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.

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