Other spaces: Self Isolator / Solaris Beach Party (2020)

These two albums were made about six months apart and are two of my least favourite efforts, but they’re honest documents of my musical evolutions at the time, and I learnt a lot in the making of them. Significantly, both albums form bookends to our months of covid lockdown here in Tasmania during 2020 – Self Isolator marking the beginning of our family’s voluntary isolation in March, and Solaris Beach Party marking the other ‘end’, the gradual tapering of social restrictions into July. I think of both albums as essentially ‘electronic’ in their constitution; in the case of Self Isolator I felt this gave the music a cold sheen, the kind of detachment I equate with deep space; on Solaris Beach Party perhaps the ‘electronic’, if not warm, has a bit more humour, is a little more playful in its intent. Both albums in their own way reflect some of the strangeness and atmospheric disturbance of the time.

Self Isolator (2020)

This collection of recordings began with the track Particulate Matter, a dissonant, shapeless keyboard abstraction that irritates itself to an eventual ambient relief.  I recorded it in January 2020, just prior to hearing the first reports of the covid virus, and before the Great Shadow of Uncertainty stretched its dark wings out over our small slice of the world.

The next track I recorded was an ominous deepspace atmospheric piece featuring a thick organ drone I’d created. On an impulse I inserted a previous recording of Malcolm Martin’s flugelhorn (from the Echo Location track, Patient Delineations Of Thought), and the effect was startling, of distance and yet deep yearning. I had just completed it when Heidi contacted me to say that the virus had reached Australia and we should prepare ourselves.

I distinctly remember the atmosphere of that day. I had been recording the track out in our rundown shed, surrounded by bush, the valley flowing downhill from our house and mountain ridges ringing the perimeter. Where we live is a sanctuary to much birdlife and local animals such as potoroos, quolls and the ubiquitous possums, all of whom are often active and visible around the house throughout the day and night. I’ve often noticed that before the arrival of a storm, there is an eerie blanket of thick silence that descends on the valley, and especially a silence in the animal activity – the birds stay quiet, the animals stay out of sight. As I sat outside the shed, listening through the track I had just recorded (Self Isolator) and absorbing the news from Heidi, this same kind of eerie silence, of palpable anticipation, had descended on the valley. It was a moment filled with a sense of a much vaster connectivity, of being embedded in a network of nerve endings, sensing pulses from far away.

I often set myself creative limitations as a way of dismantling my familiar maps, and this time I determined only to compose on an old Yamaha PSR-74 keyboard. Not possessing any kind of ‘real’ synthesiser (and having not yet encountered the Surge virtual synth), I often used this keyboard for raw sound elements, which I mutate through various FX later, but I hadn’t yet used it as the primary platform for an album. On several of these pieces I ran the keyboard through an old wah pedal to see what might happen. Most of the sounds here are keyboard mutations, with the minimal addition of drums, cello bass, and electric guitar on a few tracks.

As the Shadow began its march across our minds, Self Isolator found its theme, and the album became a meditation on isolation on all scales, the microcosm / macrocosm, the particulate patterning of ‘reality’ and our very vulnerable place in space.

As I wrote for the album notes at the time:

Self isolation is my natural preference in life, and in this I’m not alone – my Aspergers, my creative temperament, my need for solitude & deep reflection, all favour staying at home. Having it imposed and policed ‘out there’ gives it a different quality, an atmosphere of foreboding and uncertainty – like the sickly haze & heavy stillness of the bushfires that came so close to our home a year ago. The Not Knowing, the Waiting….the world no longer familiar. This is the mood this music explores.

We don’t watch TV or follow mainstream media news, but naturally we tried to find cohesive and reliable information online as the first wave of deaths spread through China and Europe. I felt a sense of ‘species shock’, a deep impact, as with a depth charge exploding and resonating through water. In feeling this resonance, and the accompanying strangeness of dislocation from the shock, I began exploring some gothic pipe organ sounds on the Yamaha keyboard; a dirge melody emerged and cycled, I recycled some of Heidi’s vocal textures from an earlier recording, and the track became Requiem.

Following another impulse, I decided to revisit and cannibalise Old Mate Paradox, Restless & Lumbersome, a track from the 2017 album Tectonic.  There were particular sounds on the original recording that I wanted to mess with, and a certain moodiness or menace that felt appropriate to this new collection.  The result was two reshapings: the first, Old Mate Paradox, Made Flesh has a more organic flavour as it features cello bass; the other, Old Mate Paradox, Bareboned, is stripped of most of its rhythm and the remaining sounds abstracted further. The final track on the album, and the last to be recorded, is Maintain – intended as a more ambient and perhaps comforting note in the collection, with warmer organ textures; the title implies a conservation and focusing of energy, of applying balance and presence of mind in response to great uncertainty.

A recurring image for me as I created these pieces was that of an astronaut floating untethered in space, with the blue skin of Earth far below, and a sharpened sense of us all as dust. In developing the cover art, I didn’t want to make an overt ‘astronaut’ reference, but in sifting through the available images of the covid virus, I was struck by its planetary appearance, and the overall atmosphere of science fiction in what I was feeling – the vast scale of our isolation and vulnerability as a species, situated as we are on one tiny particle floating in space. Embedded throughout all this were themes of scale and interrelationship – that something as microscopic as a virus could devastate an organism so much larger than itself, not just a single human body but an entire species; that all the self-important pettiness constructed by the species amounts to nothing in the face of the impenetrable, impersonal cosmos that surrounds it; that on our tiny island of Earth, we humans are just one biological strata among many, immersed in a soup of particulate matter, a liquid cell-skin we call atmosphere, filled with invisible lifeforms that we cannot avoid ingesting, ‘alien’ lifeforms in the cosmos of our own bodies. As Above, so Below; as Without, so Within.

Solaris Beach Party (2020)

“Are you happy?”
“Somehow that concept seems irrelevant here.”

(From Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 movie Solaris.)

Solaris Beach Party continues themes of space, distance, isolation, strandedness, disintegration of known reality, or the strangeness of reality that is slightly distorted – apparently familiar yet with dissonance…..deeper currents in what was being felt universally during the adjustments to lockdown in 2020. Musically, the pieces here were outgrowths of my exploration of a free virtual synthesiser, Surge, which I discovered online during our months of lockdown, and which I used primarily on the Walkabout series of albums during that time.

My use of this synthesiser for the Walkabout albums was within a particular context, and I wanted to explore this ‘instrument’ in other ways as well, so a different batch of recordings began to emerge. One of the first was Amniosis, a fairly ambient and monotonous piece, centered around a simple continuous bass pulse on which I could layer various synth textures. At the time, as another creative outlet during lockdown, I’d been trying my hand at making short films, within the limited parameters of my iPhone and editing in iMovie. Most of these experiments were visual abstractions of light moving on water surfaces. One night I filmed ripples in the bath, and this became a 20 minute abstraction to which I added Amniosis as the soundtrack.

Often a book or film that has deepened my internal inquiry (ie made me think) will insinuate itself into my musicking somehow, either by melding with an existing project or by providing a new conceptual vessel. Or both.

In this case, it was Andrei Tarkovsky’s mesmerising 1972 film Solaris, an extraordinary work of philosophical art that continued to swirl in my thoughts and nervous system as I compiled these electronic noodlings. The dreamlike pacing of the story teased out elusive questions, or suggestions, about the underlying nature of memory, and our constructs of relationship and reality. There was something about the slow disintegration of realities, both in the film and in our global atmosphere of lockdown, that bent my humour into picturing a kind of existential, entropic 70s Beach Party in space, aboard the deralict space station in which the film is set, as the strange cloud of Solaris, the etheric mass of consciousness discovering itself, boils and beckons below…

The album’s title track was built on a dense bed of undulating synth that reminded me of the constant background thrum of a spaceship, and mirrored the swirling miasmic presence called Solaris in the film. There is an intermittent melody hinted at, the Beach Party Theme, which opens, and is reprised at the closing of, the album, and eerie sirenic vocal samples (courtesy of Heidi) suggesting the fleeting apparitions that flitter & disappear around corners in the film. My decision to name this piece as the title track was in deliberate dark humour – the juxtaposition of such an oppressive piece of music over the notion of a ‘beach party’ amused me, as did expanding on this juxtaposition on other tracks, at least in name.

Memories Are Made Of This? turns a hackneyed sentimental phrase into a question of revulsion – the realisation in the film that memories are daily dying and reconstituting themselves as physical reality. Isn’t that what we all do in our memories? We Can Dance Here Forever is a reference to the film’s closing, the main character’s choice to surrender himself forever to the perpetual illusion of his memories – his preferred reality. These two tracks, and Are You Happy?, combined the Surge synth with drum and synth elements from the Oscilab app I’d used on some previous recordings. Martinis In The Lab was actually an unrelated, orphaned recording I’d made once on guitar and drumkit, which I further bent out of shape. The title is a twisted reference to the very odd scene in the movie when a dwarf-like humanoid disfiguration (a distorted memory?) almost escapes from the lab of one of the space station’s scientists. I imagined members of the ‘beach party’, gathered in the lab, drinking strange chemical cocktails from lab beakers…

Are You Happy? also began as a soundtrack to another of my short movie experiments at the time, before Solaris had insinuated itself into the conceptual thread of this album. This time the film was in the form of a minimalist geometric animation – I created source elements on my iPad using the Animator Creator HD app, then modified the elements further in iMovie.

During the lockdown period I had also revisited Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, another film that seemed to suit the non-ordinary atmosphere, with its explorations of folded space/time, human scale in the cosmos, the ‘other’. The Big Kubrovsky is a tongue-in-cheek musical homage to both Kubrick’s and Tarkovsky’s visions of the future as they presented themselves through the cultural filters of the late 60s / early 70s (the title of course is also a play on the Coen Brothers’ farce The Big Lebowski, another deep exploration of altered realities…).

The cover image is another photo taken by Heidi, of cloud catching the dusk light near our home. Although I’ve boosted the saturation and vibrancy of the colours slightly, the colours of the original were nonetheless otherworldly and immediately put me to mind of the psychedelic representation of the Solaris ‘entity’ in the film.