Vincent Carr's SUMIC: Rekindled

Navel-Gazers #6 is an interview with Vincent Carr who is going to talk to us about Rekindled. Vince is an independent recording artist and composer who was my only regular collaborator throughout my years in Oxford. For anyone who's been following Navel-Gazers, Rekindled will seem an anomaly - this is an album of compositions with distinct melodies, rhythms, and even a few lyrics! like all my favorite recordings it's also a musical artefact with a substance of its own, percolating somewhere underneath the surface of the sounds and enduring after repeated listens... in fact if I had to choose one album to send up into a space capsule, it would be tempting to disorient the aliens with White Fog or ;slides but I would most certainly choose Rekindled. There's an amiable humanity to this music which seems to endear itself to most listeners - I'd encourage everyone to listen along to Rekindled as I speak to the man behind the music (that is, the SUMIC) Mr. Vince Carr.

AC: Firstly I know you're an avid reader of Navel-Gazers, thanks for supporting the project. Out of curiosity, what has been your favorite instalment so far?

Vincent Carr: Well firstly, thanks for speaking to me about my very normal music! Yes, I have been enjoying this series of interviews very much. Your ears have (literally) travelled far wider than mine, so when you started this project I knew I'd get to hear some things that ordinarily I probably wouldn't seek out. Although I'm an avid devourer of music, compared to yourself my tastes are probably quite conservative. Every month has been very different so far, despite all being unique and adventurous in their own ways. I think the one which has chimed the most with me is seafo od recip es, which I found very pleasantly odd, but also quite approachable and charming despite it covering quite a lot of ground.

AC: I thought you might mention that one... it has that certain "album"-ness which I'm sure you appreciate.

On albums, Michael Stipe commented around a decade ago: "What does an album mean in the year 2011, especially to generations of people for whom the word album is an archaic term? An album for me as a teenager in the '70s was a fully formed concept. It was a body of work from an artist I liked or trusted or who excited me.. I want to present an idea of what an album could be in the age of YouTube and the internet."

He's right, the literal terminology of "albums" is largely a vestige of the past. Yet it seems that the conceptual format persists into the 21st century, further than I'd have expected. Why? Is there some intrinsic value to the format: some 4 to 12 pieces of music, roughly 45 minutes long, with a title, cover art, etc? Do you regard your albums as cohesive works and specifically 'Rekindled' as a cohesive work such as he describes there?

Vincent Carr: I do indeed regard 'Rekindled' as a cohesive work, and I'm a big fan of the album format, both in general, and also because it is the best format for my written music under the solo SUMIC banner.

There's a lot that could be explored about the continuation or extinction of formats in a lot of human creative endeavours, but I'll stay focused! As far as the album format goes, 35-45 minutes is a good chunk of time to devote an attention span to, without being over demanding, and the best albums provide an immersive experience that is hard to beat. Although I like it for all the reasons you mention, I don't think it has necessarily served every artist well, because of its limitations. 60s live John Coltrane, 60s and 70s Miles Davis, and artists like Klaus Shulze, for example. At the time, and certainly since, I think they would probably been better served by the 80 minutes later afforded by the CD format.

But for me, on balance it's the best format, because the pieces I write aspire to be musical journeys within themselves, and then I also sequence the album to work as a whole too. This calls for some vision of the album before I start. I am fortunate that I'm constantly writing music, so I've got a considerable backlog of material waiting to see the light of day, and I can select pieces that will sit next to each and flow together in a running order that works. There are other considerations too - I'm a big fan of contrast (and so is the human brain, happily), so long/short, loud/quiet, written/improvised, all of these things are considered, until I have a rough running order, and thus what pieces I'm going to record. So the running order of Hall of Bright Carvings / News Just In / Rekindle / Starlight and Norham Castle Sunrise is absolutely planned.

AC: As a listener, I certainly experience it cohesively. In fact I have an interesting impression of Rekindled. I tend to visualize the whole thing as a sort of pastoral scene. Norham Castle Sunrise being the backdrop, Rekindle (the title track) is a human figure in the foreground.. then I suppose the remaining three tracks are the other elements in the picture, buildings, vehicles, bits of sky and everything else.

I don't know of any other music that puts such a specific image into my head!! You probably find it pretty strange but anyway..

