01 Idea of Order At Kyson Point
In earliest conversations with Brian, he’d mentioned this piece of gear - the Moog Piano Bar - and how he thought it had great potential, but he hadn’t yet found the right way to use it (I think he tried it with Chris Martin for a bit). The only ‘audio’ image that he had at the outset of this album was the idea of playing a sampled sound and then the piano joins the sound later on in the piece, where it transpires that the two are identical, coming from the same source, which is only possible thanks to the Piano Bar.
So on Day 1 we set out to achieve that concept. Brian had sampled a bowl in his studio which sounded like a bell, and so I was playing that from the piano and had to imagine that the piano would be unsounded for the first minute or so. It all came very simply, and it was quite obvious where to fade in the piano. The concept is pleasing in its simplicity and the way it ties the organic piano to the sample. It’s all a one-take improvisation with a single ‘intervention’: namely the fade in of the piano.
The title is derived from the Wallace Stevens’ poem and a part of the river in Woodbridge where Brian and I are both from. The track to me evokes the classic Eno trope of natural sounds created digitally, and the bells themselves remind me of the clanging of the boats in the Deben Estuary.
02 Motion In Field
This track was called Arpeggiator for ages and I think I prefer that title for its functionality; I was aiming for something scientific. This was pretty much the only concept I’d had before the recording which to put a real performer against a machine performer and explore the gap between the two of them (which is something that’s always preoccupied me in my band Three Trapped Tigers as well). I think I originally envisaged it as something a bit more Nancarrow-esque, mechanical, spiky, modern.
But in the end, we tried a few goes at this, and we’ve ended up with something far more lush, beautiful and interesting. We’ve played up the differences between the gridded machine and the spontaneous performer: the piano sounds rich and romantic with the reverb, and when it enters it re-contextualises the machine music. Of course, there’s nothing I’m doing that a machine couldn’t easily do, but it’s the knowledge that it’s my response to the machine that I think dignifies the performance!
It’s worth saying, by the way, that we exaggerated the response/improv element by deliberating making the chord changes of irregular lengths. Eno would then cue them with four downbeats so I knew when to adjust. I’m also interested in the timeless element of a piece like this; I’m used to requiring music to have a shape and form rather than being cyclical. I like the idea that this piece could last for an hour and would still be the same.
One of two ‘solo piano’ tracks which are ‘framed improvs’. This is something we kept coming back to, and is really the guiding concept of the whole thing – how to frame an improvisation in such a way that it isn’t lost in the sea of discarded improvs that constitute my whole performing life up to now? This has been Brian’s expertise since the earliest days. So much of his method is geared around facilitating creativity, which nearly always means finding routes around the conscious brain (what some therapists call the ‘inner censor’ or inner critic: the difference between telling and doing).
In this case, the frame is provided by an arbitrarily selected chord sequence. All the chords were picked at random and then allocated along a distribution curve such that chord A would occur most frequently, chord B half as frequently, etc. The order is then determined by another random selection process. We were literally picking pieces of paper out of a hat.*
The eventual take sounds strangely structured and unstructured at the same time, following a logic that is deeply buried but palpable, which distinguishes it from being ‘purely freely’ created. In my performance in the end, the interesting thing is that there was a chord in the middle that would only occur once, so I made that a feature which is the middle section of the piece.
*Okay, maybe it wasn’t a hat. It was probably a mug.
04 March Away
We would generally start the session at 11am and Brian would have already loaded a set on his computer for me to mess around with on/off the piano. This particular day he’d gone around the studio sampling different objects, anything he could find which he had hit and recorded, assigning each different sound to a different key of the keyboard.
So we had a great morning with me improvising for a few hours using what was basically an 88-sample percussion pad. Some of the pieces were very percussive, as I was discovering on-the-fly which sounds I liked best. The track we finally selected from this experiment is probably the most coherent musically, and not so varied percussively.
05 Eastern Stack
The most common method we used to work was that Eno would have a few different channels each with a different sound that he had designed*. I would then come in and start playing and he'd start mixing the sounds, and as I respond to the sounds he'd respond to the notes I’m playing, etc.
This track is the tail-end of a much longer improvisation using an unusual combination of sounds, mostly the distinctively brittle, digital, percussive sounds of FM synthesis. Overall the effect sounded very gamelan-like to me and I ended up stacking these chords in wider and wider spreads. There was also an interesting LFO on one of the sounds that created this kind of rumble after the chord had sounded which encouraged me to leave some space between each phrase.
*He has hundreds and hundreds of his own sounds: he basically spends his free evenings designing different presets for FM instruments
06 Minor Rift
This is a pretty simple concept and is a way that Brian often likes to work. Zooming in on a small piece of an improvisation (in this case by looping pretty much at random, then adjusting), then messing around with just one or two components and adding a new layer of information.
In this case, he extracted two or three chords from an improvisation and slowed them down to create a backing track which he arranged into four minutes, which I then had to play over. I like the level of unity achieved; it’s not just the piano playing over a nice synth pad, it’s the piano playing over itself.
This title is one of a few that are faintly geological.
07 The Gabbard
This shares a concept with ‘Minor Rift’: a wonky, two-chord phrase excised from its original context and strung into a loop that I then improvise over, against myself, and again there’s the organic/synthetic thing; what was originally played as part of an improvisation (and so rhythmically imperfect) is made uncanny by its constant repetition which gives it a mechanistic aspect.
08 Red Slip
This is the only produced track on the record in that there isn’t much of a live element. Think of it as an Eno remix, although I think in the second half that’s all coming off some live take. This was meant to be the first track of side two of the vinyl album but I messed up the timings so it’s ended up being a weird way to end the first half.
09 Quoit Blue
This is the second of the tracks I mentioned above (’On-Ness’) which had pre-ordained chord sequences. I wanted to try to do something really minimal, but I also think some of the space in this track is my brain trying to work out how to get to the next chord. It’s interesting because you can lump some seemingly disconnected chords together and they develop a connection partly through repetition, and partly through familiarity, as with many of the tracks on the album; improvisations which become compositions by being infinitely repeatable in the exact same form. And in turn I’ve learned some of these improvisations for performing live. How do you hold on to the essential matter of the improvisation without deadening its impact?
The title here refers to a Cornish stone structure that I came across on holiday once. And “quoit” also sounds “quite” in a Suffolk accent.
10 Marsh Chorus
This is probably my favourite track on the record. It’s so strange but in a really appealing way to me. It’s entirely live (although it’s been spliced together from a longer twelve minute improvisation). Brian’s main contribution here is manipulating the delay/loop effect which is on one of the synth sounds. So all the atmosphere that sounds like ‘backing track’ is actually being generated in real time and adjusted accordingly. There’s something very pleasing about the success of the process in this one.
But on top of that I love the strange soundworld, the combination of the FM synths and the backdrop which seems to have a life of its own. It’s also got the Eno organic/synthetic combination, to the point that it almost sounds like birdsong to me, hence the title. You can go and sit by the reeds on the estuaries in Suffolk and hear nothing but the most unusual birdsong, some of which honestly sound like the weirdest synthesizers all bouncing off each other!
11 An Iken Loop
This is the earliest track we did and there is a story to it which perfectly illustrates the whole album process. On the first day I came into the studio, pretty nervous, and Brian had already set the microphones up and asked me just to play for as long as I wanted. So I launched into a long-form improv of the kind I was doing live then, and played for around forty minutes while he was out of the room.
At the end he came back in and zoomed in on the final part of the waveform I’d just created, and basically looped the last few chords I’d played. He then chopped off a chord from each loop, taking inspiration from Rzewski’s ‘Les Moutons de Panurge’. Add a bit of reverb and you instantly have this beautiful ambient track, yet it contains within it the ghost of the preceding forty minutes of improvisation without which it remains ‘unearned.’
It’s also the only track that contains any vocals on it. I tend to sing and make quite a lot of noises while playing, especially when I’m really into something, and we tried a few other vocal experiments for the album (including a Benjamin Britten aria performed live at one-eighth the speed!) but in the end the only ones to make it on are barely audible and are mostly the chopped-up final hums from a much louder previous section.
12 Chain Home
I have a recollection of one track where Brian played different bass notes and I had to respond to them, and it may have been this one. This is another example of me improvising on a variety of synth sounds all of which are developing as I’m playing them, most obviously with the big distortion at the end, which again emerged quite naturally out of the performance: Brian kept cranking up the feedback on the loop plug-in as the performance went on, and that prompted me to play louder, more dramatically, and created a climax to the track.
On that note, Brian is always keen to point out that ambient music can be loud as well as quiet. It was important to us to keep some of this noise and edge on the record. For me personally this is heightened by the long history of ambient piano records, not least those that Brian himself has made. It would be a waste of an opportunity for us to have gone in and tried to recreate ‘Music For Airports’, or some of the tracks from ‘Another Green World’, or any of the Harold Budd records. So I was always alert to the danger of making just another pretty piano album.
This track, like ’Chain Home’, also came from a later session, and used to have quite a bit more sonic variation on it (Brian again mixing up synth sounds), but in the end we turned a lot of those parts down and opted to keep it predominantly a piano track with accompaniment. One thing that really confuses me is the ending which I really have no idea how we achieved: I know it’s a slowed down piano sample, which I think I ended up triggering somehow. Anyway, I really love the last twenty seconds of this track which is extremely quiet – it sounds so unbelievably peaceful.
I’ve taken a lot of care in putting the record together to represent a wide range of the different concepts and experiments we explored. But most importantly, the music had to cohere within that range, and there had to be an emotional arc to make it work as a whole.
And that finally is something important about improvisation: as with any other composition or performance, it requires style/voice/character. While the music may not be consciously about anything, it still retains a subconscious depth and scope that is as hidden to me as it is to the listener. But clearly, without that emotional content, or the music succeeding on its own terms, then none of the processes or concepts I’ve discussed really matter.