Other spaces: Oort (2021)

In musicking, as in life, there is never any one particular process – each project seems to emerge with a life of its own, with its own rhythm and breath, with both a sense of self-determination and of the unknown. In being receptive to the music as an entity in its own right, with its own momentum, I can approach it with an attitude of continued learning, because one never knows what unintentional accidents & surprises will arise in the process. I say ‘process’ as if it were singular, but what I enjoy so much in musicking is the interweaving of multiple processes – technical, personal, philosophical. Sometimes the music comes so readily a whole album completes itself within a matter of days, sometimes it requires weeks or months of harrassing it into shape.  And occasionally there will be an elegant confluence of ideas and experience that come together in a sense of perfect harmony with itself.

Some projects will immediately announce or insinuate themselves with a clear conceptual framework, an album title or cover image. Others don’t even know they will grow into a collection, as in the case of Oort. The naming of the album and the tracks themselves didn’t happen until the very end, and was in such harmony with the creative explorations preceding it as to suggest a sense of ‘something larger’ having a hand in things.

The seed of this collection was resonance. Almost all the sounds on these recordings have been extrapolated from one source: the suspended resonance of piano strings. We have a 100-yr-old upright piano in the house, and a few years ago my son Cooper, an experimental musican himself, mucked about with various strokes and plucks on the strings, while I recorded with a mic set up inside the body of the piano. Recently I dug out this old recording, and set myself the creative parameter of seeing what soundshapes I could discover using no other source material (which I mostly adhered to – there’s a couple of small additions). On some tracks the sound of piano strings is more obvious, but the majority of sounds have been abstracted and given ‘the treatment’ through all manner of speed alterations, reversals, delays, reverbs, phasers, ring modulations and other notable voodooeries.  In many cases the sounds have travelled so far from their original source that I can’t remember where they began.

It’s obvious where I’ve included actual piano notes (minimally, to imply a pulse), but wherever I’ve sampled just the resonance, I avoided the original impulse (ie the note) and instead explored the natural undulations, overtones, harmonies and dissolving qualities of the air, post-note. The resonance of piano strings carries all kinds of otherworldly soundshapes that shift as the notes ring out to their furthermost edges. On the track Kuiper Belt, these frequencies even create the subtle illusion of choral voices.

As I worked with these various resonances, my thinking naturally extended to the resonance in all things, and the vaster resonances of the universe. In one sense (eg through a physicist’s lens), a human lifetime is an extended resonance of the point of first impact (ie birth, or if you like, conception) – the note of our becoming – that builds and swells and changes shape as it moves toward (and/or is carried by) entropy.  A recurring image for me as I shaped these pieces was a droplet hitting a calm surface of water, and of the ripples undulating outward from the epicentre; it became an apt symbol for the many impacts of life’s experiences, especially those that seem to continue rippling well into old age. 

Of course, on a cosmic scale our lives are the merest particles of the expanding, dissolving note of the universe, the Big Ripple, which is pretty much where I positioned myself as I sculpted these pieces.  I began to think of each track as expressing resonances of deep space, which in turn led me to think of the many ways we romanticise ‘space’ in music.  For example, in the early 70s, my father had a taste for experimental psychedelic music, and a particular favourite of mine (as a boy of 6) was Hawkwind‘s interstellar album In Search Of Space; I took an early imprint for those particular ‘spacey’ sounds which has continued to this day (more resonance!). 

Part of spacerock’s appeal is its driving, ejaculatory energy of bursting through the gravitational membrane, as a kind of explosive expansion of consciousness into the unknown. The sounds on Oort seem instead to capture a sense of deep space as profoundly impersonal, spacious yet compressed, with cold metallic textures that loom and dissolve like flashes of space debris.  Of course, in doing so I’m still applying ‘romantic’ notions of my own, when you consider the stark physical impossibility of actual ‘sound’ in space. But as these tracks took form I imagined a certain sterility, an oppressive atmosphere, like a lone astronaut stranded in the furthermost reaches, with the monotonous internal thrums of a spacecraft accompanying the fragile human pulsations of blood & breath; the claustrophobic realisation of solitude in the face of the immensity outside (autistic analogy, anyone?).

These pieces largely began as a technical exercise, to refine my understanding of certain fx in shaping the more subtle forms of sound.  Not being a ‘trained technician’, I learn in the doing, which in this case involved giving my full autistic attention to listening and responding.  While the subtleties may not be apparent to anyone else, and may even seem cliched or rudimentary to more experienced sound designers, I learned a lot and found a different level of technical sophistication for myself on these pieces.  I didn’t use a synthesiser or conventional sampler, but instead used careful (ie meticulously pedantic) editing to find my own kinds of synthesis.

I was reluctant to use any kind of obvious rhythm in these pieces, but neither did I want them to be ethereally ambient.  On some pieces (such as Vozdokh and Kuiper Belt) I’ve looped a snippet of incidental piano noise (a muffled thud or clunk, for instance) to create a drone that suggests pulsation.   On GongGong, the loop is distinctly percussive, and I harangued myself a great deal before allowing it to stay.  The only non-piano pulsation I used was in the hovering drone layers of Resonant TransNeptunian, which were sculpted from a recording of my electric jug boiling while the bath tap was running in the next room (I like to amuse myself this way).

Since creating the Red Tape Bardo recordings, and revisiting some Alan Watts and Zen Buddhism texts, I have been connecting to the motif of the circle, and this continued with Oort‘s cover image.  I had found the small abalone shell and had an impulse to use it somehow, for its beauty of form and its suggestion of a cosmic ear, but it needed a contrasting background to lift it visually.  On a whim, or flowing with the creative impulse, I placed the shell in a granite mortar bowl.  The circular container, with its rich patterning and dark hardness, the bowl suggesting sound (like a stereo speaker), somehow felt appropriate – deep space (the bowl) represented as dense and solid, while the fractal ‘ear’ (the shell) offers fragility and lightness.  I also like that the photograph, to me at least, has the appearance of a carefully-rendered oil painting, from that bygone-era of oil painting that combined a near photographic realism with a sense of detachment, of remove from the object.

It wasn’t until the cover image arrived that the titles surfaced.  I remembered the word ‘oort’ as somehow referencing deep space, and I liked the shape of the word, so I began some research, as per my natural (autistic) inclination.  What ensued was a delightful rabbit-hole of information about the Oort Cloud, the Kuiper Belt, TransNeptunian objects, and the outermost edges of our tiny solar system where it dissolves out over unfathomable distance into the vaster space of the cosmos.  At that scale, you and I, and all the complexity of life on this planet, are beyond microscopic…….in a sense, rendering us utterly invisible. 

To get a visual sense of the Oort Cloud, have a look at this remarkable artist’s impression (NB The bright point in the centre is not only our Sun, but all of what most folks think of as our Solar System – ie our local planetary field; the pale bluish ring stretching out around it represents the Kuiper Belt). The ‘cloud’ is a theoretical sphere-shaped layer, the outermost membrane of our solar system, thought to contain billions of ‘icy objects’, some of which are dwarf planets. These dwarf planets are also referred to as TransNeptunian objects, so-named because they are locked into Neptune’s ‘orbital resonance’. I further learned that one of these ‘resonant TransNeptunians’ is named Gonggong, after a Chinese water god responsible for floods, chaos, and the tilt of the Earth.  It was such a great word I had to use it, and the track GongGong contains many sonic eruptions befitting a god of turbulent temperament.

Before naming the opening track (Vozdukh), I had added the sound of an astronaut’s measured breathing from inside a helmet, to lend a certain claustrophobic tension and point to our fragile dependence on oxygen to survive.  Thinking I might come across a fancy bit of technical terminology for a title, I read about the oxygen-generating systems on the International Space Station, one of which had been given the name Vozdukh – which, as it turns out, is simply the Russian word for ‘air’.  The word not only fit the track’s function, but had a suitably sci-fi ring to it as well, so I looked no further.

Lastly, as the track titles emerged, they loosely suggested a sequence or journey, beginning with bursting out of the Earth’s exosphere, continuing out through the Kuiper Belt, finally to float in the outer resonance of the Oort Cloud.