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Hilbre - 28.3.15

 

I'm pleased to announce that Hilbre, a nature documentary for which I composed and recorded the score, is released today.

 

The film is about the wildlife on the island of Hilbre, the largest in a chain of three tidal islands that lie at the mouth of the Dee estuary, a rare outpost of wilderness in this heavily built up corner of England.

 

Filmed and produced by Andy Shonfelder and Alistair Dicks, this beautiful film was shot in 4K resolution using a Red Epic Digital Cinema camera with timelapse footage from Canon and Nikon SLR cameras. A high-resolution, time-lapse and slow motion specialist, Andy has worked for the BBC Natural History Unit.

 

The script was written in close collaboration with Matt Thomas, naturalist, blogger and columnist for several local publications. Narration is by John Curry, ex Liverpool Bay pilot, poet and author.

 

 I wrote the music for a folk-music inspired ensemble of guitar, mandolin, clarinet, bass clarinet, 'cello, Bütone percussion and electric bass, with some sound design and textures made using an analogue synth. Clarinet and Bass Clarinet are performed by Rebecca Millward, I play all other instruments. I also mixed the sound for the film.

 

You can watch Hilbre in low resolution above. For further details and to watch the film in it's full quality please visit it's Vimeo on Demand page where you can download and stream it anywhere up to 4K resolution for less than the price of half a pint of beer in the Strongroom bar.

Chislehurst Caves Sessions - May 2014

I recently went on my second sound gathering trip to Chislehurst Caves, a freezing cold, pitch black network of ancient man-made tunnels, to record some of my compositions and a comprehensive tool-kit of weird and wonderful musical effects for Audio Network.

In this amazing acoustic, with a reverb time of approximately 30 seconds, we recorded with a low brass trio of tuba, French horn and bass trombone (Tom Briers, Katrina Lauder and Sarah Mann), soprano Grace Davidson and master of percussion Paul Clavis. Paul brought a drum kit and several wheel-barrows full of his instruments. I bashed a variety of percussion instruments and lumps of metal and had a brief scrape of the cello.

 

The giant reverb presents several challenges when recording, and indeed composing, so I worked with Andrew from Audio Network to write very sparse, simple pieces with large gaps in them, treating the reverb as an instrument, or voice, in the music as it effectively generates it’s own harmonies. It also presents logistical challenges as every time somebody needs to enter or leave the caves you have to wait about 15 minutes for the sound to die down, and any time anybody spoke, dropped something or their tummy rumbled the noise went on for 30 seconds.

The history of the caves dates back to the 13th century and as Europe’s largest air-raid shelter they were home to 15,000 people every night in the peak of the Blitz and   included a chapel, a hospital and a cinema. There is also a stage down there where David Bowie, Jimmy Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and many jazz and folk acts have all performed. There are 22 miles of man-made tunnels, in three areas – Saxon, Roman and Druid.  The Saxons and Romans created their tunnels by mining for chalk, the Druids built their area for 'other purposes'.

 

We recorded in the Druid area. It has the best acoustics, due to the smoothness of the walls and labyrinthine layout of their tunnels that get taller and focus in to a central point (in front of a sacrificial altar) which is where we had our musicians. They were such hardy professionals hardly any of them cried with fear.

 

The sound down there is incredibly rich with amazing amounts of bass - low brass in particular goes on for ever. More than just a 'giant reverb' you can use the layout of the tunnels to create natural dynamics in the music, changing the proximity of the performers to the microphones by slowly approaching them simultaneously from different directions, sometimes from hundreds of meters away down the tunnels. This is a fantastic way of naturally creating a sense of building tension in the recordings.

 

 

We wrote some ‘horror style’ brass pieces, a quartet for soprano, a piece for brass and soprano, lots of percussion led textures and grooves (including some epic slow BPM drum kit grooves) and some Bütone tank drum patterns. A Bütone drum is a steel ‘tongue drum’ percussion instrument that I play and co-designed with James Bergersen. I particularly enjoyed playing a Bütone and Waterphone duet with Paul Clavis.

 

We also recorded a comprehensive tool-kit of drones and textures. I borrowed a selection of ancient ‘battle field’ brass instruments from ancient brass specialist Pippa Holmes including Carnix, Salpinx, Cornu, a ‘Suffolk tomb horn’ and a giant Tibetan mountain horn that sounded fantastic. We recorded percussion and ancient brass 'processions' walking slowly down the tunnels towards the mics and also had a PA system down there, through which we played back a number of pieces and sound effects including piano and Tulum (Turkish bagpipes).

 

I chose a Nagra VI field recorder with additional mic-pres to record sound, operated in very tricky conditions by sound engineeer Simon Allen. The Nagra is a fantastic sounding device that you can drop out of a plane and it still works. We used a network of super-low noise DPA and Earthworks microphones, positioned in different stereo pick-up configurations at different points down the tunnels so as to capture a varied selection of perspectives from the musicians.

 

The caves are pitch black, very damp, freezing cold and have no power so everything has to run off batteries (or paraffin). I had to hold my new AKG 414 matched stereo pair of mics over a candle to remove enough moisture to keep them working properly.  It’s a 15 minute walk in, down slippery, dark and treacherously pot-holed tunnels and is without doubt my favourite location in which to record sound.

 

I’ll be stitching it all together over he next few weeks and the recordings will be released in 2015 on www.audionetwork.com

It’s a recording session I will certainly never forget, and I’m very grateful indeed to everybody at Audio Network for allowing me to record some of my compositions with such fantastic players in this amazing space.