Creating Amplification 1

Amplification

This is the first in a four-part series of blog posts to document the final stages of work towards the installation of my / MortonUnderwood‘s most ambitious sound art installation to date. I must confess that for a while now I haven’t felt the urge to spend time writing about my work; as you can see from the date of my previous blog post on here. There are various general reasons for this, from not wanting to spend my time in front of a computer to wondering who would be interested in reading this stuff anyway.

Where this project is concerned though, there is one other thing that has held me back from documenting it: fear. Specifically, fear that it won’t be completed on time and what I will be documenting is in fact a terrible failure. Suddenly, last week – with four weeks to go until the installation – I had a change of heart regarding this. This stems from the fact that I think the chances of failure are now somewhat diminished, that I am bound to documenting it as a condition of the funding I received, and crucially, that I feel documenting even total failure might be of interest and help to others. So here we go…the first of four blog posts documenting the creation of Amplification.

(Unlike the remaining blog posts on this, as the first, this documents the process so far; rather than just the week prior.)

The story so far…

As an introduction to the project itself, let’s start with some blurb from the press release:

Amplification is a stereo acoustic amplification system, developed to encourage deep listening to environmental sounds within a space. Users of the system will augment their listening through two large ear trumpets. In addition, they will be able to adjust the stereo field of what they can hear by swiveling each horn; creating a distinctive and unusual listening experience.

During their time exploring the collection at the Birmingham Museums Trust, MortonUnderwood was struck by the efforts made by developers of the music boxes, gramophones and orchestrions in the collection to amplify the sound output. In a world where we can easily dial in more electronic amplification, many of the innovative approaches seen in the collection are now obsolete. Through Amplification MortonUnderwood hope to highlight the beauty of passive, acoustic amplification systems.

That’s the plan and I put this idea to the Arts Council, who duly supported the idea via their Grants For The Arts scheme.

grant_jpeg_black-sm

I am so pleased to have received their support; and at the first time of asking as well.

I could finally make something where money didn’t pose so much of a constraint. Where cobbling together could be substituted with professional fabrication. Where taking a few images and posting them online could be substituted with full video documentation.

BUT, as I know from years of running my own businesses, with every opportunity comes risk. Any step-change presents many challenges as well as openings…and that has been the story of this project so far.

The first thing my colleague David Morton and I had to do was make it a solid idea that properly sparked our interest. We played with a few ideas and prototypes before deciding on the approach outlined above. I suspect most people have seen or even used mono acoustic listening devices before and with David’s experience of using a mid-side microphone array we were confident we could create some interesting effects by making a stereo listening device, with a matched, stereo pair; where the user could alter the stereo field. It sounded easy enough at the time!

amplification3-sm

At the same time as developing a prototype of this ourselves, I started to look for firms to fabricate it and contacted someone I had used before about documenting the project. I anticipated that finding a fabricator might be hard but sadly even the chap who we had hoped would document it was unavailable, due to personal reasons.

In the end I wrote/drew a full specification for the piece in order to take it out more widely to fabricators. I was soon reminded of the benefits of cobbling together. In the words of one fellow artist I contacted regarding this, “It’s usually communication issues with commercial outfits in my experience, different mind-sets etc”. And so it went on…until one day, with time rather tight, we found a fabricator. Sadly, it took us two further weeks to discover they weren’t the right people for the job either, at which point we took the bold / scary decision to try and find another fabricator with only five and a half weeks left…

The only reason I feel able to write this now is that our new, and final fabricator, Tuba Phil (pictured below) and I are making reasonable strides now and will have something to present at the end of this month. I kick myself that I didn’t think of Phil before. I play in Collective43 with him but for some reason I didn’t consider him for this job until pretty late in the day. So far it has been a great pleasure working with him and I can see much good coming out of this in future. For one thing he acts as a conduit between what’s in my mind and the means of making this a reality…but also, we have a mutual respect and understanding.

