Sunday, November 25, 2018
Friday, May 27, 2016
I recently dug out the HOX Itness album from 1999 for a spin. Sometimes when listening to music, a certain logic of choice for subsequent listening suggests itself within the music. One track on Itness with a rather long, unchanging and insistent rhythm (and little else), made me think of Graham’s earlier 4-track pieces from 1983, collectively gathered on the 1996 WMO release, pre>He. Billed with a sticker on the CD cover as “Previously unreleased archive recordings from ex-WIRE man”, locating it squarely within second Wire hiatus. He would now be post-He and WIRE man, as an active member of that thriving unit, given fresh life with the tranfusion of young blood into the ranks.
This body of work, coming with the customary ‘archive sound’ warning, due to the raw and basic nature of the recording, is immensely satisfying for me, and is something I keep returning to. In fact the very nature of the recording is an inescapably essential part of the very fabric of the music, and the elemental nature of its articulation and atmosphere. Sometimes it fizzes like electricity, raw and volatile, as on the coruscating, flayed and relentless Dolass Violphin, and He Said “Argh...”. Other times it lurks and hums threateningly, as in the magnificent, stately slow ritual march of Lying In State, originally produced for the MU:ZE:UM Traces installation for MOMA Oxford, with Bruce Gilbert and Russell Mills. My first introduction to the work on the compilation came via an early Touch cassette, Meridians 1 (1983), which featured the He Said “Argh...” track. This piece presented such an utterly alien yet intriguing and highly individual soundworld that drew me right in. I was hooked.
Shortly after this I started artschool and a friend introduced me to the music of Dome, and this alien soundworld opened out further and well and truly got its tentacles deep into me. After revisiting the pre>He album, later in the day I felt like drilling down further in time and farther back in the back catalogue and spun Dome 3 and 4. Shortly after Dome 4 finished, and the short Atlas track ended proceedings, I happened across that very word in the book I was reading, in the same paragraph as the word halo, as it happened. Years ago I usen’t to know what to make of these synchronicities, thinking perhaps a strange pattern lay behind them, or a sign was being manifested, but now I look upon them with bemused detachment, thinking in this instance, ‘that was a good strike rate..’
The evening’s listening ended with 3R4, a particularly outstanding and durable piece of work, and like all of Dome’s output it conjures a particularly unique soundworld which seems to stand outside of regular time and inhabit a transitory, liminal space, an audio derive - a soundtrack of restless exploration, cinema for the ear. Like all the best and most original music, it sounds like nothing else. Only Dome could have made this music.
3,4 is a fine example of mounting tension and creeping unease, signalled by the backwash of a slow, breath-like sound, which gives way to intermittent foghorn type noises, guitar slashes, percussive forays and a deep, groaning bass that slithers thickly like a conger eel. Not unconnected, perhaps with the previous track’s intriguing title, Barge Calm - a slow trawl through murky depths is suggested. R unfolds with a slowed guitar loop that bristles with a visceral sense of the very machinery of its making; amplified wound steel strings scraped with hard plastic. Like enlarging a photographic image and repeating it, certain details are thrown into relief and patterns emerge. When this eventually fades, a more glacial calm descends with elongated vocal drones and intermittent sounds lending it a more widescreen feel.
Monday, May 23, 2016
From sixty seconds to sixteen minutes and sixteen seconds, this piece made to mark Bruce's 70th moves away from my approach to the one I did for his 60th. It mines a number of sources mentioned in Kevin Eden's 1991 Wire biography, Everybody Loves A History - music he grew up with, the songs of Lena Horne and Frank Sinatra, and the music, pre-Wire, that influenced him in his 20s, such as Captain Beefheart and Roxy Music. I used these as a springboard to create electronic soundscapes, twisting and stretching edits and loops I'd made in Samplr on my iPad. Some edits were left recognisable, and form some of the rhythmic and melodic content, as well as serving as cultural reference points. The title is made from two halves of two anagrams derived from Bruce's albums Ab Ovo and In Esse. As a gift for Bruce, the piece was put on a 3” CDR sprayed white, with a cover design aping the periodic table, with the element number being Bruce's age, and the scientific number being his birthdate. Not sure how I hit on the idea, but there's a nice link with the fact that Bruce's album, Ordier, was released on US label Table Of The Elements.
Bruce had a fondness for war movies in the 70s, so that gave me free reign to explore various war noises and related references, including the theme tune from the 70s TV series The World At War. I wanted to broaden the mise en scene of the piece by including ads and sig. tunes from some 70s programmes, the shipping forecast, Monty Python, and some of my own field recordings to further enrich this plunderphonic tapestry. Some points of reference in terms of compositional methodology for me were elements of John Moran's The Manson Family, An Opera, Nurse With Wound's Sylvie & Babs, and early 80s Touch compilation tapes, with their penchant for odd confections of media snippets, loops and field recordings. Though not a conscious ploy, one of the Beefheart songs that I used, Veteran's Day Poppy, forms an interesting link with the WWII references.
Some of the TV sig. tunes and ads get a bit of a space theme going, what with the appearance of The Clangers, Star Trek and Dr. Who, as well as the spoof sci-fi ad for a popular freeze-dried potato product, Smash (also a post-Bruce Wire song title). The William Shatner voice-over snippets, “to explore strange new worlds”, and “to boldly go where no man has gone before”, can be taken as a lighthearted allusion to Bruce's sonic explorations. Cross-hatching some of the Sinatra material with the Beefheart songs threw up some fruitful collisions – a drum break from Moonlight On Vermont happened to nicely underscore a vocal snippet from Moonlight In Vermont, sung by Linda Ronstadt (born same year as Bruce). Amongst the studio goofery from Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica used in the piece, the “I run on beans” edit was echoed with a 70s ad for Heinz beans (“Don't be mean with the beans Mum, beans means Heinz !”). Some of the elements in this piece are woven a bit deeper in the mix, and won't necessarily reveal themselves on first listen. Other elements move around the stereo field to create a sense of momentum in a soundworld I like to think of more in terms of a radio play or cinema for the ears. It must be heard on a decent hi fi with good stereo separation, or on good headphones – not computer speakers...
Bomber plane drone
Bombing planning meeting
Bomber pilots talkback
Air raid siren
Whistling bombs, explosions, fire
Lena Horne, Stormy Weather
Frank Sinatra, Stormy Weather
The Red Army Choir
The World At War theme tune & German march
Rain field recording
I Love You, You Big Dummy
Moonlight On Vermont
Veteran's Day Poppy
Trout Mask Replica studio goofery
BBC continuity announcement
Tomorrow's World sig. tune
Frank Sinatra/Linda Ronstadt, Moonlight In Vermont
The Clangers opening voice-over & music
Star Trek theme tune
Dr. Who theme tune
Bert Ford weather forecast
Roxy Music, Remake/Remodel
Monty Python, Bruce sketch and Philosopher's Song
Iceland harbour field recording
Dad's Army theme tune
BBC control room talkback
PG Tips ad
Tuesday, January 26, 2016
Jim O’Rourke: Terminal Pharmacy (Tzadik, 1995) - A gem that fails to age, from his prodigous and intriguing output from the early 90s, which involved a lot of composition for chamber ensembles, electronics and field recordings. He was still in his early 20s when these remarkable albums were made. His time in Dan Burke’s noise outfit Illusion Of Safety seeps through in this album, with its extended periods of quiet, sudden edits and understated sections that hover on the threshold of audibility. This music mostly seems to float at the edges of perception, appearing and disappearing, glowing gently, diminishing, creating a space for itself that draws you in and manages to knit in the sounds of your surroundings as part of the landscape. It feels quietly cinematic, from some forgotten place, an impression reinforced by the fleeting presence at one point, of some noirish 40s style brass music lifted from vinyl with surface crackle like a fireside ambience. My own listening preference for this album is a late night one, for some reason, just feels part of night time, with moments emerging and sinking back into the dark. Still remarkably fresh 20 years on.
