Is it possible to create music using only the natural sounds of the Earth? Robin Lumley says yes, having done just that for a forthcoming BBC documentary series with the aid of a Prophet 2000 sampler and some open-minded studio personnel. Read his fascinating tale.
THE MAKING OF MUSIC FROM THE SOUNDS OF THE EARTH
I must say, at the outset, that this must be the weirdest and most wonderful project upon which I have embarked during my (too!) long career as a musician. You see, for the first time, myself and my partner, Peter Willsher (long known for his expertise with the pedal steel guitar, and composer of hundreds of TV jingles, plus solo albums, songwriting for Bucks Fizz, producing library music albums, etc) have succeeded in producing pieces of music, written by us, but utilising absolutely no musical instruments whatsoever. Instead, we have utilised the sounds the Earth makes naturally - be they animal noises or other naturally occurring sounds - and simply organised them, rather than alter them, distort them, or use them merely as sound effects against more conventionally conceived musical formats.
If this is a bit hard to imagine (or swallow!), I'd better begin from the top and describe how it came about...
Back in 1976, another partner of mine, Jack Lancaster, and myself were intrigued to read a report from Newcastle University about 'Singing Sands', which is a geological phenomenon found to occur on certain beaches around the world, including the British Isles. Such beaches in Jersey and Anglesey have sand that, when you stand on it, emits a musical note not unlike a synthesizer A440 tuning oscillator in its purity, but not necessarily at that pitch.
We wondered whether or not it might be possible to sample such notes and use them musically. Back then, of course, there were no sampling devices like Fairlights or Prophet 2000s, or even anything like the digital delay/samplers we have today. So we thought of recording notes, changing their pitch by tape speed variation, and installing the tapes into a Mellotron so as to be able to physically play them. Bit crude by today's standards perhaps, but it could have conceivably worked.
However, after thinking up that wheeze, we started looking at the possibilities of other natural sounds to use, and came across a whole myriad... such as looping water-drips in caves to form a rhythm track, recording the Booming Sands of the Sahara Desert to generate bass notes, using wind and sea as white noise sources, along with the millions of sounds emitted by the animal life of this planet - bird calls, cat mews, crickets, cicadas, mosquitoes, owls, etc... We tried to launch the idea, but the world of record companies met our plan with a stony indifference, muttering things like "Too expensive", "It's not commercial" and other turn-down platitudes. So we buried the whole thing in our Crazy Ideas file and forgot about it.
And then out of the blue, a few months ago, Mark Jacobs, a producer at the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol called us up to ask us to explore the feasibilities of the plot in the light of modern technology for a proposed series, initially for radio, but later for TV and record. Julian Mitchell-Dawson from BBC Enterprises put up a research budget for us to come up with two short trial pieces, and Mark sent us up a huge collection of high quality tape samples of bird and animal sounds gleaned from the vast BBC Natural History archives.
We suddenly realised, on sifting and collating this giant pile of tapes, that the thing might really work at last. And this is how we set about achieving it....
Firstly, Pete Willsher and I sat down for a week with our Revoxes and mini home mixer to go through every sound and evaluate its use under certain distinct musical categories. Could this be a bass sound, or could this be usable as a tune after sampling a small part, or was there any mileage in this one for percussion?
At the end of this critical analysis, we had a short-list and were ready to start writing and recording for real. But what a strange way to write, deciding whether or not to have a melody sung by a barking fox, or a Great Northern Diver (a type of bird)! In a way, when we started, we had no actual idea of what it all might sound like, apart from the notes and rhythms being right.
There's a marvellous studio called Gateway in South London, run by a wonderful bunch of wide-minded people with whom we'd been friends for a long time, and whom we knew would lend us every kind of technical and musical support. So to them we scuttled, clutching boxes of tapes and sheaves of notes, and got stuck in. Now Gateway may be quite small physically, but it is superbly equipped, used for TV commercials, film-syncing and voiceovers, as well as for full-blown albums and singles. Upstairs they've even got a 'Recording Schoolroom' for the engineering and production courses they run, which is better equipped than many other professional studios! Sorry about seemingly giving Gateway a 'commercial', but they deserve it!
