I have a track on a rather great free to download compilation for Marc Weidenbaum’s Disquiet.com blog. Each song inspired by a different image taken with the popular iphone application, Instagram.

The compilation can be downloaded from here.

William Gibson said recently that science fiction is a way of examining the present without having to cope with the reality of looking directly at it. I think Instagram is a bit like this. Except with Instagram we’re not really looking at or thinking about reality. We’re looking at what today might look like if we found it in a beaten up shoebox full of old photographs in the attic.

My assigned image (seen below) was taken by Jon Monteverde. It seemed to suggest that cool shivering excitement one feels when offered a vista of a city in the hazy early morning. With this in mind, I built a song around a blackbirds call recorded at dawn from a rooftop in Madrid, Spain kindly provided by Dobroide at http://www.freesound.org. Another recording of morning traffic heard from my bedroom window in Dublin, Ireland was also placed very low in the mix, reduced almost to the bare hiss of white noise.

The bell and synth sounds that duel (duet?) with the blackbird come from the amazing Aalto synth created by Madrona Labs.

On top of these sounds various gauzy digital layers were heaped: a digital guitar pedal called the el Capistan that emulates the sound and warmth of old tape delays, a VST called the Glue that mimics the sound of SSL buss compressors, and other such wonders of the modern age. Brave new simulacra of venerable old tools.

Stephen Quinn mastered the track at his Analog Heart studio.

You can read a bit about the image I submitted and what music Mark Rushton created for it here. The image shows my brother Kieran floating in a lake on Rathlin island. Mark’s music fits the image perfectly I think.

A new tune.

Of late, I’ve become kind of tired of synthetic timbres. They can sound unreal, intangible. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that I mostly work with virtual instruments inside a computer as much as the sound itself. Staring blankly at a computer is something I do rather a lot of in work and at home, so it was nice to try something different for this track. Sitting at a piano certainly makes a change from my usual methods. This is the first fruit of recordings I made a few Saturdays ago on Adrienne’s piano.

I can’t play piano (or any instrument for that matter) and usually create melody either via midi sequencers, or by painstakingly entering notes one by one on a keyboard. I sat down, turned on the recorder, picked a key (E harmonic minor), and began bashing away. Unfortunately, I wasn’t confident enough to try and transpose or otherwise create more fluid melody so the best I could manage for that first recording was no more than a bunch of 4 or 5 note phrases in amongst other random or misplaced notes. Thankfully, these phrases were enough to sample and loop into a longer piece.

I made a number of recordings with my trusty Zoom H2 recorder placed at different locations inside and around the piano. The recordings are quite noisy and I should probably have spent a bit more time setting up the microphone and getting an optimal position for recording. Despite this, I was pretty happy with it. Quite a lot of incidental sounds also made their way onto the recordings which appeals to me and was kind of what I was looking for.

The recordings were then loosely chopped into smaller bits and pieces and then sequenced in Renoise. I was surprised at how alien and unsettling a piano can sound when reversed. A very simple yet effective technique. Apart from reversing some of the samples, there wasn’t much else added to the final piece except some reverb and eq. I also submerged a field recording of a Spanish playground in the background for added texture. I’m a sucker for such things in music and enjoy picking out incidental sounds when the foreground goes quiet.

The name of the song was lifted from an interview with Amanda Brown in a recent issue of The Wire magazine.

Ann smiles at me as I eat. “Of course there were arguments in the past about records and equipment that Seamie spent money on, when there were other things that could be bought.” I’m in Navan, visiting my Aunt. More specifically, i’m here to see my uncle’s music room. My uncle Seamie had been an ardent music fan his entire life. I have memories of visiting as a child being greeted by a booming tenor voice. In my memories, he was always singing. And laughing. Loudly. Seamie was my jolly half deaf uncle from Navan. His music room was his lair. It still holds his pristine collection of records, tapes, and musicial ephemera. His treasure. All that he couldn’t take with him when he died 3 years ago.

After dinner, I venture out into the music room. My uncle’s space. This is where he could safely dip out of the everyday and indulge his great passion. Although I had been aware of his deep love for the bass toned profundity of the male voice, I only learned recently of his music collection and this annexed room. This idea of a hitherto unknown musical sanctuary intrigues me. It offers a chance to learn more about my uncle and maybe also a bit about his brother, my father, who died a year after Seamie passed away. I wanted to see this part of my uncle that he left behind and that we have in common: a love of music, listening, records, collecting.

Seamie’s lair is a small L shaped room located off the kitchen, out by his workshop. It smells of disuse in the way that rooms that were once so cherished often do. The air is cold and stale and a thin layer of dust rests over everything. In the short corner of the L sits a fairly impressive looking pioneer amp, all silver, switches, dials. Beside it, an audiophile turntable, and an akai reel  to reel recorder. In the long part of the room, stacked to the ceiling, are neat rows of a lifetime’s worth of vinyl, tapes, and cds. Mostly operatic recordings, and classical music. Hours upon hours upon hours of the male voice.

Scattered throughout the room are the various implements of the music obsessive. Anti static cloths, tape cleaner fluid, neat little brushes. The tools of the archiver and recordist. Seamie’s modus operandi was to listen to his records once or twice, and then commit them to tape. First to 1/4 inch tape via the akai, later to cassette. Once recorded, the records were slotted carefully into a packed shelf, the deep baritone voices having being preserved forever in ferric oxide. The tape became the receptacle. My uncle had as many tapes as he did records. He spent hours at a time engrossed in these recordings, sitting on a comfortable lean back chair, now faded and torn.

There are a number of reel to reel tapes still lying around. Each box contains carefully typed liner notes. These must have been his most cherished recordings. Reel to reel tape is expensive and Seamie would have had to carefully choose the records that he wanted to capture to tape. I guess he must have been pretty chuffed when the first cheap cassette tapes and portable recorders came on the market.

I pluck a record at random, place it down on the platter, and fiddle with the amp until it crackles to life. The headphones plugged into it catch my eye. An old pair of studio headphones, they are so worn that the soft ear cushioning is completely missing on both sides. They had obviously been worn long after the foam had disappeared too, the phones are slick and greasy all over. My uncle had the same dark hair that all his brothers had. The same hair as Dad. Thick haired thick Navan men. I have that hair too.

I don’t know what I’m looking for as I thumb through the shelves of records. It’s not the music though, not the various sides that he had amassed over the years. Taken together, can these vinyl slivers make up a picture of a man? In the room you can certainly see my uncle’s hand. He was a meticulous man, and a lover of the beauty in things. His care for his records showed devotion that was present in everything he did in his life. He had a large family. He was a deep well of love and jollity and his devotion and love for his family was reciprocated by his wife and 7 children. In his later years, his many grand-children shared that love. There is a great photograph hanging in Ann’s kitchen of Seamie in his workshop mapping out something or other he was building, his rapt grandchildren gathered around following the expansive sweep of his hand.

In the calibration and record cleaning apparatus that is piled by the amplifier you can see the exactitude and precision that he brought to bear on his working life. Seamie was a master carpenter, who in later years took to perfecting classical designs for Chippendale style furniture. His work shop was full of machining tools that he designed himself. The tools of the trade. Tools that allowed him to carve out his talents into choice pieces of solid mahogany. The off cuts of which were a rich prize I took home after one visit. I spent many hazy afternoons transforming them into castles and other such vaulted structures that could be swept back into their constituent misshapen forms with the stroke of a child’s arm.

And so here my uncle’s collection sits, built up over a lifetime, still and quiet as dust in the back room. Ann has since tried to find a lover for these partner-less records, but to no avail. In particular, my uncle had a deep lifelong appreciation for the famous Irish tenor John McCormack.  At the close of his life, he was near to having a complete collection of his recorded oeuvre. It is this impressive hoard of the Irish tenor that Ann wants to find a new home for. “I think I may as well throw out the records if I don’t find someone that would appreciate them as much as Seamie did.” Finding someone to appreciate Seamie’s records is a wish of Ann’s that can hopefully be fulfilled. The next step will to be get some kind of catalogue together. A list representing a lifetime that may yet enrich someone else’s life.

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