The emergence of the Temple recordings began with an unexpected musical gift from my partner Heidi: a beautiful 17-note kalimba (thumb piano). I had mentioned to her quite awhile back that I’d like a kalimba to experiment with, so I was especially delighted when she surprised me with it.
I didn’t engage with playing it immediately, as I was still working on the album For A Few Gringos More, immersed in very latin and spaghetti western sounds which weren’t really conducive to the kalimba’s happy sparkle. Heidi took a liking to the instrument though and warmed it up for me, spending many moments out on the deck improvising to the birds. Heidi has a natural musicality and rhythmic sense, and whatever instrument she fiddles with, I always find her minimalist improvisations inspiring. It was a very different process for me to acquaint myself with a new instrument peripherally through listening to her playing, to hear its potential with ‘outside ears’.
Once I completed the Gringos project, I began to explore the kalimba for myself. I’ve noodled with them in the past, usually with predictably African-sounding results, and as with other tuned percussion, they’re great for finding simple patterns and dropping into a rhythmic meditative loop. This time however, I wanted to discover something else in the instrument, a departure from its obvious African connotations and something tonally more in keeping with my quiet mood.
Engaging with the kalimba, and the other instruments I play on this album, was also a significant new step in the slow process of rehabilitating my left hand, after breaking my wrist last October. A few months ago I couldn’t move my fingers at all and couldn’t tolerate even slight pressure on any part of my hand or wrist, and so the music I made in that time was all one-handed, computer-based collage from existing recordings. A kalimba is played only with the thumbs – the soundbox sits passively in both palms so there is no need to grip the instrument, and the metal notes or ‘tynes’, plucked with the thumb tips in a natural downward movement, are so close together that the thumbs don’t have to move very far from side to side. This action was so organic that I felt it was a good form of physiotherapy in rebuilding my hand’s movement. Similarly, the other instruments I chose for these recordings were also easy on the hand, while still introducing simple gripping actions.
For quite awhile now, and especially since the Red Tape Bardo series, I’ve been refining my use of speed alteration on recorded sound – specifically, slowing down the rate of a sound to find other tonalities and textures. Naturally this also alters the pitch of the sound, and so I tried this on the kalimba to see if I could mimic the deeper tones of the big bass kalimbas I’ve heard in the past. My first experiment became the opening track, Waiting, which centres around a looped minimalist kalimba motif. Slowing the kalimba down took the brittle edge off the notes and gave them a warmer resonance, and with the subtle addition of some digital effects, was even reminiscent of a vibraphone.
As I developed this track, it got me thinking of other tuned percussion, in particular the resonances of metal instruments & objects, and so the creative direction and parameters of a new project began to converge. I was reminded of the significance of metal instruments in Asian musical traditions – Gamelan music, bells, gongs & chimes, singing bowls – and how many of these instruments are historically linked to meditative and spiritual ceremony. Philosophically this alligns with my ongoing personal processes, as I continue to draw on and further deepen into Buddhist and Taoist approaches to self-navigation.
Coincidentally (or synchronistically?), Heidi had also bought two other resonant metal instruments, namely a Tibetan singing bowl, and a small metal UFO-shaped 11-note tongue drum. These two and the kalimba form the basis of almost all these recordings. In most cases I have modified their sounds by varying their speeds, reversing them or adding effects that reveal their textural qualities in different ways.
Often I ‘play’ an instrument or object in the sense of spontaneous, unconscious action, with a blank mind, no thought; often this results in an unexpected sound that then gets my attention. The second track, Tongues, was one of these ‘happy accidents’. I had made a test recording of the tongue drum, just lightly running the rubber mallet in a circular motion over the top of the instrument, skimming across all the notes without hitting any individually, and generating the ambient metallic resonance of the hollow object. I duplicated the track several times and overlayed them, reversed some, and put others through a ring modulator filter, creating an effect that reminded me of certain experimental electronics from the early 1970s.
Sama-Zan features the Tibetan singing bowl, layered at four different speeds. It was my first attempt at ‘playing’ the bowl, carefully running the wooden stick around the outer rim to generate the warbling note, and at various points when there are miniscule variations in the contact between wood and metal, the metal vibration creates a grating, rasping sound and the occasional clang. I left these aberrations in the recording as I like their textures, and their variations at different speeds. The slow rhythm underpinning the piece is a nano-sample from an earlier balafon recording – a single note and an accidental clack of the mallet, slowed down by about 400% and looped to form a somewhat narcotic drumlike pulse. Finally, I used the tongue drum to create a simple spacious melody floating in and out of the somnolence. The whole effect of drifting, circling sounds conjured images of Sufi Dervishes in their ecstatic whirling trance, and I imagined the music as describing the godly state of calm at the centre of the spinning. The title Sama-Zan is the original Persian name for this meditative dance ritual.
