The Audience As Producer

[preamble – this is an emerging line of thought for my PhD, so I wrote this down as is today by way of getting the thoughts out… make of it what you will… It’s a pretty long read… 🙂 ]

The traditional economic arrangement within the music industries throughout the pre-digital age of mechanical reproductionwas for record labels to pay (as little as possible) for the rights to record music onto a physical format, promote the music via radio, TV and magazines, and then sell that product via distribution to shops where the public bought it. The role of the artist was as both originator of the music (though the idea of artist-composer was, in pop music, a relatively late development) and the object of the marketing/promotion, where a version of the artist was presented to the public, often as a heroic figure, a figure of aspiration or of sexual desire, and the music associated with that image.

The role of record producer was to mediate between the creative work of writing and performing songs (after an A&R person had helped connect the artist to the desired song) and the demands and constraints of the market, as well as the immovable requirements of the format – a vinyl record, be it a 78, 7” single or 12” LP, could only hold a specific length of music, and so studio production was as much as anything else an exercise in enforced brevity, particularly for makers of music that relied on improvisation. Jazz performers at the end of the 50s and into the 1960s were known for stretching out live, and playing single tunes that would extend beyond the constraints of one side of a 12” LP (first introduced in 1948)

CD extended that limit to 74 minutes, and with the advent of digital-only releases, the limitations on durational audio works became looser and related to file size upload limits for particular platforms (Bandcamp, for example, only allows up to 600Mb files, which for a 16bit 44.1Khz FLAC file is approx two hours in length) or the endurance of the audience… Which neatly brings us to the audience’s role in production. Stuart Hall in his seminal work on mass media reception and semiotics Encoding And Decoding In The Television Discourse, outlines the concept of the audience reception of a production being part of the production cycle, in that TV as a commercial format (or one with a public service broadcast remit like the BBC) is deeply influenced in its production decisions by the ways in which an audience has received similar work, by broader trends in TV viewing, and by projections based on other social and cultural observations about changes in behaviour.

In music, this historically led to structural orthodoxies in pop music, especially in songs that were designed as ‘singles’ and therefor focused on acquiring an audience through radio and TV exposure. From the length of the song to a set of assumptions about what the introduction should be, or when the chorus should arrive – as well as all the more recent discussions around the loudness war – we have a varying set of arrangement and production constraints that have influenced music makers for the best part of a century. This is a trend that continues into the digital age, with changes in the model of production for music works targeted specifically at the economic and attention-based affordances of streaming services.

So, what happens when you remove yourself from some of those constraints? A shift in constraints happened to some degree with the emergence of the LP as THE dominant format rather than the single – bands and artists started to produce works whose constraint was the length of music that would comfortably fit on one side of a record, or multiples of that (progressive rock albums such as Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans revelled in the perceived opulence of recording a four track suite over a double album, each song lasting an entire side – as a young prog fan in the 80s, this was the pinnacle of the anti-commercial gesturing of progressive rock’s positioning as the antithesis of ‘pop’ music (despite it reaching number one in the UK album charts).) This coincided with a bunch of other changes in radio (in the UK, John Peel brought to BBC Radio 1 a wholly unconventional approach to what was considered good radio programming), in studio techniques (multitrack recording and more extensive editing made it possible for artists to do far more complex work by layering themselves multiple times, rather than just playing with a more-or-less live band set-up for the full 20+ minutes) and in listening patterns (Yamaha introduced ‘hifi’ speakers in the late 60s and the trend grew through the 70s for more pristine listening equipment in homes, before the cassette revolution changed listening again into the 80s)

The mechanisms for shifting the focus (in relation to commercial purpose, target audience or cultural context) of creating musical artefacts, whether physical or digital, are now broader than at any time in history. As much as we’re being told that the old industry is ‘dying’ there are still major record labels, still a machinery in place for the production and marketing of music and its makers in an evolved but recognisable version of the model built in the 50s and 60s. There are still bands of mostly older white men who define themselves as other by following the production conventions of those 70s progressive rock experimentations (such an interesting development for ‘progressive’ to be a term of comfort for those seeking a nostalgic experience within known and safe idiomatic parameters…) and there are still ‘audiophile’ listeners who consider the extreme fidelity of a recording as a value factor in whether something is worth listening to (and buying).

But there has also been an explosion in the development of community-based music production possibilities. Again, these are the extensions of existing models of production – independent record production has existed for as long as record production has been a thing, with artists making their own product to sell, and local labels forming around scenes as an entrepreneurial character saw an opportunity to make some money or at least build a sustainable community around local music making. With the advent of cassette, entire global networks of tape traders built social and creative capital for artists with no resources for distribution, particularly in the worlds of the ‘jam band’ scene in the US (where completists traded live tapes) and in the nascent 80s metal scene, where ‘zines played an utterly pivotal role in getting the word out about geographically localised scenes in places such as Brazil, Scandinavia, Florida and The Bay Area.

The primary novel affordances brought to these practices in the digital age are the ability to replicate the recordings with no loss of fidelity and at zero marginal cost (tape trading resulted in perpetual degradation of the original recording, and relied on an injection of capital at every stage as tapes were purchased and sent through the mail with photocopied artwork and information), and the enhanced capacity for the artists to be the originators of these recordings, and thus leverage both financial and social capital from those works, whether they are studio or live recordings. The tools for recording have become orders of magnitude cheaper in relation to equivalent production quality over the last 30 years, with the capability to produce works that are aesthetically indistinguishable from expensive commercial recording studio productions at ‘bedroom’ level.

One of the most interesting affordances this creates is for the mediation process between artist and audience to become diminished to the point where it is largely experientially invisible as ‘commercial exploitation infrastructure’, beyond the activities it makes possible. External mediating infrastructure is still required by means of web hosting for the recordings/media, communications technology that exact a price in either money (a paid email list host for example) or the extraction of data from our transactions and our (artist + audience) exposure to advertising (eg Facebook, Twitter), the use of those same advertising tools and their algorithmic infrastructure to tell the story of our art and reach new audiences that solely relying on word of mouth won’t reach. Add to that the need for physical devices – computers and mobile devices on which to listen to the recordings and to communicate with audiences – and for communication between audience members.

