Several times between 2010 and 2018, I spent some time with Italian pianist Fabio Anile at his place in Rome. Fabio and I share a love for ambient music – we improvised every day and recorded everything. It was amazing how easily we found a common musical language.
In 2018, we decided to put some of our recordings on an album. Erdem Helvacıoğlu mastered them for us, and Philippe Paulus Jacobus Smeyers contributed a wonderful cover painting. The album ‘Presence’ got released in December 2019 on the Audiobulb label. Fabio and I are very happy with it.
“In the early days of burningshed.com, we received very huge amounts of ambient improvised music, much of it very good. Michael Peters’ “Stretched Landscape #1” nonetheless stood out amongst those. This collaboration with Fabio Anile captures all I loved about that recording and builds on it; its slowly evolving soundscape hovers at the fringes of your attention and quietly brings you into its world. It’s a beautiful thing to hear two musicians who can clearly play well choosing to play so minimally and tastefully”
– Peter Chilvers (burningshed.com founding director and Brian Eno collaborator)
On the last day of September 2017, shortly after my trusty old Mercedes had died an unexpected death while on a music meeting in Czechia, I loaded a rental car with my gear and headed for Solingen, a town 40km north of here that is world famous for its cutlery industry.
The Solingen culture office had invited me to perform at this year’s “Viertelklang” (quarter sound) festival. Two dozen very different musical acts performed during one evening in five places in the beautiful old “Wald” quarter of town – a school, a church, a bookshop, an old factory, all in walking distance of each other. Visitors could come and go and experience many kinds of music during that evening.
I was the only act who had a location for myself for the whole evening: an abandoned radio/television shop (Radio Schippers), empty except for the electrical installation, the wall panels, and some old tables. This was possibly the strangest location I’ve ever performed in.
My partner in crime was Florian Zeitler, a musician and prolific video artist whom I had not met before. He created beautiful improvised abstract computer video projections, midi-synced to my improvised music. Before we started, he even programmed sequences that highlighted the white vertical rack mounts on the wall that he projected his images on – we couldn’t take them off that wall, so he turned them into a feature.
There was no real stage – I sat in one corner, Florian sat in another corner, and visitors could walk around the room while we performed. It was dark, the room was lit up by the video projection. It did not really feel like a concert – more like a light and sound installation involving live music. I think we managed to turn the abandoned and somewhat sad location into a magical place for an evening.
The music that I played mostly consisted of experimental sound collages, involving some of my field recordings, ambient, psychedelic, and minimalist livelooping music, guitar, synthesizers, granular synthesis, artificial voices, speech fragments (some of my dear friend Rick Walker, I used them without asking him, oops). I had set up four speakers for a quadrophonic setup and could make all sounds move around the room in various ways. This was a new experience for me and one that I quite enjoyed.
We played three 30 minute sets with 30 minute intermissions. Not a lot of people showed up unfortunately – the shop was a little further away from the other locations, and maybe the experimental/avantgarde description in the flyer did not attract as many people as the jazz, blues, folk, and classical music that was performed in the other locations (which seemed to be much more popular). But Florian and I quite enjoyed ourselves, and as usual, several more adventurous people showed up and told us afterwards how much they had liked this.
I wish I could do things like this more often!
Here is a 36 minute mix of the evening. My cheap camcorder does not do Florian’s videos justice but maybe you get an idea what it was like. Lean back and listen loud.
Binaryminds is a software company that I sometimes work for. For the 2016 winter holiday season, they sent greeting cards to their customers – but not ordinary cards! The packages contained Google Cardboard sets – virtual reality headset kits made out of cardboard. You need to put your smartphone into them to watch 3D scenes.
The 3D scene that the binaryminds customers were pointed to contained season’s greetings – “keep calm and holiday on” – set in a computer generated winter landscape. And there is sound, done by me, a six minute ambient winter soundscape. I am totally in love with the sights and sounds of this.
If you watch this in a browser on your desktop computer, you can move around using your mouse. If you use a tablet or mobile phone (it needs a gyroscope/compass to work), just move around. Of course, the best version is a virtual reality headset. (If you only see two parallel static images, your device doesn’t support the 3D view)
Of course the soundtrack was done with a nod to mastermind Brian Eno, inventor of this kind of musical aesthetic. Eno was the one who came up with the term “ambient music” in the 70s, and some of his ambient soundscapes evoked a sense of place, an inner landscape. He often used this music as an acoustic backdrop to his visual art exhibitions. The result was always pure magic.
stopping the car on top of the hill
midnight, black velvet sky,
and just over the western horizon
the brightly radiating jewel,
just about to follow sun & moon into the night
beyond this world of petty primate concerns,
suchness is easy to spot, purity, an immaculate beauty
that is laser focused, piercing directly through the heart
and so immense that there are no words.
to die for a beauty like that!
this touch left me shattered, unable to sleep
not knowing what to do with this
unexpected kiss of the beloved
that music, that prayer, that vision, of what?
how many multitudes do I contain?
Here are three ambient movies that I put online recently, each of them about 30 minutes long: “Mouse Pointer Feedback Ecstasy”, “Arboreal Ecstasy”, “Symmetric Jellyfish Ecstasy”. Wow, 90 minutes of ecstasy?
Ecstasy is not something we usually encounter in our daily lives, and different people have very different ideas about what it is. I just saw that Wikipedia has three different definitions!
The effect of the videos on the observer will vary, but all of them slow down time like the motion of liquid in lava lamps, or like Marian Zazeela’s extremely slow ornamental videos to La Monte Young’s drone music.
For the MTV generation that is used to very fast and hectic cuts, this will be unbearable to watch 🙂
1. Mouse Pointer Feedback Ecstasy
I used a toy microscope and filmed the microscope output on the screen – I pointed the microscope to its own images. This creates a video feedback loop, resulting in all sorts of effects. Because nothing much happens when filming an empty screen, resulting in more of nothing, I chose to film the mouse pointer from very close. Some postprocessing was applied (mainly, slowing down). The music is ambient music that I played on synthesizers and tape delays, back in the mid-eighties.
2. Arboreal Ecstasy
This was the first video designed to use as a backdrop for Georgina Brett‘s set on my livelooping festival from last April. I filmed these trees out of my car while driving through forests in Washington and Northern California (usually, Sabine was driving and I held the camera). Postprocessing: Slowing down and some motion blur, and a mirror effect at the bottom of the video, to take out the street that was visible in the original. The mirror creates a nice effect that looks like a reflection on water.
I chose Georgina’s piece Leanate as soundtrack for this, and I slowed it down considerably using Paulstretch. Then two weeks before the festival it turned out that someone else had also planned to use trees for a backdrop video, so I dropped this, and created something new for Georgina:
3. Symmetrical Jellyfish Ecstasy
I had filmed these amazing creatures in an aquarium in Oregon. Postprocessing included slowing down, changing the colors, and introducing symmetry. The music I chose for this imagery consisted of a loop I had created a while ago (I have forgotten in the meantime how I did it); during the piece, several instances of this loop, running at different speeds, get superimposed.
Georgina’s gorgeous set with the jellyfish video behind her can be watched here.
People do strange things. Many people (including my wife) think the things that I do are quite strange too. Last Sunday afternoon, I found myself sitting alone at the waterside in a small harbour in Cologne, recording underwater sounds. Luckily, nobody was around who wondered what I was doing. This activity would probably have looked quite boring from the outside, but whenever I do this kind of thing, I feel like a boy inside – an adventurer, a discoverer, hunting for the unknown – excitement.
The underwater sounds in this place turned out to be not very interesting, but I know that one has to be patient and record for a while just in case. Eventually, all I got were distant boat motors, and yes, there was a shoal of small fish but they didn’t talk (sometimes you find places where fish make all sorts of strange and interesting noises, but you have to be very lucky). Instead, they inspected the hydrophone which resulted in loud bumps on the recording.
While recording this, I found that the reflections of various cranes, towers, and ships in the water looked quite beautiful. I took a number of photos and they looked so nice together that I turned them into this video, very slowly fading one into each other.
The video soundtrack should have featured the underwater recording but since this turned out to be disappointing, it fell through. Instead I created several layers of treated sounds from these sources:
underwater insects of a nearby lake that I had recorded a week ago
a propeller plane that flew above
a contact microphone recording from the same day of the nearby Rhine bridge
a wonderful pump organ that I had played and recorded in the Stockholm music museum
The slowed down bridge sounds creates a beautiful drone of howling traffic and wind vibrated metal, and of course now that I hear it, it reminds me of Eno’s White Cube recordings. It still amazes me how he has influenced my musical thinking and often when I find some interesting new way to paint with sounds … he has already been there.
The pump organ with its wild pitch changes lets me think of Györgi Ligeti’s 1967 organ piece “Harmonies” (not that I would compare myself with this master of course). I found that pump organ in the Stockholm Musikmuseet – here is a short video. I played and recorded just a few minutes and this is the material that is used for the Crane Sunday video – pitched down and equalized a little. Oh how I loved this instrument, it had such a charming breathing sound – and not even keys to play! I would have stolen it but it was too heavy 😉