Vincent Carr: I don't find your impressions strange at all. Several of my favourite albums do the same thing to me in different ways, depending on their individual character. In fact, given the non-musical references that abound in the album as a whole, (I can only speculate) but I'd be amazed to see them not influencing how people would listen to the music.

To add further background - specifically to anyone unfamiliar with Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy of books. The Hall of the Bright Carvings is the title and setting of the first chapter in the first book, 'Titus Groan'. Peake certainly belongs (in my opinion anyway) to the pantheon of English 20th century authors that also includes greats like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Unlike those very 'earnest' writers however, 'Gormenghast' is shot through with not only the grotesque, but also a large Edward Lear-esque absurd streak. The carvings in question are also in a castle (again with the castles!) They are displayed in a hall that no-one visits, covered in inches and inches of dust, and the curator spends all of his time asleep. After that, the carvings barely get a mention throughout the whole work. It's a brilliant and bizarre starting point. This naturally told me that this piece of music would also have the be the piece to start the album.

The same is also true of Starlight, (photographs of which are reproduced in the album artwork), and 'Norham Castle Sunrise' which is one of the most famous later paintings by JMW Turner, and is itself such an evocative image, great food for the imagination.

AC: I hadn't noticed those references.. it's been years since I picked up the Gormenghast books, definitely something to revisit.

Your compositions seem to have a life outside of Rekindled and the other SUMIC albums. As I recall they're all scored out in Sibelius and tucked up in a big manila folder! and I and others have performed pieces such as "The Hall of the Bright Carvings" and "Starlight" in other arrangements with different instrumentation. What's the significance of the album versions? Are these the "official" ones? Is this album their "home"? How do you think about that?

Vincent Carr: As far as the written music is concerned, and also how 'definitive' (or 'official', as you say) they are - I do think I have tried to make them definitive versions, but only in so far as they are the definitive solo SUMIC versions of these pieces. As you yourself have played a couple of these pieces, you may recall that 'Starlight' was dropped a whole tone from the key of D to C to accommodate the clarinet. 'The Hall...' also changed key. I've no doubt that any group (if any) that I pull together in the future would also change things, but I'd like to think that most of the pieces would work well.

That said - once you make an album and put it out there, it's generally accepted that it becomes the 'definitive' version. I'm happy with that, and I'm certainly happy for Rekindled to be considered the 'home' for these pieces. After you sent me your first question, I thought to myself that I'd better have a listen to the music, as I couldn't remember it well enough! Like a lot of people who spend a lot of time creating something, you get so close to it that you lose the ability to think about it with any distance or perspective. Coming back to it as a whole, I really enjoyed listening to it again. It does seem very cohesive, five separate pieces, but with enough that relates them to each other to make them work together as an album.

AC: One thing I like about the SUMIC albums is what I interpret as the "aural clues" or reminders that we're listening to a recording, something only partially representative of how music plays out in an instrumental/ensemble setting outside of a recording. "Starlight" for example starts out with the solo acoustic guitar, which is perfectly representative - if you close your eyes it's as though someone is sitting right there playing. But as the recording develops, things start to happen that only a recording can account for - everything is in stereo, overdubbed, all played by yourself.. It's a commonplace way to make music nowadays but yours seems to conjure up that original sense of wonder about it all.

Vincent Carr: Ah, you've noticed the 'very stereo' method I use of making recordings. Part of this solo project was also decisions about how to make definitive recordings, without access to big studio budgets etc. I've made quite a study of how albums have been recorded in the past - noted what I like and don't like, and decided on whether doing things in certain ways suits my music or not. In the end, I've found a way of putting the mixes together that hopefully does suit the music, without being a stylistic straight-jacket. I want to present the sounds in a relatively natural way, but with the benefits of controlling the stereo field.

If there's one thing in this ongoing SUMIC project that is almost the whole point of it, it's melody. I realised early on when my 'compositional voice' started to materialise, that melody was my primary interest. Yes, my music does other things too, but they usually defer to the melodic content of the piece. All of the decision-making processes described above come from the melody, and how to highlight that melody and present it in its optimum setting.

Is your feeling of 'original sense of wonder' because the recordings have that 'early days of recording' edge maybe? - I get what you mean certainly.

