Monday, 10 February 2020

'Is anyone out there?' - Making stuff in the 21st century, and getting people to notice

Worms Making Music, YouTube, 2007
Is it me, or is everything becoming impossible?  Is anyone out there?  My previous blogpost was a dumped rejected article I'd been touting around without avail for ages.  There are countless other laboured-upon projects similarly languishing for want of outlets.  In contrast, 13 years ago I dropped a garden worm onto sensitised soundmaking circuit-board, and the throwaway 90-second clip I'd filmed somehow attained a viral moment on YouTube (albeit to mixed reception).  It all seemed so easy in those days.  Since then, algorithms have come into play, along with the downplaying of free blogging sites like the one I'm using here (e.g. Wiki forbids blogs as sources), and the jaws of obscurity loom larger.  Now I am that worm, writhing for contact-points.  The dynamics behind these struggles fascinate me, hence the long-running studies into thwarted and failed histories I've written about extensively.  But how do you deal with such asphyxia first-hand?  A new Meadow House LP was on the cards this year, but this is now abandoned owing to the label's vanished appetite following atrocious sales of the previous Meadow House LPs of 2016.  To try to publicise those 2016 LPs I'd naively tried to reignite the interest of television's Jason Bradbury (ex-The Gadget Show) who'd once taken notice of my "divergent presentational style" as he flatteringly termed it, but who, in my moment of desperation, dodged even a sniff of the LPs.  I always thought they were quite commercial undertakings, but apparently not.  The 2016 releases remain available to purchase.

Rejected Meadow House LP
Admittedly, the latest rejected Meadow House LP is uncommercial: it's an unpleasant record thanks to the rejection feedback loop...  Successive discouragements and impoverishments eventually disoblige all concessions to 'entertain'.  Incidentally, the writer Colin Wilson theorised that criminality eventually arises from scuppered and gnarled creative impulses.  This seems plausible: if nobody listens, you have to shout, or, in worse cases, bite.  The abandoned 2020 album was given the upsetting title 'Incel Uproariousness', and some criminally disagreeable tracks have leaked out on Johnny Seven's Pull The Plug show on Resonance FM, 16th January 2020.

Anyway... To stave off Colin Wilson's potentially criminous endgames, we would do well to take an active interest in the work of others.  Web algorithms can imprison us in ever-individuating bubbles - to escape, we must broaden.  This would seem the primary solution to the increasing "impossibleness" cited above.  I recently appeared in the background on two instalments of William English's weekly Wavelength show on Resonance FM, showcasing the talents of two very different guests: on the 24th January, the instrument-builder and audiovisual artist Ian Helliwell guested, and the following week, on the 31st, the sound artist and songwriter Samuel Shelton Robinson aka Kalou dropped by.  Despite their contrasting styles, both guests touched upon the dilemmas arising from dwindling oxygen.  Is exposure becoming harder to obtain?  Even Wavelength's host, film-maker William English, took a moment to lament his own omission from a supposedly academic new book entitled 'Artists' Moving Image in Britain Since 1989', whilst also playfully provoking Helliwell that even he too is absented from it - an especially startling oversight given Helliwell's prolific and original output.  Maybe this is evidence of the extent that self-enclosed feedback bubbles have compromised academia.

To return to the Wavelength broadcasts...  It's uncertain whether there would be much overlap between Helliwell's and Robinson's audiences, such are their sonic differences.  But in an ideal world, there would be overlap.  To hasten the emergence of this ideal world I was in attendance at both Kalou's and Ian Helliwell's interviews, as I'd contributed tracks to both their releases.  In a songy frame-of-mind, I remixed the track 'Floundering' on Kalou's cassette-orientated album 'The Sculpture Garden'.  And in abstracter pastures, on Helliwell's 'Project Symbiosis' I contributed one of ten realisations of an obscure electronic graphic score.

