Martin Clarke: slides

Navel-Gazers #1 is an interview with Martin Clarke who is going to talk to us about slides. Let me first say that if the word Music makes you think of songs, melodies, chords, rhythms, lyrics or conventional musical instruments, "slides" may come as a shock. We’ll veer closer to familiar territory in future editions with people banging on drum-kits and singing into microphones, but I deliberately chose this album to set the scene for what Navel-Gazers is all about. In my interactions with Martin, a professional sound recordist, he strikes me as a uniquely insightful person who is operating somewhere at the “ground zero” of the recording arts. I can think of no better introduction to Navel-Gazers than his watery acousmatic opus "slides".

AC: Thanks for doing the first interview. As I mentioned in the introduction, this selection could be a little daunting for some listeners! I'm guessing you're used to that? Does something like "slides" ever reach the attention of people outside of experimental music circles - particular audiences who are surprised that your work is so abstract and challenging?

Martin Clarke: In all honesty I don’t think this is the kind of music that reaches people outside the experimental circles. It’s niche. I think it’s the kind of music that you hunt for. I can’t imagine anyone is going to find "slides", hoping for songs and conventional musical instruments/structures. Somebody did find a short film I made online somewhere and said something like ‘I’ve seen timelapses of the moon that have more plot than this’. I thought it was sad they couldn’t imagine film being about something else.

Personally, I’ve always been on the look out for weird sounds and things that push the idea of what music is. I think it started when I read about ‘post rock’ bands like Flying Saucer Attack, Tortoise, Stereolab and hunting those records down, then discovering Stockhausen, Ornette Coleman, Luc Ferrari, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Moondog…but they were difficult to find - it took me a long time to find magazines like The Wire and Signal to Noise but they were obviously great sources of info.

But it wasn’t just weird music - I was drawn to writers like Burroughs and Ginsberg. Films were harder to come by but I remember discovering Jim Jarmusch and being totally blown away, then Mothlight (Brakhage) and thinking ah finally!

As to why I’m drawn to this kind of thing, I used to think it was all to do with growing up on a remote island but I’m starting to think it’s just me…

AC: There are a decent amount of us out there but it must take a certain mindset. Sorry to hear someone disliked your film! One thing that always surprises me is how quick people are to question whether something is art at all. With a piece like boats for example - which seems to be the closest thing to a straight-up field recording here - you’re going to get people who say: sure that’s sound, but it isn’t music. To me that is down to the artist’s intention. You’re the artist, if you say it’s music then it’s music! How do you respond to that? Would you insist that something like  “boats” is music? Or do you not need it to be?

Martin Clarke: I suppose it does take a certain mindset but I’m also wary of assuming that people won’t get the work. I think people are more receptive to so-called challenging work than we fear. Slides isn’t really that complicated - for me it’s more meditative than anything; it’s as much immersive installation as musical work, something you can sit in and soak up. It deliberately blurs or erases the composer to an extent. Or when the composer is present the material becomes blurred and it’s about crossing that line of intent and ownership versus letting the material breathe on its own.

As to whether it’s music or not…I don’t know that the question matters to me. I mean, I think it *is* music but I’m more bothered about whether it says something to someone than which category it fits in. "boats", as you say, is a straight up field recording with no editing or particularly obvious processing but it still has, to my mind anyway, a musical quality. There are events which occur in time - they’re pretty subtle but they’re there. It’s about the relationship between foreground and background, like in a photo. I was interested in how as a recordist you could work in a similar way to a photographer - search out images and narratives in the world and capture the composition as it unfolds in front of you.

AC: I totally agree with you: this kind of music - or whatever we want to call it - isn’t actually so difficult or inaccessible, we just tend to front-load it with all this baggage and expectation about what music is meant to be, in terms of composition and performance. From that point of view people often assume an artist is out to confuse them, when really you are just approaching sound recording the way another artist might approach photography, painting, installations, documentary films or whatever.

Your comment about the blurring of the composer with the material leads me to one of my favourite aspects of Slides: its asymmetry. Towards the beginning I get an an impression that the sounds are more or less left to their own devices. By Track 4 lapse we’re still hearing field recordings (I think?) but the album seems to have turned some kind of corner where the sounds are being heard from increasingly disorienting perspectives. And then on the final track watercuts you surprise the listener and decisively cross the line with the editing. I appreciate each of these methods on its own, but what I really like is the journey from one place to another. Did you plan for things to unfold in this sequence or is that just the way it turned out?

Martin Clarke: That’s interesting. 

Slides is all about perspective and focus. The only processing is using a granulation plugin that my friend Alex Harker wrote. I think of granulation as a kind of micro editing, almost at a molecular level. watersong starts at that point and pulls out to reveal the lapping water. At the time I was thinking of it like a focus pull in a film.

The next two tracks pull back even further to reveal the broader cityscape. Then in "lapse", the processing returns and we’re sucked back into that interior. "watercuts" with the really brutal editing slows that process down to kind of reveal the workings.

