It’s the longest day of the year today which was the working title for a piece we composed many years ago on the longest day of the year. The song opens with a plaintive melody heard on blown glass bottles and the twangy acoustic of repetitive plucked old guitar strings (a musical invention – “string box ” by Dewi Minden as a gift to her father when she was twelve) then the easy voice of Carla Hallett singing an elegiac ode to the natural world. The sounds of tuned glass milk bottles and cider jugs played by Andrea and Dewi Minden provide the quirky textured ground of this dark environmental song. The piece was lovingly recorded at Vancouver’s historic Mushroom studios with engineer Simon Garber and released as “Alone Together” in 1992 on the album “Long Journey Home” by the Robert Minden Ensemble.
Almost 1 year to the day, the recording is complete. Now, its all about listening. Letting some time go by to give perspective and listening to what has been recorded with fresh ears. We’re iistening now: the balance between sounds, the clarity and placement of the music and vocals, trying to find the best order and sequence for all the pieces that will make up the whole. It’s coming together as storytelling and the music and lyrics connect to each other in intricate ways, so that the sequencing becomes essential. We still imagine the wholeness of the album, rather than separated individual songs. Do people even listen this way anymore; or does the increasing prevalence of streaming encourage us to only hear individual separate pieces?
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.
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.
paying particular consideration to the musical possibilities of glass bottles. Using vinegar jugs, milk bottles, wine bottles and beer bottles to orchestrate a rather complex song.
As I’m writing this I can hear the mellow sounds of the French Horn. Carla is writing a new line for the song we have been working on. During the last month we have been living in a world of splendid acoustic sound: vintage waterphones, bowed saws, blown bottles, struck floating bowls, toy piano and voice. Exploring the words and sounds of a new project which we plan to record in a month’s time. More soon.