One further thing I realised through this is that giving up the production of one of our pieces is going to be harder than I anticipated. Event pieces like A Word In Your Ear – where the idea was predominantly David’s, the box was produced by our friend Neil and all I did was manage the process and install the electronics – I had to play some part, beyond just the conceptual side of things. Maybe this will always be the case but I hope I will one day accept that the art is in the idea and you can happily let others create the piece itself, as they are probably better at that bit…

tuba-phil
Photo: Dave Grubb

To follow: Creating Amplification 2…

The spice of life

I have a few gigs and events coming up and as usual they are pretty varied. I can hold opposing views as to whether more focus or less focus is best. At the moment, I am just enjoying the stuff I have coming up – including:
 

The Eternal Drone

This Friday, in Worcester I will create an hour-long drone in St Martin’s Quarter. This will be an improvised piece composed of electronic, acoustic and environmental sounds. As part of the Clik Clik Collective Victorian Fair programming.
 

Funeral March

On Saturday, I will be joining Collective43 and Clik Clik Collective in Worcester for a funeral march. Something along these lines:

I feel very lucky to have found the likes of Collective43 and Clik Clik so close to where I live. That’s not always the case when you live out in the farther flung parts of our fair land. We are on the same page and definitely hope to do more together!
 

If Wet #20

On Sunday it’s the last of our If Wet events for 2014, in Callow End Village Hall. We have the wonderful Rosanne Robertson presenting her work and we will have a bit of a celebration of our second season too…before heading to the pub afterwards.

Rosanne Robertson

Here is a preview of the event.
 

DunningWebsterUnderwood début at Vortex Jazz

I am playing at Vortex Jazz for the first time on Tuesday the 2nd of December. I’ll be playing tuba in a new trio formed of myself, Graham Dunning (turntables and effects) and Colin Webster (bari sax). We have an album out next year, called Bleed and have some further recording planned for next Monday evening. Here is a taster:


 

Glatze at Capsule Xmas Cocktail

Lastly, I am looking forward to another Glatze gig this year at the Capsule Xmas Cocktail party on Saturday the 13th of December! I am delighted to be on such a great bill and I look forward to some fun-at-all-costs live music making!

Glatze

Slap organs for Town Hall Symphony Hall Birmingham

Portable slap organ

Portable slap organ - instructions

Following on from my time as Town Hall Symphony Hall Birmingham Artist-in-Residence, I was asked to design and built two slap organs, or thongaphones. They both had novel twists on the established instrument. One featured as part of a garden-based sound installation in a Birmingham school, with the pipes collecting water for the garden. The other was a portable two-player slap organ for use in workshops.

As pictured above, I also provided a novel attachment for the portable slap organ that allowed them to demonstrate what it sounds like when air is blown through the pipes…

St Thomas slap organ

St Thomas slap organ

St Thomas slap organ

Why I am not going back to EMS, yet…

EMS

Next month, I was supposed to travel to EMS in Stockholm for a week as Guest Composer. What an honour. EMS is nothing short of seminal in the world of electronic music, and this year it celebrates 50 years. Despite this I have had to courteously turn this opportunity down…for now.

There are two main reasons. The first is practical. The second is more fundamental and holds greater sway in my decision not to go. The first has to do with money. I applied for this with my colleague David Morton but we were unsuccessful. This would’ve left us in Helsinki and would’ve given us some budget to help make our trip to Sweden more viable. We sought other funding and assistance with the trip to no avail. Somehow things didn’t seem to want to drop into place.

Crucially though, a second aspect wouldn’t drop into place either. David and I just couldn’t work out what we were going to EMS for. At first we thought we’d try to get some time with some rare synths but then I recalled the frustration I felt when using a Synthi at Sonic Weekend earlier this year – and the relative ease with which Soundhog handled it. It’s just not my style. I am a tuba payer; you press an oiled valve and it does the same thing every time. I really enjoy playing with hardware synths – though I am much more at home with soft-synths these days – but I don’t very much care for the results when I hear them back. Endless, aimless synth noodling isn’t really my bag. So, that idea went out the window.

Next up we considered taking our instruments with us but the idea of checking relatively fragile instruments was daunting and why would we go to Sweden, to an electronic music studio, to record acoustic instruments using mics and software we are unfamiliar with? A sense of adventure and the unknown is fine but that just seemed perverse to us.

