Mark Vernon: Time Deferred

Navel-Gazers #34 is an interview with Mark Vernon who is going to talk to us about Time Deferred. This is a recent release on Gagarin Records from an artist who’s probably as adventurous a listener as I am. He’s a prolific radio producer, one of the leading purveyors of the radio-art form and the curator of Radiophrenia which is an annual 300+ hour long broadcast showcasing radio-art curiosities from all over the globe. As a recording artist in his own right, Mark’s usual focus is the salvaging of lost sounds and obsolete technologies, and what really strikes me on ‘Time Deferred’ is the way these materials are brought to life. There’s such a natural musicality to the way the sounds emerge here that I almost forget I’m not listening to a conventional piece of music with instrumental arrangements and melodies and rhythms… some other compositional technique is afoot in this “concrète noir” and it reels me right in. The mood of this stuff - which I’d describe as somewhere between deathly somber, and sardonically subtle - imparts a certain spooky comfort to me. I’ve checked out most of Mark’s music and I have to say this is probably my favourite, an album I could imagine revisiting again and again, especially in the winter months when the light is dim.

AC: Thanks for joining me here. Tell us a little bit about yourself and the origins of your work - did you start out with music or do you come from a more technical background with the broadcasting?

Mark Vernon: Hi Andrew, It’s a pleasure – and thanks for the invitation.

The answer to your question is neither really.

It seems like a long time ago now, but I’m originally from a visual arts background. I studied Fine Art at undergrad and Masters level. In the past I worked a lot with found objects, taxonomy and systems of classification. To begin working with found recordings seemed like a natural extension of this approach – tapes just happened to be amongst the numerous other items I stumbled upon in flea markets and charity shops that I requisitioned as materials for my work. In particular I sought out voice recordings, field recordings, audio letters, answerphone messages, domestic sounds – little slices of life – windows into the existence of other people that I would never meet and in some cases who may no longer have been alive, even. At the time some of these recordings were used in sound installations in a rather simplistic and unsophisticated manner but it was the start of something - and a fascination that has lasted. My earliest ‘compositions’ were attempts to create some sort of backdrop or framework to situate these lost voices within. Mundane micro-dramas of a sort.

I had no formal training in music or broadcasting – just what I picked up from friends along the way or taught myself by following the path of my own curiosity. From a technical point of view I’ve never been interested in technology for technology’s sake and only really learn the bare minimum I need to achieve what I want to do.

I was always drawn to music that used samples or exterior non-musical sounds within it – sounds outside the conventional palette of musical instruments.

AC: Which technologies or techniques have you ended up learning more about, for art’s sake?

Mark Vernon: I began experimenting at home with cassette tapes – creating collages by dubbing sounds from one tape on to another tape. A friend then lent me his old four-track recorder – a Yamaha MT100 Portastudio. This opened up a whole new world of possibilities of how to arrange and manipulate sounds. Simple discoveries like switching the tape over to make backwards recordings, pitch shifting or pitch bending sounds and then re-recording them, discovering phasing by recording the same thing twice on to 2 different tracks just slightly out of time with one another and creating feedback accidentally - but then learning how to use these accidents as deliberate effects. I would make simple musical rhythms built up from playing kitchen utensils and whatever else was to hand, or make musical loops using the ‘A-B’ function on a CD player and play along to them. It was a period of experimentation and discovery.

I then bought one of the first portable mini-disc recorders on the market. This again expanded my repertoire, allowing me to bring in sounds I’d recorded from outside, sounds of everyday life, location field recordings. The mini disc also had a handy repeat function so by splitting tracks at the right point you could effectively cut loops to use as the basis of musical compositions. These simple beginnings were the basis of my musical education and where my fascination with sound really took over. Although it was a very basic setup I found I was able to create sounds that I wanted to listen to. Everything from this stage onwards is just refinement of technique and improvements in the equipment I could afford to buy.

Applying the same principles to sound as I had previously used with my materials as a visual artist began a more conceptual way of thinking about sound. The idea that a composition can be as much about ideas as aesthetics – that organised sound can appeal to the emotions as well as the intellect, that sounds don’t need to be pleasing to communicate something and that all sounds can be considered music have been guiding principles.

AC: Could you explain further about “taxonomy” and how that factors in here? Is there any classification system around found materials? Do you maintain a library or collection of materials which is organised in any particular way (if so tell us about that!), or do you discard things?

