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Moments in the Mind's Ear

img  Tobias Fischer

Finding your creative soulmate is one of the most rewarding experiences for any artist. Sometimes, you just need a lot of patience before the magic moment arrives. For many decades, Graham Bowers had felt perfectly happy working on his own, creating surreal, fantastical and immersive psycho-acoustic worlds, David-Lynch-like theatres of silence and sound. Periods of bustling activity – such as when he published a trilogy of widely acclaimed, expansive works in the early to mid 90s – took turns with phases of public withdrawal, resulting in a more than ten year long hiatus after the release of Pilgrim in 1999. After a chance encounter with Nurse With Wound's Steven Stapleton, meanwhile, Bowers has entered a highly fruitful collaboration and what may quite possibly constitute the most productive era of his entire artistic career. The meeting between Stapleton and Bowers might seem like an unequal one, with the former acting as a figurehead of the experimental scene and the latter shunning even the dim lights of the underground for most of his life. And yet, when it comes to music, these differences no longer register. Rather, in their duo work, the two formed a perfect unity in which the absurd is celebrated, collage treated as an organic compositional tool and curiosity for the dark corners of the mind serving as a compass. With titles like "Off to Hell on a Handcart" (from their second album Parade) or their first full-length Rupture revolving around the 'goings-on' in the brain during the last hour and three minutes of a life after suffering a major stroke", this is hardly the stuff for a Summer mixtape. And yet, there is a great deal of harmony to be found here, the kind of audible joy which emanates from having found the perfect creative sparring partner. It may have taken a long time to get there. But now they've found a creative soulmate, Bowers and Stapleton look intent on keeping up their companionship for as long as possible.

There was a very long period of silence between Pilgrim and your work with Nurse With Wound. What was it like?
I live on a small farm, called a ‘Small Holding’ in the UK. The work and maintenance required just to keep the place ‘standing still’ is a full time job, so the period of silence you mentioned was taken up with on-going day to day mundane chores. However there was an extended period of time of inactivity and recuperation when I fell off the roof of one of the buildings and fractured my spine. There was a commission for a figurative bronze sculpture that is now in the foyer of a Performing Arts University in Scotland, which took about six months to make in between the chores ... and there was another music work ‘Unresolved Issues’ I worked on, part of which was modified for the Art/Sound event I mentioned earlier. I didn’t publish it as a physical release, just digitally ... writing that stirred memories ... I was in the process of narrowing everything down, there was a feeling of ‘not being bothered anymore’ ... and then, shortly after, I met Steven, and everything has changed.

How did you meet?
I had been reluctantly cornered into putting together a short 15 minute piece for Joel Cahen’s Wet Sounds Art/Sound event at the swimming pool here in North Wales. When first asked, no matter how many times I said “thanks, but no thanks” the very nice and enthusiastic man who was organising the event didn’t listen. He was keen to keep telling me that Nurse With Wound were the headline act, thinking that would enthuse me to take part. It didn’t  ... anyway, through guilt and not wanting to let the organisers down, I did it, but throughout the day I kept myself to myself, all the time wondering how I had let myself get drawn into this.

However the inevitable happened, and eventually Steven and I were introduced to each other. In hindsight it was one of those seminal moments that happens very rarely in life, when one knows that something special has happened, but at the time I was too preoccupied worrying about my piece ... I had decided to project a film I made in synchronicity with the music on to the ceiling above the swimming pool, and because of the safety issues raised by the venue, and equipment complications, I was scheduled to go on last. I was a nervous wreck. After it was all finished Steven came over to talk, and a little bit of shared artistic and indefinable magic happened in the few minutes of conversation we had. Since then, it has grown and developed into something rather special.

Investigating the last moments in a brain after a stroke is hardly an everyday topic. What sparked the idea of making it the departure point for your work with Nurse with Wound?
The subject matter was something I had been intending to attempt to put together after witnessing my father’s demise. After he suffered a stroke, he was totally somewhere else; he was seeing and talking to my mother and sisters who had long since died, along with countless other people, all from his past. Although in hospital, in his head he was somewhere else, describing environments and places that were a mystery and unknown to me, he was hearing things that weren’t there, seeing things that weren’t there, talking to people who weren’t there ... As he hadn’t got a clue who I was, the only way I could communicate with him was by singing the first line of many 1930s songs. Without fail he responded immediately, and sang the rest of the song word perfect. Sad though it was, it was a potent and fascinating experience in witnessing and communicating with someone I thought I knew so well, who wasn’t ‘him’ anymore. I hope Steven doesn’t mind me saying what follows, but coincidently he was going through similar experiences with his own father ... and through talking, exchanging ideas, sound samples, musical motifs, exchanging completed and half completed tracks, the first collaboration, Rupture, came together.

Did you approach the subject more from a scientific or personal angle, would you say?
It was both, loosely scientific in the sense of trying to understand the workings and connections in the damaged brain, it seemed to me that everything we know about cognition had vacated; and all that was left were crystal clear memories generated from, and recalled off the long unused and dusty shelves of the undamaged part of the mammoth and mysterious organ we call the brain. I find it difficult to accept that we are something special above all other forms of life ... basically my belief is that we are nothing more than one example of a multitude of amazing bio-chemical machines, and consider myself incredibly lucky for the opportunity in being one.

Your work has always seemed extremely personal to me. What was it like sharing composing duties this time and allowing someone else into your musical world?
Before and leading up to presenting some musical ideas to Steven I did have reservations. Serious ones, not only because they had come from a deep rooted personal approach, but also, I had no benchmark for how they would be received ... this was a totally new experience, it was the first time I had committed myself to allowing anyone, never mind someone of Steven’s stature, to hear raw unfinished tracks. I assumed the worst, expecting my proposals to be rebuffed. To my ears anyway, my offerings were different in many ways to the little I knew of his back catalogue ... but I was proved wrong, as the response was the opposite. Those reservations are now history, and for me at least, the sharing and collaborating with Steven has become a joy.

