Tales Of The Uncanny: Sarah Angliss Interviewed

Ahead of her BFI Gothic show, composer, inventor and sound historian Sarah Angliss talks to Stuart Huggett about uncanny presences in music, mechanics and song

"I cannot begin to express how weird it was to be a teenage girl in the early 80s, making things out of Meccano and tape and the Sinclair Spectrum. I always felt like a complete outsider."

I’m at home in Brighton, having tea in the fine company of Sarah Angliss, and she’s telling me about growing up in Watford. As a roboticist and historian, she’s used to discussing technical work, hosting lectures and presenting radio shows, but this afternoon marks the first time she’s been asked about her music and that of her unique part-human/part-robot band Spacedog.

The human element of Spacedog is made up of Angliss (on an array of unusual and self-built instruments, including theremin, saw and a 28-bell carillon), her vocalist sister Jenny and percussionist Stephen Hiscock. Angliss’ automata, such as Hugo the disembodied ventriloquist’s dummy and Wolfgang the Kraftwerk-in-miniature drummer, are given equal status on stage, while the group’s sole album to date, 2011’s bizarre and sinister Juice For The Baby, brought on board such steampunk vaudeville guests as illusionist Derren Brown, The Chap magazine’s Michael Attree and pith helmeted MC Professor Elemental.

More recently, Angliss has contributed birdsong recorder music to Moon Wiring Club’s album Today Bread, Tomorrow Secrets and pieces for the related Down To The Silver Sea compilation. Spacedog, meanwhile, have just collaborated with Belbury Poly for Message & Method, the final 7” instalment in Ghost Box’s Study Series. You can listen to a selection of Angliss’ music via the Soundcloud embed below.

The day we chat, Angliss has been preparing ‘Vault: Music For Silent Gothic Treasures’ for the BFI’s upcoming Hauntology weekend. The evening features Spacedog, electronic musician Time Attendant and cellist Bela Emerson performing a live score to rare, early Gothic film from the BFI archive. Additionally, Jon Brooks of The Advisory Circle contributes pre-recorded sounds for the show.

How do you feel about performing at the BFI under the Hauntology banner?

Sarah Angliss: It was great talking to (BFI Head of Events) Stuart Brown because his attitude was just, get over it. If you spoke to most people on the street they’ve never encountered the term before, it makes them curious. It’s a bridge, it’s pointing at something but we don’t quite know what it is. Hauntology isn’t like an algorithm for writing music, it’s really a sensibility. It doesn’t have to just be about Look Around You or about drones, it can be all sorts of things.

I actually do hauntology in the old Derrida sense of the word, the idea of things being possessed by the spirit of Marx. So I talk about nineteenth century technology and Marx and do music about it, and it’s hilarious. The most unfashionable thing I do is with this very good friend of mine, Caroline Radcliffe, a fellow musician. We like to point out to people that the women’s Lancashire clog dance is actually from the cotton mills. It’s not a pastoral dance at all, it’s an industrial dance, and the steps directly relate to the sounds of the mill. We created this piece where I’d done all the mill sounds and she was doing dance and we were presenting it almost like nineteenth century Kraftwerk, pointing out that they’d beat Kraftwerk and Detroit techno by about 90 years. That was our message, so that was like hauntology in the old sense.

But I genuinely don’t have any strong feelings about what people call me. I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for years and years, and I can think back to the roots of the music I do, which has people tell me has a certain uncanny, a certain haunted quality. That’s all to do with things like my interests in cybernetics and early telecommunications and very early English folksong and the overlaps between them. The word ‘uncanny’ has more traction for me for all sorts of reasons. I’m really into uncanny in the sense that Jentsch and Freud were using it, in the sense of the familiar taking on a strange cast, the idea of something that at once feels familiar and at the same time unsettling. From my earliest days with folk songs like ‘The Lankin’ and ‘(The Wife Of) Usher’s Well’, I’m always mining that English folklore for instances of the uncanny. I’m endlessly fascinated by it.

What were your earliest musical experiences?

SA: Jenny and I have always performed together, and in Watford where we lived, just by complete fluke, there was a really progressive children’s choir in the late 70s. We just happened to stumble into it. This club was teaching people by this eastern European method called the Kodály Method. It was just like an ordinary local children’s choir but you didn’t learn to read music, you learnt Solfège, like "do-re-mi”, so it was all done by ear. The best thing about it, apart from the fact that it gave you this really profound understanding of music before you could even read it, was that all the repertoire was from eastern Europe. It was all these Hungarian folk songs, so as kids all the songs Jenny and I sang were in really weird modalities like bitonal and Lydian. We had a taste for that type of music and that never really left us and sometimes in our set we’ll sing a Hungarian folk song. People will think we’re Hungarian and we’ll be like, oh no, we just learnt that in North Watford.

I love bitonality, where you layer two completely unrelated keys on top of each other. They don’t feel right but they do at the same time. In electronic music, when you’ve got a sampler, you’re not thinking like somebody who writes a score. You’re going, I don’t know why but those two tunes just really work together. It’s an electronic music trick and it’s interesting that we got it through this really strange route.

Then the first time we actually went out performing would’ve been in the Watford Folk Club in the Pump House pub, as teenagers. We were just floor musicians, as they used to call them, and I think that’s when I fell in love with English folk song. There’s a beautiful cognitive dissonance in it where you get these songs that are so dark and yet are so exquisite. There’s something really unsettling when you hear a song about necromancy, or about transfiguration from a human to a creature, and it’s expressed through an exquisite melody. It’s almost makes it more unsettling, because the beauty allows it to slip under your skin in a way it might not otherwise. I can’t explain it but you know it when you feel it.

