Despite having several gigs and performances under my belt (too many to list or even remember – I lost count many years ago), I haven’t been making music nor performing live as a musician or vocalist for that long (unless you count playing clarinet in a small town’s marching band when I was 12-14 years old). Before 2007 I had only participated in a handful of performances, and was disappointed with pretty much all of them. To others, what I did in those performances looked and sounded “fine”, but to me… it felt like a prison, I felt I wasn’t being me.
I was very depressed at the time, and isolated, and had this desperate need to express myself, to make contact in some way with the world. I felt music could be my outlet, my way to reach out and connect. What I had done in the handful of times I had performed felt wrong to me… I felt trapped, I felt as If I were enacting someone’s idea of what a girl singing in a band (I was only singing, then) should sound like and do. I desperately tried to sing melodies, my voice choking up with anxiety and my breath drying out… verse, chorus, verse, chorus, repeat, repeat, repeat (…is the song long enough? Should I keep going?) and end (and breathe).
After each performance I didn’t feel relieved, I felt ANGRY. Angry at myself for wasting an opportunity, for feeling so close to it, yet being unable to just… let go, to do something that others might laugh at, something that might be weird, off tune, ridiculous, wrong. It wasn’t fear of doing something different that scared me… it was fear of not being able to do it in a way that would make others accept it –for example if I tried to vocalise in a certain way but would not be able to control my voice the way I wanted due to lack of “talent” (that mythical, hateful beast) or training and that something else would come out instead, something “wrong”. I felt that in order to be able to do what I wanted I had to first prove that I was doing it intentionally, and not just because it was all I could do (even though I might like the results either way). I felt I had to prove I could do the “right” thing in order to be “allowed” to do the “wrong” thing. I wanted to show my inner self, but I wanted for it to be accepted, I didn’t want to be dismissed. So I felt I needed to find a way of justify whatever I might do, to get “permission” to do it. Therefore… I found it very hard to do anything.
Not only was I frustrated with my inability to let go and be myself in performance, but I also desperately wanted to create my own music, independently of others, rather than guesting in other people’s bands. Once again I felt that because I couldn’t play what others might consider a “song-writing instrument” (like a guitar, or a piano, for example), or even use music software, that there was no way for me to create music. It’s hard to explain my frame of mind at the time… but basically I felt completely stuck and helpless… I didn’t know where to start, or that I could ever learn to do any of the things that might allow me to create my own recordings. Every time I would try and learn I would come to a hurdle, and think that there was something inherently wrong with me for not being able to already know how to do things.
But then things in my life got even worse, and the need to have some sort of outlet overshadowed my feeling that I had “no right” to do anything, that I would never learn, that I did not know how to do things “the right way”.
So starting from approximately 2005 I began secretly creating tracks as Modersohn-Becker. These were incredibly lo-fi affairs: I had no knowledge of music technology or software, and hardly any equipment was available to me. I felt incredibly self-conscious about recording, so I would create my tracks sneakily, in a couple of hours, when I was sure I was alone in the house. I just had a desperate need to express myself… somehow. At first these tracks were made just for myself, as a way to relieve my frustration, but then I gradually and anxiously began uploading some of these to social networking sites in order to get over my insecurity. Because in the end what I wanted was to make a connection with the outside, to know that I existed.
For most of these early M-B tracks, I used Windows Recorder and a decrepit, taped-together old plastic microphone (later on I tentatively began using free Evolution software, but I had no idea what I was doing as I had never used any music-making technology before). I recorded mostly acappella and in one take, without editing the results as I had no way to do so. I had no mixing facilities, and mostly no effects available to me (bar some reverb on later tracks, when I discovered it was available, and how to apply it). All I did was record myself with Windows recorder, then open and play the recorded file whilst recording myself again in another Windows recorder window, so as to create a new recording. These “takes” would end up blended into one single mono track, which could then not be split into its parts again. I would keep repeating this process of playing/recording over the played file until I created several layers of voice. These recordings were the computer-user equivalent of a child playing with two tape recorders, making layers by playing from one whilst recording to the other.