AC: Yes I'm thinking not so much of the very early days of recording, but the 'later' early days of one person playing and recording everything, circa 1973: albums like Something/Anything?, Boulders, Innervisions... that music had this peculiar energy because people were working that way for the first time. Now it's totally normal for people to work that way, so that energy seems to have dissipated. But I always think I detect something like that when I listen to SUMIC.

The digital keyboards contribute to this too I think. You use them pretty transparently... is that an aesthetic decision or just a limitation of home recording? I like it!

Vincent Carr: The range of sounds that I'm using is ever expanding of course, but there is a basic group of instruments which form the basis of a lot of what I do. The artificial piano and keys/strings sounds are what they are, and yes, I engage with them for what they are. If I like the sounds, and it works with the music, then in it goes.

I don't know if you've noticed, but I think another big part of the cohesive feel of Rekindled (and its softer, pastoral edge) is that all pieces feature the acoustic guitar. My recently released follow-up New Paeans does not do this, but it's there pretty much all of the time here. Even the second half of News Just In, which is actually pretty funky, still features the acoustic 6-string - and it seems to work. It makes it 'less' funky, but it does give it an individual hybrid feel.

I have to say, I'm really glad that you can hear the 'aural clues', the method that goes into it. They are 'not the music' of course, but it is still an important part of putting a recording together.

AC: The end of the title track "Rekindle" shares that hybrid feel with "News Just In", I like how they shadow each other.

"Rekindle" (again that title track) contains this album's only vocals or lyrics. Ostensibly, it's a love song but I had a slightly different experience of it.. you know a couple of years ago I entered a new chapter in my life at the end of a very serious relationship. I was living in temporary accommodation in London at the top of this high-rise building in Hackney Central. There was a balcony at the place with the most incredible panoramic view of the skyline. So one morning I woke up early and made coffee, and I don't remember why but I put on Rekindled... and went out to watch the sunrise. By the time of that title track, the sky was getting really spectacular over the city and I noticed a certain synchronicity with the music... I thought to myself, ok here's this song about love, what do I love? Do I love anything? Do I love the sky, the coffee, the city, The Gherkin, The Shard, what? And I realized yes! of course... sure, after all why not? why not just embrace whatever's out there and whatever's next?

That was a period of confusion and uncertainty but your music filled me with optimism and strength. I don't have any questions about the song. I just wanted to tell you and our readers about that experience..

Vincent Carr: Wow! - you've never told me that! I'm feeling pretty honoured to have had a positive impact on your life! I'm guessing you're referring to the lyric 'I don't question, I just reach out / for a spark of hope'?

AC: This was a little more of an impressionistic thing but the literal application does fit perfectly when I take a closer look at the lyrics!

Vincent Carr: I was particularly pleased when I wrote those lyrics. I think they came together over a couple of sessions. I'm guessing there's a technical term for lyrics that don't rhyme (though I don't know it offhand), but even when writing it, it felt as if it didn't need rhyme, it just flowed very naturally.

After writing the lyrics, it was actually a good while before I started writing music to them, and after not reading them for a long time, I was pleased to see that I still liked them. Overall, I like the minor verse/major chorus dynamic and how it relates to the lyrics, and especially the dramatic middle section which ties it all together. When I was writing the music it felt very easy and logical, and I think that's down to the strength of the lyrics.

AC: As you said earlier the human brain likes contrast: minor and major, darkness and light, endings and beginnings... and so with that our discussion is beginning to come to an end. Do you have any upcoming projects you'd like to tell people about? Or anything else you'd like to say?

Vincent Carr: Well firstly I'd like to say thank you, for giving me the opportunity to tell people more about what I do.

Work never stops - 'New Paeans', the follow-up to 'Rekindled', was released in November, and is an album I'd encourage people to investigate along with 'Rekindled'. I've already pretty much gathered the material together for the follow-up to 'New Paeans' and work has started on that. There's a new improvised E.P. out now (my third, and in complete contrast to this written music) which I recorded on the afternoon of Christmas Eve in a bit of a blur. Finally, I'd like to think that you and I will find time sooner rather than later to make a second improvising session happen, and continue the journey of the Inferno Weevil that we started last January.

It's a wonderful thing to have something to say musically. I feel truly blessed to have been touched by music like this, long may it continue. Thank you Navel-Gazers for shining a light on my music!

Vincent Carr's SUMIC can be found at as well as Bandcamp and Soundcloud.

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