Mark Vernon: I don’t think of taxonomy as such an important factor in my work with sound really. However, I am by nature an archivist. All of my field recordings and found sounds are named and labelled as soon as I record them or transfer them to a computer – or going further back, named and labelled on mini discs. I don’t keep lists and I don’t tag files but I use a filing and naming system that allows me to find what I’m looking for most of the time. I also have a very good memory when it comes to my personal sound archive (less so in everyday life) – and for music and recorded sound generally. I sometimes recall a sound I recorded twenty or more years ago that might be just what I need for a specific project I’m working on and I know exactly where I’ll be able to find it with a minimum of searching. That is really important. It’s useless knowing I have these materials if I don’t know where to find them.

I discard almost nothing. Before I edit any recording I back up the original. Amongst my friends and collaborators I am always the one who will keep and care for the recordings we have made together. Also, for the work I do with Radiophrenia we have extensive archives of thousands of hours of broadcasts, individual radio works and live recordings which I manage and organise.

There are also other projects of mine such as the Sonograph Sound Effects Series LP’s – collections of field recordings on a theme which are packaged like a classic sound effects library record. In keeping with the library records they are a homage to, careful and precise titling, sequencing and functional descriptions of each sound are an essential part of the work so I guess it is in these albums that taxonomy is perhaps more overt and obvious.

AC: I want to ask you a thing or two about Radiophrenia but first let’s talk about 'Time Deferred'. What can you tell us about the origins of these sounds and these compositions? Where did this project start?

Mark Vernon: Well, the oldest piece on there is 17 years old and the most recent was made just last year so it covers quite a timespan. As an album there is no overriding concept or theme to it as such but the tracks that make up the album are united by a specific tone or atmosphere I think. Some of my projects are focussed on one particular place geographically or a particular process, working method or idea. This is not one of them. In this instance the binding theme is a mood – an oppressive sense of dread or unease.

Some of the tracks are studio realisations of pieces I’ve been performing live. Some are made entirely from field recordings or single instrument samples I have recorded myself. Others are based around music and voices from found tape recordings I have gathered over the years. Some are highly composed whilst others are simpler structures.

Athanasia is a sort of palimpsest based on a piece of music by friend and collaborator David Fulford. It was an unfinished track of his which he had copied onto a mini disc for me twenty years ago. I had always seen a lot of potential in it but was never sure what I wanted to do with it exactly. Only during lockdown did I finally find the time to significantly re-work it and add new elements to it. Luckily David was happy with the results.

A Coincidence of Acceleration and Deceleration features one of my earliest (and most disturbing) tape finds. A message left on a portable 3” reel-to-reel tape by a Glaswegian man for (presumably) his lover telling her how much he loves her and how he is just waiting for her to call, “I’m willing the phone to ring” – in the hope that she will ask him to come and meet her, and wishing that just now and again she would ask for his help. It also includes excerpts of the same man getting increasingly irate with his friend as they drunkenly read aloud Burns poems “...turn the page!!!”

Although these tracks were never originally intended to appear on an album together I feel that there are sympathies between them, that there is a consistent aesthetic and mood that runs through the album - but with enough contrast to create a varied and engaging listen still I hope. A lot of people have said it’s more musical than most of my other works which I don’t know whether I agree with entirely.

AC: There’s definitely some kind of odd musicality to this album, and as you mentioned, a mood. It reminds me of something I wrote about here once, that sensation of going “inside” sounds which have been slowed-down, like reading between the lines… are many of these sounds slowed-down? Are you normally inclined to dissect and manipulate materials or do you leave some as-is?

Mark Vernon: There are lots of re-pitched sounds in those compositions, both slowed down and sped up. Processing and manipulating sound materials is the core of what I do really. It’s all about finding what is hidden within a sound - pushing it, pulling it, distressing and distorting it to find out what hidden potential there is within. What secrets does it contain? Your description of going ‘inside’ sounds is very apt. I will make numerous versions and variants of a single sound until I’m satisfied I’ve wrung everything I can out of it. Then move on to the next one. When I’ve finished, these are the building blocks I use to compose with.

There are sounds I do leave as-is - in fact some whole albums are collections of unaltered field recordings. Some sounds are so intrinsically interesting in their own right that they don’t require anything doing to them - but even then I’m tempted to find out what else might be lurking inside. I also like to play off recognisable sounds against their distorted counterparts. Even when it’s no longer obvious they originate from the same source a relationship between them remains and frictions are created from this coming together of reality and artifice.

Some of the ‘musicality’ on that record comes of course from the music that is its source material - although other non-musical sounds and field recordings also have musicality inflicted upon them by re-pitching them at intervals. It’s all pretty basic though - I don’t sample sounds and play them on a keyboard. I re-pitch individual notes on tape or in the software, cut them and edit them together so really, even when working digitally, the approach is more like tape work.

AC: Out of curiosity what are the voices on The Object Invoked…?

