Sharon Gal: The Garden Of Earthly Delights

Navel-Gazers #15 is an interview with Sharon Gal who is going to talk to us about The Garden Of Earthly Delights. This is one of those albums that reminds me what's so fascinating and special about the medium of sound recording, as it's truly a sound-world all of its own, constructed immaculately from selective renderings of glass, bells, birds, the great outdoors and Sharon's own voice. In contrast to many of my favourite recordings this is not one which lurks in the shadows. The rich, bright palette of sounds here is as clear as crystal. And yet mystery abounds on 'The Garden Of Earthly Delights'. With each repeated listen I seem to drift off to some unidentifiable netherworld which the sounds have conjured up... perhaps it's the "imaginary landscape" from Sharon's description. As for Sharon herself, she's quite the legend, a multidisciplinary artist active on the London scene since the 80s, and co-founder of Resonance FM. Lots to talk about - I hardly know where to begin!

AC: I'm excited to talk to you! Looking through your portfolio you're such a prolific artist and such an accomplished person generally. Even in that context, "The Garden Of Earthly Delights" strikes me as a work of a special significance and I sensed that before I even started listening just by the title, the track listing, the cover art.. there's some kind of gravitas to this which got my attention on the very first encounter. Am I reading too much into it? How would you say this album fits into your life and your overall body of work?

Sharon Gal: Glad you were drawn into the garden Andrew and thank you for setting up this conversation.

To release, publish, or exhibit a work publicly is an act of faith. It transforms the work, setting it free to reach out, resonate and find its place in the world. It lives on through new interactions, readings and interpretations.

'The Garden Of Earthly Delights' is the closest I ever got to a concept album. 
Here, as in many other recordings, the composition is a form of assemblage, mixing different elements and materials: field recordings, found recordings, voice, glass, bells and electronics. However, unlike other albums, there is a central theme. There are ideas and intentions which all the tracks focus on and respond to.
I wanted to expand the notion of what a voice is and bring together different voices - human and non-human. I wanted to highlight that we humans are animals, sharing the world with other species and non-human beings. The garden is a powerful metaphor and a symbol. It is a site of interaction and coexistence, and this album invites meditations about hierarchies and our relation to the natural world.

My body of work has several strands. Recording and releasing albums is one, another is free improvisation and live performance. I work solo and in participation with others, and collaboration, interaction and exchange are integral principles, embedded deep within my practice. I also direct participatory compositions for large groups of mixed-ability players/performers.

AC: I wonder if we would attribute to "non-human beings" an even broader definition here, than might be immediately apparent to our readers. Part of what really resonates with me whenever I listen to this music are actually the voices of inanimate objects. I'm thinking of the glass sounds for example, on pieces like Forest Song. So I'm curious with that, just practically speaking, how you derive the sounds from the glass, but you've also got me wondering on a deeper level how it is you think of those sounds? Are they an extension of your own voice or are they chiming in like the birds, with a voice of their own? Has everything out there got a voice of some kind we can tune into?

Sharon Gal: The idea that everything has its own voice is a powerful one. It suggests agency and presence and a different set of relationships between things. It highlights the great number of strategies, possibilities and expressions by which life manifests, calling for further reflections on the terms being and becoming.

Life unfolds in time. It is revealed in frequencies, energy and dynamics. There are different rhythms, tempos and scales. Sometimes what is seemingly lifeless can be animated and activated. Thinking of life and time offers a wider perspective. I step outside the confines of my human existence to imagine other realities: the experience of a shorter/ longer lifespan, plants, animals and even slow life: minerals and rocks - the life of a mountain, the life of a planet.

I like playing with time, it is a form of sorcery; stretching and shortening the recordings, juxtaposing different timescales, expanding a sound to discover and reveal a new space and new events. In this emerging and mysterious realm, my own voice fragments and mutates, and the sound of glass acquires a human-like quality, a voice that contains its original otherness. I enjoy this ambivalence, when boundaries are diffused.

AC: I'd like to delve further into this topic of time as it's really got my imagination going. So when you're working with this assemblage approach on a recording such as 'The Garden Of Earthly Delights', is that a special way of working with time and a special opportunity for time-"sorcery"? Just by the fact that you can deliberate over a recording, let it sit, and also manipulate time and deconstruct the sounds, to see what's inside as you described? Generally speaking, when do you turn to recording as an alternative to other forms? When do you think, in terms of an idea - that's got to be a recording rather than a performance or an installation or whatever? What's the role and the significance of this medium to you?

