Alex Fiennes

And so we reach the end of a relatively intense, and very varied and immensely satisfying week. And what a nice way to bring things to a close with the realisation of Matt's News from Nowhere.

I particularly enjoyed today because my roots in producing weird and wonderful sounds by non-conventional techniques lie very much in the physical world and I'm a bit of a late adopter of digital techniques in general. I'm not opposed to them, but I often find them hard to get the same relationship to as a player that you get with interacting with physical objects.

I was therefore very pleased to see a number of "real world" devices manifesting themselves today. This did of course bring its own set of challenges and problems, but they were challenges that I felt that I could relate to more than the sealed "black box" that is always part of digital processing.

We had a small practice amp on its back with the speaker pointed upwards and a handful of dry rice resting in the cone of the speaker. Matt sends instruments to the speaker at various points in the piece which contributes not only the lofi sound of the crap speaker, but also the vibration of the rice as the cone moves up and down. Sounds almost like the instrument itself has been prepared with devices attached to the strings? I went for an XY pair of Earthworks SR25s to try and capture the 3 dimensionality of the rice moving and to also move the sound "outside" the relatively stable soundfield of the other instruments and give it a very alien intrusion into the space.

Then we have the Viola which never plays any notes as such but which is playing the bow against various parts of the instrument other than the strings and generating various white noise style of sounds. Our initial approach was to take the sound off the bow and we attached an Accusound contact mic to the wooden end of the bow and a pair of DPA 4061s at different points along the bow in the hope that we could use the different sound sources to generate a stereo image that would reproduce the movement of the bow.

Unfortunately, physics reared it's ugly head and it turns out that you can't make really subtle breath noises while sitting in between a double bass, and a fiddle and a small PA doing processing and expect to get sensible clarity from small omni mics so we had to abandon this approach. However, fortunately the pickup in the starfish viola turned out to give us very usable noises. If I was to record this piece again then I'd try and get the acoustic isolation of the viola from the other instruments because when we tried the mic on the viola solo the sounds were lovely, but time was against us...

Finally we have the feedback violin. Its perfectly simple. You just take the sound of the Viola making breathing noises, put it through a relatively loud PA speaker and then hold a violin up in front of the speaker. The violin vibrates in sympathy with the sound of the breathing viola. You then put a pickup mic onto the violin to capture these vibrations and then feed the pickup back into the speaker that the violin is positioned in front of. You then turn up the respective gains until the violin is pretty much self oscillating in feedback with itself while being pushed in different directions by the viola sound and then you find a classically trained professional violin player who is prepared to experiment with different angles of the violin to create different tones of feedback in interesting and musical manners…

I do like working with McFalls…

It took a bit of balancing and a bit of selective compression at various points in the loop to make it into an expressive and (kind of) controllable instrument but the end results are very pleasing.

Plus as if this wasn't enough, we have some proper distortion. Not for very long, but it was definitely proper!

What more could anyone possibly ask for?

I've spent the evening listening back to the output from the week and I think that I am very unlikely to ever be given the ability to do this kind of thing again, and I am very pleased and very honored to have been given the chance to participate.

We "might" try and perform some of this live at some point in the future, but although none of the individual pieces are impossible to render in a live situation, it might be hard to be able to transition between the different pieces in a timely manner such that a concert became a viable proposition. However, there are possibilities and if it can be done then it will be done…

I'll probably make new mixes of everything as well once I've had time to think about things - and I have no doubt that the various composers will as well - and when this happens we'll post the results on this blog so keep your eyes peeled…

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