That makes it sound more planned than it was though. Like a lot of acousmatic composers, I think, I tend to work quite intuitively. You have material and you try to get inside it; poke it and manipulate it to see where it can or needs to go. The concept of the work tends to come at the end, which isn’t to say I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s just it’s not necessarily a conscious thing, it’s more instinctive. At least initially. It’s improvising based on all the things you’ve learned, heard and thought. In a way. 

AC: (On a side note I need a hipper spell-checker: I’ve angrily disabled mine since it does not like the word Acousmatic!)

Let’s focus a little more on the connections to other media. It occurs to me that to describe the process as “analogous” to photography or filmmaking would almost be an understatement here. On "watersong" and "lapse" for example where you are working in such close proximity with the sounds, I imagine similarities to the actual mechanical process used in something like macro photography. I’m curious about how this plays out, not so much on a technical level as on a purely logistical one. Especially with your sound source - water: did you need to get really near to the water? Did you risk damaging your equipment? How meticulous did you need to be in the placement and positioning of the recording device/s? What were you physically doing in order to execute the “focus pull”? Etc..

Martin Clarke: Yes I had to get very close to the water but the equipment was never really at risk. It was all much calmer than it sounds in the recordings... Prosaically the ‘focus pulls’ were achieved by layering and cross fading between the processes and unprocessed sounds. 

I’m not particularly meticulous about anything...

AC: How spontaneous was the decision to record in Stockholm to begin with? You’ve done field recordings in a few locations around the world, is that the main purpose of your travels or do you just pack recording equipment whenever you happen to travel? For that matter, are you the sort of person who always has a recording device on hand, just in case?

Martin Clarke: Between 2006 and 2012 I did a handful of residencies for composers/sound artists so the trips were pretty much always planned. Slides was written while I was a guest composer at EMS in 2006. It's an amazing place by the way - a great location with really nice people.

Back then I was using whatever equipment I could get my hands on - handheld recorders like you can get now just didn't exist so I used everything from minidisc to the Sound Devices 744T that I borrowed from The University of Birmingham. As I got more and more into straight up field recording and the equipment got smaller and cheaper I started to pack a handheld recorder just in case. I remember reading an interview with Chris Watson where he said he started out recording everything and recording for ages but over time he became more discerning about what he recorded. I can identify with that. I don't have the pressing urge to record everything I hear these days - it's often enough to acknowledge a nice sound and experience it for a few minutes. Looking back I used to be pretty obsessive about recording but that's eased off as I've got older...

AC: Ironically it sounds like the newer handheld devices might have been more convenient back when you wanted to record everything! Again I could picture a similar response from a photographer or filmmaker on some of these topics, both in the way technology has evolved and how the activity has for you personally. You mentioned your move towards straight-up field recording. Was "slides" a transitional work? There’s an interesting pattern I’ve noticed with artists working in all different disciplines. A period of “artifice” (intervention on the subjects and the materials) then a phase where things start to get more naturalistic, more focused, the subjects and materials are given room to breathe, the artist matures. What motivated this evolution in your case?

Martin Clarke: I think it’s that the more you do something, the more into it you get, the more you enjoy or appreciate the essence of it. Or that’s what happens to me. I think I could have gone in either direction honestly, either a super processed or completely unprocessed direction but I would have obsessively specialised. For a bit anyway. What I like about field recording is the chance elements that are thrown up by other participants - people, animals, vehicles, weather, the sea, whatever. In a way it’s like a group improvisation....

As for direction, my first experiments with sound were studio based because as a student that’s what I had access to. When I left university and lost access to all that amazing equipment I bought a minidisc recorder and was suddenly totally mobile. Really I was just taking advantage of opportunities. Field recording is a way of exploring. An excuse. But at the same time I never questioned it. It was just something that I needed to do. The kit went in the bag wherever I went as though it was the most normal thing. 

AC: I’d love to see more people doing that! It’s a great way to capture the experience of traveling or just being out and about, perceiving things from new perspectives, just like we do with photos.

Your comment about taking advantage of opportunities is a perfect segue into my final question/s which I’m planning to ask in each interview: what’s next? What are your future ambitions? If time, money or resources were no issue, is there an “ultimate” art project you’d want to complete, in any medium? And if so, has anything been hindering that from happening or do you just have a list of things to do?

Martin Clarke: What appeals is the heightened or focused sense that you get from listening to a space through microphones, similar to framing a scene through a lens. 

It’s quite a solitary practice though and recording and selecting and processing takes a long time. Right now I’m really enjoying playing instruments in small improvising groups. There’s an immediacy to it and a social aspect which I really enjoy. It’s still exploratory so I guess that never really goes away. 

My hopes for the future are to meet and play with as many people, do as much exploring as I can. I have no specific projects in mind, I’m open to ideas.

AC: Of course that is how you and I know each other. I too appreciate those two sides of the coin, maybe they’re complimentary.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about Slides or in general?

Martin Clarke: I think I’ve probably rambled long enough :)

Martin's music can be found at his BandcampSoundcloud, and his website

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