Friday, 13 October 2017

Subsongs by subsong: subsong

In which I write about the songs on the subsongs album, in order, song by subsong.

I don't want to write too much about the content of the lyric because I think it is self-evidently a reflexive song meditating on its own existential condition. The song speaks of itself, it asks where it will go, and then sets out a number of ideas, with a little semantic play around the materiality of a song, this song. It is, in one sense, the epitome of a 'subsong', in the sense that it is a song yet to reach complete form, it is yet to exist as a song. Of course this is an ironic conceit as it is, by the fact of being written, set to music and sung, already a song, has already become a song. So this is, by extension, an ironic conceit that underlies all of the songs on the album, if you take the title literally and consider it to be a collection of 'subsongs'.

The song started life with its melody, a simple sequence picked out on the guitar, and in musical terms goes little further than that. I wanted to keep it simple, strangely melancholic, as though there is melancholy in reflexivity. It was recorded live with voice and guitar, with some guitar overdubs. I made several recordings of the song, including one version with quite a lot of instrumentation, such as keyboards, bass and rhythm. The version I used for the album isn't necessarily the best of them, it seems to me that in this case that's not so much the point, this is a song that should always be in progress, never definitive...

I included some 'field recordings' in this version, in particular a recording of a cellist playing on the riverside footpath under the south side of Blackfriars Bridge in London. By chance the cello melody is in the same key as my song and therefore provided a found cello solo. I had intended to include more such 'found' recordings on the album, and spent some time recording musicians playing in public, or publicly audible, on my phone or a Zoom recorder secreted under my jacket. In the end I only used one other recording, on 'Garage/Band', which we will get to later.

Listen to the song and read the lyrics.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Subsongs by subsong: Off Off On

In which I write about the songs on the subsongs album, in order, song by subsong.

'Off Off On' is one of two songs on the album which harks back to Super 8 films I made in the 1990s in Australia. The other song is 'Periscopic', which I will come to eventually. 'Off Off On' takes its title and refrain from a film of the same title I made in 1992, embedded above for reference. The main text of the lyric, however, comes from another film made in 1995, 'Difficult Beauty'. 

The phrase "off off on", came from an Aboriginal man I saw on a bus in Melbourne. He was sitting on the back seat flicking the side of his face and repeating the words "off" and "on", over and over. He was clearly disturbed by something which I couldn't see, or probably know, but this performance of his disturbance seemed significant of something to me. It's impossible to think of the disturbance of the individual without thinking of it against the background of societal, cultural, and political contexts, and in the case of indigenous Australians the context is all too clear: a couple of centuries of abuse of indigenous people at the hands of colonialism. Whether this is being directly played out in the mental health and behaviour of any one individual must remain a moot point, and not to dismiss or diminish the distress of the individual, but to shift emphasis from the neoliberal tendency to individuate, is to acknowledge the culpability of the historical colonial context. The film's voice-over text placed this man's words alongside lines appropriated in part from Paul Virilio's Aesthetics of Disappearance, a dromological analysis of what it feels like to live in the society of speed. In the case of the film, this involves a retreat to a kind of hermetic claustrophobic perceptual state.

The text from 'Difficult Beauty', in retrospect, seems quite compatible with the idea of the mental state of the individual being determined by society. Part of the soundtrack was a text which I'd given to three people to record themselves performing; it is this text which forms the basis for the lyric, the extract below illustrates its original form, the instructions to the performers was simply to perform it as they saw fit.

that     with    with
with    how     how
what   what   with
when  .           why     what   .           .
where .           with    with
with    that     why
how     this      with
with    and     this
what   with    and
with    that     that
why     what   with
with    with    this
this      this      what
and     and     when

that     that     with
It would be easy, and perhaps accurate, to describe it as a text playing with words attempting, but failing, to describe a situation, text as symptomatic if you like. Returning to this text twenty-one years later, it seemed to me that socio-political conditions have accelerated to a point where the performance of inarticulate absurdity could become a perversely reasonable response to the world: the text still resonates. I fine-tuned its shape, added words like 'chaos' and 'form', 'truth' and 'justice', notions that seem to have become even more pressing and precarious. I also played with the alliteration of 'w' words like 'warp', 'woof', 'weft', and 'weave'. All of this performed in deadpan expressionless speech. The weaving wayward baselines were added late on in its recording.

This was one of the earliest songs written for the album and it went through a number of iterations and instrumentations, at the end of this post is a link to an alternative version performed accompanied only by 12 string electric guitar.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Subsongs by subsong: Inside

In which I write about the songs on the subsongs album, in order, song by subsong.

