My eldest son Leon is an adventurer, explorer, journalist and author. His partner Emily is a photojournalist, Leica Ambassador and storyteller. They get around, most recently travelling the length of the Tigris from mouth to source largely on the river itself. Emily has documented the trip in photography and Leon has written a book on the adventure which I’m helping to proof-read right now.
Leon began adventuring by cycling across and around the USA, South East Asia and southern China. Then he took to walking for months on end in very remote places - Mongolia, The Empty Quarter, all peppered in between by short adventures here and there, funded largely by speaking engagements, modelling and whatever else it takes to make ends meet in an unstable profession. This burst of youthful activity eventually settled down into a much more mature and focussed engagement with place and people, converging on the countries of the Near and Middle East. He worked on The Abraham Path Initiative and more recently has had contracts to open up trails in China, Tajikistan and Kurdistan, where he and Emily now live.
My understanding of Leon’s and Emily’s wider aim is that they want to help Westerners open their eyes to the stories and lives of people, in other words to foreground their basic humanity, in a region often scorned because of assumed connections with undesirable religious or political affiliations. Emily in particular has succeeded in getting behind ‘the veil', working with women and domestic life in societies where Western men cannot do such things.
I’m not going to give away details of the Tigris project before the book’s published but I will say that following Leon and Emily from afar on this gruelling trip through seriously contested territory has led me to fresh understandings - of travelling through this world of ours, the environmental and physical challenges, of Mesopotamia’s deep history. All this eventually led me to the journeys of very early travellers, not only those who went from West to East, like Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, ambassador to the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent, but also Arabic such as Ibn Fadlan and Ibn Battuta (whom Leon described as ‘making Marco Polo look like a recluse’).
I was drawn especially to the ancient history of Mesopotamia, more accurately a large region stretching across modern day Turkey, Syria, Kurdistan and Iraq. I’ve slowly been unpicking the timeline and politics of the Assyrians, Sumerians and Hittites and have now established a growing depository of names, possible historical facts, untruths and legends that I can plunder in the name of art when it comes to ‘branding’ some of my musical output.
But above all this I love flowers and I absolutely adore botanical illustration so I want to make a short film about how flowers and plants found their way from East to West, not a documentary as such, something less literal, with some of the colour and eroticism of plant life. I confess my ignorance in failing to realise until recently that many of the flowers we see and love in our gardens and parks were taken to Europe by travellers such as Ogier from the near and middle east (and originally from the lower Himalayas in some cases). Then of course the Dutch fell in love with tulips and on it goes. Tulips from Amsterdam by way of a few thousand miles.
I’ve been reflecting on all this as a benevolent form of colonial appropriation. Suleyman the Magnificent and other powerful Eastern leaders loved their flower gardens and were often eager to share specimens and knowledge with Western botanists. From what I can gather there was little plunder and theft as such, the sort of activity you find with the removal and relocation of physical artefacts from the tombs of the Pharaohs for example. A lot of the work seems to have been done in the spirit of care and attention to the flowers and plants themselves. In many cases illustrators and painters travelled with the botanists to do their work on location. We have a debt of gratitude not only to the kings, sultans and others (whatever we think of their methods of governance) who generously and willingly provided specimens, but also to the travellers who made the journeys to seek out these flowers and plants which have become so fixed and so important in our daily lives.
So certainly not a straightforward documentary (because I don’t have the skills or resources) A more dreamlike and fabulous investigation, a journey into botanical colour and form, with a story. Exotic places, exotic people, exotic flowers.
(Disclaimer: my maxpatches look horrible but they work).
This is fair to middling technical but I've made it as straightforward as I can.
The first image below shows one of four stereo tracks for the 8-channel Particulate Articulator that I've been writing about. The other three tracks are almost duplicates (I left them out for clarity) except that tracks 2 and 4 have a tape delay option (with sliders that I can assign to a small korg controller) cobbled together from patches I found online. I don't use the tape delay much except occasionally for radio works because too much delay is a bit obvious for my tastes. Besides I'm using good quality outboard pedal effects and I have also have Revox that does tape delay properly. The patch looks just about acceptable in the picture but all four tracks together is a bird's nest.
Some of the text in the objects I don't understand. The text is either there as part of Max's functions or I put it there and can't remember why. The stray text is pure indolence on my behalf. Basically I don't want to change anything I don't understand because the patch works and because I know how to change values for the bits I want to tweak. Maybe I should learn how to streamline the patch. Below you'll find the presentation view which is quite tidy. Maybe this is how it goes - messy under the hood and a slick looking superstructure.
