I was listening to a discussion on the nature of Art and it was said that artists reflect the times around them. I think creators of note do, while others repeat the past under the guise of authenticity. I want to listen to music that informs emotionally, sonically and politically – the personal is political, or is that the other way round. R. Cleveland Aaron’s latest collection of sounds and ideas do all three by enhancing the blue in the sky outside, just as much as they compress space to be viewed through the lens of an inner soul. The concept began by Volume one is now furthered on the location of this second release, guided by a series of intermissions before each setting is explored via the breadth of detail. Perhaps most intriguing of all is Stella Marina which remodels the flair of drums into another world of music. Followed by the free flow of improvisational [Outro – The Beginning and the End] which is likewise uniquely precise and supremely captivating.
Following hot on the heels of R. Cleveland Aaron’s astute debut is this expansion of terrain moving through time and motion in brisk, provocative fashion. As with the former collection of music these soundscapes charge your mind with a series of images creating imaginary solutions to electric situations. And again this can be equally unsettling, equally serene. Likewise you still feel that what you are experiencing has an innately unique quality like these sounds exist only here. The compositions are deliciously intense such as on the drone infused, yet warm embrace of [Intermission 2] while the final collective tones of Theory of Change Pt 1 propose a probing fiction of science. Otherworldly qualities remain yet fractures and the spaces in-between suggest an infinity of musical wealth which Cleveland has opened up, and will continue to do so for some time to come.
Welcome to Magazine Sixty, Steve. Can you talk us through your musical journey beginning with the sounds which first inspired you, until now and the music you currently produce?
Like many people, I got into ‘alternative’ electronic music via Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ when I was 16, which opened my ears to Warp Records and beyond. Some of those early forays really baffled my ears – I remember finding Autechre’s ‘Amber’ incomprehensible at first, but it’s now one of my comfort albums when I need headspace. At that time I was making really naff dance music using eJay and it was only after university that I started properly exploring more abstract electronica and ambient. It took 10 years of dipping in and out of composing to find a sound I was actually happy with – I pretty much gave up for a few years until we bought our first house which has a lovely attic space, and then suddenly everything seemed to click into place.
In terms of influences my sound is all over the place! I’m really interested in artists who blur the line between rhythm and melody – on the ambient side, the Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto collaborations are my biggest inspiration, alongside folks like Biosphere and Susumu Yokota where they’re notionally ambient records are often full of percussive elements.
Displacement Activity Vol. 2 has just been released on See Blue Audio. How did your relationship with the label come about?
I got to know Matthew, who runs the label, via Thomas Ragsdale who I plucked up the courage to go and chat with after he opened for Haiku Salut a couple of years back. One of the lovely things over the last couple of years has been getting to know folks in the indie electronica scene, particularly in the north of England. Everyone is really lovely and like-minded! I really liked the first release on See Blue Audio by Gabriel Slick and it seemed like a great fit for my more ‘contemplative’ work.
Tell us about the cover photograph and what the location means to you?
The cover photograph is a bay near Belfast and it’s by Matthew so I can’t take any credit. I really like the aesthetic and how the images of the sea tie the label’s releases together but I can’t claim a personal connection to that particular location!
Can you talk us through how you produced one of the tracks from the album, including any favourite software/ hardware you use?
Everything I produce is in FL Studio using virtual software and a midi keyboard – I’m intrigued by hardware but also slightly intimidated by it! The closing track, ‘It’s All I Ever Had’ makes heavy use of probably my two favourite bits of effects software, Crystallizer by Soundtoys and Fabfilter Saturn, and one of my favourite synths, Sakura, which models string instruments. The basis of the track is a fairly mournful, simple piano melody (I can play it, so it has to be simple!), which gets gradually pulled apart and reconfigured through the effects. Crystallizer splices out snippets of the piano and then reverses them before playing them back and then cutting them up further, while Saturn distorts the results more and more as the track progresses before the entire thing is bitcrushed into nothing. A lot of my composing is done in snatched moments or (prior to covid) while travelling for work, so I often find myself without a keyboard and constrained to contorting, dismantling, and reconfiguring whatever melodies I have to hand into slowly evolving soundscapes.
What inspires you most: sounds, words or images? And who are your most important influences from each of those fields?
Sounds and concepts are what inspire me. I remember reading an interview with Carsten Nicolai (Alva Noto) once who said he often started his compositions from a real or imagined scene, almost like a movie set. I love that idea, but my mind’s eye is bordeline non-functional! My wife always finds it really strange that I don’t ‘see’ the characters and places in books in my head as I read – I love reading, I just… conceptualise it rather than see it in my head. The two Displacement Activity volumes to date were composed while my wife was pregnant with our first baby (who is about to have her first birthday!) and I was thinking a lot about how our baby was experiencing our world from this totally different perspective as she developed. That’s really the core theme of the music – this idea of looking back in on where we are from a different perspective, hence the title, ‘Displacement Activity’, which is taken (as are quite a few titles from my back-catalogue!) from my main source of word-based inspiration, the science fiction works of Iain M Banks.