Mark Vernon: The voices on 'The Object Invoked…' are from a reel-to-reel tape I bought off Ebay. In the photo you could just about read the handwritten inlay. It appeared to be a compilation of family home recordings so it was a good bet there was something of interest on it. It did not disappoint. There were all sorts of things from baby talk and family singalongs to holidays, trumpet practices, toy trains and even an old episode of Doctor Who recorded off the telly. The album Remnant Kings is also based on extracts from this same tape.

AC: ‘Remnant Kings’ is great, I’d recommend it to our readers!

Ok so tell me about Radiophrenia. There’ve been several artists here on Navel-Gazers who work with radio, notably Aurélie Nyrabikali Lierman who spoke to me at length on the concept of “radio art”…also Sharon Gal, Kate Carr, Matt Atkins and Adam Kinsey and others. Yet I still find radio art - and even just radio - to be an elusive thing to think about. What’s the significance of it to you and what is the story behind Radiophrenia?

Mark Vernon: Radiophrenia is an art radio station that broadcasts for 2 weeks, 24-hours a day on a roughly annual basis. The majority of the schedule is made up from works submitted to an international open call for sound and radio works plus a series of newly commissioned radio productions and radiophonic performances that take place before a live audience with a simultaneous radio broadcast.

Radio art in its simplest terms is radio made by artists.

My first experience of working with radio was setting up a pirate art radio station in Glasgow with a couple of friends back in 1999. ‘Radio Tuesday’ was an experiment – a platform we opened up to musicians, artists and anyone interested in working creatively with sound and radio. Although the broadcasts were sporadic and had ceased by 2001 in many ways they laid the blueprint for what Radiophrenia would later become. As a producer making sound works and programmes for numerous other independent art radio stations setting up Radiophrenia was in part a reciprocal gesture to offer others the same opportunities I had had for sharing my work to a network of stations around the world. It was also a way of drawing attention to the incredible work of artists and musicians locally here in Glasgow and more widely in Scotland. 

The very ability to share sound work with an audience in this way has been a motivating factor in getting artists to engage with the creative possibilities of sound and radio.

The fact that radio is something that occurs live and can be tuned in to by millions of people simultaneously creates a community of listeners that can’t be replicated by a ‘listen anytime’ podcast. This communal listening aspect is of huge significance and is one of the reasons we don’t archive most of Radiophrenia’s programming or have a ‘listen again’ service. Radio, by nature, is ephemeral, it’s here and then it’s gone. If you can listen at any time there is no impetus to listen at the time, together. There is also something about analogue radio that captures the imagination - the knowledge that it is being beamed out from a single point of transmission across the airwaves, that it is local, that there are limits to the reception, the way it demarcates a particular space, its imperfections; the fuzz, static and other artefacts inherent to analogue media. Even though the majority of our listeners may access the broadcasts online it is important to us that there is also a local FM broadcast. The analogue reception defines the local community of listeners, just as the live stream defines the global community.

AC: So I wonder if “elusive” is the right way to understand radio, after all? I like that, and yet I also like a work such as ‘Time Deferred’ which lends itself so well to repeated listens.

Mark Vernon: I wouldn’t say radio was elusive really – radio is a very accessible and egalitarian medium. We’re not being wilfully obscure or obtuse but there is a commitment to what marks out radio from other media content and attempting to remain true to its historic origins. Unlike much mainstream radio content a lot of radio art does stand up to repeated listening - although there are also many works that are designed for casual, inattentive or peripheral listening where your concentration may drift in and out or parts of it may just wash over you. Anyway – I’m glad ‘Time Deferred’ stands up to repeat listening!

AC: Wrapping up here, what’s next for you Mark? Any interesting projects on the way you’d like to mention, or other comments for our readers?

Mark Vernon: What’s next? Well, I have a couple of new albums out this summer – Elsewhere is a Negative Mirror on Greek label, Granny Records and a new CD on the London based Persistence of Sound label, A World Behind This World. A month long residency at the QO2 arts space in Brussels. Performances in London, Brussels, Rotterdam and Hamburg plus the launch of a new podcast ‘Call Back Carousel’ – a series of sound works based on found tapes of slide show commentaries - without the slides. The idea is to re-create the lost images in the minds of the listener through field recordings, music and sound effects using the commentary as a springboard for the imagination.

Oh – and a mammoth new 22-hour long radio work which aired in July… a meditation on time featuring recordings I have made in different clock repair workshops for Radio Art Zone – a station broadcasting in Luxembourg.

AC: Excellent Mark. Thanks for talking to me!

Mark can be found at his website and at Bandcamp.

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