Breaking The Mold
An Australian composer accepts a brief to provide music for an exhibition of pottery - the catch is that all the sounds should be sampled from the exhibits. Sandra McLean talks to the man who makes pottery sing.
While many musicians were building up sample libraries from scrapyards or record collections, one Australian sampling addict had teamed up with a potter.
THE MUSICAL POTENTIAL of a clay pot is not something a lot of people would recognise or even bother to investigate.
But Australian composer Colin Wilson is a man with an ear for something different and the know-how to turn any sound into music no matter what the source.
Having listened to Wilson's project of "pot music", entitled Baraka, and visited his modest recording studio in the suburban backstreets of his hometown of Brisbane, I feel it must also be said he has a tenacious streak when it comes to creating new sounds in music.
Baraka is a collection of compositions in which every sound is derived from clay pots. Wilson coaxed the sounds from the pots by the processes of tapping, tickling and blowing. The sounds he produced were then sampled and manipulated with an Akai S612 sampler, sequenced with a Roland MSQ700 digital keyboard recorder and processed through a Korg SDD1000 digital delay, Roland SRV2000 digital reverb and Aphex Type C Aural Exciter before being recorded on a Fostex B16.
The end result is a collage of sounds that it's difficult to describe. It seems wrong to simply call it "pot music", it's much more than that, inspiring wonder at how such music could be produced from a source as commonplace as a pot. The variety of sounds is staggering, embracing sounds you'd readily assume to have come from analogue synthesisers as well as more exotic samples.
Recorded on tongue-in-cheek label Broke Records, Baraka is comprised of four tracks: 'Baraka', 'Totems', 'In Bibi Time' and 'Totems 2'. The title track is a layered piece of light and heavy percussion sounds over a background drone. This is pierced by a weird high flute sound which travels untouched through the music. Further in, the track becomes even more multi-levelled with the addition of other sounds such as chimes and a robotic synth-like chorus. The combination is positively mystic and more than a few people would slot Baraka into that growing category of ambient or new age music.
It's difficult to comprehend that all these sounds come from pots. Even more so with the second track, 'Totems'. This track is a humorous, bubbly ditty that scoots along at a manic pace. The upbeat poppiness of 'Totems' is a contrast to in Bibi Time', which features a funky "keyboard" sound backed by upbeat percussion. Once again Wilson's favourite flute sound hovers through the track. 'Totems 2' also has this flute sound that is a persistent contrast to the other two elements - a "tinny" percussion which is gradually overtaken by an aggressive piece of keyboard "potting".
Nothing in these tracks hints at the origin of the sounds they contain. In retrospect, Wilson admits even he was surprised by the range of sounds he could get from the pots. There have also been moments when his tapes have provoked disbelief among his peers. This especially occurs when they hear one section that started as a simple percussion sound, which after sampling became reminiscent of an analogue synth.
"In two of the pieces they are used as drones and bass sounds, and in another they take a more melodic role", Wilson comments. "In my personal life they have become a point of contention. I spent a lot of time arguing with people about their authenticity, I mean as to whether they were really produced from these pots. I actually brought some of them into the studio, played them the basic sample and then manipulated it in front of them.
"Anyone who has used the S612 will be aware that the editing facilities are pretty primitive", he says of his sampler. "There are no visuals at all, just two slider controls and a lot of trial and error. Anyhow, essentially, I just took the percussion sound with the right kind of attack and looped the very first part of the sound. I don't know exactly how much; it is impossible to tell with this machine."
The pots Wilson used as the original "instruments" were made by Rowley Drysdale, a journalist turned potter, who lives in the hinterland of Queensland's Sunshine Coast. It was Drysdale who first pointed out the musical potential of his pots.
"I was at his place one day and he said to me 'Listen to this'", recalls Wilson. "There was a pot sitting in his front room and the wind was blowing through the window over this pot. It was setting up this beautiful resonance. One of the ways Rowley checks the quality of his pots is by their resonance."
Wilson and Drysdale talked about the possibilities of doing an exhibition together, Drysdale displaying his work to the sound of music created by Wilson from pots. The exhibition eventually included a third person, an artist called Dave Bromley.
"I've come to an understanding with the S612: I don't ask it to do things that I know it can't do, in return it does everything that it possibly can do for me."
The mixed media exhibition was christened Canvas and Clay Cheek to Cheek, and was well received by art critics in Brisbane. Wilson says the challenge of taking essentially unmusical sounds and using them as sources for a piece of music was the major attraction of the Baraka project.
Baraka was a name suggested by Drysdale: "It's a Moroccan word", he explains. "It means something between karma and fate, in that certain people accrue Baraka. This means they accrue the ability to attract interesting things to themselves. I like to relate it to my pots in that the elements are given their chance to have their say in things."
APART FROM THEIR mutual interest in pots, Wilson also shared Drysdale's approach to his work, especially with regard to the Baraka project. Basically, it's a question of merging the creative process which is often a matter of intuition, with the purely practical needs of engineering to produce a sound. There was also the desire to let the pots, as Drysdale would put it, have their own say.
Wilson: "I guess my approach to music differs; when I'm working on my own projects like Baraka I work with a lot more freedom than I could on most things. I would rarely write anything down for something like this. In fact, I have very few conscious preconceptions of the actual music.
"I spend a lot of time establishing the emotional qualities and dynamics that I want to get across. I know how the whole thing is going to feel - I know how I'm going to feel when I finally hear the completed piece. I know what the textures will feel like. But as for the notes themselves, and the lines - well, I work fairly intuitively when I get to there. I suppose when you're using unconventional sounds you have to give the sounds themselves some room to suggest the types of lines they would like to sit in.
