In Retrospect: 15 Reasons 2015 Was The Best Year Ever!Posted: December 24, 2015
With Christmas upon us once again and 2016 standing waiting in the sidelines, I’ve decided to take a few moments to look back at some of my favourite ‘occurrings’ of the last twelve months before hurling myself bodily in the new year. Personally, it’s been an incredible 2015, packed full of adventure, intrigue, music-making, travelling and friends old and new – although I am well aware that in the wider world it’s been a pretty rotten year for so many. Anyway, huge thanks to everyone who has listened, supported, encouraged and invited in 2015 – and there’s far too many to mention here. I’ll happily stand each and every one of you a dandelion and burdock upon our next meeting – even if that does prove to be financially crippling in practice!
So, without further ado, here are 15 of my favourite moments from the last year, in no particular order:
1.) Tales From The Black Tangle
Although having said ‘in no particular order’, it does seem only good and right to start here, writing as I am the day after the very final available copy of Howlround‘s recently-released fourth album was snapped up. I was anticipating that trade would be brisk after that limited reissue of previous LP Torridon Gate sold out in a single afternoon back in April; but really wasn’t quite prepared for just how quickly they’d be snapped up – and neither was the Post Office! Since the official release last month we’ve sent copies all over Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and Japan, but now the time has finally come to say ‘That’s all, folks’. The response has been fantastic, with Martyn Ware (ace sound designer and former lynchpin of The Human League / Heaven 17 etc.) recently describing it as ‘beautiful and evocative – right up my street’; and as you can see below, even our heroes at The (original) Radiophonic Workshop got behind the project:
Thanks so much to everyone who has invested in the project including PopMuzik Records, Fukuoka, Japan and aQuarius in San Francisco, Ray and Grace ‘OH’ Carmen, ace mastering engineer James Edward Barker and all our friends who have provided such positive feedback and kind words along the way. An early version of the track ‘Mount Shock’ was originally commissioned by Mark Vernon’s month-long Radiophrenia broadcast in Glasgow, and I honestly can’t think of any greater accolade than the fact that this piece was chosen as the station’s final transmission before it ceased operations. A proud moment indeed.
…Although as accolades go, this recent one’s from Mike at the Touch Organisation is a bit of a doozie:
— Mike Harding (@venoztks) December 19, 2015
Anyway, if you’re still desperate for a copy of the LP (and I’ve already had a number of emails suggesting this to be the case), I’m afraid that, as promised, there will be no second pressing. But all is NOT yet lost – one particular online retailer took delivery of one of the last remaining boxes a week ago and has plans to sell them in the new year. For the moment, that’s all I’m at liberty to say, but as soon as they ‘go live’, I’ll let you know.
2.) Saisonscape: Decay Tour with William Basinski & Kepla:
If you’d told me in January that I’d be sharing a stage with one of my very, very favourite artists in the coming months, I would have backed away slowly, assuming you to be either a hopeless optimist or genuinely bananas. But dreams can come true and three nights in the terrific company of William Basinksi, Jon Kepla, Julia Dempsey and others was a complete delight from start to finish, beginning with a sold-out show at London’s Cafe Oto and culminating in the dramatic spectacle of tape loops strung from balcony to stage at The Kazimier; an alternative music institution in Liverpool currently days away from closing forever. Thanks to all the new friends we made along the way and particularly to Victoria Hastings for shooting this rather fine video during the soundcheck:
3.) Howlround’s TV Debut On Click:
A recent highlight was Howlround’s TV debut for the BBC’s flagship technology programme Click and a visit to our studio from affable host Spencer Kelly on the one day of the year we’d run out of teabags. The programme itself is still available to view online by clicking on the image above and features a whistle-stop tour of the Howlround studio and Spencer’s initiation into the wonderful world of musique concréte. Watch and marvel as a single recording of a squeaking mic stand from a BBC studio is suddenly transformed into an outtake from the Forbidden Planet soundtrack – without any computer interference! And then perhaps you could send a message of support to that BBC Studio via it’s Twitter profile?
I think Spencer quite enjoyed his visit and hist first attempt at tape-loop composition – the man’s a natural, quite frankly, so we should probably up our game in case he launches a rival project. The track we made with his help – entirely from 52A’s ‘squeaky bits’ – is still available as a free download too:
Of course this wasn’t the first time we’d broadcast images from the Howlround studio. Take for example this Vine video that was captured by Chris during the album recording sessions a month or two previously. When viewed alongside our appearance on Click, you’ll find it really does offer some insight into just how much tidying up we did before Spencer and the team arrived!
4.) The Delaware Road Launch Party / Howlround’s US Live Debut:
I’ve taken the liberty of squeezing these two events into a single entry as they occurred, by some logistical miracle, within 48 hours of one-another. First off, was the launch party for Buried Treasure‘s excellent Radiophonic concept album. Several years in the making and soundtracking a fictionalised account of the travails of two pioneering audio adventurers in the 1960s, The Delaware Road opened with this exclusive Howlround track and continued with excellent work by Twelve Hour Foundation, The Dandelion Set, Revbjelde, Loose Capacitor and lots more. The gatefold CD is still available here for a ridiculously cheap £6 and label-mates Revbjelde’s new digital EP Buccaboo is well worth a listen too. Along with Twelve Hour Foundation, they’re a group I’d really like to see release a full-length LP in 2016. Fingers crossed!