Latterly we got close to an idea that could work; one we had initially pitched for Sound Development City as it happens. We would do another Field Augmentation album in and around Stockholm. We would prepare the augmentation tracks at EMS and do the listening back and some initial post-production there. BUT why do this in Sweden? We needed to find some striking acoustic spaces and organise access etc. Time was running out though and the research and organisation required to pull this off to our satisfaction was non-trivial – so we took the decision to pull out. Given the desirability of their studios we wanted to give EMS sufficient time to book the studio for someone else to use.

We plan to carry on researching spaces and funding options for a trip next year – if EMS will still have us – but this time we just couldn’t make it work; above all artistically. Someone I mentioned this to said it “might just turn into expensive faffing, and you can do faffing anywhere”. Sage.

[addendum: when posting this article via Twitter I boiled it down to this phrase, which seems to sum things up pretty well: “Basically, the art bit has to be right…or what’s the point?”]

One Water at EMS
Images from EMS trip in 2012 with MU1 One Water instrument

Sonic Graffiti at Monomania

When Brother Bear posted a video of one of my Sonic Graffiti pieces installed in Cambridge as part of Monomania, I was reminded of how much I enjoyed making them and how I should probably share some pictures.

Here is the video:


 
 

And here are some pictures:
 
I like to ride my bicycle
I Like To Ride My Bicycle – acoustic Sonic Graffiti piece
 
 
Message recorder
Message Recorder – listen first, then leave a message for the next person
 
 
Message recorder - response
Message Recorder – reaction [an actual real, unsolicited one]
 
 
Dual-oscillator synth
Dual-oscillator synth – cemented into a wall
 
 
Bent
Player – a circuit-bent, game controller audio player
 
 
HONK
HONK! – an optical synth with an acoustic amplifier
 
 
Active Listening instruction
Active Listening instruction – amazing sounds from overhead cables transmitted through post
 
 

What would happen if I presented a Late Junction?

When Verity Sharp left Late Junction I got very close to recording a “Guest Mix”, as an experiment in What would happen if I presented a Late Junction? I was really just hoping that some good would come out of this situation. Maybe a renewed enthusiasm to explore who presents the show. Possibly even regular guest mixes!

Then, last week, Mara Carlyle hosted a week of shows. This was a revelation. I found her shows really exciting and it made me think hard again about why I hold Late Junction so dear. I realised that most of all it was the enthusiasm and commitment of the presenters to their bit of the musical world; to what makes them tick. So this time I carried out the experiment…and here it is:

What would happen if I presented a Late Junction? by Mrunderwood on Mixcloud

[Rather embarrassingly I messed up the URL. You can use this link if you want to share it without an error. DOH!]

—————

I realise this might be a bit of an odd thing to do and there are probably a few errors too [beyond the mix URL]; both technically and in the information but it was just an experiment. Think of it as a bonus fourth Late Junction, for one week only. Oh and granted some of my commentary may sound more like Mixing It than Late Junction but I am cool with that. I think it gets better as the show progresses too…t is my first ever Late Junction after all ;)

I welcome any comments.

Please buy any of the music you like. I have detailed the artist and track names in the Mixcloud tracklist.

Master of none

I wanted to let people know about some gigs which are making me happy; one that I have played recently and two which are coming up…

ORE at Cafe OTO

On the 1st of February we played our first gig as ORE at Cafe OTO. This was the usual doomy, droney affair but with an extended line-up and sound, courtesy of Michelle Hickman on tenor horn, Olly Coates on cello and Will Cooper on great highland bagpipes.

This was our second outing with this line-up, which we really enjoy and is our second time of playing for the wonderful Full Of Noises crew. Very happy making indeed.
 
ORE
 

MrUnderwood and Kit Downes

On the 28th of February I am playing an improvised gig, as part of the London Contemporary Orchestra Soloists series, with Kit Downes on keyboard. The aim is for me to channel and process Kit’s playing, the sounds of some MortonUnderwood instruments and live environmental sounds. Our aim is to create a deep listening experience for those present.

This will be my first time playing for LCO and at Limewharf in London. Further details here. It is also a great pleasure to be playing with Kit for the first time.

LCO
 

Glatze is back!

