Text & Interview: Andy Fenwick
Images Courtesy of Golden Retriever
Seamless collaborations between modular synthesizers and acoustic instruments aren’t as easy as listeners would think. As far as song-structured attempts, Silver Apples started it. Eno succeeded as often as he failed. Pere Ubu’s Tenement Years grows better with age. In the instrumental sphere, Eno again succeeded (with Jon Hassell) and failed (take your pick). Popol Vuh created sublime heights. M. Geddes Gengres has done amazing things, like collaborating with reggae titans the Congos, and still does. CFCF does it now to good effect.
Add Golden Retriever to that crew. On their 2014 release The Seer, “Sharp Stones” ranked as a masterpiece, with washes of Jonathan Sielaff’s electro-fuzzed, bass clarinet like a horn across the Alps while electronic multi-instrumentalist Matt Carlson’s modular synths darted and oscillated. Yet, for new release Rotations, they’ve worked with a full chamber ensemble, including the Mousai Remix String Quartet, to create a finished, cohesive work from acoustic, live performances they collaged further in the studio.
From that last sentence, the result isn’t as you’d expect. Few tracks hint more than a duo. Opener “A Kind of Leaving” begins with quiet piano – much like another, an iconic composition about leaving – Eno’s Music for Airports – and achieves an update (or just homage) with a mournful clarinet melody amid glittering static and not much else. When GR opens up their sonic palette, it sounds less like an ensemble than a literal house of musicians: “Tessellations” launches with a feast of modular synths and maybe bass acoustics, arrows of Moog flying back and forth above a fascinating mass of sound. The next track, “Thirty-six Stratagems” pedals-to-the-metal on noise and cacophony, a gathering storm of hammered piano, bells, and skittering percussion.
Yet “Thread of Light” wipes the hard drive clean again, and is more representative of Rotations, and what the album does best. A startlingly quiet conversation, at first, between tentative piano and an upper-range bass clarinet sounding like a boy soprano, “Thread of Light” allows only a soft buzz of electronic noise, and then something like a distorted sleigh bell, but nothing ever obscure those two initial instruments. “Sunsight” takes that strategy one further, back into Music for Airports territory; a gorgeous, alt-classical composition reminiscent of Don Cherry’s quieter, coronet-in-the-desert, Codona work, where Carlson does the framing sound work of Colin Wolcott and Nana Vasconcelos – bells, strings, and peeling violin as a bed for Sielaff’s bass clarinet.
Before we get to the serious stuff – I love stories behind band names. Why “Golden Retriever?”
MC: Our friend Brenna Murphy coined the name. She had a dream in which she was in a field surrounded by hundreds or maybe thousands of Golden Retrievers swarming around. She told me that if she ever started a band she would call it Golden Retriever. Then I remember at a certain point her telling me that she probably wasn’t ever going to start a band, and we needed a name at the time so she said we could have it. Then it kind of morphed into a vision of us playing in a field surrounded by the dogs, which we talked about trying to orchestrate but it never came together. Maybe someday …
Rotations seems to have taken a while from the live 2015 performance to now. Why? Was it constant work, or did other things intervene?
JS: Absolutely. Life gets busy and weeks turn into months into a year or two. We both had a busy 2016 and were unable to really dive back into the recordings until almost a year after the initial studio sessions and performance. In a way, it was kind of nice to have that distance from the process and production and hear the material with fresh ears. It helped us re-contextualize and rethink some of the pieces for the specific process of making an album rather than oriented towards a performance.
When you finished the recording phase of Rotations, was there anything you did in the studio that made you think “next time, let’s do more of that?”
MC: Well one notable difference from our past records is that there are no loops on Rotations. Largely this just has to do with the fact that most of our records have been edited recordings of live performances, and in order to build up the desired level of density, some buffered layering is usually involved in our live show. But on this record, all the takes are done straight through, and if we wanted more complexity we just did more takes. This is a technique that we’ve continued to use in the recordings we’ve done subsequently, even for the recorded versions of our newer live sets. It seems to bring more life and breath to the recordings.
JS: We have also really loved diving back into playing acoustically. It can be easy to get lost in the technology – modules and pedals. Stripping it down to the essentials with just a piano and clarinet forces you to approach the music differently and informs our playing when we go back to the electronics.
Do you plan to work with a live ensemble again, like you did here, with Rotations?
JS: Yes! We will be performing with a saxophone quartet and percussionist for our album release show Aug 9th. We have performed with this ensemble once before last year and this was a chance to revisit some of the material from that show as well as reinterpret a bit from this new album. It’s cool because every time we perform with a different group of musicians and instruments it allows us to explore a new sonic area – this group is very bombastic and gets into some crazy swarm-of-insect type zones, almost like Penderecki for sax quartet.
Were those live works recorded as stand-alones? Have they/will they be released?
JS: They were. We are planning on pairing them with some video from those nights and putting them online. The recordings are ready, we just have to start sorting through the video. Not our strong suit, so that may take a little while!
It can be easy to get lost in the technology - modules and pedals. Stripping it down to the essentials with just a piano and clarinet forces you to approach the music differently and informs our playing when we go back to the electronics.
How did you come to play clarinet, and when did you first electrify it? Was it a wow moment, or was there a specific inspiration?
JS: Both my father and grandfather played the woodwinds. I grew up playing guitar but switched to clarinet in college. Hearing my father play sax and clarinet and flute my whole childhood seemed to make the learning process go really fast for me, it felt very natural. I’ve been playing bass clarinet about 20 years now. The instrument I play actually belonged to my grandfather – I still have one of his old reeds in the case.
For a while I played guitar in noisy stuff and rock bands and bass clarinet in chamber and quieter free improv settings. I tried different microphone setups but could never get loud enough to counter the guitars and drums without feedback. At a certain point, I tried putting an old banjo contact mic in the ligature on my mouthpiece and played it through my guitar effects and totally had a wow moment. I refined the setup for a couple of years and pretty much stopped playing guitar after that. I went from being barely audible in amplified settings to easily the loudest instrument if I have the right setup. With a good PA and subs I can be so fucking loud! I do try to rein it in for the most part …
I think there’s clarinet in “Tessellation,” beneath the wonderful synths – or no? On what track could a listener be most fooled?
JS: Yes, there is. Low, acoustic long tones throughout and then a shredded, distorted melody beginning in the second half. It’s kind of shrouded in there – partially obscured. I did a project with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and he had my clarinet “lead” really low in the mix giving it a far off “telescoped” sound. We thought that would work well in “Tessellation,” too. It’s all about dense layers and subtle transitions in that piece. It’s hard to keep track of any one instrumental line. Matt’s parts for the winds and string quartet blend with his synth lines weaving a sort of tapestry of sound like a gauze over everything underneath.
The more Matt and I play together, the more our sounds start to blur into each other. There are times in much of our music where it’s hard to tell who’s doing what. On this album, it’s a little easier because so much of it is acoustic. I guess “Pelagic Tremor” would be the hardest to pick out the clarinet because I’m just layering processed long tones over all the submarine rumblings of the acoustic instruments. I’m basically playing the bass clarinet like a synth.
What’s the most unlikely sound in “Thirty Six Strategems?” Do I hear vocoded vocals?
MC: There aren’t any vocoded vocals; probably what sounds like voice is some dynamic through-zero frequency modulation on an oscillator. I’d say the most “unlikely” sound is just the bass clarinet itself, because on that track you really hear the depths of how far-removed Jonathan has been able to take his tone from the acoustic sound of the instrument itself.
JS: Two fuzz pedals and a ring mod …
Also, Matt Hannafin’s percussion setup is very distinctive. Such a crazy mix. No one else sounds like him. “Thirty-Six” was designed specifically with his sound and playing style in mind.
What’s your favorite modular synth used for this recording? Were other electronic instruments used? Do you build your own?
MC: So I have two modular synthesizers, and they are both on the record. I have a 5U “dot com” setup, which is the synth we recorded all our early stuff with, and a modest Eurorack setup. They are both great, but in general the dot com excels at “East Coast” Moog-y type synthesis and the Eurorack is more oriented toward a “West Coast” Buchla/Serge-style approach. When I first acquired the 5U system, I considered going down the path of building modules. I ended up deciding that it was kind of a rabbit hole that could take me away from spending my time actually making music. I see the appeal though, if you’re thinking as a composer and you want a very specific thing for a particular musical situation, you could just make it!
Do the song titles refer to specific personal experiences, or to the impact of the compositions themselves?
MC: After we had finished sequencing the record and both felt good about the arc and flow of it, we started talking about titles. This brings up all these narrative and extra-musical connotations that we’re often not really thinking about while making music. We started talking about what the music means to us and what we were respectively going through while working on it. I’d say that the titles don’t really refer to specific personal experiences, but rather to a shared sense of how the gravity of the music related to our lives and the time we were living through.
JS: Its funny, our working titles for music we are developing are almost always purely descriptive – “slow, simple, soft” or “free jazz apocalypse” or whatever. Only after the piece is done and in the context of other tracks can we start to articulate its potential meaning and a more poetic name. There is a definite spirit or space in the performance, live or recorded, that is clear in the music, but not always definable in words. We try to evoke our understanding of that space in as few words as possible without trampling on the varying personal interpretations of the listener. It should mean something a little different to everyone.
This one’s for me: Back to the Seer, something I’ve always wanted to ask – on that fascinating piano and percussion on “Sharp Stones” – wood block in there? Is that backward piano? Hammer struck?
MC: The patch for “Sharp Stones” was a sampled piano instrument being played live through a band-pass filter that’s repeatedly opening via modulation from a slow ramp waveform. Then there are some oscillators brought into the mix that go through the same setup. There isn’t any percussion or backward stuff, I think it’s just the percussive timbre of that register of the piano combined with the snappy filtering that gives it that quality.