Those of you who listened to the last episode of the KNITSONIK podcast may recall the interview with my good friend Patrick McGinley, AKA murmer. In that episode we spoke of our mutual love of sounds and shared some of our field-recordings.
I’m really excited to tell you that Patrick has been working on an album called songs for forgetting. Gruenrekorder – an amazing record label responsible for publishing some of my favourite field-recording releases – are currently running a Kickstarter to raise the necessary production funds to put this out there as a gorgeous vinyl LP. If the glimpses of sounds shared on the campaign video are anything to go by, it’s going to be a wonderful listen.
To help spread the word on Gruenrekorder’s campaign and to continue some of the conversations started in our interview here on the KNITSONIK podcast, I sent Patrick a few questions about his working process and about his forthcoming album which I’m sharing with you here today. I hope you enjoy hearing a bit from the SONIK world; I’ll be back with more news from the KNIT in coming days.
Felix: I would like to ask you to speak a bit about slowness involved in working with sounds; I also find that my work with sounds is very slow and I wonder what it is about this medium that needs more time?
Patrick: I think for me it’s largely about achieving distance. I want to hear a piece as a first-time listener hears it, and to come close to that (although of course it’s never really entirely possible) I need long breaks. I’ll work on a piece intensely for a few days or a few weeks and then put it aside for a year, sometimes more, and then when I come back to it again (or sometimes find it accidentally!) I have a much fresher perspective on it. It’s easy to get precious about choices as an artist, it’s a dangerous trap, and time gives us the ability to forget, and forgetting gives us the ability to improve. There’s that idea with writing that the best strategy is to write something, then burn it and wait a week, and after a week write it again from memory. Anything you can’t remember wasn’t worth remembering. I suppose it’s something like that for me and composition. Once I can’t remember why I did things a certain way, I’m perfectly happy to throw them out if they don’t work.
But I think this also has to do with the type of work this is. I’m not sure the same principles would work for writing a pop song (I don’t know, maybe they would, I’ve never written a pop song; I guess it’s much harder to do than what I do). I remember an album review for a CD of mine that I was really happy to receive, that spoke about ‘the invisible hand of the composer’. I think this attempt to remove one’s own hand, to forget oneself, to let the sounds dictate their own form, also requires extra time and space, for the ear to be able to hear what the sounds want to say.
Felix: As you know I am (still!) working on my first solo release as KNITSONIK. I find that when I am planning out the album and thinking about the sounds, I am organising thematically but also sonically. For example at the moment I am thinking a lot about the different maritime sounds of Portland in Weymouth vs. the sounds I recorded at the shoreline in Shetland, and I am thinking about the differences between near and distant baas. There are several really memorable and special listening experiences that have so far gone into the work for KNITSONIK Audible Textures Resource and I am sure you have similar things… either very particular ideas about how different sonic textures work together, or very specific memories of recording some of the sounds for songs for forgetting. I wonder if you could share some of those with us here?
Patrick: Yes, the sounds on songs for forgetting are all very evocative for me, memory-wise. I think of them in two categories: there are the field recordings (the rain in old soviet-era gutters in Tõravere, the surf on the pebble beach at Étretat, the mascletā fireworks in Valencia), and there are the ‘instruments’ – which are evocative of the specific moments when I played and recorded them, but also of the people through whom they came to me, whether those people knew it or not. They are also evocative of the times in my life when I did most of the work on the individual pieces – the first song was largely composed in 2007 in response to a particular life event, which brought about the title that would hold for the whole series of works. So maybe these are more personal connections than textural, but nonetheless…
The mascletā fireworks were a surprise treat lined up for me by Rubén García Villaplana, who had invited me to Valencia to perform at the Observatori Festival in 2008. Rubén booked my travel and chose my hotel, and he booked me to arrive just before the day’s mascletā fireworks were to begin, in a hotel just around the corner from where they would be happening. He said nothing about it to me. He knew I’d just be settling in after my journey, and that the incredible noise would undoubtedly be a shocking surprise, and that’s exactly how it happened. I was out the door within minutes with my microphones, and spent the rest of the day in a raucous festival that I had had no idea existed.
The rain in Tõravere happened while I was staying in that quiet village for another festival organised by some Estonian friends. It was a warm autumn evening, I can still feel the air, with distant thunder and an amazing smell and a lovely percussive rhythm coming from the old tin rain gutters on the soviet-era block houses.
The Ētretat beach recording I remember specifically because it was such a confusing sound. Listeners often think the recording is somehow manipulated, and on location it took a while to figure out what I was hearing. It was a pebble beach, or perhaps a rocky beach, much larger than pebbles, but smooth like them. The rock cover was quite thick, so as the gentle waves broke on the shore the water filled a labyrinth of tiny caverns between the rocks, and as the tide pulled the water back out to sea, a sound like the rewinding of a cassette tape was created by the water being sucked back out from amongst the rocks, creating tiny vacuums…
Felix: I love the list of instruments that you came across, played, or found in the course of developing this work. It seems to me that you are not including them in a virtuosic way – i.e you are not “performing” on these instruments in a traditional sense; instead you seem to be exploring them as sound-producing objects. Could you say a bit about that?
Patrick: That’s entirely correct; I am not including them in a virtuosic way because I am not a virtuoso! I ‘don’t play’ any of the instruments used on the album; most of the recordings were explorations, exactly as you say, first encounters and experiments. Some of the instruments I played without having any idea of what the actual ‘technique’ might be (since I didn’t really know what the instruments were), some were played by clearly incorrect means (one by a bit of shoelace on the end of a motor) and some weren’t even ‘instruments’ in the conventional sense anyway (like the antenna on the roof of a astronomical telescope that sang when bowed). So, just like my field recordings, these instruments were also about discovery, and wonder, and accidents.
Felix: I grew up playing instruments in a very traditional sense – for example playing the flute and the piano and later attempting to play the harp. And of course I love a bit of crap accordion playing to accompany my songs.
I found that moving towards less overtly “musical” listening experiences and working with field recordings has really expanded how I think about instruments. In Brussels a few years ago, preparing for the Tuned City festival with Valeria Merlini, we found a lovely drain into which an icicle was melting. It had a beautiful sound and we listened to it for a long time, knowing that it would be gone as soon as the icicle had melted away. I sometimes think about artificially recreating the drainpipe and the ice as a kind of temporal “instrument”. And I like to “play” railings with a stick when I am walking through a city… I guess in some ways listening and making field recordings have blurred the boundaries for me between what constitutes an instrument and what constitutes playing. Does this reflect any of your own experiences in working with sounds and towards this release?
melting ice in Brussels
playing the railings in Edinburgh
Patrick: I’m glad you’ve never tried to recreate your dripping icicle. Some situations should remain ephemeral – you’d never be satisfied if you tried to own that one. The resonance wouldn’t be right, the drips would be in the wrong rhythm, the ice would melt too fast. It would pale in comparison to your memory of that moment.
I love to ‘play’ environments. In fact, my current set-up for live performance is all about playing a space. I create my echo surveys performances entirely from field recordings made in the space where the performance will take place, mixed with the ‘playing’ of materials found there – bowing furniture, or rubbing walls and windows. I think of this as field recording as well – but ‘active’ field recording as opposed to the usual ‘passive’ variety. These sounds are also site-specific and present in a space, but sometimes a space needs a little help and interaction for it’s voice to be made audible.
On songs for forgetting there are several elements that could enter into this discussion. The fourth song features the mascletā recording – which, although passive for me, was definitely active for a lot of other people, and could definitely be considered playing – mixed with a trash-improvisation created under a footbridge by myself and two friends (Lasse-Marc Riek, of Gruenrekorder, and the drawing artist Elffriede). Our instruments were rubble, tin cans, plastic and glass, but we were definitely playing.
Felix: The glimpses of the sound worlds that are in your forthcoming release are very tantalising. I often think about where or how my sounds will reach a listener when I put them out into the world; I wonder how you picture listeners enjoying songs for forgetting when it is out?
Patrick: Well, I haven’t pictured it all all really; I guess if I think about an ideal environment, I picture a quiet autumn evening, windows open, light fading, a nice drink, and some time to be able to stare into the distance. But that’s not really up to me – I’ll just be grateful for it to be heard at all!
If I think about how these sounds will be experienced I think about the decision to make this a vinyl LP, and the care going in to the design and production of the artwork. I hope that the release will be experienced that way as well, as an audio-visual whole, with textures and smells and images and sounds all playing a part. That, for someone from my generation, is a very different experience to a virtual download.
Thanks so much to Patrick for joining us here on KNITSONIK today! You can hear more of Patrick’s work at murmerings.com and you can read details of the Kickstarter campaign for songs for forgetting here.