That the technological means for receiving the music are already in place for many of our audience members removes one barrier to their engagement with the music and the community around it, but does create a situation in which the ways that attention is transacted around music are now competing directly with all the other attention-acquiring activities that those same devices are capable of, from social media activity (reading/posting/media interaction), video watching, gaming, gambling, private conversation, media production and the management of many areas of our personal lives such a finances and health. That my CD player was never needed to be repurposed as a conversation tool or to check my bank balance made it a far more stable environment for the experiencing of music, once I had oriented myself to it with the intention of committing time to listening to music. I also in that instance was only able to choose from the music I owned, or had borrowed and was currently in my possession, rather than it being juxtaposed within the same listening device with the potential to seek out an unimaginably huge amount of music from across the entire history of recorded audio.

So what does all this mean for my initial question about the audience as producer? Well, those roles associated with a record producer – the person with the technical skills (or who would hire a person with those skills) and who connects the project to the commercial context by making aesthetic suggestions regarding the degree to which the work would ‘fit’ – are heavily modified by an environment in which the audience

  • are in direct contact with the artist,
  • are potentially party to the process of making the recordings,
  • are present at the gigs where live recordings are made, and
  • are – in the case of subscription models for pre-paying for the work – already the ‘funders’ of the work, creating an economic cushion for the time needed to work on the music.

So many of the various roles that a record producer might have exclusively occupied in the age when music making and music discovery/sales were connected by the machinery of a label are now possible to be distributed between artist and audience, making it a distinct consideration that the artist might conspicuously include the audience in the process of making the work.

This invitation to be a part of the work might be as forward as allowing them to democratically choose the songs – the first artist I saw experiment with this was American bassist Seth Horan, who ran a pre-pay option for his album Clang And Chime, released eventually in 2009, and uploaded a large number of demo recordings of songs inviting the project’s backers, referring to them explicitly as producers, to choose the ones that went on the album – and thanks to my habit of archiving everything, I’ve just found one of his emails to his mailing list about it, from December 2008

“Since this past July, I’ve written 20 songs, recorded the first-draft versions, and sent them to a group of mailing list members who invested in this new album; they became my Producers, and have been providing valuable feedback in determining which songs are going to make it on to the album, and how to make those songs that DO make it as good as they can be. It has been awesome, awful, intense, funny, and candid, and the result is that I have been held to some surprisingly exacting standards.”

Alternatively, the audience inclusion may be a more general invitation to offer comment/support/conversation around the making of work, or organising meet-ups for listeners to connect with the artists, and through that more flattened hierarchical relationship, invite the audience who might consider themselves friends to comment on the work and express preference for particular activities.

The history of record production is littered with legendary stories of artists making work that labels hated, and these were very often self-produced (though historically it seems more rare for an artist to self-engineer the projects, so some level of quality control in the process was professionally mediated external to the band themselves), the tension existing over the perceived commercial value of those records (apparently Talk Talk went so far as to ban EMI representatives from the studio while spending a year – and an untold amount of money – recording Spirit Of Eden – a record the label hated, but which has become one of the most celebrated and influential records in of the last 40 years…). And tensions can still arise between artists and audience-producers, as any number of missed deadlines for crowdfunded projects via Pledge Music or Kickstarter will demonstrate.

In my case, the audience as producer mechanism is one that involves influence going both ways – I’m hugely grateful for the patronage, friendship, commentary, suggestions and conversation with my Bandcamp subscribers – and I quite often discover new music through that that influences my music-making – and in return, I invite them into a much more involved conversation about the value of a decommoditised process for releasing recordings, framing it more as an episodic, documentary project with each “album” building into a bigger story, rather than being an atomised product with a budget and a commercial placement. The amount paid by subscribers doesn’t change based on the amount I make, so there are times when I have to consider the real possibility of them feeling overwhelmed by the volume of music I might release at any one time if I happen to be in a really productive stage, and then their feedback becomes a significant factor in how and when I decide what to release (along with my own interpretation of the aggregate listener stats I get from Bandcamp, where I can see which albums have been most downloaded and most listened to in the app across a given time period, so can make some deductions about the likelihood that engagement has tailed off when I’ve put out too much music at one time).

So the audience mitigate volume of work, they feed into the direction I might pursue in that I’m consciously responsive (as well as occasionally being conspicuously antagonistic) to their preferences as expressed in the subscriber discussion area, but also more apt to provide additional narrative/contextual support for ideas that I feel the creative desire to pursue but for which there appears to be less existing enthusiasm! They also show up at gigs, and we get to talk about things before and after the show. There are even some who on occasion send me (unsolicited!) more money because they feel that the subscription cost doesn’t reflect the degree of value they get from the work. That’s a pretty extraordinary position to be in.

As an artist, I feel both a commitment to follow my ‘muse’ and a need to acknowledge that the idea of ‘creative freedom’ is mostly a bogus myth and the big concern is what particular set of directives we hook our wagon up to, be they commercial, cultural, historical, community-based, academic…

There are loads of ways we can interpret the quality and direction of our own musical output, but making myself to some degree accountable and available to the people who are willing to put money and attention behind music – as well as performing the emotional labour of being conspicuously supportive and attentive to the production of that work – including paying an annual subscription fee for work that doesn’t yet exist, feels like a far more meaningful expression of those things than I would perhaps find with a label and the whims of someone’s sense of my music’s commercial value…? The label/artist/audience divide is nowhere near as clear-cut in the age when performing those roles requires so much less access to manufacturing equipment or companies, far fewer logistical considerations revolving around the distribution of plastics to far flung corners of the world, and many labels actually function as a structured extension of this idea of audience as producer, many originating with people who were frustrated that the musicians who made the music they love were unable to carry on doing it within a system perceived as venal and anti-art. That positioning for a label, that of patronage and an art-first aesthetic has significant cross over experientially with the audience as producer notion, but ultimately relies way more heavily on the opinions of a much smaller number of people – often one person – than the shifting and evolving community that may afford an artist a level of perceived economic headroom to experiment further, inviting the existing audience on that journey, and perhaps marketing the subscription to people assumed to be more in tune with the changes in direction… For me as an artist whose stylistic frame is a dialectical exchange between having a very highly developed style and vocabulary but a commitment to exploring how it can be expressed across a wide range of idiomatic contexts, the affordances of the audience as producer notion are rich and rewarding. I’ve yet to hit on the limits of it creatively, in that I’ve never recorded something that I loved but felt was unlikely to be received well by my subscriber base… I’ll update this post should that ever happen 🙂

The End Of The Age Of The Guitar?

This is a thing that’s been touted in the music press (and apocalyptically amongst music gear manufacturers) for years but it really does feel like we’re at the end of the age when guitars are the dominant icon of popular music. It’s not that people aren’t still playing them, and making both brilliant and utterly tedious music with them, just that they no longer play the totemic role in the visual semiotics of what ‘rock n roll’ looks like any more.

