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Escape Velocity

Counterflow States: An Interview With Helena Celle
Noel Gardner , March 8th, 2021 08:38

Glaswegian musical polymath Kay Logan has lit up early 2021 by releasing what might be her most extraordinary work to date – including, under the Helena Celle pseudonym, an hour-long piece for April’s lockdown edition of her home city’s experimental festival Counterflows. She waxes theoretical to Noel Gardner

Helena Celle is part of Counterflows 2021, which runs during April

Quietly it fades in, making its origins almost imperceptible as it goes, but ratchets up the brain-throb drama in due course. Taking on information and context from its surroundings, you feel it could go in pretty much any direction next, and often it does. It’s been created in the service of something exciting and will improve your life, no questions asked.

I speak here of Music For Counterflows, a composition of exactly one hour in length by Kay Logan in her Helena Celle incarnation – but I could have been talking about Logan’s discography to date. This dates back to earlyish in the previous decade and includes a 2014 album as Larks, a grip of releases on her currently-mothballed Outlet Archival label, and bass-playing stints in a few ensembles reasonably if inadequately termed ‘guitar-based’: Anxiety being the most enduring of those, leaving behind about 30 minutes of blinding hardcore wildness.

The first two months of the year has already seen the release of two remarkable works by Logan. Copy Music, as Helena Celle’s Imaginal Designs, is a suite of brief, energetic electronic pieces with excellent autogenerated pop-froth titles. Nothing New Under The Sun – by Time Binding Ensemble, a solo venture despite the name – is her first double LP, and its rigid concept (“24 parts of equal length, the collection cycling through each key of the musical scale”) harbours a remarkably expansive, ambitious and moving confluence of ambient drone and modern classical.

As per its title, Music For Counterflows was created as part of a commission by the widely admired outward-looking festival of that name. Based, like Logan, in Glasgow, it runs every April and so had to postpone at short notice last year. For 2021, Counterflows’ organisers did at least have the chance to arrange something more considered while people skulk at home, the result being an entirely free-of-charge programme of rad content on the festival’s site.

Composed using MaxMSP, which is to say Logan’s considerable programming skills, it’s an ever-evolving landscape of strange, melancholy, melodic synths with The Residents and late-period Zappa professed to be among the inspirations. It’ll be published alongside a conversation between Logan and Scottish writer/sometime tQ contributor Stewart Smith, so hopefully this one can function as an aperitif of sorts.

So what’s the origin story to you as a programming system-based composer?

Kay Logan: I dropped out of school at 16 and went to college instead, because you got a bursary from the Scottish government if you were from a low-income family. So I threw myself into going to gigs, trying to meet people who were actually interested in music. I also got the first computer of my own with that money, so started messing about with MaxMSP after, I think, reading about Merzbow using it. I got well into Throbbing Gristle after seeing a video of ‘Discipline’ – when I was probably about 13 – and all those related things were very formative, particularly Coil.

I read this book as a teenager, Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. The focus of the book is how systems can derive meaning through recursion, like in the fugues of Bach. In the following decade this has really been my primary focus in my music and artwork. The way I work primarily with sound is through systems I’ve built in MaxMSP – like musical environments, or musical organisms. It results in a sort of flow state, where composition, improvisation and listening all become one nebulous thing; the musician is the observer who affects the properties of the system through interaction. So this sort of thing quickly gets into consciousness studies, religion and faith and so on.

Could you point to specific releases demonstrating how religion and/or faith have filtered into your music?

KL: I’m not keen on those words really, because I reckon that science, philosophy and religion are all the same thing, and they’re all trying to derive meaning from our lives. The only thing I’m even approaching certainty regarding is that there’s an objective transpersonal psyche, analogous to the symbolic God image, that we express aspects of in art, in music, in dreams. With regards to a specific release, there’s a thematic concern in Nothing New Under The Sun regarding these matters, being raised under auspices of nihilism and the negative aspects of organised religion, and finding some sort of new meaning in the ruins of that.

How did you come to realise that making music via programming – starting by “messing about” as you say – could allow you to be a participant as much as a performer?

KL: It probably comes from starting out with noise prior to playing any traditional instruments, running things in feedback loops and listening to the results. I was doing that with a mixer from Cash Generator before getting a laptop. I don’t want to give the impression that it’s about randomness, it's far more structured than that. There’s a traditionally composed architecture of pitch and time outlining the process generally, but rather than triggering notes, or samples, they’ll be triggering indeterminate behaviours relating to timbre and motion.

What brief, if any, were you given for Music For Counterflows?

KL: They asked me to present whatever I wanted in whatever manner felt appropriate, and something directly stemming from solitude during the pandemic was all that felt appropriate. I was thinking about those synclavier albums that Zappa made in isolation toward the end of his career, which are profoundly nihilistic – like the notion of deriving meaning from the music is laughable. I wanted to do something with a similar artificial timbre, but which conveyed a manner of transpersonal meaning despite social isolation – where you have to find a light of meaning in the darkness.

This led to several hours of similar recordings, an hour of which became Copy Music and another hour of which became Music For Counterflows. What Fielding, who co-runs Counterflows, characterised as its “swampy psychedelic” atmosphere is a nod to The Residents; the vapid song titles on Copy Music are a comedic nod to the nihilism of Zappa.

I thought they read like feeding a network every hi-NRG and italo record made in the 80s.

KL: I actually did use a database of titles, but then just went through the generated list and picked the ones that made me laugh. I’m not keen on ascribing too much meaning with songtitles: it makes me think of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea, when something is given a name it loses its magic.

I think it’s a good thing Counterflows have gone down this route for 2021 rather than attempting to do several dozen livestreams or prerecorded sets, if only because it strikes me that the audience might be at a point on the curve where watching several hours of such on a computer monitor is at its least appealing.

KL: I’m really not inclined toward video calling or streaming, so I haven’t taken part in much of that. I really enjoy the Heinous Whining streams that Theo Gowans of Territorial Gobbing has been organising, however.

What are your personal feelings about live performance at this point, especially in relation to your solo music?

KL: On my own, I really enjoy it. It’s a form of improvisation, so you’re as much a listener as any of the audience. However, I’m far more interested in doing so outside of Glasgow. If you’ve spent the majority of your life in this place dealing with adversity, then it takes on a sort of subjective character, like a psychogeographic miasma, and then maybe people from elsewhere seem more open to listening alongside you.

Playing in a band with Michael and Calvin [of Anxiety] make up some of my fondest memories. We’re hoping to get back to doing something together whenever we can, but we’ve already decided to avoid using any rock band instrumentation.

Why’s that?

KL: We’re down to vocals and rhythm section, and you can do much more interesting things with that configuration if you’re not constrained by having to use a bass guitar and drumkit. We started using a lot more prepared materials live over time – the last thing we did together, right before the first lockdown here, had a varispeed tape recorder with prepared materials running through the entire performance.

Your new double LP as Time Binding Ensemble features classical instrumentation, albeit taken from digital sources. Do you view that as a substitute for actual live instruments, or treat it as its own animal?

KL: The attraction for me initially came out of a kind of working class resentment of being unable to work with live ensemble music that was predicated so heavily on circumstance, hierarchy, the capacity to pay for the labour. I carried a grudge from not being allowed to do music in school for some time, after leaving. Digital reproduction affords a degree of expression that I wouldn’t trade for the accolade of access to ‘real’ instrumentation at this point.

This example of, as you say, “working class resentment” seems to cross over a few different areas of music: schools, the classical establishment, whatever you call the subculture(s) you operate in now. In the case of the latter it strikes me as being talked about very little, because of a ‘don’t rock the boat’ type politeness or because it’s inconvenient to people.

KL: It’s something I’ve had to work on. I don’t think it does you any favours to adopt a mantle of victimhood, and harbouring resentment is bad for my wellbeing, but it does lead to a form of oppositional defiance, some sort of negative identity formation. To be direct, the creative industries treat the workers who keep it running like shite. I’ve got plenty of stories as a venue sound engineer of artists/ industry people who folk would know treating workers in a manner that would never dare cross my mind.

My school was more like a holding pen for children with piles of trauma than a place of tuition. No pedagogy of the oppressed there, but plenty of adults who should never have been allowed near children.

What changes have the circumstances of the last 12 months made to how you approach music?

KL: I’m happy to spend time in my own world, and there’s been much more time to do so during the pandemic. I got redundancy pay when my old workplace closed down, then started the Outlet Archive Patreon [“at least an hour of original music every month for patrons”] about six months ago, which currently brings in about the same income as the dole. I’ve lived off less than that as a freelancer in the past. I record far more than I ever release, so it’s nice having the Patreon as a motive force to make more of that available.

Helena Celle’s Music For Counterflows will be available for free throughout April