Lastly, I’d like to highlight a gig I am doing partly for old times’ sake. On May the 27th I will support Melt Banana, for Capsule, at the Rainbow Warehouse in Birmingham. Further details here

This will be the usual bonkers live electronics from Glatze, and brings me particular joy as this was the first slot I ever did for Capsule, in 2009. Plus I am very much looking forward to dancing my tits off to Melt Banana; who are cracking live!

Glatze
 

Master of none

If you are wondering what the title of this blog is about, it refers to the broad variety of output this represents and that frankly it does make me a bit of a jack of all trades, and master of none. BUT I have come to understand that this is what makes me tick creatively. I admire virtuosity greatly but personally speaking I find keeping my output diverse and stimulating suits my personality and way of working better. Sometimes this makes me ponder whether greatness will ever be achieved but then I consider how fulfilled I am by such work and how pleased I am with the experiences I create for my audiences and all is well.

As ever, I reserve the right to change my mind on this…

Hope to see you out and about at one of these gigs!

Why am I so happy?

Happy Sam

Things have been going rather well of late. OK, I haven’t reached Nirvana yet but things have been building nicely from the time my sabbatical ended. It’s this sense of progress and momentum that is at the heart of making me happy. A wise man once said that it’s not where you are at but the way things are heading that matters, or something like that. In those terms things are going rather well. It’s fair to say that almost everything I am involved in at present is pushing at the edge of my comfort zone but I consider this very positive indeed.

Here are a few examples of how things have progressed of late…in no particular order:

THSH Artist-in-residence

In April 2013, I was appointed Artist-in-Residence at Town Hall Symphony Hall Birmingham; a great honour. One or two things have been a bit slow to get off the ground as I am their first appointment to this kind of post, but things are really picking up momentum now.

It’s proving nicer than I had envisaged to be part of a wider team and the title itself has helped me to forge some new links. Pretty soon there will be some exciting tangible outcomes, including plans for a large-scale sound art piece and the MortonUnderwood Augmented Big Band. Keep your eyes and ears open for these.

I really believe this will be a fruitful relationship for both parties. It is pushing us both outside of our comfort zone but in ways that can only be good. For example, tomorrow I play at the At Your Own Risk event in the Town Hall Birmingham. I find this rather scary but also very exciting!

I keep regular monthly blog posts of my progress on the THSH website. Here is the latest if you are interested: thsh.co.uk/news/blogs/sam-underwood-october-2013

If Wet

After a couple of years of moaning about the music scene in my locality, which consists largely of blues/rock covers bands, I decided the only decent thing to do was to STFU or DIY. The catalyst for me was when I experienced the Wire Salon, as a panel member in early 2013. Until then I knew I wanted to do something but I wasn’t sure what. Suddenly the idea of a grand show and tell and discussion forum event popped into my head. I discussed this with my colleague David and we decided to at least try it out.

So, since April, on the last Sunday of the month we have met in Callow End village hall to hear a range of sound artists, musicians and musical instrument builders discuss their work and approach; all accompanied by home-made soup, local ale and WI cake.

Callow End Village Hall

Thus far it has been really great on many levels – not least providing us with insights and demonstrations in areas we are not experts in ourselves. Plus we have witnessed a multitude of rare and bizarre objects, instruments and performances.

We have one event left to complete our first season; an extended fundraiser on the last SATURDAY of November – to give people chance to celebrate with us – or just donate to help keep us going. If we fail to raise enough money through this and other means I am afraid If Wet might not make Season #2. We have received huge support from artists (all friends and associates), audience and volunteers thus far but we need to make this a more viable option financially next year. We couldn’t be happier with the event and the support received so far, so let’s hope we can keep it going…

More on If Wet here: ifwet.org.uk

Capsule / Library of Birmingham

As many of you will know I have a long-term relationship with the wonderful Birmingham-based promoters, Capsule. This has been central to my development as an artist and I am delighted to report that this is very much on-going. As MortonUnderwood we recently completed one of the residencies in the Library of Birmingham, curated by Capsule.

Sound Trolley

It was a rather manic time but we were left with a very positive feeling about the state of things in Birmingham and more widely. The library struck us as a really vibrant place and people responded really well to our work. Children of all ages had fun making bonkers noises before heading off to explore the wider wonders of the new library. Oh, and as ever Capsule helpers were a delight to work with.

