Precarious Music: Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides Interviewed

Ahead of their performance at Supernormal Festival next weekend, Russell Cuzner meets Manchester-based duo part wild horses mane on both sides to discuss their deeply meditative improvised music, and how immersion in the moment leads to new mindstates

There is something magical about the music of part wild horses mane on both sides. Initial exposure conjures up a Zen garden in sound, where flute and spare percussion brush against elemental textures of trickling water, shifting sands or rocks. But such simple symbolism belies the profound, complex inner journeys that more focused listening inspires, revealing a considered array of electronic, acoustic and found sounds. These often longform sonic spells are cast through combining free improvisation with aspects of electro-acoustic composition and musique concrète, to arrive at a creative practice that the Manchester-based duo of Kelly Jayne Jones and Pascal Nichols describe as ‘musique précaire’ (precarious music). The term reflects the fragility evoked by their craft, where spontaneity and the gifts of chance ensure a delightful degree of unpredictability.

Unsurprisingly, with such a novel approach, the duo’s music is equally effective as art gallery installation. Indeed, the Nicosian artist Haris Epaminonda has commissioned the duo to provide the soundtrack to several of her recent exhibitions, including one at London’s Tate Modern in 2011. Here, Epaminonda’s "three-dimensional collage" was enhanced by pwhmobs’ beguiling broadcasts, deftly contrasting ancient acoustic instrumentation with modern technologies and compositional techniques to convey "imaginary journeys through distant times and places" as the Tate’s website described it.

The sum of their rich and far-ranging experiences, both in terms of composing and performing, is now being channelled into their most ambitious tour yet. Cryptically sub-titled Conduit Of The Bottomless Submundane, it promises an expanded line-up whose improvisations will not only interact with each other, but also with the nature of the space that houses each performance, to create truly site-specific, unique sound environments for deep listeners to devour.

Conduit Of The Bottomless Submundane sees you tour a "multi-channel installation-performance". Is this an electro-acoustic approach to performance? What can its audiences expect?

Pascal Nichols: It’s not electro-acoustic in terms of how it’s technically set up – any electro-acoustic performance I’ve seen is controlled from a big mixing desk, faders and stuff like that. We’ve got independent compositions that we’ve prepared that will go through certain speakers, and then we’ve got amplified and acoustic live sounds played through different amps. Some of them will be mobile and some of them will be static, and there’s going to be between two and five others performing. So it’s a flexible environment that we’ve created; yeah, it’s multi-channel in the sense that there’s multiple sound sources and speakers, but they’re kind of fluid. The only static element is the compositions – they’re the starting point for the whole thing.

Kelly Jayne Jones: And we won’t affect those, they’ll be set up and just roll. They’re continuous.

PN: Yeah, they’re looped, and we’ll evolve what we’re doing around them.

KJJ: And they’re about half an hour to forty minutes each, so they’ll overlap a few times during the the two, up to three and a half, hours of performance time.

I also noted you plan to reconfigure the necessary speakers for each venue on the tour – how ‘different’ do you expect each performance to be? How might place affect your sound? The venues are quite a wide range.

PN: Yeah, there is a wide range, and a wide range of contexts as well. [The performances] will be affected by space obviously … but also during the performance we might respond to the material of the floor or the architecture – could the speaker be mounted in a particular architectural feature? How do we move around the space? How are the audience going to be? How is it going to be suggested where they should be in the space? Each performance will be different already because we’re improvising within the sound pieces, and it will also be different in terms of how we’re using the architectural space as well.

I imagine it will be particularly different at Supernormal festival – is it in a tent?

KJJ: I think it’s a converted barn. We’ve seen some dark pictures of it. For most of the spaces we are asking for it to be quite dark, so that the sound is more overpowering than the visual element. But, yeah, as long as we’ve got enough space to place things and move around enough, I think it will have a really different vibe. I think we’re playing early in the daytime, so it will be interesting to try to get the space dark.

Has your approach to this been different to the work you’ve done before?

PN: We’ve done a lot of compositional work for the past four years, working with Haris Epaminonda, and that’s the approach we’ve taken to these sound pieces. Earlier in the year we did a similar performance in a gallery in London, it was just ourselves and we did two sound pieces that looped, like a stereo sound piece on a smaller scale to what we’re doing this time. And also whenever we perform live it’s a spontaneous approach really, we don’t plan or prepare that element.

KJJ: And the use of looping pieces was to try to introduce elements of chance, happenings within something that can be fixed. Because we’ve played lots of improvised music there’s these moments that happen spontaneously. Some come out of the blue, these really poignant coincidences of sound. That’s what interested me in working with overlapping loops that are different time lengths, so you do still have this element of unpredictability, and combinations that you wouldn’t necessarily think about that would work.