Less than 48 hours later (25 of them spent either on a plane, in an airport terminal or in a panic-stricken dash across several terminals because two planes just happened to be heading to the exact same city at the exact same moment), Howlround found itself onstage in Portland, Oregon making it’s first ever US appearance in a bar with a huge pentangle painted across the ceiling and a founder member of the Church Of Satan in the audience (nice chap, so I’m told):
I am seriously indebted to Erik and Ben of Gray Columns (plus their respective partners Cindy and Ellie) for making all of this happen and for just being truly awesome human beings – we could not have hoped for a warmer welcome. Check out their music here. Erik is also responsible for my single favourite picture of the year, captured during a digging session with my ever-patient travelling companion Gemma at a local record emporium:
I’m seriously indebted to Gemma too. But that’s another story… 🙂
5.) Xpylon – A Charity Compilation
Very proud to have had a hand in putting this charity compilation together, comprised of exclusive tracks from former Exotic Pylon artists and with all proceeds going to mental health charity MIND. Featuring Ekoplekz, Cindytalk, Time Attendant, former members of Hacker Farm and much more – including myself, Band Of Holy Joy’s Johny Brown and Dolly Dolly teaming up as The Trunchbulls. There’s also an early version of ‘OH’, Howlround’s collaboration with abandoned playground several months before the extended remixed version appeared on Tales From The Black Tangle. A jolly fine album for a jolly fine cause, all of which, not unreasonably, earned us a rather good review in The Wire:
6.) Strøm Festival : Cisternerne Performance & Workshop, Copenhagen, Denmark
Almost certainly the most remarkable venue I performed in this year was a sold-out show for the Strøm Festival alongside genius producer Logos in a cavernous former reservoir beneath Copenhagen with an incredible sixteen-second natural reverberation! What an incredible evening it was!
Almost as remarkably, the following day saw me leading a sound-hunting and tape composition workshop from a trawler moored at the docks, backed up by an extremely enthusiastic class of students of the local summer school. Sadly a recording of the performance itself would have been impractical in the circumstances, but I’m hoping I’ll get the chance to go there again before long and give the space the full Howlround treatment! In the meantime, hopefully this recording from the workshop will suffice:
Thanks once more to Jim, Pernille, James Logos, Allan and all my Strøm friends. Hope we get to do this again!
7.) Profile On Stuart Maconie’s The Freakier Zone
— BBC Radio 6 Music (@BBC6Music) July 18, 2015
Thanks to Stuart Maconie and producer Rebecca Gaskell for inviting me onto the show to talk about my work and play some of my favourite pieces of ‘foley audio’ – I’ll stand both of you a Dandelion and Burdock as well. The programme also featured some choice Howlround selections including an early demo version of ‘A Viewless Sea’ from the new album that was hurriedly knocked into shape in time for broadcast. The ‘listen again’ link has unfortunately expired, but the track-listing can be found here and I suppose you could always recreate the experience by compiling a playlist and inviting me over?
8.) Jardins Efémeros Festival, Viseu, Portugal
Another highlight of the summer (and another remarkable venue) was Howlround’s sound installation and tape performance double-whammy at this cracking little festival in the medieval town of Viseu, Portugal. The installation was created especially for a funeral parlour in the town square and made entirely from field recordings of the local area as well as the voices of three generations of the family that runs the business. It played throughout the festival on a continuous thirty-five minute loop from speakers hidden amongst the coffins in the parlour’s darkened back room, a set-up that slightly freaked out the mayor when he made his tour of inspection, so a job well done there, I think. The tape loop performance itself took place in the 16th century cloister between the Cathedral and the town’s museum and drew one of our biggest crowds to date – a huge success in spite of a poorly tape machine and the presence of a slight breeze that made the loops rather flap about a bit. Huge thanks must go to tireless festival organiser Sandra Oliveira and her team, as well as our friends Sandra Rodriguez and Filipe Oliveira – another warm welcome. Chris and I are crossing our fingers and toes in the hope they’ll invite us back again next year. In the meantime, here’s a quick extract from our set:
9.) An Antidote To Indifference:
British Library Sound Archive curator Cheryl Tipp did such a predictably great job of editing her first issue of Caught By The River‘s regular magazine that they asked her for a second instalment. The resulting publication is a field recordings special featuring contributions John Kannenberg, Emma Warren, Chris Watson and an essay by myself entitled ‘Deep Space And Doorknobs’. Lots of fascinating stuff and beautifully designed too. Still available here.
10.) How We Used To Live Report
Film of the year as far as this cat’s concerned was Paul Kelly‘s homage to London comprised entirely of footage from the British Film Institute’s archives. Written by Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley and Travis Elborough with a gorgeous original soundtrack by the group’s Pete Wiggs, it was a visually stunning and surprisingly poignant ode to a lost era. Here’s my report on the film for Radio 4, made to coincide with a screening of the film with a live soundtrack as part of the BFI Southbank’s London On Film festival:
Now available on DVD, so grab yourself a copy If narrator Ian MacShane‘s closing lines don’t bring a tear to your eye, nothing will!
11.) Amen, Brother:
Perhaps my favourite news story of the year was the fundraising campaign organised by UK DJs Martyn Webster and Steve Theobald to give something back to the surviving member of The Winstons, the group whose 1969 b-side ‘Amen, Brother’ contains surely the single most-sampled drums loop of all time, a deliciously crunchy six-second solo halfway through the track that has become known as the ‘Amen Break’. At the time of writing online database Whosampled.com lists 1,928 acknowledged uses of that breakbeat by other artists, but I’m willing to speculate that the actual total is three or four times that number at least. Here’s my BBC report on the subject, which also includes contributions from writer, artist and all-round amen authority-figure Nate Harrison. Originally intending to raise a mere grand, the campaign’s final figure was a whopping £24,000, and Martyn and Steve have now opened up the campaign again due to popular demand. Go and donate here if you missed out the first time.
12.) A Liminal Stage – 100% Design Commission for Kensington Olympia
Back in September I was invited to take part in a panel discussion entitled ‘Is Sound The Forgotten Sense?’ at this year’s 100% Design showcase in London’s most historic exhibition centre, along with architect Thomas Klassnik and sound designer Martyn Ware. When I suggested that in addition I should put my money where my mouth is/was and provide them with a bespoke piece of music created from the sounds of the venue itself, they literally bit my hand off (not literally). The venue’s management very kindly gave me full access between exhibitions while the great hall was empty and then, even more kindly, allowed me to play the sounds I discovered through the venue’s surprisingly loud PA system! You really do have to pinch yourself with this job sometimes.
…And to think until today I’d never heard a recording of my thumb amplified through the public address system of major exhibition venue!
— Robin The Fog (@RobinTheFog) August 20, 2015
My favourite sound of all the recordings I made that day was from a number of different bandsaws that were being used to effect repairs in the great hall, their distinctive nasal whine picked up and amplified by the high ceilings. When the resulting recordings were slowed down a couple of octaves they sounded to my ears not unlike the Tibetan Buddhist chants sampled in ‘Boddishattva Vow‘ by The Beastie Boys (and Tibetan Buddhist chants in general, I’m quite sure, though I can’t claim to be an expert). As ever, no computer effects or artificial reverb played a part and the result was one of my favourite works of the year. Hope they invite me back next year, I could easily have made an album!
13.) Hugh Davies Tape Loop Transfer, Science Museum
A rare honour and a treat to be allowed to delve into the tape-loop archives of composer, musicologist and instrument builder Hugh Davies at the Science Museum’s Blythe House archive, where much of his collection is in storage after being donated by his estate. Dr. James Mooney was digitising the loops as part of his own research and myself and old friend Aleks Kolkowski were drafted in to assist. I certainly earned my fee with much razor-blading and tape-splicing, but was also afforded the priviledge of a glimpse into the great man’s archive. I’m bound by secrecy, but hopefully some of it will emerge in time as James’ work comes to fruition. Another pinch…
14.) Vespertine York
September ended up being a bit of a whirlwind, actually, with lots of different projects on the go, but this was certainly among my favourites, a trip up to York to record the sounds of the various historical clocks in the city’s Mansion House and then returning to the building several weeks later to create a temporary sound installation for one of Vespertine York‘s events. In the interim period the building had been gutted of all it’s furniture and paintings, including the clocks, ahead of a major renovation; so the finished work was not unlike the ghosts of its former time-pieces returning to re-inhabit the space. Or, as one visitor commented, like something out of the Tarkovsky movie ‘Solaris’ (I didn’t stop grinning about that for a week)! Thanks to Lucy Barker and Yvonne Carmichael for the invitation and for helping to create one of my favourite pieces of the year. At the moment no version of it exists apart from a spool of tape in the studio, so I really must dig it out sometime…
15.) Bascule Chamber Concert
Without doubt one of the cultural highlights of the year was Iain Chambers of Langham Research Centre‘s concert in the Bascule Chamber underneath Tower Bridge, a cathedral-like space with the most magnificent natural acoustics that is filled by the enormous counter-weight mechanism when the bridge is raised. The centre-piece of the event was a Iain’s sublime composition mixing the brass of the Dockland’s Sinfonia with a recording of the bridge mechanism at work made by The London Sound Survey, the creaking sounds of vintage machinery and the melancholy purr of soft brass complimenting one another perfectly. Here’s my BBC report on the subject:
Well, I think I’ve harped on quite enough for the moment. Thanks again for listening, reading and watching and let’s hope for more adventures in the coming year.
Wishing you a Very Merry Christmas and Best Wishes for 2016!
Robin The Fog, Christmas Eve, Brampton, Cumbria
(not flooded yet)