Tuesday, December 01, 2015
Live At Project, August/September 1988 - scanned from my original copy of US High Performance magazine, in a piece by magazine founder/editor Steven Durland, that covered this unique performance festival that I worked on, curated by Danny McCarthy for SSI's international sculpture conference, featuring Andre Stitt, Danny McCarthy, Alastair McLennan, Mick Shanahan, Jaki Aherne and Anne Tallentire, amongst others.
Great fun sourcing some of the materials for these shows: filling a cabbie's boot full of bloodied pig's ears outside a butcher's in Meath Street for Alastair's piece. A pig's ear, for those unaware, is a whole half of a pig's head, cut right down the middle. Out to the cash and carry on Richmond Road for catering size vats of ketchup and mayo for Andre's piece, plus bags of sand and cement from a builder's providers. Alastair's performance took place in what used be the burnt-out space (it had no roof), which is now the gallery. Andre had to be taken to the Eye & Ear after his gig after getting sand and cement in his eye. The flare that Andre used at the end was obtained from a ship's chandlers, if I remember rightly. Pre-internet, the quickest preferred document transfer was the fax ('member those ?). SSI's fax broke down at one point, necessitating Andre dictating his lengthy artist's statement to me over the phone. I remember the last two words - 'Eternally bombed', and how I had to ask Andre to repeat the words as I was having trouble with his Belfast accent. "Sorry Andre, 'eternally what ?' "BOMBED !" "Ah, bombed.. OK, cheers !"
For a long time this didn't feel so long ago, but it looks bloody ancient now ! B&W helps the effect I suppose. Also in that issue of HP was coverage of the UK performance festival, EDGE 88. The profile afforded us was invaluable. Interesting none of the Project Arts Centre staff at the time had experience with live work. A different guard to those working in 79, when Darkspace took place. Although they were student organised events, things like Paint It Red at the SFX, and Friday The 13th at NCAD, circa 84 were an important part of the general climate for this kind of work. Fights broke out and cars were set on fire outside the SFX. Quite a heavy time.
Listening to this for the first time in quite some time, I'm struck afresh by how masterful it is – a very complete and focused body of work which has more than stood the test of time since its original creation in 1987. A friend lent me the LP sometime around 88/90 – hard to remember precisely at this remove – which I made a tape copy of. I wonder where he got it ? No Dublin record shops at the time would have had anything like this. I would normally pick up this kind of stuff whilst working summer jobs in London, between years in artschool in the 1980s. Perhaps he got it second hand in Freebird, back when it used to be in a cramped basement on Eden quay – the only arena for the occasional glimpses of the outer reaches of exploratory music, along with Base X (Basement Record & Tape Exchange), further along the quays, on Bachelors Walk (LPs were slipped into a plain brown bag with the BASE X stamp) . With a lot of trawling, I had gotten a few things like this over the years, and generally it would be priced lower, as they would've thought there was less chance of selling it, I guess. I remember my surprise coming across a copy of a Lovens/Lytton LP (“Was It Me ?”) circa 1985, a little bit ahead of the time I seriously got into improv, so it remained an oddity for a while (I still have it). I think I paid about 3 quid for it.
Anyway, this tape copy of Shouting At The Ground became a much treasured item until I got my own CD copy in Staalplaat in Amsterdam in the early 90s. These chronological reference points are important because all music is not only located within it's own time of production, but also within our own initial time of exposure, with all the attendant social, cultural and emotional reference points that gradually bleed into it. These aspects imprint themselves into and are threaded through the music like DNA, such that the experience of music is the closest we come to time travel. Our brain is temporarily reconfigured to those co-ordinates set down years ago. Though it's not like we go back in time to the exclusion of the present, because we experience the music in the present too, so the two times interweave, along with our two senses of self, in a somewhat out-of-register overlay.