PN: Yeah, that’s the new part of it really. The sense of working something like a sound piece into a performance – well, it depends which way you look at it, a performance into a sound piece – they integrate, there’s elements of chance from both the sound piece and the performance.

This previous performance in London, you called it Dialogue; Erosion – you’re releasing as 2 separate CDs so people can do what you’re talking about in their own home. They can provoke chance interactions between two sound pieces, if they configure their living room adequately with speakers at both ends of the room.

PN: The tracks are both mono, so you could even do it with a couple of practice amps or a couple of speakers.

The names, Dialogue; Erosion and the new one, Conduit Of The Bottomless Submundane, are incredibly intriguing – is there a concept that they’re hinting at? What is a "bottomless submundane"?

PN: There’s quite a few strands that feed into it – a metaphysical space that we reach through different conditions that we put ourselves under when we improvise, the conditions being your state of mind, your environment, your focus. Like a psychedelic experience, but inwards, rather than anything cosmic, if that makes sense? So you get a sense through the title of being in the present moment, but digging deep.

I also noticed recently on the Sound & Music blog you’d described your approach as musique précaire, which I’m guessing means precarious or unstable?

PN: Because it’s improvised, we like to think it’s non-idiomatic. We’re looking for something that is precarious and fragile, that can easily break up as easily as it builds up, and that’s what we’re interested in. In a performance we don’t settle into anything, it’s a bit of a search; when I was in France someone I met described our music as "musique précaire" and I thought that was a very fitting description. I took that description on board.

Is this echoing of musique concrète acknowledging some kind of influence from the work that Pierre Schaeffer and GRM did in France from the 1940s onwards?

PN: It’s only recently that we’ve been listening to that kind of stuff, really. The sort of tape music that we’ve been exposed to mostly is more people from the UK that are currently doing stuff, like Blood Stereo, Towering Breaker, Luke Poot and people we’ve collaborated with. I suppose if you trace some of these practices back then that would be at the start, but that was born more out of institutions than DIY bedroom culture. I think we’ve become more aware of it just from interests, and through people recommending things to us recently.

On a perhaps superficial level, an initial listen to your music with the combination of flute and percussion immediately evokes impressions of Eastern traditions and ceremonies – particularly the flute being rooted in traditional Japanese Shakuhachi music. Given you have also played in a gamelan ensemble, plus your name is derived from a Tai Chi move, is there something about Eastern culture, traditions and ceremonies that you have a particular interest in?

KJJ: I don’t think so, not overwhelmingly, The flute, I kind of happened across that learning classical music as a child, and I felt quite stunted with the rules and how controlled it all was. But then got to hear lots of different flute from various folk musics. I think the flute and probably the drums feature in most folk musics across the world. You know that pentatonic scale, which could be Japanese, it could also be Balinese, and it could also be some South American folk music, even British traditions. So I guess, maybe more of a connection with folk music in general, rather than it being particularly Japanese.

There’s this combination of ancient and modern technology – you’re talking about loops and you incorporate electronics, but the overall impression is that there’s some kind of ‘ancient’, ‘spiritual’, perhaps ‘ritualistic’, dimension to your performances – is this merely a consequence of the way you play, or is there something firmer, intent-wise, along those lines?

PN: I think there’s definitely something further, intent-wise, [but] it’s not a devotional aesthetic. This links back to the title we’ve given the piece, you know, it’s not an upwards and outwards searching idea, it doesn’t provoke those kind of ideas. It’s more rooted in the present, in state of mind rather than anything spiritual or devotional. But, saying that, I feel we get into a state of mind through these actions that you don’t get in the everyday. The way we approach sound making in the present, in the moment, in the performances, it can be through repetition or through searching for a certain tone or an ecstatic playing mode that takes you beyond just an appreciation of what you’re doing, and beyond the mundane aspects of life.

You mentioned the word ‘psychedelic’ earlier – I imagine instead of referring to the particular style of music, psychedelic rock or psychedelic folk of the 60s, it’s more about the affect your music creates in its listeners. How do you feel about the term?

KJJ: The actual meaning of the word psychedelic is an internal search for previously undiscovered parts of your mind, I guess. And I guess our music, the way we explore sound and music, is an attempt to try and find corners that we’ve not really discovered before. We’ve had quite a lot of different reactions to our music, we’ve had people who have been quite annoyed by it, we’ve had people that have been mesmerised by physically looking at what we’re doing, other people that have just been exhilarated by some of the sounds of the flute and the breath. I guess it’s quite important to extend that to the audience, for them to discover new parts of their minds that they may not have ever thought about.