Ian Helliwell's 'Project Symbiosis' (2020)
Helliwell authored the landmark 2016 book 'Tape Leaders: A Compendium of Early British Electronic Music Composers'.  During his research, he uncovered instructive articles in the popular magazine Practical Electronics encouraging readers to follow a how-to guide to build an analog synthesiser (i.e. the Minisonic) and realise an abstract electronic score on the instrument.  The score was Malcolm Pointon's 'Symbiosis' (1975).  This discovery led Helliwell to formulate 'Project Symbiosis'.  The story of project can be read in the richly illustrated supplementary booklet accompanying the physical release.  'Project Symbiosis' features ten tracks by different contributors, including Helliwell, all realising the same graphic score (republished on the inside cover) - Pointon's original recording is included too.  Each version reveals the contributor's own interpretive idiosyncrasies and studio quirks.

The 'Lynne Maddy' 1970 instrument
Some years ago, at a car boot sale, I found a peculiar homemade electronic instrument which I later showed to Helliwell.  An engraved plaque on it read "Lynne Maddy 1970".  A drawer at the front contained a paper note: "for bubbly sounds use spoon".  I've never been able to trace Lynne Maddy, despite the unusual name.  Helliwell suggested that my own Symbiosis interpretation should feature Maddy's instrument, but I originally wanted to create a 'post-electronic' version using my electromagnetic resonating devices.  It was reasoned that this would've detracted too far from the electronic basis of the project, and besides, the Maddy instrument boasted a Stylophone-like stylus-contact interface similar to the Minisonic (which was the instrument conceived by 'Practical Electronics' magazine to realise the score) - it was ideal.  Because the Maddy instrument behaved erratically (and its interior caked in crystallised old Exide batteries), I'd given it to my friend Moshi Honen to service.  Post-servicing, it revealed itself to be microtonal, and no amount of tinkering with the trim-pots seemed to spread a standard scale.  Its microtonality doesn't really come across in the 'Symbiosis' recording, but in conjunction with other homemade and customised gubbins, I produced an electronic microtonal version of 'Symbiosis', nominally in 7-limit just intonation during the middle melodic passage.  I suspect the Maddy instrument was a circuit design published by a magazine just like 'Practical Electronics', à la Minisonic (albeit simpler), but further research is needed... maybe for another blogpost (if anyone cares?).

Recording 'Symbiosis' for Helliwell's project
Kalou's The Sculpture Garden
The following week on Wavelength, after Helliwell's 'Project Symbiosis' show, there was a surprisingly different offering: the new album by Samuel Shelton Robinson, aka Kalou, was featured.  Under discussion was the scenario Robinson termed "making music when seemingly no one's really listening".  Curiously, the latest Kalou emission - 'The Sculpture Garden' - is his most consistently commercial to date; its accessibly musical eclectic pop songcraft could feasibly please vast numbers of ears (and hearts - emotional cathartics are at play here).  It's available as a download, but its tiny cassette run of 50 hints at a residual experimentalism.  The idea of the 'song' as a conflict between commercial product and personal emotional uprush is one furtive theme semi-visible on the artistic pedestal (a booklet of lyrics is included).

One of Kalou's philosophies is presented within the album's centrepiece 'Reverence is Dead (Good Riddance)', forming an almost programmatic depiction of the "ego", represented by a decidedly imperious riff undergoing an unsustainable rush, which soon crashes in a grand "death of reverence".  From the postmodern wreckage emerges, as Robinson puts it, "an honour system based on merit".  This is surely the answer to everything?!  (Its message of abolishing all deference to revered 'influencers' makes my aforementioned overtures to The Gadget Show presenter look terribly old-fashioned, nay, wrong-headed.)

Out now: Kalou's 'The Sculpture Garden' is available on the Kalou Bandcamp...
... and Ian Helliwell's 'Project Symbiosis' is available via Public Information's Bandcamp...
Wavelength is a weekly radio show on Resonance 104.4FM hosted by William English, Fridays, 14:30-15:30.

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