The Birdman Of Islington: Stubbleman – The Blackbird Tapes

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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.

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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

Daniel Avery / Alessandro Cortini – Illusion Of Time

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The first evidence of Daniel Avery and Alessandro Cortini’s collaboration emerged last year with a white label 7-inch single credited to DA-AC called ‘Sun Draw Water’. Only available at the FYF Festival, Mount Analog in LA, the two tracks showcased a perfect, symbiotic pairing between the two.

With ‘Sun’, you could discern Cortini’s trademark, bold synth strokes edged with a dirty, fuzzy industrial quality. Haunting vocal textures and submerged melodies created a brooding, dark ambience, like an alternative soundtrack to Terminator and every bit as dystopian. ‘Water’ was the inverse, offering a richness and depth of colour, an elastic sound occupying the foreground carrying an unpredictability while the background stayed resolutely focussed on clusters of pads and spiralling tones. The effect was not dissimilar to some of Robert Fripp’s experiments with triggered sounds and textures, poised somewhere between a meditative, reflective mood and a restless hopefulness.

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Illusion Of Time was completed in 2018, and cements the vision that ‘Sun’ and ‘Water’ hinted at. Like many electronic projects, Illusion Of Time began as a distance collaboration, the pair shaping and sculpting tracks over the digital aether before finalising the pieces together while touring with Nine Inch Nails.

The album’s title track opens with delicate, mesmerising synth cycles overlaid on top of resonant blocks of sound and white noise panned across the stereo field. The track has a poignancy and sweetness, a sense of optimism in troubled times, whether illusory or not. That approach runs throughout the record, sometimes with a glimmer of uncertainty; ‘At First Sight’ is probably the best example of this, delivering gentle melodies sounding not unlike uilleann pipes drifting across a turbulent, pulsing, bass-heavy sequence of tones.

Elsewhere, we come across moments of intense beauty. ‘CC Pad’ contains sparse, haunting, overlapping pads, creating an effect like gazing across a beatific, frosty Spring morning landscape. In the background you hear a feint clicking sound, creating a suggestion of rhythm or the scratchy rotations of an ancient gramophone. Two brief interludes in ‘Space Channel’ and ‘Interrupted By the Cloud Of Light’ have an evocative, ethereal quality, nodding to an ambient tradition but laced with crackling white noise sounding like the release of intense radiation from a distant star.

Among all of these poignant, brilliant vignettes is the standout ‘Inside The Ruins’, advancing forward on growling synth sounds moving from ear to ear, wrapped in cavernous echo and a sense of imminent, unresolved threat. On this piece it’s hard not to imagine the environment suggested by its title. In my mind I see myself standing in a destroyed ancient temple in Syria while drones buzz and criss-cross overheard, emotionlessly surveying the devastation.

Illusion Of Time by Daniel Avery and Alessandro Cortini is released March 27 2020 by Phantasy Sound. Thanks to Ellie, Naomi and AC.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence

Burnt Friedman & João Pais / Burnt Friedman & Jaki Liebezeit – Eurydike

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Germany’s enigmatic Burnt Friedman is a serial collaborator, hitching his distinctive electronic palette to numerous other musicians over the course of his career, while also delivering with such a prolific level of output that it’s often hard to keep track of his movements.

One of his longest-running collaborations was with Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit, with whom he recorded several albums up to Liebezeit’s untimely death in 2017. Their Secret Rhythms concept gave prominence to the drummer’s signature, dizzying polyrhythmic kitwork, attaching that to Friedman’s delicate, unobtrusive electronics. Critical to Liebezeit’s playing was a sense of reductivism, paring his kit back to the most elemental of equipment and yet producing dexterous overlapping, highly detailed rhythms that were usually hard to follow; Friedman’s electronics were thus a sympathetic response, never once overwhelming the master drummer’s sound and weaving their way lightly through and around his playing.

Two unreleased collaborations between the two friends can be found on the B-side of a new EP on Friedman’s Nonplace label. Dating from 2016, ‘Eurydike’ and ‘Star Wars’ are immediately recognisable, bearing those Secret Rhythms trademarks – clusters of sounds, unswerving drum cycles, dubby bass, springy analogue sounds and discrete non-melodies. It would be glib and somewhat obvious to say that these pieces, like so many of Liebezeit’s, could induce a trance-like state, but they undoubtedly code. In these rhythms, and in their framing with washes of sound that drift in like they’re being carried across a field by a breeze, there is a resolution and purpose, a mesmerising momentum constantly bordering on the chaotic but never once going there.

