Saturday 10 June 2017

Pan Review of the Arts - No.3

STEPHEN EMMER describes himself as an 'independent composer/arranger hailing from Amsterdam.' His distinctive musical resume goes back to the Seventies, while he has worked with other great production wizards such as Tony Visconti, Trevor Horn, Martin Hannett and Nigel Gray. Having produced the collaborative, filmic, European soundtrack International Blue in 2014, he is now back with another collaborative effort, the more soul-inspired Home Ground, featuring the vocal talents of Chaka Khan, Patti Austin, Andy Bey, the late Leon Ware, vocal poet Ursula Rucker and others.
How would you describe both the ethos and genre of music encapsulated in the new album?
SE: Well, lets start with the genre if I may. To me it seemed, a few years ago, that another type of music slipped off the mainstream radar and that was ‘orchestral soul music with lyrics of social awareness.' Like there was in, say, the Seventies, with albums such as 'What's Going On' by Marvin Gaye and many more in his slipstream such as Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, Gill Scott Heron and so on. I suddenly felt there was something right in that genre, as the psychology behind it was to tell a realistic story about society yet encapsulate that in soothing music instead of having an urgent message accompanied by aggressive music; to make a fist, but wrap that up in a velvet glove. Given the time we live in right now, I thought that to be a good method of communication to a) avoid preaching to the converted and b) the relevance of commenting on society is maybe even bigger today then it was back then.
Musically, I also felt like experimenting with the musical adventures of that era and create generic, new, orchestral soul music that doesn't borrow the past, so to speak, by taking samples of older work, but actually only take the best characteristics of that musical school of thought and build your own music on that from the ground up. Yet, avoiding the predictable trappings of creating mere nostalgia, which I definitely didn't want to do, so we also really looked, with the lyrics about today's issues, to incorporate modern sounds and productional approaches and developments in the mix and really try and create something that wasn't a pure retro exercise. I guess this also kind of answers what the ethos is of the album: it's about humanity; where is your home? In your house? Your village? Your country? Or, is it in your heart, your family or your own mind? i.e. where and what is your Home Ground? At this moment, 650 million people are nomadic, so the issue means so many different things to so many different people… So, I think this is the biggest issue, next to – and related also - to the ecological issue on Earth. As Nina Simone once said; how can you not write about this as an artist?
How did the linkage and support of 'War Child' come about?
SE: I liked the idea of another organisation from Holland that operates internationally, like myself, to be involved. We have the same mindset, but, more importantly, I think in the most sincere way possible that the childeren are the most victimised of victims worldwide, thanks to war, other conflicts and famine. So, they need extra care in my opinion and if we, through this project, can make a little bit of a difference, that would be great as music-making shouldn't be seen as a corporate venture in the first place. It's about artistry first, humanity second and economically last.
Your previous collaborative album was only in 2014 with 'International Blue'; a tribute to the pop crooners and the big productions that inspired you; from Scott Walker to Burt Bacharach to Billy Mackenzie, whom you worked with in the early Eighties. Do you therefore prefer to manifest your own vision for an album, or are you equally open to artists approaching you for arrangement or production, without recommendation?

SE: I would favour both. They can exist next to each other, so whoever is out there with a good concept or idea, give me a call! in fact, I did work on an album a few years ago by the Lotus Eaters from the UK (in 2009) and arranged the whole of that album on my own for them by adding all kinds of instruments to their bare vocal and guitar compositions. Unfortunately, it got shelved indefinitely but as Michael Dempsey ( also a Lotus Eater and ex-Associates and Cure member) said of it: it is probably their best album, so its a shame its not out there yet.
Rather than specialise from early on, or be known as one kind of artist, your involvement in music over the years has been incredibly broad; encompassing radio show production and founding and editing a music magazine. ('Vinyl'). You are like a one-man WOMAD. Why do you think this has been the case?
SE: Ha! Thanks. Yes, I did very, very different things over the years; electro-noise with The Minny Pops, tv news theme music with an orchestra, free jazz trio gigs, pop, film music, sound design for museums, had three of my own radio shows, and so on. I dont know why. I suppose I get bored easily of the monotony of things. I have a mind that apparently races all the time. I love doing many things, very busily, as I am a bit of a zombie in my free time when I need to relax. I never had a hobby or something, so its music, music, music, all the time and even that can bore you. On the other hand, this muse is now my longest serving partner in life.
The possibilities of the film soundtrack – real and imagined - has clearly been a large part of your musical life. Since the late Nineties, more ambient soundscapes (breaking away from the simple three-four minute song structure), such as Trance, by once dance-orientated artists and producers, have also made their mark in various media. What is your view of this branch of music?

SE: I think post-modernity in music has only really started and I love it. We need the excitement of developing new art, new music and, if now appears to be a transformational period in music history in the years to come, I'm all for it. I'm against creating more of the same without adding something new to it yourself.

Is the internet also broadening music fans tastes, geographically, or do you find most still quite 'old skool' and nationalistic in their allegiances?
SE: I do actually like today where unknown archives are being opened up to new audiences and generations and I therefore am not really nostalgic about the past, where these archives were always a little mysterious or, as I think, simply went unnoticed. So, yes, it is very good for music. As my colleague Tony Visconti said: back in the day, when some artist was a worldwide star, in actual numbers it only scratched the surface by lack of digital distribution. However, what's going on with the low payments from ISPs and streaming platforms and the big data movement is bound to be misued by the more corporate-driven parties and these have become even more invisible than in the past. Frank Zappa, a visionairy man, said: the old guys in the record industry smoking their cigars at least admitted they didn't know about music, whereas the modern music industry folks pretend they do, based on f.e. big data, and thats even worse.
Will 'Home Ground' have a life live on stage, or will getting the disparate artists together be too much of an ask?
SE: A collaborative project usually is a logistical nightmare. Everybody involved has their own agenda and schedules. I'd hope for it to happen once or twice with the full line-up, but more realistic is to say that we will do a few performances here and there with some of the album's line-up. I'm working on that right now. In fact, I'll be doing a mini performance in New York with Ursula Rucker next week and in Amsterdam with Mary Griffin in mid-July.

Many thanks to Stephen for sparing his time during a rush of publicity.
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Cumbria-based RUSSELL MILLS describes himself as a 'multimedia artist (who) has exhibited internationally and created numerous site-specific, immersive installations in the UK and abroad.' He is also known for his award-winning album covers for the likes of Brian Eno, Nine Inch Nails, Peter Gabriel, David Sylvian and Japan, Toru Takemitsu, Michael Nyman, Harold Budd and others; and influential book covers for Samuel Beckett, Ian McEwan, Milan Kundera, Graham Swift and Peter Ackroyd. I'd previously interviewed Mills at a London pub in 1996, during which he had mounted the installation, Measured In Shadows, with his then creative partner, Ian Walton. In our current exchange, he refers to his ongoing Still Moves project; an ongoing labour of love since 1994. We open on his most recent activity; curating an exhibition of locally excavated historical photographs.

Were you given a specific brief for the art and design of the Brunskill Collection exhibition, or a completely free hand as to how to contribute?

RM: My partner, Deborah Walsh, is the curator of the Armitt Museum and Library here in Ambleside. We’ve worked closely together researching for and co-curating several exhibitions since 2010, including 'Forward To Far: Telescoping Time: From Schwitters to Now' (2010), 'Bohemians In Exile: The Royal College of Art in Ambleside 1940-45' (2011), and 'Sublime Transactions: Contemporary Responses to the Armitt Collection' (2013).
  We began discussing and researching ideas for the exhibition 'Still Lives: Photographs from the Brunskill Collection at the Armitt' several years ago. Based on the theme of the exhibition, any particular focus that it requires, and the material itself, (in this instance a remarkable collection of over 17,800 plate glass negatives), we collaborated on devising possible directions for the overall design. Alongside these discussions, I explored ideas for the look and feel of the specific print elements that would be conceptually appropriate and visually coherent. As with the other exhibitions and publications for the Armitt, working with my design assistant, Michael Webster, I undertook all art and design, including catalogues, posters, flyers, and the exhibition itself.

What was the thinking behind the 'Still Moves' CD / book packages and where are you now with the latest in the series?

RM: I’ve been creating site-specific, process-driven and conceptually anchored multimedia installations since 1994, with each having a multi-channel aleatoric soundwork as a central element. All of the soundworks for these installations used sounds that have a significance specific to place and the ideas that each place has triggered. Each sound work comprises an amalgamation of disparate, yet spatially and conceptually connected, sonic elements. Reflective of place and history, and analogous to the ceaseless flux of nature’s generative processes, the pieces use electro-acoustic and hybrid instruments, non-musical objects such as stones, gravel, ice, breathing, found sounds, urban and rural field recordings and occasionally archive audio samples.
  Some years ago, an old London-based friend and admirer of both my visual and sonic work, Clive Maidment, who is also an ardent follower of experimental and electronic music, suggested that the soundworks made for these installations should be released as a series of limited edition CDs. He very generously offered to financially back the project and soon set up a label, Slow Fuse Sound. We then secured a publishing agreement with Touch. Via email and the occasional meeting, either in London or here in Ambleside, we spent about six months exchanging ideas as to how we might achieve this series, what we wanted it to be and what might be the best format to use.
  The A5 40 page, full colour, hardback book format seemed the most appropriate and achievable format; also it’s a pleasant size to hold. The books and the CDs they carry are designed primarily to chart and document the installations. We wanted them to be beautiful, but understated, simple and elegant, with no gratuitous indulgences, no excess. The final page count was partly determined by the requirements of both the texts and imagery for each and every installation, with some books covering five installations and others only one or two. Necessarily, the editing of both text and imagery has been rigorous.  The first two books of 'Still Moves' have been produced... 'Still Moves 3', the third in the series, is currently in production. It documents the installations 'Static' (2001), which was devised, but unfortunately not realised, for North Tyneside in 2002, and 'Hold' (2005) a collaborative work made with Petulia Mattioli for the Palazzo delle Papesse Centre for Contemporary Art in Siena in 2005. It will carry two CDs of the extended mixes of the installation soundworks, which have been mastered by Mike Fearon.    The soundwork for the installation 'Static' features award-winning poet Robin Robertson reading his specially written poem 'Sea Fret,' the full text of which is also printed in the book. The soundwork for 'Hold' was created by Mills and Fearon with Eraldo Bernocchi with contributions from Bill Laswell, Harold Budd, Gigi and Lorenzo Esposito.

When I first interviewed you in, I think, 1996, artists' were still discovering the possibilities – and drawbacks – of utilising computer technology. To what degree do you think it has helped, or hindered, the way you've worked since then?

RM: On the whole, computer technology has been a great boon to my work, both visual and audio. I’ve always considered the computer to be just another useful tool to add to traditional media such as paint or a hammer. The only things that limit creativity is a lack of imagination, a reluctance to accept change and a failure to experiment. As one of my heroes Samuel Beckett wrote, “Dare to fail. Dare to fail better.” 
  With design commissions I still prefer to first make work by hand using a diverse mix of materials and processes, including plaster, earth, ashes, coal and rust dust, blood, fabrics, soap, hair, found objects, and chemicals, amongst many others, as well as more traditional paints. Given that most of my works are textural, photographing them successfully is notoriously difficult, and crucially important. Once photographed they are then brought into the computer where they may be variously combined and manipulated using whatever creative editing programmes I think might enable me to experiment further. Whether working with my hands or through the computer, I’m continually experimenting, all the while being conscious of the commission, of its conceptual needs, and importantly, of the essence I’m trying to convey to complement the design brief, be it for a book. an album, a poster, an exhibition, an installation, recording music, or self-generated works. 
  Working with computers on design commissions allows one to try out numerous ideas in the near-certainty that nothing will be lost or destroyed; one can always go back, undertake changes, make and save endless variations. Such flexibility and security was not always possible pre-computers. The much reduced size and increased power capabilities of contemporary computers allow easy mobility and also enable one to work quickly, near-intuitively. And rather than having to arrange for the delivery of a physical artwork via a courier or in person, and live with the fear that the work might get damaged or lost in transit, the computer allows finished designs to be delivered through the ether almost instantaneously. 
  I was taught typography and learnt how to set type by hand when at art school, so I understand its rules, its nuances and its possibilities. Pre-computers, working with typography and typesetting was a bit of a nightmare. Laying out and marking up typesetting instructions required specialist knowledge and a feeling for the spatial possibilities and constraints that typography, when used carefully and thoughtfully, could bring to a design. Second-guessing and hoping that one had made the right decisions and choices of font sizes, weights, line lengths, leading, etc., was nerve-wracking, and occasionally one made the wrong choices. With computers this uncertainty has been removed: there should be no excuse for errors or bad design. However, too often I see a plethora of clumsy, atrocious typography made by people using computers who have no real understanding of the underlying principles of typography and no genuine feeling for type and design. Lazy reliance on digitally prescribed pre-sets leads to shoddy results. On the one hand the computer’s creative editing tools have democratised design, allowing anyone to be a designer or a musician; on the other, its ubiquity and relative ease of use has also encouraged and enabled a great deal of lazy, appallingly crafted and conceptually thin work to get out into the world.
  Before computers, if one wanted to record and manipulate sound, one had to hire an expensive studio, travel to and from it, and be subject to numerous logistical constraints that made it nigh on impossible for anyone, apart from those with access to excess dosh, to work on and produce recorded music. Working with sound, the computer is invaluable. As with my visual work, I generally begin with ideas and research, which lead to a cat’s cradle of associations. These allow me to then proceed to experimenting with the handmade, the electro-acoustic, found or made sound, then onto to the digital of the onboard studio (Logic, Reaper, et al) and assorted technological hardware wizardry. I’m not technically savvy - I think in and imagine sound/music in images - however I’m extremely lucky to work with people who are technically adept and quick to interpret my sometimes baffling ideas and vague directions. I work with Michael Webster on design commissions, and on sound projects I work with Mike Fearon, a brilliant guitarist, multi instrumentalist and sound engineer: he’s worked with me on sound for all of the multimedia installations since 1994, and in my 'Undark' collage recording project. Both, thankfully, like my work and somehow manage to accommodate my experimental approach: they seem attuned to the unpredictable and the felt. Having worked together for so long we rarely need to talk much about what we’re doing; our working relationships have become near-intuitive.  

At the time, you were involved with the 'Measured In Shadows' installation with your then creative partner, Ian Walton. Has the assemblage of all the disparate elements required to set-up an installation become easier to bring together over the last twenty years, or do you face exactly the same obstacles?

RM: Researching and conceptualising an installation, and pulling usually disparate ideas together in a coherent form, is still as challenging as ever. However the technical side of mounting an installation has become far easier, primarily due to the rapid advances in technology in recent years. The kind of technology that I need to use in installations, say, for generative lighting and aleatoric soundworks, has become far cheaper, smaller, more efficient, more reliable and with greater power, thereby enabling both greater mobility and variability.

Which reminds me; is your imagery being ripped off even more now than back then, or have you since found a way to copyright-protect your work?

RM: I’m not particularly aware of being ripped off to any significant degree recently, but as I don’t trawl the art or media landscape, I may well be missing any plagiarism that’s occurring. When I do occasionally come across work that seemingly seeks to emulate my work, it doesn’t overly worry me as most of it seems to be very self-conscious, more concerned with surface and style: pretty perhaps, but, to me, completely lacking resonance and historical or cultural heft. Without meaning or metaphor, I find it is rarely worthy of attention. I have no idea as to how I might copyright protect my work. I would’ve thought that having proof of its existence, documented and dated, should be enough protection. However there have been occasions where a piece of my work has been used without permission and I’ve contacted the offender and requested that they desist from using it. There have been a few occasions where I’ve been obliged to threaten legal action.

By reinterpreting a text through sound and / or image, or when you have re-presented a found object in a personal context, what do you hope to inspire in an objective observer?

RM: My work uses and is about collage, not just in the creation of art that juxtaposes disparate elements in new contexts, but as a construct, a governing idea. Some years ago I realised that even though I’ve produced a lot of work, in diverse media for numerous genres, there is a constant thread that weaves through all I’ve done and continue to do. Contingency: actions borne out of an reaction and reactions borne out of an action. I’ve always believed that life is a ceaselessly and seamlessly changing collage of dislocated experiences. In our daily lives we overhear snatches of conversations and clips of music, catch signs and headlines, meet people, exchange information and gossip, glimpse fleeting vignettes of human activity, all the while absorbing facts, ideas and sensations. The media world and politics, both shaped by advertising’s fabricated fictions, bombard us with mediated ‘truths’, pre-empting any original responses to experience. These experiences - our ‘reality’ - when recalled, do not unfold objectively or coherently, but as a series of meandering, disparate and jumbled memories, filtered, by jolts and twists, through association and deviation, to produce a montage of fragments, a collage of our consciousness.
  I enjoy complexity and ambiguity. My thinking proceeds through a cat’s cradle of associations through which I seek to find correspondences between numerous seemingly unrelated ideas, inspirations and facts, to reach a coherent, if allusive, conclusion. The works normally evolve through a symbiotic exchange between contextually anchored ideas and physical processes, each, by degrees, influencing the other. How others read, interpret or receive my work is beyond my control. Essentially I hope that an observer or viewer, or listener of my work, will bring their own experiences and thoughts to the work, and thereby interpret it in their own way. I don’t work in a way that is designed to trigger emotional responses (the emotional responses in a work are mine and are genuinely felt, but I wouldn’t want to cynically manipulate people’s emotions). However, I do hope that some people might ‘get it’ and might be moved emotionally, but more importantly I hope that people might ask questions in response to their reading or reception of the work, be it visual or sonic.

What do you think you get out of the art you create that keeps you going? 

RM: What I do is not a job, nor is it a vocation.  It’s what I do. I can probably do nothing else (although I occasionally toy with ideas of opening a bookshop or an esoteric junk shop, or a combination of both). What I do is a condition. Being an artist (or what I’d call a self-unemployed artist) is not easy. By choice I work with ideas and outcomes that are possibly obscure and perhaps ludicrous to many. I live a very unstructured life, without regulations or timetables, and, unless I’m working on a commission, with no deadlines or obligations to others. I don’t have an agent or a manager. I'm not contracted to a gallery. I have no assistants or a team of glib PR spinners and nor do I actively promote my work. Consequently, it’s also a financially precarious activity. To many I’d be considered to be a dilettante, a dabbler in too many things, lacking in ambition, unprofessional and quite possibly utterly useless. Despite all this I think that my quality of life is bloody wonderful, However in order to live and work with the freedom that I have, to investigate and explore any ideas I want, requires me to be fairly tough on myself and pretty selfish with my time.
  I’ve always been fascinated by how things connect and interact, how disparate things and ideas can converge and commingle to create new ideas and new things. Fuelling this fascination requires research - plenty of it - reading, writing and thinking. I really enjoy the research as an activity and for the treasury of ideas that it reveals, which enables me to work in the way I do. I’ve done this all my life so I’m pretty adept at focusing on what I need to do, no matter what else may be impinging on my life. Like everyone else I have to pay the bills and put food on the table, but I genuinely don’t give a toss about money.
  This probably doesn’t really answer your question? All I can say is that I think I’m extremely lucky in that I love what I do and I do what I love. I believe I've made the right decisions and choices, ethically and morally, and thus far my creative compass has served me well: I’ve survived and enjoy my life immensely.

Big thanks to Russell for his time and committed responses.

The first two books of Still Moves - in the projected series of six - have been produced and are now available to purchase from:

It is hoped that Still Moves 3 will be available from in
July/August 2017.

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The House Of Silence by Avalon Brantley, Zagava Press

In The House Of Silence esoteric publisher Zagava have released their first commercial novel; a surprise move, and a genre novel at that. Of the author, I had only just begun to discover Brantley; through her essays in Wormwood and her short tales for Egaeus Press. (Most recently, 'Window Widows' in A Midwinter's Entertainment (2016) and 'Twa Sisters, Ane Swan' in Murder Ballads (2017)). A brief surf also revealed a play, Aronos (Ex-Occidente, 2013) 'set in Greece during the Archaic Period.' The historical voice in these texts are uniquely hers, and I'd yet to satisfactorily define it to myself when I was sent her latest – a novel - for review.
  A presumably fictitious foreword by Brantley herself leads into her relating the contents of a surviving journal and letters from a deceased relative that make up the account of the tale that unfolds. What begins, seemingly innocently, as a search for the protagonist's childhood pet dog, deepens into a nightmare when it leads to a burial mound that also appears an exit portal for some horrifically primal underworld. In truth, this is a memory 'mistaken for a dream' that acts as a portent to gradually disturbing events, seemingly proscribed by fate.
  Bachelor Ashley Acheson receives a last minute invitation, from his brother, to their late father's funeral and a memorial dinner with their engaging but strange host family. The plot is in Kraighten, Ireland, an area of the country Acheson had assumed his father never cared for. It turns out to be upon a hill, now waterlogged, where local history had long ago claimed a supernatural source. Deja-vu at the site had already encroached upon Acheson's waking life and disconnected glimpses of dread draw him further into a web of victimhood. All the while, he is haunted by an unconsumated lost love from boyhood, in a manner that compels his journey and loosens his hold on sanity.
  If this sounds all very familiar, the novel's dedication 'for William Hope Hodgson' and allusions to his The House On The Borderland and occult bible The Night Land are not disguised. Yet, there is a freshness from the sense of present-tense imperative that transcends any tired derivation. Intimations of The Wicker Man are also evoked in the echoes of folk memory and its manifestation into folk horror in the siege-based climax. These race-memory anecdotes are absorbing and detailed without being anally so, pedantic, or overtly slowing the pace. Then there is the Brian Blessed-like head host of the house; the charismatic, ebullient O' Brien. An intriguing character, at once hail fellow well met and controlling.
  The sadness in Brantley's promising debut is in it likely being her sole novel, since she passed away in March at the Byronic age of 36. (Although Jonas Ploeger – her publisher – has since hinted at other writings left behind). The usual, unanswerable questions regarding 'unfulfilled potential' apply; particularly where the likelihood of a future publishing contract from one of the big publishing houses is concerned. The House Of Silence leaves a forlorn, but resounding, echo in the affirmative.