Realising we were about to undertake something never before tried, we approached the recording as one would a traditional backing track, by recording the drums first. But what 'drums', what 'percussion'?
Using 24-track tape, on went four minutes of regular water-dripping recorded originally in Cheddar Caves.
We then recorded three parallel tracks of different drips, so that by shunting the mixing desk faders, one could 'play' almost any rhythmic variation, or fills. Two further tracks consisted of dropping in Woodpeckers and Corncrakes as cabasa sounds. All of a sudden on playback, it started to come alive as a bonafide drum track!
Next the 'bass' part. A bird called a Bittern makes a peculiar cry that sounds like a talking drum - a really deep and sonorous note. We sampled him into a digital delay, and got him to sing a three-note repetitive bass part in time with our newly-created drums and percussion tracks. Again on playback we were amazed - we'd got a feel, a groove, and a danceable vibe, all from water drips and a few bird noises. What next?
Thanks to Gateway's Mick Parker, who's not only a first class engineer and producer but a fine keyboards player, we were able to bounce some exciting ideas off each other, and ended up having two main tunes. One, from the call of the Great Northern Diver (which we used complete, without sampling, as his song sounds uncannily like a series of blues lead-guitar lines), and another from a barking fox. Now unless you've actually heard a fox bark, you'd never guess what it sounds like.... more of a human 'aaaah' sound than a dog's bark, very pure, like a soprano vocalist.
Down into a Prophet 2000 sampler went some pure fox-barks, and we started to play melody lines on the 2000 over our rhythm track, including a touch of harmony here and there. Apart from a little cosmetic reverb, we had not distorted or altered any sounds at all so far, and as everything was sounding so magical, we decided there and then to stick to that rule as we progressed further.
Next step was to create some sustain areas, for texture purposes. Strings? But what, or how?
Something quite unbelievable had turned up as a sample on the BBC tapes we were sent, something totally unexpected. It was the sound of mosquitoes, recorded buzzing around a microphone somewhere in Surrey, and it sounded just like a demented string section! So we layered that on all the way through the track, allowing us to push up a fader or take the sound in or out at will during the mixing stage.
A few little extra moments were added, such as a pertinent owl-hoot here and there, sample-stored on both DDL and Prophet 2000, and we were ready to mix. An hour later, we all sat back to listen to this uncanny piece of music, with haunting sounds and melodies, an infectious rhythm, and eerie strings, all completely natural sounds in themselves, but simply having been organised by us, and not messed with in any way.
I'm looking forward to you all hearing the finished piece some time very soon, as all who have so far have found it quite unbelievable. The main thing is that the idea has been proved... it works. You can make music this way! The possibilities now for creating many differing musical forms are endless. Our friend Peter Gabriel is in danger of joining in this plot by perhaps looking after sounds from different countries for the BBC series, so that each country in the world will have a piece or pieces of music peculiar to the natural sounds occurring there. We just used British sounds for our trial piece, but we're already working on music from African animals and sounds, and then there's Australia (lead vocalist kookaburras?)....
Of course, having been seen here to apparently give all the secrets away, we are actually miles ahead of anyone else who tries, and the music produced is with copyright sounds owned by the BBC. Anyone else having a go would need a vast library of sounds of their own, which would take them years to amass!
The next stage is to get on with recording the series, and by the time you read this, we'll be well on the way. In the meantime, we are hoping that apart from the BBC series, BBC Records will also release an album featuring the music that the animals of the Earth have made, with just a little help from us!
So, back to the next pile of tape samples that have been trucked up to us from Bristol, and the prospect of months of exciting work and music ahead.
Feature by Robin Lumley
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