Liminality: a state of ‘in-between’


I’ve recently been floating around a new concept that may very well tie all of my creative work together, and in the scheme of things makes a whole lot of sense in relation to the music I’ve been trying to create, the ‘spectral’ quality that I’ve been seeking

The concept of liminality (drawing from Greek work limin, meaning ‘a threshold’) describes a state of being that is between things, inter-medial, in transition, suspended… and in many respects, this is very good fit for the quality I’ve been looking for. Although the term itself is drawn from anthropology and refers to a transitional state in rituals and rites of passage, between casting off a previous identity and adopting a new one, it has applications in many areas, and for myself this applies especially to the time-based aspects of my work. Whereas I had been preoccupied with the methods used to produce the ‘spectral’ quality I was observing, namely the use of timbre, drone, repetition, quartal harmony approaches etc., what I’d been after all along was a suspension of time in music; being in ‘a moment’ so speak, and trying to make that last as long as feasibly possible. Liminality perhaps defines this, as an overarching concept or idea, which up until now I didn’t have a name for. It makes a lot of sense – quartal harmony is really an in-between approach to composition, in comparison to more conventional tertial harmony approaches, as I’d been searching for an suspended quality in harmony that didn’t feel a need for resolution. Emphasising timbral aspects in composition over harmonising a melody is perhaps another example of liminality, looking at composition with a more ‘vertical’ approach to sound. Using repetition to focus upon the phenomena of sound (a phenomenological approach) I believe also emphasises this quality, and my recent use of polyrhythms to further disrupt a sense of absolute metre in a piece also contributes to a sense of being ‘in-between’, the potential in what may be, a kind of ‘becoming’… the moment between sleep and waking, the nexus between day and night (twilight), the midpoint between conscious thought and daydreaming…. well, that’s pretty much what I’ve been after all along, really.

IMG_1256What I’ve created thus far has been, in a way, meditative, but not in the conventional sense that ‘meditation music’ usually is, replete with washy synthesisers, distant vocals and pan pipes. I’ve avoided using synthesisers up until this point, which I suspect is something to do with not using ‘real’ instruments, it feels a little like cheating. But really, I’ve been disguising the nature of the instruments or sounds that I’ve been using all along, so in this sense I seem to be striving for a state of unreality. I’ve been unsure up until this point whether to take this all into the realm of the fantastic or surreal, which is what synths seem to do, but working with natural sounds and timbres and seeing what I can do to enhance, or perhaps extend, the normal listening experience of these instruments seems to be my primary working method, so…? Perhaps this project is more about creating a mood, or ambience, or perhaps a state of listening – a place in-between the real and the unreal aspects of sound, taking something that you already recognise and then bending or twisting it, taking it into another realm or world. It seem there’s no point in starting with a sound that’s fantastic to begin with, because there’s no semiotic meaning or reference one can ascribe to it – it appears one has to take an existing, recognisable sound first, establish its significance and then take it on a journey elsewhere. Which is what I seem to have been doing, perhaps inadvertently…

I believe this is it, the quality I’ve been looking for – it’s the nexus, the liminal state between the everyday and the other… and I suspect it’s something I’ve been looking for in music for quite a long time.

Getting very interesting…

Finally, after a few false starts, our weekly together yesterday resulted in what I believe we’ve all been striving for – some moments of sublime interaction, where all the disparate elements finally coming together in something we could feasibly call an actual ‘piece’.

Alex and Ben, our tech gurus

Alex and Ben, our tech gurus

Although still loose in a structural sense, our soundscape aesthetic is beginning to take shape and our respective roles have become more defined: Alex and Ben have taken on the mantle of being the ‘tech’ manipulators, with Ben’s role managing more of the sounds from the UWS environment, manipulated through Ableton, while Alex has taken on more of the musical elements, also employing Ableton but using samples taken from last weeks run through, looping the main piano motif that Tom devised, along with some evocative piano chords based on the C# dorian mode we seem to be working from, plus an assortment of cymbal crescendos, splashes and other audio manipulations.

Tom getting into bowing everything within reach!

Tom getting into bowing everything within reach!

Tom meanwhile has really come into his own; released in the environment of the percussion room at UWS and freed from the role of ‘pianist’, he has come to using a violin bow on cymbals and vibraphone to great effect, as well as augmenting this with tom rolls and accents, and occasional piano flourishes. Blaise has chosen to stay with his acoustic guitar, using an open tuning in C# and playing repetitive motifs and using the body of the instrument for percussive effects. Meanwhile I, instead of confining myself to percussion duties, have started to use an electric guitar, using techniques I initially employed in Expanded Practice: volume swells, bowed techniques using a bottleneck slide, using excessive analogue delay to create atmosphere and sweepable echo feedback loops.

It's basic, but does the trick - Boss blues driver through an Ibanez analog delay

It’s basic, but does the trick – Boss blues driver through an Ibanez analog delay

The overall effect is inspired and on occasion sublime – after plugging in, we freely improvised for about 20mins on the spot and achieved a gorgeous layering of sound, incorporating natural sounds from the university environment and manipulating them by way of pitch, repetition, reverberation and other effects. Tom’s piano motif was particularly effective as an element that would surface here and there as an identifier – we also discussed the idea of each of us having a signature ‘sound’ for each performer that was ours alone. We also discussed visuals for the project, and although the idea of using a projection screen with video footage was floated, we’ve decided instead that using an audio visualiser that reacts to our soundscape would be almost as effective – to that end I have purchased a visualiser called White Cap, that can run from a laptop and be projected onto a back screen.

If this is an indication of what we can achieve by pure improvisation, I’m quietly confident of the success of this subgroup. We still have 3 weeks until we present our part of the project, and at our present performing level we could easily present now. A very productive session indeed.

Ideas emerging…

Blaise and Alex in the control room

Blaise, Alex and Tom in the control room

Our second official meeting today, with the added intent of actually figuring out some music instead of just talking about it. Alex, Blaise, Tom and myself (Ben was ill) booked a studio and put our heads together to see what we could come up with musically. Based initially on some experiments that Ben had put together from audio samples I had provided, Alex set up a ProTools session that would loop this content so we could jam along in time and also record the proceedings. I chose to take on a percussion role, as Tom (piano) and Blaise (acoustic guitar) already had the melodic and harmonic side of things covered, and Tom had some musical ideas he wanted to try out.

Alex in the control room

Alex in the control room

The headphone send from the studio didn’t appear to be working unfortunately, so we abandoned the idea of playing along with a loop and purely improvised; as this was our first official session of playing together, it was more to get a feel for each others musical sensibilities. Tom had an interesting idea of superimposing a 6/4 motif in his left hand against a 5/4 in his right hand, which sounded great when it worked, though it took a while to settle in – Blaise attempted some hammer on techniques on guitar, while I attempted some syncopations and atmospherics on congas and cymbal. Sometimes this worked well, sometimes it almost fell apart, but as this is still early days I feel we’re only tentatively begin to feel each other out musically, so will withold any judgements for the moment!

The studio set up

The studio set up

Although not a total waste of effort, as there were good ideas that emerged in the recording, we probably spent unnecessary time setting up microphones and recording the proceedings – at this early stage, I feel we should concentrate more on idea generation in a musical sense and not so much on audio fidelity. I suggested upon hearing the playback of the session, that we each come up with a short musical phrase that we could extrapolate upon in the next session. I again reiterated that if this group is to be truly representative of the ‘soundscape’ aspect of the unit, we need to not only use parts of the university soundscape to manipulate, but we need to show the progression from that soundscape into the manipulated sounds, whether they be musical or otherwise – I believe this is key and fundamental to the project.

Tom putting an idea to Alex

Tom putting an idea to Alex

Tom has some musical ideas that I believe are quite valid, using repetitive motifs reminiscent of Terry Riley and Mike Oldfield, in C# dorian (relating back to the E major drone of the previous subgroup), which gives a nice, floating quality. I will attempt to come up with something similar this week in a related key and hopefully will be able to slot it into what we’re doing. Four weeks until presentation and counting…

A rough demo recording of todays session:

The soundscape emerges

Had another meeting, today with my ‘subgroup’ (one of the smaller groups within the main Music Project group) and caught up with Blaise Parnell and Alex Salazar, who along with Ben Turner and hopefully Thomas Hodson (another member, Jeffrey Tchung, has been strangely absent) will constitute Subgroup 6, officially in charge of the ‘soundscape’ aspect of the project. By way of explanation: as per the previous blog, the overall concept is that of showing the progression through our degree, by each subgroup performing an aspect of it. Blaise, Alex, Ben, Thomas and myself will be incorporating aspects of the Sound Synthesis and the Sound Environment unit, which employed as one of its projects, a sound collage, very much in the style of Pierre Schaeffer and musique concréte. Each member has something quite different to the mix: Alex is very much into electronica, Blaise is a talented guitarist, Ben is a bass player, Thomas apparently plays keys and I, amongst the various instruments I play, also have a background in sound engineering. I’m quietly optimistic about this project, it has a great deal of promise already!