To be honest we’ve wanted Dave Brown to do a Cyclic Selects for a long time. This Melbourne based artist has been part of so many of our favourite musical experiences over the years from the strange experi-metal ensemble Dumb and The Ugly alongside John Murphy and Michael Sheridan to the jazz punk of Bucketrider with Sean Baxter, Tim O’Dwyer and Adam Simmons, to more avant-garde ensembles like the minimalist Western Grey with Baxter and sound artist Phillip Samartzis – not to mention the iconic improvisational trio Pateras/Baxter/Brown. Then there’s all of the impromptu improvised ensembles he’s popped up in at various festivals around the country. In all of these ensembles over the past 40 odd years he has consistently pushed his instrument into the further reaches of musical (and sometimes non musical) possibility. His solo work as Candlesnuffer is quite remarkable too, utilising extended techniques and microtonal gestures, his unique approach to improvisation and composition yields frequently innovative and surprising results.
With the impending release of Eggs from a Varnished Chest (Room40) as Candlesnuffer we took the opportunity to ask him about some of the formative music that moved him.
Fred Frith, Album: Guitar Solos 3, 1978. Song: Alienated Industrial Seagulls
Fred Frith, Album: Guitar Solos, 1974. Song: Insomnia
In the mid-late 1970’s, for a year or so, during the very first of my record store jobs at Pipé Imported Records, in the vaulted, glassy wonderland that is Cathedral Arcade, Melbourne, I was nosed in a corner behind a small counter staring at stained glass and making many sonic discoveries, predominately amongst the many ‘Krautrock’ recordings which were available exclusively, and luckily only where I was working! Outside of these German musics I became immersed in, there were a few other asides and surprises. One of these was the first of Fred Frith’s solo records simply titled “Guitar Solos”. All this is in the deep dark past but I have a foggy recollection of being entrapped by the oddness of the “Guitar Solos” LP cover, with Fred Frith in his baggy strides, archtop guitar held at waist height, pictured mid-cricket field and forced forward by a semi-luminous, white corrugated, sight screen hovering in the darkness of the background foliage. I thought, this has to be interesting. And then there was the sounds! Puzzling approaches to the guitar codified the record as a bit of a staple for me. Toward the end of my stint at Pipé a year or so later I then approached “Guitar Solos 2” and “Guitar Solos 3” both coordinated by Frith but being compilation records that featured the improvisations of other guitarists as well. Still the Frith tracks stood out for me and reiterated my kinship with his approaches of taking a group of ‘other’ utensils to the strings and extremities of the guitar. From “Guitar Solos 3”, ‘Alienated Industrial Seagulls’ was perhaps a little too surrealist and descriptive in title but it’s musical intensity resonated even more than the discreet and refined compositions on the first solo record. And the cover art, with its simple, refined drawings of halved pears could not have been more removed from that of the first.
Skeleton Crew (Fred Frith & Tom Cora), Album: Learn To Talk, 1984. Song: Factory Song
Song: It’s Fine
A few years later, in the mid 1980’s I rented half a house in Cromwell Street, Collingwood as a painting studio. An old friend from art school had sold his half of the house to the other co-owner Martin, and I was the lucky beneficiary of half a house, chickens and vegetables, for a meagre rent in a quiet semi-industrial zone. I had a stereo set up there, along with my record collection, and I always listened as I painted and drew. My repetitive listening must have driven Martin half mad but he always purported to ‘find it interesting’. One of the LPs I listened to incessantly at the time was the first ‘Skeleton Crew’ record “Learn To Talk” published by Recommended Records. The group then consisted of Fred Frith (guitar, six string bass, violin, casio, home-made bass, piano, drums, singing) and Tom Cora (cello, bass guitar, casio, drums, home-made drums and contraptions, singing), a sort of duo of one man bands! What endeared me to the songs on this record was instrumental diversity along with two differing streams, on the one hand a sort of nonsense, Dada take on both lyrical and musical content and on the other hand a forthright leftist sensibility which I knew previously from Frith’s other groups Henry Cow and Art Bears. All this delivered with a healthy dose of irony. At the same time all these elements seemed to take the piss out of each other. “Factory Song” is a beautiful case in point. Also, the perverse but beautiful pastel artworks by Thomas Newbolt depicting Ogre-like characters which grace the cover of “Learn To Talk”, are presented like a framed illustration of the record’s contents, are they humorous or full of pathos?
Toru Takemitsu, film music, film: Kwaidan, 1964. Song: Hoichi the earless
The first time I watched Kobayashi’s ‘Kwaidan’ I was enraptured, while being simultaneously scared witless, particularly during the episode ‘Hoichi The Earless’, where Takemitsu uses a classic tale delivered with Biwa accompaniment that is spare and seems to take forever to unfold to it’s gruesome outcome. This encounter of mine with the Biwa, a four or five string lute-like instrument with raised frets for sounding extra intervals between the frets and played with a giant triangular plectrum led me further into investigation of Takemitsu’s film music, although I’d already been drawn to it through various Kurosawa films seen over the years. Takemitsu’s use of traditional Japanese instrumentation and song, the drama and dynamics of this piece experienced in tandem with the gripping drama of the story conveyed in the film images awakened in me a specific interest in space and drama through sound. Space and drama as tension builders. The Biwa also kindled my interest in slack tuned string instruments in general. Takemitsu explains his interest in loaded sounds and silence directly in his book:
Toru Takemitsu, book: Confronting Silence, 1995.
From the chapter: A Single Sound, pp.51:
For several years I have been fascinated by traditional japanese instruments such as the biwa and shakuhachi……
The sounds of such instruments are produced spontaneously in performance.They seem to resonate through the performer, then merge with nature to manifest themselves more as presence than as existence. In the process of their creation, theoretical thinking is destroyed. A single strum of the strings or even one pluck is too complex, too complete in itself to admit any theory. Between this complex sound – so strong that it can stand alone – and that point of intense silence preceding it, called ma, there is a metaphysical continuity that defies analysis.
…..this ma and sound do not exist as a technically definable relationship. It is here that sound and silence confront each other, balancing each other in a relationship beyond any objective measurement.
Eduard Artemeiv, film music, film: Stalker, 1979. Song: Railroad sequence in Stalker
I initially watched the Andre Tarkovsky film ‘Stalker’ at The Carlton Cinema, known not so affectionately as ‘The Flea Pit’ in Faraday Street, now sadly a franchise-like burger joint. During the film I was enraptured by the sound design/music of one long transformative scene in particular. That is the sequence where the stalker, writer and professor ride a powered railway trolley from the perimeter, deeper into ‘The Zone’. Across the sequence the clickety clack of the trolley’s wheels as it passes over railway tracks is imperceptibly, gradually transformed. Slowly the clicks and clacks are echoed or imitated more and more strongly so that the echoes, seemingly from another dimension, absorb the original percussive sounds and in turn eventually begin to fade themselves while being gently subsumed by hints of a stringy, synth-like, barely melodic drone that’s risen from underneath the wheel sounds. The echoey quality and it’s amendment of the wheels’ sounds is reminiscent for me of a similar auditory experience I was subject to in my youth while being administered ’laughing gas’ (Nitrous Oxide) in the dentist’s throne as a preamble to undergoing major dental procedures. I can distinctly remember the dings of the Collins Street tram bells and accompanying car horns echoing into another dimension as my world became strangely unreal. A similar experience to that during the railroad sequence in ‘Stalker’. This slow morphing of sonic material from one iteration to eventually another is synonymous with some of my approaches to the use of electronic devices utilized to transform source signals generated by a guitar with pickups. During this railroad sequence not only does the transformative occur in the sonic world, but a filmic shift where the dark monotones of all the previous scenes bewilderingly shifts to the evocative pastels of the arrived in landscape occurs as the trio reach their stopping point in ‘The Zone’. This colour shift reiterates the dream-like sonic shifts. A number of Eduard Artemiev’s musical cues within Tarkovsky’s films share this otherworldly, transformative sense which strengthens the querulous nature of reality the films exude.
Arseny Tarkovsky, Book: I Burned At The Feast, Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky
The poems of Tarkovsky’s father Arseny perform a parallel transformative role, mirroring the musical elements of Artemeiv. They’re utilized within the films by Tarkovsky the younger in a manner that almost causes the images to stand still, or live another life, the mundane becomes pathos-full or overtly poignant, the movement of the camera across panoramas or scenes echoes the advancement of the spoken poems, or freezes as the words do their magic. The placement of the poems produces a dwelling otherness within the films’ unravelling. The poem “First dates” is placed in the film “Mirror” and there’s one couplet, well into the poem, which could be construed to act as a direct descriptor of this transformative procedure that a literary element performs, this couplet is:
“And suddenly all changed,
Like in a trance,”
This is just one of numerous literary informants to the spirit of my improvised, and otherwise, guitar playing.
Mad River, Album: Mad River, 1968. Song: Amphetamine Gazelle
During another of my record store stints, this one turned into a 19 year epic at Readings Records in Carlton (a leisurely listening pastime early on and then more like hard labour toward the end), it was there that I pioneered evening trading six nights a week, unaccompanied and free to listen rangingly. Early on in my tenure, when the record and bookstores were separate, I discovered that the store stock was one thing, but half hidden in the office out the back and sort of off limits, housed in industrial steel shelves, was the proprietor’s stash, years of imported first editions, rarities, oddities and unknowns with a focus on American Folk and Folk Rock. On occasion, when I would surreptitiously sneak a look on the sly, I made some wonderful discoveries in that back room. Often, as was my want then, I was attracted to cover art, picture inner sleeves, the lure of the unknown and exotic titles or lyrics as much as any musical content and would take a punt on these evidences alone. One such jumping off point was the psychedelically self titled and first ‘Mad River’ LP, and somewhere in the stash also was a blank label single with two tracks taken from the album plus the bonus track ‘Orange Fire’. But it was the cover of the LP which first caught my attention with it’s solarized black and white band photo predominantly haloed by a 3D, psychedelic and gothic-ish font displaying the bands moniker. Then there was the included track title ‘Amphetamine Gazelle’, I presume for political correctness sake abbreviated to merely ‘A Gazelle’ on the 7”. Upon listening my interest was further kindled by ‘Amphetamine’ with it’s spoken word beginning, sort of like a DJ’s spiel, which morphs into a rhythmic, accelerating, faux scat introduction that’s rudely interrupted by a pacy drum intro, blastingly overtaken by an uptempo garage guitar riff then joined by the rhythmic/staccato vocal delivery of lyrics, about who knows what? Somewhere in there is mention of the drug-like gazelle of the title. The LP I snaffled from the back room is the 1980’s Edsel (UK) reissue of the original Capitol Records (USA) release, while the 7” I’m puzzled by and believe it may be the Not On Label (UK) issue of unknown date…..but it is No. 365!
Derek Bailey: Improvisation, Cardiff 1993
The element of consideration and control in Derek Bailey’s very particular and piquant use of harmonics, amongst other systematic approaches to the semi-acoustic guitar, struck me from the first. Bailey was someone I had also discovered through listening to Fred Frith’s guitar solos compilations, in the case of Bailey it was through Volume 2, released in 1976, the middle volume of that series which features Frith and Bailey along with G. F. Fitzgerald and Hans Reichel (another favourite). Bailey’s insertion of harmonics between other more strident techniques is dumbfounding and reeks of ‘practice’, something I’ve always found too difficult to instigate but sometimes admire in others. His seamless interjection of harmonics, in amongst other stuff, is beautifully illustrated during this clip of a solo improvisation from 1993, and what also can be seen is his ‘relaxed’ and generally ‘flowing’ approach to the instrument, a culmination of the aforementioned ‘practice’. Also the control of the early passages progressively disintegrates as the performance really loosens and opens up from the midway period. He seems completely at ease with the instrument and the group of techniques utilized across the duration.
Candlesnuffer’s Eggs from a Varnished Chest is released on the 6th of November on Room40. You can find it here.