I think I first came across :zoviet*france: in the Rough Trade shop in Talbot Road in Notting Hill, summer of 1984. I was immediately drawn to the inventive design and packaging. Their LPs came in roofing felt, aluminium foil and string-bound hardboard sheets. This highly individual approach mirrored their sonic modus operandi. Their music was like nothing I had previously heard. There were no reference points. They created their own world with a very hands-on lo-fi methodology involving simple stringed instruments, percussion and FX pedals. The punk spirit of DIY and experimentation was very much in evidence. By the time Shouting At The Ground came out, they were several years down the road, and had reached a new level of sophistication and musical intelligence, still with the simplest of means.
Part of the :z*f: world, something that lent another layer of intrigue (they worked anonymously for years), was the titling, some of which looked like an invented language, or parts of another language cross-hatched with nonsense. It was a complete package – you entered their world, and it was like a road movie for the ears. Far from conventional narrative of any sort of course, it was a drift through strange lands. Each time I hear the opening track of this LP, Smocking Erde, there is a sense of excitement, of anticipation, as looped over-blown flute-like sounds usher us into a slowly unfolding landscape underscored with a subtly shifting, dusty, low hum. It occupies the space as a kind of gauzy, foggy, wintery presence.
The winter associations are probably not unconnected with the fact that was where my strongest listening memories are – late '89, in a flat on my own in Mountjoy Square, in a poorly heated, sparsely furnished Georgian room, with a second room as a studio space. The trade-off for this was that it was cheap – really cheap. Brace yourselves, but I paid the princely sum of 6 pounds a week for those two sizeable ground floor rooms (well, for one room, but I was given the second room at no extra cost). It was more of a caretaking rent really, at that rate, but who's complaining ? Life on the dole, you're not going to pass it up, are you ? This was thanks to the landlord, the late Uinseann MacEoin, an old school republican who liked to see himself as a benefactor of the arts, with properties in Mountjoy Square and Henrietta Street (two of the top addresses in Dublin before they became tenements) occupied by artists for low rents since the early 70s.
This track has another connection for me, and, though slight, is very specific to Dublin. Toward the end of the track, there is a part of the fading drone that sounds just like the engine sound of Dublin Bus at the time, those Van Hool engines that were ever present in my time in Mountjoy Square, as one of the depots was in the south east corner of the square, so I'd hear them returning there late at night. It's uncanny. It's an absolute sonic doppelganger. Listening to it today transported me back there (with a shiver). This short track prepares the ground for Palace Of Ignitions, using hammered dulcimer sounds, punctuated by a percussive tatoo, with gated reverb used to great effect, creates a kind of skewed orientalism. This then makes way for a longer exploration in Come To The Edge, a slowly cascading series of looped melodic fragments, animated like wind-blown banners. It creates an otherwordly vortex which really draws you in. It's underscored by a billowing hum that rises and falls, with a wind-like dynamic.
The next brace of tracks – Revenue Of Fire, Dybbuk, Camino Real, Stocc Blawers, Fickle Whistle, Hand Over Your Ears – work through a series of textures and themes they return to over the course of the LP: sounds like dying fireworks, plucking, skittering sounds, soft wind instruments and whistles, looped and treated. Then there's the dynamic shifts and sudden harsh melodic loops that hover, floating, encircling, motifs reworked in multiple variations. Carole The Breebate throws down a tangled clutch of melodic scraps, only to be interrupted by sudden insistent, speed-up looped alien voices, which dissappear just as suddenly.
