Si Begg – miscellaneous

Lamb ‘Gabriel (Si Begg’s 5.1 Futures Remix)’ (from ‘Gabriel’ single, Mercury (2001))

Sometime NovaMute artist Simon Begg remixed this single from Lamb’s third album, What Sound (2001). The mix finds Begg in wild trip-hop style, delivering a relentlessly chunky break positioned just fast enough to straddle the frontier with drum ‘n’ bass. Over that beat, Begg drops in abruptly obscured vocals from the original, randomised sounds and whooshing filtered synths to create a sense of urgent euphoria. The mix was available on limited 12-inch and CD formats of the single, and can also be found on the 2CD collection Lamb Remixed from 2005. The mix was titled 5.1 Futures, which was presumably an error given Begg’s use of the name S.I. Futures for a slew of memorable NovaMute releases. 

Words: Mat Smith

A work in progress (c) 2021 Documentary Evidence

FM Einheit – Exhibition Of A Dream

Exhibition Of A Dream by former Einstürzende Neubauten noisemaker FM Einheit was originally released as a triple vinyl set under its French title L’exposition D’un Rêve in 2018. The release was made through Lisbon’s esteemed Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian and coincided with Einheit’s exhibition at the gallery. 

Try as I might, though, I can’t fathom what the exhibition actually was. It may be the final record, and it may also have been the act of the record’s creation, its live performances in Lisbon and separate recordings at Einheit’s own Steinschlag studio. The exhibition may also have involved drawings of mandalas in the gallery’s empty spaces, but how these are connected to the playing of the music is somewhat beyond my two-dimensional artistic brain. You can read more about it at the website of Studio Bruyant, who facilitated the exhibition alongside Einheit, and if you can figure out what the mandalas have to do with anything, or you were there, please contact me. 

Instead, in an effort to stay on more certain ground, let us focus on the music. Except that here too, nothing is especially certain. The packaging of a new 2xCD remaster by Cold Spring says as much as it doesn’t. We know that the twelve tracks are Einheit’s interpretation of dreams offered by musicians Band Of Susans founder Susan StengerSonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis Breyer P-Orridge; it includes dreams transcribed by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul and by artists Susie Green and David Link. Others were involved, but their dreams are strangely anonymised, creating a sort of amorphous impenetrability and mystery that leaves more questions than answers. 

In some cases, the ‘dreamer’ reads out their dream; in others, Einheit, another vocalist or the Gulbenkian’s choir does; in still others like the filmic, industrial western theme that is ‘FFW’ or the Can-esque ‘The Dungeon’, no one does. Like dreams themselves, the effect is disorientating and otherworldly: it reminds us that there are good reasons that dreams live in our subconscious. To expose them to the outside world places them into a sort of naked vulnerability, and what made sense in your deepest sleep makes zero sense during waking hours; disconnected from reality yet informed and made strange by it so as to become unreal. 

So here you can expect lewd imagery, strange interactions, odd stories that have no ending; vivid, emphatic stories as disturbing as ‘The Gift’ by The Velvet Underground or as filled with nonsensical non sequiturs as a Kafka novel cut up and reassembled by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin during a heavy night in their Parisian flophouse. In some cases – as with Lee Ranaldo’s ‘Alpine Traum’ or Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s ‘Creation Re/Created’ – their dream-stories are entirely in keeping with their usual aesthetic, and could have appeared on any of their various albums. For Ranaldo, this reunites him with the Beat-y spoken word style that dominated his contributions to early Sonic Youth albums, pre-dating finding his singing voice comparatively recently. In Gen’s case, his delivery is somewhere between lysergic work-out and a career in Open University lecturing that sadly never existed in the version of the omniverse we knew him in. 

The album’s musical accompaniment is, like all dreams, varied and unpredictable, fond of wandering off down oblique pathways. Performed by Einheit (stones, springs), Volker Kamp (bass, brass), Saskia von Klitzing (drums), Susan Stenger (flute, bass) and her Band Of Susan bandmate Robert Poss (guitar), each of the twelve tracks here is as different as the next, ranging from mutant jazz and funk to militaristic parade ground pomp to noisily contemplative post-rock to inchoate noisescapes. The players are adept at the masterful pivot, comfortable going off in whatever direction Einheit and the dreamers suggest they should go in. 

