Blanc Sceol: Follow With Your Ears

Navel-Gazers #49 is an interview with Blanc Sceol who are going to talk to us about Follow With Your Ears. Although I’ve known Blanc Sceol - a.k.a. London neighbours Stephen Shiell and Hannah White - for a few years and enjoyed exposure to their work in the form of numerous recordings, compositions, performances, gatherings, happenings and goings-on, this latest release ‘Follow With Your Ears’ plays like a formal introduction to the duo. It’s surely the right moment to spin up a good old-fashioned, meandering Navel-Gazers, if only to do justice to that title which is as clear an invocation as we’re ever going to get. I’m more focused than usual when listening to these sounds, with the audio contents of the first track Buzz Hum so utterly arresting and bizarre that I find myself genuinely unprepared for a sudden change of scenery on track 2, to more earthly environs. It’s a startling effect and one which is really only achievable on a recorded album, which is why I’m grateful that Blanc Sceol - who predominantly present as a live act - bother to make albums, and ones of such quality… not to mention it gives us all an excuse to run our mouths. Speaking of which let’s get started!

AC: Thanks for joining me on Navel-Gazers! Funnily enough I’m sitting right beside two little clay pots, which the day we decided to do this interview I had just purchased from you guys at a deeply discounted rate at the Princess May car boot sale. Hannah you’d hand-made them, and I was surprised you’d just give something away after all that effort!

Tell us about yourselves, how you both got started with the practice of making things and putting them out into the world, i.e. how you became artists.

Blanc Sceol: We’re going to conduct this interview from the Blanc Sceol persona, in the duo’s voice, the third space created by our partnership together.

The first time Sceol noticed Blanc, was when she cycled up to the door of You Me Bum Bum Train in the snow on an old Raleigh bike in a fake fur coat and a large hat, preparing for the night’s performance, where they were both involved, Sceol as a bank robber and Blanc as a foam party reveller. The east end boy meets the west end girl. If, when, why, what? So many questions open up…

As early as eight years old Sceol decided if everyone was making it up he was going to be an artist. Many years later, when his path collided with Blanc’s, she was battling with the capitalist constructs she found herself tied up in, always wanting to be an artist but not yet quite finding the way in, or out. Sceol’s artistic successes and failures fuelled Blanc’s burning desires and they decided to start making life and art together.

We could say our art first began one million years ago 'when a man took a dry sponge and dropped it into a bucket of water. Who that man was is not important, he is dead and art is alive.' Art is a stream that runs through human consciousness and we've always been swimming in it, and at the moment we’re being carried along by it alongside each other, making work in the third space between the different and diverse aspects of our lives and histories, finding common ground and contradiction where these things meet and diverge. Championing the DIY approach and the ‘outsider’ art aesthetic we see our duo as a quest in, and relationship to, the world, and here we are in an interview with you that sparked off from us clearing out objects from our loft, and gladly finding a good home for two lovely pots.

The fact that we had so many objects in our loft to send on to new homes speaks to the fact that we are collectors in many ways, and are always inspired by the landscapes around us, retrieving things material and ephemeral, whether these be drawings, recordings or stones, and composting them through our bodies and thoughts and reworking them into art.

AC: You mention stones, which are something I associate with the duo as they seem to be a recurring element in your live sets. They're also heard on 'Buzz Hum', which is the first track on this release. Do you particularly collect stones? Where do you store them? What are some of the uses?

Blanc Sceol: We’re thinking back to 2017 in the Lake District in the Fell Foot woods the first time Sceol amplified stones on slate, pieces of slate found in the Honister pass where we spent time over a few years. We’ve always visited stone circles, menhirs, dolmens throughout the year, particularly around planetary moments, and we seek out meetings with large stone beings wherever we go. Being with big stones can create a temporal shift in your body, a slippage into a time beyond yourself. Using them sonically brings this connection into performance, for example rummaging a pile of the same Honister slate across a gallery floor, using the big flint stones from the Norfolk coast where we visit Sceol's nan to explore the contours on a surface, finding the chime of obsidian needles on a trip to the Nevada desert, the simple rocking beat of a pebble, amplifying these stones and mineral objects they create the sounds of slow time, the imperceptible shifting of the earth beneath us. And the big old ones placed in landscapes by humans like us trying to understand the world, and they can still bring connection and understanding now. Collecting stones can be like collecting momentos or photographs of landscapes and experiences. You can hold a stone up to a mountain view and find the same ridge line, which remind us of the holographic fractal universe. We keep them in our studio, we have a sensitive collection at home on our altars, some are special memories of places, some have been given by others. We also use them in text scores after being introduced to this through Sonic Meditations. The simple act of attending to the shape, texture, weight and age of a stone whilst bringing awareness to the listening field can create altered states and expansion beyond the material plane, a portal to other realms.

AC: I like your mention of the "holographic universe" which is a concept I would encourage our readers to consider!

