Friday, May 27, 2016

99 - 80

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

70th birthday gift for Bruce

Bovine Oboes (for Bruce Gilbert)

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
Arthur Lowe
The Red Army Choir
The World At War theme tune & German march
Rain field recording
Captain Beefheart:
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
Smash ad
Star Trek theme tune
Dr. Who theme tune
Heinz ad
Bert Ford weather forecast
Roxy Music, Remake/Remodel
Monty Python, Bruce sketch and Philosopher's Song
Iceland harbour field recording
Shipping forecast
Decimalisation ad
ATV ident
Dad's Army theme tune
BBC control room talkback
PG Tips ad



Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Terminal Pharmacy/Whelm/L-Fields

Three albums that could form a trilogy:

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.

indicate: Whelm (Touch, 1995) - produced the same year as Terminal Pharmacy, working as a duo with Robert Hampson, this feels like a kind of sister album of sorts, with intriguing prepared/processed guitar treatments and field recording elements which evince long sections that flatline until landscapes of delicate construction emerge low in the mix and hang beguilingly, like a weather front, before evaporating, the field recording elements lending it a widescreen depth. Another one that’s aged remarkably well. I had the strange experience, when scanning the artwork, of discovering two cards that I had never seen before, as they were stuck so snugly to the jewel case - sitting there for 20 years !

Michael Prime: L-Fields (Sonoris, 1999) - coming on the heels of the previous two, Michael’s compositions date from 97 - 99, using bioacoustic feedback from plants connected to oscillators, combined with field recordings (explained clearly in his notes). These pieces mine a similar territory and create a unique and intriguing listening space that feels as unstable and capricious as the weather. One track features the sounds coming from a local football match coming from some distant field, a signature sound of suburban life throughout my growing up, and still in my neighbourhood now. Not really sure why this sound intrigues me so much, but the wind-thrown fleeting snatches of shouted commands, the thin, strained, reedy blast of ref’s whistle, the feeling of distance the sounds carry, somehow fascinate me. Though it’s not strictly necessary to know why, the experience is enough. Mystery is a good thing in certain circumstances.