Archive for the ‘Artist profile’ Category

May 12

TheAdelaidean: Music, writing and mathematics are my three great loves.

TheAdelaidean: Music, writing and mathematics are my three great loves.

by Patrick Ogle

Sean Williams is an award-winning author and a professor of creative writing at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia. His book The Force Unleashed (based on the Star Wars video game) is a #1 New York Times bestseller. As a youngster he won the Young Composer Award in South Australia, and in 2017 he received the Australian Antarctica Division’s annual Arts Fellowship to research a novel combining the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration with H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.

He is also theAdelaidean, a musical moniker referring to the name of his home city. The musical project is so varied that you might think each release comes from an entirely different artist.

“My music suffers from the same problem as my writing, which is that I like to move between genres. I call this a problem, but for some audiences it’s the exact opposite, because it keeps things fresh. The common thread uniting my compositions for Projekt are that they’re all ambient, but while I started with lo-fi/lowercase textures, I’ve definitely been drifting towards cleaner sounds lately. Still slow, moody, patient, with a bit of a dark edge at times.”

There is continuity in the individual recordings, of course, but from record to record there are significant changes.

“Some, like Isolation and Inner Real Life, are conceptually defined early on: both of these albums grew out of exercises in music-creation based on source materials (tapes I recorded in the 1980s and jazz recordings from my father-in-law, respectively). In those cases, the final results grew organically out of the textures that were available. For other albums, like Solarpunk, the unifying theme came later: I think of these albums like collecting a book of short stories, in that individual works may not have been created with a larger purpose in mind, but just such a purpose forms subconsciously around them, and subsumes them, making them part of something much bigger.”

Solarpunk has a lo-fi indie vibe that might seem at odds with the ambient and almost orchestral stylings of other recordings. It is a record that would not be out of place on Canada’s Arts & Crafts label.

“Solarpunk started as an assembly of two-plus hours of fragments that over some months I arranged and edited into what the album is now, a whole thing in its own right. I think of this as a very powerful metaphor for how positive futures come into being, through the efforts of many disparate people towards an end they might not even be aware of, entirely, until it arrives.”

Over the years Williams says he has had a variety of processes which were dependent on the materials he had on hand.

“I’m not a natural performer of any instrument, but I can and do occasionally knock out progressions on a piano if I’m looking for inspiration,” he says. “I also love the timbre of instruments, and I have a background in sound engineering that taught me lots of old-fashioned techniques to manipulate recorded sound, many of which have been baked into DAWs and can still be useful.”

Sometimes Williams starts with a simple loop that he feels has possibilities. Then he works with the other materials and sounds that he has at hand.

“Occasionally I use randomness to get me started or to get something that’s stalled moving again. I’m fascinated by the many different means available of varying existing musical artefacts and using them to build something new,” he says. “There are a lot of common elements that wind through my music, although they’re so mutated that I’d be amazed if anyone has noticed. My process, like my music, is in a constant state of evolution.”

Williams employs a variety of instruments in his releases. On Isolation, he plays piano, autoharp, tuning fork, alto recorder, bicycle bell, windshield wipers and… slinkies. You may notice some of these items are not, strictly speaking, instruments.

“My most recent compositions are made in a mixture of Ableton and Audacity, and I’m still deciding if either of them counts as an instrument, although obviously they’re both crucial to lots of people’s processes, including mine,” says Williams. “Although I studied music composition and found success with formal styles of writing, I regard my explorations through software as being a very slow kind of improvisation, so in that sense I guess my computer is indeed my main instrument. My study just happens to be full of keyboards and guitars and other cool things that I use to get a particular sound evolving in my own fumbling way.”

Williams is something of a gear head but like many of us his eyes are bigger than his wallet.

“Man, I love gear so much, but I’m constantly forcing myself not to buy any. Space is an issue, and so is money, of course, otherwise I’d own one of everything (old and new: I’ve always wanted a sackbut, for instance),” he says. “ I also like to be portable. Next year, I’ll return to Antarctica to overwinter, making an album while I’m there, and there’s only so much gear I’ll be able to take. Laptop, headphones, a mic or two: anything more than that can’t be guaranteed. So keeping it lean is definitely my current philosophy. When I get back, though, and the home studio I’m planning is built, all bets will be off.”

Music, writing and mathematics are Williams’ three great loves.

“I’ve always said that just one part of my brain handles the labor involved in each of them, and although that’s probably an over-simplification, I’m sure it’s partly true. All three involve specialist language, and structures, and logics that frequently overlap,” says Williams. “I constantly find myself performing intuitive calculations that draw from each of these fields, to the benefit of the final result, I think. I’m sure I’m not unique in this; I’m equally sure that there are other methods of creation that are just as valid.”

Williams says that, unlike many people he knows, he doesn’t create visually.

“I don’t even ‘hear’ what I’m composing either while I’m composing, in the strict sense of the word. I’m playing at a more theoretical level, if that makes sense (and without wanting to claim any superiority in this approach; it’s just how I work),” he says. “This concept of music-without-sound is something I explore in my novel Impossible Music — and one can see audio-visual outcome of this speculation in a work called ‘vocem video’ (link: vimeo) that I created with Ian Gibbins, an acclaimed visual artist, poet and former neuroscientist. The idea is that you can turn off the sound and still gain a sense of the music from the images alone. That, in fact, was how it was premiered at the launch of the book.”

The name “theAdelaidean”, as noted, relates to Adelaide, where Williams has spent most of his life.

“I was actually born a four-and-a-half-hour drive to the northwest in a country town called Whyalla, but “theWhyallan” didn’t have the same ring to it,” he says.

“Adelaide a large-ish city by international standards (over a million people) but considered small in Australian and has always struggled with its role on the national and international stage. Embracing the arts and arts festivals is a big part of its cultural identity — boasting Australia’s first writers’ week, for instance — but the fact of its remoteness has often made it a difficult draw for visitors from far-off. Like Australians in general, we tend to look outside our local community for new and interesting stuff to celebrate, so we’ve perversely suffered a bit of a creative brain-drain here, despite being in theory an arts-friendly place to live and work. I’ve managed to stay here through an international writing and music career that now spans over thirty years, but I know plenty of creators (those who need physical audiences, for instance) who moved elsewhere and never came back.”

Williams says these facts have given the city an interesting, if frustrating, relationship with the arts. There is a tension that helps the creative process, even if this isn’t always appreciated in the moment.

“Adelaide recently became a UNESCO City of Music, which is exciting, although some of the shine has come off that with the cancellation of our Unsound music festival due to lack of government support,” says Williams. “Recent governments have been ambivalent when it came to supporting individual artists too, such as writers and composers, in favor of larger enterprises — TV and computer games, say, or operatic spectaculars by composers who have been dead for centuries. This is a shame, but maybe that makes us living artists work harder, and better, in order to succeed on our own terms.”

Regardless of the trials and tribulations of the arts in Adelaide, Williams says it has been a great place to grow and develop as an artist.

“The landscape influences me (several of my books in particular). Sometimes the isolation from busier cultural centers like Sydney helps me find my own creative vibe: it’s often easier to find a stillness here that’s missing in big cities,” he says. “The reason why I chose the name ‘theAdelaidean’ for my ambient persona is simply that it’s also the name of the tallest building in town. It was being built when I needed to choose a name, and I thought it would be cool for promo shots — taking an ugly apartment and owning it for artistic purposes. But alas, there’s no big neon sign projecting my brand across the plains. Curse them!”

theAdelaidean’s Solarpunk is available at Projekt’s Bandcamp page, Spotify, Pandora, and all other digital sites.

Apr 20

Peter Phippen, “these flutes became my teachers.”

Peter Phippen, “these flutes became my teachers.”

by Patrick Ogle (photo credit: Victoria Shoemaker)

Peter Phippen picked up his first flute over 30 years ago: a small, crude bamboo penny whistle. He paid 25 cents for it.

“On and off in the 80s, I played fender bass with an avant-garde free-form improvisation group led by my mentor and University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire art professor Tiit Raid,” says Phippen. “We had a show in early March 1987, and I took the ‘new’ crude bamboo penny whistle along.”

During a conga break in one of the songs Phippen busted out the whistle while his mentor gave him the eye.

“I thought I was going to be in trouble for playing the little bamboo. But without saying a word, the next day on his way to teach, Tiit stopped by and gave me a bansuri bamboo flute from India and said, ‘Peter, if you’re going to play flute, play this.’ And that’s when it really all started,” he says.

It wasn’t too long before new flutes were placed on the altar. He was given a Japanese flute, a shakuhachi, by the flute professor at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Tim Lane. While touring with a rock group, the band’s keyboard player found a broken bamboo flute in Louisville which he gave to the nascent flute enthusiast.

“He paid a dollar for it and gave it to me. Our next stop was St. Louis, Missouri,“ says Phippen. “I got that flute repaired, and for whatever reason that is the flute that changed everything. These three flutes became my teachers, but the old cracked and repaired one dollar alto bamboo flute more so than the others.”

Since that time, Peter has recorded 25 albums of his own improvised flute-based music. On these, he also employs four antique shakuhachi, one antique and one vintage bansuri, an antique Egyptian kawala as well as an African hunter’s whistle from Burkina Faso.

Phippen isn’t, however, trying to recreate music from the cultures of his various flutes. He is making intuitive music, his own interpretation of the instruments.

“To play just one of these instruments in a traditional manner would take a lifetime. So, my approach is very non-traditional. I play these instruments as improvisational tools to express myself musically,” he says. “I’m not playing music from the cultures the instruments are from. I improvise freely and put in a great deal of time on the instruments doing my best to get out of the way of the music that I’m channeling or allowing to flow through me out of the air. I am not trying to impress anyone with my playing; I feel my playing is simple. Yet, to play simply, these deceptively ‘simple’ instruments require constant attention.”

His goal, he says, is to play as naturally as possible and while he isn’t religious, he feels his music is spiritual rather than technical.

“Now the more technique you have, the more you can express yourself musically, so it’s a double-edged sword. One has to have technique to play free in case the unconscious flow of the music calls for that, but I feel there is no room for ego when improvising or imposing your will on the music as it is unfolding,” says Phippen. “Yes, I can play fast and all that, but I’m interested in saying something deeply meaningful with the fewest possible notes. To me it’s all about the tone and the phrasing of the notes played.”

Phippen notes that every culture on earth, excepting Australia, has an indigenous version of the flute. Each fascinates Phippen, especially antique instruments.

“I love Edo period and Meiji era Japanese shakuhachi. I also love the sound of vintage and antique bansuri and museum replicas of rim-blown flutes from the four corners area of the American southwest where the originals date from 600 to 1100 CE,” he says. “I like to play and record antique and old vintage flutes most, instruments that have been around the block a few times and have a ton of mojo.”

Curiously one flute Phippen doesn’t play is the familiar Boehm flute, but it is also interesting that before the advent of that instrument, Western flutes, too, were usually wooden.

“I do have some early 19th century wooden flutes and have recorded with them. The cylindrical Boehm flute as we know it today was introduced in 1847 and in my humble opinion is a recent development. I have seen and heard some recent contemporary wooden Boehm flutes as well,” says Phippen. “However, for my music, I find the tone of these instruments unsuitable for the music I am going for. I feel any simple system bamboo flute is superior in tone color to the Boehm silver or wooden flute as we know it today.”

He adds that a popular contemporary wooden flute maker told him he “lives behind a bamboo wall.” Phippen says, “I will always go for bamboo as my first option.” He knows the flutes made of other materials. He just gravitates toward bamboo.

“There are indigenous North American flutes, and these should be made of cedar, juniper, elderberry or box elder. There are also simple system wooden flutes from all over the world made out of various soft and hardwoods. And it seems I am a walking contradiction, as I play in a highly non-traditional manner,” he says. “Yet I like the instruments I play to be very simple and traditional in nature. Still in the end, there is something about the voice of bamboo flutes that I find intriguing, especially antique bamboo flutes.” He has three modest collections: a modern one in case he has to play in a Western pitch, antique, which may or may not play with modern instruments and a “specimen” collection.

Even though he learned to improvise on the bass first, he moved away from it once he discovered the flute. He did play bass a little on his early recordings but did so as a matter of comfort.

“I do not feel the electric bass fits on my flute music. Early on I played bass for my first Canyon Records album, Book of Dreams, but only to serve the song, as I was not full-out improvising everything in 1996, there was a loose ‘form.’ After that I avoided it.” says Phippen.

He says that this could change even though he doesn’t see it happening.

“For my music I like natural and simple instruments, folk harps, gongs, singing bowls, box zithers, female voices, and African and world percussion, all supporting or talking back and forth with my simple bamboo, wood, and clay flutes,” he says. “The only electric instruments I hear in my music are synthesizer and theremin.”

Phippen says that he doesn’t control what he plays consciously but only plays what his intuition allows him on a given day.

“In a sense the music I’m playing is ‘living.’ Now of course there will be good and bad days, but that is only natural. Such is life. If my music sounds fresh after all this time, it may be because I live to play and love the feeling when the music is flowing through me,” says Phippen. “If it sounds cohesive, perhaps that is just my musical voice playing a variation of the same thing at a different moment in time. What I do know is that I play what I am feeling on any given day, following my intuitive instinct in hopes I end up in the ‘zone,’ that place where you become a medium and natural music that has always been there in the air simply flows through you. Some would call that magic.”

His improvisational style is something he was born with – or learned quite early.

“When I was improvising as a young bassist, I used to try and fight it off. It was always easy for me to ‘just play’ off the top of my head. I would improvise alone all the time but only used this skill when I was asked to take a solo during performances. This went on for years. I probably should have done a solo bass album in hindsight. However, in early March 1987 when I accidentally found the bamboo flute (or it found me), improvising free was just the best way to play. It’s funny that it took a different instrument to open my eyes.”

A large influence on his style, although he says he didn’t realize it until he was in his 30s, was his mother.

“I grew up in the foothills of the Adirondacks in northern New York state. When I was four, five and six years old, my mother would take me on picnic lunches into the deep woods. After we were done eating we would sit quietly, and she would always ask me, ‘What do you hear?’ My mother would not settle for the easy answers like the wind in the trees or the birds singing,” says Phippen. “She took me to places where there would be much to hear if you really listened. Once the bamboo flute came into my life, all my mother had taught about really listening opened up.”

There is something of the natural world in Phippen’s music: wind whispering through the pines, the ambient hum of nature and the myriad frequencies just in the realm of what we can hear.

Phippen’s latest release, Into The Ancient, is available now at Projekt’s Bandcamp page, Spotify, Pandora, youTube and all other digital outlets.