Posts Tagged ‘The Necks’
Interview with Sophie Hutchings.
“…repetition engenders a freeing effect without expectations or obligations in what you the listener feels or thinks. That’s all I ever want from music.”
Words: Mark Carry
Sophie Hutchings is a pianist and composer from Sydney. Since 2010’s debut ‘Becalmed’ LP, the gifted Australian composer has developed her unique style of textured ambience and neo-classical bliss. Hutchings has released three instrumental works to date, ‘Becalmed’, ‘Night Sky’ and ‘White Light’, receiving fine recognition internationally for elegant and beautiful music compared to the likes of Nils Frahm, Max Richter, Peter Broderick and Dustin O’Hallloran.
‘Wide Asleep’ begins with a gentle pulsating drone amidst a soft whisper uttering “I think I can see.” ‘Dream Gate’ serves the fitting opening piece to Hutchings’ deeply moving and revelatory latest work: the repeated mantra heralds the vivid sense of discovery that beautifully infiltrates the human space. The achingly beautiful piano melody feels at once familiar and mysteriously unknown: a towering modern-classical exploration ascends into one’s subconscious and inner-most self. A searching quality permeates throughout the record as larger realms of sound and feeling is masterfully attained by the gifted Sydney-based composer.
The added instrumentation of opera vocal samples further heightens the blissful transcendence that shares the cosmic spirit of Alice Coltrane and Laraaji’s empowering, celestial works. The graceful, fleeting waves of harmonies and piano motifs of ‘Falling’ holds a gentle resonance upon the listener akin to the infinite ocean waves. During the final section, the slowed-down tempo of strings blends effortlessly with Hutchings’ deeply poignant piano motifs, forming one cohesive whole of stunning beauty. Towards the low sun.
One of ‘Wide Asleep’s great hallmarks is the sheer multitude of sublime moments distilled within one single piece. For example, the companion pieces of ‘Memory I’ and ‘Memory II’ unfolds a vast haven of soul-stirring rapture: the mesmeric choral harmonies of ‘Memory II’ continually build, serving the record’s life-affirming crescendo. Like a river finding its sea, the musical undercurrent of embracing patterns, warm textures of ‘Wide Asleep’ runs deep and ventures further into the cosmos than ever before.
‘Wide Asleep’ is out now on Preservation.
Interview with Sophie Hutchings.
Congratulations Sophie on your formidable new body of work, ‘Wide Asleep’. Following on from your rich tapestry of recorded output, ‘Wide Asleep’ feels like the crowning jewel of your storied career thus far. As ever, a deep musical undercurrent permeates throughout these particular recordings that drags the listener deep into the musical patterns, textures and shapes like ripples cast by the ocean. Please discuss the making of the new record – and more particularly the writing of these compositions – and indeed the particular space or moment(s) in time these piano compositions flickered into glittering life?
Sophie Hutchings: I love your beautiful description of ‘Wide Asleep’. Thank you so much. There is quite a lot of undercurrents that permeate throughout. True!
Writing for me is always a very vague and unconscious process. So, actual visible moments I find more a challenge to reflect on or recall. I usually connect with my pieces in retrospect.
Wide Asleep was a volcano waiting to happen so the writing process was a bit of a musical purge and happened quite quickly. I had a definite vision of how I wanted this album to be from beginning to end. The previous albums unfolded as I went along whereas with “Wide Asleep” I had an overall vision from the start and I worked on achieving getting to that end point. I wrote the bare bones of the pieces in a sort of hasty fashion and then basically worked on structuring the other musical layers thereafter.
The process was a little like being seasick; once the tidal wave settled, I felt a sense of reprieve. (As in I got all the piano pieces written and demoed). I then wrote out the string, vocal and soundscapes in small waves. There was a lot of melodies circulating around in my head throughout the journey of Wide Asleep. Sometimes it would be whilst in bed so I’d get up and record the melody so as not to let it slip away, which happens. Other times it was just through focused playing and composing over many cups of tea by day, red wine by night allowing itself to form.
We recorded a lot of the piano and strings live. I added the textural soundscape elements and vocal harmonies after that at one my favourite local studios (Oceanic studios). It has a very warm and homey atmosphere. One of its unique aspects is a huge window that looks out onto a typically Australian bush setting. I love that. So, I just faced upwards looking out to the scenery and practiced my vocals and we hit the record button…
The added elements of divine opera vocal samples further heighten the ambient dimension of ‘Wide Asleep”s sonic landscape. For example, the opener ‘Dream Gate’ and hypnotic pulses of ‘Falling’ contains such sublime vocal passages that meld so effortlessly with the piano instrumentation. Can you talk me through the various instrumentation you have utilized on the new record, Sophie and indeed any challenges or difficulties posed by the layering of new elements to a particular composition?
SH: I’ve always enjoyed the dreamy ethereal side of music. One that you can’t quite pinpoint yet evokes a certain feeling. I wanted to take that element a little further with the use of harmonies and implement older sounding instruments like the Harpsichord and bells. A little bit of drone. I also utilised an opera vocal sound from one of my keyboards to create a repetitive hypnotic pulse in “Falling”. I felt those sort of subtleties lifted the pieces just slightly and have them waiver or hover for a moment in time. I really liked the idea of using vocal harmonies more so as a form of instrumentation and felt it would suit the theme of the album so I wrote some voicings out on piano and worked on transposing that into my vocal harmonies.
The vocal harmonies were looming from the onset so it felt right, without them unduly taking over. They are an added essence. It’s almost a way of coming up for air before plunging into the unknown again.
I must say the closing section of ‘Falling’ in which the vocal harmony motif returns for the last time, signals one of the record’s most captivating moments…I would love for you to discuss the importance of repetition in your music, and in turn, how you ‘see’ or visualize music? I always feel that a certain gravitational pull or hold on the listener occurs through repetition inside music.