Three tales from Glastonbury to make the point – 0n Friday night, Stormzy headlined (BBC iPlayer link if you’re in the UK). His set was alternately a classic MC+DJ Grime set and a MASSIVE theatrical soul/gospel/grime/funk extravaganza with live band, dancers, dudes on mountain bikes, and an irony-free appearance by Chris Martin with a real Fender Rhodes. The music was heavy, complex, beautiful, and more rhythmically advanced than ANY guitar band that have ever headlined the festival. Grime is a music form developed in bedrooms, clubs and pirate radio stations. To transfer it to a festival headline slot took some monster skills and vision. The first Grime star to cross over like that was Dizzy Rascal, but he took on the predominantly white festival audience by working with shred-guitar-genius Guthrie Govan. He met them half way. Stormzy gave no quarter. It was an astonishing show, but there was no pandering to the expectations of a white rock-loving crowd.

Two – The Comet Is Coming, (iPlayer link) a sax, drums, keys trio featuring the great Shabaka Hutchings. Heavy riffage, ecstatic posturing, drum solos, hypnotic grooves. Not a computer gig at all but not a guitar-shaped instrument to be seen.

Three – Kate Tempest: performance poet and rapper, on stage with just a keyboard player/DJ, controlling all the beats and playing the most sublimely responsive minimalist keyboard parts. Utterly compelling, engaging, enthralling, and HEAVY in the broadest sense, but with nothing of the visual semiotics of a rock gig at all. Just talking/rapping and mellow keys. Brilliant and brave.

I’ve just finished teaching the first year of a creative performance technology course at BIMM here in Birmingham, in which students get to explore a wide range of ways to enhance their performance with technology (or completely upend their preconceived ideas about what performance even is). In amongst the final pieces we only had one ‘band’ performance, and two that used guitar as part of an otherwise electronically/digitally mediated performance, making use of the Ableton Push 2 controller. Gone are the days when ‘tech’ meant either decks or a DAT, with software and hardware options existing to create interactive performance tools for creative artists, and allow for as much improv and spontaneity as you could have with a ‘normal’ band.

My own performing set up is built entirely for improv, around choices, differing vocabularies and a variability that means I can choose from a suitably wide and nuanced range of places to start, and nothing can ever happen the same way twice. Despite bass still being my beloved instrument, the role of the bass is now as a component within a larger instrument, comprised of all my tech. It’s not the iconic emblem of rock in this context (I sit down to play, FFS! 🙂 ) It’s transformed and manipulated, and those vestiges of expectation become a useful foil for surprise and intrigue for an audience hopefully encountering sounds and ideas that are both entertaining and stimulating…

It’s weird, in a field (literally, at Glastonbury) that they used to OWN, bands with just four white dudes playing guitar, bass, drums and singing often feel almost hopelessly anachronistic if they don’t have something else to set them apart, and just standing there holding a Les Paul no longer seems to carry the same social or cultural cache it once did…

The value proposition has changed, and the range of possible start points for music making presented to young people who want to make pop music have expanded immeasurably. Arguably, it’s been that way to some degree since the advent of turntablism and sampling in the 80s, but guitars were still the orthodoxy, still the icon, the emblem, the badge, the logo.

Not any more? Not in my world. And I’m glad for the change. Western culture has moved on, we just need to make sure all of music education and retail keeps up!

(That said, I’m still REALLY looking forward to The Cure on Sunday night 🙂 ) 

Either The Meadow Or The Fruit Tree – A Story Of Improv

This was an essay I wrote for my Bandcamp Subscribers the other day, to accompany a brand new track called ‘The Meadow Or The Fruit Tree’. The track is included on the subscriber-only album Stepping Stones. You can get it by subscribing today… But anyway, here’s the essay:

-o0o-

Allow me to tell you about one of the most significant moments in my journey to being an improvisor, which came, improbably, at a garden design talk/workshop back in the very early 00s. I was speaking at an even called the School For Life – a multi-disciplinary weekend of learning-for-the-sake-of-learning, loosely based on the Danish Folkehøjskole concept. I was teaching a class on improv to a room full of women over the age of 60, all of whom had only ever learned classically, and all of whom had a whale of a time getting to experiment with making up melodies for themselves.

Anyway, at the same event, a design lecturer from Edinburgh University was giving a talk on garden design, with a load of slides of amazing historic gardens from all over the country, and offering practical advice to the attendees for what to do in their gardens at home. It was already a fascinating talk to listen to, hearing about types of flowers to plant, the impact that soil and sunlight had on things, how to make best use of a wall that got no sun vs a wall that got loads of sun etc…

But when it came to questions, that’s when the inspiration struck. A woman asked the speaker whether it was ever possible to replace a lawn with a wild flower meadow and how on earth you would make the distinction clear between a wild flower meadow in the back garden of your house, and you just being the kind of lazy fool who had just abandoned it to go to wrack and ruin. The answer was that in order to make the chaotic bit appear intentional, you needed to frame it with something so obviously intentional that it created a window through which to see the wild flowers as purposeful. The example he gave was to have a couple of really well-cut fruit bushes either side of the main vista looking onto your garden – so the view from your back door had these two fruit trees and between them lay the wild flowers.

The profound observation that conspicuous structure and order can bookend chaos in a way that makes its intentionality apparent is a concept that has stuck with me and been invoked on a near-daily basis for the last 18 or so years. The relationship between musical ideas that are idiomatically recognisable as skilled and controlled can carve out an affordance for equally intention use of chaos, dissonance, happenstance, and degrees of complexity that without such a framing might otherwise be misinterpreted as lacking in control or sufficient awareness of what ought to be happening – the intentions encoded into the music would be decoded wrongly, and we end up with what Umberto Eco called Aberrant Decoding – when the intentions and meaning of a particular work are misunderstood by the audience.

You may have conspicuously noticed me doing this, or you may have had an a-ha! moment reading this and realised that that’s why you appear more receptive to the strangeness in my music than to music that is just continually in a more atonal/aleatoric space… Or maybe your taste and musical exposure are sufficiently esoteric that there isn’t anything that I do that sounds particularly ‘out’ to you anyway (this is likely the case for at least some of you 🙂 )

But you can, if you wish, listen out for those things that are fruit trees and those that are the meadow in future…

(Wild Flower Garden photo by Clive Varley)

Why Bandcamp – Part One

It’s no secret that I really love Bandcamp. As a fan and as an artist, a huge part of my music life is spent listening to music, finding new music, buying music and of course selling music – almost all on Bandcamp. But it’s also the mechanism by which I get to email my audience, post updates to my subscribers, share videos and even eBooks. It’s why I can remaster anything at any time, change the price on anything, bundle things together and release everything at HD without having to put it on some nonsense specialist site that charges more for 24bit files.

