At the end of 2018 I went to update my website and realised I had nothing to add into my list of compositions from that year, or indeed most of the previous year. It wasn’t that I’d been idle – my research work with CW+ was busy, and I’d been working with the Arcadio guys on developing our monthly night at SET in Dalston – but nonetheless it felt concerning. So at the start of 2019 I made a resolution to create a few new pieces, perhaps even a short EP. I also decided fairly early on that these should be electronic pieces, so I would have an excuse to properly get to know Ableton which I had been dabbling with for a while.
Now, over a year later, I’m happy to share the first of these pieces: Thomish (Hypothetical Unison).
This piece began as a technical exercise to see if I could recreate some of my favourite sounds from the solo music of Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, hence the name ‘Thomish’ (a working title that stuck). There are other influences as well, like the trumpet sound which was my attempt at finding something like James Blake’s vocal processing in ‘If the Car Beside You Moves Ahead’. The drones that underpin the piece are manipulated samples from a concert by the Bristol University Wind Orchestra in 2005 (possibly from either the Holst or RVW Folk Song Suites), and were created entirely by accident solely because I thought my old Bristol friends might find it funny to know they’re in there.
The ‘Hypothetical Unison’ part of the title is a term borrowed from the musicologist Steven Feld, and originally refers to the rhythmic discrepancies inherent in traditional music from Papua New Guinea:
These sounds, whether in the forest, in Kaluli music singing, or in the overlap of the two, are “in-synchrony but out of phase”. By this I mean that they are always cohesive, yet always seeming, as well, to be at different points of displacement from a hypothetical unison.Feld, ‘The Sound World of Bosavi’
In ‘Thomish’ this idea is manifested in the rhythmic elements, in which the hypothetical unison is a floating downbeat that never really materialises. I spent a while building this as a semi-random process in Max MSP, before realising Ableton had a sequencer that could easily do the same thing.
I was very keen to have a visual element to accompany the music, and when the piece was finished I sent it to Emily Bailey, a brilliant visual artist who I’d worked with on one of our Arcadio nights and a few other gigs. When she came back to me with ideas of magnets and iron filings I knew the end result was going to be special. I asked Emily to reflect on her process working on this video:
“After listening to Thomish, I visualised a cold stark landscape with life forms growing from metal filings. I hadn’t animated with metal filings before and thought it would be interesting to try. So I hooked a light box up to my laptop and created a rostrum camera set up. I used two magnets to then animate metal filings on the light box whilst taking multiple frames with my camera. I composited these with many many layers and edited the video so that it reacted to the composition with each sound having its own texture and representation.”
“Animating with the magnets was very difficult. I quickly realised I had to give up any attachment I had to the forms and actions I wanted to create as the magnetic forces were unpredictable and to some degree uncontrollable. It became a process of putting things into motion, documenting the dance the metal filings did to the magnetic movements and trying to connect that to the narrative of the music.”
I hope you enjoy this piece and the stunning video that accompanies it. Watch this space for more new electronic pieces later in the year.