Waves rippling and splashing within deep stone crevices, waters edge, Hornby Island, BC
Waves rippling and splashing within deep stone crevices, waters edge, Hornby Island, BC
It’s the longest day of the year! which was the working title for a piece we composed many years ago on the longest day of the year.
The song opens with a plaintive melody by Robert Minden heard on blown glass bottles and the twangy acoustic of repetitive plucked old guitar strings (a musical invention – “string box ” by Dewi Minden as a gift to her father when she was twelve) then the easy voice of Carla Hallett singing an elegiac ode to the natural world. The sounds of tuned glass milk bottles and cider jugs played by Andrea and Dewi Minden provide the quirky textured ground of this dark environmental song. The piece was lovingly recorded at Vancouver’s historic Mushroom studios with engineer Simon Garber and released as “Alone Together” in 1992 on the album “Long Journey Home” by the Robert Minden Ensemble.
“Take a listen to one of the most interesting musical entities on the planet and off-the-wall” – Gary Cristall.
Vancouver Duo Explores Songs of Identity, Recovered Sound – An album review
By Andrew Timar | Toronto | April 17, 2015
Robert Minden & Carla Hallett Otter Bay Productions. OB106 (2015)
I’ve reviewed dozens of albums of music in numerous genres, subgenres and cross-genres over the years, but the extraordinary What Is Your Name by Robert Minden & Carla Hallett occupies a particularly difficult to assign niche.
The eleven tracks are all strictly speaking songs, but fall into two types. A storyline (Hallett’s lyrics crafted from her poetry and “childhood fragments”) runs through many of the songs, however a few use vocalise exclusively in a way which doesn’t appear to advance the primary narrative. The majority of the dozens of instruments played are “found sounds” made on objects not originally designed to function as musical instruments, a specialty of the Vancouver duo. On the other hand the most formal of instrumental furniture, the piano – both in its grand and toy varieties – also makes a significant contribution via Minden’s sensitive performances.
The intimate near confidentiality of Hallett’s lyrics, singing style, and the delicate textures of the myriad instrumental sounds, all of which never appear to rise above a mf, are quite at home in my living room speakers. They would be out of place at large venues however. In other words they suit quiet intimate spaces, the way that Franz Schubert’s songs were enjoyed in private homes in the 19th century, or “story songs” in small smoky cabarets in the 20th. One way to experience What Is Your Name is as a sound film, or a kind of song cycle filtered through a rarified contemporary alternative folk ethos, though without the guitars, drum sets, pop musical vocabulary and studio production methods permeating the latter. Another way would be as a contemplative experience in deep listening as articulated by the composer Pauline Oliveros.
It is worth noting here that the Toronto born, Vancouver based, Minden’s three decade career as an inventor, arranger and composer of music for found objects, the music director on five previous albums – the first, The Boy Who Wanted to Talk to Whales, was nominated for a 1990 JUNO – has not been well documented. Perhaps it is partly due to his musical approach, which privileged improvised music making and straightforward lyricism embedded in tonal song structures, as articulated through the Robert Minden Ensemble (1986-1996) and then the Minden-Hallett duo (est.1997). This aesthetic didn’t dovetail neatly with late 20th century academic or popular music norms. Moreover his performance energies were dedicated outsider instruments such as the musical saw, the waterphone (commissioning six from its inventor) and later the Theremin (he plays one signed by Bob Moog), as well as many a found object, lovingly sonified. This focus moved his first instrument, the piano, into the background, that is until it re-emerged at the heart of this album.
The gently atmospheric Minden-Hallett songs on What Is Your Name were painstakingly arranged and recorded in no less than five Toronto, Vancouver and Banff studios. Dozens of instruments contributed to the album’s rich timbral palette, all played by the duo. The opening story-driven The Waiting Room is a good example of their exquisitely mixed and layered instrumentation. And how can you not warm to a song whose refrain is a reiterated “Saskatoon…” underlined by the musical saw?
Words Never Spoken features the sounds of some 19 different instruments (I counted), yet none found in conventional orchestral or vernacular music. They include many types of unconventional tuned percussion like clay flower pots, steel bowls, glass bottles, but also a “string box,” a “whirly” and a “blown tuned cider jug.” It’s all annotated in the detailed liner notes. Clearly the source of the sounds they make is of prime significance to the duo; despite these instruments’ humble everyday origins, when repurposed to produce music they reveal a process of magical transformation, a form of instrumental wabi-sabi aesthetic. Moreover, another reveal is the emotion felt by both musicians and listeners directly conveyed by sounds produced physically in the acoustic realm, unmediated by electrical currents which add their own subtle flavours.
