Adam Bohman: Music and Words

Navel-Gazers #11 is an interview with Adam Bohman who is going to talk to us about Music and Words. This is a very unusual instalment of Navel-Gazers in that the entire interview was carried out through the post! At Adam's request, all of my questions were handwritten, with responses provided back to me on a cassette tape: perhaps the perfect medium for this discussion. Much of 'Music and Words' itself revolves around cassettes, decades-old "Talking Tapes" of Adam puttering around London's remote suburbs and narrating astutely on his encounters with the random, the incidental and the banal. There's also - as advertised - music in the mix here, instrumental sound interspersed with the narrations in ways which are totally unpredictable. I invite you to listen and read, but I can't promise you'll be able to do both at once - 'Music and Words' may have you laughing out loud, or scaling the walls...!

AC: Firstly thanks for suggesting this unusual approach. I am just old enough to remember a time when handwritten letters were commonplace - now the world around us has changed so quickly and so thoroughly that I find it an unexpected challenge. Are you averse to digital communication? What about as an artist, are tapes and other specific technological formats important to you?

Adam Bohman: No, I'm not the slightest bit averse of digital technology or communication - however, the way things have worked out generally over the past few years, as far as recording audio material is concerned (I'll deal with this issue first) I find analog cassette tapes e.g. C60s, C90s, irregular lengths, talking books, commercial pre-recorded tapes etc. to be the ideal medium for my audio recording activities. I just find it the most convenient way to proceed. You can start and stop the tape at any point, and then just turn over to the other side without any problems.

A friend Chris Weaver, who used to work for Resonance Radio, used to send me CDRs from a number of locations abroad where he and his partner Fari Bradley were involved with various art installation projects and many other activities. Thus I became aware of the possibilities of using digital equipment for audio recording. Obviously I enjoyed hearing about the globe-trotting couple's adventures in a variety of exotic locations but it didn't persuade me to give up my handheld mono recorder.

Right from my early teens I always used the cassette medium for both audio and music recording. In other words it's not a conscious rejection of the digital medium, but just generally the way things have turned out in my life. I have CD and DVD players in my flat... a lot of sessions I've been involved with are on CDRs which various people have made up for me. However, I don't have a PC or tablet in my flat, because I feel it would just be one more complication. The flat, which is fairly small, is already far too crowded out with records, tapes, DVDs, books and magazines etc. In addition I don't like the idea of being constantly available to people - that would make life a lot more difficult. It's enough for now that I can check my emails at Catford Library once or twice a week (and send messages out). Alternatively, being more mercenary and practical about the situation.. maybe I miss out on opportunities to make money from the music, artwork etc. so I might be forced to get a PC at some stage.

AC: How about beyond music - how do you look at writing vs typing for instance?

Adam Bohman: I write all my text pieces by hand. Typing them out would present a great deal of problems. I frequently use coloured inks and vary the size of the letters and numbers etc. so handwriting makes all this a lot easier. Also the live sessions using the PCs at the library are far too short for practical purposes, especially when writing a large scale text piece that might involve several performers. There is of course a visual side to cassette tapes and other media. I like to make up individual covers for all my tapes, CDs, CDRs etc. These are usually taken from A4 colour photocopies of self-made collages, e.g. an A4 sheet will provide you with six tapes and/or two CD/CDR covers (A3 sheets are occasionally used).

At present I'm going through something of a technological crisis - both my radio-tape-CD portable players are malfunctioning, my turntable's out of action, as well as the double tape deck, CD players and speakers all in the front room! The double tape deck situation is particularly annoying, because I like to copy audio tapes of people from both here and abroad.

AC: Those double tape decks are great - you must get that fixed!

How did you get started with your "Talking Tapes"? Why bring a tape recorder to Sunbury-on-Thames, on the Christmas holiday? Why press 'record'? And when?

Adam Bohman: To be perfectly honest it was a friend of mine Robert Nutt who still lives in Northampton that influenced me to begin producing audio tapes.. this was way back in 1983/84. I'd moved to my first place away from my parents in Sunbury-on-Thames, a Finsbury park bedsit in the summer of 1983. We were, if I remember correctly, sending each other home-produced music. Then on one of his tapes, a recording of a meeting with his mother and grandma, it was only a small section lasting maybe ten minutes, but it influenced me to explore this whole area more extensively. Come to think of it, I did record some short audio incidents when living with my parents, but it was still Robert's activity that really set the ball rolling. From then on, the majority of tapes I sent him were all audio ones - and he to me. But I didn't begin to do actual tape networking until 1985.

