Archive for the ‘Contemporary’ Category

As regular readers will know, I always do the RPM challenge*

This year’s project was an attempt to build on the synthing and keyboard skills I’ve been learning over the past year or two so there’s very little violin on it. In fact the only track that has any violin at all, Carriageworks, was actually written for performance by Midnight Llama – though done here all my own. I like to experiment in RPM February and this year’s challenge, beyond the obvious time one, was to do a mainly keyboard-based album. Obviously not every single note of this album was played by hand – I own sequencers and arpeggiators – but quite a lot of it was, the piano lessons are starting to bear fruit.

For this project I took the themes of repair, renovation and recycling as my starting point. The title track, Carriageworks, was already written – and I mean “written”, I actually have a score for it – before starting the February recording marathon so I took that as the initial inspiration for the whole album. Karen (percussionist in Midnight Llama) had asked me to write a train piece for her drum pads and I wanted to do something a little different from the usual train journey piece. The overall theme of Carriageworks is a failing railway carriage that goes into the repair shop and emerges in rude health … for a while.

The other pieces take different ideas from that initial theme. The ideas behind Scrapyard and Bin Night should be fairly obvious from their titles, Brownfield is thoughts on a brown field site being developed sporadically (this is common in Leeds), Wide Closed Spaces is meant to evoke a large derelict building with old bits of broken industrial equipment in it and Metal Ink was inspired by tales of regeneration in Sabrina Peña Young’s novel Libertaria: Genesis, which I read after reviewing her album for Radio Free Midwich

On the album you’ll hear lots of synths, Simmons drum samples, recordings of buildings being pulled down and even me whispering into a microphone. Yes, this is the first time I have ever had my own vocals on a recording. I do not intend making a habit of this, I promise.

There quite a bit of Berlin School influence here too. This is mostly thanks to Stuart Russell, my co-synther in CSMA who got me into synths in the first place and is now educating me in the ways of sequencers, arpeggiators and drum machines.  Well, I say “drum machines” but most of the drums on this album are taken from samples in my E-MU synths. Only Bin Night uses an actual drum machine. In this case a lo-fi 8 bit device I bought in Brno, Czech Republic.

I’m really pleased with this album, it marks further movement in my musical style and capabilities and I think it sounds quite different from previous releases. It’s got drums and vocals on it for a start!



* Though I have never actually sent a CD into RPM challenge themselves

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I have released a new album called “Places and Traces“, so I thought I’d write some notes about it.

My working title for this album was ‘Outside2’ – a reference to my 2013 album Outside which was built upon field recordings with acoustic accompaniment or reactions. Places & Traces takes that as a starting point but goes much further with it and consequently sounds very different.

Firstly the similarities. P&T is still built upon field recordings, and they are the start of the inspiration for the music that follows. In Cavern, Enclosures and Time Goes More Slowly, they run continuously as they did in Outside,  though only in Cavern does the recording run at normal speed. The titles, though less literal than on Outside are still a reference to the source of the recording.

The differences are obvious at first hearing .. this is a much more electronic album than it’s predecessor. I have used my increasing collection of hardware synthesizers to soundscape it, though there is still plenty of violin. The only acoustic violin I used is on Nowhere (for preference) which (spoiler alert) was also sampled for the speeding up part.

Track by track, this is what is happening:


The cavern in question is Leeds City Station, though I’m also thinking of darker, more oppressive railways stations in England such as Birmingham New Street – at least how it was when I spent a depressing amount of time there in the 1980s. The bulk of the synth noises on this track were made from the same sounds I used on the CSMA track Trans-Pennine Express which passes through several stations including Leeds, but not Birmingham, obviously. Stations late at night are quite scary places when you’re a timid single female and I’ve channelled some of that foreboding into the sounds here. Taiko drums (from my E.mu World ROM) add to the terror.

Minster Yard

Minster Yard is the area around Beverley Minster, one of my favourite buildings. The bells of the Minster are used in the piece, the chimes slowed down in the first half, and re-timed a little in the second.

Nowhere (for preference)

This piece has no field recordings in it at all. The ‘nowhere’ is me staying at home, in my studio, recording instruments rather than places. Here, the acoustic violin opens with a variant on the ‘Refuge‘ theme I used in Helicopter Quartet. Home is the refuge.


The core if this is some field recordings I made in Northumberland on a workshop with Chris Watson & Jez Riley-French. The techniques used in this recording were both learned from those two amazing men.

Enclosures was played live at Wharf Chambers in Leeds and although I’ve labelled this version ‘(live)’ on the track list it is actually my favourite rehearsal take from when I was preparing for that gig. It features the cyborg violin controlling parameters on a Moog Minitaur from my gestures and movement – the notes were played from foot pedals. This maybe isn’t obvious from the sound I suppose but I think it makes some sort of musical sense nonetheless.


This is really just an excuse to use a rather nice recording I made of a Peacock at Castle Howard in North Yorkshire. … and then smother it in synths.

Stop Action

Samples here were recorded at Bradford Industrial museum. They demonstrate the huge complex weaving machines (filmed for the Helicopter Quartet Ghost Machine video) regularly and they make great sounds. The point of the title, which I’m not sure really works in the way I intended now, is that the machines are putting a lot of work into moving, but without actually achieving or making anything.

Time Goes More Slowly

The recording that runs through this was made in a pub near Ribblehead in North Yorkshire. They had a really nice clock in the corner that I recorded for quite a long time. I slowed it down to bring out the timbre of it, and that, of course, slowed down the pub conversation. The working title for this was ‘Time Travels More Slowly in the Country’ as we were in that pub, just having lunch, for about two and a half hours. The day itself was quite a leisurely one wandering around Batty Moss viaduct waiting for trains. The comment about ‘not buying any more kit’ was recorded in conversation with a man there while we were waiting. It’s slightly ironic, and obviously untrue, as there are two new synths and a sequencer on this album!

One of the things I didn’t do on this album, that I mentioned in my blog post on backing tracks, is to make music that is playable live. With the notable exception of Enclosures, which was written explicitly for a live performance, all of this music is effectively acousmatic and would need careful arranging should I decide to perform it on stage. I might make live performable pieces the subject of my next album  … maybe 🙂

For info: synths used on this album are (in alphabetical order):

  • Doepfer Dark Energy
  • E-MU Virtuoso with World (Planet Earth) ROM.
  • Moog Minitaur
  • Moog Sub37
  • Nord Lead A1
  • Waldorf Blofeld


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This Sunday is, I think, the first time I have played a gig without a violin! In deep history there was probably one at school where I played recorder but those hardly count … I have done gigs when I played guitar and (in one ill-advised case) clarinet but there was always the violin there too. This time there isn’t.

This is as part of CSMA, which I have blogged about before of course and we’ll be playing laptop controllers. I will be playing the Mixtrack Pro-II DJ controller which, further to that blog post, I now have written a complete Max application to drive, bypassing Ableton altogether. Stuart will be playing a Novation Launchpad and an Arturia Beatstep.


The piece is Crowd Sources and we are performing it at the closing concert of Network Music Festival in Birmingham. Crowd Sources is built from samples submitted from a call for sounds on social media sites and we have received a lot of very high quality recordings (some less good ones too, of course, but not as many as we expected which was nice) which we will mangling to produce ambient soundscapes, rhythms and noises. The result will be filmed and put onto YouTube, so I’ll blog about that when it’s available.

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This four-movement quartet is based on photographs taken by music writer Sid Smith whom I sometimes chat to on Twitter. He posts pictures of the rain on his windows and, after gathering a substantial collection, earlier this year decided to ask if anyone would like to record them.

Obviously I did, and I also decided to record them as an actual string quartet, although that wasn’t a compulsory part of the brief. I chose String Quartet Number 1, and elected to record all four movements.

Most of the movements were recorded using electric violins – I’ve been meaning to do an electric string quartet for a while, so this was a great excuse. Note that there is no cello here, I’ve used the octave violins (the electric has a low C string) for the ‘cello’ parts, and the low four strings of a five-string violin for the ‘viola’ parts.

For the electric movements, the first violin is the melody instrument (as it were) so is stereo spread wide while the other three instruments sit close to the centre, so it sounds like the solo is happening above and separate from them. For the acoustic movement the panning is pretty much the classical standard quartet arrangement.

I’ve used a minimal number of effects on each movement, to keep some form of consistency of sound, but I’ve decided to treat each picture slightly differently, with different effects, to give some variation.

1st Movement

I decided to read this both vertically and horizontally at same time. Vertically I have used the idea of independently moving harmonic lines (the streaks of water on the window) and horizontally I have used the structure. So the 1st (high) violin depicts the black part of the picture and the other parts depict the density of the brown colour.

FX pedal used: BOSS DD-20 delay

2nd Movement

This movement was recorded all on acoustic violins, partly for a bit of variation and partly because of the different colour scheme on this photo. The structure is is a rondo, because of the recurring cream stripes in the picture, led by the second violin. The sharp-eared might notice that the viola player arrived late for this recording and left early, you can hear the sounds of an instrument case near the start and end. The first violin part was recorded on my soprano violin and the cello part on the octave.

FX used: Reverb from Ableton

3rd Movement

This is a very monochrome picture so I just used the cello and viola. The lumpiness of the cello parts reflects the lumpy streaks on the window and the viola wanders around them.

The slow ‘cello’ trems on the first draft of this movement made it sound very much like Pink Floyd’s ‘One Of These Days‘, mainly because of the intervals I chose – especially with the intermittent viola on top. So I had to rethink it after listening back, and kept the trems but changed the intervals. Who knows, I might do an actual ‘One Of These Days’ cover some time 😉

FX pedals used: BOSS DD-20 delay, EHX Qtron+ auto-wah

4th Movement

This is the ‘distortion’ movement  😉 I used a different distortion pedal for each of the cello, viola and 2nd violin parts here to get a wider variety of sounds, perhaps breaking my ‘minimal number of effects’ rule, perhaps not. I also decided not to distort the 1st violin as it just got too hard on the ears! The main part of this is the viola ostinato (green) with the cello filling in for the darker parts of the image, the 2nd violin fills in the raindrops and streaks with the gated-style distortion. The 1st violin fills in the red parts with a melody reminiscent of the 1st movement.

FX pedals used: BOSS MD-2 (cello), EHX Big Muff (Viola), Twin Earth fuzz (2nd violin), BOSS PS-5 & RE-20 (1st violin)


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I originally wanted a studio version of my piece “Market Hill” to go on the album of the same name, but for several reasons it wasn’t possible. However I’m pleased to report that I managed to get Dorothy into the studio to record a version last weekend and here is the result. For extra ambience she did two takes which are overlayed here.


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My new album ‘Market Hill’ is a collection of pieces I uploaded to soundcloud over the last year or so. This is partly to clear out my soundcloud account but also an opportunity to revisit some old piece and remix and remaster them.

This collection is very droney, and very often drenched in extreme amounts of reverb which was a bit of a theme of the music I made in 2013 so it seemed like a good time to collect them together. I’ve pasted the programme notes below:

Climbing The Rope

Climbing The Rope” is essentially an optimistic piece. Through it’s own sheer bloody-mindedness it manages to drag itself from the harsh electronic atonality of ring- modulated drones and dissonant chords through a lonely transitional phase eventually ending in an almost traditional baroque cadence on acoustic string ensemble.

The piece was mainly recorded using violins (acoustic and electric) with the addition of an electric guitar, cello and processed samples of an actual rope pulley recorded in the museum of Rievaulx Abbey, North Yorkshire. This version has been remixed from the original.

It was made specially for the EP “No Room” in aid of Crisis At Christmas 2012.

Professor Potter’s Amazing Steam Powered Fanfare Machine

This piece war written for Firstsite in Colchester as a call for Fanfares in 2012. See the included PDF for the programme note.

Wrong Way Home

Wrong Way Home is about getting horribly lost and going through some very scary places in an extended attempt to get back to a comfortable abode. It uses samples recorded from various modes of transport. This is a version I recorded from my rehearsals, only the live versions have been published before so this is effectively a new track.

At The Museum

This was made from samples recorded at the Musical Museum in Brentford, UK. It features a Mills Violano Virtuoso and a Wurlitzer.

Electric Guitar Quartet for Christmas
Made as an antidote to the forced jollity of Christmas and Christmas carols, this is a gloomy, doomy version of Good King Wenceleslas performed on 4 electric guitars.

Handel Variation
Some ideas that came to me while practising a Handel violin sonata. All the notes are taken from that sonata.

Market Hill (live)

For Mezzo Soprano and backing track. This version was recorded live at The Hepworth in Wakefield and remixed with the original backing track. Market Hill is the site of a the wonderful church of St Augustine in Hedon, Yorkshire where I grew up. I did want to make a studio version of this for the album, but the singer (Dorothy Taylor) was ill.

Twin Suns
Probably the ultimate expression of this year’s experiment with extreme amounts of reverb, this piece was played in a single take using only three pedals. It has been slightly remixed from the soundcloud version.

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Here are the recordings from the Hepworth concert. I’m only posting my pieces her because .. well, it’s my blog. If you want to see the rest then head over to the YouTube channel. For complex reasons the YouTube channel does not include Leaving Rome – but this blog post does. That’s life.

I’ll present the three pieces of mine in a semi-random order.

First is Wrong Way Home which is a solo piece that I premiered at the “A Whispered Shout” concert in Croydon. Technically this went better than the first performance as the Max for Live patches worked correctly this time. My playing is slightly rushed on this version though so it’s shorter than I’d have liked but I generally I think it came out rather well. The video is slightly blurry as I’ve enlarged it from the original (non-HD) recording so you’re not mostly staring at the rows of seats in front of the camera 🙂

Second is Market Hill which I wrote for mezzo soprano Dorothy Taylor and a static backing track that I prepared. The sounds are based on wind noises and church bells recorded on Market Hill in the town of Hedon where I grew up. Dorothy did a wonderful performance of this piece that I’m immensely pleased with. There’s no video only audio, but there’s not much to see unless you want to watch a classically-trained singer eating an SM58. The truth of the matter is that I filled the camera SD card with Leaving Rome and the other pieces.

Lastly is Leaving Rome which I have labelled a ‘Talking Opera’ because the only words in it are spoken; there is a singer but she just sings syllables taken from the text – which is by Juvenal. I have mixed emotions about this piece. I started it two years ago now and my style and abilities have developed quite a lot since then. If I was to do this piece again I very much doubt it would turn out like it has here. Having said that, there are parts of the music that I still like and think really work, but there are also bits where I cringe and go “what was I thinking!?“. Karen Kirkup’s acting and staging rescue a lot of the substandard music – they give you something more interesting to concentrate on. And that’s the intention to some extent, it’s a music-theatre piece that you’re supposed to watch – a sound-only recording would be pointless.

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It seems ages since we did a Midnight Llama concert. Actually, it is ages since we did a Midnight Llama concert – December 2011 was that last one, in Colchester. This time we are playing much closer to home, at the fabulous Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield on 25th September. Yes, it’s a Wednesday.

The concert is part of Artwalk, a great idea where various venues around the city are open providing free art of all kinds, including music, obviously. We’ll be playing 3 sets of around 35-40 minutes each at 5pm, 6pm and 7pm.

The programme includes a variety of pieces. The first set includes premieres by Laurence Rose, Karen Kirkup, Elaine Levene, then I will be reprising my piece “Wrong Way Home”, first performed at A Whispered Shout.

The second set is dominated by my 35 minute ‘talking opera’ Leaving Rome – for the full ensemble, followed by a piece I wrote for Mezzo-Soprano and electronics called Market Hill. Both are premieres.

The final part will be a single piece, Visual Song. This is the long piece from our 2012 album “See“, which is a structured improvised piece based on a drawing by New York artist Rosaire Appel.

I will be taking a video camera to the concert so I hope I will get some results suitable for posting here afterwards. But being there in person would be much better, of course!

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Like my other ‘surprise hit’, The Quahog Stalker, An Evening With Ada was never intended to be performed live but seems to have burst out of the studio and into real life for a few gigs.

Ada is a much more complex, and far longer piece than the former though, and performing it live is quite a different affair. While Quahog Stalker could be performed live quite happily with four triggered samples and a lot of violin playing, Ada needs a major rethink. Although violin is the lead instrument there isn’t actually that much on it. The piece is full of synths, guitars and basses as well as recorded samples. Simply playing those and adding the violin where it appears, wouldn’t really be a satisfying live event, for me or the audience.

As this is targetted eventually at the SoundSpiral, and the first performance would be in 7.1 surround sound I thought that with an immersive environment, maybe less is probably more – you don’t want lots of complex things happening all around you, it’ll just get confusing and messy. So I set about removing things from the set as well as replacing some (mainly guitar) parts with violin.

When I came to perform at Sonic Arts Forum a technical problem meant that the rear pair of speakers didn’t work (this was my technical problem, not the organiser’s) and the piece still worked, so I came to the conclusion that even less is even more! While some of the parts that were missing from the back speakers were things I would rather not have done without (and traces of them came out of the subwoofer anyway) I proceeded to remove even more things from the set.

The piece is now a lot sparser than it was originally and, in a live context, probably better. I still like and stand-by the original recording (for another similar studio project I would do the same again quite happily) but live is a different experience and you don’t have chance to carefully consider bits and revisit them as you do when listening to a recording.

I’ll be playing all of the new Ada in Second Life this Saturday 11th May at my favourite online venue Music Island. That’s really all of it … all 40 minutes, so it should be quite an event. Because of restrictions of Second Life audio it will be back to stereo for this performance – though there will be a virtual SoundSpiral!

The concert at Sonic Arts Forum was video recorded so you can watch it below. I wore a regency-style posh dress for the occasion, I love the way it contrasts will all the high tech equipment on the stage! You can see me disappear to check my laptop here and also I apologise for messing up the aspect ratio, I’m not quite that tall and thin!

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I am delighted to have been asked to perform live in the soundspiral. It’s hard to explain just what this is so visit the link and have a look, it’s an amazing creation, and a unique immersive sound experience.

It’s a new challenge for me, to play a mono instrument in a surround-sound environment so I’m going to have to come up with some clever ways of using the space. It’s not quite the first time I have done surround-sound violin, I did play The Quahog Stalker in quadraphonic in 2011, but that way mainly violin in the front and spooky effects at the back, this needs to be something much more of course.

My plan is to do a version of An Evening With Ada using some of the pre-recorded old computer sounds and some judicious use of a looper (or several) to fill the space, maybe with some live diffusion. I will have a wireless pack attached the violin so that I can wander around the place too.

I’ll post more details as they emerge but at the moment I’m still working on ideas … and being very excited!

Also playing the soundspiral is my good friend (and producer of the Helicopter Quartet album) Stuart Russell.


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