SPIRITS IN THE SKY

Having received polite encouragement to pursue the ‘Curiosity Corner’ series from indulgent readers, I rushed off to compile a list of candidates, pulling out LPs and CDs with butterfly abandon. I thought about the 1956 Folkways album, Folk Music of Jamaica, then jumped to the recent haul of library records and the battered Heavy Rock LP with its, er, subtle cover illustration.

Would Metal Machine Music fit into this category, my stream of consciousness wondered? Or Leonard Bernstein’s instructive What is Jazz? (also from 1956)? Then I remembered a disc in the Vinyl Connection collection that is quite unique. It is a 1990 release on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation label by musician Sarah Hopkins and ‘Research Scientist and Composer’ Alan Lamb.

Sky Song is a collaboration between cellist Hopkins and Lamb, who ‘has developed an Aeolian music called wire music’ (CD cover notes). Essentially, Dr Lamb gets his sounds from long wires in large expanses, using microphones to capture wind-whisper drones.

The music arising from this partnership is full of space and mystery; the organic sounds of the cello (and occasional wordless vocals) interweaving with the ghosts in the wind. Wood and bow, wire and air—components entirely familiar—produce here mesmerising currents of other-worldly sounds.

As well as the tracks combining all the elements (the title track, “New journey”, “The winds of heaven”), other pieces on the album feature the artists separately. “Cello Chi” is an entrancing combination of harmonic singing (Hopkins) and her stringed instrument. “Mirages” is unaccompanied telegraph wires (and isn’t that a strange sentence?).

Have a listen to this unusual music:

When I played Sky Song to refresh my memory, something stirred in the windswept paddocks of my mind. The sound of Aeolian harp, not so long ago. The zephyr of remembrance tickled my cheek and was gone…

And then something rather wonderful happened.

As a long-term blogger, you’re always pleased when someone wanders into your back catalogue. A ‘Like’ here, a brief comment there; a breath of life across the dusty electronic pages. Occasionally the visitor sticks around and methodically works their way through the archive (which is very affirming) or more often (but no less precious) looks at a particular post and passes on. Rarely does the suburban blogger have the delightful experience of receiving feedback from someone directly connected with the post. But that is what happened a couple of days ago.

In January last year I posted a story about buying a record at Kongwak Market and went on to review the purchase. It was the soundtrack to an obscure Australian film, Spirits of the Air – Gremlins of the Clouds by Peter Miller. It was easy to write a positive review of this strangely beautiful music, and I am very glad it was, as the composer had dropped by for a read.

It seemed like a perfect opportunity to find out a little more about both the soundtrack and its creator.

Vinyl Connection:  Thanks for talking about your music for Spirits of the Air – Gremlins of the Clouds, Peter. Can we begin with the Aeolian Harp? How did you come to incorporate the sound of this most literal of wind instruments into the music?

Peter Miller: As well as being composer of the music for Spirits, I was the sound designer (and the art-director, as it happens). Because I was responsible for both the music and sound, one of my key ideas was to introduce environmental music elements into the story and the location. You can see many instances of this in the film. Along with the windharps, we placed empty bottles, paper windmills, cardboard tubes and creaky crucifixes throughout the set, all of which feature in the sound and the music tracks. Some of the music themes were composed before the movie was even shot, and we played those pieces on the location from time to time. Felix even whistles part of the main theme at one stage. That was not a post-production decision—it was recorded live on location. We were, as young filmmakers, noticeably influenced by Sergio Leone for this movie; Leone often had Ennio Morricone prepare music tracks for a location shoot.

The windharps feature in several places in the movie, as a motif of optimism (the wind is almost a fourth character in the story). Their tones appear on the soundtrack album, most notably on the track “Wil-boor and Or-ville”, which is only on the vinyl edition (I left it off the CD release because I wanted there to be a ‘point of difference’).

VC: I believe a pair of special instruments were constructed for the film by Rod McDonald?

PM:  That’s correct. Rod made the two harps, and decorated them beautifully in the style of the naive religious painting seen throughout the visual design. They are featured in a couple of sequences in the movie. One of them still survives thirty years on. The other is lost to history.

