What's Inside? - Recording and Isolation

Sometime in 2002, in the olden days before Bandcamp and GarageBand and YouTube, on Long Island, New York I encountered a phenomenon which turned me into a true believer. That is to say I first understood what it meant to be an artist for life: you know, a Navel-Gazer.

I'd just attempted home-recording for the first time, over a period of several weeks preceding the incident. I was using a Tascam 8-Track Portastudio borrowed from a guy named Jeff Weir, at "the Maddhaus" which was this place in Philadelphia where I lived with some friends. The cellar of the Maddhaus - with its cavernous ambience - became the home for all my musical instruments along with anything else that made a sound: kitchenware, bicycle horns, clock radios, big vats of water... nothing too imaginative although it seemed so to me at the time.

At some point during this period I travelled up to Long Island to visit my family, where I happened to take along one-and-a-half cassette tapes full of this "material". (I wasn't even sure I could call it music!) Mom and Dad had this really nice stereo with surround-sound speakers and one afternoon when everyone was out, in a flash of nerdy rebellion I decided to pop in one of the cassettes to hear my new creation at a very high volume.

What I didn't realise - and some of you Navel-Gazers are already ahead of me here - is that a cassette recorded on the Portastudio plays back very differently on a normal cassette player: it will play back at half the speed, backwards.

The sound was extraordinary. I'd never heard anything like it. It was just as Sylvia Hallett described here on Navel-Gazers: 

"...the reverb of the recorded space can 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..."

I sat there for an eternity, lost in the howling caterwauls of this "tape-thing" which I'd created myself originally but which seemed to have a voice of its own. With everything elongated and amplified, it was almost like being taken inside the sounds where I was able to make a more meaningful discovery.

It was then I realised that creativity is not merely a thing one "does", with total autonomy. Creation is actually a thing one taps into, a thing to be revealed.

This knowledge of that which is always there implicitly, ripe for discovery whereever one cares to look, is something which has sustained me over many years to follow, and with which many artists can identify. It's this consolation which inspires many an artist to carry on creating through thick and thin, especially through circumstances of physical or social solitude or confinement.

It can seem that having creativity on tap confers the artist with an immunity to all the usual "existential" afflictions: boredom, laziness, loneliness, meaninglessness, hopelessness, desperation, desolation, isolation, despair.

...up to a point.

In the first instalment of Navel-Gazers, Martin Clarke talked to me about the limitations of acousmatic composition, not as a form of expression but as a source of fulfilment:

"It's quite a solitary practice 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 that and a social aspect which I really enjoy."

...obviously! not only to most musicians but to anyone with even a casual notion of what music is all about, being surrounded by other musicians is essential. And yet the significance of this is something which had almost totally escaped me until just a couple of years ago, when I began doing free improvisation in London.

In March, with the advent of "social distancing" and "self-isolation" and "lockdowns", I knew - as an artist at least - exactly how to cope: tap into that lifeline, fall back into old habits and carry on creating. If anyone knew how to forge ahead in a state of stubborn isolation, it was me! but what I also knew - which I'd only just learned - is that to carry on this way indefinitely can only lead to a dead-end.

It's been interesting to follow the reaction from other artists, especially the other Navel-Gazers whose work I've learned all about in this series. Recording artists such as Andy and Vince for example appear to be more or less in their element in terms of output in the usual formats, minus the gigs.

Both Petero & Ed on the other hand, appear to have adjusted their output. Petero released an unusual album of solo piano - recommended! - and seems to pop up on 'Instagram Live' sometimes playing sax. Ed meanwhile could be seen bellowing through the megaphone on a street corner somewhere in Tottenham last week (posted to YouTube). It's been exciting to follow. I can't help thinking these two would both prefer to be back out in Regents Park amidst all the hustle and bustle of "everyday life" but I can't exactly speak for either of them!

Sylvia's new release Tree Time perhaps resonates best with my own experience of creativity in lockdown. The premise here is that right in one's immediate environs at home, undiscovered sounds are lurking if you know where to listen. In this case, a canopy of Russian Vine which is creeping over from the derelict garden next door. Sylvia of course, thinks to bow the vines in order to elicit low, creaky tonalities from the depths of the wood.

Here in my flat I've been uncovering melodic properties of my heated towel rail, and a whole infinitude of sounds within my collection of metal objects which are arranged here like a shrine to the new motionless, cumbersome way of the world.

This is Navel-Gazing: venturing deep into one's subject, one's environment, one's self, one's very origin, in order to apprehend 'what's inside'. Is it important? Yes - as I said, I'm a true believer. Is it an entire way of life? Well... it probably shouldn't be.

Clinical psychology is instructive on this: to be totally content as an artist in isolation is to exist in a state remarkably near to what clinicians call SPD (schizoid personality disorder). SPD is characterised by a combination of apathy, detachment, asexuality, lack of interest in social relationships, the feeling of being an "observer" rather than a participant in life, and the possession of a "rich and elaborate but exclusively internal fantasy world". ...any one of which sounds manageable on its own but it's not hard to see how the convergence of it all could be debilitating. ...not only to one's general well-being but ultimately, even to the art itself it's thought to serve.

Some of the more thoughtful voices from the peanut gallery have called out a useful distinction between "social" distancing and "physical" distancing which is highly applicable to the arts. Remote collaborations are now commonplace meaning artists are not all left to flounder in the SPD-ish vortex of full-time Navel-Gazing.

As for the forms of remote collaboration among musicians, two mainstays of free improvisation here in London are illustrative of the trends at large. Only a week into the lockdown, London Improvisation Workshop made a virtually seamless transition to online video conferences which are run in a way not too dissimilar to the usual workshop. London Improvisers Orchestra on the other hand, has a different but equally contemporary approach with a series of file-sharing projects, such as Sustaining the Music ...sustaining it that is until large gatherings - the whole reason behind the orchestra's existence - can safely be resumed.

What we're starting to see more recently however - particularly with events now unfolding in America - is that even "physical" distancing is not a cat that can reliably be kept in the bag. As to whether people should be gathering in massive droves - this week or next, in this country or that, for this reason or that reason - I'll leave you armchair epidemiologists to debate. What's more objectively clear is that they will. People will congregate; they will gather. It is human nature and if it's truly a mortal threat then this is an extraordinary quandary for our civilisation.

So it is with artists. Artists need other artists. We need to travel in the same circles and breathe the same air. We need to have conversations at the pub like the one I had with Martin which inspired me to start Navel-Gazers. The truth is that we are called to be not only Navel-Gazers but also Star-Gazers, to venture outside ourselves and beyond our individual origins in order that our creative purpose and vision may be fulfilled.


You're probably wondering what happened to the Maddhaus tapes. I'm glad you asked! because the story doesn't end there. I listened to that entire cassette, and it was quite a long listen since the playback was at half the speed. But when I opened the player, to my horror and dismay the tape was destroyed, mangled and sundered to shreds like a big vat of linguini with clams. I'd never hear those sounds again in either their new, mutated "thing"-form or their original incarnation.

It was devastating... but here is the best part of the story and the part I want you to remember. I immediately began to create more. Using anything and everything available at the house: a handheld tape recorder, a warped acoustic guitar with three strings, a baby-grand piano which was severely out of tune, some pots and pans, an old box of home recordings and the good old-fashioned human voice... There was a will that day, and so there was a way. This music combined with the surviving Maddhaus recordings (remember, there were one and a half cassettes) became my first album. I've never looked back.

Last week scrolling through Facebook I happened upon this quote from the poet Maya Angelou:

"You can't use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have."

Indeed what wisdom. Creativity, this affirms, is a paradox. The equipment may malfunction, civilisation may falter, the universe may hurtle inevitably into disorder and entropy and oblivion yet somehow here and now, the great wellspring of creation is right at our fingertips.

For all the Navel-Gazers and the Star-Gazers, for the loud and the proud and the deaf and the blind and the crass and the kind and the poorly aligned... yes, creativity is here for us all. "But" nothing. Go and partake. May it be our guiding light.

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