I can imagine that’s how it could work particularly in a live setting, and over the kind of duration you’re talking about on the forthcoming tour. There’s a very strong immersive quality in your work, and limiting the amount of visual stimuli the audience receives will only serve to aid that immersion.

PN: Yeah, absolutely, it feels like a truer psychedelic experience than psychedelia with all the stigma that’s attached to it. I guess there’s quite a lot of musics, like certain forms of drone music or psychedelic noise and stuff like that, you’re not necessarily going to hear a wah-wah pedal in there [laughs] or have a lava lamp or whatever. I mean there’s definitely a generation of people who would describe it as definitely not psychedelic, and might be a bit upset if they expected something that they deemed psychedelic when they came to our show [laughs]. It’s happened in another project I’m in, someone received quite an angry email about a friend of mine who I’m in a project with, this guy was [saying] "this is definitely not psychedelic, and he shouldn’t use that term". So I’m all for the psychedelic label to be reappropriated [laughs].

I think it makes perfect sense; it’s a very quick way of suggesting it’s to do with inner exploration as opposed to dancing or whatever other things people do to music. With such a unique output, though, it’s hard to identify clear influences from modern genres. Who or what do you feel are your main influences?

PN: I suppose over the years we’ve been working the people we’ve collaborated with would account for a lot of influence, like Hunter Gracchus (Kamran Ali who does Harappian Night Recordings), Helhesten, also a Danish collective, Shiggajon, who we’ve played quite a lot of shows with and collaborated with. Then also I guess labels and record shops that we’ve got to know like Chocolate Monk or Volcanic Tongue, they’ve exposed us to a lot of stuff that we can identify with.

KJJ: For me it’s really been the community of people that we’ve found ourselves with, especially Manchester in 2004, 2005 and 2006, there was a lot of house shows going on and just the most diverse sounds that I’ve heard. I didn’t necessarily know who they were, just people from Manchester trying things out. People would get together and do something randomly for one show, collaborations would form quite quickly and maybe didn’t exist for that long; quite unique and quite powerful, quite raw experiences. Stuart Arnot who does Total Vermin tapes in Glasgow, he was putting on a lot of those shows.

PN:  I think that’s something that was particular to Manchester. I know there’s been similar in Sheffield, it’s just the nature of the city – it’s possible to have a platform for music that really takes risks, and for a promoter who can take risks who doesn’t have to invest in paying a lot of money out to put on a show. It was a really fertile time for people who may not have the confidence to perform what they do live, but it was in a kind of low impact environment where that could happen. They might play to a handful of people but it felt really important, and I think a lot came out of that for us included, we were inspired by what we saw at those small house shows at the time.

How did you meet and end up both residing and working in Manchester?

PN: We met through The Music Room nights in Stoke, then we both separately moved to Manchester, just because it’s the next step up from Stoke really, in that part of the country. We knew each other from mutual projects, mutual friends, and we started making music together pretty much from the point we moved to Manchester. I guess it was another couple of years before we formalised it into part wild horses mane on both sides.

Since those early days, you seem to have evolved from a duo initially described as "flautist and percussionist" into recognition of a more expansive sound pool, involving found objects and electronics – was this an intentional direction, or more serendipitous (or is it, perhaps, a flawed observation)?

PN: Yeah, definitely with the recorded output, I think that the start of the collaboration with Haris really pushed us in that direction. Because we were collaborating with her, and she uses mixtures of film, still life, objects and images juxtaposed; in a way our response to that. Basically we started composing rather than improvising, due to the nature of working with someone, having that back and forth. So we’d be recording sounds in an isolated sense and then putting them together rather than creating them in the moment, so that challenged what we were doing already. Saying that, in live performance…

KJJ: …we’ve always used cassettes and different sounds, but we’re increasing our sound pool all the time really. I guess that’s kind of an infinite interest, there’s so many sounds out there and trying to find out ways of capturing those sounds and processing them, and that gives them even more distinctiveness.

One of the objects you use that sounded the most intriguing was this old military communication system that you use on your throat like a contact mic. Are there any other such devices that have got an odd history, and are they selected for that reason?

PN: Well that one was initially for another project I used to be in and I bought that quite a few years ago. Kelly’s been using that one for her solo performances recently. It picks up the recording from inside your throat. It’s from a tank communications system; they obviously couldn’t use any dynamic mic with the amount of the noise that was going on in the tank, so it picks up the vibrations in your larynx.