Sharon Gal: While I embrace all these forms, each form creates a different space to engage with the work. Free improvisation and live performances are direct and immediate. These are existential situations, highlighting the moment and the process of becoming. They focus on emergence, presence, and letting go; on expressions which are embodied, physical and contain movement. It is a collective process, a composition created in real time, usually with other musicians and performers. It is a form of collaboration with the performance space, its architecture and acoustics. There is significance to the audience who shares the space - we are there together, experiencing the piece as it unveils in time.

The realm of recording is more intimate and private; a space where I mostly work alone.
I record at home and outdoors. It is a comtemplative process which involves collecting the material and constructing the work, by bringing it together over time.
While I use improvisation to record individual tracks, the composition is a multi-track work which grows and develops organically, as I experiment and lay out different tracks. I consider the audience, where the listeners are, and how they are going to experience the piece. We are in different places, listening and experiencing the sound through various hi-fi systems and devices. This affects the nature of the music in relation to volume, dynamics and gestures.

For me the live performance is a unique event taking place in real time. I like its ephemeral quality. It exists, for a short while, like a burst of energy that cuts through the fabric of life and dissolves. It then transforms, to live on as a memory. The recordings are more like a host: a place to revisit, to get to know, to immerse in and delve deeper into, a creation to be explored, a world which reveals itself over time.

The way things manifest is organic. I don't decide about the shape of things in advance. Opportunities present themselves: invitations to perform, exhibit or release my work are the trigger whch informs my approach and methods of creating the work.

AC: Just on that last point, you distinguished earlier between a composition which may utilise improvisation and similar techniques, from live improvisation more generally. And yet nothing about a composition is necessarily planned or decided at all in advance. In the case of this album, could you talk me through the moment or moments where the collected materials began to coalesce into a composition, with a title, a concept, a shape, and so on?

Sharon Gal: Just to clarify: there are decisions involved in my free improvisation peformances as well as in regard to the process of composing new pieces. While the first only involves prior decisions about the performance space and my set up - what instruments and other material I'd like to include for each specific performance - the piece itself is created in real time, in the moment and mostly in collaboration with others. There is no prior discussion or consideration about what the piece and the music will be like.

The composing process is different. It takes time and develops in a cyclic kind of way.
There is prior consideration regarding the instrumentation and the nature of the material I would like to include, as well as planning in regards to the sound world I wish to explore and focus on, and further examination of the different elements and the way they are brought together. The process involves trying things out, juxtaposing, multi-tracking and overdubbing. Some things work out, others less so, and decisions are constantly being made as I listen back, review and reflect.

'The Garden Of Earthly Delights' started out as an idea of working with human and non-human voices and a wish to create a unique space, where different species and voices are brought together in a fantastic menagerie. The notion of the garden was present from the start. I was using recordings from my own garden, mixing it with sounds of non-native birds, and that led me to the title. I love the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch. They are rich with symbolism, wild imagination and fantastic creatures, so the title of his famous tryptych came to mind very early in the process. As I was recording and composing the work I studied the painting again and noticed that in the "Hell" panel there was a crushed figure with musical notation inscribed on his/hers bottom.
Digging a little deeper, I found out that an Oklahoma college student named Amelia has transcribed it into modern notation and posted a recording of it to her Tumblr. There are now other versions of this notation and the music became known as the 500 years old butt song from Hell. I decided to incorporate it as part of the work and recorded my own version. It is the last track on the CD.

AC: That's an appropriate place for it! So how did you adapt that notation for the recording? Is it in the melodies being sung, or other aspects of the composition? Did you use the transcription from the Oklahoma college student, or one of the other versions, or produce your own?

Sharon Gal: I used the transcription of Amelia the college student. The melody is short and melancholic. The track, In The Garden Of Earthly Delights, starts with sounds of birds from my garden, the song fades in at around 5 minutes and the melody, with changing harmonies, repeats with keyboard and vocals.

