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The art of falling apart

img  Tobias Fischer

Although many are still passionately clinging to them, in the long run LPs and CDs are bound to be a dying species. We have only just begun to deal with the questions arising from this monumental change. One of them being: If the restrictions of physical media are replaced by all but limitless files and folders what happens to once established forms? On Soulnessless, Terre Thaemlitz reflected on the end of the traditional album, arriving at a thirty-one-hour-long meditation. Despite its epic proportions, with its length determined by the limitations of FAT32 size, this was obviously merely a temporary acme. While Soulnessless was foremost a conceptual work – clearly, no one was going to listen to it in one sitting – more and more artists are arriving at results which are equally challenging, innovative and listenable. With Light Folds, Bill Seaman and Craig Tattersall have perhaps created the most satisfying new-era album so far. Although, truth be told, 'listenable' is a relative term here: Spanning across sixty tracks, four sides of vinyl, two CDs as well as a DVD, dealing with death, expressing itself in mostly melancholy, dark and surreally glowing compositions, including collaborations with a wide range of instrumentalists including a string quartet and clocking in at more than seven hours, the work defiantly stretches the boundaries of the album to its limits. Easily one of the stand-out releases of 2013, this is a work which you can dive into to again and again without the music ever loosing its mysterious shimmer. About time to talk to Seaman and Tattersall about the processes and philosophy behind their project.

Bill, the press release mentions the term 'abstraction' quite a lot when speaking about your contributions. What, specifically, does it describe in the context of recording the album?
Bill Seaman / An abstraction can be a displacement of materials that is very concrete. It can take something and make something else out of it, or it can restructure it making something else out of it. Or it can create very different psychoacoustic spaces out of it. Ableton has many many many plug-ins for “altering” sound. You can easily make a “chain” or series of these and the original sound can be altered greatly, even becoming completely different from the original in sound. In a remix, one makes a new piece that refers to the earlier track. If you go beyond that level of a remix where you create something new or different, then this becomes an “abstraction” of the source. This still might “obliquely” refer to the original piece. Both Craig and I are artists, so abstraction in painting comes to mind as a metaphor. Have you ever seen the series of paintings that Mondrian did of a tree?

No, what are they like?
Bill Seaman / They start quite realistic and then slowly become increasingly more abstract, until they become something else altogether as part of the ongoing process – a set of geometric shapes. This is what happened with the mixes. Some were quite related. Some, through an ongoing organic process of change, became quite different or almost unrelated to the original. Alternately, sometimes we would borrow from multiple of the mixes to create hybrids … and then these might also become abstracted. Craig has his own analogue version of this - “Dusting”.

How does this technique of 'dusting' work?
Craig Tattersall / Funny thing this, but the term ‘dusting’ was coined by Bill about my process! He began sending me files and suggesting that I ‘dusted’ them. I did however understand completely what he meant. In terms of actual how it is done, I use a variety of tape recorders, either looped or just straight forward linear playing machines. I have a small collection of tape recorders, three old reel to reel machines in various states of decay, two 8 track reel to reel machines, a couple of four track recorders (cassette) and a drawer full of toploader cassette players and walkmans (recordable mainly). I also modify the tape I record onto, degrade it with abrasives, ‘chemical’ baths and also the oven so that the blank cassette is already altered, ready for my sounds to go onto. Some have been modified and the erase head is no longer present, allowing for layering of sound. When done with loops, unusual sonic events are formed, certain things decay whilst others remain. I think I love the lack of control over this part of the process. The main creative input for me is allowing the sound / machines to do their own work without me intervening and then for me to choose and assess what works and what doesn’t. This is in many ways why we have many versions of songs and also very long songs as the ‘dusting’ process throws up so much sonic richness.

Owing a great deal to the dustings, but also to the compositions, there's a pervasive mood of melancholy and a sense of drifting, of leaving the realm of time behind. Why did you feel yourself drawn to these sentiments?
Bill Seaman / I like the idea of transcending the ‘relentless pressure of time’ (sounds funny here) – of knowing that death is there, out on the horizon somewhere. Repetition, in part, takes away the sense of progression and change that suggest that time is passing. Of course, there is slow change in each of the works but somehow one can get submerged in experiencing the now moment of a slow unfolding. The structures we make enable one to ‘lose oneself’ in terms of time. Time gets suspended intentionally. Somehow, melancholy music makes me feel good - this is an odd paradox - perhaps it functions as a kind of release space. Music is a very specific emotional language – when it is very clear in its feel, it hits an emotional chord. It is funny (peculiar) that laughing and crying can be quite related. I often find myself laughing at the most intense moments in films I’m watching …

