09 04 14My radio show from this week is now online.
Joined in the studio by Seb Reynolds and Huck, talking and performing songs from their Folk Operetta: Alexander The Great.
Sculpture - Hackle Scam Populator
Huck - Alex
Huck - The Ancient Greeks
Talk West - Set Adrift
Huck - A Sufi from Dixie
Maxwell August Croy & Sean McCann - Column of Mirror
Huck - Xander
Gatherer - Extension
Millie & Andrea - Stay Ugly
26 03 14
Special studio guest Tom Adams playing live.
Horseback - Passing Through
Tom Adams - Work in Progress (Live)
Belfi / Grubbs / Pilia - Brick Dust
Tom Adams - Work in Progress II (Live)
Kane Ikin - B N R
The Resource Centre - Slow Release Energy
Tom Adams - Travel Where the Moon Pulls (Live)
Dutch E Germ - Black Sea
Robert Beatty - Escape Spirit Videoslime
12 03 14My latest radio show is now online, featuring some great new music from the Digitalis and Song, By Toad labels.
Bastard Mountain - Meadow Ghosts
Marissa Anderson - Deep Gap
Wonderfuls - Distance
Peder Mannerfelt - Lines Describing A Circle
Illuha - Structures Based on the Plasticity of Sphere Surface Tension
Tom Adams - Migration
Pinkcourtesyphone - Pixels Sometimes Broke Your Heart
Koenraad Ecker - One-Eye
Hardware - Checking One
Bass Clef - Faster Than The Speed of Love
10 02 14 Cate Le Bon @ Junction 2, Cambridge
"Welcome to the Mug Museum" is all I manage to translate from my mother tongue - I am incredibly rusty and was never a native Welsh speaker - but, thankfully, for the general audience, if not just myself, we get a translation. The announcement asked if the audience could be respectful to the band and not take photos during the set - if you wanted a memento for yourself, or to send to someone, there are postcards in the foyer.
This is Cambridge, however, and the crowd are, if even more so than usual, very respectful of Le Bon throughout the evening. But I don’t think it was primarily down to the pre-gig message. Where, on record, Le Bon’s style mines that familiar Welsh seam of retro-pop, in a live setting it’s a much more raucous event. The set focusses on recent album Mug Museum, but its clean pop sounds get scuffed at the edges. And this is no bad thing - it’s what is so intriguing about her music generally - just when you think she’s crafted a perfectly pretty pop song, it changes shape. Live, it’s a fractious guitar riff or discordant keyboard refrain that rips through that pop sound. On record, these elements are more subtle and delicate. Irrespective of setting, they ensure you never know which direction Le Bon is going to take next. It’s easy to see why Gruff Rhys signed her to his label for her debut album: he’d found a fellow believer in schizoid pop. This dual personality is probably a reflection of Le Bon herself - her cooly restrained on-stage persona gives way occasionally to the primal call of the music and losing herself in the noise.
Continue reading on The Quietus.
12 02 14My radio show from last week is now online…
An hour of underground music & Sun Kil Moon.
Black Dirt Oak - Florian’s Wind-Up
Claypipe - Shifting Sands #2
Ex-Easter Island Head - Large Electric Ensemble Third Movement
WERNECK-WRETCHMOND - SCSI Based Sleep System No 3
Bass Clef - Set Adrift on the Memory Abyss
Shackleton - Silver Keys
Baldruin & das Ensemble der zittrigen Glieder - In der Höhle des Hypsignathus (feat. Uton)
Jim O’Rourke - Four Views of a Secret 1
Matthew Barlow - Warm Air
Sun Kil Moon - Carissa
29 01 14My radio show from two weeks ago.
Another hour of technical issues interspersed with some music and rambling.
K Novotny - Inversions
17F - Land
United Sacred Harp Convention - Sabbath Morning
Astro Sonic - The Electric Airbag Police
Mall - Hours to spare
Rafael Anton Irisarri - The Witness
Anne Guthrie - Unlike More Slender and Graceful
Mad Nanna - My Two Kids
Golden Teacher - Love Rocket!
Kevin Drumm & Jason Lescalleet - The Curse
Chris Watson - In Britten’s Footsteps
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth. Aldeburgh Music is celebrating this with a year long series of events based in and around Britten’s home from home, Snape Maltings, as well in his home town of Aldeburgh. Britten used to walk every afternoon around the countryside near his home, the Red House, on the outskirts of Aldeburgh, in order to help distil his thoughts, and to further inspire the pieces of music he’d spent the morning composing. Friday night’s event investigated this link between Britten’s environment and his habits. Three diverse areas of music were brought together under the title “Roots - Journeying Home” and the pre-performance talk in the Peter Pears Recital Room was the perfect introduction for what was to unfold.