Marrch Dynamic offers a slight, quiet echo of the second track with a different dynamic. Wind Thief is a last short report, using whistles and gated reverb like a second instrument before the development of the last two long-form tracks, which total about 35 minutes. Shamanay Enfluence rolls out a back-masked loop with heavier use of delay and reverb which has a particularly landscape-like feel with a strong sense of distance. There is the ever present drone, which is more like wind than some rancid new-age trope – capricious, unstable. Occassional watery textures issue through the landscape, along with warped, slowed vocal fragments. There is a sense of drift and of slowing down, like a breathing exercise. The final track, The Death Of Trees, layers a thicket of loops with echoes of previous motifs, with drawn-out etiolated sounds, stretched to exhaustion, decaying, ending, dissappearing. Gradual unfolding of rhythms and counter-rhythms generated by multiple delays – all reels out increasingly slowly, degenerating into a river of rhythms uncoiling and disarticulating to be subsumed in a sonic swell, a tide pull to oblivion.
The album title comes from a quote by Lamargi: “Shouting at the ground won't enable it to hear any better” The only other piec of text serves to further skew the pitch: elsewhere on the artwork are the words WE ARE GREEN. Dispensing with the more unusual stock for covers, this one has a regular printed cover, with an image which, again, adds to the intrigue of the :z*f: world – a field of cut straw against a cloudy grey sky, with a curious pair of dark grey half disc-like shapes overlaid in the foreground. They might originally have been monoprints, who knows, but it's figuration and abstraction in the same frame. Rural surrealism. Which seems to tie in with the description of their music as 'Industrial Folk'. What's interesting about this album for me is the move away from a previous approach involving the use of media clips and news fragments that located it in a strongly cold war hunted/haunted landscape. Shouting At The Ground moved into a purer sense of landscape, which was continued in the excellent 1991 release, Shadow, Thief Of The Sun. In between the two releases was Look Into Me (1990), which took an interesting swerve into a more cut-up musique concrete territory. Shouting.. and Shadow.. represent the pinnacle of the :z*f: achievement in my book, the heights of which they failed to scale since. But that's just my opinion, to be taken lightly. So, well done guys, you created something of lasting value which continues to resonate with me.
Monday, November 30, 2015
Two old favourites, both released in 1982, that are very related for me, almost like two sides of the same coin, as related as night and day. Both exploring imaginary terrain, each in their own uniquely particular way; Eno, in the studio, with instruments, detritus and field recording, between 1978 and 1982, creating soundscape compositions, Gilbert/Lewis/Mills, exploring a particular location and its contents over a one month period to create similar narratives. Eno, in his liner notes, 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. Where Eno creates exterior, rural, and perhaps more lyrical spaces, the world of Mzui is a wonderfully forlorn, and distinctly urban interior. On Land is like a daytime hike, Mzui an after dark dérive.
Strange to imagine Eno's starting points of Fellini and Miles Davis until he explains it further:
“In using the term landscape I am thinking of places, times, climates and the moods they evoke. And of expanded moments of memory too... One of the inspirations for this record was Fellini's 'Amarcord' (“I Remember”), a presumably unfaithful reconstruction of childhood memories. Watching that film, I imagined an aural counterpart to it, and that became one of the threads woven into the fabric of this music.
“The choice of sonic elements arose less from litening to music than from listening to the world in a musical way. When I was in Ghana, for instance, I took with me a stereo microphone and a cassette recorder, ostensibly to record indigenous music and speech patterns. What I sometimes found myself doing instead was sitting out on the patio in the evenings with the microphone placed to pick up the widest possible catchment of ambient sounds from all directions, and listening to the result on my headphones. The effect of this simple technological system was to cluster all the disparate sounds into one aural frame: they became music.
Listening this way, I realised I had been moving towards a music that had this feeling: as the listener, I wanted to be situated inside a large field of loosely-knit sound, rather than placed before a tightly organised monolith (or stereolith for that matter). I wanted to open out the aural field, to put much of the sound a considerable distance from the listener (even locating some of it 'out of earshot'), and to allow the sounds to live their lives separately from one another, clustering occasionally, but not 'musically' bound together. This gave rise to an interesting technical difficulty. Because recording studio technology and practice developed in relation to performed music, the trend of that development has been toward greater proximity, tighter and more coherent meshing of sounds with one another. Shortly after I returned from Ghana, Robert Quine gave me a copy of Miles Davis' 'He Loved Him Madly'. Teo Macero's revolutionary production on that piece seemed to me to have the 'spacious' quality I was after, and like Amarcord, it too became a touchstone to which I returned frequently.”
