !! I beseech thee !!

Fire burn and cauldron bubble! Praise be to Pink Flag for pushing the boat out on this one: film-maker Tom Gidley's record of Wire's Triptych Festival gig at Tramway was a big outlay, but one viewing of the goods and it's clear that it was definitely money well spent.

Gidley and his crew (Andy Cooke and Julian Emens) captured this outstanding performance in Glasgow, in 2004, and here is documentary proof of a band at the peak of their powers, playing to one of their largest provincial UK audiences with merry abandon. What Gidley has done is to bring out the intensity of Wire's performance, the ferocity of their velocity, by adopting an up-close-and-personal approach. Bar a few master shots, this film is, for the most part, in close-up. Gidley and his crew have abstracted heads and hands hard at work, cutting back and forth between the players, at pace with the action, but avoiding an MTV-style vortex of hyperactive edits. Stalking heads. Rendered in shadow. Statuesque.

A vertical torch flare bisects the screen in sync with the guitar lead earthing that ignites 99.9. Wire's name, lobster red, appears and disappears, followed by the date, 30.4.04, in pastel blue: a point in time, a place in history. Mark it. (Technically speaking, though, as the gig kicked off well after midnight, it was the first of May 1.5.04—neat little synchronicity that...)

Drum & strum

In a series of cleverly synched edits, pinhole beams penetrate the pitch black like a gaggle of drunken lighthouses. Come thick night, and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell. The atmosphere crackles like electricity: there's an urgency, a sense of emergency, as a lone figure hares about, ranting like a lunatic. This song has a powerful audiovisual presence, which Gidley has further accentuated and animated like a Conradian journey to some dark core. Uncertain mood mirrors uncertain times. Out, out, brief candle.

As the set progresses, Tim Anderson's lighting is reasonably constant, alternating between red and blue washes. A little unadventurous, perhaps, but it has generally been Wire's agenda throughout their career to keep lighting effects to a minimum; "It's the songs that are lit," as Bruce Gilbert once said. There is no distraction: our concentration is on theirs. The epitome of absolute concentration, Bruce is rooted to the spot, the only movement apparent that of his hands. And his teeth. Inside his cheeks. Grinding. Milling through the grinder. Grinding through the mill. He solemnly surveys the scene like The Grim Reaper. Guitar as scythe. Cut the atmosphere. Loop it. Distort it. Mercilessly.

The still point in Wire's maelstrom

I remember, I remember

Grey the gearstick, axle of acceleration, more than mere timekeeper: he is time. Metered. Calibrated. Faultless. The light that models Robert's head seems to draw it out of the shadows, Caravaggio-like. Stubbled scalp container of clockwork code. Synapses arc, signals glide the lightning fast nerve paths, muscles engage, bones articulate. Fists grip sticks - hit snare cracks.

One plosive pluck, and Graham plunges the depthcharge bassline that anchors Mr. Marx's Table — dare I say it: it's a great rock 'n' roll moment. Close-up on pulsating strings. Sweaty frets. Everything's humming loudly. His performance on The Agfers Of Kodack can only be described as possessed: eyes popping, with prodigiously perspiring pate. Dewy dome, like misted Velcro. At one point, he appears to be practically strangling the bass, wringing it dry.

Lips growing for service

Meanwhile, with a spring in his step and a song in his heart, Colin can't stop those bunny hops, or stooping as though stalking some invisible prey. Lost in music. Especially when, after encoring with a few old classics, Wire plough through Pink Flag, and the music seems to be playing him. This is the closest Wire come to improvising, and it's one number they really like to do a number on. Bruce actually starts to move a few inches and appears to be enjoying himself. Then he's tweaking effects. Good Lord. There's no stopping him. Now he's really milling through the grinder. Graham's grimacing as he alters the pitch of his tune, and Robert accelerates a roll that seems to catapult him back from the kit as though his seat went into eject mode. That's it. He's thrown in the towel. He's out of the ring.

Progress with a vision

As a record of Wire Mk III, it doesn't get much better than this. Hats off to the New Man for an excellent sound mix: well balanced, crisp, clear, with a touch of post production to further hone things. Gidley's approach has us not merely observe the band—instead, we feel up there with them, in the throes. Thankfully, track markers have been used this time round for separate song access; and the addition, once more, of a CD version of the gig, is a great bonus.

Four songs filmed by a static camera from the second half of Wire's flag:burning performance in The Barbican in 2003 have been included with the disc. This feels like more of an afterthought in lieu of something else, and, in contrast to the original theatrical experience, is remarkably flat as a TV experience: all sense of scale and impact is lost. Movement barely registers as the band is so far away.

Taken together, as contemporary and archive documents, The Scottish Play and On The Box are witness to the fact of Wire's innate ability to burn bright and thoroughly engage an audience, to connect. The 25 years that separate these performances illustrate how time has not dimmed the band's spirits in the slightest. Inspiring.

Programme your set