AC: I love that final track and it seems to be the centrepiece. Your reference to Bosch reminds me that you also create visual collages (your work can be found here) - to me Bosch is sort of a proto-collage artist, not in terms of technique but composition, the way he assembles a weird tableau out of all these disparate figures. I also do visual collage and I've always experienced multi-track recroding as a very similar process but when I spoke to Adam Bohman about this, he seemed almost unconscious of that connection before pondering it further. When you talk about juxtaposing, multi tracking and overdubbing are you "visualising" the assemblage of materials on some level similar to a visual collage? Are the sounds, in some way, visible?

Sharon Gal: While I use assemblage and collage technique for visual and audio work and the process is quite similar, my main focus when I'm recording and sounding is listening.

Sounds are not visible to me in the way you suggest, however I do respond to images and there is a powerful resonance, particularly with colour, which I feel and relate to. These vibrating frequencies move me beyond just looking/seeing. I don't visualise the sound material, but with some of the work/recordings I have a kind of vision of the work and world I'm creating. Most often it is undefined and is more like a sense or a feeling that guides me on, or a specific idea I am interested in exploring.

AC: The reason I ask is that as listener, this particular album conjures up a lot of imagery for me!

I wanted to come back to the question of what methods you use to get sounds out of glass? There are other sounds here that are mysterious too: there's a sort of "squeaky" voice on Speak and Spells, and a reminiscent squeakiness on Forest Song.. on Three and "In The Garden..." there are voices of what are obviously birds but I'm curious about these birds. Tell me about them!

Sharon Gal: Happy to know the music conjures up a lot of imagery, Andrew. I think it is evocative and mysterious. I did not set out to make it so, but the process and the subject matter gave rise to this quality of otherness and otherworldliness. The sound world is rich and at times ambiguous. As a listener you are not sure about some of the sounds: what they are, their origin, or how they were created. This affects the listening and expands the potential of experiencing the work, its interpretation and meanings.

I played the glass, a very large glass goblet, by rubbing my fingers along its rim in a cyclic, continuous motion, generating tones by means of friction. The other voice on 'Speak and Spells' is a very talkative Starling. 'Forest Song' brings together human voices, howler monkeys, frogs and magpies. There are other birds' sounds in other tracks: budgies, crows, blackbirds, parrots, tits and wrens. Some of these were left untouched; some were processed and manipulated in various ways.

AC: Before we start to wrap up here: I understand that a couple of years ago there was a "launch event" at Cafe Oto accompanying this release, but I wasn't there! So what did this consist of - did you attempt some kind of performance related to the material, or did you do something totally different? And how did you decide on an approach?

Sharon Gal: Yes, there was a launch to celebrate the release of the CD. It was part of EnCOUnTErs, a series of events, talks and presentations curated by Helen Frosi / SoundFjord. The concert, which was recorded by the BBC, focused on artists working with birdsongs and included live performances from Lee PattersonKate Carr and myself.

My performance included video projection and music from the CD with additional sounds, live vocals, electronics, bells and objects. I wanted to introduce the album, with the original tracks acting as the core of the performance, while also opening out the recorded material and presenting a different version.

AC: I'm sorry to have missed that. Looks like it was just before I moved to London.

So what's next for you? I noticed there's a new recording up on your Bandcamp, which I really enjoyed. Any big projects on the horizon? How prohibitive - or productive - has the corona era been for you?

Sharon Gal: For the past 6 months I have been developing a new work, Etudes, a collection of experimental scores and propositions, presented as a deck of 78 cards with colour on one side and text on the other. This project is supported by Sound and Music and Unpredictable Series, and will be lauched in February 2021.

There is a new CD of my trio with David Toop and John Butcher, which will be released by SHRIKE Records in early 2021. I am also recording music for a new solo release.

So 2020 has been both productive and prohibitive. My live performance practice was severely impacted with cancellations and postponements of gigs and collaborations, but I was still able to create new work and channel creative energy towards online projects and streaming. I focused on video work, online collaborations and, in particular, the creation of Etudes, which expands on my previous experience as performer, improviser and composer, and offers a new resource for others to experience and engage with.

AC: The 'Etudes' project sounds very cool, and of course I will look forward to hearing the new recordings.

Thanks so much for talking to me.

Sharon Gal: Thank you. Andrew.

Sharon can be found at her website,

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