Thursday, 30 July 2020

Out of Kilter: on 'All Living Can Anyone Be Here'

On songs on my new cassette/download album All Living Can Anyone Be Here.


I am walking along Creek Road from Greenwich to Deptford, just passing the Tesco Express, on a quite ordinary chilly winter’s weekday, close to midday. The next junction is the corner of Deptford Church Street where you have to wait for the lights in order to cross the road as the traffic filters into the turning from a number of different directions. The work on the Thames Tideway super sewer has caused various reroutes of the traffic, resulting in continually changing reconfigured traffic flows and temporary road crossings; negotiating the junction is as confusing for the pedestrian as probably it is for drivers. Ahead of me, roughly halfway between me and the junction, is a woman, walking slowly. She is wearing a large parka with the hood up, a ‘snorkel’ style hood with a lining made of some kind of fur-like material, which I can see from behind as a kind of fuzzy halo. I’m walking faster and catch up with her fairly quickly. Just as I’m about to walk past she stops and turns. I am almost immediately behind her and she seems slightly startled, with the hood blocking her peripheral vision she’s unaware that I am there until she turns, and while I’m not so close that I bump into her, I am close enough that had she turned a second later we might have collided. As I walk past she mumbles an apology and I notice that she clearly is, or has been, crying. Her tears have made her eye make-up (mascara, eyeliner, or similar) run down her face, the light brown colour of the streaks looks like dry blood. 

This image struck me as deeply affecting. I imagined this not to be an unusual occurrence, it seemed entirely possible, given the state of the world, of society, if you like, that people are routinely openly weeping in public, the ‘dry blood’ streaks on her face suggested not so much ghoulishness, but a mundane corporeality, a material symbol of the way things are for some. Perhaps there was an idea for a song driven by this image. 

I thought about the possibilities for this song, an early version consisted of something very close to the narrative description of the incident at the beginning of this piece. It gradually transmuted into a kind of response to a regular reviewer of my albums who, to my occasional bemusement, seems intent to read into my songs some kind of commentary on the state of society, or some such, that the songs might be “attempting perhaps to come to terms with the human condition”, disturbingly describing one as a “…suicide-inducing existential song…”, another as offering “…a bleak vision of the human condition…” and suggesting another as presenting “…may be what Ball thinks about the UK political state just now.”. 

These are readings in search of meaning, the reader brings an assumption to the text, an assumption of intended meaning, however the songs are more often produced as complex constructions of diverse material than they are direct reflections of, or personal expression about the state of the world. So for 'All Living Can Anyone Be Here' I decided that I would work with material that directly reflected on or reported about the conditions of life for people in the UK today, conditions which are a result of iniquitous government policy, austerity, poverty, and discrimination, gleaned from media reports and my own observations such as the one reported above, observations which suggest a pervasive state of anxiety, depression, a kind of general sadness, a condition echoed by Lucy Ellmann in Ducks, Newburyport when she states “…sometimes I think that today people must be the saddest people ever… I’m sure people haven’t always lived in such a constant state of alarm…”. 

I compiled newspaper and Twitter reports of suicide, the public despair of ‘professionals’ begging, homelessness, the upsurge in use of depression and anxiety medication, and so on, appropriated text directly from such sources and adapted it into lyric form. The grimness of the lyric exceeded my expectations as a ’snap shot’ view of contemporary Britain, it was, if anything, an almost parodic caricature of grimness, maybe something of a candidate for the saddest song ever written (which was its working title). If I were to continue use a more direct approach, a more straight forward narrative description of the instances would have potentially been rather voyeuristic, perhaps exploitative, a kind of disaster porn, or alternatively suggesting a phoney empathy with its subjects. Equally the song wasn’t to be an agent of social reform. I thought it was more interesting to present a more refracted broken landscape of the state of things, one that would distil the essences into a kind of textual material ambient intensity. To achieve this I used a tried and tested ‘cut-up’ method, introduced an alphabetical arrangement of the lines, and in this configuration what became the first verses was: 
all living can anyone be here, a woman who, abruptly faced, acute mania, all looked away, and he sells, anti-depressants, as anxiety levels, anxious withdrawn, apologise, appreciate, and I write, being released, benefits cut, blinkers her, blood trickling down, on childhood happiness...

…and so on. 

The cut-up fragmentation was intended to be less an avant-gardist disjunction, more to facilitate textual ambience, a striated refraction that echoes a distributed mundanity. The first line became the title and the title track of the album. I chose the title for the album because of its enigmatic slightly melancholic quality. Like the song it doesn't necessarily parse into ‘meaning’ as such, but hopefully resonates with a sensibility, an out of kilter quality that pervades the whole album. 

Monday, 20 July 2020

In Transit: on 'Crossfields'

On songs on my new cassette/download album All Living Can Anyone Be Here.

‘Crossfields’ is what might under certain circumstances rather ungenerously be called filler, so in some ways I am mounting something of a defence of filler here to describe a track that has a particular function within the overall experience of the album. This track's inclusion is entirely to make a transition from ‘And On The Heath’ and ‘Even On A Wednesday’. On its own, out of context, it would represent a very slight and inconsequential piece of music, whereas the other tracks on the album, I think, would stand as self-contained as they have been composed and produced as discrete works. When I was programming the order of the tracks, after the final mix, I was concentrating on what might be experienced on a continuous listen to the album, from start to end, such as one might experience when listening to a cassette, with a break for turning it over. I thought it was necessary for there to be some kind of buffer, some way of going less directly from one song to the next. This is partly because of the themes of the songs: ‘…Wednesday’ is where the theme of reflections on the coronavirus situation starts, while ‘…Heath’ represents an earlier, pre-COVID-19 context, and is a more expansive recording, its longer, slower pace, unfolding more slowly. As both songs reflect upon space and place as context, for the album to go immediately from one to the other seemed too much of a jump, there needed to be space for rest and decompression, a break, an intermission, to carry the listener from one place to another before entering the interior suspension of lockdown; from out on the open space of Blackheath to the limbo of domestic space in covid time.

The track itself, such as it is, derives from a vocal and synth improvisation I had made consisting of a drum machine rhythm based on a sample from David Bowie's ‘Art Decade’ from Low, over which I played an 'A' note across a couple of octaves on the synth, while I adjusted the resonance control and improvised a droney autotuned vocal melody. 

The original recording is here:

I had briefly considered this as a music track for what was to become ‘Private Ambulance’, but that song went in another quite different direction. To make ‘Crossfields' I removed the rhythm track, and remixed and treated the vocal and synth. The title is the name of an area and housing estate in Deptford between my house and Blackheath, and I often pass through there between the two. The filler that the track provides is crucial to the pace and the atmosphere of All Living Can Anyone Be Here, and the experience of the album overall.

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

At a Distance: on 'Private Ambulance'

On songs on my new cassette/download album All Living Can Anyone Be Here.

'Private Ambulance' started as a rhythm, a shuffle beat, inspired perhaps by Gary Glitter’s ‘Rock n Roll Parts 1 & 2’, beat out on the furniture, edited into short loops in Ableton Live, replayed in random groups. 

This is the first version:
Another influence was ‘Excerpts From Blue Tongue Corroboree’, sung by Yinmalagara and Nalbared with Djawida on didjeridu, recorded in Oenpelli, Western Arnhem Land (Australia) in 1962, from the album Songs from the Northern Territory: Aboriginal Music from Western Arnhem Land (Corroboree Songs with Didjeridu; Some Speech).

Their song starts out quite polyrhythmical but becomes more like a ’shuffle’ beat from around 1:56. I was interested in how the players use material and objects close to hand to make the instruments, that the sound is materially deeply integrated with the place, both in terms of being from and of that place. The low synth drone of my recording echoes the drone of the didjeridu, a low grounded tone that seems to be speaking as much to the ground as emerging from it, with the circular breathing loop creating the continuity of the drone. Of course I’m not recording in an outback clearing, I’m in a room, the furniture I’m banging is in the room. I imagine a live performance situation where the audience is encouraged to participate by ‘playing’ along, adding the sound of beating their chairs and tables to the mix in the room; the sound in the room, and of the room. 

My rhythm track sat unused until I started to work on ‘Private Ambulance’ and was looking around for a rhythmic base for it. I slowed it down and changed the time signature, which produced a more loping and occasionally stuttered rhythm.

