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Central And Remote: Clang Sayne

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“I like the idea that there’s always room for manoeuvre; that the music should be able to change with us as we change personally.”

–Laura Hyland

Words: Craig Carry

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Clang Sayne are the Irish-based four-piece led by Wexford-based artist and founding member Laura Hyland. Having formed in London in 2008, the group (comprising of Laura Hyland alongside Peter Marsh on double bass, James O Sullivan on electric guitar and Matthew Fisher on drums) released their debut album “Winterlands” the following year to wide acclaim. The album revealed the spellbinding poetic lyricism of Hyland’s songwriting, together with the group’s innate ability to channel their diverse influences (jazz, folk, sound art, traditional) into their own distinct sound. The band’s captivating sound and thrilling lyricism continue to expand and flourish on the band’s follow-up, “The Round Soul Of The World”. Released in March of this year, the group’s second album is a stunning achievement in distilling myriad themes (chiefly those of mortality, death and love) in such a quietly breathtaking and poignantly moving way. Clang Sayne’s latest incarnation – Judith Ring on voice and cello, Matthew Jacobson on drums and voice, and Carolyn Goodwin on bass clarinet and voice (some of Ireland’s most gifted contemporary musicians in their own right)– are also undoubtedly responsible for weaving their own unique and diverse musical backgrounds to the recordings here. There is a clear sense of trust and appreciation in one another’s playing and musicianship (something that can only result from years of playing alongside one another and trusting one another completely) which makes “The Round Soul Of The World” such an ambitiously complex and genuinely fascinating album, all at once, one which manages to simultaneously move the heart and mind.

“The Round Soul Of The World” is available now.

http://www.clangsayne.com
https://www.facebook.com/clangsayne

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Congratulations on “The Round Soul Of The World”, it is such a startlingly complex and beautifully poetic and endearing album. First of all, I’d love if you could trace back the beginnings of this album: When did you begin to write this set of songs?

Laura Hyland: Thanks for your very kind words, Craig, I’m glad you’ve enjoyed listening.

I wrote ‘Mocking Moon’ shortly before leaving London in 2010, but it was a while before anything else followed. Several months later I returned to Co. Wexford, Ireland (where I grew up), and moved into an old farmhouse on the coast with Jude (Ring) and my cousin, Ann. Every morning I’d play my guitar in the garden. I was so taken with the soundworld there (wind, sea, birds) after so many years of living in cities that I felt it was a real shame to play over it, and so eventually I just started playing with it.

There were no other songs at that point-only this guitar-based soundworld that felt very soft and spacious and other-worldly. That feeling corresponded to my return to a rural home. Suddenly I was surrounded by a lot of wide open space, and a lot of love from family and old friends. It was a very stark contrast to the anonymity of city life (which I also love). There’s a kind of paradox in connecting with that sense of space and that kind of connection with neighbours: it’s ancient and timeless and immediate all at once.

I didn’t have an album ‘theme’ in mind at that point – just this feeling of space and expansiveness, and it kept emerging in everything I was playing with at the time – from sounds to words. Lyrics materialised, and gradually got worked into these guitar soundworlds and songs began to emerge, but they were very ethereal and shape-shifty for a long time. Newborn, Ashes, and Requiem were the first. Then Round Soul, the music for which I wrote some time later.

I was also seeking that same feeling of space in the dynamic I felt with other musicians. It took three years to find the right people – Jude was there from the outset (we’ve been friends and sonic ‘playmates’ for many years), but Matthew and Carolyn came later (2012/13 respectively). I felt a great calm and trust when we all played altogether – space for everyone to be themselves and roam around comfortably within the music but at the same time, always circling each other. I feel very lucky to have found these brilliant people/musicians.

By November’13 I had a collection of songs that fitted together. Mocking Moon was a kind of London ‘swan song’ – an inner heralding to myself that a change was in order. Requiem, Ashes, Newborn & Round Soul  were all a kind of ‘landing’ into a new place, having made that change. Blackbird & This Love I added at the very end – late in 2015. (This Love was actually written in 2005 on the conception of my first niece, but I never played it very much after that). These last two songs seemed to balance it and brought a kind of simplicity or groundedness to the album that wasn’t present in the other songs, but that felt very much a part of the bigger picture of what the whole album was about. On searching for a suitable engineer/studio I eventually found Les Keye/Arad Studios in Dublin, who recorded and mixed the album. He was great to work with, and has since become a very dear friend.