So, I’m going to a couple of posts about just how and why I love it, starting with my experience as a music listener. I’ll preface this by saying that I’m not going to argue that the music listening experience is tangibly better, at least on the surface, than Spotify or Apple Music – the listener experience of streaming apps, at least as it pertains to finding and listening to music is pretty great (and the presence of acres of classic albums is in stark contrast to the new music focus of Bandcamp). But there’s no economic model there that works for niche music unless you use it to cross promote touring/merch/sales elsewhere/patreon, and they really don’t foreground the relationship between artists and audiences, and that REALLY doesn’t work for me. So I’m going to steer away from doing comparisons with streaming platforms for the most part, if that’s OK…

So let’s jump in with what Bandcamp gives me as a listener. When I first started buying music on Bandcamp, there was no app and the driving USP was HD downloads. With the advent of the app in 2013, Bandcamp added a whole other level of portability to both carrying your Bandcamp collection with you and to discovery. The collection part is pretty simple – everything you’ve bought on Bandcamp is there in the app, and can be streamed. Anything you’ve streamed is cached, so you can also use it on planes/the Underground, and you can either search your own collection to find things or sort the list by date added, a-z, most played or ‘history’ (what you’ve most recently played).

For each album, as well as being able to play it, you can access sleeve notes, if the artist has added any, and lyrics, read reviews by other people who’ve bought it, add your own review, browse the rest of the artist’s catalogue, and buy those – for yourself or as gifts for other people. What’s more, your collection is public on the Bandcamp site or in the app via your avatar under any album you’ve bought. So people can browse your record collection as they might when coming to your house, and (this is a really lovely touch) if they buy it after finding it through you, you get a ‘hey! you made something awesome happen!’ email from Bandcamp telling you who bought what. Which is just wonderful, and offers some useful data on just how much internal discovery within the site is worth if you can encourage your listeners to review things and make a bit of a fuss about their Bandcamp collections…

The other pure joy for me of the app is how it handles subscriptions – any time one of the artists I’m subscribed to releases a new album it’s immediately there in the app ready for me to stream, as well as available for HD download. Truth be told, I do a huge amount of my listening these days via the Bandcamp app – the streaming quality is easily good enough not to be distracting, and I just don’t get that much time to hook up my hard drive with my iTunes folder on it to a DAC and speakers… But I cherish that those HD versions are there, for good. They are mine for ever. This isn’t rented access to a bunch of metadata overlaid on a ginormous catalogue by a company lobbying to pay the artists as little as they can possibly get away with.

Instead, it’s a service that values ownership, values connecting listeners with the artists whose music soundtracks our lives, does discovery by a range of mechanisms that subvert the bland top-heaviness of an unfiltered popularity contest, but instead focus on what they describe as ‘high friction sharing’ – sending you an email digest every few days of thing things that your friends have Actually Paid For. Anyway, back to subscriptions. I get to hear from the people I’m subscribed to directly in the app. They can post messages and video and photos to either accompany the releases or just to fill me in on what’s going on, and I can comment on those posts and offer encouragement or join a discussion. It’s a joy to carry these extensive catalogues of work around with me and get to know the work of lesser known artists with the same level of detail and obsession as is often reserved for ‘legendary’ acts.

I spend hundreds of pounds a year on music, the vast majority of it on Bandcamp. A lot of what I buy I could get from a streaming service, but I would then a) not have it to download, and would be paying the company each month for the joy of having potential access to it all, and b) would be guaranteeing that the only artists whose sustainability I was contributing to were the ones I listened to pretty much non-stop, to the exclusion of all others – while my subscription fee also subsidised royalty payments to the world’s richest pop stars.

Buying albums is a model based on a bygone era when recorded music came exclusively in a container, limited by the length of audio that would fit on your format of choice. But it did give us a way of pragmatically agreeing on  a rough per-listener value for an hour of (repeatable) music. Against that, we can think about how much new music we have time for, and how we go about making sure that the artists we care about get to keep making it. We can release it in ways that seem like a total bargain, but still make us literally hundreds of times more than equivalent interactions on Streaming platforms.

In short, Bandcamp

  • Connects me to the artists,
  • Gives me the tools to interact with them and with the music in friendly ways,
  • Makes it possible to share without forcing adverts on the people I’m sharing it with or making them sign up for an account,
  • Gives me the music to archive long term,
  • And means I’m on the artists’ mailing list whether or not Bandcamp ever goes supernova (you know that if Spotify ever folds, everything you’ve curated there is gone, right? Renting access is great for convenience, but not so good for digital ecology).
  • Provides an open and transparent model that means I KNOW the vast majority of the money I’m paying is going to the artist, and the rest is building the most robust and artist-friendly environment for music sustainability the internet has yet had.

Anyway, the invitation to be a part of the ongoing viability of the music I love by artists I care about, and to discover more of it through the actual taste of the people I follow on there via my fan account (as opposed to a bunch of links they might share to music by their friends or other bands they’re doing promo-swaps with) is an amazing and beautiful thing, and dovetails really well with my own focus on needing music by artists who are trying to make sense of the world as it is, rather than spending my music listening time wallowing in nostalgia in the vague hope that the soundtrack to my teens will stave off the dread of my ever encroaching sense of mortality.

Nope, I want to connect with what people are making now, songs about the world, music inspired by all that we can do and all that we can see. And to make more of it possible. I tweeted a while ago that on Bandcamp, the value proposition is best understood as as ‘buying this album’ but ‘making the next one possible’. Arguments about what music is ‘worth’ are less interesting than questions about how we make more of the music we care about possible. Tomorrow, I’ll write about what Bandcamp means for me as an artist – the flip side of this equation… Til then, have a listen to some of the music dotted throughout this piece, or have a rummage in my Bandcamp fan collection.

A Reflection on Improv, Audiences and Recording

My recorded output is divided sharply into live and “studio” recordings. The equipment and audio process are identical for them both but the presence of a live audience completely changes the experience. When I’m in the studio (such a professional sounding euphemism for “the corner of the bedroom”) my audience is me, my aesthetic decisions, my moment to moment assessment of what needs to happen to is made in relation to my own taste, in dialogue with my own history, with whatever I’ve been working on and the lingering shadows of whoever has been inspiring me of late.

steve lawson playing bass

But live, the audience are present on the music. I interpret their presence, I respond to who’s there, to the sounds and gestures that I’m aware of while playing, and to my projected imagining of what their experience is like. I play to them, and for them but also with them and I become them, projecting my own understanding of what my experience would be were I not the one with a bass in my hands…

Listening back to any recording is a fascinating exercise in time-shifting the audio record of that moment, live or studio, and re-experiencing it with its own extant nature as a factor instead of the sense of possibility that exists in the unfolding.