I had rejected ‘Inside', and one other song, from my first cut of the album. When I played the Linear Obsessional gig at the ArtsCafé in Manor Park a few weeks before the release of the CD, I had resolved, perhaps perversely, not to play any songs that were on the album, except for those that I had rejected. However one person in particular was so complimentary about this song, and about ‘Subsongs’, ostensibly the album’s then missing title track, that the next day I decided to include both. So my decision not to play songs from the album was undermined after the fact. What’s more I then decided that this song should open the album. I liked the idea of something so slow, and downbeat, employing such an economic use of words, unfolding graduallyoffering such a singular introduction, quite different from what would follow.

I was intending to write something about the idea of the experience of interiority, subjectivity, not a disembodied consciousness, but reflecting on its embodied nature; the brain as an organ, fleshy, bloody, very much a corporeal thing, the locus of the experience of subjectivity, and therefore the experience of the personal and individual consciousness. I imagined this as something like a sense of waking unconsciousness, something like the subjective isolation and suspended animation of being on a long-haul plane flight, with lingering jet lag. In fact the sound at the end of the song is indeed the sound of the low rumble and hiss of the interior of a passenger jet, recorded somewhere over the Himalayas, en route from Australia.

I had recorded the music track as a long looped sequence of dubby reverb and echoey bass, with occasional chiming 12-string guitar diminished chords. The words were not originally intended to be the final lyrics, they were simply a set of keywords used as conceptual place-markers, and my singing them into something of a melody was the first take recording. I did try writing and recording other, more complex, associative, suggestive, poetic lyrics, but kept returning to this original first semi ad-libbed version. I’m not usually given to the ‘first thought, best thought’ school of thought, but in this case the simple keywords seemed to be all that was necessary, and now I cannot think of the song taking any other form.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

where will, it go, such song sung low... beyond right now, where will it go

I am pleased to announce that my new full-length album subsongs is now available on CD and download from Linear Obsessional Recordings.

subsongs is a new collection of nine songs written and recorded between 2016 and 2017. The lyrics are plucked from various themes and sources, employing diverse, sometimes reflexive, often experimental approaches to writing. These are 'almost songs', never rhyming, and rarely forming a conventional structure, such melody as there is often relies upon repetition and reiteration, all set to a musical palette of guitars, software instruments, samples, and occasionally field recordings.

Steven Ball
nine songs, 66 minutes
released 19 September 2017
​Linear Obsessional Recordings LOR095
download includes a PDF booklet of lyrics

available at 
CD purchase includes unlimited streaming of subsongs via the free Bandcamp app, plus high-quality download in MP3, FLAC and more. 

More about subsongs:

Unlike my previous collection for Linear Obsessional Life of Barrymore, there is no particular over-arching theme or concept to subsongs, rather it draws on something of a miscellany of subjects which preoccupied me during this time. The two 'title' songs are reflexive exercises; the first (subsong) is about what the song itself might be or become, the second (Subsongs) reflects more upon the album, and the songs on it as a whole. Other songs are concerned with a wide variety of subjects: of corporeal subjectivity and the inner voice (Inside), of mythologies buried in landscapes (Passing Place of the Seat), of the nostalgic mythos surrounding punk (Garage/Band), of post-extinction humanity (The Sixth), and two of the songs rework textual material from my early 1990s super 8 film work (Off Off On and Periscopic). The latter draws on themes of migrant isolation in Australia, through the filter of lines taken from the 1959 film On the Beach. Pivotal to the collection is Of the Yard (After Terry Ball), which is a setting of poetry sketches transcribed verbatim from my late uncle’s notebook, relating to his time working as a stonemason in the Middle East during the 1960s.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Sound Projector: what's the point of Life of Barrymore?

Life of Barrymore receives a thoughtful review from Ed Pinsent in The Sound Projector blog here

In the review he writes:
Steven Ball may be asking pointed questions about celebrity and the media, or implying some critique in amongst all this, though I’m not sure if that is the point of the work. Personally I find celebrity culture banal, and shows like those of Jeremy Kyle and Matthew Wright to be extremely destructive and damaging to the national psyche. But I am being judgemental.
The question of the 'critique', intended or otherwise, that the work may or may not make, is a question that has exercised me in relation to this and other projects which have appropriated forms of articulated text as re-articulation. It is a question which I have attempted to address in various ways elsewhere, but prompted by Ed's speculation about the 'point' of the work, it is one that I hope to address soon, here.