What can you tell us about that first track? It's described as improvised, but a couple of days after the release didn't I see some sort of rendition of it at Arch1? What are we hearing there?

Blanc Sceol: Yes it’s interesting to use the word ‘improvised’ on the sleeve notes of a recorded piece, it does bring up these questions of what improvisation is, we can hear the voices of those who would say that as soon as anything is recorded it is no longer improvised. Buzz Hum is a collection of streams of consciousness and a pallet of sounds, in those streams of consciousness there is an interplay with non-conventional musical instruments and voice, amplified objects such as a flat piece of brass, a bucket handle, stones, an oak branch, a spring, that build an atmosphere, and then from that an improvisation happens. Maybe it's more akin to jazz or Indian classical music where there is a base line structure of notes or phrases, and from that collectively acknowledged place an improvisation happens. For the track Buzz Hum, our base structure was composed of the atmosphere of a late summer meadow, our interpretation of this atmosphere leading to the words and the instrumentation. Sceol also plays a Tocante Karper, a synthesiser that uses the body to complete the electronic circuits, and improvises with this by touching a metal rod across multiple patches. The track was reviewed and one of the comments mentioned that Sceol was 'all over the place', which made us laugh, and ironically also made sense to us as we were trying to capture all of this insect activity, which to our ears can sound like chaos. We were thinking about the pollinators, the insect-ocide that’s happening, the vast numbers that are disappearing, that layer of life that is so necessary it's unfathomable. We sat with this for two afternoons, playing with the words and the sounds, improvising with the sounds at our fingertips, then Sceol mixed the sessions together. We’re also thinking now about how many improvisations we will need to collectively conjure to make it through this devastation. For us the combination of the urgency of the sounds and the nostalgia of the voice creates a tension that mirrors the paralysis and confusion we can feel in the face of these problems. We’re also thinking how even the most fastidious plans and imaginations always include improvisations when they actually enter the material plane.

AC: I have a similar question about the second track, 'Thieves Market'. This one is described as a field recording but if you listen closely or even just read the description more carefully, it's not just a field recording is it? There's a certain participatory element here, just as I often observe in your live sets which makes them more than just performances. What can you tell us about this one and how it was made?

Blanc Sceol: Field recordings have always been a central part of the collaboration and an important part of our work, combining these with vocal and instrumental elements to express our experience of place, we think of it as an anchoring to what we find in a landscape followed by a re-imagining into new terrains.

We had been invited to perform at the tenth anniversary of MIA improvisation festival which takes place near Peniche in Portugal, and were staying with friends in Lisbon before journeying to the festival. They happened to live a few minutes from the well known ’Thieves Market’. We deliberately hadn’t bought many instruments with us, preferring instead to see what we could find in place, so we took this opportunity to source sonic materials and objects. The atmosphere of the market was so rich and absorbing Sceol decided to make a field recording, and with the addition of playing any instruments we came across, this recording became an improvisation with the market. So the field recording is a sort of performance, and a document of a participatory action with the site. We used the recording for the performance at MIA festival, improvising with it using objects we found in the market and around the festival site - like a cow bell, and a large piece of dried bush that we kept seeing blown to different spots in the village until we invited it to be part of the performance.

We’ve used the recording since in a couple of different scenarios - one was actually at your No Computers afternoon at the Old Church, where we used a transducer to play the piece through a large metal disc, creating further reverberations and resonances. It's always intriguing and exciting to perform with this document of ourselves participating in another time and place.

Sound Studio 80s
The recording is made in one take with no edits, and we were going to leave it this way, but when we decided to include it on this album we started researching a little more about the market and the area and became a bit fascinated with fado music and its conflicting histories and melancholic strains, eventually coming across an Amalia Rodriguez song all about the prisoners of war in Peniche - we had visited the remains of the prison where they were kept the previous year. We couldn’t ignore this synchronicity so Blanc recorded a hummed rendition of the song which lead to other layers of vocalisation, echoing moments and histories of the space in an intimate way, like a companion whispering in your ear or the past voices of the market. Sceol weaved these recordings into the original track in the composition. In a way it is also an exercise in deep listening, recording and responding to sounds from the environment through reinforcing, echoing, repeating and sustaining as a practice in training the listening awareness to expand. And the listener can now also participate in that experience as there are always more details to hear in the recording, and the market offers such a rich sonic landscape.

So this also touches on our interest in participatory actions, which you mention you’ve experienced in some of our performances. We’re very drawn to group sonic experiences so we like to experiment with ways for the audience to also be a part of the performance, just as we take the roles of listener, participant and performer in the track ’Thieves Market’.

AC: I had no idea this piece was used at No Computers, what a coincidence! That set was a great example of the participatory approach - I'll never forget those clock chimes resonating through the big wooden benches.

As you've probably guessed, I'd now like to ask you about that final track Sound Seed. I'd particularly like to understand what the voice - or voices - are up to here?