I still have a copy of my first ever track, a cover of the Virgin Prunes’ “Theme For Thought”:
I remember how frustrated I was with the end product. I had no way to correct mistakes once the track was done other than starting from scratch, and I had too little time to finish it all in (I was alone in the house for only a couple of hours), so all mistakes stayed in the recordings. Now I kind of love this stuff…
Oh yes, and because on these early tracks I did not know how to create loops or edit, the background of this track consists of me going: “boom-boom, boom-boom” whilst shaking an egg-shaker non-stop at approximately the same pace (approximately – here too there many mistakes!) for the entire duration of the song…
Here’s more from the same era. This one is called “Stupid Fuck”:
Another track from the same pre-looping batch of the first two, this one called “Justice Jane”:
“All The Same”, my first experiment using a simple loop (in the background):
This was from a little later. I had some software, but I still didn’t know what I was doing. It’s called “Stain”:
Lastly, here I had also started figuring out how to use some software, but I was still incompetent in my use. The track is called “Hairy Nipples”:
Here are some more M-B tracks, from various periods:
“Song Of Tears”
“Here’s My First Number”
“First Time I Played With Myself”
Here are some mp3s of some of the tracks above, should you wish to own your very own copy.
The reason I am posting all the above is that I love this stuff (yes, I finally said it!). And I still make it (although far too sporadically now). And I STILL do not quite know what I am doing, even after graduate and post-graduate qualifications in sound-related (though non-technical!) fields. This is me at my purest, in a way. This is what comes out.
In early 2007, at around the same time I had begun posting my M-B tracks online, I also started to regularly meet up with my friend Smike Bardwell, who had been recording as Earth Creature for several years with intermittent collaborators. Now on his own again, he had wanted a vocalist to join up and we had hit it off musically after a first improvised gig (my first time completely improvising!). Other than my improvising, that first gig felt no different to all the other gigs I had taken part in before – I felt constricted by my fear of doing something “wrong”. But I stuck around because Smike was my friend, and I liked what he was doing, and I felt accepted by him, that he wouldn’t freak out if I experimented a little, and that I could perhaps begin to let go.
The more we met up, the more I began to experiment, but I was still afraid of the public, and I still tried to sound “right”. Until our second gig, which I consider my first, real gig. I sang the first song, playing the role of singer, then I hummed, made some vocal sounds, still tying to find my place. Inside, I was sad and angry at myself. I had all these feelings I wanted to get out, these feelings I had to keep hidden in my personal life… and here was the only place I could let them out and turn them into something that might be interesting as well as liberating… and I just… couldn’t… let… go. It went on for a few minutes like that, until a voice inside me just cried out: “this is YOUR time, this is THE ONLY PLACE where you can be yourself… and you are wasting it! I am NOT GOING TO WASTE IT”… and then THIS happened, I finally let go at this precise moment:
That was the first of many EC gigs. Smike and I have been a due since then, though things have changed a lot and as well as providing vocals, these days I play a variety of things (contact mics, polystyrene, theremin, saw, mixer and pedals, anything or anyone at hand…) and Smike has taken to using a bass in live performances, on top of his usual electronics and samples and bits and bobs, but in the future things may change again.
Here are some more videos. Sadly we stopped filming years ago, so there isn’t much video documentation of certain phases in our playing:
[I have a lot of EC audio files, mainly gig recordings, so as soon as I have managed to go through all of these, I will post some.]
Since that 2007 gig I have played countless gigs with countless different outfits in countless different situations. I taught myself to play the theremin, and have become adept at free improvisation. EC led me to live performance and improvisation, and M-B led me to go to university to study Sound Art.
Part of me, after several years of academic study in a sonic field, feels that I should hide my DIY music-making, because it’s too instinctive, too imperfect, laughable, because it displays my technical shortcomings… but this music is ALSO me, and I now refuse to regress and hide again, so here it is, because this too is my practice. And you know what? I love its imperfection, its instinctiveness, its silliness, and its lo-fi aesthetic. And since now I have a little bit more time, there will be more – watch this space.
Here is some writing I did as part of course homework about my MA coursemate Julie‘s piece, Chromesthetic Solo. Much like my own videos, which I recently blogged about, this was her first venture into audiovisual work (and with limited means), and as such a bit of an experiment, but I think it’s interesting and has potential.
In Julie Groves’ brief audiovisual piece, Chromesthetic Solo, we are presented with a continuous shot of the artist filmed from her shoulders up, staring straight into the camera, a gentle breeze running through her hair and the foliage behind her. The film begins as black and white, and some breathing sounds can be heard – but no ambient sound. Then music begins to play – a flute performance of Telemann’s Fantasia in F sharp minor – and the image turns to colour as the artist’s face becomes animated, anticipating and accompanying each musical phrase with her expressions. Flashes of colour in the image, as well as other visual effects, punctuate salient points in the performance. The expressions on the artist’s face are those of a classical musician in performance, and the artist herself is in fact the performer of the piece we can hear.
The idea of sound causing the visuals is hinted at in piece’s title. Sound quite literally precedes visuals in Chromesthetic Solo: it was recorded before the visuals, and the visuals are a real-time documentation of the artist’s response to listening to the recorded sound. However, although the visuals could be read as a mere reaction to the sound, the relationship here between image and sound is much more complex than a simple reaction/response.
This is because the facial expressions we see are those of a performer, not just a listener; they are informed by knowledge of the written score and physical memory of the performance of the piece. They are also a result of cultural mediation, as these are the facial responses of a western classical musician, rather than just any musician.
These may well be responses to sound, but they are also more than that. Indeed, the changes in facial expressions often anticipate what we then hear in the film’s recorded score rather than simply reacting to it. They are a response to the memory of performing, to prior knowledge of the written score and of how the entire performed piece sounds – a memory and anticipation that is, however, at least triggered by listening to the recorded performance.
Furthermore, though the facial expressions appear to be caused by emotional responses to the sounds heard, they do in fact largely anticipate them, are a manifestation of a memory of the emotions that the musician imbued her performance and the resulting music with. These physical changes are a re-enactment of the thing that gave the sound its emotional shape. In their visual enactment they give the visual an emotional shape, influencing the audience’s listening experience of the music and emotional response to it.
In a way, here the performer is imbuing us with emotions, guiding us in our listening by providing a visual guide to the emotional response to be had. The visuals are a sort of score – this is what western classical music looks like. The chromatic changes and visual effects, coupled with the changes in the performer’s expressions, suggest to us a particular emotional response. Without the visuals, maybe the spectator’s response to the music would not be the same. The visuals open up a new dimension, they give us a window into how performers hear and guide our emotional response.
Finally, while the facial expressions anticipate the sound, the “chromesthetic” flashes of colour accompany/react to it, further complicating the causal relationship between visuals and sound in the piece.
I am told I should not mix the personal with my work… but my work is personal. I also do not want this blog to just be self-promotion or merely a research notebook.
I feel that what I am about to say is relevant, because it relates to how I am and work… and I really want to write this all down and share it, so that I can see it again and again on this page and be reminded of how I felt today, and not forget the conclusions I came to.
For my entire adult life, with everything I’ve done I’ve felt I had to prove myself in some way, that I had to gain approval. Well, that has kept me from living fully, and from finding out what I can actually do. I have not felt very smart, compared to others, I always felt I lacked something. This has meant that when faced with a task to carry out, I would be paralised with fear at the thought of people judging me and individuating this lack.
I have always sabotaged myself with fear of not being good enough. Paralised, because I knew from the start that there were so many people smarter, better than me. Well, today I had a bit of a revelation, whilst running my 10 miles for training: I am doing alright, with my studies, despite this self-sabotage… but have been doing nothing but suffer through every assignment on my course, a course that I adore and have chosen, because I always felt flawed, “less than”. I have left things until the last minute again and again, too scared to let the world know that I was not as good as they imagined me to be.
Well, I am doing alright.
So now, I wonder… I wonder what would happen if I didn’t sabotage myself. I wonder what would happen if I didn’t worry that the people I admire and like found out that maybe I am not that clever or that great. I wonder how much more I could do. I wonder how much more I would enjoy my course, how much more I would enjoy my life. I wonder what I could do, then. I wonder what things I would be capable of. I wonder how much genuine passion I would feel, how much excitement.
Well, I am finally really curious to find out what I can do, what I am actually capable of.
I have realised that I can only do my best. If I am not clever enough, talented enough, pretty enough, funny enough, wise enough, good as other people are, then that’s that, I can do nothing about that. All I can do is my best.
What I have realised, is that I have absolutely no idea of what “my best” truly is, because I have always tried to do someone else’s best. Now I really want to find out, I really want to actually enjoy finding out. And as for my worrying about others judging me and deeming me not “good enough” for them… if my best is not good enough for them, then they can go (please forgive my language) fuck themelves. There, I said it. Now to stick by it.
There is so much I would like to write, at the moment, but unfortunately I do not have much time to do so: I have a presentation to give on my research so far, in less than a week, so I need to focus my energies on that, for the time being.
However, I would like to briefly talk about some of the difficulties I have come up against so far, and an important decision I have taken regarding the alarm clocks piece.