Musically, it embodies the spirit of so many different types of music so effortlessly and organically – folk, sound art, jazz, traditional, modern classical – and I love how each band member brings so much of their own unique backgrounds and personalities (for example, Matthew Jackobson’s extensive traditional and jazz playing or Judith Ring’s highly expressive cello works) into the final album cut. 

I would love to gain an insight into how song arrangements as challenging and as organic as these come to fruition? Is it a case of rehearsing or is it more a case of being aware of each other’s playing so much that it’s ultimately a very natural and fluid process?

LH: It’s both: rehearsing, and exactly as you say, being aware of each other’s playing to the point where it becomes fluid and cohesive. It’s also a case of choosing to play with people whose playing I like, and who like the music I write and the way I play. That cuts out a lot of work really. Often there isn’t much need for discussion or arrangement as everyone just appreciates what everyone else does. That to me is the perfect scenario – sometimes just listening is the best arrangement! Within that there are conscious decisions made, but this mutual appreciation comes first, and is very fundamental as far as I’m concerned.

I usually know the kind of soundworld and atmosphere I want to hear for a given piece, and the shape or contour I want it to follow. I communicate that to the others and then we improvise around these ideas. I listen back to recordings to pick out what I think works, and we all discuss it together too while we’re playing it. Through this feedback loop of playing and recording and listening and discussing we settle on an arrangement, though usually it’s quite loose. I like the idea that there’s always room for maneuver; that the music should be able to change with us as we change personally.

As for embodying the spirit of different types of music, I think that comes from a deeper place. We all share a very deep love of sound and music, and we’ve all arrived at that point from different paths. Apart from playing, I really enjoy talking about music and listening to music with Carolyn and Jude and Matthew. It’s a very great source of joy and inspiration for all of us. I think we’re each at a stage where we’ve left our training or ‘genre-home’ behind, and now we each just want to play and have space to continue growing within our playing.

That said, invariably the different paths we’ve traveled leave their mark, but ultimately I think it’s personalities that comes through, rather than genres. I think if you spend years exploring any artform you develop a bigger sense of what that artform is all about. You start to recognise graceful self-expression – that’s something that runs far deeper and has far more impact than any given genre. I think it’s what all artists aspire to – I certainly do.

There is also a beautiful sense of intricacy to the lyrics on the album which reveals many layers of added meanings on repeat listenings. As well as your own poetic and moving lyricism there is a number of other sources drawn upon here (for instance texts by both Maureen Barry and Austin Clarke on “The Emptying Of The Ashes” and “Blackbird” respectively) which strikingly combine together to paint a picture of both the finite and infinite over the course of the album. I’d love if you could detail the themes you wished to express yourself with these songs?

LH: The Austin Clarke line from Blackbird is taken from his poem, The Blackbird of Derrycairn in which a blackbird appeals to St Patrick who is busy studying his scriptures and praying in his cell, to leave his studies and come out to join in the world.

We become obsessed with particular aspects of life (art, childrearing, career, money, religion, political causes – whatever), at times to the exclusion of all else.  It makes hermits of us. That can bring its own rewards, but it can also be lonely and very isolating. I believe a varied and diverse daily life brings with it a sense of connection to the world, and the sense of a spacious and rich life. That to me is happiness.

I wrote that song after I had been to visit Charlie – an elderly and ailing friend of my emigree sister’s (Sorcha, to whom the album is dedicated). Charlie was a tricky but colourful character who had alienated herself in many ways. She spent a lot of time alone; as do I, and as does my sister – all for our own individual reasons. That line from the poem “still no handbell has a glad sound” literally popped into the song as I was writing it. It summed up very succinctly what I needed to say (essentially “whatever “handbell” or sense of duty that is calling us to isolate ourselves for some supposed higher cause or ambition will not bring happiness or immortality. So let’s ignore it and join in the world”), so I left it there.

‘The Emptying of the Ashes’ is an excerpt from a column that a woman from my local area, Maureen Barry used to write for the farmer’s journal for many years. She was of a generation that put religion (catholicism) at the centre of absolutely everything. Obviously that brings its own problems, and I would never wish for a return to that outlook, but by the same token, I do believe very strongly in faith – not in a deity (for me personally), but in our being a small part of something bigger  – a lifeforce – that we cannot control, and cannot understand, certainly not in any ‘rational’, or supposedly ‘objective’ quantitative terms. We can’t control or understand that lifeforce, and yet we’re utterly dependent on it, and that makes us vulnerable. What is there to do but give in to that vulnerability??

