Switched On – Simon James: Electronic Breeze (Lo Recordings)

by Ben Hogwood

What’s The Story?

There are just two tracks on Electronic Breeze, an album whose name really is matched by its contents. The composer is Simon James, described on the press release as ‘a master of electronic manipulation’.

The two tracks were written as a sound installation for the Lowry Gallery in Salford. James describes them on his blog as ‘durational environmental sound pieces’.

The electronic breeze of the title is a semi-random construction, made with wind chimes, modular synth clusters arranged in loops and field recordings. While using wind chimes, James was keen to avoid the clichés that can occur when they have been used in New Age music. Instead he chose a different set for each track to depict different times of the day, and programmed his Buchla synthesizer to randomly play back the notes from each chime, never repeating itself.

What’s The Music Like?

While the initial method of construction might sound like a cop-out initially, James used it as a springboard to begin his own composition, using the ‘breeze’ to dictate other musical events such as intensity, speed, pitch. Then he added the wind chimes themselves. At all times he wanted to complement the installation – so that means the dynamic level of the piece is low, and best enjoyed in isolation.

If you have the right listening conditions then Electronic Breeze is a piece in which to let your mind run free. The two extended sections complement each other, and the resultant sounds, which occupy mid to upper pitches most of the time, give the impression of floating. It is in effect the musical equivalent of gliding.

Does It All Work?

It does – certainly as background music to ease the troubled mind, and as a helpful accompaniment for mindfulness sessions or meditation.

Is It Recommended?

Yes. Electronic Breeze is a soothing way to spend just north of an hour, taking the edge away from the pressures of everyday life.

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Switched On – Various Artists: Spaciousness 2 (Lo Recordings)

spaciousness-2

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

In which Lo Recordings founder Jon Tye presents a sequel to their successful Spaciousness compilation of 2019. There they expressed the wish for ‘a series of releases that seeks to explore the connections, the overlaps, the roots and the future of a music variously referred to as ambient, deep listening, new age and even post classical.’

What’s the music like?

The second volume of Spaciousness follows on seamlessly from the first. As he did then, Jon Tye has linked together an especially calming selection exploring the corners of the catalogue. The music is effective as a meditation aid, and works equally well in foreground or background listening.

Highlights include the horizontal vibes of Integer by Lauren Doss, with a soothing vocal amid the flickering textures, and the lightly scattered percussion on David Casper‘s Dawn Poems Part 2: Awakening, which has its origins in the east.

Outdoor sounds and soft bells are the order of the day as first track Cruising in the Dimension of a Shenandoah Backyard, from JD Emmanuel, drifts into view, and this segues into Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith‘s remix of Cool Maritime‘s Climbing Up, which starts out like written out wind chimes but then gains positive energy from busy but soothing loops. The Gigi Masin remix of Brain Machine‘s Crystal Clouds bleeps and chugs in a strangely restful way, while the activity of Ariel Kalma‘s Space Forest is underpinned by an appealing drone.

Later on we get to enjoy the gentle open spaces of Vague ImaginairesLe Sillage du Vaguarti, and a serene closing track from Mary Lattimore, the Ocean Moon Redux of A Unicorn Catches A Falling Star

Does it all work?

Yes – with more bleeps than the first, so not as explicitly relaxing, but still finding a very calm headspace. There is more than a touch of new age about the musical language and titles, but to be honest Spaciousness 2 covers a number of stylistic bases with effortless ease.

Is it recommended?

It is – a worthy sequel to the first volume, and good to see Lo Recordings pushing the boat out and incorporating a number of ambient styles. Proof that you can have many different forms of musical relaxation!

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Talking Heads: Simon Dobson

simon-dobson

Interview with Alec Snook

Simon Dobson is a man of many disciplines. To date his musical career has found him out front as a conductor and composer, then behind the scenes as an arranger and multi-instrumentalist. On occasion all those disciplines combine, often with the London-based Parallax Orchestra, with whom he has worked on shows for rock and metal bands. The last year has seen a return to solo composition, with his second artist album MDCNL, released by Lo Recordings in May 2021, delivering five substantial musical statements including the single Quiet, Pls. Here he gives Arcana the lowdown…

In the making of your new LP ‘MDCNL’, was your hand forced to change recording styles/techniques due to the on-going pandemic?

Yeah, pretty much everything about the way I work had to change. Until last year I’d mostly worked to commission, one nail biting month to another, but with ensembles not meeting there were no commissions and no conducting work. I’d been looking to move away from that for a while if truth be told and so I got into production.

What is your relationship with electronic music composition as opposed to the more ‘traditional’ orchestral music that you trained in?

Other than loving listening to it and being a huge fan of it, my relationship with it is super new. This was pretty much the first time (other than demoing stuff at home to later be recorded) that I’d produced music electronically…which is pretty weird, actually. Being a composer and a conductor is obviously a bit of a ‘musical control freak’ thing and there’s more control to be had in the production of electronic music and all the infinite variations it contains. I’ve always been a fan of acts like Squarepusher and Aphex Twin though, I feel like all roads were going to lead me here at some point.

Do you feel that instrumental composers have to work harder to create a narrative or tell a story?

Maybe. Telling a story is hard regardless of the forces you’re writing for. I feel like the world of electronic music is just a language with more words or a shelf with more paints, though.

Does taking a more electronic focussed ensemble on the road appeal to you?

For sure. I love the idea of making electronic music live (and I do have some well tekkers plans up my sleeve), but for the moment getting over the panic of being ready to perform again in ANY way (having not played for the longest time in my adult life) is the first thing to tackle.

simon-dobson-2

When writing and arranging for guitar bands, what shifts in focus or strategies need to take place?

Big talk. Firstly, I’m always aware that in those work situations whatever I write is always beholden to someone else’s music. It’s only ever there to back it up and enhance it, so sometimes it’s hard to let go of ego and be utterly cool with stuff getting chopped or dissed if it’s “too far out” (it never is). Secondly, I generally only arrange for acts or a style I’m into (for example metal), that way I can throw myself into it and have fun as a composer/arranger.

Do you feel more pressure when collaborating with another band/artist? Or does it give you a freedom to step away from pieces that weren’t initially conceived by you?

If I’m working for an act or an orchestra I’m well into, I’ll obviously want them to think that my work is rad. So, I work hard at that shit for sure, but yeah, if I don’t have that sense of total ownership of a piece of music it is easier to be subjective about it.

What order of priority do you give to your orchestral work; the film scores; and the contemporary music arranging?

Honestly, music is my life so there is no strict priority order. I love the orchestral arranging work because I know I can add sheen and value to someone’s creations (plus metal/orchestra stuff is literally the funnest job ever, and the culmination of how I grew up loving heavy music but being classically trained). Film score stuff is new to me but again a very specific discipline and super fun; and contemporary composition is often solitary and hardcore but utterly fulfilling. I basically throw myself right into anything I do – ‘cos it’s music, and music is rad.

If you could work with one film director on a project, who would it be and why?

Either Werner Herzog or Wes Anderson. I know these two are miles apart, but they always have music that I absolutely love. I love the fun, quirky thing with Wes, I reckon I could give that a good crack, and I love the abstract serenity and epic emptiness of Herzog film scores; I’d love to write some weird soundscapes with a string quartet for whatever mad thing it is he does next.

Which other contemporary bands/artists, past or present, are you finding inspiring at the moment?

Anna Meredith (obvs, as always), Olly Coates, Colin Stetson, Steve Reich, Brian Eno (of course), Radiohead (for ever and ever), Matt Calvert, Mica Levi, Esbjorn Svensson, Tigran Hamasyan, Grace Lightman, LYR... you know, the normal bunch.

What other projects do you have coming up this year, whether studio or live?

I’m currently working on a big orchestral gig with my London based crew, Parallax Orchestra. This is a live gig with a band, but I can’t say anything about it just yet, safe to say I’m currently buried under a mountain of orchestral arranging. I’ve got an interesting contemporary commission on the horizon in collaboration with my mates LYR, and I will also be writing a sax quartet for my friend Andy Scott‘s group Apollo.

Oh, I’m also involved in a long-term project working with a local beekeeping start-up called Pollenize, writing generative music based on real time data sets coming out of beehives in Plymouth where I live. Other than that, who knows, MDCNL2 maybe…

Simon Dobson’s MDCNL is out now on Lo Recordings, while a new remix from Human Pyramids of Quiet, Pls has been released today (30 July 2021). You can hear that in the Soundcloud embed above.

Switched On: Grasscut: Haunts (Lo Recordings)

grasscut-haunts

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The roots for Grasscut’s new mini album lie in the footnotes of a previous long player. The 2015 opus Everyone Was A Bird, which explored meaningful places for the duo of Andrew Phillips and Marcus O’Dair, invited listeners to submit thoughts on their own significant places in the form of voicemail messages.

Phillips’ brief was initially to select one of these messages and turn it in to a fully-fledged composition, but it soon became apparent that the abundance and quality of material was way more than one recordings’ worth. The project sat on the back burner for a while but is fully realised as an extended EP. In the end six messages were chosen, with a web of music spun around each, painting pictures of locations from Brighton up to the Outer Hebrides.

What’s the music like?

Captivating – as are the descriptive messages themselves. Each of the six portraits is like an individual postcard, carefully stitched together, and the meaningful aspects of each location are clear in the emotion of the subjects. The places themselves are hugely varied – from Inchkeith Island, on the edge of Skye with a near-constant wind – to The Garden, a more private and domestic utterance.

The music in the latter is utterly charming, telling a story well before we hear the voicemail message, the song of a blackbird accompanied by the plaintive open strings of a violin, Inchkeith Island is on a larger scale, the water around ever-present, while Human Estuary uses a lovely chamber music group with violin, clarinet and double bass. The Pull is punctuated by an enchanted figure on the piano, its sound cushioned and mottled. Witley Common is similarly mysterious, while The Garden tells a vivid story even before the message, the open strings of a violin used as a countermelody to a blackbird breaking into song. Seacliff makes good use of a Kathleen Ferrier sample, as Phillips says, ‘singing like a mermaid in the distance’.

Does it all work?

Yes. The Overwinter album earlier this year was a timely reminder of Phillips and O’Dair’s ability to make music that transports their listener to another place, but with the voicemail messages setting the tone here, the accompanying pictures are ever more vivid. The only regret is that some of the compositions are not longer – Seacliff and The Pull especially have enough material to blossom into recordings double the length that they occupy.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Grasscut devotees will not need to hesitate as this mini-album continues their development as composers of meaningful music of time and place. Newcomers would also be advised to start here – but to carry on with the other albums, as this is a band hitting the sweet spot with an unerring accuracy.

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Switched On: Grasscut: Overwinter (Lo Recordings)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Overwinter, the fourth album from Brighton duo Grasscut, was conceived in 2018 and 2019 – but its message carries from there to where we find ourselves today, locked down and in need of solace. Andrew Phillips, the principal songwriter, drew inspiration from wintertime walks around their home city, talking with homeless people on the seafront, while also attending marches of protest against the Grenfell tragedy.

At that time he was writing the music for a feature documentary on the disaster, and that writing spilled into Overwinter, conveying the keen desire to move from darkness to light. The same applies today, in the first album the duo have completed since their Lo Recordings debut in 2015, Everyone Was A Bird.

What’s the music like?

Very descriptive, and with an extremely strong sense of time and place. Phillips did much of his walking at either end of the day, and the music reflects the unusual light just before or after darkness. The enchanting first song Return Of The Sun has the wonder of a new start, captured through Marcus O’Dair‘s dappled piano and Phillips’ hushed vocals, which immediately transport the listener to his world. Edges Of Night reaches similar parts, and so does The Branches Of The Tree, by which time the album has taken an upward turn.

The songs are lovingly crafted, with very little percussion – in complete contrast to the duo’s earlier work but leading on naturally from Everyone Was A Bird. The natural world takes pride of place, realised in analogue arrangements with electronic trimming. The gentle bass clarinet undulations of Root & Branch suggest the beginnings of new life, thanks to the playing of Nick Moss, while the strings of the Moscow Bow Tie Orchestra are beautifully managed by conductor Vladimir Podgoretsky.

Does it all work?

Overwinter, heard by this listener for the first time in the ideal conditions of a snowstorm, is a vivid portrait of the UK’s coldest season. It works as well as it does because the nine tracks are arranged to form a single suite whose mood and climate align to the situation in which we find ourselves now. Andrew Phillips’ vocals are just right, a mixture of subtle emotion and clarity, and the arrangements complement them perfectly.

Is it recommended?

Heartily – but with the caveat that listening to this piece of work is even more effective if you have heard the previous three Grasscut albums. That may sound like a promotional sentence, but it’s true – the duo’s musical voyage together is creating music of ever greater substance. Overwinter is their most meaningful statement yet.

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