Sylvia Hallett: White Fog

Navel-Gazers #5 is an interview with Sylvia Hallett who is going to talk to us about White Fog. Sylvia is a well-known figure in free improvisation whose music is extraordinarily creative and unique. She was one of my first connections when I first moved to London and she's always been forthcoming with the kind of anecdotes and insights which are perfect for Navel-Gazers. The album in question "White Fog" is one of my all-time favorite works in any medium: its pitch-shifted violins, bowed bicycle wheels and pastoral field recordings are sounds I've revisited numerous times and I'm delighted to have this discussion with Sylvia but before we start, I want to urge our readers to listen to "White Fog" in its entirety, through headphones!

AC: Thanks for doing this interview Sylvia. One thing I've learned doing a few of these is that some musicians find it surprising and a little disorienting at first, for the interview to be about a single album rather than their entire oeuvre or about music in general, or life in general or whatever. But we encounter artists through their work and "White Fog" is, to me, a special and inspirational work. Is it special to you in any way? Do you recall it distinctly from your other music? Where does it fit into the journey you've been on as an artist?

Sylvia Hallett: "White Fog" is my third solo album, the first two being on Mash, a small independent label that Martin Allerton set up, and White Fog was on Emanem, so a more visible label. I've always felt that life and music is like a tapestry, not going forward straight ahead, but moving sideways like the weft of a weaving, taking in all the other things. That's what makes the work, collaborating with dance artists, then writing a few semi-improvised songs, then doing a violin improvisation.

Sometimes people I haven't seen in a while ask me what I am doing these days, and I realise my answer is the same as last time....some working with dance artists, possibly making tracks using the computer as a tool, some solo improvisations, with or without electronics, some playing for small theatre companies, and a large opera company, some playing in various duos, some recording, some field recordings, playing several instruments, some experimenting with new objects to bow, some teaching, some playing in a band, some forays into folk music.

These are the basic threads which I weave around, the proportions shift from year to year, but essentially the same eclectic mix of musical activities which I love. So when you ask do I recall it distinctly from my other music, this album represents a few strands of my other music, so is not separate from.

At that time I was interested in the edge between composition and improvisation, so I made these half songs, where I wrote some words, but would improvise singing them differently each time, different tune, different backing. I am not good at improvising words, which is why I pre-composed those. The song White Fog is about the difficulty of finding words to express oneself. Maybe it's a glimpse of what happens when you have dementia, being lost in a nameless space. Music can take you into that space, where words become irrelevant.

The Wheelsongs are because I wanted to feature the bowed bicycle wheel, then I decided to add some of the work I had been working on with dance artist Miranda Tufnell, a pre-recorded track, involving field recordings and music. I sent these two items to a few labels, with a view to being open as to what the label might deem to be the missing elements. Martin Davidson got back to me, saying that it really didn't fit into his field, but a few days later said that he had been listening over and over to my unfinished album and would somehow like to put it out, but it would need some solo violin improvisation on it. That's how it ended up like that.

AC: I see, so that explains The Onyx Rook, which is solo violin. I like the way it all unfolds on White Fog with those three sections: the first six pieces are your "Wheelsongs", then the final two are totally different. It's almost like a journey along the tapestry you described!

When I first listened to this music I assumed that the Wheelsongs must have been heavily edited with overdubs and layering. But that was before I'd seen you live. In your performances there's often a dense variety of simultaneous different sounds which could easily be mistaken for multiple players. So now I'm not sure! Where and how were these pieces recorded?

Sylvia Hallett: Yes you're right... the Wheelsongs were done without any overdubs as far as I can remember, although I'm not against doing overdubs in recordings. At that time I was using quite large rack mounted things, a delay machine that had some quirky functions on it like 'modulation' that would undulate the pitch at different speeds, and a rack mounted JamMan. I think I also used a parametric equaliser as I didn't have a filter which would have been nice. The main thing we added at the mixing stage was reverb. All my gear is now scaled down so as to be lighter and manageable on London buses.

I recorded the Wheelsongs at the LMC studios in Brixton. It was mostly just one long take. Mick Richie was the engineer. Then the other two pieces "Onyx Rook" and Snail and Curlew I recorded myself at home.

"Onyx Rook" ....there's a section of the improvisation that has violin harmonics, so there's a bit of a pun going on there! And onyx makes me think of chess sets, hence the rook... which is another word for castle.

"Snail and Curlew" was composed for a dance film called "Body of Land" by Miranda Tufnell and we collaborated with artist Caroline Lee. It was basically a slightly reworked soundtrack. But when the film was finished it kind of got dropped, and I felt I would like the music for it to have an airing, so the album seemed a good outlet for it.

AC: "Snail and Curlew" is my favorite piece here, I wonder if you remember anything else about that one?

Sylvia Hallett: I have been collaborating with dancer choreographer Miranda Tufnell since 1988, and we are touring a recent piece later this year. I mentioned about the film Body of Land, that then didn't get a proper release. Miranda was living in Cumbria at the time and I used sounds from the environment in our pieces: the melodies of babbling brooks, sudden flights of doves, the squelch of wellies in the boggy mud, wind, curlews, the sound of someone washing up, pouring lentils into a jar, the friction of stones etc., mixing domestic space with outdoor space, conjuring up events, unseen and imagined places, and mixing the real into distant memory. I had a nice sampler that could play sounds forwards and backwards seamlessly, not a friendly device for gigging with, but a studio item. That was very useful in this piece. I can't remember what else I used... maybe at that time I was starting to record into Cubase which meant I could be quite precise about shaping each phrase.

We worked together improvising, while Miranda moved, and Caroline Lee the visual artist was the eye, framing the shots. When it came to the edit I composed tracks at home for the various sections, and the editor, Richard Coldman, edited the picture to my sounds. The film was 18 minutes, so I reworked the sound for this CD to be shorter.

AC: I never knew about the background of it.. The connections to other media are really interesting... in Andy Rowe's interview we talked a lot about the role of images and language in our encounters with music. I'm now thinking about the role of music in film, and also in dance, which is a medium I've honestly never given much consideration. To attach a sound-collage such as "Snail and Curlew" to those particular forms was certainly an original idea on your part.

Sylvia Hallett: Context is everything. It's not really that the sound collage is attached to the film, but it arose out of the process of collaboration. I would never have made that piece if I hadn't been working with Miranda.

AC: You and I once discussed your early experiments recording on reel-to-reel. I'm curious whether you recall those types of projects as having been formative or significant to your development as a musician? How much meaning or fulfilment do you derive from capturing sounds?

Sylvia Hallett: My school was getting rid of its old Vortexion mono reel to reel, I guess I was 15, so I offered to buy it from them for a fiver. It was extremely heavy! I was chatting to a senior student in the cafeteria of the Royal College of Music (where I was a Saturday morning junior exhibitioner) who told me I should listen to the music of Pierre Henry and Stockhausen. So I immediately spent my pocket money on the albums The Green Queen, and Gesang Der Junglinger. I wanted to make music like that. So I taught myself to splice tape, play things backwards and pitch shift by changing the speed. Then I found an old portable reel to reel in a junk shop (huge batteries!) and I started having fun recording from one machine to another and chopping up small bits of tape and making tape loops... at the time my room was full of little hooks on the wall to hang the loops on. Very tangible. Most of these experiments were not particularly interesting, and pretty self indulgent!

I also was very excited to make field recordings, just loved the idea of making music with any sound.... music concréte.

AC: I can identify with that. Have electronic sounds always interested you - or were there any particular turning points where you first "plugged in"?

Sylvia Hallett: When I went to college I thought I wanted to explore electronic music. Dartington College of Arts had a Moog, and a mini Arp, and I joined a small select group to take lessons in electronics, given by the bursar who had in fact embezzled money to buy this stuff for himself but graciously allow some students to use it!!! I found the lessons bewildering and random, so continued with tape techniques on better quality machines.... stereo as well... alongside traditional composition lessons writing notes on paper for others to play. I had mixed feelings about pure electronics, sounds generated by oscillators, on the one hand it spoke of galaxies and brainwaves, eg François Bayle, but in the wrong hands eg mine, could just sound sterile and devoid of any association of real experience.

With tape I loved the way the reverb of the recorded space could transform into huge caverns by pitch shifting a couple of octaves. A bird call can become the song of an imagined whale, humans can become birds, and an old manual coffee grinder become a massive piece of epic machinery, each sound having its own feeling and association.

My first professionally commissioned pieces for theatre were soundscapes made in this way, alongside pieces of instrumental or vocal music. I incorporated the professional Walkman (mobile cassette recorder) into my hardware collection, then the Portastudio, a four track cassette tape recorder which I did some live shows with, collaborating with Miranda, fading up different tracks according to what was happening on stage.

