the gloom room

October 31, 2009

"Actually, this is an attempted firework photo from my window in Finchley. You'd think I'd be able to get at least one since the  London sky's a-poppin' all the way from Diwali to Guy Fawkes..."

It’s got a title, but this is how it is: a Darkness Box. Ursula Le Guin prefaces her story of that name by telling us of her daughter’s challenge to guess what was in a little wooden box. All the guesses were wrong. The answer, delivered with a slight lifting of the lid and ‘an unspeakably eldritch smile’ was darkness.

Here we are at Tate Modern. I reckon this big box is around the size of eight shipping containers, lined with black Fuzzy Felt. Up the ramp you go, into velvety blackness: I proceeded with caution, getting used to the low light, and enjoying the sound of it. Mixed with the everpresent hum of whatever it is that hums all the time in the turbine hall (ghosts of turbines?) you get muffled steely clanks and muted boomings, as of a subsonic wobbleboard. Never mind Jeff Koons’ inflatable rabbit – also currently at Tate Modern – let’s have a giant blowup Rolf!

It’s nice to listen in the dark to an intriguing soundworld. Francisco López, by the way, has some opinions on this. I was recording at the gloomy end, when someone more confident than me came to an abrupt halt and spoke some words into the close and holy darkness:

On the wall nearby there’s some artspeak to go with the work: be sure to read it to optimise your experience.

And underneath the whole thing, some kids thought it was great fun, swinging off the girders and dashing around. Another Tate Modern event came to mind: a Tango Nuevo evening some years ago. Under the ‘bridge’ at the bottom of the slope, couples danced. The sound of the band, muted and distanced down there, let you hear clearly the hypnotic swish of the dancers’ moves.


October 30, 2009

Pyewackett circa 1981 at The National Theatre, London. Photo by Andrew Cronshaw

Pyewackett has popped up on

Persistent bunch.

There’s also a nice Squidoo lens courtesy of Rick Wales.

At home, he’s a tourist…

October 25, 2009


I spend a couple of months of the year in London. Not being here all the time is an incentive to get out and experience the things which you always thought there’d be time to get around to when you were here all the time…

So it’s off to Greenwich, via the usual Tube and, for the first time, the Docklands Light Railway – eerily driverless, like the Toulouse metro, where you can sit up front and watch the rails snaking off to a vanishing point. Or be reminded – around Canary Wharf – of clanking up unlikely gradients and moving slowly, Hounds of Tindalos style, through outrageous angles – just like you did on the duck cars at Great Yarmouth’s Botton Bros. Funfair all those years ago… Er, yes, I still think trains are fun, and they make a joyful sound which I can’t resist recording. And recycling: here’s …the burning Thames I have to cross… which deals with various aspects of the Underground.

I made for the Royal Observatory, where I:

  • marvelled at Harrison’s various timekeepers, and at his persistence in dealing with the authorities who were so slow to reward him.
  • straddled two hemispheres at the Prime Meridian like a dumpy low-budget colossus…
  • enjoyed the view – even of the Oh-Two dome thingy which at that distance just looks like a beastie from the Burgess Shale.
  • Then a walk to Goldsmiths’ College via the original Greenwich Village for The Large Scale Immersive Audio Experiment. John Drever (Head of the Unit for Sound Practice Research) says: ‘The project aims to raise awareness of the emerging field of 3D audio and of how modern loudspeaker technologies can deliver a precisely controlled field of coverage required to effectively portray a 3D audio soundscape.
    The works will be spacialized using Illustrious’ 3D Audioscape Software platform and presented via Duran Audio’s Intellivox DSP controlled Beam Steering Loudspeakers in the open air at four corners of the College Green.’

    It’s running until November 7th.

    Anyone doing large scale stuff with Ambisonics?

    The Medieval Aroma

    October 24, 2009

    Heard Sonia Paço-Rocchia doing fun stuff with bassoon and MAX last week at a Forum Composers London concert. There’s a certain something about the bassoon: ‘It has the medieval aroma…’ according to Frank Zappa: ‘I can easily understand why a person could get excited about playing a bassoon. It’s a great noise — nothing else makes that noise.’

    I enjoy the particular way its timbre changes through the registers. Sometimes it has a peculiarly vocal quality: something I’m looking at in a forthcoming revision of The River Daughter, which deals with Ovid’s account of the transformation of Daphne. Zoey Pepper is the singing bassoonist who handles the nymph-to-laurel-tree scenario here: I’m revisiting the parts where the identities of voice and bassoon start to blur…

    Veneer of the week

    October 18, 2009

    While in London I’ve been visiting Walthamstow to explore some new tunes with Andrew Cronshaw: he’s coming to Australia for the National Folk Festival at Easter.

    But let’s talk about wood now: one of the select pleasures of driving round the North Circular from Finchley to Walthamstow was the Shadbolt drive-by veneer-spotting moment. A door-sized sliver of exotic timber hung on the warehouse wall under a sign announcing the ‘Veneer of the Week’ , and I always looked forward to it with the anticipation of a true Timber Tragic with a limited social life.

    Bubinga! Wenge! Burr Vavona! …like barbarous words of incantation, the names would roll juicily round the palate.

    Satin Walnut (with sap)! Smoked Swiss Pear!

    Good enough to eat.

    Shadbolt’s has now moved to Braintree. Can’t be helped, but you can now enjoy them from afar.

    Andrew Crawford, a gifted veneer-wrangler, once gave me for my birthday some splendidly veneered parts liberated from a ruined piano. Every now and then I get them out and sniff them. Brazilian rosewood, y’know – its perfume lingers on and leaches out via the unpolished surfaces. Never mind the potency of cheap music: the sense of smell can yank us out of the moment in a truly Proustly fashion. In my great grandmother’s room, two vials of ‘Welsh Violets’ stood on the mantel, their contents long evaporated: but an elusive trace of perfume remained, all the more evocative in its fragility.

    busy Blue Bear…

    July 18, 2009

    A big recording and mixing weekend at the Blue Bear Studio: ‘celtic big band’ Humbug is moving forward with their album of Irish and Scottish favourites, and I’m mixing totally new stuff from bassist Rafael Jerjen’s quartet, which features pianist Luke Sweeting, Niels Rosendahl on sax, and drummer Aidan Lowe: remarkable musicians all.

    And in between, some rehearsing with Dave O’Neill and Jon Jones for a Shortis & Simpson christmasinjuly-type Buddy Holly show (it’s The Holly & The Jivey) at Canberra’s Teatro Vivaldi…

    It’s great to be getting to grips with some fine fifties tunes; and I’ll be featuring a Pixiphone solo, which should draw the crowds. On a purely personal level, it partly compensates for having to do Tinkerbell with an ocarina. See yesterday.

    This week, BBC Radio 3 is running my sister Lowri’s programme Debussy’s Summer of 1912. You can listen online at until the 25th. Lowri says: ‘I will be talking to musicologist Robert Orledge about Debussy’s work during this very hot and irksome summer, and pianists Roy Howat and Alasdair Beatson will be playing and talking about Jeux and the Préludes, while Peter Hill recounts the encounter in Paris between Debussy and Stravinsky, and their reading through at the piano of Stravinsky’s latest ballet score, The Rite of Spring.’

    Wendy’s shadows

    July 17, 2009

    My first lesson in shadowpuppetry today: for Jigsaw Theatre’s production of Wendy – a new twist on the Peter Pan story. I didn’t know I was going to be doing this – thought I was just playing music and attempting to act, but it’s a fun addition to the job description – which includes being a pirate and a Lost Boy skilled in archery, impersonating Tinkerbell via an ocarina, and flying. The flying bit still needs some work.

    The show tours schools in the Canberra region with four performances at The Street Theatre in early August: good to be getting back into shows for kids.

    And while we’re talking about kids’ shows at The Street Theatre: Chrissie Shaw with Gran’s Bag, with a cameo appearance by Baba Yaga…