So recordings are a translation of that experience and its quite possible for something to “work” on the moment but not as a recording or vice versa to feel like a failure live and then blossom under scrutiny.



I’ve been listening to my latest solo album on the way to work this morning, which is without doubt my favourite thing I’ve ever recorded. It’s also the most “successful” thing I’ve released in many many years. I was trying to remember the experience of improvising it all and some of the performances are still vivid in my mind (aided by the video that exists on YouTube of the actual recordings 🙂 )



Anyway, here it is if you want to hear it – just remember that, first time through, you share the sense of becoming that I had as it emerged in the moment. Second time through, you’re experiencing something wholly new – improvised music that now exists in relation to the memory of itself.

My Favourite Records of 2018

Right! I’ve waited til the last minute to do this list cos it’s been such an amazing year for music, I half expected to find something released today to write about!

These aren’t in any kind of order – they’re all properly fabulous records that I suggest you check out and spend some money on if you dig them. They’re just separated out into Bandcamp albums and Google Play albums:

Sonar – Vortex (feat. David Torn) : I’ll buy pretty much anything that has David Torn on it, to be honest, but this time, the record would be in my year end best of whether he was here or not. Odd-time hypnotic grooves, exquisitely played, minimalistically evolving and layered with Torn’s wild guitar explorations. Just incredible.

Kristin Hersh – Possible Dust Clouds : Again, not a surprise that this is amazing, cos everything Kristin does is amazing, but Possible Dust Clouds gets even more unhinged than the last couple of albums. The mix is dizzying, the guitar/bass/drums are SO intense and the songwriting is extraordinary. Maybe my favourite thing Kristin has done in ages, and I’ve LOVED everything she’s ever done…

Phi Yaan-Zek – Reality Is My Plaything : A record I’ve been waiting for ever since I met Phi 4 or 5 years ago. Reality… had a 10 year gestation period, was recorded all over the world, and incorporated skills that Phi took time out to develop as he found a need for them. An amazing way to make a record, and it’s even more amazing just how coherent it is. It’s a HUGE amount of music, some amazing hooks, insanely complicated writing, but nothing that ever feels twiddly. A masterpiece.

Cuong Vu – Change In The Air : Everything Cuong Vu does is brilliant. I’m a huge, huge fan of his, particularly his earlier trio albums, but marrying his trumpet to Frisell’s guitar is an inspired pairing and has some of my favourite Frisell playing for YEARS on it. Just wonderful.

Liran Donin – 8 Songs : Liran has been bassist with Led Bib for years (I saw them play at the Vortex a decade ago) but on this, his solo debut, the writing and playing are so mature and developed. It’s a deep album, full of great improv, amazing bass playing and killer tunes. British jazz is absolutely overflowing with massive talent right now, and this is at the top of the shop.

Dinosaur – Wonder Trail : speaking of British jazz, Dinosaur are another example of just how exciting the scene is right now. Post-Miles electric jazz, amazing playing (bassist Conor Chaplin is just incredible here) and Laura’s killer writing. Properly brilliant.

Echotest – Daughter Of Ocean : the first of two pre-releases here (out properly TOMORROW!) – Julie Slick and Marco Machera just get better and better. The writing, arranging, recording and playing are all progtastic, hummable and grooving, and Marco’s beautiful voice just gets better and better. Will be playing this a lot throughout the coming year.

Andrew Howie – Micronations : I subscribed to Andrew this year, and he’s released SO many great recordings, many of them remasters of albums I already loved. This new one is a beautiful experiment in downbeat electropop. It really doesn’t matter what Andrew turns his hand to, it always turns out incredible. I’m a MASSIVE fan.

Artemis – Of This Dirt : Artemis actually asked me to record some stuff for this album years ago, but I took WAY too long to get round to it, and by then it didn’t fit at all. But, it doesn’t miss me at all – the record hangs together as such a gorgeous suite of songs. Like the Andrew Howie album above, it’s the sound of grown-ups making electronic music. All that wisdom and experience wrapped around a deeply current aesthetic. Magical.

Sam Phillips – World On Sticks : Another great Sam Phillips album that sounds like a great Sam Phillips album. No surprises, but who would want them? She sounds utterly like herself and tells her beautiful stories in a way that everyone should hear.

Gretchen Peters – Dancing With The Beast : talking of songwriters who tell amazing stories, Gretchen goes from strength to strength, telling rich and moving stories of growing older, of resistance, of troubles and trials. The opening track rips my heart open. So, so beautiful.

Aaron Gibson – Horror Films And Sunday School : another pre-release released TOMORROW, this album is one of the finest things ever recorded by a bass playing singer/songwriter. The strings are exquisite, Aaron’s playing, singing and writing are all exemplary, and it’s also the only album in the list that I played on (I take a solo on one track). Just incredible.

The Midnight Hour – The Midnight Hour : I spent a lot of time this year listening to hip hop. Much of it was older Tribe Called Quest/Eric B and Rakim/Dilla/Slum Village/De La Soul stuff, but there was also this incredible crossover jazz/soul/hip hop record by Adrian Younge with Ali Shaheed Muhammed. I found them via the Luke Cage S2 soundtrack (below), and foudn this soon after. An incredible level of skill and soul at work here.

Field Music – Open Here : the last Bandcamp album on my list, but one of the best pop albums I’ve heard in decades. Everything about Field Music is incredible, and Count It Up is possibly my track of the year. They were also one of my gigs of the year, opening for The The in Birmingham. Joyful awesomeness.

And then there were these fantastic albums not on Bandcamp, that I bought on Google Play. Every one of them is amazing:
Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Wapentak
John Coltrane – Both Directions At Once
Adrian Younge/Ali Shaheed Muhammed – Luke Cage Season 2 soundtrack
Black Thought – Streams Of Thought Vol. 1
Anderson Paak – Unreleased

Who Has The Right To Critique Your Work?

