56n are Graeme (of Oldham) and Derek (of Dundee). Sleevenotes is our first album. It is a record in sounds and words of the passing of time, during which love endured, relationships deepened, dreams stalled, and 56n sought refuge in the night sky, garden plants, and our neighbourhood.
The sleevenotes to the album (of the same name, and hence the name) contain poetry which can be read to the music. After the initial album finishes, the tracks can be listened to again whilst reading different poems from the Poetry Remixes section of the sleevenotes.
Remixing music with alternative words can draw out nuances in the music, create different impressions and contexts, or add an additional layer of intensity or meaning.
It’s an album of memories and feelings. We worked on it from around 2009 to 2012, but didn’t release it until 2014. It was recorded in a domestic environment and has a lo-fi sound that fits the mood. In essence it is a suite of classical music pieces, but we think of it as also ambient, or alternative.
What wasn’t apparent at the time of composing and recording was the influence of church bells, but when we started to listen back to the recordings that sound was there, especially so on Trieste and Mensheviks’ Lament”. This perhaps should have been no surprise; I grew up near to a church with an active bell-ringing group of which I was briefly a member.
The bit of the project that took the longest was selecting the poems and then syncing them with particular tracks. It was difficult to just select one, and sometimes the mood of a track changed when you put a different poem with it. That’s where the idea of poetic remixes came from. So rather than selecting only eight poems, we picked six to match with six of the pieces of music to start things off, leaving Mensheviks’ Lament and Sunset as instrumentals, and then created a section of poetic remixes so that the listener / reader could try this out for themselves. We probably over-thought this, but at the end of the day the music and poetry components can be regarded separately. We don’t know whether we have released a CD with poetic sleevenotes, or a poetry collection with a soundtrack.
One of the highlights of the entire process was the recording of Sunset. Derek, a long term fan of Lisa Gerrard, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Sigur Ros, had been especially interested in pseudo language / alternative language and world music styles at the time of recording. A holiday to Cyprus and watching the sun set left an indelible mark on us. We sat watching the sun set over the sea this one particular night. We had gone especially to watch it again. Once it had dipped and had started to paint the undersides of the few clouds that were around, we turned to leave, only to see at roughly 180 degrees a giant full moon rising over the other horizon. It blew our minds.
It gave us a real sense of planet earth, not that we’d been oblivious to it before, but it was our own Earthrise moment. We were on a round ball in between other round balls, and we got the kind of sense of the cosmos above that you normally only get at night by looking at the stars and planets. That’s what was so potent about the experience I think – that it was still daylight. Space is dark, but we could see space in daylight.
So, I had asked Derek if he could vocalise a sunset, and he said he’d give it a go. He wrote some pseudo text down and shaped it around a melody over a few days. Then one evening he said ‘I’m ready to do sunset now’. I said ok, and pressed record just in case. He sang it all the way through from start to finish. We listened to the recording and felt that we had just captured that moment of sunset again. I added some strings accompaniment which developed the sense that Derek had already created of the drama of the build up to the sun’s disappearance followed by the warmth and colour of the afterglow. I played it back, and Derek said he wanted to sing over his original recording. He did, it perfected it, the whole thing was done in 15 or 20 minutes.
After the recordings, each track was worked on meticulously to try and create particular sounds, iron out clicks and hiss and the kind of background noises you get when you’re not in a recording studio. Some tracks were more straightforward than others. We used Audacity to do our own mixing, equalising, tweaking. It was really time consuming and absorbing. We laboured over it like horologists. But the end results were pretty much what we were after. Manipulating the echo and treble on Ballet, for example, gave that sense of hearing a second hand upright piano being played in a college or community hall with someone working out a ballet routine or something like that. When it came to matching a poem, I set a poem that I had been performing under the title ‘Make Puberty History’. The music knocked some of the harder edges off what is essentially a poem about looking back on options and choices and imagining things differently. Musically it’s extremely simple and nothing to write home about, but the image that the recording evokes in my mind makes the whole thing work for me. I’ve stood outside rooms looking or listening in to activity, music, drama, lectures, and thought about my own skills and interests and wondered if I should take up a class, and found myself looking back, questioning. I think a lot of what the music, and the poetry, captures and reflects is ordinary, and that’s what I like about the album as a whole.
Fragments took a long time to craft. Against a backdrop of some sad things that were happening (bereavements and illness), I recorded some doodling I was doing with the strings instrument voice of the Clavinova. It captured my mood at the time, which was understandably melancholy. But in the same way that life felt in need of soothing and harmonising, I wanted the piece to sound less brutal, which was how it sounded to me. Honest, but too difficult to hear. So I developed some piano work over the stings track. I cut and pasted and edited and chopped for hours and hours until I ended up with this. It is “fragments” and “fragments“, noun and intransitive verb. I could have recorded it all again from scratch, but what I wanted to do was to try to make something sad beautiful and acceptable. You can just hear a few joins and jumps, but the piece is actually littered with them. I’m ok with it, it’s just the piece’s scars, lead joins on a Tiffany lamp. For the set poem I went with a piece I used to do called ‘Advice’ because of the mood of the poem and the image of shattering at the end. But I think I might prefer the Oldham remix about bird flight and starling murmurations. The poems about illness and loss I chose not to set with Fragments. This ended up being the way of the album – themes crossed over and kept reappearing either in music or poetry form”.
Sleevenotes was released by Colon : Press on 24 February 2014.