For me, ‘best gig of the year so far’ goes to Joe Watson, performing in a pub basement to twenty-odd randoms and acquaintances. Experiencing his work made me feel a bit like a child on discovering that Santa’s grotto has suddenly appeared next to BHS in the shopping mall. Not only was I able to lose my sense of the room at certain times within the euphonic electronic noise but when I opened my eyes again there was the visual treat of an enlarged projection of Joe’s hands fiddling with parts that might have been nicked from a space-ship flight deck.
What I heard definitely pushed at the boundaries of what us laymen would term ‘music’, so I’ll spare you any tired noize band comparisons and describe the overall audio: a continuous electronic piece that shifted between rhythm and arrhythm, comfortable repetition and moments of jaw-clenching anticipation, harmony and melody absent and replaced by fluff, fuzz, beats, pops, clicks, snap, crack, sizzle, suck and blow clashes and what I thought were the recognisable sounds of lawnmowers, hedge-strimmers and engines (they were not – afterwards, Joe explained that all sounds were created through bits of equipment communicating with each other). There was a huge element of randomness in the work, he was responding to mood and texture in choosing to set each component in motion. And this live unfolding is what created the tension in the room.
Joe was kind enough to provide further enlightenment by answering my email interview and sharing the schematic patch sheet pictured (it omits drum synths and their triggering section as the performance was part of a work in progress). Let’s take full advantage of our window into the artist…
Well, I think of myself primarily as a musician. At the moment I’m doing a PhD in musical composition as well as teaching music production and working as a freelance sound engineer. I’ve released two solo pop albums under the name Junior Electronics. I played keyboards with indie band Stereolab from 2004-8 and also engineered their three last albums.
Performing is something I’ve always done and is one of the primary ways music happens in the world. In this case I hoped that performing this system in public would give me a different perspective on the work I’ve been doing in the studio.
Before: nervous, excited.
During: I was concentrating on what I was doing, but conscious of the great attention the audience was paying to what was going on. To be honest I felt quite uncomfortable, but also grateful for the respectful hush. The times when I sat back just to listen, and could hear things through the audience’s ear, were quite interesting. I could see a good friend out of the corner of my eye and at a certain point she put her head in her hands and I knew I’d gone on too long – I really had no conception of the time that had elapsed. It still took quite a while for me to finish as I searched for an appropriate way to wind things down.
After: nervous, relieved.
Ha, I panicked! I’m more used to playing pop gigs, where you turn up, load in, soundcheck, wait around feeling nervous while trying not to drink too much, then play. I hadn’t thought about introducing the piece, so when Danny asked if I’d like to say anything I’d said ‘no’ before I realised what had happened. In retrospect it would have been kinder on the audience to say a little about what I was doing before I played – there’s a good reason for programme notes in classical concerts. Trying to answer questions afterwards was quite tricky because my head was still in the fug of conversing with the machine.
The title of the piece: ‘the thing breathed’. I didn’t know the title at the gig – I just read it – Richard Powers Orfeo.
I hope they had a little breath in their ears.
As I live and breathe.
All equipment used was analogue electronic hardware:
Moog MF102 ring modulator
Moog MF107 freqbox
Doepfer modular synth system comprising the following modules:
Icon DSM200 drum synth (2 channel)
Soundmaster Stix ST-305 drum machine
Soundcraft EPM6 mixer
I used these items because they are what I’ve been using recently to explore self generating synth patches. The vocoder is central to the sound and it seems it’s quite unusual to use this in this kind of way. The two Moog boxes and the Doepfer system are all feeding back into each other in a complex manner that I don’t totally understand. The two channels of Icon and the Stix are triggered by tapping off part of the vocoder analysis section to drive the clock divider/sequencer/sequential switch section. There is no central clock – all rhythms are created by the complex interaction of feedback loops. Traditionally in modular synthesis you make a distinction between audio and control signals, but here signals freely move between these different domains.
I’m interested in the connection between rhythm and timbre: speed up a rhythm into the audio frequency spectrum and it becomes timbre; slow down an audio oscillator and its timbre becomes a distinctive rhythm (Stockhausen discussed this in the 60s). In this piece I was exploring the liminal zone between rhythm/control voltage and timbre/audio signal. One of the really interesting things here is that the system can stabilise into a recognisable pattern, but each iteration of the pattern will be completely unpredictable on the small scale – kind of like self-similarity in chaotic systems; or the unique rhythm of veins in an oak leaf. In this system it’s the narrow boundary between fairly ordered and pretty chaotic behaviour that produces the most interesting results.
My experiments with the system in my studio had discovered a combination of interconnections and settings that sounded very much like breathing, and in the performance I tried to move from the breathing to other zones of rhythmic/sonic interest that I’d uncovered, some of which I found and some of which I just couldn’t get back to.
Gordon Pask’s ‘ear’.
Joe Watson interviewed by Rachel James