Light Folds is the result of an intense period, which you've described both as a phase of great creativity and learning. Can you take me through the different stages of the collaboration, please?
Bill Seaman / We started with a few files. We both used different techniques. I specifically used different qualities and attributes of Ableton Live so I was working with files exploring many different qualities that Ableton presents.
Craig might send me a guitar loop. I might add pitched violin loops, or shift pitches/speeds so they would “work” together and send back both the mix track and/or the individual tracks. Thus, part of the learning was what to keep and what to discard. Craig would then sometimes abstract these by transferring them to analogue tape loops, exploring sound degradation, tape noise, machine “problems”, chemical treatment of loops, re-recording in new ambient spaces or from “bad” speakers, or choose only some of them to work with or fragments of things and play with them digitally – with delay or speed or by making a specific edit. Many different kinds of noise and ambient atmospheres were created. It was a bit like making a puzzle in reverse! We learned to accept the different qualities of abstraction we were each exploring. I remember sending things off and being very excited to hear how Craig had “dusted” the samples. This was particularly true of piano samples.

I sent through very clean samples and Craig would do many different things to them, he would send them back altered and then I would alter them again. It was a bit like the famous painter Jasper Johns quote – take something, do something else to it, do something else to it. We learned to appreciate each others “something elses”. This is what led to such a big album (project) growing organically, but I believe keeping the quality in each track – one track at a time…

Many pieces have gone through various iterations and versions. This raises the question of when a piece is finished.
Bill Seaman / Well – I’m very interested in generative music and chance - as is Craig - so the idea of something fixed in time is not so important - more how can I generate a network of potentials that work in differing combinations. How can I make sonic components that can be combined and recombined to make new works? In terms of when something is finished - we might think of it more as being in one particular state at a given time, with the potential of infinite states … In this case, we ran with the materials for five iterations each … there was some talk about making an installation that would be entirely generative. In terms of being finished, when it works, don’t fix it … Fix here can have two meanings - don’t change it, or don’t lock it down so it can’t change… (laughs). We have a radio station set up that just plays the entire thing randomly in an ongoing manner. You dip in when you are in the mood … I think of these different states like plateaus.

Craif Tattersall / When is something finished is and age old question that many people creating something struggle to answer, and I guess most things actually have two or more lives / phases. For me it is finished when we stop working on it, quite simple. It then takes on a new life as it then belongs in a different sphere. Once it is released then it kind of stops belonging to just Bill and I and becomes its own entity for other people to have / work through / own. It is then finished in terms of our own explorations and creative investigation. But is still very much on going for the wider audience to explore.

The album makes use of a lot of samples by solo instrumentalists and ensembles. What kind of instructions would you give to the participating musicians?
Bill Seaman / This is a funny story. I worked with an incredible quartet called the Ciompi quartet. I met with each player individually and spent about ½ an hour recording them. They were not accustomed to “improvising”. I don’t write music in the traditional sense and they generally work by reading music people have written. We found a solution. I would sing a part or set of pitches and describe the sound I was looking for. In one case, the player then wrote down the notes and made an impromptu score - which we then continued to use for each of the players. Then she played from the score. They each did some small amount of “improvising” as well. In general it was a mix of sung pitches and or descriptions - can you play a set of different “harmonics” … can you do some quick plucks with this pitch … can you do some long slow bow movements with this pitch, etc. This was also the case with the trumpet player. I would sing a pitch or find it with him and describe what I was looking for - long held notes, or two or three note runs with a very warm sound. With the clarinet which was recorded in the 90s, we were doing something very interesting - making drones that would come out of silence and return to silence - not so easy to play.

With the piano I contributed I had a very specific way of working. I would go into a room and record about 45 minutes of piano that I would improvise. I knew the notes I had sung for Ciompi and I knew the “feel” I was looking for. I recorded simple notes and progressions. I later would make edits of these, finding the parts that “worked” for me. Sometimes these would be a three note section slowly repeating - sometime a longer, more complex fragment would be explored. Sometimes I would play inside the piano - also improvising. The singing I did was responding to a track we had built up, singing along with it. Or sometimes just singing notes and recording them for use later.

Light Folds contains more than seven hours of music and this, I assume, isn't even absolutely everything you've produced. With this mass of material, how did you go about sifting through the pile? What was the selection process like and what were some of the criteria for distributing the music across the different formats?
Bill Seaman / Interesting question. I think we both did selections and compared them. Craig worked hard on the sequencing of things. They tended to fall together naturally into each of the different “albums” that somehow made sense together – e.g. short versions for the vinyl. But Craig did a big push in this area of sequencing and grouping things at the end. He has done many, many albums, so I thought it best to let him run with it. Craig in particular, and Dan who runs the label, love albums and the physical side of doing a release. I love it also - I have a huge record and CD collection … we like the objects. Craig really ran with this as a vehicle for his art. It is a beautiful album, pointing at time in many different ways.

With the possibility of releasing much more expansive works, what does the album format mean to you these day? To me, in many respects, Light Folds feels almost like a huge field, which I can enter into at many different access points. 
Bill Seaman / I think there will be new kinds of releases that new technology and the Internet enable. I also like installations where there is a rarefied space one enters for a particular kind of experience. Yes, Light Folds is this field you mention, and we both feel that all of it “works” - some parts more abstract or challenging than others. Yet, there seems to be this cohesive aesthetic that holds things together, that grew naturally out of our dialogical working processes.

Craig Tattersall / I think, as Bill does, that there will be new forms for music and arts to be presented in and although this is a good thing on the whole I would also hope that the old forms still stay. I think we are socially very quick to drop older processes in favor of new quick and easy ways of working, thinking they will replace such process or other. Analogue photographic processes are a classic example: How many dark rooms were destroyed to make way for the computer and digital printer only for people to discover that really it is a completely new and separate process. The beauty for me lies in using both, crossing over the digital and the analogue. They both have inherent benefits and as such have inherent flaws. I like the flaws, whether they be digital or analogue. The use of both in conjunction can only expand a field of possibilities open to you. This is very exciting.

The Seaman and The Tattered Sail was an online project for the first two years. What was meeting up in person like after all the exchanges by email?
Bill Seaman / I was nervous I must admit. I didn’t want to scare him off. I’m a big old guy at this point … Everything continues quite normally I think, now I can picture him smiling in my mind which is nice! We finished this big work and have had some interesting talks about what to do next. We are very proud of Light Folds. It became a major work quite effortlessly. I don’t think either of us realized how big it actually was … When you do what you love to do, it actually gives you energy.

Craig Tattersall / I too must admit to being nervous, an excited nervousness I must add. I always worry about meeting people in reality after knowing them on-line, especially after feeling like you have grown to know someone as well as I had with Bill, I think it is just a worry that either your or their on-line person won’t match or marry with their real life self. We are all different on-line than in reality, just due to the nature of that style of communication, typing email is not like face to face talking in anyway, but as Bill mentioned there was in reality nothing to get worried about, we spent then entire day together - Andrew Hargreaves from The Boats joined us too - talking and drinking tea and coffee, we chatted about art, film, literature etc etc. It was all very easy and a lot of fun.

On his Ambientblog, Peter van Coten wrote: "Why wait 25 years to release a Special DeLuxe Anniversary Edition when you can release such an edition right away?" Certainly, there is a sense that it will take a few years to take this all in. What can possibly follow after this album? Do you have any plans for a follow-up? And if so, which direction could you imagine it taking?
Craig Tattersall / For sure it will take years to fully uncover every corner or fold of the release. I am still finding new things now, when you are so deeply involved in the creating you don’t have the wider vision to appreciate it all. It takes a while before I can revisit things normally, I have just started to do so with Light Folds and am pleased to discover things I cannot remember, subtle things I had forgotten or things that I had got confused over now seem to make sense. It is almost like listening to someone else’s work in many ways, just because I had forgotten so much!
As for ‘what’s next?’, well, we have plans, we just have to fit them in to both our busy creative schedules!

Bill Seaman / We are waiting for the right moment to start up again. Both of us are incredibly prolific – we love to work on these things, both as artists and musicians. Craig has a number of projects and upcoming releases on the horizon as do I. I look forward to us starting up again when the moment is right. It is a pretty full-on process once things get into motion. We both lead multiple lives … this is just one part. Craig has more band monikers that anyone I know! He is the Humble Bee.

Craig Tattersall / We have discussed that it would be ‘odd’ for want of a better word to repeat the process that we undertook for Light Folds. Even though it was so successful for us both on many levels, I don’t think there is anything to be gained from repeating it. We need to push ourselves to somewhere that might be a little uncomfortable for us, to put a little pressure on us, to be fresh again. So the place we feel we can find that is in a straight forward LP of covers. Pop songs, simple classic pop songs. We intend to invite a few more collaborators in on the project. We each will choose ‘some’ pop songs that we feel has special importance to us and then we will start to cover / remix / rework / discuss / pass / deconstruct them. The output is not known yet, the sound or how these songs will work or be structured is unknown. We will again go hand in hand to discover the boundaries of this project, the songs and each other.

We hope we will make some beautiful music from it. Who knows?

By Tobias Fischer

The physical edition of Light Folds has sold out. A digital edition, containing all sixty pieces created for the project, is available from Facture's bandcamp page.

Homepage: The Seaman and the Tattered Sail