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Movements in the language of sound [2010-02-28]

Michael Begg, along with childhood friend Deryk Thomas, has been releasing music since 2001, when, on a whim, he sent Steven Severin a cassette of music they’d created for a play called ‘Human Greed: A Mortality Play in 3 Courses’, leading to the release of their first album, Consolation. Since then, they have released two further albums of intense emotive evocations elegantly deployed through a dramatic blend of abstract electronica, field recordings, manipulated samples and, more recently, acoustic instrumentation, drawing comparisons to Henryk Górecki, David Lynch, and “Arvo Pärt conducting Metal Machine Music”.

m[m] Despite its largely instrumental and abstract nature, your music seems to retain a strong intent of communicating, striving to relate the complex layers of the human condition. With Deryk Thomas’ background as a visual artist and state-registered forensic Art Psychotherapist, and your background as a poet, theatre director and playwright, has demoting language and image in favour of sound been liberating, perhaps in pursuit of a more sincere form of expression?

MB OK, there’s quite a lot to untangle here, and I am stuffed with painkillers right now so I may drift somewhat from the point. First off, I feel embarrassed reading that list of activities associated with my background. Yes, I dabbled in all those areas, and many more, but the level of consolidation, or success was never anything other than questionable. I did what I did to get by, and that stance continues.

Human Greed does not set out to make any kind of authoritative statement on the human condition, complex or otherwise. It always was and always will be a very personal, emotionally driven activity. That said, you are in the right ball park when you talk of its intent to communicate, or at least connect.

Any sense of liberation was likely down to my feeling that sense or meaning could successfully arise in some kind of narrative structure without the need for words. I fell out with words over a decade ago. Initially because they were proving too difficult, truth be told. It became a little more political later on as I developed the standpoint that observed words losing their value at an astonishing rate. The requirement to negotiate meaning, to openly discuss, to interpret, was, to my mind, becoming an open door to trickery and abuse. The accumulated evidence would suggest that my fears were justified. The language has no value. Bookshops induce nausea. Courts are linguistic bear traps. Reporting is the last refuge of fiction. Every printed word is there to sell you something, or take something from you.

I just wanted to feel and wanted to respond in as pure a way as possible to the life I felt I was living in a manner that would assist with survival and grace.
The language of sound has never let me down, and so it was really quite a natural progression.

m[m] Could the language of sound go the same way as you feel about words, I wonder? So far, technological requirements have determined that there’s more recorded words than sounds, but with more recent developments, particularly in computer software and hardware, the means of recording and publishing music are becoming as commonplace as pen and paper. Do you feel that the amount of records released (in whatever format) thanks to this apparent democratising of music may reduce the value of sound as an effective mode of connection, or, conversely, could it represent a healthier state in which even more direct engagement may be encouraged?

MB There is, I think, a danger of looking too closely at this and finding your own position untenable. Beyond a few un-connected observations I think it possibly best just to keep your head down, your arse up, and peddle hard!
Music, in its loosest possible sense is a human necessity. That much seems clear. Have you read Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthal? Hellish dry book to wade through in places but it does make a compelling evolutionary case for the entwined development of music and language.

The basic emotional need is there but the frameworks in which we situate these needs are much more transient, whether that be the framing of the activity of sound capture as a music recording industry, or the framing of abstract cognitive models through language. It is thrillingly remote, but not beyond us, to consider the psychology of, say, Egyptian civilisation through hieroglyphs. A full and richly textured language based on visual and conceptual juxtaposition, so far from the purposefully abstract word forms that make up our languages today. We can still touch it, but it is remote, only vaguely possible, like a dream.

Maybe five thousand years down the line our descendants will view our inclination towards framing communication and emotional connection through business models similarly remote and perplexing.

I did mention I was on painkillers for an ear infection right now, didn’t I? I am also increasingly given to free and random association, so excuse the rambling.

You know, you can tell that the boundaries are dissolving. And this is particularly true for the sort of material we produce. Draw for me, if you can, the delineating border between music, sound art, and installation. Take it further – try to draw the lines between these terms and, say, lecture, presentation, hypnosis, physical theatre, sonic sculpture, service, communion, art exhibition, circus. You see how meaningless the definitions are, even though the activity may remain deeply meaningful?

Yes, everyone can record and share musical creations. And so many, too many do. But the reasons for people entering into the activity are, I think, not always clear, and certainly little to do with the need to create musical sound with the intention of moving a listener. There are likely many reasons that folk want to get into this area of activity. My prediction is that as it becomes perceptibly easier to gain recognition, fame, notoriety, whatever, by doing absolutely nothing, or fucking someone, or being on TV, then we’ll see a drop off in people producing superficial recordings. It’ll simply become too much effort to achieving whatever end goal they have in mind. Now, stop me before I go on to talk about the history of the troubadours, please.  

m[m]To what degree has computer technology encouraged Human Greed’s explorations with sound? Is it merely a tool that would find itself replaced with other means of composition and capture were it unavailable?

MB I think, in retrospect, it allowed for a growth in confidence to allow certain ideas to flourish. At the beginning, however, it would have been impossible, absolutely impossible, to make any progress. The main thing technology did for me was to liquefy sound. The input signal was just the pigment. The speed and ease of digital technology allowed that pigment to be smeared and mixed on a palette and onto a canvas, and manipulated beyond all expectation. Very quickly, formality would fall away, and the sounds could not be connected in any way to instrumentation or notation and so I was left in a trancelike state where I could get right to the core of the emotional response and… well, it becomes very internal, very personal, like the sounds themselves are tonics and graces of emotion and you can move them around and fold them in to each other and literally feel how they resonate with each other. That was the start. Bringing in Deryk helped tether the enterprise, and bringing in other contributors on Black Hill drew it further towards a recognisably musical sensibility.

Fortress Longing will take all of that a stage further. The majority of the instrumentation will be recognisable, but the deployment of the instruments will, curiously, take their lead from arrangement and composition strategies more familiar to the electronic sources of the other recordings.

m[m] You have admitted a “…profound, obsessive anxiety regarding aging and death. Particularly [your] own aging and death.” Human Greed’s sound can be intensely funereal, is it a means of exorcising this anxiety or exploring the obsession?

MB Well, yes and no. The quote comes from the Belsona Academy podcast I did for Thomas Bey William Bailey; “an Introduction to Fortress Longing”. Fortress Longing is a work I am still deep in the heart of producing, and that work is certainly, in itself, a concentrated, if somewhat oblique, exploration of that particular anxiety. Previously, I don’t think I have consciously targeted a single theme. Our records undoubtedly contain a lot of bleak forms, and make much of sorrowful distances, sad witnesses and lonely limitations in the face of cruel absolutes, and they certainly, or hopefully, induce or encourage a certain still reflection on the listeners part. As such that response, should it occur, would reflect the concerns affecting us as we composed the works. But for me it is usually something more to do with identifying and illuminating a certain perspective on life than it is to do with, you know – d. e. a. t. h.

m[m] Reviews of instrumental, particularly experimental, music including your own often struggle to avoid describing “a cinema for the mind” where the reviewer gets to impose their own narrative on the soundtrack provided. How wide and varied do you expect listeners’ reflections you mentioned to be? And to what degree does this concern you or influence your choices when composing?

MB It’s not just the reviewers that fall back on this. Artists themselves are frequently describing long instrumental compositions as variations on the theme of soundtracks for films that don’t yet exist. It’s lazy.

I really think this is to do with trust. Trust that the nameless thing, the complex emotional state, you are trying to faithfully represent will resonate with a personal manifestation of a similar state in the listener. I personally have no doubt that it does in fact register. My feeling is that trying to verbally represent the connection is where the failure comes in. The vocabulary is pale and limited.

m[m]The psychology of music fascinates me but also frustrates as the amount of work in the field is minimal compared to many other studies surrounding cognition and language. Unsurprisingly, the work available seems largely based on Western music (mainly pre-20th Century classical with occasional nods to pop and rock) and, to put it crudely, speaks of the contrast in having ones expectations met and confounded in a piece of music as the roots of any connection, leaving me still questioning what’s going on cognitively when concentrating on music that deliberately eschews diatonic tonality. And if it was possible to know this, how might this knowledge be used?

MB It also seems that the triggers for undertaking research in this area are often from questionable sources. Look for anything on the psychology of sound and it tends to hover around the sounds required in shopping centres to make people buy more, or the most effective sounds in military situations, or, even more insidiously, the quality of sound required to make people more acquiescent in otherwise intolerable situations, like broken lifts, choked immigration halls, dentist chairs. Its truly awful to think of using sound to actually squash the human spirit. The irony screams!

I find myself increasingly drawn towards the relationship of sound to space and the perspective that relationship gives to life. There is a kind of iterative dialogue suggested there that would seem as likely to arise from a base in architecture as it would from music. What am I referring to here? Well, consider the development of cathedrals, the vaulted, high spaces, purposefully designed to enhance the ascending voice of a choir. The tonal scales and melodic leads in themselves took their form from understanding what would work most effectively in the space. The interleaving of architectural space, formal musical composition and subjective purpose is, I don’t know, intriguing.

Sorry. I digress. Let’s get back to some point

m[m]The first track on all three of your albums to date is called ‘Invocation’, what are you attempting to invoke?

MB Well, I was never in any doubt that this was an unusual sound and I thought it was only fair to try and prepare the room in some way. An invocation seems to me to be a traditional way to focus the space and the listener, draw them towards the sensibility at play and allow them space to enter into the recording as a whole. I consider it to be good manners.

m[m]This reminds me of the overture played before the curtain opens on musical theatre performances that introduce the main themes behind the songs to come. While your invocations are brief and do not necessarily include passages to be found later in the same record, are they recorded last of all determined by what will follow them, or are they perhaps created earlier to prepare yourselves as well as, ultimately, the listener?

MB I like the overture idea. And I always love what goes on before a show kicks off. The engineered anticipation. It’s all so important and integral, and, along with much of the other aspects of formal performance discipline is increasingly lost in the prevailing DIY first name terms climate.

Hhhmmm. Invocation tends to come first as a number of unconnected elements that mark out the parameters of the intended work, and it is then revisited as the work inevitably changes shape, composition and direction. For example, with Pilgrim New World Homestead, there was actually a storyline that stepped out of the shadows once in a while. A story concerning a voyage from the old world to the new world. Where the voyagers, who had destroyed the old world with their gluttony and selfishness, embarked for a new unspoiled land, only to land there and find that a) they had brought their old habits with them and b) there was a malevolent populace waiting to devour them. Invocation originally encapsulated the voyage, and introduces a brief melodic line that is echoed many times through the record – repetition being a trick I use to introduce a curious sense of nostalgia into the mix – before exploding into violence, signalling the fate that awaited. However, there was, as ever, a long gestation period in the recording, during which I became increasingly drawn to the notion of liminal moments. My interpretation of which suggested that emotional impact is most potent in times of transition. So, just before, or just after the great catastrophe. The breath before the bomb. The moment of confusion before the pain hits home. The hanging, eternal moment that must end sometime and allow the inevitable to follow. So it goes. I had to go back and strip out all of the violence, all of the sense of release that comes with any kind of resolution to that hanging moment. Nothing resolves in Pilgrim. It is not a recording that will give release in any measure.

m[m]Do you deliberately use any stimuli just prior to writing or recording?

MB Absolutely. Like a trainer talking up a prize fighter – I need all the encouragement I can get! I tend to make lists. Lists of sounds, songs, albums, artworks, films, events, memories, books, everything that seems – usually on a subconscious level – to have relevance to the work that we’re looking to create. Rather than be out on a limb I like to feel that my work is an extension of some unspoken tradition, like its adding to the texture. To that end, I try to cushion the studio in all these friendly, helpful and hopeful voices.