I then moved on to working with minidisc, DAT, 8 track quarter inch tape (Revox) then onto ADAT, an 8 track digital tape format.

I didn't use any of this stuff in free improvisation gigs, only in the context of working with dance artists or theatre, or composing for BBC radio drama.

I eventually recorded on to computer, and my son, who is a big fan of all things analogue, now uses some of my old machines. So when you ask whether the old tape experiments have a bearing on my current work, you can see the answer is obviously yes. I am using the same processes ... delay, pitch-shift and loop. The pedals I use have their own idiosyncrasies, distorting sounds in interesting ways because they're quite lo-fi. I like working with that.

AC: You spoke earlier about the limitations of language, yet your comment about the massive coffee grinder reminds me that you've a particular way with words...!

"White Fog" appears to have been the 57th release on Emanem and according to AllMusic, the first on that label ever to contain lyrics. Where did those words come from on the Wheelsongs? Do you often develop lyrics or poetry?

Sylvia Hallett: That's an interesting question about lyrics. I have used lyrics in the past on the second of two previous solo albums, which were both on the Mash label. On the album Let's Fall Out there were a few songs and some of the lyrics were written by puppeteer Nenagh Watson as again I was using work I had already done for theatre. But some were my own songs, which I overdubbed improvisations onto.

However, in the case of "White Fog" the Wheelsongs are more spontaneous. I decided to write some lyrics...

The song "White Fog" is about the inability to find words to express oneself, how sometimes it feels like thoughts don't want to be expressed in words, how English sometimes feels like a second language to me.

Woman with Dustpan and Brush is a real life event in my street.

Violet was my great aunt, whom I never met. The live-art puppeteer Nenagh Watson of DOO-COT made a show about her, for which I did the music. However, I never wrote 'her' song. So this is what should have been written, improvised of course when it comes to the music.

Private War.. just about a couple living and warring together. Not me!

So the four half-songs are not related apart from the fact that they were all written in the same month. I tend to work to context. So once I have a context to write for I'll get on with it. I'm not really the kind of person that just writes for the sake of itself. I have things that I can say about life, but don't feel a need to be constantly writing that down.... maybe I am just a bit lazy!

When I was younger I used to compose music not knowing if it would be played or not. A lot of that stuff has gone in the bin! But as soon as I have a context then I can focus and the words or music start to flow as they have somewhere to flow to.

AC: It's great to hear your voice on those tracks. I must say what I like most about your music is that even though you work in all these completely different contexts - playing the violin, bowing the bicycle wheel, using pedals, making sound collages, working with filmmakers and choreographers and benshis and puppeteers - to me it all sounds like Sylvia. I can really hear your voice in all of it... Looking back at your responses these past few weeks, it's that same familiar voice and it's totally one of a kind. So as our discussion nears its end I'd like to say special thanks for this opportunity to talk.

What's next for you? You mentioned you'll be touring a new piece with Miranda Tufnell, anything else on the horizon in either the near or distant future?

Sylvia Hallett: Thanks Andrew for your kind words.

It's also been interesting for me to look back at that time and think about process, I'm not in the habit of justifying, describing or appraising my work, but there is something about looking at it again from several years away. I have not been able to listen to it while writing these responses, as I've been away from home these last 3 weeks, so it's all from memory. But the processes were very clear at the time, and in my memory.

Work coming up this year: ongoing gigs with Chris Dowding in the spring, and also with Esha Jotwe Teka which is myself, Thomas Kunlehn from Potsdam on flute and Jerry Wigens from London on clarinets. Then in March going to Borealis Festival in Norway with Elaine Mitchener, restaging her piece Sweet Tooth concerning the Caribbean slave trade.

Also taking part in a durational installation performance in Frankfurt, 48 Hours of Sound, in the Angewandte Kunst Gallery there. Working alongside 12 other musicians/ sound makers.

Then in May there'll be the tour with Miranda Tufnell's Pneuma in England (North).

Later in the summer there is talk of some touring with the Heliocentrics, maybe Glastonbury.

Then in September h2dance will be restaging Say Something, a piece for choreographed choir, which I made music for, in Norway.

That's it for now... we'll see what else comes in. Take care.

AC: You too, all the best!

Sylvia can be found at her website, and at Esha Jotwe Teka and Sylvia & I on Bandcamp.

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