Sonic Week(end) 8

I’m just back from Sonic Weekend 8, my sixth to date. Despite the obvious contradiction, this one was a week long and was held somewhere in rural France.

Much fantastic music was made, as were many friendships. I can’t speak highly enough of Sonic Weekend. It’s always a beautifully creative and smiley time. Keep an ear open for the sounds produced in the not too distant.

Personal highlights of mine (in no particular order):

  • The opportunity to work with so many wonderfully creative musicians
  • Trying out some ideas for tuba and Theremin with Gordon Charlton
  • Playing in a small New Orleans style brass band
  • Twatting around with Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath” for Moog, tuba and drums
  • Natalie Sharp’s amazing face painting
  • Chatting with Aurelia Jaubert about her great art works
  • Deep, meaningful and funny conversations with some delightful friends, both old and new – in particular the journey down with the lovely Ben (SoundHog) and Tim (Mayor of Shaftesbury)

Due to all the other things that kept me busy I didn’t take many photographs to document stuff but here are a few images that I think encapsulate the mood and surroundings pretty well.

Main studio

Main studio : live room

Studio 2

Pedals and hair-straighteners

Wig and musical instruments

Ann, with dog

Mark, pointing at cock

Jesus (self-portrait)

Boy band

Scary doll leg

Odd tomb, with odd people on top

Odd tomb, with odd bloke filming it

Vines on building

Vines in field

Stupid dog

A wonderful time, as ever! If you are a keen musician with an open mind and you want to experience a fresh way of making music with some lovely people I can’t think of a better way than attending a Sonic Weekend. Thank you to Ann and Mark of White Label Music for making this happen, to Ben and Tim for the lifts, to Tim Dorney for his hospitality and production skills, to Steve for running Studio 2 and to everyone that attended for making it such a blast.

Next up, on Tuesday I head to Sweden for the second leg of my time on the PRS New Music Incubator programme. YES!

PRSF New Music Incubator – Initial response

Last week I attended the UK leg of the PRSF New Music Incubator, for which I was selected earlier this year. This was held at Brunel University, the Swedish leg takes place in some remote northern Swedish town in April 2012.

Here is a list of the current participants.

I decided to write an initial response to my time there before memories fade. I have not reflected on stuff in great detail, in fact I just wanted to blurt some stuff out there. I find this a valid part of how I document stuff and also quite cathartic. More measured thoughts to follow…maybe.

The schedule and process was pretty intensive. Each day we’d make our way to the food hall at 8am for breakfast, then to the main hall for 9am to be divided into groups and to be given our theme for the day. Each evening at 8pm we would “perform” whatever we had managed to achieve that day. Days were pretty long, creatively charged and were followed by long sessions to evaluate what had been presented. These were sometimes quite impassioned affairs.

On the first night it became apparent that the people chosen were all really pleasant, as were the people leading the programme. That was a great start and put me immediately at ease.

For me personally it was an emotional time. I had to travel back on the first day to attend a meeting to see whether the studio I had spent all my life savings on having built could be rescued from possible demolition, as it was too tall. I find planning a pretty dull subject area but the potential consequences were substantial for me and had been causing me stress and bouts of depression for months. I was really nervous but I am so pleased to say that it was passed and can now be finished. This is GREAT news but the whole episode left me even more emotionally drained than just the intensity of the programme itself. My instinct was that I wanted to be around people I was already close to that night and the next day but it was actually really nice just getting on with stuff and seeing how happy those who I told were for me. Again, it showed how damn pleasant the people on the programme are.

At times I felt out of my depth. I am clearly at a different stage in my musical development to pretty much everyone else there, which included accomplished composers, players, or experts in their fields. By the last day this feeling got to me a little but overall it was really good to be given an indication of what level I should be looking to achieve. It also meant that I learnt shedloads from everyone else. I hope I was able to give something back but some of the time I just felt I was leaching expertise.

I was reminded how much I want to excel on an instrument or in a given area, rather than as is currently the case, where I am fairly proficient in a number of areas. People demonstrated some amazing work throughout as part of how we got to know each other. On the last day I had demos from Robert Ek, a hugely accomplished clarinet player, and from Mark Fell. I consider both of them to be at the top of their games. This just made me want to concentrate my efforts more than ever.