The lyrics that I had been working on for the song were a kind of companion to ‘Even On A Wednesday’, dramatising the experience of the coronavirus situation but on the other side of the front door, the ‘boundary situation’. What happens when one goes into the outside world? This was at the height of lockdown when provisional, often tentative, information about the behaviour of the virus and its transmission was being circulated, its influence on the behaviour of humans in relation to one another became the subject of 'guidance'. It was a 'live' situation, government advice was ambivalent and ambiguous, the epidemiology was developing. The song was a way of internalising and speculating about how one should behave in relation to the proximity of other people, how one was to conduct oneself in public, who and where the airborne virus might be coming from, how one might encounter it out there in the world, how far the virus might travel through the air on a cough, in a sneeze. How close is too close? If I can smell you are you too close? The experience of space became infused with strange new intensities, from caution to paranoia to fear. Would other people be aware of their own proximity to each other,  to you and me? How was their proprioception? What have I touched? Who else has touched it? Or coughed near it? The abjection of the infected imbued the perception of nations, infected communities, and individuals alike. Pulling all these impressions into a lyric was a fairly easy task, it almost wrote itself. 

The intensity of the situation was heightened by unseasonably warm and sunny weather, accompanied by a lack of air pollution due to the absence of road and air traffic: the virus had influenced the weather it seemed. On one of those clear and sunny afternoons, I sat in the park opposite my house editing the lyric, when a large black van with the words 'PRIVATE AMBULANCE' drove past, there, with it’s medical connotation as well as the notion of  ‘ambulation’, to walk and move being both a private and spatialised social activity, was the song's title.

I accompanied the recalibrated furniture loops with loops of the sound of my breathing, the impact on respiration being one of the effects on the body of the virus, which brought a visceral intensity to the sound. I added a couple of tracks of sustained and glitched guitar, as well as a homemade Shepard Tone, further ramping up the claustrophobia, before recording the vocal track.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Out of Place: on 'And On The Heath'

On songs on my new cassette/download album All Living Can Anyone Be Here.

It’s bound to fail, this impossible landscape

In Landscape Theory (2008) Kenneth R. Olwig writes in response to a roundtable conversation about representations of landscape. In the section titled ‘The “Actual Landscape,” or Actual Landscapes?’, he observes that there is a “consistent tendency to refer to “the landscape” in the singular…”, which is notable given that the roundtable suggests that “…landscape has a variety of meanings.” He goes on to suggest that “…landscape is notable for having a double identity…” it is, he suggests, following Yi-Fu Tuan, a “…‘diaphor’,  because it combines at least ‘two disimilar appearances or ideas’” which introduces a tension that “…derives from the fact that landscape means both ‘domain’ and ‘scenery’”. ‘Domain’ in this context is understood as “…a place, region, or country, or land inhabited by people and it thus belongs to the discourse of politics, economics, community, society, and what i would call the art of place making”, while ‘scenery’ “…belongs to the discourse of the aesthetics of space.” According to Tuan, he reports, “…the diaphoric meaning of landscape… lies not in one image (concretely known) pointing to another, but rather in both - equally important - imaginatively synthesized”. Olwig goes on to suggest that these two meanings are expressed in Dr. Johnson’s 1755 dictionary: “(1) ‘A region; the prospect of a country’; (2) ‘A picture, representing an extent of space, with the various objects in it.’” 

The song ‘And On The Heath’ exists within this “tensive meaning”.

Olwig continues his philological investigation of landscape by discussing the word 'prospect' as used in the first part of Dr Johnson’s definition, which he claims is “…actually ‘an extensive view’ with no particular reference to the practice of making pictures. The use of the term ‘prospect’ to refer to ‘a sketch or picture of a scene’ is in fact minor, and now ‘archaic.’ This suggests that artistic representation was not central to the constitution of landscape…” and that “…what one sees in prospect is a pre-given place that has been constituted through social activity in the course of making history.”

we can’t observe the boundless heath, all we do is point to things 

In 1993 social anthropologist Tim Ingold, in ‘The Temporality of the Landscape’, coined the term ‘taskscape’, to mark an attention to space being constituted as place through activity which takes, or perhaps makes, place.  In tandem with Olwig’s suggestions, these approaches to landscape would mark a shift from a visual artistic representation that places objects in space but lacks the representation of activity which might distinguish what makes the place. Ingold was particularly concerned with the spatial and temporal dimensions of the landscape in human activity as evinced in Pieter Bruegel’s famous painting 'The Harvesters'. 

In any attempt at landscape representation that engages with temporality in the form of duration and narrative as an inherent part of its media form, such as a film or music, human and non-human activity might become integral to the way place is characterised; in song pointing to and describing it, would, in itself represent an impossibility, a ‘visualisation’ which would put it out of place and out of time. From the position of the individual making the representation the place is only ever a subjective construction, it can’t stand in for the supposed objectivity of the map's geometric projection, or the fixity of the Euclidean perspectival view.

In ‘The Plains’ by Gerald Murnane, the landscape of the plains grows quite incomprehensible, as though familiarity engenders more a remove from it.  The landscape is avoided by its filmmaker protagonist, always only ever viewed obliquely, from an angle. It speaks of the impossibility of connection with landscape, it’s bound to fail, representation becomes a distancing, an uninhabitable landscape.

back on the heath, I try to write, the sense of site, invoke the place, the here and now and back in time, in 88 or 73 or 99

It is within this as an impossible ‘constituted place’ that the song ‘And on the Heath’ attempts to construct a landscape representation from the position of an eccentric relation to the place, space and the time, in relation to the non-centrality of the individuality of the writer to the heath of Blackheath.

and on the heath, sirens, police, crows, ducks, and geese

It makes its attempts at visual description, not from impressions captured en plein air as might be the case with landscape painting, but of the landscape as abstracted, oblique views, such as those of Murnane's plainsfolk, as seen in photos and videos I had captured on the heath, as well as from other associated sources.

low edge of cloud, shallow depth of field, forms rectangular, metallic sky, green underneath, and seen between, oblique squinting, ochre sunlight, dull glow diffuse, overcast

As I try to write the sense of place I include a bricolage of eccentric subjective personal and cultural associations, the temporal expressed as a kind of memorial association with the past, a ‘view’ that extends from the immediate present experience of place through imagined and historical resonance. 

rain falls in grey far away

The song started to take shape in January 2020, when I went for a walk to Blackheath, 2 miles from my house. This is not the settlement, the ‘village’ of Blackheath, but the large open space of the heath itself. Already by describing my own activity I’m constructing a ‘taskscape’, the tasks of walking and listening are taking, and here, making place. I was listening to Syd Barrett’s solo album ‘Barrett’ on my earphones, the songs are evocative of a sense of London that largely no longer exists, the grey whimsy of a mid-week afternoon where nothing happens, set in rambling Victorian terrace houses. This particular overcast and drizzly afternoon as viewed across the expanse of the heath, was strongly evocative of this sense, and the phrase from Barrett’s song ‘Baby Lemonade’.

the heater’s on, the windows are thin, I’m trying hard to keep this warmth in…

This line from The Go-Betweens song ‘Quiet Heart’ on their 1988 album 16 Lovers Lane, reminded me very much of my own return to London in the mid-nineties after living in Australia for some years. The band had themselves returned to Australia after several years living in London when they recorded the song, and the line captures the sense of living in draughty cold houses, that of the mundane exotic.

smile with us, in the morning, the best music, we play it all for you

A car bombs past with music blaring from an open window, ‘Keep on Running’ by The Spencer Davis Group, speeding doppler, the effect of the memory makes me think of pop music radio, Radio One, in the seventies, its jingles became part of the soundtrack of the imagined place.

These all speak of an imaginary sense of a past London, within my living memory, again one that doesn’t exist any more, but up on Blackheath, maybe because as a large expanse it's slow to change, as ‘empty’ land, as a heath that’s existed for centuries, and this collage of memory sensations becomes accommodated into the place.

The heath is criss-crossed by roads, main roads, side roads, a hub for traffic from a number of places, local traffic on the side roads intersects with the traffic travelling between Central London and the South Coast on the main road. 

again the same car, driving more slowly, and other traffic, moves toward camera, before indicating, taking left turn, stationary cars, pedestrians

“Blackheath, London.
A for sale sign in a hedge and a parked Mini in view.  A blue Volvo estate car comes into view and the camera follows this car along the road.  Open village green with park benches.  The same car going the other direction. Children on the green. Surrounding buildings.  Again we see the same car driving more slowly.  Other traffic. Volvo moving toward camera before indicating and taking left turn.  Stationary cars and pedestrians.  Car comes into view up a hill and driver can be seen behind the steering wheel.  Car goes down hill and up hill again.”

The process of composing the recorded song consisted firstly of constructing the instrumental track. For this I used a method I first used on ’Sickness Country’ on the Abstract Vectoral Landscapes album.
It's also developed on a few of the tracks on All Living Can Anyone Be Here. I play through a series of juxtaposed slow guitar figures, triggered as loops in Ableton Live. Initially I improvise the lyrics from the various fragments outlined above, which after a few attempts coalesce into some kind of lyric. The final vocal recording is processed live using autotune and slow phasing effects which gives it a haunting quality as it floats across the ground of the backing track. 

The song was written and recorded in January 2020. I tried to re-record it for All Living Can Anyone Be Here in part because I wanted to change some of the lyric and for the production sound to be more in keeping with the rest of the album, however I was never quite satisfied with the re-recorded versions and decided to use the original. While the song predates the others on the album, as it was made before the coronavirus themes that infect some of the record, it is concerned with similar ambient poetics of place and time, and sets the scene formally for the approach I would take for the new songs, and as such seemed to be a good choice as album opener.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Out of Time: on 'Even On A Wednesday'

The first of a possible series of pieces about the songs on my new cassette/download album All Living Can Anyone Be Here

I was determined for this album to specifically not be my ‘lockdown record’, mostly as it was made in exactly the same place as most of my work, my studio at home, so the lockdown situation had little bearing on the conditions of its recording. However, the circumstances of the coronavirus became impossible to ignore and a couple of the songs inevitably reflect that directly. Looking back on this song now, from a point where lockdown is to be relaxed with Boris Johnson referring to the coming weekend as though it will be a kind of liberation, a 'Super Saturday', it's hard not to think that it could also be a super-spreading Saturday, and we might soon be plunged back into the kind of lockdown conditions imposed in March. Whether that would precipitate the experiences as recounted in this song all over again is unlikely, at that time the situation was pretty much unprecedented and it seemed all the more intense for it.

Set firmly in a domestic temporal context, the concerns of the song are signalled in its first line “...time here in the front room…”, and I’ll return to that in due course. But 'Even on a Wednesday' originated, in the first instance, before its coronavirus inspired concern with time and space arose, from my admiration for the Basque singer Mikel Laboa, in particular his 1969 song ‘Baga Biga Higa’, which for some time I'd harboured a desire to perform. 

Laboa starts the song in a somewhat hesitant, almost mournful tone, later becoming more animated. The lyrics are, on the face of it, somewhat simplistic, but also subject to some debate as to what might be their references and their interpretation, particularly in their translation from Basque, to Spanish.

“The lyrics do not have a logical translation, because in reality it is only a phonetic sequence . However, the following elements can be found: the first two letters of the first ten words (ba ga, bi ga, hi ga, la ga, bo ga, se ga, za i, zo i, be le, ha rma) coincide with the first two letters of each of the first ten numbers in Basque 4 (ba t, bi , hi ru, la u, bost, se i, za zpi, zo rtzi, be deratzi, ha mar). In addition the corresponding word bederatzi (nine) is bele (Crow) and the corresponding hamar (ten) is harma , meaning in Basque and Castilian match: gun , shot , bam! . Finally, it is possible to recognize the following Basque vocabulary: gerrena plat ( BBQ 5 and plate , in Castilian, 6 respectively), olio zopa (oil 7 and soup , respectively, 8), kikili salda (respectively chicken , with the sense of a coward , 9 and broth 10 ), edan edo klik (literally drink or swallow : edan is to drink , or absorb , 11 klik is the onomatopoeia of swallowing in Basque, 12 while edo is the disjunction or), ikimilikiliklik: tongue twister that includes the words above, kikili and klik.”  Wikipedia (auto-translation from Spanish)
So in essence the song could be thought of as a kind of counting song, however there is further discussion elsewhere that suggests that while it is indeed a kind of ‘nonsense’ poem, there could be more to it, there is some suggestion that it references occult activity, so that in addition to being a “…traditional phonic poem, based on onomatopoeic elements , without specific content. The numerical sequence 'bat', 'bi', 'hiru', 'lau' ..., becomes 'baga' 'biga' 'higa' 'laga'..., apparently used in rites of witchcraft, 'akelarres'.”  Also that it is “…a song to "pronounce", to train the child in a kind of pre-speech. The sense or meaning of the words is secondary". But it might also refer to “…covens, witches, potions ... Baga-Biga-Higa!” (Google translation from Spanish)

I have also been told anecdotally that Laboa’s use of the Basque language was in itself a radical act in Franco’s Spain; a simple children’s counting song used to smuggle in the language of a suppressed culture.

‘Even on a Wednesday’ doesn’t engage in the same kind of wordplay, or have such layers of possible contextual relevance, the Laboa song is primarily more of a musical influence, my melody in part follows his, but I do include a nod to it as a counting song in the lines “ two three four five six, lasting through the front room, everyday is Wednesday, seven eight nine ten...”, and to a children's nursery rhyme “…when the ticking clock, comes to a stop, dickory dock…”.

This also acts to introduce the theme of the relationship between counting time, clock time, and duration. The song is a reflection of how the subjective experience of both time and space became affected during the coronavirus crisis, when lockdown imposed a ‘virus time’ wherein the suspension of the usual demands of time, regulated clock time, such as regular work hours, have been abandoned. With this experience, exacerbated by the cessation of social activity and its attendant necessity for timetables and appointments, the measurement of time becomes more loose, if not completely abandoned. This is accompanied by a contraction of space, when everyone is obliged to socially isolate, to stay at home; it might as well be some uneventful time of the week, in a domestic setting, say Wednesday afternoon, all the time, even on a Wednesday. The extent of spatial experience becomes the distance from the front room to the bedroom, the cubic space of the kitchen, the front door becomes a boundary, the world beyond, the world outside, is a more dangerous place, a place to be avoided if possible. We are floating around our houses, on virus time, quarantime.  The confusion of time with its measurement is dismantled along with ‘just in time’ supply chains and delivery models, employment which dictates temporal conditions on workers, and of course ‘zero hours’.  Virus time is not clock time, it is zero hours all the time, now or perhaps some time on a Wednesday afternoon.

These experiences reminded me of the writing of Henri Bergson (1859 - 1941), which characterises duration as an unquantifiable continuous flow, as distinct from the more scientific conception which spatialises time. As a contemporary of Einstein, Bergson was critical of the idea of relativity, claiming that objectifying, regulating, mechanically measuring time, distorts the flux of consciousness, the subjective experience projected into space. For Bergson duration is qualitative, it is the continuum of ‘lasting through’ as experienced by a conscious subject. In bringing together these new spatiotemporal experiences, the recalibration necessitated by lockdown becomes a reflection of Bergsonian time and space; ‘Even on a Wednesday' reflects the subjective state of living inside the materialisation of this that the coronavirus brought with it.  (see Henri Bergson’s Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, 1889, and Duration and Simultaneity: Bergson and the Einsteinian Universe, 1922).

In constructing the music track I was particularly interested in the way Terry Riley, in particular in 'A Rainbow in Curved Air', 1969, constructs looping repetitive patterns which sound simultaneously as though they achieve a kind of stasis within duration. Unlike the more regimented repetition of the related music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, there is a loose rhythmic loping quality, a not-so-strict meter, which might better reflect the experience of temporality as duration as distinct from mechanical time. I arranged samples of plucked arpeggio guitar chords over several rows in an Ableton Live grid. These were based around A minor and F, but juxtaposed with a number of other chords which when played together in different configurations produce differing and sometimes unpredictable discordance, particularly when enhanced with decaying looping effects. I recorded the song singing the lyrics while playing through the Live session sequence, which has the effect that the melody occasionally deviates from the chord structure. 

It is, in effect, out of time.