material #1: glass (vessel, engraved, otherwise)

material – An occasional series of texts on some of the sounding objects / elements that have been important in my work; glass, salt, tape, string, metal, time, quietude, microphones…

Glass, as a material, object and architecture has been part of my sound / music practice since my teens, though when I think about it I recall seeing someone playing the rims of wine glasses as a child, probably on some early evening TV show. Most of us probably try that when we are young, mostly managing only brief moments of success. I also remember hearing a glass harmonica but the memory is somewhat vague. I’m sure it wasn’t on a screen but I can’t piece together where it could have been, especially as they are such rare instruments.

In terms of using glass myself I began by use of sea glass (1), marbles and then old camera lenses in live performance, progressing into the use of engraved glass (hence the name of my label), frit and ground glass (particles, dust). Apart from the obvious tactile qualities, its use against instrument strings created a particular sensation in ones fingers. The more I played the more I began to associate glass as a material with certain aspects of improvised music, as a form, and the scenes that formed around it. I’m not sure I can put it into words but there was something about my need to always have some connection to sensation (emotive, physical) and the tensions around even discussing such things within certain areas of the scene that seemed to reference the inherent fragility of this seemingly solid material. I remember reading a quote from the glass engraver, Laurence Whistler (2), about the tension when working on a piece; that there would come a point where one slight error of judgement or focus and the piece would crack or shatter. To me this summed up how I felt both about improvisation itself and about the pressures to fit into specific norms within music scenes. I’m fortunate to have had long, deep connections with various forms of music, and all have their weak points of course, but perhaps one of my mistakes is that I always assume that finding community will be fairly straightforward and this, I admit, has sometimes led to a feeling of disappointment…or rather, frustration that the reasons it isn’t are often more to do with requirements to conform. When it comes to improvisation / experimental music, whilst the positives are there to be found, the negative sides have been, in my experience, often more extreme than in other forms of music. Perhaps that’s partly because of the assumption that ‘experimental’ somehow means forward thinking, progressive, outside of conventions. Glass; looking through, letting in light, but the cracks are easy to see and have sharp edges.

(archive photo from performance of ‘score for glass, feathers, salt’)

After a long break from performing, whilst running an ethical distribution company in the music industry, I re-connected in the early 2000’s. I was using glass extensively, including as a medium for resonating and affecting zithers. I’d always felt somewhat uncomfortable with the word improvisation, or rather I found myself often puzzled by aspects of its use. Instead I began to use the term intuitive composition as this seemed to connect differently, if also being rather formal sounding. None of these words or phrases, of course, capture the sensation of ones fingers touching resonant objects, glass or otherwise.

Sometime in my early years working with located sound, using microphones as instruments I recall lowering one from a pier to get it, carefully, nearer to the water and a gust of wind blowing it sideways into an open topped scaffolding pipe and hearing the tonal howl of its resonance. This reminded me of some research I’d done some years before into church architecture and the use of sound jars (3) to tune the spaces. It also reminded me of Annea Lockwood’s use of glass and her explorations of it’s different qualities (‘The Glass World of…’ (4), and album I also worked with when I ran the distribution company during the 90’s, buying up the vinyl stocks of the label, Tangent).

Before I acquired decent small profile omni microphones (ideal for these techniques) I used old stereo tie-clip microphones that came with early recording walkman’s, and before that a thin pencil mic from one of the reel-to-reel recorders I owned (& still have). These I would place into old jars, bottles, hoses, pipes, hollow gates etc. Making these recordings was also part of my process of questioning what the act of recording was for, at least in terms of my own interest. I enjoyed the listening, and I sometimes enjoyed using this technique, or recordings of it, in performances or compositions, but I wasn’t interested in the idea of building a ‘collection of pipe recordings’ or a ‘collection of bottle recordings’. For me that seemed too near to train spotter, and along with it, certain gendered attitudes towards hobbies or perceived skills. That is complex, with some personal aspects and some that are more general, and for another time perhaps.

Once I began building contact microphones I would listen to windows, mirrors, vases, bottles, and, some years later, worked on a project to record the sound of glass pieces engraved by Whistler*

*This included being given permission to record the glass panel at the Jacqueline Du Pre concert Hall (5) in Oxford, spending a few days with total access to the hall inc. through the night. Some elements of this project, though not specifically the Whistler glass, form part of the first audible silence (6) album I released, which also included a piece derived from recordings of Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge (7). Both of these places have personal resonances for me; Hearing a recording of Jacqueline Du Pre (8) was my entry point into classical music, to the cello and to an enjoyment of music that I shared with my mother. Being with her listening to the Elgar Cello Concerto (9), either at home or on car journeys are memories I hold onto, closely. One trip was to Cambridge to show her Kettle’s Yard, including a window engraved by Whistler.

There is another memory connected to the JDP building in Oxford, one that it difficult to explain simply. It would take me a long time to write in a way that gave all the different contexts that meshed together into the few days I spent recording the building and how I have come to reflect on it over the years. It involved someone I felt close to, through letters and occasional meetings (always near rivers). Watching ice-cream melting, spaces unresolved, my bracken cuts; c

…and, like a glass is often affected by chance, small scratches that can build into fog, that we stare at, turn over in our minds trying to recall how each one occurred, we lost sight of each other. No, not quite. We lost sight of the shapes of our mouths translating possibilities.

There are often theoretical or research based aspects to the work I begin and there is always something more personal that connects me and that sustains me in the projects that I am then comfortable sharing in some form. Perhaps it is the ecstatic. Those moments (which can be durational) where sound, situation, sensation and emotion connect. Whether there is the space for that to be perceived is something else.

I have spent a few decades now thinking about the gendering of technologies and social structures, yet I am not sure, even now, that I know enough to be sure of being able to discuss it in anything but a personal way. There is something in that which meant I needed, still need, to keep the personal very close, in all sorts of ways, including in my creative activities. I do work with technologies. I mean all of us who are involved in anything creative do, but I find it difficult for my work to ever be viewed as being about technological skill or unconnected from more personal motivations and aesthetics. (I’ve removed some text here – I found myself coming back to it, trying to find a better fit for my thoughts). Perhaps there is something in the tension between the private self and putting ones work or ideas to an audience, how it means you experience the imposition of assumptions, even if they include aspects of attitudes that one has opposed or spent time trying to unpick. Words can be too rigid at times, their meanings can be distorted, by others or indeed by ones own choices of how and when to use them. Hand crafted glass becomes fixed only through a process dependent on aspects outside the control of the maker, often creating imperfections that distort a uniformity. Some want that, a uniformity. I prefer something with more detail, like the sensation of glass against ones fingers, and its sound.

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