When the UK went into lockdown in March 2020, I felt like my career had been cancelled. All the gigs I had planned, the tour, the interdisciplinary projects – everything was suddenly dropped, and I was left adrift. I’m a live artist, my practice is based in improvisation and performance and suddenly I wasn’t allowed to do that anymore. In fact, just meeting up to practice with other artists was now dangerous and anti-social. Whilst Zoom is great for teaching and allowed me carry on as normal with my students, for playing in real time with other musicians the lag becomes a real problem; even if you all have super high speed internet, there will always be a slight delay and that effects
So when Adam emailed me with an idea for how we could create music together remotely, I jumped at the chance. Adam’s an electronic artist and we play a lot together, but always live and to some extent improvised. Composing and recording planned, formal pieces wouldn’t have worked with our music but Adam’s idea allowed us the freedom to improvise, and more importantly to react to each-others playing. It even allowed us to extend beyond what we were able to do as live artist.
Adam was inspired by the French Surrealist literary game The Exquisite Corpse. In this, players add to a sentence in sequence following a set of rules; for example, the rules might state adjective, noun, verb, adjective, noun = The exquisite corpse drinks the new wine. He evolved this into a musical context by setting two rules.
1: The number of layers to be recorded.
2: The duration of the piece.
Player one would start by recording the first layer live in one take, and then send it to player two. Player two would record the second layer on top, again live in one take and with no guidance from player one. They would then send it back to player one as a single file, meaning that player one could not edit the first two layers. The track would get sent back and forth until all the layers were complete.
My first attempt at this was difficult. In fact, it took me the better part of five hours to record a four-minute layer! Planning where the mic was best placed, how best to record using the software I had (thanks Ableton), how to possibly fit something musical into the seemingly random sweeps that Adam had sent me. But the more I listened to it the more I started to find patterns and a structure, and before I even set up for the final take, I could hear what I wanted it to sound like when I’d finished. It needed a bell, so I used an old water bottle that I hit with a pen, and some eerie sounds, which I made by singing into the flute and moving my hand back and forth very quickly to block the sound. After we’d finished recording all the tracks, this first one ended up being one of my favourites. It’s track number three on the EP (Stratum 34) and I think the nervousness and anxiety from trying something new gives the track an almost brittle tension.
It got easier to create as we went on. I started timeboxing recording sessions as I found myself paralysed by having too many choices. If I didn’t commit to one direction early then I would spend hours flitting between different sounds and techniques, continuously reworking until any spontaneity was lost. By sticking to one idea I could explore it in it’s entirety and still have the energy to record something fresh. By the end each layer was taking me around an hour, plus a little extra to edit, convert and upload.
It didn’t always work. Some recordings sound disjointed and incomplete, others a little blurry without any detail. One I hated so much that I spent the rest of the day stomping round the house arguing with everyone. Those tracks didn’t make it on to the EP. Others we loved but had a different feeling to the rest of the tracks and they didn’t quite fit. Killing our darlings to make something that flowed and felt finished was a wrench, but I’m happy with the five tracks we ended up with.
When we play live, I’m limited by only being able to play one layer. I only have one mouth, one body, one flute and when playing in real time, however good I get, I’m always going to have that limitation. Recording in this way allowed us to expand as a duo, we suddenly had so much more scope for textures and form. I could create harmonies with myself (like in Stratum 24), or build these intensifying, multiplying structures that swell out of something much simpler (Stratum 78 never seems to quite find it’s peak but builds into a wall of sound from a singular whistle).
We couldn’t reproduce these tracks in a live setting but, in a way, that fits with their ethos. They were made in the fear and the stillness of a global pandemic, when we were isolating in our own homes without any contact besides our family and they wouldn’t have the same impact in a venue surrounded by the warmth of an audience. This is a creation of its time, with all the tension and extreme conflicting emotion that lockdown came with.
How has your practice changed during lockdown? Have you had to reimagine how you create or have you seen someone do something inspiring and innovate with their changed circumstances? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below, or send me an email at email@example.com.
Strata can be streamed or downloaded for free here.