Chris Watson lives in Northumberland (“The same coastline, but 300 miles north”), but at the start of his talk he divulged that his grandparents lived in Lowestoft and he used to spend most of his summer holidays exploring the coastline and habitats of Suffolk and Norfolk - some of the same areas that Britten explored. Having met Britten’s nurse and chatted about his daily routine, Watson felt a desire to capture the quintessence of the walks he routinely took. He noted that Britten purposefully kept away from the coastline, well away from the more obvious routes that were crowded with other walkers and dominated by the sound of waves breaking on the shingle beaches. Instead, he kept inland where the noise, for want of a better word, wasn’t as overpowering. It was the bird calls (Britten was an accomplished ornithologist) and the rustle of grasses and leaves which had served to help Britten’s thought processes.
What Watson captured, for this installation piece, were those sounds that would have accompanied Britten as he walked. As he pointed out, fifty years in evolutionary terms is very short, so the sounds of the wild that he collected will almost entirely be the same as those Britten experienced. A beautiful map was presented to the audience before the show that highlighted the route, season and the four key habitats covered during the course of the forty minute piece. These were then projected on a large screen, almost as chapter headings.
There were two key factors that made this performance piece superior to what could easily be described as a playback. The first was the contribution of Oliver Coates, a cellist who was asked to provide some of Britten’s music to play within the installation. Initially he picked something from Britten’s extensive repertoire of solo cello pieces, but was looking for the right moment to play it. Once he’d heard the explosive call of the nightingale that Watson had recorded (at 4am, sitting in his car as it was too cold to be outside), Coates decided that was his cue. It worked beautifully - as spring erupted, so too did the dawn chorus led by the overbearing nightingale, oblivious to all around it, joined by Coates’ spirited cello, the pair dancing with one another, the cello never overpowering Watson’s soundscape. It was as if, on your walk, you had happened upon someone practising in a neighbouring garden, adding a level of awe and wonderment to proceedings.
The second factor was the specialism of Tony Myatt from the University of Surrey, which was responsible for the technological wonder of the performance: spatial audio programming. The scope of the bespoke sound system installed in the hall was revealed during the talk beforehand: twenty speakers, split between the floor, head height and ceiling, developed to give an accurate spatial representation of the environment in which Watson had recorded the sounds. The audience were encouraged to walk around during the piece (though being careful to make the minimum of noise) and mats were left on the floor for those who wanted to lie down, close their eyes and get lost in the sounds. What was truly amazing was how this technological development enabled you to completely immerse yourself in the habitats and environments that were being represented.
Walking around the room my awareness of the birds, animals and environment changed. I moved away from the goldfinches chirping to my left and headed towards the pealing bells of Aldeburgh Parish Church. The trees swayed behind me, the wind rustling their leaves. Then there was that nightingale - you couldn’t escape that, the way its song dominated the entire landscape. It was a phenomenal experience - closing my eyes completely removed me from the confines of this large, foreboding hall and I was outside again, wrapped up against the cold, a robin chirping in the hedge next to me. What was most unnerving was when something alien appeared, like a roll of thunder, the bark of a fox or a crash of a wave, and I found myself glancing around nervously, as if that very thing was right next to me.
Britten frequently composed without the need of a musical instrument, and you can imagine how these natural sounds would have inspired him. He lamented the encroachment of noise pollution at the Red House, and he eventually had to leave - his keen ear for sounds and textures becoming tarnished and disrupted by the increased levels of unnatural noise. This piece might be one of the less obvious events as part of the Britten Centenary, but it’s actually one of the most important. It has captured something of Britten the man: someone who valued the natural world in which he lived and worked. There are elements of inspiration in this environmental soundscape that Watson has so amazingly and accurately captured, but it also serves as a way of understanding how Britten dealt with the trials and tribulations of his music and his life.
Simon Scott: The Sounds Below Sea Level
“The green gardens and pallid fenlands.” WG Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
I begin my journey to below sea level by being thrashed by rain whilst waiting at a bus stop. This is the first time I’ve taken the much maligned service which is guided along a section of “track”, north from Cambridge out towards St Ives and, eventually, Huntingdon. After climbing on board I was taken along the embarrassing concrete scar through some long and low lying countryside. Unfortunately, due to the nature of weather, the windows of the bus were covered in a slimey condensation that made them impossible to look through. So instead of looking I turned to the reason I was making this journey, Simon Scott’s latest album Below Sea Level. Listening to this soundtrack to the countryside I was actually supposed to be seeing, whilst surrounded by a sensory depriving greyness, I found myself completely immersed in the landscape.
Below Sea Level is the culmination of months of field recordings taken in and around Holme Fen - officially the lowest place in Great Britain, sitting 2.75m below sea level. It’s situated on the outskirts of The Fens, 1500 sq m of countryside in East Anglia which is often derided for its dullness. Most of the area lies only a few metres above sea-level with the highest part of the area being the Isle of Ely, on which Ely Cathedral sits, a mere 39m above sea-level. Originally the Fens consisted of fresh and sea water wetlands but they were artificially drained in the late 18th and early 19th century to turn the area into one of the major arable agricultural regions in the UK. This drainage caused much local unrest, many villages were destroyed and the residents’ way of life changed forever. The drainage is continued to this day with the help of extensive drainage runs, called dykes, and pumps (both electric and wind powered). Interestingly, in 2003 a project was started to help return certain areas of the Fens back to their original habitat, Wicken Fen being the most successful of these to date. This history, coupled with its very nature, ensures that the area is in a constant state of flux - a running battle between the environment and man, one never quite winning out.
Simon Scott picks me up at the ragged looking Huntingdon bus station and, after a short car journey, we find ourselves on a bowed road surrounded by large, long fields. We cross the east coast mainline’s quadruple tracks and end up on a pitted road continuing out into a stretch of countryside where only the far horizon can contain your thoughts. Once out of the car we stroll to the official posts that commemorate Holme Fen’s low lying accomplishment. There are few obvious sounds as we get out of the car, the sound of its cooling fan filling the air, occasionally punctured by bird calls. We are officially in the Fenlands.
There was something about The Fens that harassed Scott’s mind prior to him moving back to Cambridgeshire: “I used to literally dream of being out with my family and hearing the sky lark and it kind of haunted me, it was nagging away at me. And then I moved back and it was, like, why did I spend so long in London, when it drove me away from myself? The whole time I lived in London was a time when I was really inactive in music. I couldn’t quite grasp what it was that I wanted to do, so I didn’t compose for a while, and instead learned how to use a computer as a musical instrument. I got really bored of using the guitar. Even though I still use it live, and there is guitar on the album… you kind of get bored to death of hearing instruments.”
Which led him to this latest project. The making of Below Sea Level was a chance for Scott to combine the past and the present - returning to the areas he explored as a child and making music from his surroundings using self-taught skills that he’s picked up more recently “I wanted to use this environment, to use the land and nature. I was born and brought up in Cambridgeshire, right on the edge of the Fens. I used to come here with my family. I used to find it quirky, I used to find it interesting: it was different and quite remote. I really wanted to find new sound sources, I wanted to find some things to put into the software that weren’t digital. Like when you see a child running about on the beach, getting their feet wet and screaming with with just sheer natural delight. I wasn’t actually setting out to capture an essence of my childhood; it sort of coincided with coming out here and thinking, you know, I’m going to record the Fens and see what happens.”
The result is a thick and complex combination of field recordings, textured guitars and electronics. To keep with the organic and non-digital feel of the field recordings, snippets of thumb piano and wind-up music boxes are infused, adding to that childhood charm and wonder that permeates the album. We head out towards one of the lakes that borders the area and acts as a moat to protect it from the encroachment of civilisation. Scott produces some of the equipment with which he made his recordings and we begin to tune in to the sounds beneath the surface. A delicate but waterproof piezo device is submerged into the water and, upon wearing the headphones, I’m transported to a completely different place; a noisy and alien world that I barely recognise. As my ears become accustomed to this new environment I pick up quieter sounds that I hadn’t heard initially. This is something that Scott is keen to stress: “it took me a long time to actually listen to the sounds of the environment - re-tuning my ears to the place where I’d tuned out of.” When listening today the shudder of the passing trains shatter this illusion, but as Scott plays the finger piano and wakes the music box from its slumber, they all combine in a surprisingly natural way. The weather conditions prevent me from hearing some of the more delicate sounds, the wind making the water revolve in a choppy rhythm and the water boatmen that live on the meniscus are hidden from me.
Moving through the area we place the delicate microphones on other pieces of the environment. This time a fence post holding a series of wires in place, all in various states of tautness. Just placing the microphone near one of these picks up the oscillations created by the wind - a whispy metallic twang that’s floating in the air. Plucking these wires gives an altogether different sound, an eruption of noise not too dissimilar to an electric guitar, whilst dragging it down the spiral bind of my notebook creates a wonderful blast of crashing notes that blaze in my ears. All these bits of experimentation are recorded - from the natural sounds of the wind to our artificial interactions – and then taken to form parts of a future composition. But that composition process is a long one: “It took me 2 years of actual recording, because it took me that amount of time to build up sound banks, or music libraries where I discard probably 99% of a recording, and just use a segment. If I was very lucky and I was recording, say, 3 or 4 hours until the batteries went flat, if I was really lucky there might be a 15 minute section I could use.”
Then the importance of technology and the digital aspects of Scott’s approach become apparent. Using a series of patches that Scott developed himself using Max software, the album started to come together: “I would process all these sections. So the start of the album, I think it was Adventurer’s Fen, a really clear day with no wind, and there was a hum, an environmental hum, I put it into the patch and found that it had this pitch. So I played it in the studio and re-recorded it back into the patch, and it created a feedback loop. So that kind of “woo-woo-woo-woo” sound you can hear at the very beginning of the album before the guitars start coming in and the album kicks off, that’s like a feedback loop of the environment.” But this wasn’t just using computers for that sake of it, Scott was keen to use it as an additional tool in the music making process “I knew those things could be done with sound, and I really wanted to explore them, and get into them, because I was really bored of using traditional instruments solely to create music.”
We discuss the process itself over a beer at the closest pub to Holme Fen. It sits on a crossroads near the train line, the only building for quite a considerable distance. You wonder how it still makes a living, but the car park is full. Once settled, Scott opens his laptop and shows me what looks like a messy tube map of rectangles and linking lines. “This is presentation mode. Two banks of reverbs here, and you affect and control the liveliness, and you control the length.” Scott imports some recordings made this evening; one from the lake and one from the gate post. I watch as the two recordings are modified and blended together, their pitch shifted, the speed slowed down and their volume increased or decreased, Scott trying to find a spot where it makes musical sense. “You can scrub around and find little areas and loop that. If I had my interface here, this would pick up what I’m recording, so if I was sitting here playing the thumb piano it would record. You can add reverb and add more field recordings. There’s the beginning of a composition. Then it’s like making a cake - I always think music’s like cooking: you bring it to the boil, you season it, and see what comes out.”
As a companion piece to the album, Scott has produced a limited edition book. Its main focus is an essay, written by Scott, about his experiences during the recording and what the Fens mean to him. Perhaps of more interest are the excerpts from his notebooks and photos taken of the areas where the recordings were made. “Taylor [Deupree - 12K label owner], once he heard the record, asked me about the process. He’s from the East Coast of America rather than East Coast of the UK, he’s never been here, so he doesn’t know what it’s like. I sent him loads of photographs, because I’d take photographic documentation of every location, and also note things like the weather conditions, the time of year, and what time of day I was recording. I’d done some writing on this too, and so I was kind of exploring that, not that I’m a writer, but I just wanted to get it down, and he was really encouraging about that. He also asked, do you have any notes, odd scraps of paper that you were putting together when you were writing your essay? I had! Most of it was at the bottom of my rucksack scrunched up. The book costs a lot of money to print, but if you’re interested in that side of things, then it’s a nice piece of art.”
So is this a love letter to the Fens? A chance to set the record straight, to show that it’s not a dead, dull and boring part of the country? As a listener it certainly feels that way and after chatting with Scott, I can tell that this project is definitely a labour of love - the amount of work that has gone into each aspect of this is astounding. The music and the book combine to document the Fenlands and give you a chance to hear a landscape that is almost forgotten about. We return to the fact that the Fens have never really been championed as a place, either by being captured in art or by being used as a form of inspiration for it. There’s also the odd mention in Pullman’s Northern Lights or Peter F. Hamilton’s science-fiction operas. Robert MacFarlane called Cambridge a remote place and felt that it was just an access point to the wildness of the Fens. But Scott and I both agreed that his description of Cambridge itself as a part of the “wilderness” felt flawed – it’s not, it might be small and a bit isolated, but there is an energy here.. There is, of course, Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, but he wasn’t exactly complimentary about the area. The closest, musically, might perhaps be The Caretaker’s recent soundtrack work for the Sebald documentary, Patience (After Sebald), whose sprawling soundscapes and haunted tones bring to mind the ghostly mist-covered stretches of fields. But that isn’t truly linked to this place. Scott concludes that “In terms of finding actual music from the Fens, and actual documentation of the landscape of the Fens, that is informed by what happened when Vermuyden drained the land, there wasn’t anything. So I just thought – here’s a great opportunity, I’ll do this full time, I’ll get on with it, and there is going to be something there. It was almost like I was driven to do it, in a funny sort of way. Which is why I’m really fiercely proud of it, actually. The actual going out and discovering that this was working was really poignant. You know when you look back on a period in your life and you think – I’m not sure why I did that but thank god that I did.”
This is republished from the lost Liminal.
15 01 14My radio show has returned from hiatus.
The Visitor returns with help from Dan Carney.
R. Seiliog - Ore
Aa - Mossy
NHK’Koyxen - 768
Antidröm - Kabbalah
Oval & Hanna Kobayashi - Credit Line
Oscillanz - Rehersal 4 P1E1 & P1E3
Matt Christensen - Worry
Tomonari Nozaki - Part IV
Hallock Hill - Workbench Athiest
Seleshe Damessae - Neterek
A Collection of End of Year Thoughts
After a quiet year of music writing, on a personal front, it came as a surprise to be asked to submit a few thoughts to both The Quietus and Cambridge’s Slate The Disco as part of their end of year articles.
Tracks of 2013