Next up for me and Capsule is likely to be Supersonic 2014.

One Water

I write part of this on my way back from Sweden where I have been for the last week rehearsing and performing with the One Water instrument we built as a special commission for composer Jonas Asplund last year.

Jonas - composer

This is the second time I have worked with this group to deliver a concert, and more are planned in 2014. It’s always a delight working with people who excel at what they do and it’s a bonus if they are very kind and pleasant to be around too. Also, Sweden strikes me as a delightful place to work as a musician/artist; you seem valued!

One Water - trio

I look forward to further performances of One Water next year, planned for Sweden, Finland and England. Plus I aim to tie this in with my Guest Composer work at EMS, which is likely to involve a field recording tour with my colleague David Morton.

Oh and despite visiting the venue before as part of my time on the PRSF New Music Incubator I had somehow missed the existence of a huge and extensively specified pipe organ there. 9000 pipes and this from the Fanclub of the Studio Acusticum Organ project on Facebook:

The Acusticum organ, quite apart from the microtonal stop slider positioning available for almost every stop, also has a number of “Sperrventile” which can be used to limit the air supply to the various divisions of the organ. There are separate valves for the bass and treble of each division; furthermore, the Sperrventile can be set to any position from “fully open” to “completely shut” and every shade in-between.

WOW!

Southbank Centre

Speaking of organs, our latest commission as MortonUnderwood is our highest profile to date and involves the newly refurbished pipe organ in the Royal Festival Hall in London. We were recently selected by the Southbank Centre to deliver a version of our Huge Feedback Organ as part of Pull Out All The Stops.

We are one of four instrument designers that will complete an instrument each to perform alongside the organ in a concert next year, with music composed by members of Bellowhead. We are creating a Huge Feedback Organ, building on our previous testing – shown below.

Huge Feedback Organ

In our latest development the pipes and speakers are bigger and so too has the sub-bass; very happy-making indeed.

ORE

Things are going great where ORE is concerned too. We have a 7″ with our friend KK NULL coming out on Endtyme very soon

KK NULL & ORE

AND we have some great gigs coming up. Including:

// OM & ORE – delighted to be playing with OM again, after a previous support slot last year
// Intersect – taking place across Servant Jazz Quarters, The Vortex, Cafe OTO and The OTO Project Space
// Early next year Full of Noises Festival are planning to put us on at Cafe OTO. Joy.

Details of forthcoming performances, here: oretubadoom.com/performances

Workshops

Lastly, I have run a few instrument building workshops recently. These come and go but I always enjoy giving something back by passing on some skills. Hopefully people leave these workshops with a new found willingness to build stuff and even if they don’t they’ll have a nice finished instrument they built.

 

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I have only included the most recent / current things in this summary because this is what’s making me happy right now, but exciting stuff has been happening for a while now. I hate starting such lists as I always forget something but this includes: playing at Full of Noises in Barrow, Hacking the Saconi Quartet at Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol, Playing tuba as part of Together We Breathe for the opening of the new Library of Birmingham, and playing tuba in a gimp mask for the Companis Rude Food Fiesta!

So the things I am getting to do and the people I am doing it with are making me extremely happy at present. To top this all off the generosity of everyone towards me and my harebrained ideas over the last years has been astounding, and very heart-warming. I won’t start a list for this or I will get in trouble…but THANKS EVERYONE!

*SMILES*

If Wet becomes self-referential

If Wet 3 - June - 41

It brings me great joy to write this blog post because it represents the first sense of something really happening for a project on which we have worked very hard at MortonUnderwood, namely our monthly night If Wet.

Not only have we had a hugely diverse selection of topics, rare instruments and processes demonstrated and discussed – gradually being documented here: ifwet.org.uk/latest. And not only have we seen our audience base grow alongside some glowing reviews in magazines and blog posts. BUT at the latest If Wet, yesterday, something very exciting happened; it became self-referential. As well as people discussing the work and working methods of our artist of the day, Laura Kriefman, the discussion was extended and influenced by the way previous artists at If Wet, such as Sarah Angliss, had spoken of their work at the event.

A small thing maybe but to me this felt like a real triumph.

Onward!

(Photo by Pete Ashton)