The music in detail: Giants
The Land of the Giants
Back in April 2015, I visited an exhibition by painter Jo Baer in London, "Towards the Land of the Giants". Her compelling patchworks of shapes and scenes had caught my attention on the posters and drawn me in at once, but seeing the pictures up close, I was utterly overwhelmed by the moods they created and the stories they told. Tales of Neolithic Ireland, ancient rocks, landscapes, rituals. As I walked round the gallery space in Camden Arts Centre, I found myself grabbing a notebook and scribbling down a stream of ideas—little fragments of poetry, ideas for sound manipulation, musical forms.
I couldn't wait to get into the studio and start experimenting. As I was trying things out on the synthesisers, other instruments and equipment I had to hand, the sound that caught my attention most and exemplified the deep tranquility running through Jo Baer's "structures" (that's the way she refers to them herself) was the 50 Hz electrical hum and hiss I heard from the amp and the Wurlitzer piano—slightly ironic for paintings representing things from 2,500 BC! I chose to focus on one of my favourite paintings from the exhibition, Dawn (Lines and Destinations) first, and through the music I moved from one part of the painting to the next.
(You can click on the image above or here to stream Giants.)
The track is in three sections, underpinned by this electrical hum and hiss. The tremolo on the Wurlitzer and amplified frequencies fluctuate throughout the piece, getting faster and slower, higher and lower.
It opens with a section focused on the left-hand part of the painting, the vast landscape. The camera shutter at the start (actually a distorted sample of a very familiar mobile phone camera sound) represents a blinding flash—something coming into existence, but remaining dazzled, washed out. Everything originates from the 50 Hz electrical hum of the Wurlitzer; the pure synthesiser notes, for instance, are intervals 50 Hz apart. The two notes of these intervals are panned to the left and right speakers, but converge and diverge in a breathing motion. Various sounds emerge and wash away again:
— Wind noises, with low frequencies amplified and doubled 50 Hz higher, created low whistling tones.
— A bass guitar string tuned to 50 Hz, playing both the open string and its overtones.
— The Wurlitzer piano playing the tempered versions of the synth notes. These bell-like tones capture the apprehension of the people that tread the white, unformed path.
The middle section features the weary ostinato percussion sounds of a religious ritual, the black candle-priests from the left of the picture. They approach from the distance and come right up to the listener. There are trumpets too, a fanfare, opening up in 50 Hz intervals—the boulder-shaped soldiers in the painting attacking the unknown on the right. There are also bells, representing the spirits we can't see—a scale based on the fundamental key of the fanfare and 50 Hz intervals above it. These persistent frequencies beat subtly, creating gentle rumbles all the time in the soundscape.
The final section returns to the sound world of the first – the pure synth intervals and bass guitar sounds – but now the strange grand piano form that can be seen in the bottom right opening onto a clear dawn is present in the music, tuned to the same 50 Hz pairs as the synth. As the dawn appears, a violin joins the ensemble—resonant open strings tuned to a major chord from this same scale. It all ends abruptly with the sound of the sudden water splash that seems to taint the bottom of the painting.
The start of the journey
The sense of creating with complete freedom I had when producing this track, not being limited by the expectations or requirements of a musical aesthetic or genre, was something I'd never really done before in my creative work. In other projects, when I've been composing classical music for concert performance, arranging for theatre, remixing or songwriting, there are various requirements on the final product within which you have to let your creativity roam. Don't get me wrong—like anybody, I frequently find that having these frameworks really stimulates my ideas. But in this case, I sensed that this freedom was taking me along a good path, and that's what led me to create the whole of Sanctuary (Overtones and Deviations) in the same spirit—defining my own framework and boundaries as I went.