It was like a masterclass in performance going to those things as a kid because there were certain songs that everyone would sing. You’d see all the floor singers singing them and then you’d get an absolutely brilliant singer like Bob Stewart or somebody, and you just learnt how to deliver songs. You learnt about how to put narrative into music, how they managed to create that feeling of grace in the room where everybody was in the moment with the performer.

Where did your interest in electronic music come from?

SA: At the same time I was into folk music, they were putting Radiophonic Workshop stuff on the radio, and weirdly enough they appealed to me in the same way the folk club stuff did, in that they were very beautiful and very strange all at the same time. I can remember having one tape of a show my dad recorded for me, There Will Come Soft Rains, and I used to play it over and over again. It was [the Workshop’s] Malcolm Clarke, from The Martian Chronicles [by Ray Bradbury] and it’s about a house that looks after itself after the people have died [in a nuclear war]. They’ve been vaporised and they’re a shadow on the wall and the house is still talking to them. I wouldn’t even say it’s the finest bit of Radiophonic work ever, but it was the thing that captured my imagination when I was that young.

I tried to look it up in the Watford Library and there was absolutely nothing on it. It was like a complete desert, except in the Groves Dictionary [Of Music And Musicians] there was this tiny photo which you could hardly make out, and it was of Daphne Oram and the Oramics machine. That kick-started the whole thing, where I went to study electroacoustics and got really into electronics and sound. Years later I was invited in by the Science Museum because they’d just acquired the Oramics machine. I got to see it and it was so emotional I had to hide behind the filing cabinet and compose myself. It was such a weird thing to see this thing I’d seen since I was a kid in this little grainy photo, and there it was in front of me.

What was making music with a Sinclair ZX Spectrum like?

SA: That was just at home. My dad ran a carpet shop and Jenny wrote a slogan for a carpet and we won a Spectrum. It’s funny that there’s all this nostalgia for 8-bit, but believe me, if you started on a Spectrum you don’t have that much nostalgia for it. You’re quite pleased to not have to use your lovely 64-bit or 32-bit computer. I have to admit it’s upstairs and I do look at it sometimes, but I don’t plug it in – I’m into early music, but I draw the line somewhere.

How does this connect with laptop music?

SA: It’s almost like I see myself as a physical native because I wasn’t born in the laptop age. I know that we’ve lost something, we’ve been sold a pup thinking that virtual is everything and it isn’t. The laptop, and perhaps the sampler, is the default thing for taking over musical duties on stage because you can’t do everything yourself. I was going out in about 2005 and doing little things on the laptop and it was a complete and utter turn off, and that’s why I started putting things on the stage. They’re almost physical analogues of what I’m trying to do on the computer.

So like the carillon bell rig, I haven’t made it just to say ‘Here’s a weird bell rig’. I’ve made it because I want to have riffs in the same way a looping musician would want riffs, but I want it to have a physical presence. I want you to feel like you could reach out and touch it and I want you to feel the weird sympathetic vibrations between the bells, the slight shonkyness that you’d never get with even the best sample. People enjoy the fact that, good god, those look really thrown together, and are they actually gonna get through the act?

It’s like watching a tightrope walker, because although there is a lot of jeopardy in laptop acts, you don’t see those as a physical thing. That goes back to my interest in magic and music hall. I find myself getting cabaret bookings at burlesque and steampunk events and I’m always open for doing that sort of thing because you learn stuff from taking electronics out of the confines of the obvious venues and putting it in front of those audiences. It’s actually quite humbling, because you realise that you need an awful lot of stagecraft to put across certain types of music and sometimes we forget about that.

How are your robots doing?

SA: There’s a bit of argy bargy going on between Stephen, the human drummer, and Wolfgang, who I bought in while Stephen was away. He was on a long tour and I bought Wolfgang in, not knowing that the very day that I took him out Stephen had broken his arm. It looked a bit like, ‘Oh you know you’ve broken your arm? Well I’ve got Wolfgang in now.’

But the main thing is Hugo, the head of a ventriloquist’s dummy that I got from a Magic Circle event. He’s really spooky and as soon as I saw him I realised that he was a way to give vocal samples a physical presence in the room. I thought, oh God, are people just going to think this is ridiculous? But strangely enough they go along with it. Some people find him comical, some people won’t go to the gig because he’s there, and some people ask to see him before we perform, to check him over. But I love him because he disrupts what you might expect when you see an electronic music thing.

It’s not a clean, clinical, silver boxy type of show, it’s got wires on display. Colin Uttley (actor and Spacedog collaborator) made the housing for Hugo and when I put the motors in I made sure you could see them. When we covered them over we found people weren’t so spooked by him. Again, he’s uncanny, and interestingly the word uncanny, unheimlich, has lots of different derivations, and one of them is unhidden. I really do think that when you show the physical workings of something like a speaking machine, it’s spookier.

I’m interested in him because I’m interested in ventriloquism and the strangeness of a doppelganger speaking, which of course is what recorded sound is. Recorded sound is the doppelganger of the real sound. And it’s as eerie as hell. If you go back to about 1890 and see what people were saying about recorded sound, they were obsessed with this idea of the recording of a person outliving them and it somehow blurring the boundaries between the living and the dead. And of course it does, because we listen to Elvis and we swoon over him, but he’s just a pile of dust somewhere now. And I think we forget about how odd that is.

‘Vault: Music For Silent Gothic Treasures’ takes place 8.45pm, Saturday 14th December at BFI Southbank. For more information and tickets, click here to visit the BFI website

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