The Courtroom is a mini drama with both spoken and sung narrative by Hallett and richly textured instrumentation evocatively scored by Minden. The initially hummed modal melody is extended by the addition of a broken chord accompaniment on a Steinway grand, evoking the spirit of certain works by Erik Satie. Are You Now (remix) again features a piano backbone, revealing yet more glimpses of what sound like a nod to Satie’s minor modal harmonic palette, plus a very convincing blown-bottle bass line.
In several songs, including Little Green Secrets, I hear echoes of the melodic, harmonic and lyrical touches of Leonard Cohen. Other songs like Blood Stranger feature Hallett rendering a haunting recitative with echoes, perhaps, of Gregorian chant.
Reflection is another modal melody anchored by a simply constructed piano accompaniment realised in a beautifully modulated rubato by Minden. It sounds eerily like a lost Schubert song piano part re-interpreted by Satie, and then in turn by John Cage (I know, I’m stretching here but those layers are present). Hallett’s spare vocal performance with only the gentlest of vibratos is emotionally touching yet devoid of sentimentality. The vocal melody’s restricted range and one tone per syllable text setting conjures up a sere mood. Despite its aphoristic length, this 2:32 work is among the most complete musical statements on the album. Reflection is a perfect marriage of music and words, and is worthy not only of repeated listening here, but also of further performances by a wide range of musicians.
The spoken word narrative of Union Station winds up the storyline articulating the search for personal origins and identity: the album is dedicated “with a tip of the hat to Moses, Superman, Anne of Green Gables… and all the others around the world in search of their stories.”
While the album ventures into some darkly shaded personal life-history corners, the last track, Waltz, is full of good-natured sonic humour. That humour was also a signature of the Robert Minden Ensemble, the precursor of the Minden-Hallett duo. Waltz appears to have become a staple of the duo’s performances: I heard it to hilarious effect at their 2014 Musideum concert in Toronto during their residency at the Desert Fish Studios. Some of those takes ended up on this album.
As in other songs on What Is Your Name, blown bottles provide Waltz’s main tune and also its harmony. Hallett’s airy, flexible voice provides a broken triadic vocalise. Various metal, glass, porcelain, string, a vintage telephone and even poured water sounds are added to this, creating a sonic randomness which increasingly encourages the two performers to break out in giggles and then in shear laughter.
We’re left with the charming sound of Hallett’s sigh as the final word. I can’t help smiling too.
Andrew Timar is a Toronto freelance music journalist, composer and musician. He is the founding editor of MUSICWORKS and has served as reviewer, columnist, blogger and features writer for The WholeNote magazine. Specialising in the music of Indonesia, Timar is a co-founding member of the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan the first group of its kind in Canada. He is a leading soloist on the suling (Indonesian ring flute).
Today, Jan 15 2015 we approved the final master. It has been an all consuming experience since we first posted here, Sept 2013. We began this project with the intention of allowing ourselves time; time to find the optimum ways of recording our array of found sounds; time to build the perfect arrangements; time to allow the minutest of changes; time to be patient and uncompromising. All our changes during the process have made a world of difference. We embarked on this method to create a sound that we love and a sound that could not be achieved in any other way. Now we’ve reached the point of “letting go”. Next month the CD should be out in the world.
We are now working on the last composition of the song cycle. It will be a quiet mix of piano, understated vocals, spoken word and musical saw…perhaps with the addition of a repeated struck metal bowl tuned with water. The found sounds that orchestrate much of this recording are being selected for their particular timbre and presence. They are unlike any other sound with their certain rough edges. When we record found sounds the goal is not the electronic manipulation of the sound. We record them to sound like what they are: physical, tangible sounds with substance.
just finished a complex mix of found sounds, voice, & piano. It was carefully constructed and built up in layers of repeated sounds of clay flower pots, struck tuned glass bottles, struck PVC pipe, carpenter’s saw, blown tuned wine and miniature liquor bottles and percussive piano with spoken word, then interrupted with lyrical piano and vocals. From one perspective it might be the soundscape of a modern dance work; from another it illuminates the space between theatre and music. It stands as the dramatic focal point of the album. “The Courtroom”
The search for low sounds in the universe of found instruments is always a challenge. It usually means finding something big, like long lengths of PVC pipes, which can be difficult for touring. For bottle sounds, the depth and low range of the perfect gallon jug is worth the trouble of collecting, cleaning, and carefully transporting.
The range of a glass cider jug extends below a wine bottle or an old vinegar jug. It takes an enormous amount of air to produce a good clear sound. And to get enough air, one needs to take deep noisy breaths. But this is actually a bonus, because the sound of the in-breath just before the articulated note, can form part of the music. The in-breaths are quite audible, especially when the mics are close and hot. So using this sound will be an interesting way of allowing a natural percussive line to be heard while producing the pitched sounds from tuned blown jugs. The real breath sounds produce a sense of necessity and energy in the music. This technique is used in the song “Why Don’t We” from the album “Whisper in My Ear”.