It must be admitted that even after all this time I still find the process of making audio tapes to be very strange, and kind of highly ambiguous, as on the one hand there's of course the freedom to record anything, but still making very specific choices along the way, i.e. I never just let the tape run for long periods of time. Over the past few years, particularly with new contacts, I've been writing short introductions on A5 bits of paper. The procedure here often focuses my attention, and gets things started off. Everything else is basically improvised on the spot, and will include me recording in a wide variety of situations and environments. I just intuitively adapt to things as they move along. As to an overall reason for making these audio tapes, I don't think that there is one, except for enjoying the whole process and hoping the recipient gets something out of it as well. Obviously I have developed my own personal style of recording, i.e. if you gave handheld machines to 50 random people, each of the tapes produced would cover things from very different angles, depending on their own ideas etc.

I often jokingly say that 'my life isn't one long round of cocaine parties and orgies' (I've been to neither!) - in other words I never make self-conscious attempts to do interesting things during the course of a tape - because I believe that everyday life can be just as interesting as anything else. For instance why would a party be necessarily more exciting than an argument between two passengers on a bus? That's just to give one example.. To reiterate in a more general way, I'm constantly making choices about what to record and what not to record, whilst at the same time keeping an overall structure in mind.

AC: I notice in your narrations that you mention other towns near Sunbury-on-Thames - first Ashford and then Staines which is five kilometres from Sunbury. Later you mention venturing further on to Richmond and Twickenham. Are these places you'd walk, or take the bus or what? Tell me about these routes.

Adam Bohman: Actually since 1999, my parents had been living in Chertsey, they moved there from Sunbury-on-Thames. ..and sadly my mother died in 2016, and so at present it's my father and my brother Jonathan residing at Chertsey. Jonathan has been there for about two and a half years. Before this, he lived in London for quite a long time. As a general rule I visit the house in Chertsey about once every two months, travelling from Waterloo on Friday afternoon, then returning to London on Sunday, either in the afternoon or evening. It's become something of a tradition over the years during these trips to visit nearby towns on Saturday morning, usually getting a lift from Jonathan in the car. I make my own way back to Chertsey by train. More often than not I'll be recording an audio tape for someone, so I'll be describing the environment, visiting charity shops and maybe even having a snack in a high street cafe, or whatever. On some occasions I've visited a couple of towns before returning. These are all places in the immediate Surrey/Middlesex area, and they're only a few miles away from each other. They would include Ashford, Staines, Shepperton, Woking, Feltham, Kingston etc. Occasionally I've gone further afield to places like Reading in Berkshire.

Changing the subject slightly, I've made tapes specifically of visits to various towns and maybe a few cities. These have all been with me starting out from my flat in London. A recent example would be two C60s in which I visited stops along various London underground lines. This was largely made possible because of receiving a 60+ Freedom Card in 2019 - without this card I would have been burning serious holes in my pockets.

AC: On White Sauce... and Red Mullet... you refer to your collage work which jumped out at me since this music is also a sound collage. Could you tell us about the relationship between images and sound in your world? Which came first for you, visual collage or sound recording? Are the forms and processes similar to you?

Adam Bohman: It's difficult to say whether there's a direct link in my music/text activities and the making of collages. To be honest I can't remember when I first started making collages as opposed to more conventional drawings or paintings etc. In fact Jonathan recently found quite a lot of this latter material in our garage at Chertsey, mostly produced in the 1970s. Thinking about it again, I suppose there are quite a few parallels because my collages involve a wide variety of items being drawn together and then altered in various ways, using pencils, biros, crayons, pastels, charcoal, upraised surfaces etc. The items would include photos and illustrations from magazines, different types of paper, actual photos, technical diagrams, playing cards, knitting patterns, supermarket magazines etc.

I suppose this could relate to what I call "pause pieces". This kind of piece is virtually impossible to produce now because of the aforementioned technological crisis. The pieces involve recording a wide variety of sound textures that might include prepared strings, cardboard, environmental sounds, metal pipes, bowed objects, radio static etc., then processing them using fairly primitive equipment i.e. recording back and forth, sometimes putting tinfoil cake cups in the speakers of old-style mono cassette recorders. The final stage here would be to join these sounds together using the pause switch, usually on a tape deck. Obviously the pause switch could be used along the way in building up the actual sound textures. Sometimes more than one sound texture could be mixed together in layers during this formative stage. You can hear several examples of what I'm talking about on the 'Music and Words' album. I suppose the basic similarity between the art and music/text activity is the mixture between an intuitive response to things and perhaps more formal approaches.

AC: Another question on 'Red Mullet...', your narration mentions that you are listening to some cassettes which were sent to you by a guy named Thomas Sutter in Missouri. Who is or was Thomas Sutter?

Adam Bohman: Thomas Sutter is a musician/academic living and working in St. Louis, Missouri USA. I used to exchange tapes with him on a regular basis, but for no particular reason we lost contact with each other. This is going back a long time, maybe 10 or 15 years. More recently the artist/violinist Kaffe Matthews stayed around his house during a festival. It's interesting you reminding me about Tom, maybe it would be a good idea to get back in contact.

AC: Could you elaborate on this practice of tape exchanges and correspondences? Does it continue today? I see an obvious similarity to how we are handling this interview!

Adam Bohman: Since the mid-1980s I've been involved in the tape networking scene. Basically this involves sending home-tapers material, and if they like it they would hopefully send you something back. No money ever changed hands. Mostly this is improvised/experimental music, but theoretically it could have been anything, and I'm speaking mainly in the past tense because if this scene still exists it's obviously morphed into digital media as well. Just one more point in relation to your first question, basically my tapes fall into two categories: 1) tapes which are usually C60s or C90s where I'm referring to a particular person - the recipient, and 2) recordings covering specific events e.g. an allocated period of time such as Christmas, Easter or a musical trip (here or abroad), a week or two in the diary where the exact date's noted, etc. Here I would hang on to the master tape for copying, and not refer to any individual. Over the years, very few contacts have not actually reciprocated.. of course in addition, I'll send contacts recordings - CDs and LPs of mostly improvised and modern composed music. One example here is an old friend Al Margolis from Chester, New York State (Pogus Productions, 'Sound of Pig' Tapes). Over the years I've sent him a load of contemporary music and he's done the same for me... (as well as my own audio tapes). For instance several years ago, he sent me four CDs of a five-hour string quartet by Morton Feldman, and this was very much appreciated.

For a variety of reasons, not least the availability of digital equipment to instantly send and receive music/visuals etc., there is no real networking 'scene' existing anymore. I'm still in contact with Al Margolis, Dan Susnara in Chicago, Michael Jackson in Nevada, Gen Ken Montgomery in New York City, and maybe a few more including those in the UK. Personally I've always enjoyed making up the packages and sending them off by mail, however the exorbitant postal charges mean I can't really do this very often. Sending and receiving over the internet wouldn't give me the same 'buzz' if I could put it that way.. Most of my packages are accompanied by a letter with posters, leaflets, fast food menus etc., basically anything that I hope the recipient will find of interest. Interestingly there used to me a whole sub-scene of mail art, but I was never actually a part of that.

AC: One thing I really like about this album is that not only are the narrations themselves funny - truly laugh-out-loud funny - but there's also this Python-esque comic timing to the editing of the narrations. And then there are the fluctuations in pitch and speed, funny too. Does it make you laugh, when you listen back? How improvisational is the process and do you ever get results which take you by surprise?

Adam Bohman: I am going to level with you here Andrew because honesty is always the best policy. It would be a great temptation to make something up but I'm not going to do so! The fluctuations in pitch and speed and other technical difficulties are due to me using a handheld recorder that has gone severely wrong. This is a thing that frequently happens with me. I suppose you could call it an occupational hazard! Constantly using the stop, play and pause switches can put a great strain on the mechanics and eventually render the machine useless! However my friend Clive Graham made specific edits from an already-existing C90 that covered the relevant Christmas period. Obviously there's always my own 'real-time' editing as well; a sort of battle with the technical hitches I was up against. But yes you're right, it comes over as being very funny.

AC: Perhaps the most memorable passage on 'Music and Words' is, for me Smetana where you read from the menu of a Ukrainian restaurant in Richmond. There's a point where your recitation of the word 'pelmeni' corresponds to a pitch-fluctuation on the cassette... in that moment it's as though the absurdity and hilarity of the entire listening experience has been cranked up to a fever pitch. It's also where I notice that much of the narration has been about food. Why all the food?

Adam Bohman: On the subject of food I have a few important comments to make. The interest in food relates a great deal to the construction of various text pieces. Fast-food menus for instance can be cut out and added to written or printed words from other sources, or you can copy out sections from the text where appropriate. As far as audio tapes are concerned, I often tell the recipients what I'm having for breakfast, evening meals and various snacks during the course of the day. This would mainly be in my flat. In addition outside in the environment I'm reading the menus from cafes, restaurants and other eating places, wherever I happen to be at the time.

It should be noted that the recipients of these recordings also have to endure the flushing of eating-place toilets, as well as a description of the particular cubicle's decor and other features. I definitely don't go into any more personal details! I suppose a very obvious point needs to be made: eating is one of my favourite activities so naturally it appears a great deal in all aspects of my work.

AC: I've yet to ask you about the instrumental tracks such as Cinders and Sweepings which are a showcase for your found objects like those depicted on the cover. Then there are the other pieces such as In Memoriam E. Power Biggs and Thrice Nightly, where I'm not sure what we're hearing! I like the way this provides a counterbalance to the talking.

Adam Bohman: 'Cinders' uses mainly bowed strings, other metallic sounds and percussive ones in several layers. This is essentially a drone piece, but with some rougher elements thrown in.

'Sweepings' if I can remember correctly has me running a light bulb over the rungs of a metal record rack, as well as there being other metal sounds present. These kind of pieces were recorded around Clive Graham's flat in Finsbury Park, because he obviously had multi-track digital equipment.

'In Memoriam E. Power Biggs' was recorded at the old Vortex site in the middle of Stoke Newington, several years before they moved to their current location at Gillette Square in Dalston. I recorded the backing track with a friend Michael Prime, around his then-house in Orpington. It used slightly processed organ sounds from various LPs by a variety of different organists. Incidentally E. Power Biggs was a major classical soloist who died relatively young in the 1970s. He had a long-term contract with CBS. One example of this was a series called E. Power Biggs Plays the Historic Organs of Europe - it covered a large number of LPs produced over several years. Ironically, I used only one sample of him in the piece. Additional "live" organ sounds were provided by Michael, playing Hammond organ. Actually, live at the venue I was using a toy piano and a mono cassette recorder containing yet more organ samples. As you'll hear, the machine was on play and pause, and I kept on releasing the pause switch.

'Thrice Nightly' uses various sounds joined by use of the pause switch. As previously mentioned, the textures were built up and altered using analog equipment. The sounds include an air raid siren from a BBC sound effects record, an eraser rubbed on a wood surface, and a toy organ in the shape of a hamburger (alas long since lost).

AC: How did you get started making sound with coils, springs, combs, lightbulbs and all the other paraphernalia? Did it begin as a musical aspiration? or as an interest in the material objects? influence or inspiration from anyone else in your life?

Adam Bohman: It's very difficult to say when I started playing the prepared strings and objects but it certainly goes all the way back to the mid-1970s. I constructed homemade stringed instruments and then progressed to a cheap Chinese violin, although I've always used both conventional strings and homemade ones, sometimes even in the same live performance. I also have a balalaika and mandolin in the flat. As far as the violin is concerned, I actually began by playing it prepared under my chin.. but then it eventually seemed more sensible and practical, as well as being far less painful, to have it flat on a surface surrounded by the appropriate objects. If they're played, many of these objects - metal, wood, glass, plastic, tiles etc. - are stuck down with Blu-Tack.

A major influence early on was Henry Cow guitarist Fred Frith. In 1974 he did a solo set for John Peel's programme on Radio One. As far as I'm aware this has never appeared on any LP or CD. Anyway, the Peel session seemed to set me off in the right direction. I later heard other improvised/experimental guitarists and noisemakers. I found Keith Rowe particularly interesting. I would describe my overall approach as amplified acoustic rather than electronic. The only effects I use come from the contact mics and a volume pedal.

Over the years I've done several recordings with friends in which various effects have been put on. However, I would never do this live, solo or in a group etc. I'll always prefer just the amplified acoustic sounds. Finally, I think that the object playing was just a natural extension to the prepared string instruments.

AC: There's another instrumental piece I wanted to ask about called Silvaner. At first I figured these were just some singing bowls or glasses of water but the closer I listen I can't imagine what the source of the sound is! It's almost as though you're bowing something, but then what is it, and how are there so many pitches at once? Whatever it is, is there overdubbing?

Adam Bohman: 'Silvaner' consists of just multi-tracked wine glasses. These were played by either running a dampened finger around the rim of the glass or using a violin bow. Wine glasses are one of my favourite sound sources because they can be mixed easily with other more continuous sounds, or occasionally very abrasive ones. As the Bohman Brothers for instance we've employed glasses many times in backing tracks for live performances. In fact several of these have involved scraping the glass with various types of screw thread and hacksaw blades etc. Sometimes strings can be attached for greater resonance. Giant decorative wine glasses that are often found in charity shops can be played with equal effectiveness, often producing very low-pitched notes.

AC: 'Music and Words' blurs reality and art in a very unique way. I can't think of any other work which provides such a surreal and unforgettable glimpse into the everyday life of the artist. I suppose what I'm still left wanting to ask you is where does it all come from? You recall my asking earlier, 'why press record?' - in fact, why do any of this? What motivates it? Where does your creativity come from and why does it assume these forms?

Adam Bohman: Well, all I can say is that I just enjoy creating something, whether it be audio, music, text, visual material or anything else that may come along. I can never imagine not being involved in these kind of activities. Being more specific and talking about audio material there are some audio tapes that haven't really worked out, and it's a good idea never to be put off when this happens. Occasionally I realise that things are going wrong early on, and if this occurs you can just stop recording. It doesn't help to be preoccupied with other things going on in your life too much - I find that you have to be relatively free of those concerns to continue recording.. although having said that, what's "good" in this context can be highly subjective. Sometimes I'll change my mind after hearing a tape more than once through.

I suppose the same considerations go for the music, although it's a very different context. For example there will always be new ways to set up the prepared strings and objects. I often write down individual preparations in a notebook so when practising I can explore many of the sounds that become available. As for text pieces, there is never a lack of available material - fast-food menus, books, magazines, films, extracts from TV and radio programmes, etc.

As previously mentioned, you just have to carry on. All these activities are so much part of my life that I can't possibly imagine not doing any of it.

AC: Lastly I'm sure our readers would like to know how you have coped in the lockdown period, and whether you've been working on anything. Has this been a creative time for you?

Adam Bohman: The lockdown period hasn't affected me too badly overall, although having said that I'm just beginning to get frustrated over it carrying on such a long time. A lot of the activities I described earlier on, particularly the production of text pieces, practicing instruments and indeed recording audio tapes are very solitary procedures, so I've been able to do much more of this kind of thing without any interruptions.

Since July when the lockdown eased a bit, I've visited my father and Jonathan in Chertsey on two occasions. In fact at the moment I'm searching out old pre-2000 tapes for Jonathan, because he wants to archive this material and perhaps use certain sections for future performances and recordings. These would mostly be music recordings.

Because of the isolation over this period I've been able to make a great deal of audio tapes for various contacts, including the aforementioned Al Margolis and Gen Ken Montgomery as well as various people in the UK. All these days in the flat have meant that several large scale text pieces have been put together. One of these, for six performers, includes extracts from a double BBC tape from 1990 concerning rugby unions, Stockholm bus timetables, and text from a 1950s British sci-fi magazine. Lastly there have been a number of virtual broadcasts and/or concerts with other performers. Typically, some have involved me mailing tapes containing sounds and text to collaborators that have digital equipment and can thus mix the material etc. So, summing things up, the lockdown for me has been an unusually creative period.

Anyway Andrew, thanks very much for interviewing me. I'll finish at that.

AC: Well Adam I can say without hesitation you are the ultimate Navel-Gazer! which coming from me is the highest compliment, that is to say you are a true artist. It's been a unique privilege to talk to you - all the best.

Adam's work can be found in a number of locations, including but not limited to: BandcampDiscogsCafe OtoThe Wire, and The Horse Improvised Music Club.

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