I know this because when I listened to the title track from Swiss-based electronic artist Rupert Lally’s Visions EP, I began to get very stressed and unsettled, and not remotely meditative. There is an irony to this – the track floats forth on beatific pads and dreamy harmonies while a soothing, reassuring voice talks you through the process of entering a hypnotic state. By rights, with the way that track is set up, you should – by the time the narrator has concluded his lesson – be feeling completely at peace, just in time for Lally to swoop in with a sequence of crushing beats that completely disrupt the peace and jerk you out of that transient state. Or not, if you’re me, but I’m working on that.
“My week beats your year,” lamented Lou Reed; in Lally’s case, his year undoubtedly beats your decade, since calling his output prolific sells him significantly short. Since I covered the Day Of The Triffids and Dune soundtracks for Bibliotapes here back in 2019, he has released albums on Spun Out Of Control and Third Kind, contributed to Wormhole World’s excellent Retrophonica – Aetheric Transmissions project, Patch Bae’s Help Musicians compilation, has an album prepped for Neil Stringfellow / Audio Obscura’s 20×20 imprint and another for Modern Aviation, as well as other albums completed and ready for release later in the year. Maybe the inclusion of the hypnotic voice on the first track of Visions is intended for Lally himself…
Visions consists of five tracks blended into one, each spinning on its own unique sonic axis. ‘Induced’ is among the more robust of Lally’s tracks, juddering forth on a grid of beats that seem to follow a restless, jerky, randomised pattern that isn’t dissimilar to how my mind was racing on the first track. ‘Veils’ occupies a similar space, only the brilliant chaos comes through electronic sequences, pulses and passages that feel like they’ve been sliced and spliced with a razor, creating a frantic sense of disquiet.
‘Mirage’ has the widescreen, cinematic grandeur that charcterised Lally’s fantasy scores for Day Of The Triffids and Dune, full of danger, mystique and unfolding drama, while closing track ‘Exit’ is less an exit and more an entry point into a glistening landscape of ethereal textures and somnambulant drifting.
Visions by Rupert Lally is released on May 1 2020 through Bandcamp, who will be waiving artist fees again on May 1 2020 to support their musician community worldwide. Access Rupert Lally’s Bandcamp back catalogue here.
London-based electronic musician Ross Downes’s latest album for Trestle Records, Stacked Up At Zero, is a deeply personal journey through a difficult year, containing twelve short tracks freighted with a fragility, sparseness, and heavily emotional gestures.
Here, rhythms are clipped, pared back to the barest impulses; sounds emerge into a void, where their slowly-decaying textures and ensuing silences are as powerful as the sounds themselves; occasional bursts of carefully-sculpted noise or a deeply resonant drone slice through the tension creating an unanticipated tension and uncertainty, like unwelcome negative thoughts arriving in the forefront of your consciousness.
Tracks like ‘Recovery’ feel like dream-like trips on a stretcher through the clinical whiteness of a hospital, as seen through eyes that are barely open, while ‘An Island Hijacked’ has a gauzy, maudlin outlook framed by murky pads and randomised sounds that could be sonic approximations of gunfire; here we find threat and danger, sidestepping some of the questing, unresolved qualities to be found in haunting pieces like ‘Face To Face To Face’ or opening track ‘The Kind Animal’.
One of the most rhythmically complex pieces here is ‘Extincting’, which commences with what sounds like shamisen melodies offset by gently swaying synth passages. There is an overwhelming, latent grandeur to this piece, like trying to contemplate the horrifying vastness of the universe on a clear night.
This is just one of the sonic parlour tricks that Downes deploys across Stacked Up At Zero, all of which have the effect of sending your mind racing into fantastically visceral spaces: on ‘A Day Without’ we hear pretty, delicate tones crested with an icy sensitivity that then open out onto a murky, barren landscape of throbbing bass and harrowing noises that sound like robotic creatures burrowing for food in a circuit board desert; on ‘Waking Pareidolia’ we hear a buried pulse and bassy motifs, together creating a platform for cycles of plaintive pads and a heavy mood redolent of eighties movie soundtracks and all their associated fear, mystery and purpose.
What Ross Downes was working through while making this album is necessarily personal; his catharsis, however, has produced a fantastically complex record, full of arresting detail and evocative atmospherics that are utterly universal.
Stacked Up At Zero by Ross Downes is released May 1 2020 by Trestle Records.
One of electronic music history’s dependable certainties is its seemingly limitless capacity to reveal a treasure trove of enthusiasts, marginal figures and experimenters whose endeavours casually disrupt our carefully-curated notions of what happened when and by whom; these figures occupy a weird, amorphous hinterland bordered on the one side by the early works of John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Groupe de Recherches Musicales or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and on the other side by the later ‘standardisation’ of electronic music through synthesizer technology.
Malcolm Pointon (1940 – 2007) was one such individual. Pointon was a Cambridge lecturer and classically-trained pianist, whose importance and legacy were actually hiding in plain sight, albeit not his early, pioneering electronic experiments in the 1970s: Pointon was the subject of two moving documentaries in 1999 and 2007 that told of his suffering with Alzheimer’s, which would claim his life just after the second film aired, sixteen years after his diagnosis at the unthinkable age of just 51. Those films, in many ways, did much to raise the profile of a still incurable disease and the impact it has on families and its sufferers, as seen through the lens of Pointon, his wife, Barbara and his two sons.
Writer, researcher and electronic music historian Ian Helliwell has arguably done for Pointon’s musical influence what Paul Watson’s films did for his stolen final years. Through his Tone Generation broadcasts, documentary film Practical Electronica and Tape Leaders book, Helliwell has highlighted, with exceptional detail, the work of frequently overlooked hobbyists and enthusiasts, amateur instrument builders and electronics fanatics like Pointon; a group of unsung heroes whose dexterity with a soldering iron contributed to the tangle of patch cables, valves and transistors that is electronic music’s less-than-linear history. Helliwell curated some of Pointon’s recordings for Electromuse, released in 2016 by the Public Information label, with all proceeds going to the Alzheimer’s Society. These were thrilling recordings built from tapeloops and home-built bits of equipment, for the most part realised in Pointon’s shed.
Electromuse was the title of Pointon’s column for Practical Electronics (PE), one of a number of hobbyist magazines that Helliwell began collecting in earnest as part of his research. “Malcolm penned his Electromuse columns for PE in the early to mid-70s,” explains Helliwell. “These tied in with two electronic construction projects – the PE Sound Synthesiser and the Minisonic – both of which were designed by Doug Shaw with input from Pointon.”
“The composition of ‘Symbiosis’ was an interesting venture. For once I had to think in terms of musical material which could be bent to accommodate anyone who wishes to recreate it, from the skilled musician to the enthusiastic amateur. The form of the piece is quite straightforward: it begins quietly, gets louder and quicker, settles in the middle, gets quicker again and returns again to nothingness; beginning, middle and end.”
– Malcolm Pointon ‘Symbiosis Intro’ from Electromuse (Public Information, 2016)
One of the pieces on the Electromuse LP was ‘Symbiosis’, a piece presented with a graphic score to accompany the Minisonic project that had been published in June 1975 in Practical Electronics. “To me, it seemed a fascinating proposition in a mainstream hobbyist magazine,” enthuses Helliwell. He’s correct: the idea of something so bold and artistically adventurous in a magazine you could pick up in any WH Smith on any suburban British high street does seem remarkable, but it was also surprisingly practical. The Minisonic itself was a stylus-operated device and hardly the easiest thing to play; it was intended to be built by enthusiasts whose focus was more on its construction and not necessarily for people like Pointon who could confidently follow a conventional score. Thus a graphic score – in this instance a relatively straightforward musical diagram as opposed to a highly conceptual set of instructions in the style of Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise – would enable non-musicians to conjure some sort of passable musical output from their jury-rigged Minisonic construction, specifically droning textures, oscillating sequences, heavy blocks of sound and wandering, unstructured melodies.
That universality caught Ian Helliwell’s attention. “On the one hand it all tied in so well with my research and interest in electronic music,” he says. “But being unable to read conventional music notation myself, it had an even greater resonance. It meant that properly scored piece of music was now feasible for me to follow and interpret – at least in theory.”
Using the carefully-preserved reel-to-reel recording of ‘Symbiosis’ that Barbara Pointon had kept within her late husband’s archive, Helliwell was able to compare the score against Pointon’s version, and he was drawn to how readily it matched the visual appeal of Pointon’s instructions. “Several years after first hearing Pointon’s original, I was contacted by electronics constructor and musician, Paul Williams,” recalls Helliwell. “He shared with me a recording of ‘Symbiosis’ he’d made in 1978, and it was most intriguing to compare the two interpretations. This was the catalyst I needed to inspire me to record my own version in 2017.”
Helliwell’s version of the score saw him deploying his own, self-built electronic instruments. “The Minisonic was intended to be played with a Stylophone-type pen making contact with a conductive strip,” he explains. “I’d previously built two Hellitron Stylus machines that operate along those lines. Although a rhythm is not in Pointon’s score, as such, I also used my Percussimate rhythm machine, initially to keep time. In the end I decided it sounded very effective in one section and it had to stay in the recording.”
After that, the germ of an idea formed in Helliwell’s mind: he would reach out to friends, likeminded soldering enthusiasts and other electronic musicians. “I simply approached people I was friends with, or I knew a little bit, and who I felt would be a good match for this kind of challenge,” recalls Halliwell. “I wanted musicians with an affinity with experimental sound, and who had an interest in older equipment and something of the history of electronic music. It was entirely up to them how they approached the graphic score and what gear they used.”
The results have been compiled on CD released by Helliwell earlier this year called Project Symbiosis, placing Malcolm Pointon’s original, Paul Williams’ piece and Helliwell’s own alongside new versions by the likes of Resonance FM’s Daniel Wilson, Apollo 440 co-founder James Gardner and Steve Duckworth, who used to build the types of projects documented in Practical Electronics back in the 1970s. Paris-based Peter Keene approached his version with such purity that he went so far as to build his own Minisonic using circuit diagrams sent to him by Helliwell.
Another contributor was 808 State’s Graham Massey. “I haven’t really used graphic scores before,” he says. “My first attempt at ‘Symbiosis’ was a bit loose and Ian had me redo it, which I was grateful for. The second attempt I was much more focussed, as I delved deeper into the score.”
If using a graphic score was a new thing for Massey, the culture of home-built electronics wasn’t. “I was in an electronics club at high school,” he recalls. “Also, my dad worked in electronic engineering, so he would build stuff like radiograms in the shed. He built me a fuzzbox with an audio oscillator in it and my first guitar amp was a repurposed PA system from the McVities biscuit factory with a long-wave radio built in, with a massive tannoy horn attached. Then there was a telephone rotary dialler gate device that we used on my electric violin, and he built The Astroban, an electric mono string guitar with telephone pickups at either end. That’s been on a lot of my records over the past thirty years.”
Massey was keen to approach his version of ‘Symbiosis’ with a reverential nod toward the equipment it was originally designed for. “I wanted to use a synth I have called the E&MM Spectrum,” he says. “Electronics & Music Maker was an electronic music magazine from the 70s, and this synth was a kit that you built monthly. I didn’t build it – someone gave it to me – but this seemed in keeping with the project, and it has some really nice modulation possibilities linked in stereo. I also used a little bit of the ARP 2600.”
Brighton sonic adventurer and one of Ian Helliwell’s Tone Generation collaborators Simon James opted not to use his trademark Buchla system for his version of ‘Symbiosis’. “I used a Roland System 100 on loan from my friend Pablo at Toy Drum studio, and I also used a Roland Space Echo RE-201. The combination worked really well. The System 100 is such a rich synthesizer.”
James had also never really worked extensively with graphic scores before. “I did a live Theremin performance with Ian and Sarah Angliss a long time ago where we had the graphic score running on a screen in front of us and we all played along,” he recalls. “I remember the combination of that screen and a mirror ball making me so dizzy that I nearly fell off the stage. I joke that I have a mirror ball ban on my rider since then. But while I haven’t done many graphic scores, I’ve done music inspired by architecture, which often means using the shape of a structure or building and representing that with sound elements. In The Shadow Of The Skylon or pieces from my Shenzhen / Shanghai – China release are good examples of this.”
