An Aggregation of Small Gains – An Interview with Philip Jeck
Philip Jeck is one of Britain’s most exciting and innovative experimental musicians, using turntables and vinyl records to create expansive and emotionally affecting soundscapes. His latest album An Ark for the Listener (released last year on Touch) was our Uranus prize winner this year. The Liminal recently visited Philip Jeck in Liverpool to discuss the album, his evolution as an artist, and the importance of emotion in music.
The Liminal (spotting Philip’s HMV bag): Ooh, done some shopping? Anything good?
Philip Jeck: I’ve been commissioned to do a piece for the re-release of Cendrillion ou la Pantoufle, the black-and-white French film that’s basically the story of Cinderella. It’s a bit like a primary school play, even though the colouring is beautiful. Different Touch artists got allocated ones, and there are one or two much better ones, but Cendrillon does have some naive charm. At first I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do this, but I thought maybe I should listen to some ballet music of the story and I listened to it online, bought this CD of Prokofiev, which features a suite of Cinderella, and I like him as a composer, so I’m going to work with that, and do something with that for it.
TL: So it’s a silent film?
PJ: Silent yeah, and it was coloured at the time, not colourised later, but actually hand-coloured, painstakingly painted onto the negative, frame by frame. Luckily it’s only on the last few minutes!
TL: Do Touch get contacted regularly for projects like that?
PJ: A bit, yeah. I get a fair amount of work through Touch, Touch put on events and stuff. In fact, my next gig is going to be for Spire at Lincoln Cathedral, put on by Mike (Harding) and Charles Matthews, it was their idea. That’ll be next month. The 21st I think…
TL: Approaching your live material, I recently saw you at The Vortex and thought it was fascinating – what were your thoughts on how the show went, how it was organised?
PJ: I don’t know (organiser) Jonny Mugwump very well, but he contacted me ages ago and I couldn’t do the gig at the time, but then the Vortex date came up and I agreed to it ages ago. I still like to do small venues if people are looking to promote stuff like that.
TL: Because you’ve done some pretty big venues, haven’t you?
PJ: Oh yeah, exactly, and I do have an agent who gets me work, sometimes for a lot of money, but -and I’ve told my agent this- where do things start if people can’t put on small events, and where do people start? So I’m happy to support small events like the one at the Vortex. I know how tough it can be.
TL: Your sound is quite ”big”, and fills space quite dramatically. Do you have to adapt your set-up depending on the size of the venue and proximity to the audience?
PJ: Not the set-up. What I have is really versatile, but I do adapt what I play, absolutely, to the what the venue is. The Vortex is quite small, but there’s not much noise, from the bar and whatnot. I’ve played in some bar-type places that were very noisy, which I really don’t like playing much, because you feel you have to really pump it up, which makes it very hard to be subtle and quiet, and I don’t like that. I’ve had some very interesting experiences of dealing with that, where I’ve felt I’d have to play really loud because of the noise from the bar and so on. Don’t believe it if they tell you the bar will be closed when you’re playing! But the Vortex was ok in that respect.
My ideal venues are concert halls that are made for playing.
TL: The choice of Lincoln Cathedral is very interesting then, for your next show. There was a retrospective of Eliane Radigue’s music in London this year, and they specifically chose churches, and like hers, your music, whilst very different, has moments where almost the absence of music is as important as the music itself…
PJ: Yeah, it’s to do with the space, and being able to have control of the sound, and allowing the natural accidents to come in, as opposed to the noise of the venue. I really do like her stuff a lot, because her sound inhabits the world and takes you somewhere else. I do it in a different way, but that’s always what I want to do: that thing that takes you away, or emotionally affects you – I always strive to find that thing that goes a little bit higher or further.
TL: The reverse of the large venues is that you recently performed at a retirement home. That’s quite leftfield, even for a Touch artist! How did that come about?
PJ: That was for a residency, up in Cumbria, at Barrow-in-Furness. There’s a festival called FON, Full of Noises, so I went up there to perform in a very beautiful church, one of the only Byzantine-style churches in the UK. Barrow-in-Furness has lost most of its industry, so it’s a bit run-down, there’s quite a lot of unemployment and most of the shops on the high street are shut, but just outside the town there’s the beautiful church and that’s where they put on the final performances for FON. The festival has a relationship with this residential home, and they go in there to meet the residents, play them their favourite records, so they asked if I would play there.
I was a little bit nervous at first which, when I look back on it, was a little bit patronising. I went there at 11 o’clock in the morning, and set up in the lounge area, and after being introduced, talked a little bit about my history and mentioned that my music can be a little bit discordant, which I probably shouldn’t have said, because a lot of those people grew up with the same musics as me, and the response was really very good. Some people left, which is fine – it happens all the time (laughs); but afterwards several people came and had a chat with me, to tell me what they had related to, which I was really chuffed about.
It was quite mellow, there was only a little sound system, and no sub-bass like at the Vortex, but it was good, and it taught me some lessons about not pre-judging your audience.
TL: Your main tool is vinyl, and old vinyl at that, which brings a kind of connotation of time and memory, which may have resonated with that audience. Leyland Kirby, as the Caretaker, uses vinyl to reflect on memory and even Alzheimer’s, whilst Christian Marclay uses it as an art tool, rather than music. Discovering your music was revelatory in the way that vinyl and the turntable can be played as an instrument. How did you get into that approach and why?
PJ: I always loved music, right from childhood, all types of music. I learned a bit of guitar when I was younger, but what I could play with it just didn’t interest me. I could draw and paint, and write reasonably, so I went to art college, Dartington College of Arts, where there was a music department, and in the 70s one of the requirements was that you spent one day a week in a different department to your own, so I joined the theatre department once a week.
They had great people who came down to teach and hold workshops, especially in the theatre department. I like the ephemeral thing with theatre, things happening in the moment.
To make a bit of money, I ended up working for a roofing company for much longer than expected, 3 years instead of six months! A friend of mine who was working in physical theatre and performance in London offered for me to come down to work during my holidays, and I realised what I was missing. After that, I got to know people involved in theatre and dance and got to know people from the London Musicians’ Collective, which saw me get into DJ-ing on turntables. In 1979, I went to New York, went to a few clubs and picked up a load of 12” singles, not so much the early hip-hop, like Grandmaster Flash, more people like Larry Levan, Walter Gibbons, who were doing long-form mixes. Walter Gibbons was particularly a big influence on me.
So I bought a second turntable, a little mixer, and started out sort of trying to copy those guys, but it wasn’t so long before I wanted to bring other things, all sorts of new records, into the sound, but when playing for parties or clubs, it’d clear the dancefloor, particularly at that time, when 4 to the floor was so popular. But I didn’t want to do that really, there were better people than me at it, and I’d get bored and want to chuck other stuff in there. Compared to what I do now, the changes were probably pretty fast, and over time I’ve just slowed it down, as the most important thing is how you move from one thing to another.
I started meeting other musicians who were doing stuff, started playing with them, and my music really started to develop when I started working with a dancer/choreographer in early-83 or 84. He had an agent in Holland who got us tons and tons of work, in Europe and the States. I was still just starting out with vinyl records, so I learnt on the road. I got paid to develop. At first, his work was improvised, but he soon got well known enough to have his own company and develop choreographs with a troupe of dancers. I still worked with him, from ‘84 to maybe ‘90, so about 6 years on the road.
TL: That’s really fascinating, as one might not think your music would work with dance, but much in the way Merce Cunningham worked with avant-garde music, I can see it being an interesting combination.
PJ: Yeah, I work with a lot of dance companies. My partner Mary is involved in dance, and I’ve met a lot of dancers. I used to live at Butler’s Wharf in London, right next to one of the first independent dance studios, which evolved into Chisenhale Studios, which we built and ran. We also used to put on a lot of performance work and music. It depends on what area of dance you do. I worked with a lot of improvisatory dancers. I haven’t done so much of late, but you pick and learn from all those things.
To pick up on what I was saying though, music was my thing and my way into it was through the DJ-ing, trying my best to be a bit straight-ahead disco and since then it’s been an evolution into what I’m doing now. I don’t think I’ve ever made any huge changes, but if you look back five years, you see the evolution.
TL: It’s even evolved from album-to-album…
PJ: Absolutely. I don’t want to do one that’s exactly like the last one. Between a couple there was quite a long gap, because I’d done things that weren’t as good as what was on the last album, so I scrapped what I was doing. It’s got to be at least as good as the last one, in my head.
And the last one (note: An Ark for the Listener) was a real conscious decision to do something about one thing: a verse out of a poem.
TL: Indeed, and I was going to ask you about that. As you say, it was inspired by the 33rd verse of The Wreck of the Deutschland. What exactly drew you to that poem, and that verse in particular?
PJ: There were a few serendipitous moments, really. I got asked to do something at King’s Place in London, for the Bubbly Blue and Green Festival, which is to do with the sea, and I think they asked me because I’d done that album with Gavin Bryars (note: The Sinking of the Titanic, also with Alter Ego). At first I thought “no”, as that wasn’t my piece, it’s Gavin’s, but then I remembered The Wreck of the Deutschland. It’s not my favourite poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, it’s too bloody long-winded, but I really rate him as a poet. So I read through it, and just this one verse, even that one line, “An ark for the listener”… and I thought “Fucking hell – what an amazing line!”.
I think, because I’d had to plough through the poem every time I read it, I’d missed the subtleties, so I thought I’d just concentrate on this one verse, this one stanza and try to understand it in my own way before making sound around it, but not to illustrate it.
Before doing King’s Place, I’d done a concert here in Liverpool, and recorded it, and so much of that recording suggested the sea to me, so for several concerts then-on, that was in my head. I try to record most concerts I play, so I had all this material, which I spent a long time editing, as with every CD I do. Some tracks on An Ark for the Listener might consist of 4 or 5 concert excerpts…
As an aside, the difference between making a CD or record for people to listen to at home and a concert is considerable. I have no control over what people will listen to it on at home, so you really have to think about that when making an album. I’ve done a couple of live shows that were unedited, such as the Live at the ICC in Tokyo, but most of my records involve a lot of editing, so they’re a completely different experience to seeing me live. For An Ark for the Listener, 80% was taken from live performances, but I’m constructing from these live pieces to make something to go into peoples homes.
TL: It’s interesting that you were attracted by that one verse, because it has a lot of the same qualities as your music – it’s slightly abstract, such as the line “The All of Water”, but it’s very emotionally evocative…
PJ: Exactly, that’s why I chose it – it rang so many bells! There are a lot of verses in that poem that did not have that effect but I remember getting to that one and going “My God, this is incredible, this is so like what I do!”
TL: And emotion is very central to what you do. We can talk a lot about the experimental or avant-garde side to your work, but one thing that keeps coming back, which isn’t the case with a lot of experimental musicians, is the sense of emotion. Is that difficult to put into music?
PJ: Yeah it is. You have to be prepared to throw yourself into it. When I play, I do feel drained afterwards. Sometimes when I’m playing I get choked up… I’m not sure where it comes from, but over the time I’ve been doing it, for me the times when I’m most successful is when I’m the most attuned to what’s happening. So, when I’m playing, the thing I want most is that the music moves me, so when I find those moments I’ll either expand on them, add to them; or the opposite, I’ll just try to hold the moment, that small sound, that emotional content. It’s about trying to distill that sound, which is also in a way what I do when I’m editing: distilling that moment. And yeah, it has to move me, or it won’t move anyone else. A lot of it is in the moment, and I don’t know what will happen during the concert, which makes me nervous. Because it means something to me, I put pressure on myself. You shouldn’t become blase about what you do.
TL: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the narrative approach that traverses An Ark for the Listener seems different to previous albums, which were made up of collections of songs. They might have had recurring themes, such as Sand, but this one has more of a narrative…
PJ: Well, yeah, because, in my head, I was following that verse, so every time I worked on it, I kept going back and asking “Does this relate to this?”, and in fact the orders of tracks got switched around, and a couple of separate tracks got combined, like the first track. I swapped the order around a few times, and even re-edited stuff. When I make an album, I make a rough demo version, which I then put away for two or three weeks, then I listen to it again, to listen to it as an independent listen. So I can pick out what doesn’t fit, or where there’s not enough in a track. And I do that a few times before sending my master to Touch to get their feedback and the final master.
TL: That narrative approach: was that more difficult than doing a track like “Pax” (note: from Stoke), which was based around a single old vinyl record?
PJ: I wouldn’t say it’s more difficult… It’s longer, but not more difficult. There’s one fantastic phrase which has stuck with me since I first heard it, about the now very successful British cycling team. The head coach talked brilliantly about the training and everything, and said this one line: “In the end, it’s just the aggregation of small gains”. I thought, “How great is that? I do that when I’m editing my CDs!” You’re doing that the whole time, just a little step up here and there. You just work with each moment.
TL: Was the way you approached An Ark for the Listener change the way you created the music? The crackle of vinyl that permeates previous albums seems more restrained – did you use different instruments or equipment?
PJ: Yeah. The records I used were probably a little bit newer, with fewer scratches. There’s a fair amount of bass guitar on there, through a lot of effects. So the organ sound is actually bass guitar. Some of the records were pristine. It wasn’t a really conscious decision, but “The All of Water”, for example, was a brand new record of a baroque harpsichord piece, still shrink-wrapped. I thought it sounded just like the sea, so I did a lot of cutting up and slowing down of that. I probably did more processing on An Ark for the Listener than on most of my previous records, I used a lot effects. Actually, one or two tracks have been through processing three or four times, which would have edited out a lot of the crackle and given it that submerged sound.
TL: The Sea seems to crop up quite a lot in your album titles, and you worked, as you said, with Gavin Bryars of The Sinking of the Titanic… Is that from living in Liverpool?
PJ: That’s why I liked that line ‘the all of water’: you stand by the sea and it is “the all”. You stand on a cliff-top looking at the sea, and I find it’s completely emotionally overwhelming. I have a fear of water, as well as admiration, the mass of it, so if I want to conjure up some emotion along those lines, I only have to think about being on a boat.
For the titles, there was a bit of a break away, because I’d got myself perhaps into a bit of a trap by having albums all beginning with ‘S’, and after Sand, I thought, “this is crazy”; it was getting very hard to think of a title. And since Surf, the titles have come some time after the recordings, and Stoke for example was thought up by Touch. So another switch was that in this case, I decided to start with the title, with that line that just jumped out at me. It was the title before I’d really made that much music. I felt I was getting stuck.
TL: Is there another album in the pipeline?
PJ: Not really… I don’t know what will be next. I’ve been doing stuff with Ted Reiderer who runs Never Records, and went to the Merge Festival. I met him last year at the Biennial here in Liverpool, and did some work with him at the time, and he then sent me some vinyl, that I worked with and sent back, for him to then work with and send back, and we did this three or four times, so there might be a record out of that. At Merge, he got a bunch of musicians: an accordionist, guitarists, a singer… and they played songs that were live cut to vinyl, which Ted then handed to me to work with; it was great, really interesting. Hot off the press vinyl: brilliant! There were six made. I’ve kept a couple, and Ted kept a couple and a couple went to Touch. I think they’re going to be auctioned off to help an Iranian guy fight extradition back to Iran.
TL: That’s amazing. Back to your beginnings as a DJ and then working with turntables – you were very much a pioneer of what has become somewhat ubiquitous, with guys like The Caretaker and Burial also using vinyl. What do you make of this emerging scene?
PJ: Well, there’s really nothing new under the sun, I mean, John Cage was working with vinyl in the fifties, and someone told me this European guy was doing it in the forties, even. I have mixed feelings about it, I think; there are people I like, people I don’t like, as with anything. But I’m glad people are doing it, but I don’t have any feeling either way. You mentioned Christian Marclay, what was interesting with him were the possibilities he threw up. I met him in the eighties, when I was just starting out, and seeing what he was doing with records was important, but it was more about the possibilities, which are endless. And the important thing is what you bring to it yourself.
TL: Do you ever work, as Marclay does, with other musicians, such as guitarists? I know you had Spire, of course…
PJ: Yeah, all sorts of musicians. It’s one of the things I’ve really enjoyed over the years: playing other people’s songs, other people’s work. I’ve worked with Jah Wobble, with Deep Space, and toured with them. I was on an album with a lot of musicians for that, and I’ve also worked in a much smaller setting, with Jah Wobble and Jaki Liebezeit of Can, whom I was working with earlier this year in Ireland. He has a band called Drums Off Chaos, who were invited to the Kilkenny Festival, and Jaki suggested they work with me. I enjoyed working with three drummers, and Jaki does these intricate, slow-shifting patterns, which are unbelievable.
TL: I’m quite jealous – you’ve worked with my favourite bassist and drummer!
PJ: But I’ve also worked with Gavin Bryars, as we said, and with an Austrian composer called Bernhard Lang, and we’re going to perform a piece at the Huddersfield Music Festival in November, having done so before in Berlin, along with Alter Ego. I’ve done a few pieces with Bernhard before, including one with Steve Lacy.
It is a challenge, but most of the musicians I’ve met, from all sorts of fields, enjoy all sorts of music, and they appreciate stuff that has integrity and feeling in it, rather than where it comes from, so it’s possible to work with people from all sorts of fields. They shouldn’t shift from what they do, but I’m completely open to working with any musician.
I wouldn’t say it’s a solo trip: when I play with Jah Wobble, it’s his band, and there’s a lot to do with improvising, same with Gavin Bryars: it’s his music. But they know how I play.
TL: You also do installations, still working with vinyl, what’s the inspiration for that?
PJ: It’s more work with records, and I did one for the Biennial here in Liverpool, installed in an area here that’s sort of clubland. One club went bust, and we were allowed to do an installation in there. I looked around the space, and there was one amazing room with sunken parts in the floor. So I filled the sunken part with water, and threw vinyl records on the water with bits of polystyrene underneath to keep them floating and stuck together, and a pump to make the water circulate. So the records looked like lily-pads.
On either side, I had about 25 record players, placed a little like the terracotta army in China, like an excavation that someone had dug up. I used records of spoken word to do with Liverpool. Meanwhile, I’d used boom boxes to record cassettes of stuff off local radio, about the history of Liverpool, and made up CDs to play on repeat, with long gaps and silences.
A couple of years before, I worked with a friend of mine for the Capital of Culture on an installation in the Botanical Gardens, using recordings of people talking about the trees there, and mixed that with a little bit of sound of the radio playing low at night, with nothing there but the presence of the air waves. I hung all these boom boxes in the trees, so as you walked around you could just hear these voices in the dark, talking about the trees. I called it ‘Pool of Voices’, as Liverpool is ‘The Pool’. So there’s quite a bit about Liverpool. My impressions of Liverpool.
TL: It kind of reminds me of the Terrence Davies film Of Time and the City, you’re in a way channeling the city’s history…
PJ: Yes, exactly, that’s a great film, and this is an incredible city, and amazing city. I’ve seen it change, been transformed. I enjoy living here…
TL: Before I wrap up, it’s been a busy couple of years, do you have a packed timetable still to come?
PJ: I wouldn’t say it’s packed, there are gaps and stuff, but I quite like that. I wouldn’t want to be working all the time, but there’s been a lot of work this year, despite the financial state where people can put on less events. I don’t think I’ll be working in Greece again anytime soon, though!
First two images by Scott McMillan, third by Andrew Bowman.
You can also read this interview here, complete with a cracking video: http://www.theliminal.co.uk/2011/10/an-aggregation-of-small-gains-an-interview-with-philip-jeck/