…This is a question that comes up for young artists all the time. The mechanisms for getting your work out there, in an economic setting where there’s a particular level of audience size that one needs to be able to make enough money to keep doing what you do, bring with them an avalanche of comment. Some of it comes from reviewers – gig reviewers, album reviewers, people who write about your particular field as their job and amateurs who just have a blog they keep for the love-or-spite of it. You’ll also get feedback from people who love what you do and feedback from people who are all too eager to tell you how you’re doing it wrong. Social media may give everyone a voice, but it doesn’t in any way mean we are obliged to absorb or even listen to their opinions…

So, while acknowledging that in some way resourcing and encouraging that kind of commentary is necessary to audience growth, how do we as artists maintain a sense of who we are and what we do aside from that, and how do we gauge which of the feedback might actually be useful to us? After all, I’ve had utterly glowing OTT reviews that I thought were WAY off the mark, and some critical reviews that I thought were completely fair. And I’ve had a very small number of reviews that actually taught me something about my own work. So how do we discern the difference? How do we decide who to let in and who to ignore? And as things progress, how (if we even should) do we build a team of people around who we invite to reflect on our work in ways that we listen to with a view to actually acting on their advice?

It is – not to put too fine a point on it – an absolute minefield. All the moreso if you’re in any way insecure about your work already. Anyone who’s had anything posted on YouTube that’s had more than a handful of views will know what a cesspool of vindictive and spiteful misinformation it is. I’ve seen friends of mine insulted in all manner of ways on there, and have had a ton of ‘why the fuck are you wearing nail varnish???’ comments as well as the ‘that’s not what you’re supposed to do with a bass!’ comments…

That end of things is irritating, but fairly easily recognised as not useful in terms of defining what you’re up to in your own work. Nothing useful comes of trying to salve the bile of a disgruntled YouTube dickhead… So who gets let in? Whose words get to be considered as useful?

I don’t think there’s one answer to this, but my own rule has always been that I listen to people who have previously demonstrated to me that they understand what I’m trying to do. Whether a review itself seems knowledgeable is not the thing I’m looking for. What I need from someone who is going to comment on my work in a way I can be bothered to acknowledge is the recognition that they have me being the best version of me as the focus of their comments. So anything that says ‘what you’re doing doesn’t sound enough like artist A, therefor it’s bad’ is out. Not useful. Anyone who says ‘this is amazing because it doesn’t sound like anything that anyone has ever done before’ is equally out. That’s not a useful or accurate assessment of where the value lies in what I’m trying to do.

This notion of ‘what you’re trying to do’ stems from a belief that the only meaningful way to measure the true value of an artist’s work is whether they’ve achieved what they set out to do. Whether you like it or not is useful in terms of you deciding what to do with your time, and what to lend your ears to, but a commentary on my work based on whether or not someone else would have done it differently is not useful to me. As my usual response goes when someone tells me that I should be doing an all-ambient record, or a funk record, or should work in such and such a way, I say ‘no, you should! It’s clearly you that wants to hear music in that way. If there’s something in what I do that you think fits there, you can either take that inspiration and make the music yourself, or hire me to help you get there and bring my musicianship and ideas to your project’. But they don’t get to tell me what to do with my own music.

So how does someone demonstrate an understanding?

Firstly, they ask questions. Anyone who truly cares about what you’re doing is going to ask you about it before making a bunch of observations and statements. They’re going to inquire into why you’re making the choices you’re making, what the things are that you’re working on, what your influences are and what you’re trying to do with those influences… There are a ton of different questions to be asked, and angles to be explored…

Secondly, they’re going to take the time to get to know what you’ve already done. This gives anyone who subscribes to me on Bandcamp a massive advantage over anyone who doesn’t, because I know they’ve got at least 35-40 albums by me in their collection. Now, they might not have listened to them all, but if they’re working through them with an open mind, they may well start to form a useful frame of reference for what it is I’m trying to do – I can test that through the kinds of questions they bother to ask. They’re probably going to have a better grasp on the improvised nature of the work, and the breadth of things that I’m exploring at anyone time, as well as the general trajectory of my solo work.

Thirdly, their comments are going to specifically relate their criticism to the framing of your work. It’s OK for someone not to like or understand how you frame what it is you’re trying to do – not everyone needs to like or understand what you’re up to – but if you’re thinking of inviting them to influence it, it’d help a lot of they at least had a respect for what you were attempting. Sometimes, that framing can be an obvious thing, but it’s normally pretty dangerous to assume what a particular musician is trying to do from hearing a track or two and guessing based on who you think it sounds like.

The people whose commentary you allow into your own thought process are acting as de facto producers of your work. It’s WAY more important that they understand it than that they like it. I’ve had a mixture of people over the years give me useful feedback and encouragement – some who loved it, some how just cared about me, and took the time to work out what I was up to, without really being massively invested in the music itself. Sometimes the most useful input is just a well-timed ‘dude, just keep doing what you’re doing’, sometimes it’s in the form of a question I really should have been asking myself for a while. Other times its a suggestion for some new inspiration to check out that they see may well help take me in a new direction.

None of it arrives in the form of insult, none of it is trying to put me down, and none of it is about me meeting someone else’s idea for what music ought to be.

Finding those people can take a lot of time. When you do find them hold onto them, value them and keep them close. A huge amount of the advice that you’re going to hear will be about people’s perception of the commercial potential in what you’re doing, and how to maximise that (it’s baffling to me that I get that bullshit even as a solo bass player – as if playing bass on your own isn’t enough of a statement about your lack of focus on commercial motives already?)  – if commercial potential is your frame for your work, and they are people with a track record of making those judgements in useful ways, by all means let them in – it’s not a bad thing to want to make great pop music! But if that’s not what you care about, you need to find a way of blocking out those voices, because they’ll almost always pull you back towards the consensus.

And in the meantime, don’t feed the trolls, or listen to their bullshit. It’s not going to help you find your path.

The Beginner’s Guide To SoloBassSteve…

TOO MUCH MUSIC?! What does too much music look like? Is it possible to have too much music? I know that there are some artists that have massive catalogues whose work I have no idea how to approach. Do you start at the beginning and work forwards? Do you jump in with the biggest selling, or just the most recent to see where they’ve got up to?

My own catalogue is, obviously, huge. I honestly don’t know off the top of my head how many albums I’ve released. That’s nuts, right?

So, anyway, to help you out, I’ve just gone over my solo output and annotated it a little as a Beginner’s Guide To SoloBassSteve – just a bit of context about each one. So of these albums are subscriber-only, so for those (and to get ALL of them right now) you’ll need to subscribe over at Bandcamp. The big thrill there is that once you subscribe, you OWN them all – it’s not a Spotify renting-access-to-streams-and-playlists thing, these are all yours. So if it takes you a few years to get through this lot, that’s OK. They aren’t going away. You’ll have them to download, stream via the Bandcamp app and even re-download if your computer dies as often as you like. The music is yours – click here to find out more about the subscription – http://stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe

So, jump in, have a read, see how you get on, I’ll link to each album so you can just click through and have a listen!

2000And Nothing But The Bass – my first album, recorded live in concert except for the last two tracks, one of which was live at home, the other a duet with Jez Carr on piano. A bit like looking at baby photos for me now, but there are still quite a few people for whom it’s their favourite album of mine. Got ridiculously great reviews when it came out, probably reflective of how few solo bass albums there were then!

2002Not Dancing For Chicken – first ever studio solo record. Was actually recorded twice, and I really wish I had all the earlier recordings still… Recorded direct to stereo two track, and destructively edited, still sounds pretty good considering. Features a couple of tunes that became live staples for the next decade – MMFSOG, Jimmy James and Highway 1. Was released while I w as on tour with Level 42, so solo VERY well on release, and got a fair bit of radio play, magazine coverage etc… remastered in 2012, to sound way better than the original, and also remove the comic sans from the artwork 😀 😀

2004Grace And Gratitude – probably still my most popular album – a consolidation of all the things I’d learned up to that point, and a pretty pivotal blend of all the elements that went into making up my sound at the time – big tunes, heavy ambient experimentation, beautiful chord progressions and weirdness! More radio support for this one, bizarrely. And I once reworked the title track for a beer advert, which sadly wasn’t ever used (mostly sad cos that meant I didn’t get paid… 😉 )

2006Behind Every Word – More composed that anything else I’d done to that point, features two amazing special guests – BJ Cole and Julie McKee, also was the first thing I’d released that had an outside co-producer (the 1st version of Not Dancing was co-produced by Jez Carr, but didn’t see the light of day because my insistence of recording with a mic’d amp was a stupid move) – this time it was Sue Edwards, who remotely monitored what I was up to, and gave pivotal feedback that made the album about 10 times better than it would’ve been…

2002/2004Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline Pts 1 & 2 – two very limited edition releases that came with the 1st 100 CDs of Not Dancing and Grace And Gratitude – lots of other things I was recording at the time. Started a trend for producing way more music than would fit onto a single CD…. (LLFAAF Pt 3 only exists as MP3s, and that came out with Behind Every Word) Pt 1 has my first couple of mahoosive ambient tunes on it, and they still sound good…

2010Ten Years On: Live In London – live album to mark the 10th anniversary of my first solo album. Recorded live at Round Midnight in London. Not a bad record of what I sounded like, but also the beginning of the nagging feeling that playing compositions wasn’t really what I should be doing live…

2011 – 11 Reasons Why 3 Is Greater Than Everything – first studio solo album since Behind Every Word, recorded in Catford and Muswell Hill. Remixed a year after it came out to reflect my improved skills as an engineer. Features a couple of my favourite ever solo tunes, and features LOTS of big tunes, and a little bit of epic strangeness – mostly reflective of how my sense of harmony had developed in the interim. Some less obvious tunes in there that I still really dig…

2012 – Believe In Peace – improvised live in an art gallery in Minneapolis, proved very popular, and still gets a lot of love today. I think this was my first all-fretless album… The artwork was from the amazing display of art by Geoff Bush that inspired the music. Recorded during a Tornado!

2014 – What The Mind Thinks, The Heart Transmits – the album that SO many people had been asking for for over a decade – a single ambient piece, recorded as the soundtrack to a guided meditation on a retreat. Super-popular with people who do yoga, meditate, or who just like really relaxing music to drive or sleep to! Followed another two year-long break from focussing on solo work following the life-consuming FingerPainting project!

2015 – Closing In (subscriber exclusive) – the first Bandcamp subscriber-only solo release, this was the ideas I’d started to develop on the journey to making the next two albums, and is the bridge between the first 15 years of my career playing only bass and nothing else, and then adding in the drums and synth stuff on the next two albums… ALL CHANGE!

2015 – The Way Home/ A Crack Where The Light Gets In – Two albums released on the same day, and the first things to come out publicly featuring my new set-up with the Quneo being used to play drums and some keyboard parts. Everything was (and is) still recorded live with no overdubs, but I have the option to play other sound and particularly to incorporate more obviously the hip hop influence that has been there in the background for my entire music life… Beats and weirdness galore – a new adventure to be sure!

2015 – You Guys, Let’s Just Talk About Nail Varnish – compilation of tracks recorded for the Bass The World YouTube channel.

2016 – Well, Say Hello Then (subscriber exclusive) – a lil’ EP recorded to introduce my brand new bass (my first new instrument in over a decade. Features some lovely ideas, is better than it’s slightly rushed existence might suggest!

2016 – Referendum – recorded just before and the day after the EU Referendum here in the UK. A hopeful then despairing collection of music that still emotionally resonates and became a favourite with a lot of people. Vertigo may be my single favourite ever solo piece…

2016 – Hands Music (subscriber exclusive) – Recorded at the launch exhibition for brilliant German photographer Marc Mennigmann’s ‘Hands’ photo project. Fully improvised as background/contextual music for the exhibition, is an interesting mix of very ambient and very poppy/tuneful. Has a couple of sneaky covers in there. V popular with subscribers…

2016 – Colony Collapse Disorder (subscriber exclusive)/ The Surrender Of Time / Towards A Better Question – 2016 produced a ridiculous amount of solo music from me… recorded in the same sessions, these three recordings consolidated the experiments that began with the previous two albums. The feeling of integration between the Quneo and the bass as a combined instrument, seeing the whole thing as one big music-generating thing, is way more fully expressed here (I’m even playing them at the same time on a couple of tracks) – Colony Collapse Disorder was originally just the first half, but a subscriber suggested that it felt like the beginning of something bigger, so I recorded the second half as an other track, put them together, and that’s what we have! The beat side of things is getting more varied and the hip hop more conspicuous.

2016 – Hark/Winter – Christmas single, that doesn’t really sound like a christmas single 🙂

2017  – Illuminated Loops (subscriber exclusive) – not really a solo album, even though it’s just me playing on it. The recording of my first performance with the great Poppy Porter – Poppy has synaesthia, which means she sees sound, so she draws what she sees while I play. I then treat it her art as a graphic score. It’s all kinds of fun and results in some very interesting music. My new favourite project.