With Fortress Longing this has become a little more explicit as I have wandered into a situation that allows all of this armour to actually find an active voice in the development of the work. This is why you find The Sleeping Egyptian on the floor of the British Museum, Thoth, Lord of the moon and protector of writers and scribes, Federico Garcia Lorca, Bernardette of Lourdes, the lamb paintings of Nicole Boitos all surging forward en masse with all the referenced texts – Ballard, Bachelard, Gioran, The Book of Longing, Cante Jondo, the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead – and all the other cultural detritus that I suck up like a starving beggar – just to make a rich bed of fresh straw in which to birth the final work.

m[m]With you based in Edinburgh and Deryk 370 miles south in Buckinghamshire, I imagine the recording process is split between occasional visits and correspondence via the web.  Do you think this combination of working in isolation and planned sessions together strongly influences the results (in other words, would a Human Greed album conceived completely together sound any different)?

MB I don’t know why this one should be difficult to answer, but it is. The records to date have taken a very long time to come together. The gestation and development period is absurdly long. That is as much to do with how little I trust my judgement as anything else. If an idea lasts the winter, it stays. Otherwise it is shown the door. If Deryk and I were to conceive, record and mix a work together it would obviously lose the gestation, the endless tinkering, the reconsideration, and so forth, so, yes, it would be a very different record.

But I think this is difficult because the role performed in the creation of each record is more than that of musician. Discussion, anecdote, personal progress through the trials of the mundane day, accurately reported and recorded, the conscientious objection to the inclusion of a particular name, or sound, the mythological intensity of lifelong friendship… They all play their part. So, you see, it is very hard for me to successfully extricate the process of creating a recording from the fabric of the life being lived.

m[m]I would say that the lengthy gestation and development period you describe is evident in the quality and intensity of your releases to date. Ideally, would you prefer a less protracted process that greater confidence in your own judgement may bring?

MB Thanks very much.

Because there is a little more interest in what we do I cannot deny that there is the correspondingly increased desire to capitalise on that and get more material out before the attention ebbs. But, of course, such thinking has to be kicked out of the door as soon as it arises.

There is no doubt that I am speeding up. That could be increased technical competence on my part, improved technology, or the ever increasing awareness of death prompting ever more feverish activity. I suspect a cocktail of these and other factors. I am working towards Fortress Longing being ready for release in September – a mere two years after Black Hill. The blink of an eye.

m[m]The qualities of a listening environment are obviously important to an appreciation of music, and arguably more important when listening to the more abstract end of the musical spectrum. In this way, Human Greed’s music, along with others of a similar gait, almost demands unhindered immersion. What listening environment would you prefer for your releases and how controllable has it been for your live performances?

MB Well, all good music, regardless of genre, demands the good grace of concentrated attention. I generally don’t like the idea of background music, as it suggests it is background to something else and is therefore a distraction. I commit to listening to a recording, even if I don’t see it all the way through, I make the commitment. There is some deeper nourishment that is being quietly eroded by the ever increasing urge for immediate satisfaction into which our culture has all but plummeted. A record takes somewhere in the region of an hour to listen to. It really, really is not that long, not when you think of the journey you go on as a listener, not when you think of the richness – again, the nourishment – of engaging with the piece of work. Not when you consider the very real possibility of change in the heart and mind that can occur.

I have enjoyed all of our live shows to date, but I am not so sure that we have had enough experience of them to really get a feel for how to control the situations. They have all been completely different in tone and delivery. In fact, one of the most compelling things about performing this material is that one is usually on the very edge of control, and it is never entirely clear if we’ll make it to the end of the set. Were you at the London Ship of Fools show?

m[m] Yes.

MB You will recall how the event took place below deck on a boat and how the whole room pitched and rocked at a certain point? That’s how it feels on the inside of every show.

m[m] For me this event clearly demonstrated one of the key differences between listening to music at home and that performed live. Witnessing Human Greed with others on the boat provoked a whole new set of perspectives - listening to the CDs is usually an isolated and introspective activity and the music can feel like it was designed for this state, whereas live it is very much a shared experience, feeling more like a tenebrous communion than inward journey. The sudden movement of the boat at the end of your set caused everyone to look and smile at each other to check the sensation was not a private hallucination.
You sound like you welcome the unpredictability of your performances to date, can you see this influencing your recorded, more controlled, output in any way?

MB The performances and the recordings are entirely different thing. The recordings are developed over long periods of time in isolation and reflect a long, considered engagement that will be, I imagine, impossible to listen to in company. It must be digested in solitude.

The performances are subject to many immediate factors; the need to respond to the environment and the occasion, the need to engage complete strangers, the need to be open to the moment at hand, the limitations of what can be managed with the software. Until recently there was very little in the way of recorded vocals or recognisable instruments in a Human Greed recording, but there we were in Gdansk, Warsaw, Krakow, Edinburgh and London, playing guitars and melodica, delivering spoken word meditations, even singing, after a fashion! I hope I have the experience and confidence to respond faithfully, appreciatively and constructively to each occasion. The London show was like an intimate gathering of friends on a small boat on black water at night. Only when that situation became clear to me did it feel obvious that I should begin with a spoken toast to absent friends. I have waited twenty years to find a place where the spoken word doesn’t make me feel self conscious, sick and awkward. I still can’t easily bring myself to record the spoken word, but in a room with other people, and with the armour of amplification, it makes perfect sense.

I am curious about what you say regarding it being a shared experience. Did you feel it was indeed something shared, or did you experience it alone, among other people? Never having seen a Human Greed show, as it were, I am really not sure what its like. The London show was the one that felt most like a little family or a little army gathering together in the night.  I just put it down to the work that Klarita and Tony had already put in to nurturing a committed core.

I seem to recall opening with the words; “Welcome friends to the great sadness at the heart of all things” I must have felt very sure that this was a strongly bonded and supportive little gathering, otherwise I cannot imagine myself being so open, so unguarded, to what is the raw truth underpinning my activity here.

m[m]The London show felt shared on a number of levels – I like to see who else has developed the capacity for appreciating music that’s often digested in isolation, as you say, and find that the same faces crop up, including artists working in a similar realm. But mainly it is the introspective nature of the music that highlights the sharing – the still, almost reverent, behaviour while you were playing indicated a collectivised concentration. Later there was the opportunity to discuss with others how it felt, or even just to interpret the glints in the eyes of strangers. It was also reassuring to detect a common understanding of how the forces at work can affect each of us in a nourishing way.

MB That is really encouraging to hear.

m[m]On your most recent album, Black Hill: Midnight at The Blighted Star you opened your stage to other musicians (Julia Kent, Clodagh Simonds, David Tibet and Fabrizio Modonese Palumbo), marking a departure for Human Greed. What sort of collaborative process did you use and how did it feel? Are you likely to encourage more of this activity in either your recordings or live performances in future?

MB It was very much a leap of faith. There are two texts underpinning the whole of Black Hill. One is the excerpt from Hardy’s “Tess” regarding this world being a “blighted star”. The other, however, is the line I wrote: “Sometimes, its like the silver coin of the moon is tossed, like alms for the poor, across the cold, midnight sky”. I simply gave this line to each of the guests and asked them to interpret the line in whatever way they saw fit. I had no idea what they would come up with or whether it would fit in with the rest of the recording.

What came back was astonishing and, for me, deeply moving. All of them – Julia, Fabrizio, Clodagh and David – gave so generously and freely of their time and produced some wonderful stuff. I was just the luckiest puppy in the basket. And the textual element of negotiation was there. Their contributions made me re-examine and re-evaluate the emotional response. The whole project stepped onto a higher plane on account of the interaction with these other kindly souls.

Julia sent variations of a full composition along with all the individual cello tracks. In fact, the composition that features on the title track is entirely hers and, to my mind, makes the record. Clodagh recorded her interpretation when she was visiting me here in Scotland. We read the text through. Then I took the back off the upright piano I keep in the studio and put the mics in place. I pressed record then just sat back and watched her improvise. Beautiful.

The dangerous point, of course, was allowing myself the right to dismantle the contributions and process them as I saw fit. I had to be careful not to undermine their contributions. But I think it worked ok.

m[m] Julia Kent’s and Clodagh Simonds’ contributions lent a more traditional, melodic phrasing to your sound, contrasting with, and at times even providing respite from, the more intense and abstract layers you and Deryk create. Would you like to further explore this contrast and work with more accessible musical schema?

MB I think I have kind of touched upon this already, but, in short, yes. Fortress Longing has already amassed a great deal of material comprising primarily string instruments and this will be growing over the summer months. Julia, I have just learned, will be contributing again which I am absolutely delighted about, and it remains to be seen what parcel of rogues I’ll be able to persuade to come onboard for this leg of the journey. I haven’t actually given it much thought, but now that the evenings are growing lighter… Do you think I could get Morrissey? I wouldn’t put it past me. I think there may hopefully be a couple of very unexpected names, but let me sit on that for a while.

m[m]Morrissey would go up greatly in my estimations if you managed to get him on board. You’ve been part of Clodagh Simonds’ Fovea Hex project, appeared on Blind Cave Salamander’s latest album, Troglobite, and most recently worked with Colin Potter on the part-live, part-installation, Fragile Pitches, in Edinburgh’s St Giles Cathedral. All these artists seem to have strong links with Current 93 and Nurse With Wound, England’s so-called “Hidden Reverse” – do you feel a strong affinity with this apparent family and how did these relationships come about?

MB Well, I appreciate the evidence does look pretty damning, but it really is just a matter of circumstance. Especially since I am Scottish and couldn’t possibly be connected with England’s Hidden anything!
My involvement with Fovea Hex is obviously at the root of it all. Clodagh simply posted a message on the Human Greed Myspace profile a few winters ago, and that, miraculously, was the start of that. One of the most significant random collisions of my life. Fabrizio is Fovea Hex’s booking agent and so that’s how I got to know him, which of course led to meeting the other Blind Cave Salamanders -  Paul (Beauchamp) and Julia (Kent). Colin (Potter) is involved with the production and manages the live sound for Fovea Hex so I got to know him pretty well through that connection. I don’t really think there is any grand consenual approach to musical direction or creative philosophy at work. There’s a lot of clear blue sky between the output of many of the bands involved. But they are lovely people, obsessive, generous and dedicated, and I am very happy to know them. 

m[m]You’ve cited a Siouxsie & The Banshees concert in Edinburgh in 1980 as a musical epiphany. What other experiences do you now regard similarly in influencing your work?

MB I was 14 and it was my first gig. It would have been difficult for it not to have made an impact.
You know, I am not so sure I am sharp witted enough to have had epiphanies. I don’t think I have ever said “That’s it!” without there being some woeful counterpoint feeling of “That was not it at all!” sometime soon afterwards. Much more meaningful is the sense of having fallen under the spell of something and awoken sometime later, years later, with the knowledge that your very being has been in some way altered by long term exposure to the work. It would be handy if there was a word for that.
So, that criteria would, from long ago, draw out Brian Eno’s Discreet Music. I don’t expect another recording will ever have such a profound effect on me. Ever.

Actually, hold on, there was an epiphinal moment. A pretty important one too. For a long time I wrestled with what I felt as a mutually exclusive polarity of concerns in my work. On one hand I had this literary, Romantic, lyrical sensibility whilst on the other hand I was driven to explore eviscerating noise and screaming negation. I just could not reconcile myself to which of these directions I should follow. Anyway, I found myself invited along to see John Cale play a solo performance at the Queens Hall in Edinburgh. This was, I think, 2001 or 2002. He kicked off by playing some of his Dylan Thomas interpretations, then Dying on the Vine, all the classics. Then he played Cohen’s Hallelujah and it suddenly struck me that here was the chap who put together Black Angel’s Death Song and all those Fluxus recordings, stuff with Cage and LaMonte Young, you know? And here he was playing what was later to become Cohen’s trademark song. The epiphany was that I should immediately stop caring about my self imposed constructs around what was effectively allowed in my own musical direction. I had to open my embrace a little wider – well, a lot wider - and just let it all in, let it all find its place. It seems banal now to report this, but it really was significant. To me.

m[m] While words and images haven’t been so central to your musical output, you continue to write on your Fortress Longing blog, which you have subsequently incorporated into a podcast as part of the Belsona Academy series, and videos of some of your tracks have been made by Neil McLauchlan, while your music was recently used in blackSKYwhite's production USSR Was Here as part of the London International Mime Festival. Do these activities portend an increased consolidation of yours and Deryk’s experience in other media?

MB Not sure. Might be as simple as our profile being ever so slightly larger in the last year or so and therefore there is a corresponding increase in the available opportunities. I have never really sought to actively exclude any media. Even writing – I may have had my issues with the written word, but nonetheless the written word remains, sometimes despite my best efforts, well and truly embedded in the recordings. Never more so than Black Hill which, truth be told, has brought me back to the written word with more of a sense of urgency than ever. And now, of course, Fortress Longing, is first and foremost a series of texts.

The creating of the videos was an explicit move to make the material more widely known and since I had asked Neil to prepare some visuals for the live show it made sense to capitalise on that.

As for blackSKYwhite. They are an incredible company and I have been shamelessly courting them for a long time, ever since I saw Bertrands Toys performed at the Edinburgh Festival about a hundred years ago. I am now actually working with them on a new piece of work, so the courting has paid off. You have to remember that Human Greed was originally destined to be nothing more than the soundtrack to a theatre performance.

It seems to me that the expectation for one to produce content in a single medium is increasingly redundant these days.

m[m]You mentioned Human Greed’s slightly larger profile recently and, one indicator of this is Black Hill: Midnight at the Blighted Star’s second place in the Italian  magazine, Blow Up’s electronic/dark album of the year list. I’ve heard Italian audiences are particularly receptive to abstract electronic music – have you found this to be the case? Is this perhaps because of their Futurist heritage going right back to Russolo’s L’arte dei Rumori of 1913?

MB I actually think its because Italian audiences love to talk their way through shows and it is a lot easier to talk through an electronic show where there is no vocalist interrupting the flow of your conversation. Hah!

I’ve never played there as Human Greed, but Fovea Hex have done a few shows in the north of the country, and it has always been nothing less than a pleasure and an honour. And, yes, they are very receptive, and they do have a rich literature supporting what amounts to very, very marginal musical activities in other countries. And, yes, they do seem to embrace the possibilities of the unknown. They also, certainly in Torino, for example, have a traditional penchant for darkness. I have no idea how it has come about or how they sustain it, but I am waiting, waiting, waiting for invitations to take Human Greed over. Fragile Pitches – Colin Potter and myself – have a church gig waiting for us in Torino, but a couple of other venues need to be found elsewhere in the region, maybe in Switzerland, in order to make it financially viable. We’ll see. We’ll see. Money is somewhat problematic for the whole scene at the moment, of course.

m[m]With three blogs, dedicated pages on Facebook and MySpace plus a YouTube channel and titles available in the iTunes store, you seem to have embraced the internet as a further medium in which to inhabit. Do you see this expanding further in the future?
Do you forsee a time when, having completed a piece of work, you release solely online without a physical counterpart?

MB No!
I am one of that dying breed of souls who gains something from having the presence of the physical object. I like CDs. The packaging continues to be horrifically ill thought out, but they are nice objects to own.

As you say, there are a couple of recordings available digitally but there is nothing really satisfactory about it. I just wanted to give folks the option, and I wanted to be open to what everyone kept telling me was the future. But I am increasingly convinced that it is not the future. So much so that it is in my to-do list to remove the iTunes presence. MP3 is, I am increasingly convinced, not an appropriate compression model for the sort of sounds we produce. It is a woefully subjective algorithm design and is suited to particular sounds - essentially the generic wallpaper dance pop rubbish that pollutes every waking moment in any city on earth.

The business model – and this is something that you see increasingly right across the culture – is one where the thing itself – the reason – is pushed into a marginal position. iTunes is the perfect example. Individual tracks by individual artists sell for small change. The artist will get pennies back from that. It holds nothing for the artist. But to iTunes who have millions of artists and can undertake consumer trap exercises such as if you bought that you will love this it means everything. The music is nothing to them, it is the mass that is important. The mass is the business model. Consumers become increasingly dependant on having their choices made for them whilst they are spoon fed this criminal shit about being in control and in charge of all they do.

I am compelled to consider the delivery model as date rape. Some charming figure asks you if you like music. Why, yes, of course. So he invites you in with a song then cruelly stuffs every orifice with ringtones, lottery numbers, useless trinket apps, sms subscriptions, x-factor exclusives, celebrity gossip, upturns your wallet then kicks you back out into the gutter and calls you a cunt.

There are many, many indications that music as a business concern is dead. But I feel increasingly uncomfortable about going along with even one of the triggers towards its final demise.

m[m]This reminds me of a horrible but insightful quote from music businessman par none, David Bowie, who in 2002, observed that “copyright… will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing," and that "music itself is going to become like running water or electricity". Pretty depressing and prophetic stuff, but in a rare fit of optimism I wonder whether this will further distinguish a marketed product from an artist’s work, where those requiring a physical manifestation of their art (CDs, say) are more likely to be the sensitive souls who regard creativity as reason alone for their activities regardless of business models, whereas those who are happy for their work to be compressed then downloaded or streamed by Spotify and played on mobile phones will submit to the dictates of an evolved industry led by television phone-in programmes.
Or, is this just an indication of an older generation not keeping up with the times?

MB Yes, I am old. Yes, I am completely at odds with the prevailing tide of youthful concerns. Yes contemporary popular culture bores, tires, infuriates me to death. And, moving on to your point, yes, it would seem fair to surmise that the ease and fluidity of data transfer has ruptured previous control structures. Ownership, authorship, copyright, I.P. licensing…all of these things are in flux, but in these terms it is no different than any other stream of data. Music is no special case here. Maybe Mr Bowie leaves his taps running all the time, but I don’t.

The great challenge is how to regain control, how to stop being an easy consumer. How to turn the taps off and sit still, consider and reflect, before advancing once again under your own steam under your own terms.

It doesn’t matter to me whether someone chooses CD, CDR, FLAC, MP3, live action, whatever, as their chosen medium, so long as the activity is engaged and suffused with intent. The artists that nourish me - anyone can look at their work and regardless of whether you like it or not, you at least know that they were not kidding.  It’s the genuine article. They produced whatever they did because they had to. They had no choice.

m[m]What has made it onto the Human Greed jukebox of late?

MB Well, with Fortress Longing coming together, Colin and I working up the recordings of the Fragile Pitches performance for release, the upcoming vinyl release of a special edition of Black Hill, creating tracks for blackSKYwhite and handling material for the forthcoming Fovea Hex album there is not a whole lot of time to commit to listening to other material. But, that said, I have loved playing the recent Colin Potter and Paul Bradley collaboration, The Simple Plan, which fools you into thinking it is really tranquil – then introduces genuine tranquillity which makes you realise you have been slowly wound up tight with anxiety. Nicely done. I also came across Myrmyr recently. The Amber Sea record is nice. What else has been taking a spin? 48 Cameras, the Guild of Funerary Violinists, KTL’s 2 album, some Hebridean psalms that Clodagh sent me a while back, oh, and on account of my sons I am spending a lot of time listening to – and enjoying immensely – Alan Bennett reading Winnie the Pooh.

m[m]What has made you laugh recently?

MB A recent tweet from Armando Iannucci still makes me chuckle: “Today's poll: Do you feel sorry for Alastair Campbell? A) No B) Not really or C) I don't think so.”


Many thanks go to Michael for all the time and effort that he put into answering my many questions so openly and extensively despite suffering from a cold and ear infection throughout.

Information on his varied activities can be found at www.omnempathy.com
Fragile Pitches, his collaboration with Colin Potter, will be released as 2CD and limited edition 3CD set on Omnempathy/ICR in April.
The Deluxe Double Vinyl Black Hill: Full Moon Over the Blighted Star will be released by Erototox Decodings in April.
Fortress Longing: The Internal Campaign for the Safe and Complete Return of the Sleeping Egyptian to the Desert will be released later in 2010.

Russell Cuzner
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