As ever I didn’t document stuff as well as I’d have liked. We were busy! The best I did was take a few photographs of my group on the last day (below). More material will no doubt surface in due course.

Lina Lapelyte

Robert Ek

Mark Fell

My kit

We all provided feedback about the programme on the last evening. There’s no need to go over that here, other than to stress one thing, I think it could be even more successful given a broader range of people and influences. I don’t really know what sort of music PRS hope the programme will result in but for me the participants were drawn from too narrow a selection of musicians and backgrounds.

I have not stopped thinking about the week we had together. In the shower, on my morning bike ride etc. It has really challenged me and I believe it will focus my efforts greatly. In particular the single-mindedness and expertise demonstrated was just a big kick up the arse for me. I admire so many of the people on the course, it was great to spend time I their company. It was all I could’ve hoped for.

I am really looking forward to Sweden and am confident interesting collaborations and future works will arise.
I’d like to thank everyone involved in the programme and a special thank you to Capsule for nominating me. Your support is hugely appreciated!

Tape Loop #1

How I made it to the age of 35 without making a tape loop I have no idea. OK, so I do lots of lo-fi looping of one kind or another but tape is a must.

I started small, both in terms of the format (cassette) and the length of the loop. I used the mic in on my dictaphone to create a layered loop, including some heavy rumbles from my Delfy SSVC-1 and feedback from my Genelec 1030A speakers. It ends with a nice tape pause, courtesy of my dictaphone. I added the tiniest bit of reverb.

More tape loops soon, for sure! Enjoy…

[audio:http://www.mrunderwood.co.uk/audio/tape-loop1.mp3]

Missing out Birmingham

Today I tweeted: “Hmmm, what is it that makes bands miss Birmingham on their tours? I have no idea how it works but I’d like to play a part in changing it..!?”. From the responses it seems there is a lot of interest and frustration surrounding this. I already knew this but my interest was sparked afresh by yet another band I’d like to see avoiding Birmingham (or anywhere close) on their UK tour.

So, what’s going wrong and is there anything I can do to help change this? I imagine it’s a VERY complicated issue. Does Birmingham have the venues? Do the band promoters suffer Birmingham blindness for some reason? Are some promoters in Birmingham failing to book stuff they really should? I imagine it’s a mixture of all these issues, and more!

I don’t know what will come of this but I am willing to put in some time to help change this, however marginally. I’ll be happy if I can make just one more band book Birmingham on their tour. The thing is I have NO idea at all how all this stuff works. Who should I talk to? What processes need addressing? Who, what, where?

If anyone reading this knows how I might proceed, pop in a comment to this blog post and I’ll follow it up. I am not trying to suggest I can do better than anyone else, I just hope that an extra bit of help might result in some change…although, then again, it might not.

Process music

I don’t know what it says about me as a musician that I have such affection for process music. I have written and performed a number of process pieces over the years but my lust to explore them further has been reawakened through reading Andrew Ford’s “Illegal Harmonies” whilst on holiday. This inspired me to write the following process piece. This is only really me putting a toe back in the water but I intend to research and build on this area during my sabbatical.

Natural Score

Take a stereo field recording of any length, of an urban or rural environment. Each prominent sound in the field recording is used to score a piece for multiple instruments / sounds. The range and rhythm of each sound is used to define what instrument / sound is used and how it is scored. Record the score as it is “performed”. Place the various instruments / sounds in this recording in the opposite position in the stereo field as the sounds in the original recording. The final piece is created by mixing both recordings, fading from the original field recording to the scored recording, crossing at exactly 50/50 amplitude at the midpoint of the piece.

Obviously, the key is to get on and record these pieces, which I will do…but as I said, this is about me putting a toe back in the water of writing such pieces, to get my mind thinking in the right way again.

I must thank my father for his part in forming this passion of mine. I was lucky enough be surrounded by such things in my childhood and I even remember a couple of trips to the library to investigate specific pieces more closely.

Lastly, I wanted to include the original hand-written score to Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music, which I have been known to perform for Optical Theremins and torches.

Sounds of a dying library

On Sunday morning I attended the 4am Project / Project Brutal event held at Birmingham’s Central Library.

With the building of Birmingham’s new library underway and with the chance to gain access outside of the normal opening times I felt this opportunity was not to be missed. Despite 4am Project being a photographic project I agreed in advance that I would mainly be recording the sounds within the library. This aspect fascinated me on two levels. Firstly, a library is meant to be a place of silence, “Shhhhh, people are trying to read”, but what we perceive as silence is just our ability to block out some sounds and not others. I wanted to focus in on these sounds as well as discovering what other sounds I might find in parts of the building one wouldn’t normally gain access to. Secondly, with the proposed demolition of the existing library, I considered this to be an opportunity to record the dying breaths of the building.

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Audio Recordings

 
Update: these recordings are now also available as a release on Open Sound Group, here.

The recordings are presented in order of recording, with no processing, other than trimming to remove any unwanted bits. We started at the top of the building and worked our way down, ending in the book store in the basement. Warning: some recordings are LOUD.

At the very top of the building there was a large glass pyramid roof surrounded by a metal walkway. Everyone else went up to take some photographs. I on the other hand got distracted by the sounds coming from The Plant Room, which I assume provided the air conditioning throughout the building. I made the following recordings inside The Plant Room:

Belt Cage – contact mics attached to the vibrating cage surrounding a rubber belt / pulley system

I love the range of sounds you hear in this sample. It seems to be constantly morphing whilst always maintaining the rhythmical basis. It also sounds to me like a machine that is struggling a bit with old age.

Belt / Pulley System 1 – stereo mics placed near rubber belt / pulley system

A harsh and unforgving noise. Brutalist. Yet somehow other rattles and clicks can be heard through the noisy background sound.

Belt / Pulley System 2 – stereo mics placed a bit further from rubber belt / pulley system

A slightly less harsh background sound, allowing the click and pops some space.

Deep Metal Casing – contact mics attached to side of deep metal casing housing a belt / pulley machine

I love the deep and resonant nature of this sound. Heavy machinery creating a deep and foreboding sound.

Pump Room Exploration – wandering around The Plant Room using 90 degree stereo mics

Making use of my stereo microphones you can really hear the breadth of the sound generated in The Plant Room in this one.

Outside The Plant Room the last group of people were just coming down the large metal steps. I quickly attached my contact mics and recorded the sound of them doing so.

Coming down – contact mics on metal steps

This sounds exactly as it did in my mind’s ear. I am very pleased with the extra detail in the sound provided by hands and rings scraping down the hand rail.

Next we headed downstairs to the floor below. I focussed mainly on the sound of the air conditioning system and other ambient sounds that would be ever present if visiting the library.

General Ambience – stereo mics placed on desks near air conditioning system

This sample really shows how noisy the library really is when it might be said to be silent. Obviously the camera clicks wouldn’t be present normally and some areas were quieter than others but the air conditioning system was almost always present.

Heavy Fan – stereo mics placed inside air conditioning unit, where one of the grates was missing (brutalist sound)

This harsh sound was created by the rushing of air and the fans within the air conditioning unit. I like the fact that despite being noisy there are still other sounds present, as people wonder around taking photographs.

Window Music – contact mic taped to window

This was my favourite recording of the day. One of the joys of field recording is when you come across a sound you can’t fully explain. Listen very carefully and after a while you can hear odd ambient tones. These stop and then towards the end other musical sounding tones appear. I don’t know what it was inside the building that caused these. I would like to explore these further.

Spiral staircase – contact mic taped to spiral staircase

Unfortunately, the staircase was closed but it did make a nice resonant “dong” when somebody hit it with their tripod. I also rather like occasional exterior sound as it is transmitted through the staircase.

Down another floor and this time I recorded people coming down the escalator.

All Down Escalator – stereo mics on metal foot plate at the end of the escalator

The security chaps kindly put the escalator on for me to record. I love the scrapes as it operates and clonks as people come down it. I particularly love the sound as it shuts down. I was told it stopped because it was “used to being an up escalator”, apparently the wear on one side from years of use makes it think it has malfunctioned when it is used in the opposite direction.