She nails this idea in this piece of writing: she presents herself as something small – a tiny element going about the daily tasks necessary to keep her existence ticking over. In doing so she becomes one with the world around her, and through this she perceives a sense of majesty – a sense of something huge and powerful and incomprehensible, and she’s humble in the face of that – she accepts that life or ‘lifeforce’ is incomprehensible. To me that is real faith: it isn’t god or church – it’s simply being and loving and not knowing why.

I’d love if you could talk and expand upon the influence of Maureen Barry? I know from hearing your live show that she seems to be someone who has had an important role and influence on you as an artist?

LH: She was a very intelligent and forward-thinking woman whom I’d known all my life. She was a feminist at a time when feminism was considered morally reprehensible. She earned a scholarship to study mathematics at UCD, again at a time when women were not encouraged to pursue academic ambition. She married a farmer and reared a family, gave maths grinds to local kids (myself included) and wrote a weekly column for the Farmer’s Journal, amongst many other things. I wouldn’t say she in particular had an important influence on me as an artist, but definitely she typifies a kind of woman from that era (which I grew up with the tail-end of) for whom I have huge respect. These women basically kept the community together. They were omnipresent in rural life when I was a kid. They had huge faith and strength and drive. They get forgotten about because their lives were quiet and supposedly apoltical, but I think many of them were true harbingers of change in Irish thinking – they distinguished between faith and institutionalized religion, and between women’s social status and the importance of their work as homemakers and childrearers. And they acted upon these distinctions, passing on subtle but clear messages through their actions to the likes of myself and other kids at the time, but they had to do it quietly and cleverly because such ideas were not socially tolerated.

The use of vocals on the album is really special which is all the more apparent in a live context. Your own vocals – when accompanied even simply by guitar – is always so special (the range of vocals extend from spoken-word like delivery on “Blackbird” to the glorious “Curse You Mocking Moon”, can you recount your earliest memories of wishing to be a singer, Laura? Or was it a case of being a musician to begin with, where being a singer happened at a later stage?

LH: I don’t ever remember wanting to be a singer as such, but I’ve always sung as far back as I can remember, and the feeling I had singing as a child is much the same feeling I have when I sing now. It’s very physical and very empowering. There’s something very primordial about sounding out your breath. It feels like another great big call to union with the world. I played violin as a small child, and I swapped over to guitar at 11-12ish, because I found it awkward to sing with an instrument under my chin. So I guess singing led the way and instrumental accompaniment followed. I think everyone should sing. I hate to hear people say they can’t sing. Everyone can sing – it’s a birthright!

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When adding and weaving so many other vocals (where effectively the entire band – Judith Ring, Carolyn Goodwin, Matthew Jacobson – will accompany you) – elevates the effect to another level altogether (for instance, on the title-track) and opens up so many possibilities when considering song structures and arrangements. It’s clear you all treat the voice like another instrument and that’s really striking on the album. Are these vocal arrangements conceived during rehearsals or at the studio? It must also be a really interesting and powerful experience singing like this in live shows, as it’s really apparent as a listener just how close a bond you each have to one another?

LH: I more see them all as just sound sources. Every sound source or ‘instrument’ has its limitations, yes, but those limitations are largely determined by social convention and music tradition. In truth, the sound one can elicit from an object is simply a product the object’s physicality and the player’s imagination. Organising or playing with those sounds in a pleasing fashion is music. I think it really is that simple.

If I have to think of them in terms of conventional instruments I would more see it as treating instruments as voices rather than voices as instruments! Voice is infinitely flexible in the range of sounds it can produce: continuous or discrete, pitched or inharmonic, an infinite range of timbres, incredibly subtle dynamics, and above all, because we communicate primarily through voice as a species, as listeners we’re highly sensitive to its nuances. To me, there’s no other sound source – ‘natural’ or synthesised – on the planet that is as universal or sophisticated.  So it makes sense to me that other instruments aspire to voice in terms of sonic potential or flexibility. Rather than relying on a palette of sounds that an instrument traditionally produces, I prefer to think in terms of what sounds/soundworld I want to hear, and then I try to find ways of eliciting that sound from a given instrument. That’s what we do with our voices all the time – for example, when we want to convey the kind of sounds an aeroplane or an explosion make.

