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The presence of space

img  Tobias Fischer

It is often said that one of the fundamental tasks for any artist consists in uncovering truths and secrets hidden underneath the surface of things. In the case of Ascendant, their first album as a duo after years of playing together, Jesse Canterbury and Greg Sinibaldi have taken this goal verbatim. Performing a collection of ten pieces for saxophone and clarinet, Sinibaldi and Canterbury literally went underground, spending four entire days in the Dan Harpole Cistern, a vast, two-million gallon cylindrical concrete tank, which, as the press release by congenial label partner Prefecture Recordings informs, was "originally constructed as an emergency water supply for fire control for nearby Fort Worden". The performance in September of 2011 would turn out to be a deeply inspiring and artistically challenging document. Thanks to an epic, 45 second reverb time, the individual lines of the players stretched out into soft landscapes of reed resonance, occasionally overlapping with subsequent themes or gently fading away into soft clouds of echo. Sinibaldi and Canterbury consequently had to move with utmost delicacy and concentration, injecting each breath on their instrument with meaning – as on the breathtaking opener "Wade", for example, which takes on an all but spiritual significance on the strength of nothing but a handful of notes. It wasn't just the unusual space which injected the music with meaning, however. From a personal angle, too, Ascendant marks an important incision for the duo, since Canterbury left his long-time home of Seattle shortly after the recordings, forcing him and Sinibaldi to re-think their creative relationship. And yet, the album is just as much the end of a chapter as it is the beginning of something new. After all, now they've looked underneath the surface of things, Canterbury and Sinibaldi have no intention of allowing trivial concerns to stop them.

In this interview, we speak to Greg Sinibaldi about his impressions of the Cistern recordings. You can also check out our conversation with Jesse Canterbury about Ascendant here.

Many people seem to associate Seattle either with the grunge-era or Grey's Anatomy. Your activities, meanwhile, suggest, there may be a whole lot more to the city. Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with Seattle and its music scene, please?
Seattle has a great, and growing, creative/improvised music scene. One thing I particularly like about it is that it is an extremely open place. There’s no pressure to make work that goes one way or another. Perhaps its the remoteness of Seattle to the rest of the country, or Seattle's blue collar history but there’s an openness here I haven't experienced in other places.

Ascendant occupies a special place in both of your discographies. What were the origins of the project and how did it come about?
Jesse and I have played music together for quite sometime and we were both aware of other recordings that were made in the space. We had done some duo playing as two bass clarinets before and I think it was me that floated the idea of doing something in the Cistern. Then we just made it happen.

There are a few historical examples of recording in 'special' spaces, including Paul Horn's Inside the Great Pyramid and the Deep Listening Band's The Ready Made Boomerang. Were you aware of some of these pieces and did they, in any way, play into your considerations?
I’ve been aware of a number of recordings made in specific acoustic environments, particularly those done in the Cistern. I listened to quite a few of the other Cistern recordings, to specifically get ideas on how to record the space and what I liked or didn’t like about the sound of those recordings. All of that was helpful, but nothing compared with being in the space itself.

Ascendant contains both compositions and improvisations. With regards to the former, what was the writing process like?
We spent 4 days recording in the Cistern and wrote most of the music while we were there. I had a few ideas sketched out beforehand but it basically all changed once we got in the space. I think Jesse’s piece "Dreaming in 2 million", was already done before we got there.
Being in the space had a great effect on the music we wrote for it. It's such a strong presence almost as if it's another character in the composition. Something so strong it must to be dealt with. It's as if I had a relationship with the Cistern and Jesse, and wrote music accordingly.
The recording sessions were fun. We’d get there about 10 am to meet Wade. Wade worked for the park and was responsible for driving the tractor that would lift the lid off the entrance to the Cistern. Then Jesse and I would lower our equipment and instruments down with a rope and record for 4 or 5 hours. Then each night we’d listen back to what we had done that day and make adjustments to the music accordingly.
The whole of the first day was spent trying different microphone placements. We tried recording in the center, on the edge and places in between as well as moving mics around a bunch. We then listened to it all the first night, decided which we liked best, then just left the mics and recording equipment in place. Everything was battery powered, there’s no electricity there. If you want electricity you have to bring a generator, which we didn’t really want to deal with.

How does the recorded version of the album compare to what you actually experienced on site? Also with regards to your frequent concerts, how do you see the relationship between a performance and its recording?
I think it's pretty much impossible to really capture what it's like being in the Cistern, but I think we got pretty close. We spent a lot of time thinking about the best ways to capture the sound there and I’m very happy with the result.
We haven’t performed any of this music in public, nor do I think we should. For me, this record is a documentation of transformational events and trying to recreate it takes away from the content of the material.

What were some of the challenges of working within such a majestic space?
I definitely think of the space as a third musician in this context. Like I said before the power of it is something that must be dealt with. You cant go in there and do just anything, the space dictates that it be included in your process!

Many have characterised the album as having a 'religious' feeling. Do you have a plausible theory why spaces with long reverbs tend to evoke these sensations?
I find the idea of religiousness interesting and I see why some can draw that conclusion with this music. The way sound behaves in the Cistern is something other-worldly for sure. I think that’s what gives it its weight. The mysteriousness of what the sound will do is something we don’t really experience in any other realm of our modern lives. Just taking the time to awash yourself within one sound for a 45 second time frame is a completely unique experience. Sound contains the mystery of the world and that’s makes it spiritual.

As mentioned, Ascendant was a very personal work for you both. Can you tell me a bit about the importance of beauty, friendship and spirituality in your work?
It's funny you mention beauty. I’ve been thinking a lot about what that means, particularly for my music. I have another project to be released in May and when playing it for a group of friends, they all mentioned how dark it was, which completely surprised me. To me it’s beautiful and I strive to have some form of beauty in everything I do.

Ascendant marks the end of a chapter for you both. Do you nonetheless see any chance of this duo playing together again?
I’d like to do other site-specific recordings with this duo. I’ve been in touch with the Satsop Nuclear Facility located about 2 hours south of Seattle about recording in the abandoned cooling towers there. They have 2 cooling towers, made completely of concrete and hundreds of feet high. I’m hoping to visit the site in the coming months to investigate the acoustics!

Greg Sinibaldi interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Greg Sinibaldi
Homepage: Prefecture Recordings