On the A-side you find Friedman interacting with another drummer and occasional collaborator, Porto’s João Pais Filipe, and their two pieces (‘Out Of Ape’ and ‘Fibres Of P’) act like a sonic handshake between the two drummers. Pais’s work is comparatively more full, his rhythms more dense and varied yet carrying the same tension and energy as Liebezeit. On these pieces, in response to Filipe’s wall of sound, Friedman’s electronics are more obvious, less imperceptible, more there perhaps. In Filipe, Friedman may well have found the natural successor to Liebezeit’s legacy, the start of a new Secret Rhythm concept that nods reverently in the direction of what came before.

The split Eurydike EP by Burnt Friedman with João Pais and Jaki Liebezeit is released May 15 2020 by Nonplace. Pre-order link: here

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence

hackedepicciotto – The Current

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I have three experiences of Blackpool, the town in which the ever-wandering duo of Danielle de Picciotto and Alexander Hacke recorded The Current.

The first is, I am told, a brief trip there as a child in the way home from Scotland, of which I remember absolutely nothing. My mother advises me that I was eighteen months old. The only memento I have of this is a small black and white photo-booth strip.

Then, almost thirty years later I watched an episode of a show called The Hotel Inspector, one of several programmes scheduled in the wake of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares in which some egotistical know-it-all pokes around in an establishment, shows just how utterly disgusting it is, and then comprises a strategy for how they will radically improve it. The thing that stuck with me about this show was not a very dubious establishment managed by a very colourful character, but the statistic that the average room rate for one of the 1800 hotels in Blackpool was £20 – and lest we forget that an average suggests there were many rooms available for substantially less. Hotel room rates act as a barometer for the economic prospects of a location, and on that measure alone, Blackpool was woeful. I mean, I’ve paid more than that for an hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska and that place didn’t have a ballroom, tower or a beach to improve its appeal.

Finally, maybe around the same time as that, I hauled myself up to Blackpool at some ungodly hour in the morning to support a colleague who was presenting at one of the significantly more expensive hotels in the town. As he came off the stage and legged it to the exit, he whipped off his microphone and whispered to me, ‘Get me the fuck out of here – this town makes me want to kill myself.’

But some of this is precisely why de Picciotto and Hacke chose to move to Blackpool for The Current. It is a town, as they put it, left behind by gentrification, a forgotten relic of Victorian-era tourism, a place dominated by sickly, E-number-heavy boiled sweets, faded seaside grandeur and an unlikely landmark – the Tower – forever destined to be unfairly seen as a poor architectural cousin to M. Eiffel’s more famous example, despite being arguably almost as impressive.

All of this, plus the presence of the Irish Sea the couple could see from their window, gives tracks like ‘Petty Silver’ – replete with its creepy melodic tones reminiscent of ‘The Carny’ by The Bad Seeds, grubby, fuzzy electronic rhythm and sub-bass slowed down to a unnerving prowl – an unexpected, if turbulent and utterly skewed, symphonic edge. It would be glib to say that such a track carries a sense of mystery as Danielle de Picciotto intones an especially bleak poetry, but there is nevertheless a sinister, Old Testament good vs evil thing going on here.

Elsewhere, opening track ‘Defiance’ is nudged onward by a gloomy bluesy guitar, bass and violin formation that might as well have blown in from the sand of a sun-bleached Nevadan desert rather than the brown sand of Blackpool. Here we find overheard voices, strangely celebratory and yet weirdly affecting when taken outside of their context, bells, snarling electronics and a vocal from de Picciotto that emphasises we are all made equal despite Blackpool’s economic fortunes suggesting that this is anything but the case.

