Xenografika (2022)

The first pieces for Xenografika began taking shape immediately after I completed the Kro Gnosis album, which had itself followed immediately after Temple, and all three albums emerged consecutively in the space of just six weeks, so it’s not surprising they form a thematic continuum. I’m tending to think of them as a trilogy of sorts. 

All three reach musically and spiritually in some sense toward other cultures, using exotic instruments and rhythms to provide most of the colour in the music. It’s been refreshing to return to music with a clear rhythmic backbone and melodic voice, after focusing on more liminal, arhythmic and/or ambient atmospheres for so long (my ‘textured monotonies’).  As a reflection of my life process, I feel these new albums are expressing motion, momentum, an active principle of spirit, as when smoulder springs into flicker. Grief and depression are still present in my life, but lately there is a newly emergent quality, a subtle yet resonant clarity of being.  Neither a feeling of hope nor happiness, but a calm focus and intention to persist. I am able to ride the paradox of my experience, the undulating moment, seemingly with a little more ease and lightness.

Whereas Temple and Kro Gnosis returned me to actual organic recording and playing real instruments, Xenografika continues the sounds of organic ethnic instruments and percussion, but is entirely constructed on the laptop, using high quality, digitally-sampled instruments & sound textures. After the renewed pleasure of playing my own instruments on the previous two albums, playing digital instruments that sound organic felt weirdly dissonant, almost a betrayal. However, such is the unconscious flow of creative impulse and synchronous happenstance events…

After the intense burst of the previous two albums, I was in that familiar state of feeling completely emptied, but still spinning internally with creative momentum.  In that freedive zone I ‘happened’ upon a YouTube video review of a really momentous musical project, Pianobook, begun in 2018 by Christian Henson (look it up if you’re musically curious). It’s an online community of sound enthusiasts – musicians, cinematic sound designers, producers, or anyone really – who contribute downloadable libraries of sounds they’ve recorded and programmed into a format you can play on your midi keyboard, or in my case, via the qwerty keys on my laptop.  The samples range from top-end recordings of acoustic and electric instruments, to found sounds and ambient field recordings, and all manner of inventively manipulated variations in between – hundreds of them for free!  And down the rabbit hole I went…..or perhaps more like being swallowed in a single gulp by the rabbit hole (..or a spice worm from Dune..) and being slowly digested by it for a couple of weeks…..

For each of these pieces, I began with whatever sampled instrument took my interest, and followed its nose.  Each piece was developed on the fly as I explored the sampled sounds. The first was a brilliant percussion instrument made from recordings of a decrepit old doublebass, rigged up as a kind of Tom Waits-inspired drumkit (with snare wires and a kick pedal attached).  Each key plays a different scrape, tap, thud and squeak, offering a delicious array of unique organic percussion sounds.  I improvised a rhythm immediately and it grew into the track Xenospherics, a wandering 9:30 min nomadic journey that evolved as I explored new sampled instruments and added them to the piece.

In keeping with the flavours of the preceding albums, I was particularly drawn to the samples of ethnic acoustic instruments and percussion, and so they feature throughout.

Often percussion was the entry point to a piece. Haunted Heart was initially a spacious rhythm experiment using the aforementioned Upright Bass Drum and a selection of gonglike cymbal sounds, complemented by a drifting tape-effected piano line, and a somewhat Middle-Eastern run plucked on an ‘African banjo’. Mesopotamia began with congas, bongos and taiko drums, yet developed a quasi-Egyptian character after I added melodica and saxophone melodies. 

Sutra features drums from India and the Middle East – the udu, rahmani and tar.  The melodies feature the unique sound of the single-stringed Indian instrument, the ektara, and the delicately-plucked ‘box harp’ – a handmade ‘folk’ instrument, sampled by its maker.

Often sampled string instruments sound artificial played on a keyboard, but many of these sound remarkably realistic, thanks to the dedicated recording / programming skills of their creators.  Among the stringed instruments I explored were a tsouras (Greek bouzouki), a banjolele, the box harp, African banjo, box violin (another homemade instrument), Abecedarian Sitar, and several others not included on these recordings.

Many of the sampled ‘instruments’ are ingeniously conceived from found sounds.  For example, Hillbilly Warrior Monk uses percussive sounds variously sourced from: a large steel public sculpture, a desk lamp, a collection of old tuning forks, and a metal saucer. The bass instrument on this piece was created from samples of an amplified drink bottle.

As many of the contributors to Pianobook seem to be composers of film music, there are is a rich array of spacious, textural sounds available, great for creating cinematic atmospheres.  One I used was a collection of electric guitar feedback sounds, which formed a rich bed of textured drones for River Of Dust.  In other pieces, I layered a few of these cinematic textures together, as in Watching The Future In The Flames.  There are about five different layers creating the ‘orchestral’ swells in this piece, most of them originating from sampled guitar sounds that have a grainy edge to them.  In Xenospherics, the ‘cinematic’ sample is based on an environmental recording of the atmosphere of a frozen lake!

One of my favourite sampled instruments was a tenor saxophone. I was really impressed at the quality of the samples, and the authenticity of the sound.  My first experiment with this became the track Naga.  Combining the saxophone with two other brass samples, a tenor horn and a flugelhorn, I created a ‘brass arrangement’ for the intro which felt quite inspiring – given I have no aptitude at all for any wind instruments.

The final track, Blue Sushi, was more a deliberate technical exercise than a spontaneous experiment. In the Pianobook catalogue I came across a sampled electric tremolo guitar, pristinely recorded, and really capturing a classic sound.  I knew I wanted to use it somehow, and a cheesy melody earwormed itself into my mind and would not let up.  The melody had a dreamy, 1950s surf-pop quality that somehow put me to mind of David Lynch movies and Asian pop-isms.  I could hear the whole effect – the schmaltzy strings, the blip of an 808 drum machine, the tinkling descent of a glockenspiel and syrupy keyboard (in this case, a sampled desk lamp) – so the task was to capture it.  This track was by far the most frustrating process, because I had such a specific outcome in mind, and playing guitar by keyboard just seems ridiculous when I could have played it on my own guitar (if I didn’t have an injured hand).

In the end, while this collection was for the most part spontaneous, each piece flowing easily and quickly, it had some odd qualities to its process.  I completed the tracks in early March, but for a long time couldn’t settle on names for them. Likewise, there seemed to be obstructions around naming the album as well. 

This took me down an interesting rabbit-hole, which began with researching the ancient Greek word xenos (stranger), then led to learning about its many fascinating branches – such as xenology, xenography, xenosphere etc.  I was disappointed to discover that most of these words had already been used many times over as album or band names, so I opted for my own derivative.  It still references ‘xenography’, which has two meanings, both appropriate to this album: the process of surgically transplanting organs or tissue between different species; the ability to write in a language one has not learned.  Both definitions seem appropriate to the transplanting of sounds ‘between species’ on these pieces, and my adopting musical language that I haven’t learned, but access intuitively. Using pre-constructed samples (musical ‘organs and tissue’) can often seem like surgical reconstruction from other people’s ‘parts’.

Similarly, I struggled to find a sense of imagery for the cover art, and tried three diametrically different designs before settling on one. Usually all these elements fall into place easily, and even present themselves before the music at times. In the end I just had to put it all aside for awhile – that is, until my autistic urge toward completion became too insistent to ignore.

The other odd quality of this process was feeling a certain emotional disconnect (even soul-less-ness?) from the music once it was complete. Despite the music utilising many organic sounds and warm textures, somehow knowing it was all created digitally seemed to accentuate its fakery; this felt like a prophylactic barrier between the music and my sense of having created it.  I certainly still had to ‘play’ all the musical parts, which was often challenging given that I’m only using my laptop’s qwerty keyboard, and I’m not a pianist.  But I think there is much more depth to my creative process when I’m actually making my own samples and experimenting with them – involved in a sense of discovery from the beginning.