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.