Yes, it is a very powerful experience all singing together. It’s my favourite part of playing in this group and I really hope we do more and more of it as the years go on. I had an interesting experience recently while on holidays: my friend and I visited these ancient caves. The acoustics were incredible inside and so we spent the afternoon singing in them. We were just singing long tones – no songs as such. Other tourists came by throughout the day and the same thing happened 3 times, whereby a passerby would stand in the entrance of the cave to see/hear what was going on, and then to my great surprise and delight they’d join in! And it wasn’t a particularly ‘hip’ place where lots of right-on artists were wandering around; each time it was a very different ‘demographic’ that joined in: one young man our own age, two elderly german couples, and a middle-aged man. It was a very special experience. Humans want to sing. It’s such a great shame that we don’t make more space for it socially.

The vocals on ‘The Round Soul’ are based on an arrangement that I made multi-tracking my own voice at home, and I gave a demo recording of it to the others. There are specific points in the song where I wanted to replicate what I’d done on the recording, but there are also sections where the recording was simply to give an impression of the soundworld I had in mind, for example, in that middle section where our vocal lines overlap each other, I wanted it to be very fluid and elastic, so that nobody is tied down to a specific melody or harmony, and we’re all free to respond to each other as we play, so that the music becomes a living organism. Composition and improvisation are much like gardening to me in this regard: there’s a balance between manicuring plant growth and letting it grow wildly out of control. I find sound has the same propensity for chaos and order and growth: you lay out a structure and then you let things grow together within it. Some bits are manicured and others are wild. Some sounds are more rampant than others and require either more control or more space; others need more nurturing and coaxing…

Jude and I spent a long time singing and playing with each other over the years, before ever Clang Sayne came about. We share a very strong unspoken sense of what sounds good and interesting. Carolyn obviously has the clarinet in her mouth a lot of the time so she can’t always sing, but she’s found out all the places where she can swap between the two. Sometimes it’s quite a feat of breathing! Of the four of us, Matthew has sung least in the past, but he was really up for it when I first suggested it, and he joins in more and more as time wares on. Every now and then when we play live I hear him come in somewhere new where I haven’t heard him sing before. That makes me very happy.

My current favourite piece is the title-track “The Round Soul Of The World”, it encapsulates the album so magically and embodies everything that’s so spellbinding about the album’s breathtaking musicianship. From the incredible clarinet-driven outro to the wondrous use of texture from the drums and percussion, it’s such a powerful and fitting closer to the album. I’d love if you could reflect on the making of this song? It must have been a particularly proud moment for you all, listening to the finished recording of this song back?

LH: I wrote this while living in the farmhouse I mentioned in Q1 above. That was such a special few months, and we lived very simply in a very beautiful place. The day pretty much consisted of eating, sleeping, swimming, playing music, gardening and spending time together  – very idyllic, and very much a privileged 1st world life, but paradoxically also incredibly frugal.

All three of us were working hard on different projects – Jude and I, on our respective musics, and our other flatmate, Ann on visual art and teaching. Life felt very complete and fulfilling, and above all, very ‘blessed’ for want of a less corny word. I had just returned to Ireland and I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for where I had arrived – geographically, socially, artistically  – in every way. I also felt during that time all three of us had space and time to give the world our ‘best’ selves, and that’s a rare opportunity. So it’s a song of gratitude for that, and a song of conviction for living. If I could strike a deal with the world this would be it: “I give you my best self and you give me shelter in return”.

I set the text to music a couple of years later, after I’d met Carolyn, and I had the bass clarinet in mind. I wanted a big, low, spacious drone, and a very elemental and big sound. I set it so that the lowest note on the bass clarinet formed the drone, so that she’d have maximum instrumental range to let loose on it, and then her and Matthew could really go for it together. Jude had also just begun playing the cello during that time, so it was a good one for her too as she could focus on one open string and all the sonic possibilities she could elicit from that. I’m very chuffed that her cello debut is on this recording!

It was good fun recording it! The first time we all listened back to the whole album together was a special moment. I think we were all proud of it, not necessarily this song in particular, but the album as a whole. I do remember listening back through the various takes we’d recorded of that song, and being so blown away by Carolyn’s solo on this take in particular  – it’s so full of life and gusto and conviction. There’s this one harmonic that she pulls out at the very end and it’s like glass. Even now when I hear it I can’t understand where or how that sound came out, but it’s a little piece of magic.

The true spirit and unique sounds Clang Sayne generate are obviously due to the very unique and singular musicians in the band, who each of course are responsible for such a wealth of music courtesy of many other projects and bands here in Ireland. I love how each musician’s style and background shines through so naturally on the album, it brings to mind fellow Irish-based band This Is How We Fly and the true spirit of jazz.

I’d love if Matthew, Carolyn and Judith could talk about what it’s like for them to play with Clang Sayne? It must be a really exciting departure from your other projects and a beautiful way of pushing your own creative energies into many different directions in this context?

Matthew Jacobson: What struck me from the very first time I played with Laura was her complete openness and willingness to collaborate. Given that her music is so personal and emotive, it is unique that she is so prepared to give musicians carte blanche when performing it. I think this is what gives her songs such a sense of life, allowing them to breathe and remain fresh.

None of the musicians’ roles in the band are confined to the instruments that they play ie I don’t feel like a drummer in the band, rather as a facilitator and collaborator in Laura’s stories, poetry and music. Instead of playing a specific groove, I may at times aim for textures or soundscapes or I may play nothing at all! Playing in a group where the composer or songwriter places their full trust in you gives you the platform to be spontaneous, creative and free. This can bring the music to entirely new spaces, without losing the integrity of the original material. I really love being involved in projects in this capacity and this one is particularly special for me as it has allowed me to sing on an album for the first time!

Carolyn Goodwin: Because of the delicacy in Laura’s writing, her songs demand intense focus from the listener on every hearing. I feel that this is still the case for me and that even from my seat within the band, I am having an experience akin to that of a member of the audience. With each song you are confronted with something that is both powerful and fragile at once, and as musicians we are given the responsibility to be mindful of the craft that has gone into the writing, along with the freedom to make something new at every performance. Striking the illusive balance between these two elements is something I think we collectively strive for in every execution of the music, and what ultimately unites us as Clang Sayne.

Judith Ring: Clang Sayne is an incredible group to play in. It gives us all a chance to deeply explore various sonic ideas and really develop a cohesive sound that represents our individual talents as well as our capability to blend together into something unique. As a composer I typically work alone and hand my music over to other people to perform but as part of Clang Sayne I get to explore that world myself and certainly my own music often influences what I bring to the table. Working with Laura on her music is such a rich experience as the material at its core is so powerful and gives us so much to play off. The aspect of freedom within the work also allows us to grow with the music and vice versa. It’s an ever-evolving thing!

What albums have you been listening to lately?

LH: My favourite thing over the past year is definitely the music from William Kentridge’s exhibition, ‘The Refusal of Time’. It’s a series of texts and stories written and recited by Kentridge and set it to music by South African composer, Philip Miller. It’s mind-blowing, both in Kentridge’s reflections on time and in Miller’s arrangements.

Others this past year or so in no particular order include:

Matana Roberts: ‘Coin Coin Chapter Two: Missippi Moonchile’

Johnny Nash: ‘Eden’

Claudia Schwab: ‘Attic Mornings’ 

A compilation called ‘I’m in a Strange Town: Blues and Gospel 1927 – 1967’

Ancient Ocean (aka J.R Bohannon): ‘Blood Moon’

Ellen Fullman ‘Through Glass Panes’

Josephine Foster ‘I’m A Dreamer’

Matthew Jacobson & Sam Comeford: Insufficient Funs EP

Peadar O Riada’s 1987 album (untitled).

Marissa Nadler – various albums

Arvo Part – various choral works

Ivor Cutler: Jammy Smears

Laurie Anderson: various recordings

An album conceived by Mark Garry for The RHA’s Artists Curate Series in 2006, entitled ‘Plane’

Katie Kim: Salt

Bitchin Bajas & Bonny Prince Billy: ‘Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties’

Planxty’s entire back catalog

What are the next plans for Clang Sayne?

LH: I’ll start writing a new body of work in September, based on a set of poems I wrote several years ago. I’d hope to get that wrapped up before Christmas and then bring it to the others in Spring 2018 with a view to recording it maybe next summer. I’ve been ridiculously slow in the past getting albums over the line. This time I really want to try turn it around a bit faster.

Otherwise, some touring in Ireland in the Autumn, and hopefully further afield in 2018. Recently I just hooked up with booking agent, Emma Kelly from Merakindie. It’s the first time I’ve worked with someone else on the business end of things, and it feels good to get help with this part of the project as it’s not something I find easy, so I’m pretty focused on that for the summer – finding good people to help: that includes a manager and a PR person – anyone interested please get in touch!!

“The Round Soul Of The World” is available now.

http://www.clangsayne.com
https://www.facebook.com/clangsayne