Posts Tagged ‘live’

The Discipline of Drone

I played an hour’s set at a drone gig on Saturday. I don’t really regard myself as a drone artist and I sort of fell into it by accident, but I really enjoyed playing it and also most of the other performers too. Which, to be honest with you, surprised me a little.

Originally, I was booked to play a Hogwash gig – which would have been the usual half hour set that I’ve mostly been doing for my solo set this year. But that gig got moved, then cancelled and then replaced by “A Working Day Of Drone” – 8 hours of drone performances all overlapping. Never being one to turn down a new opportunity I accepted, of course.

An hour is a long time to play, especially if it’s improvised. I didn’t really have enough pre-organised material to fill that amount of time, and even if I had it’s not really in the spirit of ‘drone’. On the Wednesday before the gig I set up the gear I was going to use (violin with 2 pedalboards, and Blofeld synth) and gave it a try. I managed a decent 46 minutes (which is a bonus track on my Noisevember 2016 album) and thought, “that’ll be OK”.

One of the nice things about the format of the gig was that the performers overlapped, the next act duetting with the current one for ten minutes (5 before their allotted start time and 5 after) so it was, literally, eight hours of drone! This means that you do really have to improv the set as you can’t just start playing along with someone else with pre-prepared material, it all has to fit, though it does give you some material to start with!

Trying to play a coherent set for one hour was a challenge, I got to the 45 minutes I managed in rehearsal and realised I’d painted myself into a bit of a corner. I probably should have ended on the big distorted violin noise but I’d got into a quiet, slightly rhythmic groove and couldn’t get to the big distortion slowly enough in the time I had left. When doing a more ‘normal’ improv set I could build up to it in a couple of minutes or less and then hit the Big Orange Switch for a dramatic entry – but that’s not in the spirit of drone. As a result I think my efforts petered out a little towards the end of my allotted time.

So now I have even more respect for those drone artists that can keep the music moving and coherent for that length of time – it’s a lot harder than it sounds! At this gig there were some really expert droners who kept going for the whole hour with real musical material that developed carefully and gradually. It’s a real discipline that takes care and practice and I’m certainly a convert.

Here’s the recording of my set, you can hear the overlap with Legion Of Swine at the start and (at the end, to a lesser extent) Napolean iiird in there too.


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It was Winter 2011 when I started on Leaving Rome – at least that’s what the computer files tell me. I have recordings of Karen playing her various triangles dating from that time at least.

She had asked me if I could write something for triangles, an odd request to say the least but I like a challenge and those recordings were the start of the project that has spread over three years! From this distance in time I can’t quite remember what I intended to do with the recordings of Karen playing 4 different triangles, I do remember she lent me a book on how to play triangles (yes, such things exist) so that I might learn something of the techniques involved and the possibilities of the instrument.

After much research and even more gluing of bits of paper onto other bits of paper, that piece took shape and became Leaving Rome. It’s a hybrid piece of narration (from Juvenal’s Satire No.3) with instrumental backing with a fully instrumental section following each, based on the content of the preceding text. While the all-instrumental parts were scored normally, the narrative bits looked something like this:

Leaving Rome extract

Leaving Rome was performed live by Midnight Llama at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield in September 2013. Karen had semi-staged her reading parts so it was quite a fun thing to watch. As Midnight Llama make a point of not doing repeat performances I thought that was that. When Karen suggested making a film of the piece I thought this was not only an exciting new project but also a chance to revisit the work as I blogged last year.

And now the film is done! This has been one of the longest-running project of any of my pieces, the film itself has taken 15 months of work (off and on, mostly off) and I joked that it would have been quicker to do a stop-motion animation of it.

I learned a huge amount making this film, although Karen decided almost all of the visual content and narrative I had to learn to handle a video camera and to edit using Final Cut Pro, and also to tell Karen that I couldn’t do what she asked or, more likely, to find out just how to do it anyway – Karen doesn’t like getting ‘no’ for an answer.

Even though the piece wasn’t filmed in linear sequence I think it’s obvious which are the later parts and which the earlier (more primitive) ones – you can learn a lot in 15 months. Looking back at it there are things I know I could do better at, and also I have a shopping list of things I would like to buy before attempting the next video project (yes, there will be one) chief of which is a heavier tripod (Yorkshire is windy!) with a motorised pan and tilt head to avoid the terrible wobbliness of the pans in this film!

Still, I think we did a reasonably good job and I look forward to making more films as I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Here’s the finished film:

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2013 has been a bit of a lean year for Helicopter Quartet gigs so far. For myself I’ve been quite busy on solo and other projects recently and so haven’t had the time to organise any gigs myself so we’ve been relying on other people to put us on, which is quite hard for a band that almost no-one has heard of!

HOWEVER, we are playing an amazing festival in Reading in September which I hope will bring our style of music to a new audience ‘Down South’

“Raising Steam” is billed as a Steampunk music festival and is being run in aid of New Futures Nepal – so that’s at least two reasons to go already! It features an eclectic range of acts over a weekend in the city, and I’m really looking forward to meeting some people that I’ve known on twitter for a while now, not least of which is Tom Slatter. Tom is more hard core steampunk than we are, I must admit, but I think we’ll fit in well. I might even wear the long dress I wore at SAF earlier this year which should add to the steampunk aesthetic.

There’s such a lot going on, that I can’t list everything, and I honestly don’t know most of the bands, but I trust the organisers to make it a really good weekend and we’re looking forward to it immensely. Please turn up for at least one day, you won’t be disappointed

Facebook event


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The first Helicopter Quartet gig last Friday was a success. We only have 3 tracks so far but that filled out 25 minutes of the usual 30 minute slot and they went down well I think. The audience was small but appreciative which is good for a band nobody has ever heard of before 🙂

My next gig is a solo one in Second Life. I haven’t played there for a while now, partly because I’ve been busy with this band and also with the Colchester project, and partly because I don’t really spend a lot of time there any more. But an opportunity came up, and it’s for a charity so I said yes.

As I haven’t played there for a while it would be quite reasonable for me to dust down the solo pieces I usually play, together with maybe one or two new ones, and play those – but I like to keep things fresh. So I am going to do an all-ambient programme on Sunday. No sudden noises and very little of the distortion pedals (at least not aggressively). I have material I can use for this already, “Ghost in the Marine” fits the bill nicely, and the opening of “Afternoon Nightmare” will also feature – but with a new second section to keep it ambient. I will also be exploring the new EHX Superego pedal I recently acquired.

It’s part of a mini-festival for “Relay for Life” starting noon SLT, 8pm BST on Sunday 10th July, here. I’m on first.

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