In 2011, I recorded the sound of a pontoon (or floating deck) in the Lilla Värtan in Stockholm. It was just bobbing up and down, with all the chains and links slowly sloping and clanking from the moving water that surrounded them. I recorded about 10 minutes of it. All I did back in my studio was adjust the levels and edit out a few instances where the wind had left distortion; other than that it was a great example of a sonic event, a pure, uncontrived performance. It had its own rhythm, its own melodies, it's own texture and complexity. It just 'existed'.
Those are the kinds of sounds I personally find interesting, peaceful and beautiful. Found sounds, with no human intervention, to which I'm just a witness capturing evidence; a librarian logging slices of history. Of course, you can intervene if things need slight provocation to make sound; opening and closing a screeching rusty gate, or dropping a stone into a deep well. But, on the whole, my approach can best be described as 'aleatoric' - a term used to describe music which incorporates elements of random choice.
So when Optrex approached me this year to compose an album of ambient music to accompany their new Warming Eye Mask, it felt like an interesting opportunity. The basic premise was to create a series of 10 minute tracks using field recordings gathered from five different locations - the home, an office, a cab journey, a train commute and an airport or a plane in flight. Optrex's Cloud 9 Recordings felt like a challenging yet logical next step, given that my life and career have been characterised by an obsession with listening to, recording and cataloguing sounds.
A lifelong insomniac, I've become deeply attuned to those sounds that buzz all around you - the ones that you're usually too busy to listen to. Hyper-sensitive hearing plays a part in my inability to sleep - in the words of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, "We cannot close our ears, we have no ear-lids" - and, with silence so rare, there is always something to hear in the darkness. But there's a difference between hearing something and listening to it; we passively hear stuff all the time, but do we actively listen?
For the five different tracks, my job was to find beauty in mundane, everyday sounds - sounds that we recognise, ignore or, even, are annoyed by - and use them to build cohesive soundscapes that repurpose the hubbub of daily life as a tool for relaxation. I wanted to foreground the background; by placing the field recordings in a more pleasant context, I hoped listeners would in future be able to form more positive associations with them in their day-to-day lives.
We had no interest in following the conventional relaxation music route - for me, it was much easier recording elevators and trains than a real life whale, and much more pleasant recording an array of malfunctioning fluorescent light bulbs than enduring a single panpipe. When unable to sleep, I could visit the usually crowded settings used for each track in the dead of night, and discover the noises often hidden or disregarded by daytime human traffic.
To make the captured sounds more accessible, I mixed them with beds of peaceful, ambient synthesised drones. I tried to illustrate the drones as the atmosphere surrounding 'Cloud 9', with the environmental material floating in and around it. I wanted it to feel like music that has composed itself, music which I was merely facilitate by providing the stage on which the sounds can unfold and perform.
Relaxation mixed with focus is a hard balance to strike, as it is when attempting to meditate. I sometimes think that some people find this type of music quite depressing, maybe because it is akin to what you'd be left with if you actively went out to experience a sonic environment: your thoughts, good and bad, happy and sad; the distant drone of traffic and other people's lives. But I think there's a kind stoicness to the tracks - an underlying, beautiful sadness that is the result of having (hopefully) found a way for peace and chaos to co-exist.
Humans are incredibly curious about everything in the world, about what makes something or someone tick, whether it be man made or synthetic, but I feel we may have lost a lot of our natural curiosity when it comes to sound. We have a world full of noises that are unpredictable, untameable, surprising, hidden and beautiful. It costs nothing to experience, has not been influenced by ego, and is always different, always nuanced.
It may not have a sexy girl dancing to it, a nice happy melody, or a steady, comfortable meter - but wouldn't it be great if we could find comfort and pleasure in those sounds that we habitually dismiss as banal or irritating?
You can listen to the full Cloud 9 Recordings playlist here