The idea of sitting through ten versions of the same piece might seem a little daunting. The reality is that each of these interpretations are, in their own way, improvisations based on visual cues rather than the generally faithful playing you’d hear with multiple versions of a classical piece. Pointon’s score even includes an instruction to improvise – slowly – around a specific cluster of notes, a process that would be familiar to him from being an accomplished jazz pianist, itself a relatively playful concept within a genre of music that has a tendency to lean toward rigid, grid-like forward motion. “It’s fascinating to hear all the versions,” reflects Graham Massey. “To me it feels like a road map seen through different lenses.”
“Overall, I wanted to reflect something of the analogue DIY sensibility of yesteryear, but mixed with a contemporary approach,” concludes Ian Helliwell. “Even though ‘Symbiosis’ is 45 years old, I felt that it still has a modern relevance, and could even be used in schools nowadays to introduce pupils to electronic sounds and ways of putting them together.”
Project Symbiosis was released 6 January by Helliwell Industries in a limited edition of 100 CD copies, incuding comprehensive liner notes and a reproduction of Malcolm Pointon’s score. Buy Project Symbiosis through Bandcamp.
Ian Helliwell’s website, containing comprehensive details of his various projects and Analogue Sound Workshops in Brighton can be found here.
I fondly remember a time when war was the only existential threat I used to worry about. When I first saw the title of the new Doomed Bird Of Providence EP, I initially thought that it was a slightly dated depiction of the parlous state of things around us; a pre-COVID view of the world, if you will, of knife-edge crises concerning dictatorships, WMDs, terrorism and displomatic emergencies caused by seized oil tankers.
This isn’t the subject matter of this four-track EP, however, and anyone with a passing knowledge of Australian-born, London-based Mark Kluzek’s band would appreciate that their evocative instrumental music is principally concerned with the past.
Where the band’s earlier releases directed their unflinching lenses at Australia’s colonial legacy, this release is focussed on Kluzek’s grandfather and his journey from his invaded homeland of Poland in the Second World War, through Europe, to Scotland and thence to Australia. Using hand-me-down recollections from relatives and a book detailing his grandfather’s military troop’s journey during the war, Kluzek’s piano compositions were designed to evoke each pivotal stage of an escape that he owes his existence to.
With Kluzek’s mesmerising playing dominating the foreground, accompanied by fiddle and militaristic drumming, the EP’s title track begins with a languid, almost wistful air, somewhere between resignation at the oncoming invasion and a regretful look back at the home that was soon to be abandoned. As the tracks progress, a firmness, a determination and yet also a tension beings to set in, with the final track – ‘But Something To Aim For’ exhibiting a hopeful, yet desperate sense of urgency amid a wall of rising, cacophonous layered instrumentation. These pieces are framed by a folk music palette, itself a nod in the direction of Eastern European traditions, lacing their tonalities with echoes of the past and a profound sense of loss.
The Doomed Bird Of Providence have always excelled at producing such historically-informed narratives, whether about tuberculosis diaries or natural disasters, loading each of their pieces with a semi-imagined first-person perspective that is all the more remarkable considering they operate squarely in the field of instrumental music. Rumbling Clouds Of War Hover Over Us cements that yet again, yielding four breathtaking soundtracks to a deeply personal subject matter that convey so much – without saying a single word.
Rumbling Clouds Of War Hover Over Us by Doomed Bird Of Providence is released April 17 2020 by 10 To 1 Records.
It’s a place for reviews and features of things that just don’t fit into my Mute Records blog (Documentary Evidence), or things that I really like that I’m not covering for someone else. That’s about as much as there is to say about it.
Mat Smith is a music writer for Electronic Sound and Documentary Evidence. Occasional contributor to Clash, This Is Not Retro and Cold War Night Life. Press release writer for VeryRecords. Father, husband, vegan.