It is an effect that plays out across The Current, in a fashion not wholly dissimilar to the sound of the Detroit-centred Crime & The City Solution album American Twilight (2013) that both contributed to. On the standout ‘Onwards’, that manifests itself as a violin section that is enough to cause claustrophobia and panic, the beautiful harmonies between Hacke and de Picciotto never quite offsetting the churning urgency of the strings, sounding not unlike the end of the world as we know it. The album’s title track begins with a soundfield of unplaceable, hissing, droning sounds evoking comparisons with Hacke’s role in Einstürzende Neubauten, though even that band never quite managed to sound this bleak; ‘The Banishing’ carries a strained, muted edge courtesy of a rich, undulating, thunderous rhythm, chanted vocals and vaguely optimistic strings; ‘Third From The Sun’ begins with rich otherworldly sounds intended to remind us that our very existence owes itself to accidents and astral coincidence, before descending into a ominous wall of beautiful, ugly sound laced with psychedelic motifs.

This is not an album for the faint-hearted. By the time you reach the mournful ‘Upon Departure’, with its proggy, thick Violinksi tonalities, insistent strings and impenetrably savage drums, or the damning social commentary of ‘The Black Pool’, you might be forgiven for wanting to say, like my former colleague, ‘Get me the fuck out of here.’ Break through the gloom and a strangely human, hopeful, elegiac dimension appears. It is the sound of an unexpected optimism and a spirit of unity and of being in this together in spite of the state we’re in.

That de Picciotto and Hacke were able to freely up sticks and pitch up in Blackpool, with an album released on the very day where the UK is expected to sever its ties from Europe, and where such freedom of movement will be once again restricted, is perhaps the most overtly political statement of all those enshrined in The Current.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence

SavFrost – Cuckoo Head Cool Dog

Cuckoo Head Cool Dog by SavFrost is a unique collaboration between long-standing friends Barbara Frost and Savage Pencil (Edwin Pouncey), issued by The Tapeworm’s Bookworm offshoot in two editions – ‘Germolene Pink’ and ‘Papal Purple’ – and described by The Tapeworm’s Philip Marshall as nothing less than a “bodice-ripping page-turner”.

Neither Frost or Pouncey will be unfamiliar to Mute collectors, Frost through her association with partner Frank Tovey / Fad Gadget as songwriter, singer, photographer, tour manager and occasional book-keeper, and SavX through his distinctive sleeve illustrations for Sonic Youth, Big Black and many other Blast First releases.

The volume consists of twenty visceral and engaging short pieces by Frost, each one written in a single draft in direct response to an image supplied in an email from Savage Pencil the night before. The image would remain unopened until Frost was ready to start writing the following day, beginning the process of developing either a short story, poem, collection of haikus or some other written reaction to Pouncey’s distinctive (and generally unfathomable, often disturbing) illustrations by accumulating ‘word banks’, clusters of words that occurred to her as she looked at what had been supplied. Those word banks, and Pouncey’s drawings, are all included in the book, and it’s illuminating to see precisely Frost’s responses as they were developing, the word banks being necessarily individualistic, spontaneous gestures that often appear only tangentially linked to the drawing and the written piece that would then be formed.

The results are predictably unpredictable, and frequently dark. One piece (Reap What You Sow) appears to document the quotidian ministrations of a garden-obsessed pensioner, only to unfold into something much more sinister; New Neighbour begins by detailing the interactions between a resident of a maisonette and her new upstairs neighbour, all of which begin with somewhat overbearing pleasantries before opening out into a jaw-dropping tale of extreme and nauseating criminality.

Other stories concern themselves with sleepless nights, fumbled romance and macabre goings on in dolls houses orchestrated by a disturbed young girl, and the inner turmoil of the Beast from Jean Cocteau’s La Belle Et La Bête (definitely Cocteau; not Disney). The poetic gestures throughout the book are similarly oblique, ranging from naturalistic moments to outpourings of adoration to more harrowing concerns, each one deployed with an unvarnished economy of language and a raw emotional directness.

Cuckoo Head Cool Dog by SavFrost was issued by The Bookworm on September 27 2019 in a limited edition of 250 copies (125 pink, 125 purple). Copies can be purchased from The Tapeworm’s Bandcamp page.

Thanks to Barbara, Philip, Fortitude, Sagar and Café Below.

Related:

Interview with Philip Marshall from The Tapeworm about the label’s formation, ethos and ongoing exploration of the cassette format over at my other blog, Further.

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence