If I were to make a soundtrack for a performance which doesn’t exist yet, about a nameless poet, this is what I might do. Make some music. You can listen below
Research and Pre-Thinking
The poet has rural connections from a particular time and place. I think about, and research musical forms and tools from that time, finding sounds and instruments from my own stock that bear some resemblance. At no stage do I think of directly adapting a tune or patently evoking a time or place using cinematic clichés.
But I have to be aware of them. I’ve played with similar sounds before with Two Roads (1999) and Scribble (2004). Since those soundtracks there’ve been a few bands I’ve appreciated that have employed the sounds I’m thinking of. Sufjan Stevens, The Tim and Sam Band, The Padang Food Tigers among others. They’re influences that are in the mix too. This will be concept-lite, as it’s a pre-production experiment. I’m really interested in using modest, natural tools to build musical textures with potential to contribute to a theatrical event.
This is about establishing a sonic palette, which has musical and acoustic properties and the potential to produce secondary textures as they mix. I look more into instruments from the period and geography. I’m not going to go out and buy them but I learn enough about their sounds and tunings to approximate them with what I have to hand. This influences the compositions and their use of drones. I’m not really playing with genre but it’s a useful place to visit, if only for the purposes of exclusion. I don’t know much about this show. Nobody does. But I don’t think it’ll need a tango (for example).
Quickly absorbing the performance concept, as it’s represented in a very rough draft script provided to me by the director, I research the poet & his works and his unschooled passion for music which led him to being a music critic, his involvement in a war (which has musical implications) and the many subsequent musical settings of his works.
I experiment with a few instruments, twiddling away on them till I find something that interests me. Picking out lines. This is best done when you’re supposed to be doing something else. I record them onto an ipod and never listen to them again. The good ones will stick in my mind.
I make a couple of tracks using the banjo and a new vintage acoustic guitar I have, with a new mic and new computer, in a new room in the house – these are mainly to test the sound of these elements.
I compose some more pieces in a hotel room when on tour. I compose by playing, not by writing down notes. The rare solitude means sometimes I’m playing while I’m watching something boring on TV. Composing on the edge of consciousness like this is a good way of releasing yourself from the need to ‘make it good’. It’s sometimes enough just to make it.
As the recording gear is now close to hand and almost always set up, the act of composition and the act of recording become synonymous. Parts speak to each other, or insist on a third layer or subsequent component. Some ‘pre-take’ twiddlings at times prove more interesting than the succeeding track.
Next to the dressing room at the venue is a room with a piano. One day inbetween shows I add some piano to the pieces I’m building. There are some issues with tuning, and monitoring (sometimes I can’t hear what I’m playing) but rather than getting tied up in fixing the technical problems I try to repurpose the new-found constraints towards happy accidents.
If I can’t sync up two takes, then I’ll just guess how they should go and it’ll be interesting to hear how they sound out of sync.
On my return from tour I do another session where I add to these compositions, and make some new ones, layering them up to see how old and new parts might speak to each other and what might happen in the space in-between.
Mixing and re-recording
I’m not thinking at all about the potential themes of the show or scenes in it. They don’t really exist yet. I add some percussion and bits of viola and harmonica– I warm and alter these sounds using reverb. I add viola, adding it note by note as it’s not an instrument I play at all. I add percussion, then realise it sounds crappy and get rid of it. None of this has been recorded to ‘click tracks’ which might regulate tempo, so they’re a bit all over the shop. That’s OK.
Wefts that have emerged of massed pianos and violas are of interest to me so I do another session where I serve them, thinking of perhaps wefts over which text can be spoken – some text exists and I think about using it to instruct rhythm and timing but this is a bit conceptual so I don’t do it.
A tuning peg falls off the banjo. I use pliers instead. This is falling-apart, approximate, creaky-chair, birds singing in the background, cars going past, cardboard and sticky-tape work.
Titling & curating
What to call these tracks? I don’t know – they’re not meant to evoke anything at this stage – they’re sketches that have their own musical life. I grab the script or hit the internet and select some random phrases from the poet’s work – whatever strikes me first as being a nice phrase.
Silk Thread, Full Moon Trill – the language is lovely. These are the track titles. They’ll do for the moment. They don’t need to refer to anything other than themselves for now. Nobody’s asked for them. I’ve made them on spec for a show that may not happen, by way of experimenting with some new equipment and instruments.
I mix them and audit them while I’m walking to work or in the car, so they’re in speakers small and large. I remix them when necessary, effectively ‘sanding off’ anything that sticks out too much, but leaving them fairly rough.
I arrange them into an order, distributing the more structureless seeming wefts inbetween the ones that seem more like songs. I get rid of a few tracks that seem un-realised, try-hard or that I simply like less than the others, turn my favourites into mp3’s and upload them to soundcloud. I’m satisfied with the collection. It sounds alright. It sounds workable. Like the beginning of something maybe.
I send them to the director. He likes them. He immediately suggests some other musical references.
I go listen out for them.