In our last interview, we spoke a bit about the sources for the sounds on your albums. Could you shed some light on how you develop the music with these materials serving as a point of departure? I am especially interested in how the distinct narrative comes about and how much of it is mapped out before you start putting things together.
I vaguely remember saying something like “I have no hard and fast rules” with respect to digital manipulation of recorded analogue sounds, whether that be from a musical instrument, or a generated or found sound, I still don’t. The whole process of composition is organic and I will do whatever is necessary to manipulate a sound to how I want it. Musicality in the conventional sense isn’t a consideration, it truthfully never is!!
I struggle to find the right words to accurately describe what I am creating and producing. It isn’t a soundscape and neither is it a conglomeration of chaotic sound. I simply want to produce a work, where sound alone manifests itself as an entity, having a substance, a meaning, a multiplicity of personalities, that doesn’t necessarily rely on conventional musical structures and frameworks to be valid. I could try and dream up another description of what my work is about, but I can’t, I haven’t the knowledge or skill with words.
Yes each work has does have a form of distinct narrative, and some sections are roughly mapped out, but overall it is an organic process that starts and relates to the narrative that originates from an audio image and concept in my mind’s eye and ear.

The question of how sound art relates to sculpting has been discussed at length elsewhere. Since you've worked in industrial design, I'd be curious about your opinion on where the functional ends and art begins.
Interesting question and one that doesn’t have a definitive answer, as I believe it is subjective. A good example of this; an ‘artist’ (who didn’t make the work) places a complex beautifully machined mechanism of cogs and gear wheels in an art gallery and it is seen and labeled as ‘fine art’. To an engineer familiar with such things it is a well made and functional mechanism, nothing special, nothing new. We all see and respond to things differently. Sculpting or modeling, I ‘build-up’ with clay, rather than ’take-down' from a block with a chisel. I can only describe my approach and my way of doing what I do, I am well aware that other artists have different methods, thoughts and approaches to the process.

There are moments in the process of modeling that equate to the adrenaline rush when putting together a piece of music, but otherwise the approach couldn’t be more different. The sculpture (model) has to be planned and thought through before starting, the metal armature on which the clay is laid has to be absolutely correct in all three dimensions, so one has to visualise the finished object whilst building the skeletal structure, taking into account important factors like balance and weight as well as and the practicalities of casting the finished model in the foundry. It is similar to the mind-set of commercial work in that it involves a lot of fore-thought and familiarity with the processes involved to achieve a successful outcome. I find it pleasurable, but nerve-racking at the same time ... I usually have two or three pieces ‘on the go’ in various stages of completion.

How do you see the relationship between your sculptures and your music?
All my sculptures are figurative, and capture a static moment in time of an acute expression of humanity, that hopefully trigger a response of recognition in the viewer. Similarly so in my music, except that there is a multiplicity of moments in time.

To date, I have made a couple of short videos combining the two media.
I scanned the finished sculpture with a 3D scanner, fed the information from the scan into an engineering CAD computer program, which then generated what is called a ‘Point-Cloud’. Each of these points in the cloud are the result of the laser recording a point on the sculpture’s surface in three dimensional space. Each point is then linked by a vector to its nearest two neighbours, forming a triangle. There are literally hundreds of thousands of these recorded points and when triangulated form a ‘wire mesh’ that illustrates the form of the outer contours of the figurative sculpture. I then animated the form by distorting, stretching and generally manipulating it into a breathing mass of abstract humanity, accompanied by pieces of music that I put together.
In the first instance it was basically a digitally treated heartbeat and went out as ‘Mitosis, Meiosis, Metempsychosis’. I developed the concept further for the short film that was projected onto the ceiling above the swimming pool at the Wet sounds art/music event I mentioned earlier to the music of ‘Unresolved Issues’. It was an enjoyable process and very satisfying ... thanks to technology.

Rupture was quickly followed by another duo work, Parade. The bonus material on the special edition is said to offer "the final resolution of Parade". What is being resolved here, do you feel?
Before I answer the question, and I am not waffling, I would like to try and explain my perspective on Parade and how it developed. It is also worth noting at this point that I unashamedly love thematic work, call it conceptual, call it what ever you like ... it is the way I prefer to work.
I played Steven what is now the first track on the album "Off to Hell on a Handcart", it was very basic and incomplete, but contained many of the elements, in terms of musical composition and instrumentation, of how I see and observe the ridiculousness and absurdity of the human species, myself included ... with respect to characteristics, personalities, behavior and the literal meaning of conceit. As alluded to in the sleeve notes, it is a parade of these elements in musical form presented in the style of Commedia del’Arte. Steven’s response was very positive and the rest of the album grew from there ... lots and lots of communication, lots and lots of musical ideas, and lots and lots of fun. The bonus material is an epilogue, almost an archeological discovery, looking back to a species that disappeared up its own rectum ... due to its own overblown conceit ... or a pensive and compacted resume of the aftermath of ‘what was’ ... but equally valid, it can be whatever the listener wants it to be.

Now the first two albums with Steven have done so well, what are your plans for the collaboration – and beyond it?
There are two other collaborative albums that haven’t yet been released, Pulse and Chiasmata, so we have been quite busy, and I have added or contributed to a couple of tracks that Steven and his other collaborators plan to release. I have been putting together the bare bones of a new work, Time Elapsed, which currently includes significant amounts of Steven’s material. And at the moment the signs are positive that it will be another collaboration.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Graham Bowers
Homepage: Nurse With Wound