Toilet Stop & Escalator – stereo mics on tripod

A general field recording taken as we wait to go downstairs. These noises are of course hidden from the main library areas normally but show the noise that is present in other parts of the building at all times.

Then we sent down into the book store (see photographs below) and then outside, before heading to the Shakespeare Memorial Room. These were the settings for my last two recordings.

Outside – stereo mics on tripod, with wind-shield

Seagulls, camera clicks and Birmingham at 5.30am. Sadly just after I stopped recording two dicks walked past being aggressive and talking about “White Power”…yawn!

Shakespeare Lobby – stereo mics on tripod

I loved the occasional sound of this rattling ventilation system outside the Shakespeare Memorial Room.

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Photographs

I also took a few photographs, most notably in the book store, as this definitely featured more visual than auditory appeal. Below are two images I took. In both I placed my camera on the floor and shot upwards using the timer.

Book Store – floor shot of shelving

Outside – floor shot of building (I guess the odd moving things at the top are seagulls)

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Thanks

I am pleased with the results and look forward to expanding on some of the ideas this has given me. THANKS so much to Karen Strunks (4am Project) and Marie Foulston (Project Brutal) for organising this amazing event!

A-Z of musicians I know, like and respect

Inspired by Elly Clarke’s fantastic Twitter experiment “A-Z of artists I know, like and respect” I will soon be starting the same with musicians. I could probably do this a few times over, maybe I will. For now a few notes:

  1. I will use artist first, second or band names for maximum flexibility
  2. I upload a demo track for each artist but please consider purchasing if you like
  3. No log will be kept, other than in my Twitter feed
  4. I don’t know how many revelations there will be, it’s just intended to provide some insight into where I come from musically

I hope to start this tomorrow. Hopefully by then my snotty brain will have cleared somewhat…

Tuba Hack

OK, so I have hardly mastered the tuba yet but whilst practicing this evening I just couldn’t supress the urge any longer to explore some tuba hacks. As this also presented a way of trying to master recording the damn thing (which I still failed at but improvements were made) I felt slightly less like I was just knobbing about. I really can’t help myself, it’s in my nature to use things in ways that weren’t intended.

Here are the methods and results:

1. Unscrew the top part of the third valve, remove the nut (so it doesn’t clank around too much) and then use this as a sort of “breathy momentary valve” whilst playing some notes. Slight reverb, delay and EQing.

[audio:tuba_hack1.mp3]

2. Same as above but sing into the mouthpiece. Slight reverb added.

[audio:tuba_hack2.mp3]

3. Same as above but bassssss. Layered original plus lightly distorted version.

[audio:tuba_hack3.mp3]

4. Using the bell as a drum with the mic deep in the bell. Untreated audio.

[audio:tuba_hack4.mp3]

To the people!

People, I need your advice!

I have made websites for a number of years now but finding the time and “headspace” to make my own great is often hard. I plan to address this though and I welcome any advice.

Firstly, I have this site, which is just a blog with some bits in the sidebar, such as a crappy audio player. I aim to add sections and richer content but I’d like to know what makes a good artist site a great one, for you! I’m keen to hear different perspectives, from fans, non/future fans, labels, promoters, publications etc. Obviously the likes of Sound and Music offer good advice in this area but I want personal feedback and comments. If you have something to say, please leave a comment below. Thanks.

This site is my primary concern for now but I also have: www.samski.net / www.midi-octopus.co.uk / www.glatze.co.uk / www.thereminday.co.uk. That may seem excessive but they all serve different purposes. I welcome any comments on these / consolidation etc…

BTW: I don’t do MySpace or Facebook.

Grin Scab is alive…

Back in September 2009 (!) I briefly mentioned a new project I was involved in called GypScab, with my friends Grinner and Seamus (with Justin doing the artwork – above). As part of that I did a liveset about a year ago as a test. It went well but then I got busy with other things.

In the meantime I have worked on some really interesting sounding stuff as part of this project but nothing will be formally release until next year.

Recently though Seamus and Grinner got fed up with waiting for me, took the live recording I did and fleshed it out into a fully-fledged 39 minute long tune! They also got scared of offending travellers, so we are now named Grin Scab. Behold…

Grin Scab on SoundCloud