Why I am not going back to EMS, yet…


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

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.


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.


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


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


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.



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!


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.


(Photo by Pete Ashton)

Forghorn Requiem – some photographs


I had planned to write a post about the sounds we heard on Saturday in South Shields at the Foghorn Requiem, but Sarah Angliss did such a good job of writing up what I experienced that I decided to link to her post and just put up a few photographs, which I hope serve to reinforce some of what she said.

The only thing I would add is a personal note to say that the company I had on the trip was delightful and made for an even better day.


Band pre-start


David Morton and furry friend


Pre-concert scene


The foghorn


Ladies eating and enjoying the sun


Couple watching


Composer Orlando Gough being interviewed


Tuba man

Note: I took no photographs during the performance as I was busy enjoying the show…

Funded artists

Yet again, something came up on Twitter today that piqued my interest when Cerys Matthews tweeted:

“Quiz question no 1. Name me a funded artist that has rocked the world.”

I assume this was partly in reference to the recent PRSF Momentum announcement. Either way, I think it’s a fascinating area for debate and not one I am personally willing to enter into on Twitter, so I have popped it in here to see what comments come in.


Update: a decent summary of the exchange can be found here

What is art?

I don’t do confrontation; especially not on Twitter. BUT last week I posted the following:

Did I *really* just witness @StuartMaconie offering to play @robinrimbaud track that’s basically ANOTHER 800% blah stretch on FreakZone? ;)

I could’ve expressed myself better; it just sort of burst out of my fingers onto the screen.

Both Robin and Stuart responded, and war didn’t break out (as you’d expect when dealing with such reasonable chaps). I felt compelled to expand on our exchange though, as it points towards an interesting tension that I feel is often present in art, especially music even – maybe? It’s certainly something I have considered before, so I thought I’d bung it in a blog post and see whether anyone is interested in discussing it.

Here is the ultra-slow Cheeky Girls piece, by Robin (Scanner):

I like how this sounds. The conclusion I swiftly came to when Robin replied was that it really doesn’t matter how it is made it just matters how it sounds. OK, I have heard this sort of thing MANY times** but so what?

** HERE is a demo extreme stretch I did when someone asked me about the process online. “Hocus Slowcus”. This is “Hocus Pocus” by Focus, slowwwwwed. Ironically, I heard the original for the first time on the Freakier Zone ;)

My initial outburst derived from a sense that doing something so easy / done to death, resulting in an offer of getting played on Freak Zone seemed unfair to me. I was initially surprised that Stuart would find this sort of thing interesting enough to play. Maybe I was jealous? Well, I’d certainly like to have my stuff played on the Freak Zone…but I don’t think that was what drove my response. I think I was just amazed that something so simple to do, so cheap, was going to get played on a radio show I respect. Or something along those lines…

This all got me thinking about art more generally and what makes art, art. For example, when me and David did this at the Town Hall Symphony Hall in Birmingham. We were performing a piece by Reich with a twist I had seen Tom Bugs do many moons ago. Moreover, there were some real musicians also performing at this event, such as the multi-instrumentalist Joby Burgess. What do people like Joby think about a couple of ne’er-do-wells wheeling out a done to death process piece? BUT, did it look and sound good? Yes, I think it did. Did it engage people? Yes, definitely (especially the younger generation in the audience). What is art about if not that? So, the stretched Cheeky Girls piece is fine, yeah? Discuss.

I realise this is a confused and rambling (possibly naïve) blog post, which hints at the fact that I am myself confused about this; I can simultaneously hold opposing views on this matter. So, what do you think? Comments below, please.


Oh, and here is the full conversation between myself, Scanner and Maconie.

Sam Underwood
Did I *really* just witness @StuartMaconie offering to play @robinrimbaud track that’s basically ANOTHER 800% blah stretch on FreakZone? ;)

@misterunderwood This was made entirely with a touch of irony if you read my notes under the video, then it will all be a little clearer.

Sam Underwood
@robinrimbaud Surely! AND I like stuff like this (so maybe that’s my answer!) but I was just a tad surprised at the response.

@misterunderwood Surprises can be nice. And Stuart and I go back a long way as friends anyhow :-D

Sam Underwood
@robinrimbaud Yep, I’m all for pleasant surprises ;) Big ups!

Stuart Maconie
@misterunderwood you certainly did. Why on earth not?

Sam Underwood
@StuartMaconie True, I came to that conclusion when discussing it with @robinrimbaud ;) I like how it sounds it’s just a cheap trick.

@misterunderwood @StuartMaconie and hence my choice of The Cheeky Girls as the victims of this sinister plan :-)

Sam Underwood
@robinrimbaud @StuartMaconie Indeed..I did the focus on the method not on the results thing. I’ll be sending you LOTS of these now Stuart ;)

Stuart Maconie
@misterunderwood @robinrimbaud you could argue that ALL music is a cheap trick. Especially Cheap Trick of course

Sam Underwood
@StuartMaconie @robinrimbaud Especially them! ;) I might expand on this in a blog post; it’s an interesting area & relates to my practice…


*Update* Just for clarity, here are Scanner’s original tweets about this piece.

.@StuartMaconie Just what you’ve never wanted. The Cheeky Girls sounding almost Wagnerian these days :-) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zz_f_ghIwFI …

The Cheeky Girls stretched to an extreme proving that even the worst music can sound epic stretched out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zz_f_ghIwFI …

My time at iShed


It’s almost not worth me writing this post, as my time at iShed could hardly be better documented (see links at the bottom) but I wanted to add one last post to mention what my time there has meant to me as an artist, as a person…

When you arrive as an artist-in-residence at iShed you are met by a delightful, bubbly bunch of people. Our main contact was Victoria Tillotson who has the remarkable ability to smile even more than me! She encapsulates how you are treated; with respect, trust and friendship.

For me, being an artist-in-residence was a new experience. It wasn’t without certain challenges, such as where to stay and how to organise myself well enough to make working remotely a success but every aspect was done on the right level. For starters, we were paid a fair amount for our time. It’s hard to overstate how important this is. After all this is what I do for a living but moreover, it sets the tone. At once you are at ease when working and you know the people running the residency value your presence. There was also a budget for materials and expenses, again vital to the success of a residency.

Then there is the environment; it’s a great space and the atmosphere is very open and sharing. Our project benefitted from many and varied insights, from people within iShed and those who surround it. In fact outside of our project there is a sense in which you are hard done by if you don’t have at least one inspiring conversation per day at iShed; it’s that kind of place.

I am convinced through my experience that artist residencies have a lot to offer both the artist and the host. It can certainly be a beautiful symbiosis.

The legacy of my time at iShed is really the key. Not only the people it has led me to meet, which has been amazing, but the boost it has given to me personally. It’s a beautiful thing to be part of and I find the idea that their door is always open a really warming one. This works both ways as far as I am concerned. I have already assisted a current resident and will continue to do such stuff. Oh and I will be heading down to Bristol regularly, just to sit in a chair at iShed and hope I have that one inspiring conversation…

Thank you iShed for being such delightful hosts!



As mentioned, there is much more detail on the project here:

Project Film:

Project Report:

Project Journal:

Artist Talk & Showcase: