Our unique instrumentation makes for a compelling array of varying timbres. Always seeking to expand the predictable sonic palette found in contemporary music, our recordings concentrate on the colour and texture of acoustic sound. Much of the Duo’s focus is on timbre. The musical saw is an excellent example and is explored in all of our recordings. It has an unexpected voice and when placed with other sounds can offer acoustic surprise.
Listening to the sound of the musical saw in live performance is uncanny, the sound feels like it comes from everywhere/nowhere. Unlike a trumpet or a piano or a vocalist which have a direct point of origin the musical saw is strange because it seems to originate in the air itself. In live performance the rubbing sound of the bow is diminished because the listener is not that close and one is not required to pay attention to it. If one places a mic in front and close to the saw it amplifies the sound caused by the bow rubbing the blade and the delicate, mysterious sound of the saw is compromised and becomes confined.
The difficulty in recording the bowed saw is to recreate its ethereal experience. Experimenting over the years with many different mic positions and different ways of recording the saw, what seems crucial is the sound of the room itself. It is important to record in as resonant a room as possible using two microphones. Mic the sound in the room, as well as the closer sound coming from behind the player and the blade of the saw. Mixing both tracks together comes close to reproducing this extraordinary resonance.
The music suggests images, scenes, narratives. It feels like we are scoring a film, – the music evocative and cinematic, the film becoming visible by the listener.
In a more literal sense, the mixing of our sounds creates a soundscape – on the left, on the right, in the centre, coming in from the back of the listeners head. Will a sound move? How will it move? Which sound will stay anchored in one place? And how will each sound be coloured, and in what space are they happening/seen? These sonic decisions are also visual decisions; the music suggesting the movie imagined in the mind.
In live performance when I sing I’m usually playing some sort of “instrument” at the same time. Whether it’s a toy piano, a pair of soup spoons, tuned glass bottles, simply pushing one side of a sruti box, or swinging an elastic band drone through the air – I like to be busy while vocalizing, and the interplay between singing and playing can be very engaging.
But in a recording studio, when the final vocal line is performed alone it’s curiously freeing. During this last recording session I found that when I concentrated solely on my voice, without playing additional instruments, I could really sink into the telling of the story – seeing the images as I sang the song. I wanted to keep the voice natural and honest, and close, like a good storyteller. The engineer chose a vintage (1950s) AKG C12 microphone. We wanted to achieve subtleties of expression and a clear and intimate sound with great presence, underplaying the intense emotion of the song.
We began the recording session with the sound of the toy piano. I knew the engineer would want to isolate this sound, but I was used to singing and playing the toy piano at the same time. Sometimes the voice leads the piano, and other times the piano leads the voice. So how can one separate these sounds without compromising the musical dialogue between them?
As I took the toy piano out of its’ case and began attaching the legs, I looked around the room. It was spacious and bright with lots of wood, so there was a warmth to the space. But when I sat on the little stool and began to play, the room felt enormous and vaguely intimidating for my tiny sounds. Meanwhile the engineers were busy gathering large blocks of thick foam. They began to encase the toy piano leaving only the keyboard exposed for me to play. A veritable fort started forming around me – just like the ones we used to build out of cushions from the living room couch. It was perfect. The toy piano sound was isolated and so was its’ mic, while I could sing to my hearts content, in my little fort, cushioned and contained.
Now we’re orchestrating a song that features the music box sounds of the toy piano. I’m playing on a 3 octave keyboard which activates little hammers that strike metal rods, and the accompanying noise of the mechanics is so wonderful, and strangely out of tune, (hell to sing against,) but the mysterious intonation is just so right for this song.
Robert is playing a melodica – a curious hybrid between a keyboard and a harmonica. He blows through a tube while his fingers play the little keyboard. It’s almost like an accordion but there are no bellows and the tone is controlled by his breath. The song plays with the ideas that children’s toys can suggest. To this we will add the soaring sound of the carpenter’s hand saw, vacuum cleaner hose vocals, tuned glass bottles and a touch of French horn.
The song was inspired by an unlikely meeting, at just the right time, with a comedienne from Chicago, named Poppy, in the waiting room of an almost empty train station in Saskatoon in the middle of the night.
There is the strong desire to simplify; to begin with almost raw, acoustic sound and see where it leads. It’s not orderly or even predictable but by immersing oneself in, for example, sounds of rubbed or bowed metal surfaces, and waterphones, the sounds themselves begin to suggest new ways of proceeding and sometimes the outline of composition. Surprise becomes one of the windows of creativity.
The sound of struck glass cider jugs tuned with water will form the bass line of this new song. I’ve been using a bouncy ball impaled on the end of a knitting needle as a mallet, allowing me to literally bounce from note to note with the odd double/triple bounce for ornamentation.
Someone asked “why go to all the trouble of collecting glass bottles, cleaning them, tuning them, training oneself to play them, when one could easily record just a single note into a computer and access this sound with a keyboard?” Well, the physical act of playing the jugs, of making the sounds, would be lost. And this would also affect the way I write the line.
But essentially, much of the emotion one hears conveyed by music is derived from physically producing the sound.