SH: I am a massive fan of repetition in music. Repetition fastens the mind into a gentle trance where you can let go and not feel affected by your surroundings or time itself. In a society where time demands so much of us, repetition engenders a freeing effect without expectations or obligations in what you the listener feels or thinks. That’s all I ever want from music.
I don’t visualise music as such. In a way with the early stages of writing, I think my mind goes into shut down mode which is why I find it difficult to remember exact moments of writing. If I do see music, it always comes in a very hazy dimension and will slowly evolve into its own likeness from there which is what happened with Wide Asleep. It started to take on a theme of its own as the album grew, evoking those intangible gateways between sleep and wakefulness. Those moments where what actually feels real isn’t…. Perhaps sneaking in that other worldly element.
Has your compositional approach changed or altered in any way from previous records such as ‘Night Sky’ or ‘Becalmed’? ‘Wide Asleep’ was produced by yourself, solely. I am very interested in this stage of the music-making process and what transitions or developments these compositions undertook during this stage?
SH: The early concepts or ideas always seem to have a similar pattern of approach. With the previous albums, I tended to write more as I went along. Wide Asleep was determined from the beginning. The full vision was in the forefront of my mind and I trusted myself to attain that end goal. With Wide Asleep I had this inward sense of urgency… I found that sense of urgency a challenge to contend with as the production took a little longer however you always learn and gain new experiences each time.
Collaboration is another vital part to the process, and your close friends Tim Whitten (engineer), Peter Hollo (cello) and Jay Kong (violin) bring so much to the table, as always. I just love how such a deep communication – almost innate – exists between these different voices that forms one cohesive whole of utter transcendence. Can you recount your memories of recording with these guests and the headspace you all must inhabit when these parts all come together?
SH: Having worked with Peter and Jay for a while now is a real asset. It has become very instinctive. The musical chemistry between us is something that is very easily communicated. Jay and Peter have a very sensitive approach to understanding the way I write music and make it very easy for me when we all sit down together to map out the process and contemplate their parts. Occasionally I have a weird way of putting my melodies together but they’ve become accustomed to it! I love them so much for that.
Tim being a long-standing family friend has observed my pattern of composing from a young age and has watched it grow and wholeheartedly supported my style and process. I can have a tendency to be quite timid with my approach. This time around I had tunnel vision which took Tim a while to get his head around but once he did he knew and understood where I wanted to be and we worked as a team to get there. He’s very intuitive when mixing instrumental music which I guess is why bands like The Necks continually go back to him as do I.
The euphoric crescendo of ‘Memory II’ with its gorgeous choral refrain and mesmerising piano lines serves one of many defining moments. These two compositions, ‘Memory I’ and ‘Memory II’ are obviously very significant and are the heart to part B. The sequencing of the record I feel works wonderfully and the layering and aesthetics of the two parts – A & B – creates such a moving and powerful journey. I wonder are any of these pieces borne from old melodies you have had in the vaults, so to speak?
SH: I always have unfinished pieces sitting in vaults! Sometimes I randomly revisit them. There’s quite a few demos waiting to be woken from their slumber sitting on hard drives…
In this case Memory I was half written and I ran into a wall with it so to speak. It didn’t move for a little while so I left it alone, then one night I sat down with it and it germinated and took off so it was either going to be one really long piece or could be consumed in two parts which I think works with the astral vocals taking over from the darkish coloured middle eastern tonality of the strings. It picks it up and sweeps it into another dream state territory though still in the same key so the journey has a connection to its former memory and goes back to that in the outro of Memory I.. It’s like a Memory that expands and travels, then gets revisited ….
Can you shed some light on the influences or inspirations you feel found their way into the ‘Wide Asleep’ sound world, Sophie?
SH: I was listening to a lot of old Gamelan music, Indian Classical Raga and Jazz which is nothing like Wide Asleep but subconsciously things can infiltrate the subconscious. It’s the way our being then formulates that expression. Different music can still relate to each other. It can be like the sentiments of Indie Rock vs the music of Opera. They can evoke a similar feeling. Perhaps it works the same? I grew up listening to extreme polar opposites in styles of music. One side of the house was Jazz and the other Indie rock. It was a war of the worlds between my Dad and my older Brothers. From a young age though I was writing the kind of music I write now. I’m still not sure where that comes from. At times it frustrated me that I attempted changing it when I was younger but it’s something I’ve recognised comes from within me and I should enjoy embracing it. It’s just another way of me articulating without having to phrase them into words.
Lastly, I must ask you about the beautiful solo piano full-length ‘Drift’. This forms such a perfect sister companion to ‘Wide Asleep’ with its marked intimacy and ethereal quality, a magical spell is cast with each delicate piano note. It feels as if this was created in one sitting, and effectively feels like one large piece. Can you discuss these compositions and how much of a role improvisation played in the inception of ‘Drift’?
SH: These were all layered late night recordings that were half improvised / half composed. It was a very organic relaxed unpressured approach between the walls of my lounge room using the damper pedal out of convenience but also for its tonally soft tranquil effect… It’s the sleepy sister of Wide Asleep indeed.
‘Wide Asleep’ is out now on Preservation.
We are delighted to present an exclusive video album teaser and track premiere from the eagerly awaited new solo full length release from Sydney-based pianist and composer Sophie Hutchings. “Wide Asleep” will be released on the Preservation label on 22nd July 2016.
The Preservation label presents “Wide Asleep”, the third album from Sydneyʼs Sophie Hutchings, which is due for release on 22nd July 2016. “Wide Asleep” is the much-anticipated follow-up to 2012’s much-loved “Night Sky” album. Watch the official video for “Wide Asleep” below:
Listen to the Sophie Hutchings’ track “Memory I”, taken from “Wide Asleep” via Soundcloud below:
Sophie Hutchings is a pianist and composer from Sydney. She began teaching herself piano at an early age before any tuition, developing her unique style through countless hours of secret practice. Hutchings has released three instrumental works to date, ‘Becalmed’, ‘Night Sky’ and ‘White Light’, receiving fine recognition internationally for elegant and beautiful music compared to the likes of Nils Frahm, Max Richter, Peter Broderick and Dustin O’Hallloran.
With ‘Wide Asleep’, Hutchings has taken her compositional scope into larger realms of sound and feeling. It is her most searching work, based on ideas on consciousness between sleep and wakefulness. In her most dazzling and poignant pieces to date, Hutchingsʼ piano lines extend with both electricity and elegance, winding through strings, textured ambience and choral voices through beauty and vitality.
Reaching further with her music than ever before, Hutchings is in great company, recording Wide Asleep with Tim Whitten, best known for his nuanced and dynamic work with The Necks.
‘Wide Asleep’ will be released via Preservation on 22nd July 2016.
Pre-order the “Wide Asleep” ltd. edition boutique vinyl & CD at the links below:
“I often visualise music in terms of light. When I play with the Necks, I always play with my eyes closed. I like to face the stage lights with my eyes closed. I can sense this light through my eyelids, I can also I feel its energy. It seems a perfect analogue to the music, especially when things seem to be really building somewhere.”
—Chris Abrahams, The Necks
Words: Mark Carry
Described by Financial Times (UK) as “absolutely riveting” and “entirely new and entirely now” by The Guardian, it’s one of life’s great fortunes to have been blessed by such an extraordinary, innovative and richly compelling band, namely Australia’s The Necks. Releasing their debut record, ‘Sex’ back in 1989, the trio of Chris Abrahams (piano), Tony Buck (drums) and Lloyd Swanton (bass) have unleashed a plethora of shape-shifting records – the other-worldly mid-90’s double-album ‘Silent Night’, the band’s string of colossal live records (including 2007’s ‘Townsville’), and the band’s latest crowning jewel of ‘Open’ containing 68 minutes of raw, intense beauty, is to just name a few – whereupon a revelatory experience lies at the pulsing heart of each artistic treasure.
The gradual music of The Necks is borne from improvisation, where a deep musical telepathy is forever forged between each member of the spell-binding trio as a sacred space is ceaselessly explored. Featuring lengthy pieces which slowly unravel in the most mesmerizing fashion, frequently underpinned by an insistent deep groove, the sixteen albums by The Necks stand up to re-listening time and time again. In short, the music of the Australian trio is utterly timeless.
I recall first hearing The Necks in my local record-store one morning in early Spring where a mesmerizing sound of piano notes, drums and hypnotic bass-line flooded the surrounding space. In a short period of time – moments after the stylus hit this unknown (and deeply mysterious) vinyl – returning motifs of piano patterns forged an imprint on the forefront of my mind. Like ocean waves, the crescendo of piano notes formed ripples in the sea.
With each and every subsequent release of The Necks, this magical sense of discovery and awe has always remained. An intense beauty, tenderness, solace, hope, pain, and longing is carved out on a canvas of enlightening soundscapes. Not entirely avant-garde, nor minimalist, nor ambient, nor jazz, the music of The Necks defies boundaries and constantly pushes the sonic envelope.
Interview with Chris Abrahams.
[The following are excerpts taken from an interview with Chris Abrahams, the resulting interview here is unedited from the initial interview and is reproduced here all in the words of Chris Abrahams.]
I can really only speak for myself when it comes to the Necks as I think we each have differing opinions as to what the whole thing means. For me, the idea that best describes the Necks’ music and approach to being a band is pretty simple: one thing leads to another.
I met Tony when I was sixteen, at a jam session in the suburb where we both grew up. I met Lloyd about a year later. We all three of us played together a lot, in different combinations, before we formed the Necks. What it was we wanted to do with the group, apart from playing music, was never really overtly considered. For the first ten years of its existence the band played maybe three or four shows a year. Nevertheless, it was incredibly important to us.
The reasons I played music are embedded quite far back in my childhood. My father was very passionate about Jazz – Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman especially. He’d spent time, in the late forties, in the USA and I think the music brought back to him powerful memories of his time there. One pianist whose records he played a lot was Jimmy Yancey. There’s a bar in Berlin called Miss Hecker and they often put Jimmy Yancey on the sound system. The music is very evocative of childhood memories. I remember being about seven and trying to play a simplified version of Five O’clock Blues on the piano.
My teenage years were fairly unexceptional in terms of what I listened to – the Beatles, Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendrix. I tried to play bass guitar in a rock band I formed with some school friends. I had an upright piano in my bedroom,which I played regularly and on which I tried to write songs. The reason why I became a musician as a career choice came about through listening to modern jazz records, which began when I was sixteen or so.
Up until my early twenties, Afro-American modern jazz, mainly from the sixties, was chiefly what I listened to and tried to emulate – particularly the piano players Mal Waldron and McCoy Tyner.
As a young person, apart from African-American modern jazz, I listened to rock music. I think John Cale was quite an influence on my piano playing, particularly in the Velvet Underground. I was a big fan of the Modern Lovers and Nico albums he produced as well. I also listened to a lot of African music –Fela Kuti, Tabu Ley, King Sunny Ade, Salif Keita. Reggae was also big thing – Lee Perry, Gregory Isaacs, Bob Marley, Yellowman, King Tubby. In fact, Tony and I spent an extraordinary week in Jamaica in 1987 where we met Gregory Isaacs and got to see Yellowman and Pinchers performing live at a drive in cinema in downtown Kingston. I also listened to a lot of soul music and played Hammond organ in a soul group led by the great Jackie Orszaczky. I listened to classical music; the Beethoven Sonata cycle played by Alfred Brendel was much listened to as was Pascal Devoyon playing Ravel; John Ogden and Brenda Lucas playing “Visions of the Amen” by Messiaen was also on high rotation.
In my early twenties I became involved with an Indie record label, Hot Records, in Sydney. Through this association I got to meet and play with many young musicians that were in bands. I ended up playing on Laughing Clowns’, Triffids’ and Peter Walsh albums. I lived in Newtown, an inner city suburb which at the time was a bit of a music area and I consequently socialized and played on quite a few other records – records by Crow, Big Heavy Stuff and Love Me amongst others. I also wrote songs with a singer called Melanie Oxley.
I was also involved in the improvised music scene in Sydney. Although not huge in number, there are some incredible improvisers in Australia. In the eighties I played with such people as Jim Denley, Rick Rue, Sherre Deleys, Jamie Fielding and Amanda Stewart. I had the honour of guesting with such groups as Mind Body Split and Machine for Making Sense. There was also the towering figure of Jon Rose, who was very active in the early eighties in Sydney before relocating, for a number of years, to Europe.
Another musician who had a big influence on me was a saxophonist called Mark Simmonds with whom I played in the group, The Freeboppers.
The form of jazz soloing whereby a melody is played and then various soloists display dexterity by improvising over a set of harmonic changes was something I lost interest more or less by my early twenties, possibly because I wasn’t very good at it. I began to think of music not as a display of individual brilliance. I began to see music’s ability to express things more profound than cleverness or hard work.I began, in fact, to see it as something beyond individual expression. Through the Necks I realised that I could be both performer of and listener to the music that we made – and that was an exciting discovery. Maybe we all made that discovery together when we first started playing in the group.
Our approach to making music is not very intellectual. I think its true to say we just play. We’ve been doing it now for thirty years and what we are as a group is a result of us having played together for so long. We’ve developed an identity, a way of doing things, and when we play, a certain music happens.
When we perform live, we never look at each other. Nor do we discuss beforehand what we’re going to play. Some people find this strange, but to me it feels perfectly natural. Our music can’t rely on rehearsal or signals from a bandleader – it has to rely solely on the playing of music, without a preordained teleology. That’s not to say are music lacks direction – far from it. I think there’s a compelling teleology, it’s just that this seems to be there innately. Scores, words or signals would be distracting from our goal.
I think our music requires stamina and relaxation to make. I love the feel of playing the piano, the sense of my fingers pressing down on the keys. I find this to be expressive in itself. In the early days sometimes I’d find myself barely hanging on and struggling with fatigue. Nowadays that doesn’t happen so much. I like sitting very still when I play, I like the sense of focus and relaxation. I like to think that the things I do in the Necks I could do for hours and hours.
I don’t like to think about where I’m going during a performance. I don’t want people to listen to me making decisions. I often find myself carried along in the excitement of the music – its crescendo, it’s ebb and flow – as if I were part of the audience. Sometimes I don’t know what it is I’m playing; there might be a strange melody I hear and I think it’s me playing it. I stop and it keeps going. Sometimes, through the combination of a strange instrument and weird acoustics, I have heard the piano speak words. The same sonic hallucinations that audience members have told us they’ve heard during a performance, we too have heard.
The Necks are site specific. We play and when we gradually start to interact with the acoustic environment, we begin to intuitively shape the music. Every space is different, every instrument is different, and every PA is different. Our music uses these things as structure defining elements.
I often visualise music in terms of light. When I play with the Necks, I always play with my eyes closed. I like to face the stage lights with my eyes closed. I can sense this light through my eyelids, I can also I feel its energy. It seems a perfect analogue to the music, especially when things seem to be really building somewhere.
I think there’s a narrative dimension to what we do. Seemingly, we are repeating small actions over and over – actions that can be melodic, rhythmical and textural –and this has the effect of being mesmerizing. But these units are all slightly different, largely because they are physically played, and thus, over time, the music changes. A Necks’ piece is normally about fifty minutes long and, by allowing one thing to lead to another, where we end up can be vastly different from where we started. Some sort of abstract narrative is told. I am gripped by the hypnotic sameness of the “repetition” and am being pulled along a slowly but profoundly shifting musical terrain.
I try to express emotion through my playing. I try to express the excitement of the music that I’m playing. There’s a circularity to it.
A very big change happened to my approach to the piano when I bought my first sampler – the Kurzweil K2000. Up until that time, I wouldn’t have known what the term “envelope” meant or what an “LFO” was.
Let me backtrack… I never really had a very good piano when I was young. Neither of my parents was a practising musician. However like many parents, they wanted to give myself and my sister the opportunity of having piano tuition, probably expecting it to be a passing phase after which the behemoth would sit largely unplayed in a corner of the house – a sentimental memento of our childhoods. The instrument I got to learn on was a sixty-year-old Richard Lipp and Son upright – an old warhorse that couldn’t be tuned within a semitone of A440. (In its day it would have been a beautiful instrument) It had an inbuilt chorus effect, which no piano tuner was able to tame. (I discovered that by threading a necktie through the strings, the piano sounded more in tune.)I was in no way a child prodigy and by the age of eleven I had in fact given up on formal lessons. But the piano ended up in my bedroom, so I played it. I think possibly the out of tune-ness of the instrument may have pointed me in the direction of a more textural approach to piano playing, without me actually knowing it.
Let me backtrack even further… I can remember the first time I ever played a piano. I would have been about five years old and we, my family, were visiting another family. They had this strange-looking wardrobe thing in one of the rooms. My sister and I lifted the lid on the keys and began to play with them, with me down one end and her at the other. I remember being amazed that the action of pressing a key down could produce such a loud sound. I recall us both being enthralled by the high notes and low notes. With its simple exploration of lightness and darkness, I’ve often thought there was something about that initial meeting with the piano that’s stayed with me.
When I got into sampling and synthesisers, I found that I had a whole lot of new words and concepts that could be applied to the various sound elements I explored on the piano; I could, for instance, understand the sustain pedal as a form of reverb; I saw the una corda pedal as a form of EQ; I saw that these pedals could be used in such a way so as to produce a Low Frequency Modulation effect; by rapid striking of a single string, I could overload its vibration and cause a distortion effect; and I became aware that as the string struggles towards stasis, the pitch produced gets higher with the concomitant frequency increase. All these ideas were directly a result of my self-guided explorations into the physics of sound production that the sampler opened up for me.
I made two solo piano records in the mid eighties and then didn’t make another one till “Glow” in 2003. My approach to Glow was one of developing pieces over a period of time, booking a studio and then doing take after take of each piece until I got something I liked. My next solo album “Streaming” had different approach. I chose to work with performance techniques that eschewed the idea of “mistakes” or difference in the quality of performances. Here the pieces were longer. I’m quite proud of the track “Christmas Island” on Streaming. It’s a piece that involved placing my hands above the keyboard so that they readily played a tonal “mode” and moving my fingers so as to brush against the keys. Although I had control over the note range, how many of the notes would “sound” was to a large extent unknown. The piece is therefore personally expressive but very much uncontrolled, left to chance – an authorial stance I most prefer.
Since “Streaming” in 2005, I haven’t released a solo piano record. However I’ve finished four solo albums on the Room 40 label – “Thrown”, “Play Scar”, Memory Night”, and soon to be released “Fluid to The Influence”. These have elements of piano solo on them, but are much more electro acoustic in content.
The Necks are two different entities. On the one hand there is the live Necks, which is nearly always acoustic piano, acoustic bass and drums/percussion. On the other hand there’s the “studio” version of the group, which uses anything – guitars, synths, organs, samplers, field recordings, electric bass – even other musicians.
With the live Necks, we don’t really ever discuss what we are about to play. Intuitively our pieces last for around fifty minutes – this was a time frame we hit upon within months of forming the group. I have the feeling it’s a natural human length of time. I feel extremely safe on stage with the Necks, I am never nervous or stressed. Although there is a strong identity to the music we play, I don’t feel I have to consciously force myself to play that way. It’s as if it’s impossible to play any other way; impossible to do something that’s not “the Necks” – even not playing sounds like the Necks. Somehow we all know when the piece is over. I don’t know whether this is telepathy or music, I suspect it’s the latter. I think we’ve been doing this one thing for so long that we can communicate with each other through music. The fact that it’s incredibly enjoyable helps too.
We all met when we were still teenagers. I met Lloyd during my brief attempt at attending the NSW Conservatorium of Music. We shared a similar sense of humour and quickly formed a group – a jazz quartet called The Benders comprising piano, bass, drums and saxophone. The group stayed together for five years and we released three albums. I think playing in this quartet was responsible for me developing technique on the piano. The drummer, Andrew Gander, taught me a lot about time and tempo. It ended in 1986.
Tony and I met while I was still at high school. It was at a jam session in the suburb we grew up in. I played in various groups in the early eighties with him. He had his own group, Sketches, that I played in and he sometimes played with the Benders.
There was also a musical collective called “The Keys Music Association” which organised concerts and festivals. All three of us were a part of this and played in various groupings. I guess, like in most scenes, in Sydney everybody played with everybody else.
In 1986, some months after the Benders finished, Lloyd rang me with the idea of forming a trio. We both thought of Tony. We began “rehearsing” in a room in the compounds of Sydney University and straightaway hit upon something that felt new to us. We actually had no intention of rushing into playing gigs – in fact we enjoyed the idea of performing stress free in front of no audience, well away from the “industry” of music making. We wanted to free ourselves from the desire to play music that we thought people would be impressed by.
Previously I had toyed with the idea of playing music where there was no “soloing” as such; where the ambience remained static and non dynamic. The early Necks’ sessions took these ideas to a far more meditative stage. I felt a relaxation hitherto unexperienced; a contentment in letting things unfold of their own volition. Possibly this is merely the crossing over that every musician/artist has to make in order to become a mature artist – the relinquishing of the self, the using of a skill to create a third-party “thing” that’s not just the representation of individual desires. I think we all discovered this together then, whilst playing music in that room, but I can really only speak for myself.
Silent Night ranks up there with my personal favourite Necks’ recordings. I like the doom quality it exudes and it’s unrelenting feel – Lloyd’s bass playing and Tony’s drumming swing! Conceptually it was a breakthrough for us. We used samples of movie soundtracks – bits of sound design and snippets of half-heard dialog – to create an abstract narrative. It feels like there’s a film there, but what’s being projected is black. It was the album that got us the invitation to write the music for “The Boys” – an Australian film about abject male violence. For a while there our music would crop up regularly behind television reports about horrific crimes.
—Chris Abrahams, in conversation November 2015
‘Do Not Wait For Better Times’ [A Fractured Air Mix]
To listen on Mixcloud:
01. The Peep Show ‘Do Not Wait For Better Times’ [Tenth Planet]
02. The Moles ‘Lonely Hearts Get What They Deserve’ [Fire]
03. Craig Leon ‘Nommo’ [RVNG Intl]
04. K. Leimer ‘Lonely Boy’ [RVNG Intl]
05. Sharon Van Etten ‘Break Me’ [Jagjaguwar]
06. Emerald Web ‘Dreamspun’ [Stargate]
07. Mary Lattimore & Jeff Zeigler ‘The White Balloon’ [Thrill Jockey]
08. Amen Dunes ‘Lilac In Hand’ [Sacred Bones]
09. The Necks ‘The Boys III’ [‘The Boys’ OST / Fish Of Milk]
10. Erik K Skodvin ‘Shining, Burning’ [Sonic Pieces]
11. Hildur Guðnadóttir ‘Heyr Himnasmiður’ [Touch]
12. Ela Stiles ‘Anything’ [Fire / Bedroom Suck]
13. Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh ‘what what what’ [Diatribe]
14. Margaret Barry ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ (Long Version) [Rounder]
15. Robbie Basho ‘Leaf in the Wind’ [Gnome Life]
The copyright in these recordings is the property of the individual artists and/or their respective record labels. If you like the music, please support the artist by buying their records.
Fractured Air. The universe is making music all the time.
The Sydney-based pianist and composer Sophie Hutchings shares with us her feelings on the album which had the greatest impact on her life as a musician. To date, Hutchings has released two solo albums, ‘Becalmed’ and ‘Night Sky’, both available now via Australian independent label Preservation.
The Necks ‘Sex’, by Sophie Hutchings.
From a young age I became fixated with repetition… during practice or mooching around on the piano, even if it were a simple melody I’d made up. I’d enjoy the process of playing it in circular motion. There was a contentment in performing the same thing over and over again — although I’m sure my family didn’t experience the same form of contentment at the time! However, come my energetic teens it was the compelling and emotionally charged power of indie rock music that began to take precedence in my life, and although I continued to improvise at home with the kind of music I generally do now, I wasn’t exactly searching for anything outside of the more aggressive music I was listening to. I was spoilt by the records my two older brothers would bring home, and it was exciting to rummage through their collections and new finds. I felt I was discovering great and interesting music and I was! But when bands like Rachel’s came along, another sense in me awakened.
The first groundbreaking discovery for me was The Necks album ‘Sex’. Tim Whitten — who has been involved with the recording process of both my albums and a long-standing family friend — gave it to me saying: “You will totally dig this album”. I immediately fell in love with the purity, as well as the endlessly repeated motifs of the drums, bass and piano.
Repetition in music for me — be it ambient, instrumental or indie rock when done well — kind of transports you away from what’s going on around you. It holds you in a nice little pocket of time, hypnotic inflections drag you into a musical undercurrent and that’s what The Necks do to me. They manage to calmly hypnotize you without dissecting your emotions. They take you to a pensive place whilst also managing to uplift you at the same time. I chose this record, as it was a huge turning point in my life and it was the foundation of what I was then to build from. To this day I still hold onto it as a very special album. It’s one of those nostalgic numbers in your collection that you put on again, and again, again and again… and again. I never tire of it.
Artist: The Necks
Label: Spiral Scratch
Tracklist: Sex (56:08)
Personell: Chris Abrahams (piano), Tony Buck (drums), and Lloyd Swanton (bass)
Sophie Hutchings is currently recording her third album and follow-up to ‘Night Sky’ (Preservation, 2012) alongside The Necks’ producer Tim Whitten. Both ‘Becalmed’ and ‘Night Sky’ are available now on the Preservation label.
Interview with Peter Hollo, Raven.
Raven is the moniker for Sydney-based cellist and composer, Peter Hollo. Armed with a looping pedal and his beloved cello instrument, Hollo is capable of conjuring up sounds to awaken your senses and evoke landscapes of vivid colours and textures.
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
The debut Raven record is entitled ‘New Resolution’, which showcases a masterful artist at work. Many of the tracks are recorded live in one take; the magic sparks of spontaneity diffuse across the studio’s space and into the atmosphere of the listener’s world. It’s an appropriate title too. ‘New Resolution’ showcases a new world of musical possibilities where boundaries are constantly blurred. This particular solo project crosses many genres and styles, from neo-classical music to electronica, and beyond. One feels the special sense of time and place, where creativity is in full bloom throughout the sonic journey of ‘New Resolution’. I was introduced to Raven through the music of Sydney-based composer Sophie Hutchings. Music, quite often I find is like a network of branches or roots, where one artist leads you to another. It’s a truly beautiful thing.
‘Night Sky’ by Sophie Hutchings is one of my most cherished albums from last year. Peter Hollo plays the cello on this record, as he has done so on Hutchings’s debut album ‘Becalmed’. The instrumentation of piano, harmonium, accordion, percussion, vocals, violin, cello, oboe, flute and saw creates a haven of otherworldly sound. The piano-based compositions of Hutchings are very special indeed. As you listen to these pieces of music unfold, one feels an ocean of emotion pouring from the very heart of the gifted composer. Similar to the work of Peter Hollo, the instrumental work of Sophie Hutchings shares an unspoken connection with the listener. I can only imagine how collaborations like this and others, must seep into the slipstream of inspiration for Peter Hollo’s own projects. Interestingly, Raven is just one of several sonic ventures Hollo is at the heart of, most notably as cellist in FourPlay String Quartet and indietronic trio Haunts. Furthermore, as presenter of Utility Fog on Sydney’s FBi Radio, Hollo explores the crossover between organic & digital, acoustic & electronic, live & studio-constructed. It is clear that innovative music is forever embedded in the consciousness of the floating world between the vast array of collaborations and sonic ventures.
Album opener ‘Faux-Naive Journey of Alrightness’ is sublime. Layers of cello are performed live in one take. The piece begins with a cello bassline, which belongs somewhere between The Balanescu Quartet and Charles Mingus. This piece of music is joyous and uplifting. The hypnotic bassline is soon joined by layers of soaring strings that breathes new textures and depths to the canvas of sound. I sense the arrival of a new day; a slow sunrise forming on the horizon when listening to this opening piece. ‘Sleeping Dogs Lie’ is steeped in cinematic delight, with film score strings casting brooding emotion onto a landscape adrift and long-forgotten. The emotive strings could be the score to a John Hillcoat film or a lost Dirty Three record.
‘The Deafening Clamour Of Distant Cars’ is the longest cut on the album, at over twelve minutes in length. I think this piece is the essence of ‘New Resolution’. The epic piece of music mutates from ambient/classical worlds of drifting piano and heart wrenching strings to avant jazz/electronica of fresh beats and electronic glitches. Think modern classical a la Max Richter, Sophie Hutchings combined with the electronic mastery of Autechre and Aphex Twin. ‘Headache Music #1’ opens with synthesizer and laptop sounds echoing Germany’s Modeselektor, before gorgeously delicate cello rises and falls gently into the mix. A beautiful contrast is created between the futuristic beats and programming and mournful cello strings. A dichotomy of worlds; classical and experimental, are wonderfully fused together here.
‘Replicant’ has an irresistible slow-tempo groove. In fact, the bassline in places has an infectious dub sound. The electronic pulses and looped cello are effortlessly combined forming perfect late-night headphone listening for the small hours. ‘Replicant’ contains the trademark Ninja Tune sound with a jazz infused dance odyssey created. Raven’s rework of Telefonica track ‘There’s Something About Your Face’ is sublime. Cello strings are the first notes you hear, before a crystalline pop song comes to life. The song’s arrangement is pristine. The refrain of “Can we leave it at that?” sung over a crescendo of strings transports me to the magical world of Owen Pallett. Is there higher possible praise? The song is a study of construction, and the art of a perfect pop song. The symphony of ‘Improv When Doing Something Else’ is yet another glorious live improvisation of cello, where beautiful looped strings bring ‘New Resolution’ to a fitting close.
Please can you explain the genesis of Raven, your first solo music venture?
I became obsessed with idm in the mid-’90s, and as an aside from playing cello in my band FourPlay String Quartet, I started to make beats and sample-based messy stuff on my laptop, with limited knowledge of how to do anything. For some years, raven was mainly a vehicle for remixing other people, as I didn’t really have any synths and based everything around chopping up and multi-tracking samples.
At some point I realised that of course I had access to some sound sources of my own – I play cello and piano, after all.
I bought myself a looping pedal when I was asked to make some music for the live accompaniment of some animations by one of my favourite cartoonists, Jim Woodring, when he toured Australia for the first time a few years ago. So the first raven gig in this incarnation was at the Sydney Opera House (when you’re a musician living in Sydney this isn’t really anything to write home about mind you).
Congratulations on your album ‘New Resolution’. What most impressed me on first listening is how many genres are crossed over and in turn, the boundaries are blurred. Please discuss the recording of this album and the use of cello, piano, laptop and loop pedal as choice of instrumentation?
For now, raven has two different lives. Live, it’s almost entirely cello with loop pedal – layers of cello, sometimes rhythmic, sometimes free, with melodic and other sonic elements. The laptop isn’t integrated into this, although that will be the next step in raven’s evolution.
A number of pieces have therefore been written for this setup, or in fact improvised this way live to hard disk over 2012. But when I have the luxury of recording music “in the studio” (or at home), this (useful) structural straitjacket is removed, and sounds can be added or subtracted, looped and processed at will – as well as piano and other instruments being available.
All this aside, the album is a hodge-podge of genres because it is more like a compilation of material recorded during 2012 than a coherent album.
What are the sources for this album?
(I’m not quite sure what you’re asking, but…)
In the sense that it’s a compilation, the pieces have a few different origins; the earliest is a remix of my friends Telafonica, a wonderful indietronica band from Sydney. Two tracks appeared on compilations in 2012, from the amazing Futuresequence and from Sydney’s Feral Media label. One was written for the inaugural Sydney International Animation Festival, and was played live to accompany a short film written by 1st year animation students at the University of Technology, Sydney. And the longest work was written for the radio show Ears Have Ears (on Sydney’s FBi Radio, where I have a show too), who commission Australian artists to write “soundtracks” to imaginary movies for them.
There’s more info the individual track pages found by clicking through from the album itself in Bandcamp 🙂
The album opener is a sublime introduction. There is a very organic and warm percussion and electronics bubbling throughout. The free jazz groove of acoustic cello echoes cosmic sounds of Alice Coltrane. Please talk me through this compelling piece.
This piece was written as a soundtrack for a short animation by 1st year students. I needed to make something quite upbeat, and I’m usually drawn to mopey, dark sounds, so it was enjoyable to let go with this.
Most friends have commented that it sounds the most like FourPlay of my raven music. In FourPlay String Quartet over the last 18 odd years(!) we have developed a style of string playing that’s pretty far from classical, influenced by rock but also gypsy swing, dub, klezmer, Cuban, hip-hop, jazz, you name it. Although I don’t consciously draw on any of these influences necessarily, when writing my solo stuff (or with the band), there’s no doubt all this is bubbling away in the background. The sorts of basslines I play in FourPlay, percussive techniques we’ve developed together, and melodic elements that I’m not often able to introduce in the band, all surface when coming up with a piece like this. It was improvised live, after a couple of exploratory attempts – and all percussion and electronic-sounding elements come from the cello. In the end section I just send the looper into double time, pitching everything up the octave, and continue layering on top of that.
People also tell me it sounds Celtic, which wasn’t the intention, but if that’s how it turned out then so be it.
‘Sleeping Dogs Lie’ could be a soundtrack to a John Hillcoat film. An eerie landscape is etched on a large canvas of sound; from a meditative bassline to a soaring cello melody. With your music, is the cello always the starting point to a piece being born?
This also was a live improv, in the best way possible – when I wasn’t intending to even write anything. I always like to have new material for gigs, so I start playing around as soon as I set up the cello and loop pedal at home. An eerie landscape is indeed what I was starting with, and from there it all flowed without any pre-conceived idea, with cello-percussion, screaming dischords and droney ending. I guess it came from the sleeping dog hidden within. Hopefully I didn’t disturb it too much.
So yes, frequently the cello is the starting point. But that said, any of my pieces with piano usually begin with that instrument, serving as a bed from which the rest develops.
I hear a gorgeous dichotomy of worlds throughout ‘New Resolution’. The experimental side of your use of technology (laptop, looping) and cello, piano instrumentation. Please discuss your use of electronics in the music you make and how this combines with more traditional playing (cello, for example) in creating your sound?
As mentioned, raven actually began years ago as an attempt to make electronic music. In the live context, mostly it’s tended to be about the cello with loop pedal, (mis)using what contemporary musicians call “extended techniques” to generate interesting sounds with the wood of the bow, bow on the bridge, knocks on the body, etc, which are often in recording mistaken for electronic techniques (glitches, sampled percussion, distortion).
But “in the studio” I’ll use whatever I have in my armoury, including my other instrument, the piano, and lots of electronics. I remain a fan of music with beats, and also love the drones and soundscapes of Machinefabriek and Jasper TX, the broader world of postrock, delicate post-classical arrangements, and the last 10-15 years of noise music (Burning Star Core comes to mind).
Sometimes I’ll try and consciously incorporate sounds from this wide spectrum of listening into my productions, but it’s more likely that they’ll just surface through instinctive improvisation.
Tell me please about Raven’s version of Telefonica’s ‘There’s Something About Your Face’ and how it is interpreted here? For me, the indiepop song conjures magically the sound of Owen Pallett.
The vocal here is actually from the original piece. Telafonica are one of those bands who can comfortably write completely electronic music and then turn around and sound like an indie band. I took the original and literally re-recorded every part on the cello, including most of the backing vocals, beats and so on. I’m a big fan of Owen Pallett’s, so that’s a big compliment, thanks!
The longest piece on the album is ‘The Deafening Clamour Of Distant Cars’ and this track epitomizes the album’s compelling sound for me. Half way through, the piece evolves into an infectious groove of electronic glitches and beats. I would love to gain an insight into your love for electronic music and how and when did this originate for you?
I recall when I was at school, especially in the last few years (which takes us up to about 1991), being fascinated with synthesizers and then samplers, with bands like Depeche Mode and then Pop Will Eat Itself. Through the ’90s my biggest musical obsessions were idm and drum’n’bass, and the glitch of Fennesz, Farmers Manual et all as that became a thing. In the 2000s, it was the original folktronica of Four Tet circa Rounds and Tunng’s first couple of albums that was where it was at.
When I started my radio show Utility Fog in 2003, it was clear that hybrids of genres and particularly of organic/acoustic sounds with digital techniques was what I wanted it to be about, and inevitably it’s also one of the main things I want to do with my own music. Other than with remixes, it only rarely finds its way into FourPlay’s music – although they let me glitch up a (full-band) studio improvisation at the end of one of our albums http://shop.fourplay.com.au/track/appalachian-jam
I do enjoy the way I managed to take this track on a trip from straight piano and acoustic cello, through cello noises and reversed piano into the very ascetic drum machine beats and piano glitches at the end. It does somehow express my philosophy of music in one track. The next album should take things further in this direction.
I first heard your music indirectly last year with the absolutely beautiful ‘Night Sky’ album by Sophie Hutchings. You play the cello on this record. I would love to hear your memories of recording this special album and what it is like collaborating and working with such talented composers, like Sophie?
Musical collaboration is something I’ve loved doing since I was very small. Solo music is exciting because it’s 100% your vision, and as long as you can realise your ambitions technically, you can do whatever you like. Playing with other people adds at the very least an element of surprise that can be a wonderful catalyst for stretching your own musical muscles, can lead to co-creating amazing music you’d never make on your own, or can just lead to the satisfaction of playing someone else’s beautiful music. With Sophie, I first played with her after the first album had come out, so it was partially about learning parts. But the new album came about after playing together for a while, and was more of a meeting of minds. Jeremy (Kong, violinist) and I worked out our parts with hints/instructions from Sophie, although Soph had the final say and mixed the album with the wonderful Tim Whitten (The Necks, etc etc).
You are the cellist in Fourplay String Quartet and indietronic trio Haunts. I am new to both these artists and I intend to seek them out very soon! Tell me please a little about these bands and their sound?
I’ve written a little bit about FourPlay above. We are four string players (albeit with two viola players), playing non-classical music. We gained some notoriety in Australia after our first album came out in 1998, because we covered Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” among other things. That album’s pretty primitively-recorded, although scores of fandom ensure that the Doctor Who theme cover remains popular.
We’re all fans of a wide range of music and the idea with FourPlay is to do the music justice – it’s not “classical” arrangements of rock songs; it’s rock, or any genres, that happens to be played by four string players (with amplification and effects).
We continue to do the rock and other unusual covers (“Killing In The Name” recently, as heavy as an electric string quartet can get), but lean far more towards original material these days. We have a great dynamic for writing together, based around group improvisation, semi-agreed-upon structures, and a democratic approach to moulding these into finished pieces.
Haunts is a trio with two members of Sydney band Underlapper, whose postrock/electronic leanings fit nicely with my looped cello. We’ve influenced each other’s music taste a lot through the years, and it’s great to be playing in a real group with them. There’s real vocals in there, along with crunchy beats and processed sounds, and that ol’ hybrid thing with the wood and catgut of the cello…
The other project I have right now is Tangents, an improv quintet (or smaller subsets) that, as is common these days, doesn’t fit in the usual genre boundaries. While piano/rhodes, guitar, drums, cello and electronics are the basics, anyone can be looping their vocals or triggering samples at any time, and you’ll find raw noise coalescing down to cello & piano interplay or beats’n’drums madness. It’s inspiring to play with fantastic musicians, and I feel we’ve achieved a few transcendent moments along the way, which should hopefully be released sometime this year.
You are a presenter of Utility Fog on Sydney’s FBi Radio. Please discuss the mission statement of this program and what music for you provides essential listening at the moment?
As mentioned, the mission statement was always broadly to explore the crossover between organic & digital, acoustic & electronic, live & studio-constructed. But I’m happy to play pure folk or pure electronica.
As with their last few releases, the digital release of the new Autechre has landed with a thud, a month before the CD (or vinyl) is out, and I’ve been delving into that. The new Boduf Songs is massively exciting – Matthew Sweet’s whispered/murmered vocals sitting with more electronic processing & beats than before, but still a sort of minimalist, doom-laden grungey folk that appeals strongly to me.
I’ve been listening back through a lot of the Rune Grammofon catalogue, and discovering both Deathprod and Arve Henriksen’s solo music for the first time (both are members of the towering Supersilent). And I’ve been listening to the back catalogue of post-metal heroes ISIS and post-metal/industrial/shoegaze/electronica pioneer Justin K Broadrick in all his incarnations.
There’s lots more, but maybe this will do for now 🙂
For more information on Peter Hollo’s Raven and his other projects, please see here:
For a link to Peter’s wonderful radio show ‘Utility Fog’ see here:
To listen to Sophie Hutchings’ ‘Night Sky’ album out now on Preservation: