November 17th, 2005


Signature specification

Today I start work with Rusty Santos on a new record. Usually when I make a record I have, written down somewhere, a "signature specification", a short document spelling out how I want it to sound. Here's a text I sent Rusty last week, starting with a list of the four artists I want to be our guides, in terms of their sound palettes and their structural daring:

1. Yuko Nexus6 and her kotatsutop computer music.

2. Tomomi Adachi's "punk style choir" unit Royal Chorus.

3. Caetano Veloso's most experimental album, Araça Azul.

4. Alejandra and Aeron's field recordings. (Thanks, Tim Coster, for the guide to these!)

I want to make a record that's very radical. In a way you could say that it's a "post-tinnitus" album; it's a record that will be very quiet. I can imagine people putting it on for the first time and saying "But where are the songs? Where's the music? This is mostly silence! There's nothing here!" But then they'll listen again, and be seduced by the calm, level surface of the record, the fact that it can be on in the background, the fact that there's an enticing sensuality about its treatment of sound.

This is a record which assumes that the listener's ears have been re-set by "listening music". Whether it's John Cage or the "Meeting at Off-Site" series, "listening music" records say "It's a pleasure to listen to sound in its own right. Re-calibrate your ears and enjoy these sounds for their sculptural qualities". Cage said that music students were incapable of hearing a single note, but taught instead to focus on the relationships between sequences of notes. So Cage wanted to strip things down, get things back to the point where people were able to hear individual sounds, and think of them as music.

The music I enjoy the most these days is this kind of music. I'm thinking of the field recordings of Alejandra and Aeron, or pieces by Tomomi Adachi in which you just hear pieces of crockery grinding gently against each other, or a Yuko Nexus6 piece which uses her mumbling a language learning exercise. I also very much like the calm, soothing sound of the spoken voice. Records by Bernhard Gal and Tomomi Adachi have really made me think about how you can use the speaking voice in a musical way. And the murmuring of a human voice, very close-miked, can be a kind of equivalent to the "scratching back" idea I talked about. It can be a bit like the sound of cooing pigeons. I'm thinking of the kind of sensuality that informs some kinds of French radio creations (horspiel, or radiophonie productions by France Culture or Arte Radio), or the way bossa nova and Tropicalia vocals are recorded. Very dry and warm and close, with the sensuality of the voice to the fore. And of course Caetano Veloso is the master of this.

Caetano Veloso's "Araca Azul" album of 1973 is a key recording here, because it takes the typical bossa vocal warmth, but plays about with form. And here we come to two very important ideas for this record; Cute Formalism and children's records. Cute Formalism is my take on a certain Japanese style (think of Nobukazu Takemura's label Childisc) in which there's a combination of what we'd think of in the West as Formalism (experimental, avant garde techniques), but without machismo, pomp, or academic gravitas. Imagine if Picasso, Cage, Duchamp and other "Formalist" artists were children, baby versions of themselves, playing with sand and bricks. That would be cute formalism. The avant gardism which might be pompous and scary in adults would become, in children at play, charming.

So I want to abandon traditional song structures entirely, and try to re-invent pop music using listening music and Cute Formalism as a basis for a new grammar of "song" construction. We should avoid too much layering; sounds need to be exhibited with some silence around them, some space to give them definition. The sounds themselves should have a certain intimacy, delicacy and sensuality. I'd like the whole record to have the effect of listening to someone with a very soothing voice, despite the unorthodox structures used.

Mesmeric speech. This is something I want to capture on the record. Think of very early Laurie Anderson, how calming and entrancing her voice was (and yet you fell into a spell-like slumber at your own peril, because she was often doing "the authority voice" and you had to be vigilant against it). Think of when someone is showing you a portfolio, and obviously falling into a fairly well-rehearsed sales schtick, and yet there's something that makes you give in to their speaking voice, despite the fact that you find nothing interesting in their work and don't intend to buy it. Or think of school science demonstrations, when the lights were dimmed and some odd, murky chemical miracle was demonstrated. It took you somewhere else, into a miniature world of crystals, seahorses, ions... Mesmeric. You trust the narrator even when he may well be taking you to a place where you'll find yourself lost.

The themes of the record will be things like friendship, collectivity, nature, positivity, cooking, sex, playfulness, wholesomeness, ethical virtue. Something welcoming and nice and kind.

For the lyrics, I want to use a lot of web-translated Japanese journals, blogs kept by delicate and refined Japanese girls who often just talk about what they ate that day, or describe a seasonal Shinto festival (fireworks, the snow covers being put on the shrubs in Ueno Park). Rinko Kawauchi is a photographer whose work I think could really set the tone of the record. It's about the delicate magic of everyday life (if that doesn't sound too corny!). She concentrates on small, humble domestic details; the blue flame of a gas ring, light shining through a window, a pot of geraniums. It's the kind of detail Rilke picks up in his poem "The Duino Elegies". He says that maybe poets are just here to notice the jug, the comb, the feelings of a little girl... and that there's nothing "deeper" than that.

There's a link between being in the moment and the kind of sound texture I mentioned earlier. Simple sounds — of pots clinking, for instance — are the sounds of "the moment". Mentioning pots makes me think of Tori Kudo of Maher Shalal Hash Baz, who's a potter and has an approach to sound a bit like the one I'm thinking of, although perhaps using a bit more music and layering things a bit more than I want to. But his approach to pottery is interesting: the pots he likes are quite badly made, but have interesting flaws. I guess this is called wabi sabi in Japanese aesthetics; you keep the work that has the interesting flaw, or some kind of quirky, charming idiosyncracy, not the perfect shiny and powerful work.

A word about what I want to reject: I want the record to be static, not dynamic. It should represent contentment with where we are just now, rather than the heroic-Romantic desire for an intensity located elsewhere. It should dwell on domestic-scaled things. We'll literally be recording the vocals in a kitchen, so let's make a virtue of that, and make it "kitchen music".

I want to reject "Impact Culture". We live in a culture where people (professionals) edit things for maximum impact, cutting out what they think are the boring bits, using digital techniques to make everything sound "optimized" and loud. And I want to reject that quite forcefully. I also want to reject what I call "Easy Power". Easy Power is using well-established forms to achieve immediate impact. Writing songs that sound like The Beatles... only better, because the Beatles only had 8-track! You know, that kind of idiocy. The idea of artists writing previous artists' songs over and over again, only "better", "cleaner", more "efficient". I've found you can have just as much power by going quiet (in a live situation) as you can by going loud. Assuming people want to listen, and want to be taken somewhere (and it isn't a Friday night, with a bar at the back of the room). Another thing I want to reject is Moronic Cynicism. This record should be like a little courtyard you wander into, maybe a bit Islamic, like something you might find at Grenada. A courtyard protected from the traffic, very quiet, with a fountain and some very small sounds which, because of the silence, can flourish and be heard.

Or, to change the metaphor, the record should be like a succession of little sound sculptures, each one pleasing to the ear, each one defined by the silence around it. The fact that language will be treated like sound sculpture will bring the record close to the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay. The record should feel a bit like wandering through his garden at Little Sparta.

In my original Cute Formalism essay I wrote "As Momus I'm not a Cute Formalist, more of a cad vaudevillian". I think that's about to change.