Chris Abrahams: “A bit like a novel or film.” A discussion about Keyboards and Synthesisers with Tony Mitchell


Chris Abrahams’ new solo release, Fluid to the Influence, his fourth for Lawrence English’s Brisbane-based Room40 label, after his 2013 Memory Night, 2011’s Play Scar and 2005’s Thrown, is perhaps his most diverse. As English has commented: ‘On Fluid To The Influence Chris continues his tradition of creating deeply personal and evocative sonic worlds. He has a compositional sensitivity and gravity few other artists share. This album draws together the divergent trends in his music creating a powerful and at times hallucinatory audio-vision’. While Memory Night listed the armoury of instruments and effects used on the album as piano, guitar, samples, percussion, Waldorf Q Plus, Yamaha DX7, Moog Voyager, Vermona Mono Lancet, Kurzweil K2600, Hammond organ, Nord Stage and field recordings of flying foxes in the Daintree Rainforest, Fluid to the Influence goes even further, including Hammond organ, pipe organ, church organ and the Melbourne Town Hall organ. The result is Abrahams’ most diversified recording yet.

In a recent review in Dusted magazine, Joseph Burnett commented: ‘putting out a solo album at this stage feels like excellent timing on Abrahams’ part, not for opportunistic or cynical reasons but because it emphasises his work as an individual both in and outside of The Necks. On the evidence of Fluid to the Influence, it also allows him to unwind and give voice to the more playful and experimental aspects of his inspiration’.

To my ears, ‘Receiver’ is very electronic sounding, ‘Clung Eloquent’ has a more recognisable piano sound, intricate, almost Jarrett-like, ‘Trumpets of Bindweed’ uses a heavy-sounding organ , and ‘The Stones Continued Intermittently’ has organ plus piano and percussive noises. ‘As Tranquil as an Apple’ has electronics plus electric piano, while ‘Rust and Comet’ sounds like an electric guitar, an instrument Abrahams claims he doesn’t play – although he did play bass for a short period.


Tony Mitchell: I’m curious where your track titles come from – are these random phrases from your reading?

Chris Abrahams: Sometimes. Naming things is actually one of the more difficult processes in releasing material.

Tony Mitchell: The opening track, ‘1 Liter Cold Laptop’ begins with what sounds like a pipe organ, then a DX7?

Chris Abrahams: ‘1 Liter Cold Laptop’ begins with a pipe organ. There are toms as well as a sustained guitar note. The second part is a Waldorf q+ synth. This is about a ten year old instrument that is a hybrid synth, meaning that the oscillators are digital but the filters are analog, hence, in my opinion, the very warm sounding “noise” distortion. It’s an extremely pow-erful synth capable of a great deal of multi timbral sounds. It also possesses a very strange sounding reverb which is able to create sound worlds of bureaucratic horror.

Tony Mitchell: ‘Scale Upon the Land’ has a more familiar piano sound, similar to the Necks. You’ve said that ‘It’s important for me, when making a solo album, to try and do things that don’t sound like the Necks’- for obvious reasons!

Chris Abrahams: I play the piano with a distinctive style. I can’t avoid sounding like the piano player in the Necks when I play the piano. The nature and ideology of the band allows for this. There will always be a porous border between my solo work and the things I do in the Necks. Having said that, conceptually, Fluid to the Influence is very far from the Necks. In its method of construction, its form and its final aesthetic.

My albums are made from recordings of performances and environments over a very long period of time whereas the Necks’ albums are all made in a finite two to three week allotment. It is rare for someone to bring in something previously recorded for use on the [Necks] record; the huge majority of the stuff one hears on a Necks’ album has been per-formed and recorded in the studio with all of us present.

Tony Mitchell: Last time I spoke to you were about to play the Gedächtniskirche organ for the Berlin Jazzfest in December last year, both with the Necks and solo. How did that work out?

Chris Abrahams: The concert went really well I think. It is a beautiful instrument. The church very generously allowed me to rehearse in the building on quite a few occasions in the preced-ing six months. I went in there seven times prior to the concert and played for hours each time, often winding up at three or so in the morning. This was quite an experience.

Tony Mitchell: Last week you were in Brighton, on a ‘UK pipe organ run’. What has that involved?

Chris Abrahams: Guy Morley, from the production company No Nation, had an idea for us to do a tour of the U.K. on pipe organ. We’ve been talking about it for a number of years. The tour ended up comprising Birmingham, Leeds, Brighton, Bristol and London. Each organ is very different. In December 2015 I did a short “research tour” by myself and ac-quainted myself with the instruments as best I could. I should stress here that I’m not an organist; I’m a piano player who’s exploring the instrument fairly intuitively.

We shared the bill with James McVinnie (of Iceland-based Bedroom Community), an incredible organist, who presented a program of Phillip Glass compositions as well as premiering a piece by Tom Jenkinson, aka Squarepusher.

Tony Mitchell: You said in your 2013 Rumpus interview with Rick Moody that your albums for Room40 ‘have been constructed using juxtapositional techniques, whereby recordings of solo performances—on synth, sampler, piano, organ, guitar, etc.—are combined with each other to form pieces whose final form is unknown during most of the assemblage’, followed by extensive fine tuning. Does this process take place over a long period of time?

Chris Abrahams: The last three albums for Room40 have each taken about eighteen months to make. This isn’t full time commitment, but it represents a time period in which I assemble a large enough bank of recordings to draw from.

Tony Mitchell: You also began using field recordings on Thrown, largely due to the influence of Sherre Delys and her radio programs, which ‘involves the compiling of small samples which are then placed on a keyboard and played using my pianistic technique’. Has this continued on ‘Fluid to the Influence’?

Chris Abrahams: I don’t think I did this so much on Fluid to the Influence. It was definitely a method I used on Memory Night and it was one I used extensively in the piece Sherre and I made with Rick Moody about 4:33. It allows for a physically expressive input into the manipu-lation of the material. I also believe it works against a discursive use of sampling and al-lows for a more muscular/body outcome. I make the “instrument” and then I play with it for a period of time, acquainting myself with where everything is on it. It requires plan-ning and decision making in the building, then a period of acquiring proficiency and then a period of recorded performance.

I also have used long chunks of unedited field recordings on my records, most notably the recording of the bats on Memory Night. The sample is “musicalised” somewhat by its context; by its morphing out of a synthesised sound world. The squawking of the bats is emotionally very much in keeping with other material on the record. Some might possi-bly find this use of a field recording facile.

I have also used the digital editing capabilities of the DAW I use – in an analog of tape splicing – to deliver fast cut up pieces that use field recordings. Here I push the material around on the screen until I’m happy with overall trajectory and timing. Obviously there is a much more visual element to this way of working.

Tony Mitchell: You’ve talked about an aesthetic of ‘a rasping chaotic microtonality’ – can you explain that further?

Chris Abrahams: I may have been referring to “half stopping” on the organ and the resulting micro tonality achieved due to the deregulation of the air pressure. The effect is quite guttural – at times even bovine. It also conjures a sort of first principles approach to music making; a “trying out” of the capabilities of an instrument, rather than a display of mastery. This was an important part of how I approached “Thrown” with the positive organ.

Tony Mitchell: You’ve also said the approach you use on the Room 40 albums ‘is collage-like, where I amass a large amount of disparate recordings made over a long period of time, and I construct something’. Does this also apply to ‘Fluid to the Influence’?

Chris Abrahams: Yes. I make a lot of recordings – live recordings, studio recordings, field recordings. I am con-stantly recording. This is a big change from how things were when I was young. Back then the model was that you worked on pieces until you felt comfortable with them, all the while saving up money. Eventually, you booked a studio for a day or two and put down as much stuff as you could.

With my solo albums I much prefer not having to work towards a deadline and being able to incorporate the fact that sometimes you just don’t play as well as at other times.

The ability to easily edit is also something that wasn’t available back in the eighties – well, for me anyway. The change in technology has allowed for an approach using improvisation whereby something can be worked on for a long period of time. A bit like a novel or a film.

Tony Mitchell: You said that Thrown, your first album for Room40, was ‘built along the lines of a radio piece and was conceptually a breakthrough for me’. Has this approach continued, and has Sherre Delys’ radio work continued to be influential?

Chris Abrahams: Working with Sherre was hugely important in opening me up to possibilities in con-structing a sound piece. I hadn’t listened to much of the radio feature world prior to our collaborations. We’ve now made a number of programs together, as well as with Rick Moody. Sherre’s program “Containers” [originally broadcast on ABC Radio National ‘Listening Room’ in 2001]made a big impression.
In terms of continuing approaches, things vary. With Fluid to the Influence I worked on each track in isolation to the others, whereas with Thrown I made a forty five minute piece and then cut the tracks out of this; so there is a big difference there and in some re-spects a move away from a radio phonic approach. I’ll be doing the music for another of her radio pieces. It’s about an American adventurer’s attempt at finding the sunken Great Bell of Dhammazedi, which has rested for centuries on the bottom of the Irrawaddy river in Myanmar.

Another thing that I’ve done on albums, most notably on “Play Scar” is use a glitch edit-ing technique on a piano performance. This technique developed from a method used on “From Scratch” a piece Sherre produced which I did the music for, based around a re-corded interview with Helen Keller. The resultant effect is quite beautiful and melan-cholic, I think.

Tony Mitchell: There is a lot of diversity on the new album …

Chris Abrahams: I also think it’s a very melodic album – maybe more so than Memory Night. I’m still someone who likes to work with diatonic melody and who is trying to contextualise it in an interesting way.

Tony Mitchell: The variety is highly intriguing, and it’s totally different from a Necks album!

Chris Abrahams: I guess this is something that is influenced by the disparity of the recorded material and the length of time spent amassing and then constructing the album I tend to use everything I own when I make an album for Room40.

“As Tranquil as an Apple” is a bit of a tribute to the DX. Although I normally focus on the more glitchy and noisy aspects of the DX, on this track I enjoy the more conventional sounds it produces; the metallic gong sounds that its FM methodology makes possible. I use here a Mark 1 DX by the way. I own a 2FD (an upgrade from the Mark 1), but I ac-tually find the original model, even with its mono output and lower quality sample, more versatile.

‘Trumpets of Bindweed’ was recorded at Melbourne Town Hall at about three o’clock in the morning. It is a five minute edit from about twenty hours of solo recordings I made on the organ there seven or so years ago. It’s live with no overdubbing.
Rust and Comet is based around a guitar recording.

The Kurzweil is a synth/sampler that’s been very important for me over the years. Origi-nally I had a K2000. Ray Kurzweil the person whose name is used, is the same Ray Kurzweil who developed various speech recognition and artificial intelligence programs. He’s written a number of books con-cerned with what he calls “The Singularity” and believes that quite soon humans will have the technology to be able to extend lifespan indefinitely. He also made a great syn-thesiser. The K2000 and the DX 7 were the first synths I ever really seriously used. I’ve played in quite a few bands in the past and have used Hammond organs and digital pianos a lot but, at the time, I never used a synthesiser. It was really only in an experimental, im-provising context that the urge to program took hold.
At the moment, the Moog voyager is my main totally analog synth. I came to synthesisers late in the day. I don’t own any legendary analog stuff like a Buchla or EMS. My “col-lecting” began in the mid eighties.

Using synths has had a profound effect on the way I view the piano, and has opened me up to different angles on playing. For instance: thinking about the sound envelopes of various pianistic techniques; as well as making me view the various piano pedals as “ef-fects” and creators of low frequency oscillation modulations.

Fluid to the Influence is out now via Room40. More info here.


About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.

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