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.
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