Cold Spring’s reissue of Exhibition Of A Dream arrives at a point where all of us perhaps feel like we’ve been living inside someone’s most impenetrable dream; where we find ourselves mutely looking back on the events of 2020 with the same weird feeling that you get when you wake up into that vague interzone between sleepy fantasy and the menacing horrors of the day. Truth be told, as strange and unsettling as some of these moments are, their intriguing mystique remains less terrifying than the world that we’ve endured over the past year. Lest us forget that dreams are the only places we have been able to dependably travel to, wrapped in the virus-free safety of our sleep. 

Exhibition Of A Dream by FM Einheit was released by Cold Spring on February 26 2021. Thanks to Gary. 

Words: Mat Smith 

(c) 2021 Documentary Evidence 

Coil – A Guide For Beginners – The Voice Of Silver / A Guide For Finishers – A Hair Of Gold

I first became aware of Coil through their remixes of Nine Inch Nails, initially on the singles from The Downward Spiral, and then going backwards through their work on Fixed; or, more precisely, that’s when I first heard them.

It felt like I’d always known about them, just like I’d always known about the interconnected web that incorporated them, Psychic TV and Throbbing Gristle, that awareness somehow being imprinted on me through hours of reading The Wire, NME and any music magazine I could get my hands on in the 90s; like a lot of the stuff I read about, and which appealed to my sensibilities, at that time, I rarely actually got to hear any of it. Instead, I was forced to imagine it in my head based on the vivid descriptions of Coil’s music alone.

And, quite honestly, it scared me as much as it intrigued me; tempting, on all sorts of levels, but also terrifying. Somewhere along the way I read that they’d recorded a soundtrack to Hellraiser, and that was it. I’d grown up with my mother working in a video store. When I used to meet her after work, I’d stare at the images on the VHS boxes of films like Hellraiser and be gripped by an inconsolable fear, well before I’d even watched any of these films, and yet I couldn’t look away. And I guess that’s how I approached Coil – deeply, strangely intrigued, but also absolutely petrified.

Time passed. I got over my timid wimpiness about horror films and the darker sides of life and found myself absorbing myself in bands like NIN in order to develop a thicker, more robust exterior. But still Coil somehow didn’t directly come into that new weltanschauung – tangentially, for sure, through remixes and the odd track on a compilation or other, but the idea of diving into their catalogue was still nerve-racking, what with all the bootlegs, alternative versions and other recordings. Part of me wanted to keep the mythology intact about the core creative and romantic duo of Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson and John Balance, and part of me was just simply daunted by the exercise; it’s like when someone tells you, at around series ten of something that you failed to watch when it first hit the screens (e.g. Game Of Thrones), the idea of going back that far fills me with absolute and unimaginable dread.

Fortunately, in the case of Coil, a solution is at hand – though it wasn’t, for a long time. A Guide For Beginners – The Voice Of Silver and its counterpart A Guide For Finishers – A Hair Of Gold were released by the Russian Feelee label on the occasion of Coil playing their first show in Moscow in 2001, and have now been released as a double CD edition by the Cold Spring imprint. Calling the pair of collections a ‘best of’ seems utterly, utterly inappropriate, but what these two albums highlight are Coil’s panoply of diverse and outwardly incompatible concerns – dark ambient, twisted folk, skewed lysergic techno experiments, punishing industrial bleakness, psychogeographical excursions into oblique storytelling, magick, mushrooms, moon music and occult mystery.

The collections traverse the entire Coil back catalogue from 1984’s Scatology through to 2000’s second volume of Musick To Play In The Dark, but in a typically non-linear way. Here you’ll find deserved staples like the brooding Italianate operatic gestures of ‘Ostia (The Death Of Pasolini)’ and the nauseating sampleadelica of ‘The Anal Staircase’ from Horse Rotorvator (1986), or the svelte electro of ‘Further Back And Faster’ from Love’s Secret Domain (1991). You’ll also find more surprising inclusions, like the urgent, trance-like ‘A.Y.O.R’ from 1993’s Backwards bootleg and the low-slung paranoid dub-dread of ‘Scope’ from 1990’s ‘Wrong Eyes’ 7-inch. The discordant serenity of ‘A Cold Cell’, on A Guide For Beginners, was effectively a solitary exclusive here, a different version appearing on The Wire’s sixth volume of their enduring Wire Tapper series.

Across two hours, and when taken as a whole, these two albums make for a disturbing and trippy listen. Coil’s brand of ambient music has a rough edge, its outer fringes laced with dangerous temptations and a languid, savage latency which leaves you feeling ever so slightly unsettled. When in the mood, Christopherson and Balance could also produce sublime and beautiful music. The edit of ‘Batwings (A Limnal Hymn)’ from Musick To Play In The Dark Vol. 2 is nothing short of devastating, its delicate, ephemeral, libidinal poignancy all the more striking when you know it was played at Balance’s funeral two short years later.

It is inevitably the darker moments, however, that prevail. ‘The First Five Minutes After Death’ (mistitled as ‘The First Five Minutes After Violent Death’, the name of a completely different version) from 1987’s Gold Is The Metal (With The Broadest Shoulders) has all the harrowing and unswerving brutality of one of Warhol’s Death and Disaster screenprints of car accidents. Long after the albums finished, I was still haunted by the chilling melody of ‘The Lost Rivers Of London’, originally recorded for the Succour -Terrascope Benefit Album in 1996. The song is a tumultuous ride through the hidden tunnels and passages of the pulsating, demoniacal London beneath London, finally arriving at a scene of dispassionate, detached horror not unlike Velvet Underground’s ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’; its melody is as chillingly insistent as Elliott Smith’s plaintive ‘Figure 8’ and a soft, conspiratorial delivery from Balance is like listening to someone gently narrating your worst nightmares. (Note to my younger self: you were right to be scared of Coil’s music(k).)

Cold Spring’s reissue preserves the vague impenetrability of the Feelee original albums. Like the Russian CDs, the new edition lacks any information, being intended for the Coil-curious novice but also directly appealing to the aficionado, the follower that can discern Stephen Thrower’s and Danny Hyde’s contributions to Coil from Drew McDowall’s and Thighpaulsandra’s. At first my instinct was to find this frustrating, a ‘deluxe’ package lacking the expected qualities of a ‘deluxe’ package – no credits, no liner notes – feeling like little more than a bootleg in an official release’s clothing.

As I turned the fold-out cardboard case in my hands, I slowly came to see this artefact as the precise embodiment of Coil: an elusive, unknowable proposition, where answers are fewer than questions, an evolution that took their music from post-Throbbing Gristle industrial reference points to a sort of electro-psychedelia, and whose inner impulses, motivations and secrets Balance and Christopherson took to their untimely graves.

A Guide For Beginners – The Voice Of Silver / A Guide For Finishers – A Hair Of Gold by Coil was released October 23 2020 by Cold Spring.

Words: Mat Smith. With thanks to Gary at Red Sand and Bryan.

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence

Andy Bell Is Torsten – Queereteria TV – Audio Highlights From The Theatre Show

(c) John Bradfield

Queereteria TV was last year’s third (and hopefully not final) part of Barney Ashton-Bullock and Chris Frost’s Torsten series. Starring Erasure’s Andy Bell, Ashton-Bullock and West End legend Peter Straker alongside a cast of bawdy accomplices, Queereteria TV imaged a post-apocalyptic (post-pandemic?) world of really, really bad TV and morals gone savagely to hell. It was a show of raucous, vivid brilliance featuring some of Ashton-Bullock and Frosts’ finest songs in the Torsten series and powerful, often heart-wrenchingly poignant performance from Andy Bell. 

I watched the show at the series’ spiritual home of the Above The Stag Theatre in Vauxhall on April 24 2019 with Richard Evans from the Erasure Information Service, and it was one of the best nights out in London I’d had in a long, long time. Alongside some brilliant and truly memorable performances by the three principal vocalists, I remember alternately laughing uproariously and wincing uncomfortably at the antics of the show’s villainous Lady Domina Bizarre (brilliantly executed by Matthew Baldwin). 

Etched in my memory those performances are, a convenient memento of the live Queereteria TV performances is now available in the form of an eight-song EP through Bandcamp, featuring recordings from the final three night’s of the show’s run. Here you will find stunning live versions of songs that appeared on the accompanying Andy Bell album, including his stirring duet of ‘Lowland Lowriders’ with Ashton-Bullock and his mournful, haunting solo piece, ‘A Hundred Years Plus Today’. The EP can be found at Bandcamp here

“It’s so lovely to hear these songs again,” reflects Ashton-Bullock. “It made me very proud to be a part of such a pioneering, cult, theatrical production.” 

Barney Ashton-Bullock and Andy Bell in Queereteria TV

For fans of Ashton-Bullock’s incredible vocabulary and borderless approach to poetry, two of his ruminative pieces on the topic of fame were recently published in Scottish periodical Dreich (‘Made in Scotland from words’). The ‘Fame’ edition can be purchased here

Queetereria TV – Audio Highlights From The Theatre Show is released November 27 2020 through Bandcamp: https://andybellistorsten.bandcamp.com/album/andy-bell-queereteria-tv-the-live-stage-show-highlights 

Words: Mat Smith 

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence 

Echo Collective – The See Within

I spoke to Margaret Hermant and Neil Leiter – the core of Belgium-based modern classical unit Echo Collective – in February 2018. At that point two albums featuring the Collective were about to be issued – World Beyond, a classical interpretation of Erasure’s World Be Gone that was the focus of my interview, and a classical reinterpretation of Radiohead’s complex, sonically challenging Amnesiac. Leiter had hinted at other projects, one of which was a collaboration with Maps, which surfaced as 2019’s outstanding Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss. 

The other project Leiter mentioned is what became The See Within, the first Echo Collective album to contain original material. At that point in February 2018, The See Within wasn’t even written; it merely existed as an idea, something he and Hermant were keen to do, but its execution seemed relatively remote. Their publisher, on the back of performances of Amnesiac and the reception to World Beyond, suggested that they should be prepared to “clone themselves” as classical interpreters for hire. It was clear when talking to Leiter that the idea, lucrative though it may well have been, had limited appeal: the goal was their own music, and what became The See Within thus became a driving focus. 

Neil Leiter & Margaret Hermant by Julien Bourgeois.

The See Within contains eight pieces for strings and magnetic resonator piano, an adapted piano that allows long, string-like tonalities to emerge. The album finds the core duo of Hermant (violin, harp) and Leiter (viola) collaborating with a third member of the collective, Gary De Cart, whose use of the MRP on standout pieces like ‘The Witching Hour’ or the lengthy ‘Respire’ gives the album its distinctive melodic character. Despite the emergence of strange, alien sounds and textures (for example, the opening moments of the evocatively-titled ‘Glitch’ or the gentle, evolving music box clusters of the beatific ‘Unknown Gates’), the Echo Collective mantra is to avoid studio effects other than subtle reverb. Theirs is an approach born of the concert hall, of live music, of being able to use instruments to their fullest potential, without resorting to the studio to achieve their idiosyncratic artistic vision. 

The result is an album that stands out in the crowded marketplace of modern classical music; an album that also stands apart from their previous interpretative or collaborative work yet feels inextricably linked through the way that Hermant, Leiter and De Cart interact with one another. Here you find moments of improvisatory freedom overlapping with rigid composition, of traditional playing effortlessly overlapping with instrument adaptations, giving each and every piece on The See Within an acoustic personality and sonic resonance unto itself.

A more engaging modern classical album you will not find. 

The See Within by Echo Collective is released October 30 2020 by 7K! Echo Collective are published by Mute Song.

Words: Mat Smith. With thanks to Gaia and George. 

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence 

Kumo – Euclidean Patterns

Kumo - Euclidean Patterns

I’m going to be completely honest here – I don’t get the maths and science behind this new EP from Jono Podmore’s longstanding Kumo alias. Here’s what Podmore has to say:

One of the many things that Euclid, the 4th century BC Greek mathematician and the Father of Geometry, left us is the first algorithm: a method to compute the greatest common divisor between 2 given integers. The algorithm is used in particle physics and computer science, but in 2005 Canadian mathematician Godfried Toussaint noticed something extraordinary when he applied it to musical rhythm. Using the algorithm to distribute beats and silences as evenly as possible in a bar generates almost all of the most important world music rhythms, from Sub-Saharan African music in particular. For example, if you have a bar with 8 pulses and you want to have 5 beats in that bar, the way the algorithm places the beats gives us the Cuban “Cinquillo” rhythm, which has its roots in West African music. 

The examples are endless: 13 into 24 gives us a whole series of rhythms used by the Aka Pygmies of the upper Sangha. Euclid lived his entire life in Alexandria in Egypt, and Herodotus said that the basis of Greek culture was African. Maybe there’s another strand to that relationship we’ve only just uncovered. 

The 3 tracks on this EP use all the Euclidean rhythms in bars of 9, 12, and 13, but going further, as the algorithm is used to generate the harmony too. Chords and modes can all be derived by spacing the notes across the octave, for example, 6 distributed evenly across 12 generates a whole tone scale. 

– Jono Podmore, notes to accompany Euclidean Patterns – https://sound-space.bandcamp.com/album/euclidean-patterns

See, it’s like I understand the words – individually – but when you put them all together into three paragraphs, that GCSE A in Maths from 1993 suddenly seems pretty useless. So I’ll do what I usually do and focus on what I can hear instead. 

