Musical orphans: And Then I Wasn’t… / As Is Was (2019 / 2020)

As I often work on multiple recording projects in parallel, I invariably accumulate pieces that don’t fit the context of a particular album, or are demos I know I’ll never get around to developing further (often because I forget how I played them in the first place). Although And Then I Wasn’t… and As Is Was were released at very different periods for me musically, they share in common that they were both created as homes to those poor musical orphans, who were otherwise disembodied and had no ‘place’ of their own…

And Then I Wasn’t… (2019)

This began as a collection of old “frankenkinder”, orphan recording experiments that were either unfinished or homeless misfits. Some are in their original state, some got turned inside out or found new life. In the process of revisiting them I accidentally got sucked into another vortex of inspiration and had to record a bunch of new frankenkinder to keep the others company.

If there’s a musical thread, I suppose that most of these pieces (with a few obvious exceptions), in one sense or other invoke some kind of trance-like space for me, that I can forget myself in, let my mind widen, weave, warp and wobble awhile.

I didn’t notice at the time, but really this collection (at 1 hr 30 mins) easily qualifies as a double album, so I’ll pretend it is. (Do musicians still do that? Are double albums irrelevant in the more-is-more digital landscape? Or do I have to go through the rigmarole of a limited edition boutique vinyl pressing to fit the accepted index of “double album”? Who cares? I digress….). A number of these pieces are between 6 – 9 mins long, but I tend to let my music run whatever course it needs to in its process. The longest, Rain River Rain (Misty Mix), is a 10 min edit of the 26 min single-track soundscape Rain River Rain. Most of the pieces are floating on a bed of ambience, designed to drift, designed for open space. One such is the aptly-titled Long Ride To Brain City (Mantis Mix), one of a few ambient guitar pieces included here that evolved out of recording Loveletters From Beneath The Waves, in which I had been further exploring my use of delay, reverb, reversing tracks and other noodlywhatsits.

In a few instances, the original recordings had been fairly ‘straight’ – that is, authentic to the sound of the instruments played – and I messed around with a few effects to reshape the textures. The Scuttler was originally recorded as a fairly generic ‘cafe jazz’ track (untitled), but I got an interesting effect by warping the bass sound and converting the shuffle of the brushes to two out-of-synch tracks – a few spacey fx later it grew to what could only become The Scuttler.

I think this is when I discovered some new ways of manipulating my organic percussion sounds (dundun, djembe, talking drum, darabuka), using tonifiers & ring modulators & other spaceship controls I have no understanding of, as on Mr Sizzum & Ms De Rhy. Another feature of interest (for me, at least) is that I plucked this track’s melody on my kemenche (a Turkish fiddle, usually bowed) – its tonal quality when plucked reminded me more of certain African string instruments:

Some of these recordings were completely one-off adventures that inhabited their own space, and really had no connection to anything else I was doing musically. Trilingual Confabulation is a kind of upbeat abstract swing jazz guitar mash-up experiment. Recordings of frogs singing in our dam, and myself playing rhythms on a watertank with rubber mallets, became Raintank Banger Corroboree. A noodle from 2016, Squinky, was a quirky uke experiment, using a cheap Yamaha keyboard to create an offkilter jazz shuffle – almost subdued steampunk or something. Warpaint features the bloopy water sounds from inside a large plastic hose, which I recorded one day as I was using the water pump to fill the tanks – no fx added other than a little delay. Ghost Piano (Spectral Syntax Mix) is comprised of carefully edited samples of the acoustic resonance inside our piano, after the played note has evaporated.

Kelleren Speaks was an aimless vocal experiment I did one day, which I later warped beyond recognition with pitch and speed variations – it had an unsettling effect, but I always felt it had cohesion, that it sounded like some kind of galactic choral music. People often found it too disturbing to listen to, and it sat unnamed for many moons, until I read Arthur C. Clarke’s scifi novel Childhood’s End (which provided a certain colour to the Loveletters recordings). There is a pivotal scene in which the leader of the aliens, Kelleren, first addresses the humans of Earth, and the otherworldly utterances of my vocal track immediately came to mind.

As I was finishing off this album, I was developing and recording guitar ideas for the ‘ambient jazz’ album Echo Location, as well as some more abstract tangents that would become the Music For… trilogy. I was mainly focused on clean-toned electric guitar, trying to develop a smoother technique and some new melodic approaches, which I then coloured with ambient electronics. One example of this is Big Water Country (Liquid Mix), but probably my favourite on this collection is Guidance Is Internal, in which the guitar repeats a simple melancholic melody over collaged samples of NASA recordings – conversations between Ground Control and astronauts in space. There are some private amusements in there – I imagined a subtext of sending rockets into space as metaphor for suppressed homosexuality, and arranged some of the vocal samples as if the personnel were preparing for a Mardi Gras (though I suspect you’d have to attune your thinking to a particular frequency to really pick up on it)…

The cover image is a balanced oceanstone sculpture my daughter made at the beach one day, and photographed. The top two stones always remind me of a monklike figure in profile, sitting calmly cross-legged on the finely-balanced third stone (from the Sun), gazing out over the ocean…

As Is Was (2020)

In keeping with this post’s theme of ‘musical orphans’, yet from quite a different angle, As Is Was is a collection of spontaneous acoustic inspirations I’d recorded on my phone over several years, intending to develop them at a later date. Having forgotten how I played most of them, and recognising I was unlikely to do anything else with them, I collated them in their raw forms instead, as a series of brief moments, lived and gone.

The original tracks feature various ukuleles, acoustic guitar, kemenche and mandolin, with either incidental or added environmental textures interspersed. Most of them were recorded out on the deck at home, in an assortment of weathers, overlooking a forested valley awash with all shades of birdtalk and stillness. I’ve added electronic twiddlings here and there for extra texture.

By the time I got to compiling this album, 2020 had already been a musically prolific year for me. In January I released Echo Location (although most of it was completed in May – July 2019), in February I released Hill Tribes Of The Huon Valley Region, and by March (when I released Self Isolator) we were in voluntary lockdown, which soon became mandated lockdown and remained so for a few months.

I don’t think the lockdown made me more creative, but it definitely altered my creative focus, my musical motivators and the means by which I made my music. In the months of the lockdown, after Self Isolator, my musicmaking was primarily electronic. With the rest of the family at home all day, I didn’t have the freedom to record live instruments as I usually do. However, I discovered that in Reaper (my music editing software) I could use the qwerty keyboard on my laptop as a virtual musical keyboard, in conjunction with two fantastic free plug-ins I’d found online: Spitfire Audio‘s Soft Piano and the Surge digital synthesiser. I’m happy to play with any new sound-making toys if they’re within my resources, and ‘free’ is definitively ‘within my resources’. So in those months I created and released eight albums – the ambient / electronic / soundscape Walkabout series (comprising seven albums), and the overtly electronic Solaris Beach Party.

Often after creating an album in a specific style, I’ll shift abruptly to something completely different on the next album – from abrasive rock to ambience, from electronic to organic acoustic etc. It’s not a deliberate pattern, my reasons vary and are always contextual. When I make an album, as with any creative work I do, I give it my total autistic focus until it feels complete – I immerse myself in it intensely, the process swells and fills my consciousness daily, it is a lifeform that grows as I feed it. After such prolonged focus on the very edit-intensive ‘lockdown’ albums, I had no particular creative impulse and was casting around for a next direction. I knew I needed something a little easier on the brain. Somehow I came across the old Voice Memo files of these forgotten impromptu recordings, there were plenty of them and most were vignettes of only 2 or 3 minutes long, which got me thinking….

In rediscovering these impromptu snippets, I saw a few possibilities.  My playing on these musical memos is often flawed because I was just catching the ideas at first hatching, with the intention of refining them later.  Often these memos were a repetition of a single motif, or a simple progression meant as a foundation to something else.  Some of them are quite shapeless abstractions, clearly unformed.  Overall though I liked the ideas too much to throw them away – after all, they were still authentic moments in my creative evolution. 

I could either spend hours trying to work out how I first played them, in order to refine them for a new set of recordings, with added instrumentation – or I could approach them as honest documents of the moment and present them as such, more of a curatorial or journalistic process. Obviously, this latter was the approach I opted for.  To perhaps soften some of the flaws in my playing, or add interest in the more repetitious pieces, I added some electronic textures and environmental sounds I’d also collected around our bushland home.

Another deciding factor for the shape of this album was the photograph I’ve used for the cover.  Heidi had snuck the photo of me a year or so before, and I was immediately drawn to its muted tone – in colour and in mood – and I’d wanted to use it for some kind of acoustic album ever since.  As is often my inverted process, the cover image became my doorway into how the music came together as a body of work, anchoring it all.

At the time I was compiling this album, I had also been immersing myself in the work of Alan W. Watts, a remarkable thinker / philosopher / scholar / entertainer (his own description) who was especially active in America from the late 50s until his death in 1973.  His masterful descriptions of the Tao / Zen experience were re-stretching my perceptions of existence, and reconnecting me with similar perceptions I had explored decades before, through the lenses of shamanism and other experiential awareness techniques.  In this context, it seemed fitting that I celebrate these brief musical expressions of myself at play, entirely in the moment.

A handful of these are improvisations that I’ve left in their pure state, without embellishment.  These include Watt’s Knot, As Was Also Is, Twilight Code and the title track As Is Was.  These were moments in which I’d relaxed enough to freefall a bit as I played, and as such I think capture some sweet spots along the way.

The country-tinged Crowfoot Crumpleshirts and Rainbirding were both originally intended to become songs with lyrics, so instead here I’ve added a melody line, as a way of inferring ‘songness’.

And for the fun of it, with Alan Watts’ (and my own) irreverent love of language and sense of play in mind, I designed the tracklist – creating the titles and the sequence – so that it can be read as a poem – As Is Was.  It can be read as nonsense, or as slanted views to layers of meaning, like peering angled between the slats of a bamboo blind, the glimpse of a question…..