2017 – PS, You Are Brilliant – a deep, experimental record with some big tunes but a lot of pretty intense textural experimentation, and deeply strange hip hop beats. A big step forward for the new set-up and probably my favourite thing I’ve released solo so far…

2017 – Small Is Beautiful (subscriber exclusive) – the subscriber only accompaniment to the PS… only one track with any Quneo as all, lots of stuff with minimal looping and maximal mellowness. I love this, and is no doubt popular with all the subscribers who prefer my solo stuff from before I started messing around with electronics so much 😉

2018 – The Long Game (subscriber exclusive) – first solo release of 2018 is live album from the 2018 London Bass Guitar Show – both performances came out really well, and this is them. Foregrounding some of the Quneo-as-piano experiments I’ve been working with, rather successfully. Also the first solo release to feature my Elrick SLC signature fretless.

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So there you go. I plan to do the same for the collaborations at some point soon. Hopefully it’ll help you dive in and find the ones you like the sound of! If you want to post your own thoughts on the albums, PLEASE do, either here in the comments, or via your Bandcamp collection so they appear next to the album!

10 Collaborators Who Changed My Music Life. Pt 7 – BJ Cole

Today’s influential collaborator is BJ Cole, and for someone who changed my music-life as much as BJ did, there’s precious little documentation of us playing together. This is because the vast majority of the development that happened for me while playing with BJ happened in my living room. For a couple of years we got together as often as possible to just play. Sometimes it was every other week. When we were busy, our sessions were a little more spread out. But it was time and space to experiment with a particular kind of abstract textural improv that was utterly formative for me. BJ was quite involved with the London Improvisors Orchestra at the time, which gave him space to apply his mind-bendingly broad approach to the pedal steel guitar to some pretty out music. He was also working with Luke Vibert and others on the EDM scene, so his development of his own voice was an extraordinary thing to witness – especially in a musician who was already the most influential practitioner of his instrument that this country has ever produced (for those who don’t know, BJ played the pedal steel part on Tiny Dancer by Elton John, and played with David Sylvian, Robert Plant, Bjork, Deacon Blue, Paul Young, REM, Beck, and was in the Verve, as well as making groundbreaking ambient records under his own name).

Our experimental sessions in my living room were space to push ideas to breaking point – BJ had a Gibson Echoplex, and I had my Looperlative (or probably a pair of EDPs when we first started playing together) so we could create a massive layered sound – we built, and the dismantled, a whole load of cinematic and occasionally terrifying soundscapes. The great thing about it for me was that, because we had a tendency to occupy similar sonic territory (the steel has a huge range, and as I was using the eBow an awful lot at the time, we were both producing a lot of sustained chords in similar registers) I had to listen more intently than ever to try and find the space where our sound-worlds met. Often in those sessions things would go off the deep end, and we’d end up with harsh noise (I wonder if any of that music is on a hard drive somewhere? We did record a lot of it…) It was a project that involved a lot of trial and error, a lot of rescuing of improvisations that got away from us.

The thing that I think made it most interesting for me was how successful the music was whenever we played live. Those safe-sessions in my house allowed us to push boundaries that meant that when we played live, we had a whole load of experience to fall back on, and were less apt to fall over the cliff-edge. Allowing yourself to find what happens when things get too messy, or when sounds pile up to the point where it begins to lose meaning – those are important and formative experiments. I’m deeply grateful to BJ for all the time we spent finding sounds and ideas, pushing things too far, and then applying it to a range of gigs in different combinations – my favourite of our projects was a trio with Cleveland Watkiss. We played a number of times at my night, The Recycle Collective, and it was an amazing experience and a great combinations of sounds. But I also loved opening for and sitting in with BJ’s group at the time, with Eddie Sayer on percussion and Ben Bayliss on laptop, playing the music from his brilliant Trouble In Paradise album.

It was such a privilege to get to play with a musician of BJ’s stature, but moreso a musician of his deep, ceaseless commitment to moving forward in his own creative path. I learned as much just from the experience of playing with someone who was already ‘a legend’ in the pop world, already absolutely at the top of his game, but who never stopped reaching for new things, who was ceaselessly curious about what else he might be able to do with his instrument. I carry that inspiration with me every time I pick up the instrument, and I really hope we get to play together again soon. It’s been way, way too long.

10 Collaborators Who Changed My Music Life. Part 6 – Poppy Porter

OK, here’s an interesting one. The 6th collaborator on my list that changed my music-life is Poppy Porter, and it’s apt that I’m writing about her today because the new issue of Bass Guitar Magazine has just come out with an interview with me in it, and a lot of what I’m talking about is this project.

What’s interesting is that, in the context of our duo, Poppy doesn’t make sound in order to make music. Our project, Illuminated Loops, involves me improvising, and Poppy – who is synaesthetic – drawing what she sees while I play. And then, I get to see whatever she’s drawing as she does it, and treat it as a graphic score for the music that comes next – to reinterpret the shapes and patterns and colours, the pastel strokes and swirls, and turn them back into music. It’s one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever been involved in, and has resulted in a bunch of music that is both wholly me and simultaneously entirely dependent on Poppy’s input for it to be what it is. It’s a co-creation project, where the lines between the visual and the audible are blurred in terms of who is making what happen.

For both Poppy and I, Illuminated Loops is a chance to inject another stimulus into our work, to see what happens when something else shapes the process. For me, that’s have the twin focus of both making a noise with the aim of ‘triggering’ images, and then reinterpreting them, and for Poppy, it’s taking a process that’s done for a while – that of turning the images she sees while listening to music into art – and making that a real-time performance. That’s a pretty terrifying shift of modality for an artist who makes things in a studio and then presents the finished work. To have a creative process that ends in a product suddenly morph into a performance is a massive change of context, and has big implications for the aesthetic of her work. For my part, I end up making a different kind of music in this context – it’s both me and not me at the same time. It’s all my sounds and stems from my musical vocabulary, but I react to things differently, and assemble things in a different way because of the visual cues and the that glorious feedback loop between Poppy and I.

With all of that magic going on, it’s no surprise that this project is at the heart of my ongoing PhD study, looking at my audience’s experience of improvisation. So we should be doing a lot more Illuminated Loops shows in the near future. Til then, grab a copy of Bass Guitar Magazine, and have a read of the new article. And if you subscribe to me on Bandcamp, Illuminated Loops vol I is already available, and vol II is out in the next couple of weeks (spoiler – Vol II is easily one of my favourite recordings I’ve ever done 🙂 )

And definitely check out Poppy’s work on her website – www.poppyporter.co.uk – and have a read of her blog, she’s a fascinating thinker, and extraordinary artist.