Mzui's inauspicious beginings belie the alchemy of the process and the rare, flinty beauty of the outcome. A large factory space, in Elephant & Castle, commandeered as the artist-run Waterloo Gallery, was the physical terrain to hand that Bruce Gilbert, Graham Lewis, and Russell Mills took on, with various discarded items they encountered and put to great use. They worked 6 days a week for the month of August 1981, developing a series of sculptures and audio-visual environments for their own and the public's interaction. All recorded, with many tapes given to those members of the public who played in the space themselves. Apparently many of these willing participants went on to explore similar territory in their own work. It would be extremely interesting to try and track down these people and hear their Mzui tapes: it would lend a whole other aspect to the existing recorded document. Next to impossible probably, and, leaving aside quality control issues, the chances of any of these tapes having survived is most likely slim, but sometimes it's quite curious what Facebook can turn up in terms of connecting with parts of the past.
Like Eno, the imaginative terrain they created on the album of edited recordings had a very strong narrative focus and sense of place, in which an entire environment becomes a sounding board. They played the space. Glass was smashed and things were set on fire. The floor was ritually polished. It became a living, breathing environment. A backlog of exhibition opening bottles created the stock for the pile of broken glass, which was coralled into a roped-off area after a visit from health and safety. A former Stevie Wonder stage set of astro turf was cut up to make blackouts. Quite surreal, and quite Dada, in its own way. The Dada connection given voice by the inclusion of a loop of Duchamp saying, "In spite of myself, I'm a meticulous man", toward the end of the LP. This quote was most likely sourced from the Duchamp interview published on an Audio Arts tape in 1975 (original interview in 1959), which is now available, (along with the entire Audio Arts output, thanks to the Tate) as a podcast:
The lo-fi nature of the Mzui recordings added rather than detracted from the record – giving it the urgency of reportage. This, aligned to the resourcefulness and intelligence in the approach to creating sonic environments, and further drawing out these elements in the editing process, is what gives the record its power for me – a power which hasn't dimmed since. It connects with me like electricity. I wrote a review some years ago:
A recent search on Google maps for Gray Street appears to show no trace of the former warehouse. Long gone of course, swallowed up in 80s gentrification no doubt. I used to walk near there quite a bit on trips to London in the early 2000s (to see Wire, co-incidentally enough), on my way down to that wonderful emporium of out-there music, These Records, whose delightful proprieters were always so patient with my slow trawls through their earthly delights. I never realised the Mzui location was so near.
Praise be to Cherry Red for having the bravery to put this out, as it must've been as near to commercial suicide as any label would want to go. The only other record I can think of in a similar vein would be 23 Skidoo's 'The Cullling Is Coming', itself largely a document of live work. Though that was on a smaller sub-label if I remember rightly – Operation Twilight. One thing that intrigued me for a long time about Mzui was its title. So opaque and inscrutable. Apparently it was provided by The Brothers Quay. Though an explanation was never sought.
Room Temperature is very pleased to announce the release of a new duo album by Fergus Kelly & David Lacey, Quiet Forage, in a limited edition of 100. This is their second album since Bevel (2006), and is the result of various duo sessions recorded between 2011 and 2014 which have been edited into five tracks totalling 50 minutes. Fergus Kelly plays invented instruments, electronics and percussion, and David Lacey plays percussion/electronics. Orders can be made using the Paypal button on this blog, as I am currently experiencing difficulties with updating my Room Temperature site.
Thursday, October 11, 2012
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.