In addition to the three primary instruments, I recorded some other resonant metal objects from around the house: a ‘lidgong’ (large saucepan lid played with a padded mallet); a crumpled olive oil can (providing the lopsided rhythm on Waiting); ‘drill chimes’ (a set of circular Hole Saw drill bits that each create a crystalline, pitch-perfect note when struck); a big old fire alarm bell (such as were mounted out the front of old fire stations – very loud!); and the two big gas cylinders outside that supply our stove and hot water system. These last two objects each have a track devoted to exploring their sound – Night Shrine and Stakati.
Night Shrine is basically constructed from a single recording – one strike of the fire alarm bell, reproduced at eight different speeds, each creating a different note to form a loose (intuitive) kind of musical scale. The effect is almost like church bells. I punctuate the piece with the gong-like ‘lidgong’, reproduced at four different speeds. The ambient loop in the background was a single non-resonant tap on the lidgong, then messed with until it became a night chorus of frogs and crickets. I imagined a shrine at the edge of a moonlit wetland, the clanging of the bells being the voices of the night spirits going about their restless nocturnal netherbusiness, arguing amongst themselves like cantankerous elders.
While for most of these pieces I kept the melodic presence of kalimba and tongue drum to a minimum so as to retain a sense of meditative spaciousness, I wanted to devote one piece to a fuller expression of the beautiful voices of these two instruments. Using a handful of simple spontaneous patterns, I created the most musical interlude on the album, Colours Pouring Upward From His Body. I’ve given the sounds some subtle ‘treatment’ and in places the effect reminds me of an electric keyboard. I chose the name after a vivid dream I’d had a couple of nights before, which seemed so significant that it continued to reverberate in me for several days (the ‘He’ was a man, slightly older than myself, no-one that I know literally, an aspect of self):
It was night, a soft night. He and I were outside under the sky, wrapped in the dark. He was telling me, describing in profound poetry the cosmic substance of his being. I was transfixed, I wanted to capture every new part of his description, it all resonated so deeply in me. As the words streamed from him, I witnessed a soft flow of coloured light pouring gently upward from his body, highlighted by the surrounding night. The lights had the spectral quality of an aurora, fluid and soft, slow and wisplike. At first the lights appeared as very thin silent threads of purple ‘lightning’ from his body as he spoke of his deepest passion, then softened into a mellifluous blend of blues & purples as his messages about life reached deeper. I could not keep up with his words although I understood them, I could not bring myself to interrupt him because I wanted to hear more. The colours were not energy leaving his body as if he were dying, they were energy he perpetually generated by the intention of his being. He generated the energy deliberately for it to be spent into the atmosphere, to feed the atmosphere. I think at some point there was some kind of food, I wanted to offer him some for sustenance, but had the sense that I could not offer him food unless it was putrid – his process was to take the most putrid in life in order to maintain his degree of purified purpose. As he continued to speak, he moved by degrees from standing to sitting to lying down on the ground, as if he was weakening or dying, but he was not. Eventually we were both lying horizontally on the ground, facing each other by a large bush of some sort, surrounded by the night. He did not seem aware of the colours pouring upward from his body. Finally he looked directly at me and said “I am married to Life”. He meant this as a sacrament.
Dissolving, the longest journey on the album, very much explores the spaces between things. The kalimba motif from Waiting has been slowed to such an extreme that the space between the notes becomes tension, the melodic flow almost indiscernible. A subtle cello bassline tiptoes quietly in the shadows, three notes recycled and time-altered from a previous recording. The background textures are made of three layers: the rasping, swirling drone of the Tibetan singing bowl; the wavelike rumbles of a cymbal slowed beyond recognition; and a recording of birdsong from the bush around our house, also slowed down considerably and offering an otherworldly dimension to the piece as it gradually disintegrates into the flow of time. Intermittent notes of kalimba reversed, mirror the birds’ tones.
Stakati features the gas cylinders mentioned earlier. I recorded myself improvising a series of rhythms with rubber mallets, finding a small range of ‘notes’, the two cylinders being filled at different levels. I then chopped out samples and collaged them together into a more musical cohesion. The sweet introduction is comprised of the ‘drill chimes’, and their crystalline tones punctuate the piece. I had originally considered Stakati as the album’s title – it is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘to strike against’.
The final track, Temple, is another slomo atmosphere, and possibly the most abstract piece. It samples many elements used on the other tracks, and in the second half a slowed, looped balafon riff. The piece also features textures of me banging the strings of ‘threestringbox’, a kind of cigarbox guitar I made many years ago. It has an offkilter drone effect that to my ear adds to a certain dark mood, an edge of unsettledness. In this context I think of how some elements of Asian temples can have an imposing presence that is not all tranquil but quite fierce and forboding, cautioning respect for the darker balances in life.
The album’s cover image is from a photo I took inside a lift, on one of my trips to hospital in the process of my broken wrist. The buffed steel surfaces inside the lift created remarkable interpenetrating reflections of the lift’s lighting. I like the image’s abstraction, its metallic sheen and sense of detachment, as well as the intensity of the light contrasting with, and dissolving into, the darkness. I’m also amused by the loose symbolism of the lift as a vehicle of ascension, in keeping with the underlying Temple theme.