I think a lot of the amplified sounds we have, they’re quite simple really. In the live performances we still want that level of spontaneity, [so] we tend to use equipment that’s hands on, that doesn’t take a long time to set up. It’s something you can physically interact with in the moment, it’s not some kind of balancing act, or something too volatile – we don’t use anything circuit bent, for example. We still want to approach it like you might an instrument to get sound out of it, and to manipulate that sound. So it’s not so much about [having an] interesting story behind it, although we’re always keeping an eye out for objects. I think we’re more drawn to the material or the shape of an object. We’ve collected different sands from different areas and rocks to use in projects also, so I suppose it kind of documents different journeys we might have made, and different places we’ve been to. But we don’t really make that explicit, it’s just part of our practice.

How did you first start working with Haris Epaminonda?

PN: She got in touch with us because she’d heard some of our music from a friend, so she had an exhibition at Tate Modern that she’d done a looped video piece [of] a zebra that she’d filmed. She wanted to work with us to produce a sound piece, a sound that would go with this video and so we started working with her on that. I think we’ve done five or six different projects with her since then.

I noted she avoids stating the origins behind the elements that form her work. How does such a collaboration work? Is it discussed and planned, or purely improvised, perhaps?

PN: It’s been quite collaborative because she works intuitively like we do, I guess it feels more of a journey right to the point where it’s finished. It’s not a commission in the formal sense, it’s a collaborative work. So we would talk a lot as we were working on it, we weren’t just sent away with the brief and came back with something that makes sense.

KJJ: We’re given a lot of freedom for us to be happy with what we are making. It is very much our artistic licence; we weren’t given any kind of direction, just lots of conversations and exchanging of visuals and sounds.

As a ceramic artist, Pascal, I was wondering if there are any parallels between ceramics and working in sound, perhaps?

PN: I was schooled in ceramics. So that’s different from the music because I formally learnt it, and I guess there’s parallels with some of the sculptural work I do. I’m quite an impatient person with making sculptural work and with other ceramic work I do, so my temperament comes out in the sculpture, and in improvising also, in playing. But visual art satisfies a different need from music, you don’t have the social aspect [or] the direct communication element in ceramics and visual art that you would in music and sound. So there’s certain parallels and differences in what you put into it and get out of it.

There’s a long history describing a relationship between activism, or radical politics, and free improv. Kelly, you set up in Manchester in 2010 to challenge the sexual objectification of women in Manchester and you were both involved ‘Liberté, Egalité, Publicité’ a "response to aggressive advertising campaigns" in Lyon in 2008. Do you see pwhobs as political in any sense?

KJJ: I think we’re definitely politically engaged people, we definitely have a lot of conversations about, you know, what the hell is going on in the world? What’s our place amongst all of that? What’s our responsibility towards some of these things, like recently with the sale of arms by the UK government to Israel? Those kinds of things are definitely important for us to engage with the world politically. We’re definitely not apathetic in that way, although it’s hard to know what kind of impact you can have. That exhibition in particular was an attempt at having an impact in France; it was quite overwhelming how easily French publicity would be quite aggressive, which we don’t really see in this country, I’ve not really experienced that in other European countries, but it was quite strong.

PN: It’s just the way the system was there, that struck us when we moved to France – we were living there for two years – Kelly wanted to curate an exhibition and that seemed like a really good area to go for.

KJJ: Yeah, it was based around actions…

PN: … actions around the city in the form of artworks, and also an element that was at the gallery we worked at. But aside from that I guess you can pick out elements from democratic improvisational practice that are conducive to a more healthy society on a micro level, definitely. And I think it’s something that a lot of people generally benefit from, you get a sense of belonging and a sense of how to communicate.

KJJ: Yeah, and to fully take responsibility for your existence in the world I think is generally a good thing.

PN: So there’s definitely parallels, but I wouldn’t say we’re fighting something with the music.

KJJ: Definitely not, but it is funny how within these communities of people we find ourselves in, even when we tour we have such similar points of view and beliefs, we’re not alone in that – it doesn’t necessarily come into the music and sounds that we make, but there’s definitely a community.

What plans do you have following this current tour?

PN: We’ve got some records that we’ve planned to come out, one’s on Golden Lab Records, that’ll be a limited edition LP. Then we’ve got another record we’re planning that will have cuts or material we’re going to develop from some of the work we’ve been doing with Haris Epaminonda. So a couple of records, and then the Conduit… tour is running through ’til October. Then we’ll see where we’re at then, really.

For more on part wild horses mane on both sides, click here to visit their website..

The duo play at Supernormal Festival, which takes place at Braziers Park, Oxfordshire, from 8th-10th August. For more information and tickets, click here to visit the festival website.

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