Blanc Sceol: Yes that was a moment we will also never forget, it was magical. The interplay of environmental sounds and those from our performance also worked really well that day.

So, the last track. There are those words and recordings that get jotted down, made and gathered, notes and acoustic sketches without obvious purpose at the time but as part of an on-going practice. This poem is uncertain, exploring and searching for sound, rolling sound around in a mouth to see what other sounds might appear. The field recording of the gorse seeds popping, a sound we began to hear during regular listening meditations on Wanstead flats, is percussive, a form of percussion with a non-determinate nature. So these ideas and recordings are not always materials that are destined or designed to be together from the beginning of their lives, but somehow instead they find each other at an opportune moment, like the recording of this album. So this one really is about just following the feelings of a sound and bringing sounds together through experimenting and a sensory approach. The voice finds 'wound' and then finally lands on an extended ‘wound’ as in 'a wound’, so in reflection now you could say the track brings together the ideas of newness from the popping seeds and the acceptance of current scars, the body in continual renewal.

AC: Speaking of continual renewal, Art’s Birthday’s just around the corner again isn’t it… I wonder if we could cap things off with a rundown of your various projects, whether it’s Sonic Mediations…, Surge Cooperative, Channelsea Radio Group, you guys are always up to something. What have you got planned for 2024 and how can people participate?

Blanc Sceol: Yes, Art’s Birthday will be happening in January, always a bright point for us in a strange feeling month - this year we’ll be gathering on Sunday 14th January, 1 ish until 5 ish, all are welcome - we’ve gathered at Springfield Park bandstand for 8 years now, but this year we’ve decided to shift spaces, and it will take place instead at the Long Wall Ecology Garden on the Channelsea River, which we’ve been nurturing within Surge Cooperative for the last few years. We’ve loved gathering at the bandstand in Springfield park, it has a very magical feel, but as our connections have grown with the Channelsea we’re moving the celebration there - there’ll be the same mixture of performances, cake, hat making, offerings to the altar for art, and whatever else appears on the day, hopefully we’ll see you there Andrew!

Otherwise we just got back from a three week trip to Portugal, performing, facilitating and installing a live stream in Margarida Mendes' ‘Catharsis’ exhibition as part of the Porto Design Biennale, so we are actively taking things slow for the next few weeks, into midwinter hibernation mode. Except for a trip to Germany this week to facilitate Sonic Meditations at the Giga-hertz festival at ZKM Karlstruhe, which we’re really looking forward to!

Of course there are things on the horizon for 2024, we’re continuing to explore our ever evolving relationship with the Orbit instrument, and we are already booking gigs for Spring next year, we have a mini tour shaping up in April and May, dates confirmed at Free Range in Canterbury, Outpost in Norwich and Trad Fest in St Aignan, France, with a couple of others in the pipeline, and we're open to more dates if anyone out there wants to book us. We continue with our monthly ’Sonic Meditation’ gatherings which take place on each full moon, in person on Wanstead flats, for the time being. We actually got rained off last month for the first time ever, and we couldn’t complete the session, which is kind of amazing considering we’ve been doing them outdoors for two years. They are always special sessions, even when it’s very cold and occasionally just us two! But we may think about relocating at some point, let’s see.

Surge Cooperative is ongoing, we are co-directors of the coop, working to create moorings for boats on the Channelsea River and act as guardians of the water space, learning by listening and observing and finding our way into conservation activities and advocating for the river in the face of development. We meet there for an eco gathering on the first Saturday of every month, tending to the plants that have chosen to make their home there, keeping the more vigorous species in check, watering the apple trees we planted last year, that sort of thing, again all are welcome anytime. Increasingly our artistic practice is entwined with site specific work with the river so we’re also working on the sounds for a couple of collaborative films with the river at the moment, which we will share in the new year.

We’ve also gone back into alternative education this year, at the New School of the Anthropocene, a trans-disciplinary space, outside of the mainstream corrupt university system, for learning, discussion and action for thinkers and doers interested in using their skills to serve at the altar of positive change in the face of the huge societal shifts and crisis of our times. It’s been very nourishing so far and it’s great to be back in a critical and caring space of learning again, so we’re looking forward to more of that next year.

And finally, for now, although it’s impossible to conclude an on-going story of life and art, we've been given guardianship of a very interesting space, a little slice of reality you could say, although let’s keep names out of this for now, that we will be nurturing into a co-curated artist-led experimental autonomous zone…so the end is a beginning.

AC: That last point, I can't wait to hear more about. Thanks for talking to me and see you soon!

Blanc Sceol can be found at their website

All images uncredited except #5 (Chiara Gambutini).

Popular posts from this blog

Zhu Wenbo, Li Song, Yan Jun: There Is No Music From China (compilation)

Bablicon: A Flat Inside A Fog, The Cat That Was A Dog

Natalia Beylis: Library Of Sticks