First of all, and most importantly, I have realised that maybe I am trying to say too much in one work, and that it would be good for me to decide on one thing that I would like my alarm clocks piece to explore, and then just seek ways to emphasize that chosen aspect. I don’t have to make sure I say everything with every work I create. One small thing is enough. Simpler is better.
I do feel that time and its associations are an interesting field to explore further, but maybe I do not need to do it all right now. This does not need to be my masterpiece (nor could it be!), this can just be one of many pieces exploring certain concepts or using these materials. After all, I have the clocks now (and I have just recently bought 200 more, bringing my total to 252, now!), so I can use them again for future works exploring other ideas relating to time, or for future versions of the piece. “Accept that everything is a draft”, says the Cult of Done manifesto. This is only one piece. One of many to come.
This decision was painfully brought on by realising that my presentation is coming up and that, in the longer term, I have only so many weeks to devote to each project before I am scheduled to show the finished work. I cannot still be making my mind up about what I am going to do; I need to be doing!
Even if it’s a matter of just picking something, I need to make a decision. I confess that actively choosing one thing over another has always been a great struggle, for me… which is why forcing myself to make a choice now and sticking to it would be a great departure for me, and I feel would help me inmensurably (I feel anxious just typing the word “choice”). Making a choice and sticking by it. It may not be the “right” choice… but it will be my choice.
So, I have decided that my piece will focus on the idea I have hinted at in recent posts, but with a slight twist: I want it to be cathartic, I would like it to turn a potentially anxiety-provoking situation into its opposite, or to offer a safe place to release and be exorcised from that anxiety. One would lie down to listen to the sound of time’s passing (tick tick tick… I can’t sleep because I keep thinking about my life), and to the urgent sound of duty calling (ring ring ring must do must not waste time) , and one would be continuously reminded of the time (as in Marclay’s The Clock); one would find oneself in a replica of a situation in which one is usually reminded of time, finding this situation amplified, and could then potentially let oneself experience the full strength of this anxiety, exorcising it, if you will … or because of the very different context in which these time-reminding elements come together (as a piece of art to be experienced and listened to), one could just lie down and experience the sounds as a piece, thus allowing oneself to be in the moment, neutralising the past and future, regret and duty, being for once at peace with time (as I was in the Dream House)…
After realising that the place my idea originated from was a personal one, I decided that rather than read philosophy and physics books and attempt to represent or say something about the concept of time with my piece, what I am really mostly interested in exploring maybe is the way in which time relates to us as human beings and to our personal lives, what it means to us. So time as regret, duty, forgetting and forgiving, time as the healer of all wounds, time as eroding and erasing memory, time as the constant reminder of one’s frittering one’s life away… and so on.
The piece would then be a cathartic one for me: in posts below I mentioned the Dream House and my experience, there, of being in the moment through listening. Lying down to listen is one of the very few times I find I can allow myself to be in the moment. So, with my clocks piece, I could neutralise the past and the future and be stuck in the moment, be awake to the moment, feel no urgency despite the alarms, have nowhere to go to and nothing I must do except be in the present and listen…
And when I say “I”, I am also thinking of my audience…
I scribbled this in a flow-of-consciousness moment on my notebook a while ago. I thought I’d post it, despite its rambling and personal nature:
“Time, not just as a physical thing or philosophical concept! What about what first drew you to the clocks, namely the ticking clocks in your old house, when you were depressed and all you were doing was waiting for death, as sonified by the clocks?
What about all those alarm clocks going off every morning, 3 or more, to remind you of your incompetence, of how unlike your responsible adult parents you are, of how inept: one alarm is not enough to guarantee you will wake up in time for work, because you are an insomniac, because you feel so down you can never wake up, because you never get enough sleep because you stay up too late at night staring into nothingness and wasting time in stupid pursuits, and so on and so forth, because because because.
Sleep to dream, to be at peace, to day-dream without guilt. A little death in sleep. The alarm clocks ring and bring you back to… reality, and time’s nauseating ticking advance.
So, instead of focusing just on representing the concept of time, or attempting to capture it, I should take all the above in consideration too!! As time, for us, is not just a phenomenon that we observe: time eventually means death! (…and loss, and forgetting).
Now the idea of the bed makes sense. Subconsciously reminds me of my old bed. But how not to make a piece too personal for others to get? I’m sure others fight their own night-time demons and have their own dreams and are brought back to reality by their alarm clocks in the morning.
Maybe make a piece with several layers of meaning? Say something about attempting to capture time in an impersonal way… and something about loss and time’s passing and dreams too!”