"When working on something like an exhibition of paintings and pots which is mostly visual, the part I found most difficult was finding the point where they could all join up. I thought because the tactile elements of Rowley's pots were so strong, and just using them for the sounds gave me such an earthy base to work from, I would try to make the music as tactile as possible. I kept the melodic structures light and tried to let the textures and colours weave in and out of a repetitive rhythmic bed. That approach seemed to work very well for both the pots and Dave's paintings."
Wilson used three vase-type pots with small openings at the top to make the percussive sounds. Each pot had a different resonance and he discovered when he used a cupped hand over the opening he could control the type of inflection on the sound.
"For instance", says Wilson, "immediately after impact if I raised my fingers on one side I got an upward inflection. Conversely, if I hit one side of the mouth first and then closed my fingers over the rest, I could produce a downward inflection.
"Sampling these was very straightforward simple one-shot, one-second samples with a bit of boost, about 5.6K. For all the sampling, I used a Sony C48 through the desk and then took a direct out to the S612."
Wilson's favourites are the flute-like sounds. Light and airy, they were made from a tiny vase with a short neck. Wilson blew across the lip on the neck of the vase as if he was playing the flute.
"It was pretty difficult to get a good clean sound out of it and, in fact, the sample I used has a lot of wind noise on it. I tried to fiIter it out, but I didn't like what it did to the sound so I decided to live with the noise. Again, it's a one-second sample, with a straightforward loop and a slow modulation on the decay."
"I spent a lot of time arguing with people about the authenticity of the sounds - whether they were really produced from these pots."
The procedure of making Baraka was quite simple - the difficulty lay in finding the right basic sound and then finding the right loop point. As well as stretching the use of the equipment in his studio, Wilson adopted an unorthodox approach to his work to create original sounds. For example, some of the loops which he finally decided to use would normally be regarded as "bad" loops. It was this that enabled him to create the synthesiser sounds which were to become such a point of contention among his friends.
THE TRACKS THAT make up Baraka were recorded over several weeks. Wilson worked with one sound at a time, creating more sounds as he needed them.
"I started with one of the percussive sounds and played its part of that particular rhythmic pattern into the MSQ700", he explains. "I maybe used three or four different sounds on tape to make one percussion part, but as the S612 will only handle one sound at a time, you have to split the part up and record them separately. In the two longer pieces, some of the parts were looped. But I used different lengths, say three, four and six minute loops on three of the different elements that went together to make up that percussion part. That way the first part has been played four times, the second three, and the third two when you get to 12 minutes into the tape, and then they all meet up again. The parts are developed in such a way as to be musically and dynamically coherent even though each time they repeat they are playing with different parts of the other two loops.
"I used quantisation on the MSQ700 for some parts and not for others, depending on the track. With some parts, I committed reverb or delays to tape because I didn't have much outboard gear, particularly very short reverbs on some percussion or long reverbs and delays on the flute-type sounds playing slow melodic lines. I don't work much with the MSQ700 before I go to tape. As soon as I've got one part on tape I run that and the MSQ in sync while I play the next part into the sequencer."
"I used the S612 for one very important reason", Wilson continues. "It is the only sampler I own. Over the years we've come to an understanding: I don't ask it to do things that I know it can't do, and in return it does everything that it possibly can do for me. And the MSQ, well the editing on it is practically non-existent. It is a very limited machine, but it does have a sort of character that I haven't seen in other sequencers. I think that some of its limitations are the very thing that make it so likeable."
Experimenting with the sound of music was a natural step for Wilson, who started his musical career at the age of seven. Then he was a cornet player in his school band in the Queensland town of Ilfracombe.
As a teenager he swapped his cornet for a drum kit, and after writing a successful stage musical, he joined a rock 'n' roll band. His time with Railroad Gin - a popular band in Australia during the 1970's - meant long stints of touring and playing in sleazy venues he would rather forget. Wilson now plays guitar in a blues band.
"Guitar is my rock 'n' roll-have fun instrument", he says. "I am not a great guitarist but I love playing."
When Wilson tired of life on the rock road, he decided to make a living writing advertising jingles. He started to learn the engineering side of recording music and he as finally forced into production responsibilities when his partner left, leaving Wilson to produce an album.
In 1987, Wilson stopped working as a jingle producer, changed the name of his studio from "Wilson Music" to "Hole in the Wall" and started to compose and work on his own projects. Much of his knowledge of sound engineering is self-taught or garnered from magazines such as the one you're now reading. He found these magazines informative but frustrating due to the fact that much of the state-of-the-art equipment they reviewed was out of his financial reach.
But in 1988 Wilson had the chance to work with this equipment after he and a friend, Gerard Dozzi, were commissioned to write an opera for World Expo 88 in Brisbane. The original demos were done in Wilson's studio. The finals were done in Los Angeles with producer/engineer Daniel Lazerus, who has worked with some of America's leading recording artists, including Steely Dan.
In LA, they used the mighty Synclavier and worked in various studios including Enterprise and Master Control. The opera, New Horizon, was an ambitious project which was performed at World Expo which took place in Australia in October last year.
Since then Wilson has moved out of his suburban studio. He is now building a new studio and continuing to compose in the isolated surroundings of Queensland's Sunshine Coast hinterland. Baraka is currently being considered by a record company for British release, and he and Drysdale are considering mounting another exhibition, this time using live pot music, played by five percussionists and two keyboardists. All in all, things are looking particularly good for Colin Wilson at the moment.
"I guess one of the things I am good at is being able to hear a sound in its raw form and think I can use that", is his parting comment. I'd say he's good at a fair few other things besides.