I begin by loading in folders of sounds to each of the four tracks. At the moment, for my new label and for live work, I'm working with eight sounds per folder because I think things start to sound tight with a restricted group of sounds (as in my compositions). These folders can be changed on the fly. Various random metronomes decide when the files are selected so nothing changes regularly. The looper module chops up the audio files into different sizes, starting and finishing in different places. Because of the way I've set it up nothing comes out sounding like a looper's been at it. I also have a time-stretcher object (which stretches between two values, randomised, both up and down), though I've begun setting this to operate between values close to 1.0 because I'm happy with the work on the files beforehand and also anything with vocal sounds or certain instruments sounds odd. The timestretcher worked very well in some radio pieces I made in the past. There are other objects that I put in there to try to stop clicks resulting from the constant chopping and changing that goes on. I've forgotten how they work. I think they help a bit but not totally so if anyone knows how to create a tiny fade in/out once the files come out of the looper object I'd be grateful for tips.
I should point out that I have different patches for 1' 2', 3' and 5' files. I also modified patches for combinations, eg I can have a patch with tracks et to: 1', 2', 2' 5'. Why? Because the 1' files are more gestural and more rapidly articulated than the 5' files which tend to be more textural, both in the kinds of sounds I've selected and the way they play longer. Each patch has started to develop a unique 'character' that I'm still learning to work with.
The eight channels (four stereo channels) are fed from computer to an RME Fireface, then to the desk where I mix live and add outboard effects on the two auxiliaries.
Although I took some time to learn Max from scratch and to eventually design and build this digital instrument (I'll come to the 'why' in the third and final blog post), the hard work went in over years, decades even. Everything I've ever learned and understood about sound and music, about composition, has gone into this ostensibly simple task of chopping up recordings into different lengths. Tailoring the sounds that go into the folders, cataloguing, establishing taxonomies, working out what sound goes with what - this has been the hard work. I'd suggest that this instrument replicates my compositional preferences to some degree.
Whatever the snotterati might think of laptop performance this is a versatile, expressive and flexible musical instrument, as much of an instrument as all the zithers and marimbas I've ever made in the past. It can be used as a studio instrument or played live where there's enough to keep me sweating for a full set. Book me and I'll show you. Or visit my tape label when it's up and running.
Finally I'd love to collaborate with other musicians. Either to record individuals and ensembles as they rehearse or experiment or to invite artists to send me their own audio files, tailored to one or other of the different lengths I use in the folders. Look out for news on this.
I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from James Tugwell, Record Label Liaison of the British Library Sound Archive. He invited me to donate my compositions to be catalogued, archived & preserved as part of the nation's audio & cultural heritage. The music will be made available to anyone (writers, researchers etc.) holding a British Library readers pass at either the London site and the Yorkshire site in Boston Spa. Of course I was very happy to be able to contribute.
That's one thing. The other is actually accessing audiences, playing live music to people. I've spoken before about this problem, living rurally and remotely, out of the various loops, struggling to get on the circuit or connect with the various new music scenes and circuits, especially in the UK. A lot of this is social and I'm pretty much a lone wolf here in the Borders.
So any promoters out there, please have a listen to my work which is well documented on this site and if you think my music would appeal to your audiences give me a shout and I'll be happy to talk.
I don't know what it should be called. The names might fluctuate a little. There's a big back-story to this project. The Particulate Articulator is a software instrument written in Max. I won't assume that everyone reading this knows what Max is hence the link. For my purposes it's a virtual environment into which you drag and drop different objects with different behaviours then join them together with virtual cables to make synthesisers and other digital instruments. Others use it for video, managing complex multi-media environments and unheard-of geekeries beyond my ken.
The idea 'came to me' in strange circumstances of which I'll say more later. As some of you know I work with recorded sound. I record everything - natural environments, incidental sounds, objects, materials, instruments, electronic devices, hand-made gadgets - anything and everything that will serve a musical purpose. My compositional method is built around explorations into morphology (the shapes of sounds) dense textural layers and complexity. I've tried so many different ways of performing new music, for example the method of live mixing various streams of sound across several channels, changed on the fly, often performed to some kind of personal score. That works very well.
Or gathering together interesting sound-making devices and electronic devices on a table (the 'car-boot sale' model) and improvising freely. That model works also very well and regularly serves hundreds of great musicians. But looking for something different and more specific it took me some time to realise that a new instrument had to be designed and built, extending the work I did in the late 90s and early 2000s when I was into just intonation and making my own versions of Harry Partch's diy orchestras out of metal, wood and glue.
Following the unexpected mysterious and 'you-won't-believe-me' insight into what needed doing I taught myself Max (badly) then designed and built the Articulate Particulator which in essence replicates many of my compositional preferences though in a more chopped up, randomised and therefore somewhat less predictable manner. The patch (the layout of the objects and cables on the page) is very messy and over-complicated. It looks like somebody's tipped a load of Max objects on the page then invited a child to mess it all up. A teenager could make it in five minutes using one tenth of the cables and objects. As a first-year University assignment it might scrape a D-minus. However (by one definition at least) it is a proper musical instrument and more importantly it actually does what I want. Next up I'll explain how it all works. Thanks for reading. (part 2)