‘South African Euclid’ begins with a wiry tendril of electrical current which provides the constantly-evolving thread weaving throughout the track, sometimes keeping itself quietly amused in the background and at others rising noisily to the surface; there it vies with a squelchy, acidic pattern, breathy vocal samples and a juddering African rhythm developed with the Euclidean method. The EP’s second track, the wittily-named ‘Euclid On The Block’, carries a latent urgency that could be a restrained form of drill and bass, all frantic percussion and murmuring synth sounds that threaten to coalesce into a club-friendly synchronicity but which instead prowl edgily around a menacing, omnipresent bass tone. 

The EP’s final track, ‘Thirteenth Euclid’, sits somewhere in between its two Euclidean siblings. Opening with overlapping organ tones, the piece opens out into what feels like a delicious electronic bossa nova, only with unpredictable synth interjections like alien transmissions issued from a distant galaxy where you might ordinarily expect to hear a Stan Getz solo. 

It should come as no surprise that Podmore has chosen to infuse this EP with this type of intellectual exploration of the science underpinning rhythms. He currently holds down a job as the Professor of Popular Music at Cologne’s Hochschule für Muzik, whose professorial alumni include Karlheinz Stockhausen; one imagines that Stockhausen would have approved of the deconstructivist approach to applying these mathematical concepts to musical theory and the exacting precision with which Podmore has developed the three tracks included on the EP, while also leaving room for sounds to float free of their grid-like shackles. 

Euclidean Patterns by Kumo was released August 14 2020 by Sound-Sense. 

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence  

Isabella, Jasper And Simon Fisher Turner – Savage Songs Of Brutality And Food. By The Extreme Angels Of Parody

Isabella, Jasper And Simon Fisher Turner - Savage Songs Of Brutality And Food. By The Extreme Angels Of Parody

Savage Songs Of Brutality And Food. By The Extreme Angels Of Parody is an album by Simon Fisher Turner and his two children, Isabella and Jasper. Its release was prompted by a conversation between SFT and Charles Powne from the Soleilmoon label about a specific album of children’s music, which in turn gave Fisher Turner pause to mention a project he’d been working on using the recorded voices of his children, which turned out to be this album.

It is a deliberately personal album, but one that is faithful to an aesthetic that Fisher Turner Sr. has been employing for the last few years under the banner of Guerrilla Audio; the concept also extends as far back as you care to look in his back catalogue, right back to when he first alighted upon a Revox tape machine. It involves making discrete, covert recordings that find their way into later sound works, adding a naturalistic, unpredictable quality alongside electronic structures; they sit somewhere between field recordings and the wiretapped conversations of vintage Scanner. 

In the case of Savage Songs…, the fifteen pieces included here represent the majority of the lifetimes of Fisher Turner’s two children, now deep into their teenage years. They are constructed from recordings that Fisher Turner made of them while they were growing up – little nonsense poems, overheard conversations, early attempts at French, the sounds of innocent young minds hard at work learning or playing or inventing fantastical worlds that they then inhabit, even if briefly. They are like tiny time capsules of Isabella and Jasper’s youth, otherwise lost to the mists of memory and age were it not for their father’s idea to recor them. The effect is both universally nostalgic for anyone who looks back with misty eyes on the all-too-rapid maturity of their children (and who wishes they’d preserved those memories better; more respectfully; more completely), yet also deeply personal for Fisher Turner who so attentively documented their growing up in this way. 

Nostalgia might abound in the mournfully-arranged pieces like ‘Cream and Latin Odor’, ‘The Sad Skipping Story’ and ‘The Mighty Dinosaurs’ (the latter with The Elysian Quartet), which have a sweetness and poignancy in the musical accompaniments, but a sense of inevitable playfulness can also be found here. ‘OH YEAH, forget about it, YEAH’ judders along on fragmented electronic patterns like sonic hopscotch, underpinned by a dismissive refrain from Isabella that, from a teenage mouth, would sound cutting and hurtful; ‘BlahXBlahXBlahX’ is noisy and rambunctious, nudged forward by retro computer game chip sounds and a processed “blah-blah-blah” refrain that suggests young Jasper was completely oblivious to his dad following him around with a microphone; ‘Squirrel Song’ is a stentorian waltz set to springy synths that commences with some gentle harmonising from the two young Turners; ‘JAZZ JAM corner’ sounds like a short offcut from The ResidentsCommercial Album

In his honest, truthful and tender press release Fisher Turner says that there will be no second volume, in spite of the hours of unused recordings that remain on his overflowing hard-drive. His children are now 17 and 15, and the idea of being trailed around by a doting father with sound intentions no longer seems as fun as it did when they were tiny. Savage Songs…, then, represents a loving gift; a one-off; a unique paean to unique childhoods and the unstoppable act of getting older. 

Savage Songs Of Brutality And Food. By The Extreme Angels Of Parody by Isabella, Jasper and Simon Fisher Turner is released September 4 2020 by Soleilmoon.

An email to Simon Fisher Turner, 6 August 2020. 

Dear Simon, 

Thank you for sending this across. 

I have to say, for all sorts of reasons, the press release moved me profoundly, and I confess to having shed a tear while reading it. Anyone with children who have suddenly grown up almost without you noticing – because it wasn’t sudden; never could be; you just didn’t see, or perhaps refused to accept, the signs – would recognise some of the sentiment in that. And that’s before I have even listened to it. My two daughters are 14 and 12. I don’t recognise them. I’m just some old fart whose music tastes they do not want to understand and who is boring because he tries to work hard to provide for them. 

I remember once, probably in 2008 or 2009, sending you a text from St Albans. I was waiting outside a uniform shop where my now-14-year-old was being fitted out for her first school uniform. I have no idea why I said this to you, nor what conversation we were in the middle of at the time. You told me you could relate. It felt like her future and her sister’s future were starting in earnest. Now they try to customise their uniforms, skirt length, hair length etc to the limits of what might get them a detention and I’m still waiting outside shops while they try on clothes. 

Strangely, too, something in your press release text made me nostalgic for my own childhood. It was the reference to Soleilmoon asking about an album of children’s songs. I had such an album as a kid. It was called All Aboard, a beautiful LP that had all sorts of classic songs on it, like Bernard Cribbins singing ‘Right Said Fred’. It also had ‘The Laughing Policeman’ on it, which got scratched on one of the policeman’s laughs, creating a locked groove that was utterly disturbing for this toddler playing nearby and might explain why the cut-ups of Burroughs and loops that I read about (before hearing them) fired up my imagination so much. I kept meaning to buy a second-hand copy while the girls were small, and now they’re not. And neither am I. 

I look forward to listening to this and writing about it before release. You can probably guess the thoughts and nostalgia with which I will approach it. Think of this as a preview. 

Thank you, 

Mat 

Words: Mat Smith 

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence 

The Birdman Of Islington: Stubbleman – The Blackbird Tapes

2020-05-18 12.11.31

Saturday March 14 2020: Pascal Gabriel is performing pieces from his Stubbleman album Mountains And Plains at the Union Chapel in Islington, as part of the Daylight Music concert series. He is accompanied by the various automata he built for live performance; they are an essential factor in realising the many complex layers present on Mountains And Plains, a diaristic album that recorded Pascal and his wife Pippa’s journeys across the USA.

It is a few days before London went into full lockdown. The audience is about half what it should have been in ordinary circumstances, but these are far from ordinary circumstances. That Mountains And Plains concerned itself with travel and the freedom of movement is perhaps ironic in the face of the travel bans and flight cancellations that characterised the coming days. From the stage of the Chapel, Pascal could see a smattering of audience members wearing masks, then still a rarity, but something that would become ubiquitous over the next three months.

Friday May 1 2020: Pascal Gabriel is at home, as we all are by then. He is livestreaming the debut performance of The Blackbird Tapes, a new Stubbleman EP from his London home studio. “It was weird,” he reflects. “From my point of view, I was really just playing to my wife and three iPhones. There was no way of knowing whether people liked it until afterwards. At the time you have no idea what the feedback is.”

By May, with gigs and concerts cancelled and venues shuttered indefinitely, the livestream has moved from the novel rarity to the only way that musicians can perform their concerts to fans. Seeing inside the homes of musicians has become a new normal, in an extended period of such new normals.

Another thing we have become used to is quiet. Noise levels in cities across the world have been reduced to a slight murmur. It’s as if nature is reinforcing its power on the world of sound that we have inhabited in urban environments for hundreds of years; if you pay attention, one sound you will hear more prominently than ever before is birdsong. It has become the unexpected soundtrack to life in lockdown, and it became the inspiration for The Blackbird Tapes.

2019-08-31 10.28.57

Pascal Gabriel (c) Pippa Ungar

April temperatures in London were unseasonably warm. It was a small consolation for the removal of our freedoms, but it was a consolation, nonetheless. One morning, with the windows of their bedroom open, Pascal was suddenly roused out of his sleep. “At about 4 o’clock I heard this blackbird talking to a friend,” he remembers. “I think the nearest blackbird was on our roof, and the other one was probably about 200 metres away. They were obviously having some sort of conversation.” Pascal sprang out of bed and grabbed one of the Hairy Guys – the portable digital recorders that captured the atmospheric field sounds that inspired Mountains And Plains – and he recorded the two birds chatting to one another.

“The blackbird has a beautiful song,” he says, “but I really didn’t think much of it; I just thought I’d record it.” Encouraged by Pippa, Pascal was convinced that he could use the recording as the starting point for a new track, which became the opening piece on The Blackbird Tapes, ‘4am – Conversation’.

Pascal took the recording and then began to manipulate it. “I recorded it straight, as a straight conversation between him and his friend, and then I copied the audio and slowed it down to half-speed. I then copied it again and slowed it down to quarter speed, and then slowed it down again,” he explains. “By doing that, you always have the octave lower each time, and obviously it’s really slowed down. Listening to the four recordings, at those different speeds, it suggested melodies to me.”

Sitting down at his upright piano, Pascal began to lightly compose accompaniments to the layered birdsong, gently augmenting the sounds he’d recorded but never overwhelming them. “I did it very quickly,” he says. “It probably was no more than a couple of days and then I was done.”

When I spoke with Pascal about the genesis of Mountains And Plains, he explained about his ‘Ten Commandments’, the rules that he sets himself at the start of a project which then guide its development. “I don’t think I had ten on this one,” he laughs. “I had only a few, and one of them was ’Don’t distract the birds,’ – basically, don‘t detract from the sound of the birds. I wanted to keep it really simple, to not distract too much from the conversation that was going on, and the magic and unpredictability of what the bird is going to do next. And so I kept everything very delicate and very simple.

“Another of the commandments was that I would only use one piano riff of five or six notes, which are then repeated,“ he continues. “The timings can change, and where the notes go can change, but that’s it – five or six notes, and they repeat, and that’s it.”

When Pascal sent the EP over, he counselled me that I needed to listen to the three tracks with decent headphones, and most definitely not laptop speakers. That was because of the bass sounds that make up the third element of each of the three pieces, made using an Oberheim Two Voice Pro. The synth provides a rich, resonant low end perfectly matched to the topline provided by the blackbirds and the piano melodies crafted in response. “On the bass sound, I just wanted two or three notes and nothing more,“ he adds. “There’s a real jollity between the bass synth, and the piano, and the birds. It really works.”

Having completed the first piece, Pascal then used the same approach for the EP’s two other tracks, ‘6am – Chorus’ and ‘8am – Soliloquy’, each time using the layered birdsong recordings, but leaving them largely unaltered. “It just created something that I couldn’t create myself,” he says. “When you listen to birdsong, you realise how precise it is. It’s random, but it’s also really controlled. I found it fascinating to hear it slowly. I’d just sit on my chair here in the studio, and listen to it over and over again and think, ‘What am I going to do on this? It’s amazing.’ And so, when I did the synths, for instance, I didn’t want them to change very much. There’s a bit of filtering, but it’s very delicate and very minimal.” The only other element that Pascal subtly weaves in from time to time is a sequence created using a GRP Synthesizer A4, its fluttering quality evoking birdflight.

Pascal is here tapping into a tradition in classical music of using birdsong as a motif within composition, something that extends back to the 14th Century, and which can be heard in works by Beethoven, Mahler, Handel and countless others. More recently, Olivier Messaien turned to birdsong many times during his career, basing whole pieces such as Réveil des Oiseaux on the specific calls of certain birds. Perhaps closest to The Blackbird Tapes is Ottorino Respighi’s I Pini di Roma from 1924. The third movement of Respighi’s suite, The Pines of the Janiculum, includes a recording of birds made on the Janiculum hill above Rome, with instructions that the recording be played specifically on a Brunswick Panatrope phonograph.

The EP takes us from the fragile unreality of early morning and concludes with the chiming of bells near to Pascal’s house, indicating that the day must begin. “There’s something sad about it,“ admits Pascal. “It’s like the magic is slowly ebbing away from that twilight morning moment. Early morning is a very special time, even more so because of the lockdown. We’re not going out for work. We’re not so keen to catch the Tube, or bus, or whatever, and we are much more aware of our surroundings.

“And there’s definitely a lot more birds around, and they can hear each other,” he continues. “I mean, this guy, on the 4am piece, was definitely having a conversation with another bird. You probably wouldn’t be able to hear it, or you just wouldn’t notice it at all, if it was as busy as it normally is.”

The Blackbird Tapes wasn’t supposed to be Pascal Gabriel’s next release. Instead, it was intended to be 1:46:43, a three-movement piece inspired by his best time ascending Provence’s Mont Vontoux, the punishing mountain leg of the Tour de France.

Those attending the Stubbleman show at the Purcell Room last year heard the premiere of the third movement, concerned with the final climb to the summit of the mountain; the Union Chapel audience was treated to the first performance of ‘The Green Cathedral’, the second movement, which focusses on the tree-covered middle section of the route.

We have lockdown to thank for giving us The Blackbird Tapes. Just as with the source material that led to Mountains And Plains, this EP would not exist without the confluence of a specific location, caught at a specific time, that would go on to provide the inspiration for a musical response. It provides us with a lasting, poignant memory of the stillness and quietude of the strangest moment in our collective personal histories, giving The Blackbird Tapes a profound, moving and universal significance.

The Blackbird Tapes by Stubbleman is released June 5 2020 by Crammed Discs.

Interview: Mat Smith. With thanks to Sally.

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence

Klara Lewis – Ingrid

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A couple of years ago, a cellist friend said to me, of his principal instrument, that “you have to be careful not to get too sad with it.” The inference was that it’s all too easy to make the cello sound mournful. Ever since he told me that I’ve become much more aware of that quality whenever a cello is involved; it may just be my general curmudgeonly outlook, but I often find it hard to identify something other than a nostalgic, wistful or maudlin dimension to music made with the instrument. It’s with that in mind that I approached the latest piece of music by Klara Lewis.

Ingrid is a single twenty-minute piece that uses a brief yet characteristically expressive cello segment as its foundation sound source. My cellist friend reliably informs me that it is “from the Sarabande movement of Bach’s fourth suite for unaccompanied cello”. Who plays the cello, whether this is a passage played specifically for Lewis or sampled from an existing performance are undisclosed details; neither is it apparent why the piece is so titled. Is Ingrid the person playing the cello? Is Ingrid the person this piece is dedicated to? Does it even matter?

These are the kind of questions you ask yourself as you listen to this piece. So focussed do you become on those questions that it isn’t immediately obvious that the cello loop is being subjected to – and placed under significant duress by – increasingly violent levels of distortion. It’s only after about ten minutes that the distinctive qualities of the cello get mangled fully out of shape, becoming growling, snarling, aggressive blocks of over-amplified noise: up to that point, it just sounds like the cello’s plaintive stylings augmented by hollow, distant electronic interventions.

By its denouement, the piece has morphed into loud, almost unbearably brutal sound, the original source passage unrecognisable; stretched, skewed and misshapen; reduced to elemental, metallic impulses on the most beautifully harrowing fringes of sonic entropy.

Ingrid by Klara Lewis is released May 1 2020 by Editions Mego – available here.

Words: Mat Smith. With thanks to Reed Hays.

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence

Leo Abrahams / Sølyst / Simon Fisher Turner – From Isolation 1

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This trio project represents the first in Trestle RecordsFrom Isolation series, wherein musicians are invited to collaborate with one another in the form of an exchange of sound files. The project is effectively a variation on their One Day Band programme, only with artists unable to meet and spontaneously develop a piece together for the foreseeable future, this is a virtual way of achieving similar results, quickly, efficiently and responsively. Arguably it’s way more productive than using the internet for Disney + and Netflix.

The first edition pitches together producer and ambient journeyman Leo Abrahams (guitar, FX, electronics), Kreidler co-founder Thomas Klein’s Sølyst alias (synths, sequencer) and Mute stalwart Simon Fisher Turner (field recordings, electronics). The three pieces here are built from sinewy synth sequences that pulse and shift with a purpose somewhere on the continuum between meditative and sinister, alternated with murky drones, impenetrable modular soundfields and vague ryhthmic passages.

Over each foundation pattern we hear Abraham’s processed guitar, occasionally formed as a meditative blues but more often presented as juddering, angular, discordant shapes that give the pieces an uncertainty and suggestion of imminent danger. Those highly textural guitar motifs are joined by Fisher Turner’s guerrilla field recordings, auditory ghosts of unknown provenance – traffic noise, maybe? Water washing onto a Cornish beach? Wind blowing through a bamboo screen? The hubbub of a station platform?

Perhaps unintentionally, those life sounds of real life give these atmospheric pieces a nostalgic quality, a sense of yearning for a time when we all had the freedom to experience all of life’s noisy treasures without restriction or fear.

From Isolation 1 by Leo Abrahams, Sølyst and Simon Fisher Turner can be streamed from the Trestle Records website from Friday April 3 2020trestlerec.com

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence