Here in the Borders I'm fortunate to have become acquainted with a community of experimental film makers, the Moving Image Makers Collective (MIMC). The Borders is a semi-rural region with a low population, small towns and no universities, art schools or other large cultural institutions. It's therefore quite an admirable achievement to have over a dozen committed moving image artists in the one place. This is largely down to the work of those involved in establishing the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, founded by Richard Ashrowan and now run by a team of curators and administrators working out of Hawick as Alchemy Film and Arts.
I'm involved with MIMC in a group project to produce work for a forest event in September 2021 and as part of this I want to create a short film, to be screened more or less conventionally though in a unique site, and some kind of installed work for the forest itself, which allows for a much wider remit. The other artists are: Richard Ashrowan, Dawn Berry, Kerry Jones, Jane Houston-Green, Jessie Growden, Sukjin Kim, Douglas McBride, Jason Moyes and Nicoletta Stephanz. In the past my involvement with the group and the festival has been in the sonic and musical domain, with a spell as a trustee on the Board of Alchemy so I'm very pleased to come in now to such an experienced and established group as an emerging film-maker.
I've spent many years wandering in the Borders forests (I am after all The Inspector of Forests). Field recording, taking photos, listening, unburdening, watching deer run past me as I fouter with my camera's memory card, running away from civilisation, listening to the spiders scream - all the usual stuff. Now I have a commitment to put together a film project and here, even though I've been working this project over and over I'm my mind for some time now, I want to share some thoughts and details of my research. One of the problems I always face in a new project, especially outside of my usual domain, is that I come up with too many ideas. So before I wander around the peripheries let's begin with my current preoccupation. Tree stumps. Upturned trees blown over by the high winds at the top of a rise not far from Jedburgh, towards the Cheviots. I've discovered a 'graveyard of the elders', a region of the forest where all the elders rest, having in their death throes turned over massive lumps of earth, home to birds, insects and plant life. These are both the ears of the forest and portals into the secrets of the forests. If I can only find the proper and correct ritual or offering I can unlock these secrets and perhaps confess some of my own. An offering of wind and air, a small fire of twigs and leaves. Or a votive offering, something of our technology, or a baptismal rite by the small pool that appears in the shadow of the fallen trees after the rains.
All images are straight out of the camera. Taken with a Fujifilm X-T3 and a Fujinon XF35mmF1.4 R
I wrote about sourcing sounds for composition. There's obviously more to it than simply recording sounds or events. The whole process is anthropological and therefore complex. When it comes to editing and processing these recorded sounds things are, on the face of it, much simpler.
I transfer recorded sounds from the recording device to the computer then I edit them and compose using software applications. I could equally do this on a multi-track analogue tape recorder and I know some composers who still do. First I use Steinberg's Wavelab to listen back to the sounds. This takes a long time because I'm trying all the time to listen for possibilities beyond the actual sounds before me. I trim and level up the audio files, removing any unwanted sections, then open them up in Reaper, a digital audio workstation application which has a very simple time stretch function. This is where the sounds are timestretched, lengthened more often than shortened, a procedure which reveals new morphologies and further potential. At the same time I apply equalisation or filtering, which reduces or boosts frequencies, reduction being by far the most common procedure. I use a digital equaliser called Equilibrium made by DMG Audio which was recommended by a professional sound engineer. It offers digital emulations of all the great hardware equalisers and the level of detail and control it affords is unparalleled.
Where does this leave me? Well, from there I build up layers of sound in Wavelab's montage feature, which allows me to stack layers simultaneously, modify volume levels in great detail and process them further if required. This is where a composition comes alive, or dies a slow death. If I've learned anything over the years it's that there's no point in spending four or more hours a day working intensively with audio at fairly high volume and in great detail. The ears become fatigued and musical judgement diminishes. This doesn't mean that you can't work on the piece, it's just that you spend more time thinking about the composition in the abstract, away from the actual sounds, a challenging but interesting process in itself but one which can lead to better decisions own the long run.
With this most recent composition I made two big mistakes, along with all the numerous little ones. First I began working with sounds identical to or very similar to sounds that I'd used before. This undermines an approach to music, a core of my practice, which requires a fresh investigation with each new work. Why it took me so long to realise the mistake is beyond me. Another mistake, which I identified as it happened and which led to a resolution of all the major problems, was that I began trawling through my archives looking for 'something else' or something 'more suitable'. That's when the penny dropped and from there I returned to some of the less prominent sounds in my original work. The principal sounds here were of a joiner fitting out the inside of a nearby shop (which acted as a resonant cavity) taken on the street opposite the Abbey walls which reflected and dispersed the sounds around the built environment.
Sometimes we do actually learn from our mistakes but not as fast or as well as we'd like.
Some people have been asking me about the making of a recent film, Is It Beautiful? (13:34) . The film is built around a road trip, actually lots of different road trips rolled into one. The childhood trip, the wayward adolescent trip, the lover's escape, the older person's Sunday drive. I filmed the road trip sections to look like a nostalgic memory-laden affective tripped-out journey through the hills and moors, rising up, winding and descending with the road itself. The A68 south of Jedburgh where I live does all this on a series of tight bends as it climbs up to the Carter Bar, the Border between Scotland and England.
I filmed it using 'the best camera in the whole world', a Fuji X-T3, and different lenses depending on the shot, a 35mm prime, a 90mm prime and a 55-200mm zoom. I tied different coloured gels over the lenses with an elastic hair band from my daughter's make-up box to simulate the Super-8 look that we've come to expect from 60s or 70s road trips, at least in my imagination. Then the shot of the Polaroid to complete the set. Why that decade or era? Well there was a time, maybe a moment, maybe a few years, when it seemed as if people meant what they said, that thing about peace and love and changing the world for the better, before it all turned to dust (like the time before that), a loop replayed with every new generation but with a greater sense of purpose if you lived through the particularly intense experience. So we all sat back in the car and flew away, listening to whatever soundtrack fitted the day.
There's actually more to the film than the road trip. It also dips into the themes of disappointment, the instability of signs, symbols and icons, conflicting ideas over land use, the problematic notion of borders and nationalism. The flags of Scotland and England, the beacon at the Border, formerly lit to warn of advancing armies, the Easter cross on the mound, the red flags warning trespassers of live firing at the missile range, the sickly yellows and greens clouding a land turned to sheep desert or military training ground. Then the references to three events in my life which dispelled much of my naivety about the world - the theft of some of the best music of a generation to embellish war footage, witnessing the pollution of a quiet valley, a march of bigotry and hatred which cynically hijacked the worlds' largest arts festival.
The music I played myself, a simple folky/country-rock chord progression on an overdriven electric guitar played through a valve amplifier (actually Pancho and Lefty by Townes van Zandt, something of a road movie in itself) and the sounds of a set of hand-made steel tube marimbas. I take no credit for the silences.
It all 'came to me' as one concept, probably bubbling away for years. Anyway it's out now and I hope you enjoy the film. Thanks for reading.
Is it Beautiful on Vimeo
Perhaps not so banal, though, if one turns from tourist maps to a map of operational and projected military installations in southern France. It will readily be seen that this vast area, which has been earmarked, except for certain well-defined areas, for tourism, for national parks - that is, for economic and social decline - is also destined for heavy use by a military which finds such peripheral regions ideal for its diverse purposes. These spaces are produced.
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space
Lord Glenamara My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that if a choice is to be made, those of us who live in that area would much rather see an extension of military training in Otterburn rather than in the north Pennines area which is much more important than the remote area of Otterburn from the point of view of tourism?
Viscount Cranborne My Lords, I draw the noble Lord's attention to the declaration of commitment to the national parks made by the Ministry of Defence. I am sure the noble Lord is familiar with that document. As regards the second part of his question, it is the Government's policy to release land in national parks which becomes surplus to defence requirements. We shall give advance notice of any impending disposal of redundant land to national park authorities.
Lord Williams of Elvel …. It is perfectly possible that the noble Viscount might say that we should bomb the Brecon Beacons and shell Snowdonia where Ministry of Defence lands are within a national park.
Snippets from HL (House of Lords) Deb 08 December 1992 vol 541 cc85-8.
Perhaps the most important and possibly the least interesting aspect of electroacoustic composition is the provenance of sound sources. They're obviously important because without them you don't have any raw material but if too much is made about them they become fetishised and the work becomes about the objects or recordings and not about the eventual abstractions, modifications and transformations that produce make the eventual music, the latter being difficult to talk or write about (unlike the sources) or to generate images and other media that people might understand. But a photograph has its own value so here are some of the sound sources that have occupied me for the last few months, day after day, week after week (did I mention slow?).
Exciting? No. Apart from the frame drums and bristly toothbrushes which make a nice photo, the welding machine and oven are somewhat mundane. One could of course contextualise the interest in machines as a concern with the ethnography of technology but in all honesty I'm not in the least concerned with that here. At the time I heard and recorded these sounds I simply found them interesting and worthy of further examination.
Played well the frame drums or duffs are fine instruments but in my work I spend most of my initial preparations trying to eke out, often unconventionally, specific sounds for further treatment in this case the sounds of the skin being activated by wire brushes. Each duff has its own unique set of inner morphologies or sound-shapes determined by size, shape, mass and materials. The wire brushes tease out the sounds I wanted very well, offering shapes that ranged from the percussive to the quasi-melodic/harmonic as some of the activations released a rising harmonic series. The sounds of welding (in this project carried out by an actual welder) is somewhat predictable but there are all manner of subtleties as the metals and rods expand and contract, punctuated by near silences and the soft hiss of gases being released as the heat builds up.
So much for the initial recordings and I'll come to the oven sounds later but my last word on this first stage is that there is no rule that I've managed to set which determines how much time I should spend on this or that sound, then on the combinations, before it becomes evident that something isn't working as well as I thought it would. I therefore work slowly. My next activity involves two processes, both carried out in the digital domain, these being timestretching and filtering (or equalising) the recordings. That phase will form the subject of my next post on composition. Thanks for visiting.