In 2022/23, through a collaboration with local creative partners, Arts Council England funding was secured for a yearlong event series in Worcester, and Soundings was born. The theme of these events closely aligns with my PhD research, as well as offering me an opportunity to present my work.
Soundings: Bringing the foremost mechanical musical instrument makers and performers to Worcester.
As well as documenting this work through a series of videos (created by James &c) I have decided to keep a diary of the events here, to log some of the points raised, where they are relevant to my research.
Soundings #1 – September 2022
The first Soundings event took place over two days, featuring an instrument building workshop and performance on the second day. As you can see from the highlights video above, the workshop and scratch group performance saw attendees create a series of organ-pipe related musical instruments that were initially human and then machine played, as part of the Mammoth Beat Organ.
Day one of the first Soundings event featured a series of artist Show & Tell events, followed by and evening of performances. Artists included: Mammoth Beat Organ (myself and Graham Dunning), Lee Patterson, and Sarah Kenchington. Plus the Takeover artists: David Lloyd and Gez McCoy.
Mammoth Beat Organ
Before each Mammoth Beat Organ performance, Graham and I get together for a few days to develop aspects of the machine, derived from a sprawling list of notes based on previous outings. In this case, we also had a workshop to plan and I had an event series to manage and host.
Above all, I was keen to get a feel for the Mammoth Beat Organ alongside the other work being presented. Soundings is a space for discussion and reflection, as much as one for performances.
Musings: The whys and wherefores of the Mammoth Beat Organ are pretty nicely encapsulated in the video above, and the performance shows the outcomes. One aspect of this performance that was different from our normal approach was that it wasn’t in-the-round. This is our preferred approach to ensure the audience see and hear all aspects of a performance.
Musings: Lee’s work has fascinated me and influenced my own work for many years now. One of the major outcomes of my PhD is the development of ams (Demonstrated at Soundings #2) which features some of the approaches Lee uses and is in some ways another tabletop modular system, akin to Lee’s. I too use amplification and feedback systems to excite sounds. One major point of divergence is on the control side, with ams controlled via control voltage, in a more overtly modular-synth-like manner. The question of controllability and repeatability is a big one in my work and that of my peers.
I’ll never tire of hearing Lee’s chalk-in-water experiments and this too relates to some of what I have been working on. My research into chaotic sequencers is, to my mind, exploring similar ground. Again there are interesting distinctions relating to control but both systems are capable of locking into repeated sequences, to a greater or lesser extent, with little or no way or telling how that sequence might play out.
Musings: This was the first time the Mammoth Beat Organ and Sarah’s contraption had met ‘in person’. Comparing and contrasting our approaches was a great way to reflect on our machine and my wider work. Most of all I was struck by the relentlessness of our drive system choice and how this dictates the outcomes. Sarah was able to mould the sounds and tempo through variations in pedal speed and pressure. The Mammoth Beat Organ looked on enviously as she did that! The Mammoth Beat Organ modules themselves also turn this relentless motion into resolutely loop-based outputs, something which was true of Sarah’s machine too but she had built in options for more immediate intervention and her more sequenced elements ran over longer loops to allow for greater variation.
These two restrictions of the Mammoth Beat Organ are well known to Graham and I. As improvisors, we have spoken about this at some length and at some point we plan to address it. Of course, the plus side is that the Mammoth Beat Organ does hard-looping music really well.
It’s also the case that ams was built with addressing these restrictions in mind – even if I didn’t fully realise this until fairly recently.
Lastly, Sarah’s visit to Soundings strengthened my commitment to exploring the wealth of potential that exists through the melding of humans and machines, in the pursuit of music creation. Whether we become part of the machine or whether the machine becomes part of us, it’s a fertile area for exploration. It’s no coincidence that Sarah’s work speaks so directly to my own; she has long been an influence.
Musings: These Takeover sessions are a great way to gain insights into the work of artists in the field. It’s an open invitation to anyone wishing to show work in front of the Soundings audience. There is no pressure for it to be finished work and it always throws up some interesting moments, that serve to frame my work.
Soundings #2 – November 2022
The second Soundings event took place on the 19th November 2022 and was a single evening event of Show & Tells, followed by performances. Highlights of this have been incorporated into the rolling Highlights video above.
Artists included: Sarah Angliss and ams. Plus the Takeover artists: Richard Sewell and Tim Floyd.
This was the first outing for ams my acoustic modular system, which takes the form(at) of a modular synth but with an all acoustic output.
Musings: Overall, as a first go, this worked out ok. I could’ve done a better job of describing aspects of it but I’ll put that down to my breaking of the golden rule: don’t play at your own events!
Some of the limitations and frustrations with the Mammoth Beat Organ are addressed with ams. The system is really flexible, with small or large gestural changes possible with ease. The scale of ams and the fact I chose not to play in-the-round (for various practical reasons) left a bit to be desired where the visual coupling of action to outcome were concerned as that was sometimes hard to discern from the audience position. Plus I had my back to everyone. At least these were details I was conscious of beforehand and I plan to address in due course.
ams is broadly in a place now where I am not longing for greater functionality. It’s usable and varied enough. I have more modules planned but I also have music to make and performances to give…all of which feeds back into the design.
Musings: One thing that seeing Sarah perform always leads to is the renewed realisation that just learning to play things well is one approach. Even the most stripped back instrumentation can of course be a thing of great beauty. This is certainly a big part of where I hope to take ams as I enter a phase of just learning to play it better.
Moreover, the expressive control Sarah exhibits in her playing highlights a recurring theme in my research. The one where I question the point of any of it, in the face of human players creating such glorious nuance and expressive variation. This is something that has been brought into sharp focus a few times during my PhD. My conclusion to date is that it’s a dead end (for me anyway) to try to mimic the expressive playing of humans, through the use of machines. I choose rather to build instruments that offer opportunities for expressive playing (and indeterminable outcomes) and real-time adaption by the human performer. A collaboration between human and machine where both parties relinquish some agency to the other.
Musings: I love uncovering work through these Takeover sessions, especially when it aligns so closely with my interests. I have a very nerdy fascination with acoustically created ‘electronic sounds’. My ear is always on the listen out for them. Another feature of Soundings is an open invitation to the audience to engage. It was great that Richard’s contraption got us all up and interacting.
Soundings #3 – February 2023
The third Soundings event took place on the 18th February 2023, following the now defined format of Show & Tells, followed by performances. Highlights of this have been incorporated into the rolling Highlights Video above.Artists included: Pierre Bastien and MrUnderwood. Plus the Takeover artists: David Lloyd, Sarah Kenchington, Tim Cranmore and Richard Sewell.
Feedback instruments form a significant part of my work in musical instrument design. They satisfy many of my interests. Fundamentally, their behaviour as instruments that teeter on the edge of controllability fits with much of what I like in instrument design. Plus they always feel kind of magical in a something out of nothing way…
Musings: As ever, Soundings made me get my ducks in a row. Dabbling is the easy part but I was pleased I could spend the time to create a number of instruments, as well as working up a performance and even rehearsing what i planned to say about it all.
I was happy with the pace of the performance, though I’d have kept it going a little longer if I had my time again. Next up is recording some of this. I may even return to St Swithun’s for this as it’s a great acoustic space.
Musings: Putting on the person that got you into the work you have committed yourself to is always going to be inspiring, and maybe a little bit daunting. As is often the case with such stuff there was absolutely no reason to feel daunted. Pierre was a joy to behold.
Despite his reluctance to speak [“I’m not good at speeches, and that’s the reason I chose to become a musician”], Pierre’s insights and anecdotes were a delight to hear. The show & tell sessions offer such an inspiring peek behind the curtains. Take a look…
Having witnessed Pierre’s performances many times over the years, I was so pleased to be able to put him on at Soundings. As ever, it was a beautiful, open and somehow precarious journey. The breadth of sounds he creates and the simple but really effective projected visuals were stunning. I loved it…and I was, as ever, rather jealous of how he packs so much punch with such a portable rig. Bravo!
Personally speaking, I loved Pierre’s company. We all did. Thank you and see you around.
Musings: As I hoped, Takeovers are proving to be a vital part of Soundings. It’s getting hard to cram them in now BUT I will always try if people ask. So many insights and so much inspiration in this set of Takeovers. Everything from an outdoor mobile techno Pied Piper to Sarah identifying the holy grail of musical mechanisms.
Soundings #4 – May 2023
The fourth Soundings event took place on the 20th May 2023, with Show & Tells, Takeovers and performances. Highlights of this have been incorporated into the rolling Highlights Video above. Artists included: ICHI and ams vs hellocatfood. Plus the Takeover artists: Gez McCoy, Tim Floyd and Richard Sewell.
ams vs hellocatfood
It was a great honour to be able to invite artist and live coder hellocatfood (Antonio Roberts) to collaborate with me and ams at Soundings. Antonio and I have been friends for many years and have been involved in the same festivals and happenings over this period but it was great to work on such a direct collaboration.
hellocatfood uses Tidal Cycles to create music live, through code. All we had to do for this collaboration was work out how that code could control my acoustic modular system, ams. MIDI of course held the key but ams doesn’t do MIDI natively (it speaks control voltage instead), so we had to do some odd conversions and even odder mappings to get it working. Even then, it’s an odd system to control as note values might not convert to pitches but, rather, the speed of a fan or the position of a motor. Much hilarity ensued.
What I loved most about the process (one we intend to continue) was that it split the roles in a really fruitful way. I find the limitations, and dance music sensibilities, of the controllers I normally use to be frustrating at times. In fact, some of these limitations are operator limitations but it was nice to not have to think about this at all and just respond to whatever hellocatfood decided to make my machines do. I hope our collaboration will develop and I see this as an area for greater exploration generally…
I have wanted to have Ichi come and play ever since I first saw him perform at Supersonic Festival. Such work sits in an interesting place, in my view. Somehow the musical outcomes have a bit broader appeal than some of the performances one might think of as ‘experimental’ but at the same time it has a pure maverick spirit about it.
It was a delight getting to witness ICHI taking the whole venue in his stride. This and Bear (formerly Sarah) Kenchington’s performances were the most directly ‘one man band’ in their execution…and all the better for it. Such jeopardy is particularly inspiring to witness live. For me, it’s part of the invitation to be there in the space with the performer, grafting…
Soundings Takeovers are becoming such a core element. In this case we had people returning to do a Takeover having been inspired to create work specifically for it. Such a treat. Thanks to all the artists involved!