“Gold lettering, now faded, ran around the edge on the crucifix side of the wind vane. It read (in capital letters), “Mary Magdalene Mary Mother of James and Joseph Mother of Zebedee’s Children Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani Father into Thy Hands I Commend My Spirit”. Our share household at the time had a much loved Siamese cat named Zebedee. I suspect he might have been an inspiration for this particular passage. My favourite part is the design of the sound holes. (Rod McDonald, via FB)

VC: Where was the Aeolian Windharp music recorded?

PM: The windharps were recorded on the movie location at Mundi Mundi Plains, outside Broken Hill. I spent a lot of time on the locations recording sounds I wanted to incorporate into the music track via the then-new technology of sampling. I had a Roland S-10, which I believe was their first sampling keyboard. I think it had a maximum sample time of 4 seconds!
Because we were in the desert, it was pretty quiet, and the main challenge was to avoid the mic buffeting from the wind.

VC: There seems to be a conscious choice to add some more natural timbres to the largely keyboard-based foundations. Harmonica, organ, slide guitar. What was the goal there?

PM: Although most of the music is keyboard-based, there is no actual electronic synth used in the music. It’s all sampled real sound. So, aside from the big string stuff (which sounds artificial to our ears these days but was fairly state of the art at the time), everything else is made from sounds from the location: blown tubes, stretched wires, wind across bottles, human whistling, the windharps and so forth.

The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic future, where some unspecified catastrophe has rendered all complex technology useless, so in keeping with that I wanted to incorporate some other ‘low tech’ instrumentation that I thought might have survived: the slide guitar, our character Betty’s homemade ‘violin’ and the harmonica—which is of course further homage to Leone and Morricone. Oh, there’s also the organ, which was a pedal-powered harmonium – an instrument once widely found in country churches.

VC: As for the music itself, there is a spare, open quality that is both beguiling and a little unsettling. Was that something you aimed for in this soundtrack setting or is it a more general characteristic of your music?

PM: It’s a little bit of both, to be honest. Listening to soundtrack music in isolation from the movie for which it was created is always a difficult ask in my view, and personally I don’t buy many soundtrack albums because I often find them musically unsatisfying. The first priority for the composer is making the music do its job for the film, so if it manages to survive in any way on its own, that’s a bonus. Fortunately, I think the soundtrack for Spirits does manage to capture the essence of the movie rather nicely on its own terms. My favourite quote from any review of the album described the music as being “like a dust storm through a ghost town” and that’s about as accurate as you can get to my original intention. It was meant to be ethereal, haunting, and atmospheric—by which I mean atmospheric in the way we use it in sound design; a part of the environment.

My music does have qualities like that in general though. I like the interplay between darkness and hummability.

VC: Perhaps you could clear up some chronological confusion. The album cover shows 1989 as the year of Spirits release. Yet the Facebook page has a banner proclaiming 30 years. Excellent forward planning or some Tardis time conspiracy?

PM: Ah, no, that’s just a peculiarity of history and independent film-making. The movie premiered in September 1987, for a small audience in Sydney, but it was not the general release. From that point, it did the slow procession of film festivals which is the way independents hope to secure some kind of distribution. Although we won a few awards, we didn’t get a distribution deal, and eventually we decided just to get it on the screen. As I recall the first general screenings were at the Valhalla Cinema in Sydney in early 1989. The music was released in August, 1989. We eventually got a small local distribution deal, and then a limited release in Japan. To this day, I still get a few dollars a year in music royalties from the Japanese release.

VC: Any chance of a re-issue of the soundtrack?

PM: My lips are sealed…

VC: As well as the 30th Anniversary, what else are you currently working on? Where can people hear your music?

PM: Oh, I’m constantly working. Right now I’m making a dedicated musical + visual work called The Everlasting Faint. The first two clips for that—Nightcap and Beyond the Wall of Sleep—are on the landing page of my site scribbletronics.com. All my other adventures can be found elsewhere there too, including the music I’ve been making over the last 30 years.

VC:  Thanks for chatting to Vinyl Connection, Peter.

PM: My pleasure entirely!

26 comments

  1. One technical point of interest I forgot to mention – the windharps have a ‘vane’ on them to keep them optimally oriented into the wind. Often, windharps are designed to sit on a windowsill (in the open window) to catch the breeze as it drifts by. This means you only get brief ‘wafts’ of sound (which is nice in its own way). But we wanted something more omnipresent, so Rod designed these harps to always orient correctly for the wind. If it was windy, there was a more-or-less constant tone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Peter. I wonder if Rod does windharp workshops. Might be fun.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. To my knowledge, these are the only windharps Rod has ever built 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting story and music.
    (N, overhearing it, was curious enough to ask what was playing – a first. Z and N usually ignore the stuff I play).
    Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Nice thoughtful questions in the interview Bruce – comforting to hear it wasn’t a disruption in the space time continuum that caused the 30-year anniversary confusion!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers Geoff. It was made easy by having an interviewee who was generous and wrote beautifully!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, and another bit of trivia I meant to add but totally forgot is that the soundtrack was intentionally devoid of any percussion or percussive sounds. This was an attempt to incorporate a musical sense of the large flat unpunctuated spaces of the desert, and to invoke the feeling of the passing of the long stretches of featureless days.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And it worked beautifully.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Windharp workshops! There is an idea. BYO recycled plywood, nails, paint and some violin strings! Actually, the strings on these were tunable by tightening the brass screws which I had drilled holes through to take the strings. They were, after all, film props, but now you mention it, you’d probably do a decent trade at the right markets if you made them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Don’t give away your IP, Rod! I’ll sign up for a workshop for sure! Probably would eschew the religious texts, though. 🙂

      (Thanks for dropping by)

      Like

      1. Actually, the market where I bought the LP (as reported here) would be a perfect location to sell bespoke windharps.

        Like

  6. […] on Spirits of the Air – Gremlins of the Clouds here, including an interview with composer/musician Peter […]

    Like

  7. Wow, fantastic on all accounts Bruce! How thrilling to have Peter come across your review of his work and then agree to an interview in which you–as noted by Stephen1001–posed such informed, insightful questions. I really like that snippet from the soundtrack…the sense of otherworldly-ness is certainly achieved. I enjoyed the snippet of Sky Song as well, and smiled when I saw the last name of one of the album’s co-creators listed on the back of LP jacket: Elena Eremin….just two letters removed from theremin, an instrument that generates otherworldly sounds of another kind!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. One could easily imagine that Leon Theremin was inspired to make his electronic instrument after hearing winter winds whistle through the clotheslines of St Petersburg! Thanks for your thoughtful comments (as always) JDB.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Great work, Bruce. I’m glad you’ve pursued exploring and sharing the Curiosity Corner. As Geoff said, the questions are really very thoughtful, which makes for an insightful piece and interview.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do quite enjoy email interviews. That this one came together so easily is thanks to Peter M’s friendly availability. As he and I live less than 15 km apart, I guess we could have got together in a coffee shop for a chat, but then someone (i.e.: me) would have had to transcribe it. And I hate transcribing interviews! So hooray for email/word processing!
      Thanks for your comments, J.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I do also have a theremin, by the way. Two, actually. My pride and joy is the Big Briar Model C, made by Bob Moog himself, and a beautiful and wondrous piece of art.

        Also, we could always go to a coffee shop for, you know, coffee… 🙂

        I wrote about how I came to acquire my Model C on my blog, on Bob’s death in 2005:

        http://www.tetherdcow.com/resonance/

        Liked by 1 person

        1. What a terrific story. Travel, weather, music and Moog, humanity and death. All in a thousand words or less. Wonderful.

          Liked by 1 person

      2. You can always get the coffee shop interview for part 2; sounds like there’s a lot more that could be discussed.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Fine idea! Peter’s new music is quite fascinating.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. Holy mackerel this was a great post, reading along, and then BAM! An excellent interview, too!

    WELL DONE!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot Aaron. I’m delighted you got a BAM! out of it!

      Like

      1. Add a KA-POW! and a SOK! and it could morph into musings on Batman…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Funny you should mention that. Just bought this Sun Ra oddity…

          Like

  10. Man, what a great piece! Will be putting in some time with Peter’s music. All sorts of bells are going off with this stuff. Also will be searching out the film. Listened to the Hopkins/Lamb collaboration. I enjoyed it so much that I had to check out the rest of your take. Am I ever glad I did. I’m in the middle of something right now that this music is in tune with. “like a dust storm through a ghost town”. What a great quote. Your interview with Peter was very informative and well done. Good work Bruce.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks CB. It’s cinematic stuff!!

      Liked by 1 person

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