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Escape Velocity

Sensory Occupation Tank: V Ä L V Ē's Chlöe Herington Interviewed
Eoin Murray , January 22nd, 2018 12:42

Chlöe Herington talks to Eoin Murray about the olfactory potential of psychedelic gigs and the power of recurring dreams

Portrait by Magda Wrzeszcz

Chlöe Herington wants to tinker with the wires in your brain. For close to two decades now she has been honing her neurological skills as part of off-the-wall progressive party orchestra Chrome Hoof, and more recently with Kavus Torabi's psychedelic Knifeworld troupe, Jowe Head's Angel Racing Food and Half The Sky, not to mention her numerous compositional ventures into all manner art project and gallery installation.

An FE lecturer by day, Herington's other life of expert instrumental experimentation on the bassoon, saxophone and on homemade doodads have made her a crucial part of any project she features on. Now however, after years of quietly writing her own material, she is ready to stand at the helm of a venture that is entirely her own. As V Ä L V Ē, with the help of Elen Evans and ex-Chrome Hoofer Emma Sullivan, Herington is in her element exploring concepts of synaesthetic memory, recurring dreams and collective experience, all through a medium that is chock with cascading melodies, textured drones and jarring stabs of bass and harp, all of which cast a loyal gaze to the minimalist school of Western classical music.

With an album ready to land – "I just need to find some fool to do something with it" – and the recent #1 [The Theosophical Society] EP acting as a beguiling teaser for their live set up, it seems the mind-bending kit is suitably sharpened and ready. We just need to prime our heads for tampering.

"It started with this big commission with Tai Shani at the The Moving Museum on The Strand in 2013," she says of V Ä L V Ē's "official" origins, though wheels had been in motion for a solo album since 2011. "I had to put together about 30 minutes of music to act as audio descriptions of a text. The commission was basically: 'Can you make people vomit with music?' Part of the installation was about finding dead bodies so I tried to record the sound made by those fly zappers you'd find in a butcher's. Nowhere would let me though so I had to find a sample on the Internet. They all thought I was from health and safety."

After that commission from London-based artist Tai Shani, entitled Be, Be, The 7 Darknesses, and another in 2014 (Dark Contient) for which Herington got Elen Evans on board, they ended up taking the sound to a few music venues. From there, V Ä L V Ē started to grow wings, shifting from being the aural backdrop of something experiential, to becoming the experience itself with a view to creating something that was not just sonic, but multi-sensory.

"It's become more about synaesthetic, multi-sensory description now so that you can be part of it," she explains. "I quite like the idea that during a gig, you only have that experience once. So 50 per cent of the material is improvised. There's a graphic score to it but that's about as composed as it gets. I'm also really into the idea of of emitting smells during gigs."

Sorry what?

"Yeah, you can do it quite discreetly without anyone noticing. I'm trying to find the ultimate small device for doing it. I need to practice with the smells first though to make sure they're not too brutal. I'm really interested in synaesthetic memory and how certain smells can take you back somewhere. You know when you walk past a place and get a whiff of something and all of a sudden you're transported back to somewhere else? I love that.

Also, since the smoking ban, gigs just smell of farts all the time. If I can make smells subtle enough then a) they'll mask the smell of farts and b) it will be wrong smell for the space so it will be somehow descriptive of the music."

Photograph by Ashley Jones

The improvisational essence of V Ä L V Ē's live set up is captured on #1 [The Theosophical Society] , an EP roughly inspired by Swedish artist and mystic Hilma af Klint and De Fem, the group of five women with whom she practiced séances and artistic pursuits in the late 19th and early 20th century. Herington became familiar with her work during another installation with Tai Shani at The Serpentine Gallery and from there sought inspiration in the concepts of chance and in fragmented patterns, with added performative nods to Terry Riley's minimal opus 'In C'.

"What I really enjoyed about [researching af Klint and theosophy] was the idea of this group of female creators who got together to create this amazing stuff that no one really knew about at the time. I just found the whole idea of this secret society and the mystery around it very attractive."

It's something that, once noticed, is inescapably present throughout the EP, giving it a more fervent energy and lending a sort of curiosity to its pace. Take 'Atmos #1' for example, a track that is produced entirely using a homemade gizmo comprised of a bit of wood, some kindling, a music box and "any weird stuff I find that I pick up and put in a tobacco tin." From marbles to foreign coins, objects are dropped into the box and run through a series of effects pedals to create a piece of music that is unpredictable, chance based and utterly transfixing.

"It's completely analog," she explains, something that is both surprising and admirable in a world that can feel saturated with synthetic computerised music. "Like, It's basically just a music box and a piece of wood. It's very portable and it can't crash. I am kind of trying to go back to Ableton and things but I'm always very cautious about having a laptop on stage. I'm really clumsy so I'm very likely to drop a pint over it."

While #1 [The Theosophical Society] serves as a snapshot for what Herington wants V Ä L V Ē to achieve in a live setting, the long awaited LP, Silent Reflux is something that she wants to be a personal, singular experience: Something that everyone will interpret differently and ideally in private. "I like the idea of experiencing music on your own," she says, "and I'm into the idea of everyone having a song or piece of music that they go to listen to on headphones to feel better or for something cathartic."

The album is built on the foundation of four recurring dreams that Herington has had for years. After distilling their thematic and sensory content into four different "types" on graphic scores and word diagrams, she put a call out on the Internet to encourage others to send their versions her way, either as text or spoken recording. In doing so, Herington has created a four-movement venture into the shared experience of dreams and the myriad feelings and sensations that come with them.

"There's one that's like the sort of dream where you're disappearing down a kind of rabbit hole and you have that momentary choice to either grab on to something for dear life and try and get out of it or you can allow yourself to be sucked into the whirlpool and see where it takes you.

Or in another one I'm approaching a massive spaceship with a stone man outside it. Another guy's spoken iteration of that was where he was approaching a flat that he'd abandoned because he'd left too much washing up in it. It's that whole thing of knowing that there's something bad behind the door but still. Musically for that one I'm having like a big musical argument with [clarinettist and improviser] Alex Ward between my saxophone and his clarinet."

With other dreams veering from nostalgic memory loops to nonsensical jumps through time and space that feature shaved beards and fake Welsh people, Silent Reflux features 14 guests and, between the spoken samples and complex composition is unlikely to be recreated live more than once. Not that this will deprive the album of Herington's multi-sensory penchant mind you, with smells – hopefully – being able to feature here too by way of a "scratch and sniff" addition on the record sleeve.

"For example, the space flight dream will hopefully smell like O-Zone and machinery," she describes, "then the 'rabbit hole' figure was written using an Arabic maqam, so it sounds quite 'exotic' next to Western music I suppose. I want the smell for that one to be like those you might associate with a desert in the Middle East: cumin, leather, patchouli, blood, that kind of thing."

It seems then that with V Ä L V Ē, Chlöe Herington wants to create a lingering series of moments and movements that will sit differently with everyone who encounters them. These sounds aren't designed to sit on top of memories or prop them up but rather they are precisely shaped to weave through the mind like blood through a capillary. A vital cog in the mechanics of many an ensemble over the years, Herington and company's V Ä L V Ē is a complex machine that is now almost ready to crash into our lives. Best ready our senses then.

"Everyone's experience of re-remembering something will be very personal and very different. It's what makes everyone's experience of music unique and different and individual and really I guess that's what I'm going for."

V Ä L V Ē play live on Friday January 26 with Ciara Clifford at Aces And Eights, Tufnell Park