You have also recently released a solo album, Unreality for the label you co-founded (Disintegration State) which sees you explore other avenues of music. How do you feel about the way nostalgia works in music and about the current creative state of play in electronic production?
Most of my output on Disintegration State, including ‘Unreality’, is the product of a nostalgia for a past I didn’t experience. My favourite period of electronic music is the mid-to-late 90s when there was such a pervading sense of playfulness in the work of folks like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Wagon Christ, mu-ziq, Plaid, and so on. I only discovered that music a decade after its heyday and now I’m finally making that music another 10 or so years after that! Maybe its time will come for a retrowave-style re-imagining and I’ll be ahead of the curve… The creative state of electronic music is both inspiring and overwhelming – I feel like I could fill my entire listening time with new releases from folks I know in the northern UK scene alone! It’s saturated, but the output is of such high quality that it seems churlish to complain!
How do you think music culture, and more broadly the nature of society, will change as result of Covid-19?
I worry for the music industry at most levels. As we all know, touring is hugely important for so many artists given what streaming has done to sales. I hope that it inspires people to support local artists and venues when they have the opportunity again – we’re already seeing the indie scene come together through events like the Bandcamp Days, fundraising compilations, and the like. I suppose I hope that folks outside of the bubble learn more about what music needs in order for to be financially viable outside of the upper echelons. It’s hard to imagine any sizeable events will be happening in the short-term, and I’m missing live music massively!
More generally, this situation highlights inequalities in society which should have been apparent to many more people for a long time now. It’s interesting and saddening that the real spark for outrage in the UK has not been the tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, but the notion that one political figure in particular has flouted lockdown rules and is not being punished. People who have only ever known relative privilege are suddenly being confronted by the truth that their lives and liberties are, and always have been, less important than those who have the most privilege and power. I really hope that this breeds a degree of empathy to the plights of the less fortunate – the front-line workers, immigrants, and those who face institutional discrimination. The only good that can come from this is that it shifts us closer to real positive change. I’ll get off my soapbox now!
More generally, how do you feel about the way electronic music is supported/ nurtured in the music press? What are your thoughts on Streaming from an artist’s perspective, and about the way people now connect through ‘social media’?
I think the more ‘niche’ coverage is excellent and heartwarming – sites like your own inject so much passion into covering music that they love, ranging from the stars of our scene down to, well, folks like me! Similarly, podcasters and local radio shows like Monday Graveyard or Kites & Pylons are helping to pull together this lovely community. Folks like that are putting huge effort into curation and description and it’s wonderful to see. On the flipside, there feels like there is something more gatekeeper-like about some of the bigger players, perhaps tying in with an emphasis on club culture and the need to be a DJ, not just a producer. I occasionally think the surest sign I’ve ‘made it’ would be if someone felt it was worth their time to write a negative review of my work!
Streaming is a tricky topic to unpack… I genuinely don’t think that Disintegration State would have made headway as a label without the low barrier to entry that something like Spotify provides for a listener. Of course, I write from a position of privilege here where music is a ‘hobby’ rather than something I am trying to make a career of. The distribution of revenue is all wrong, and it feels like there’s a need for collective action to redress that imbalance
Social media is probably my single most important ‘tool’ as an artist. It helps connect the electronica scenes, both locally and globally. I particularly like Twitter and interacting with similar artists and listeners – it helps that everyone seems pretty like-minded given the capacity for toxicity on that medium!
And finally. Can you tell us about any forthcoming plans you have?
I have so many plans! The huge change in my life has been working out how to balance parenthood with work, other relationships, music, and climbing (my other main passion). I’ve been ‘field recording’ our daughter since she was born and have a nearly-finished album based around samples of her… I think it’s enjoyable alongside the novelty value but I’ve lost all sense of perspective really! I’m working on volume 3 for Displacement Activity alongside some more classic electronica for Disintegration State, then I’d like to explore some more glacial ambience where I resist the urge to add percussion… My musical plans tend to evolve against my will though, so who knows what any of it will sound like in the end!
Welcome to Magazine Sixty, Cleveland. Can we begin by asking what attracted you to creating more ambient sounds rather than the conventional structures of drums and song? Do you feel that you can say more about something without the use of words?
I have always been into sound as an inspiration for the way I viewed my world with the camera. I realised that it influenced how I used the light in my compositions. The KaleidoSound Project was simple, work with two of my greatest passions, Visuals and Audio. My intention was to create simple video installations based around the four elements, Air, Fire, Water and Earth. I felt the addition of drums would turn these short stories into music videos, and that was far from the plan.
Your brilliant debut album – KaleidoSound: An Introduction is out now on See Blue Audio. How did your relationship with the label come about? And why did they feel like the right fit?
Well, my relationship with See Blue Audio goes way back before it was even founded. One of the owners, Matthew Duffield, has been a good friend and colleague of mine for around 20 years. We met back in the days when I was working for K Mag, formally Knowledge Magazine. He was a great journalist and I took photos of the artists. I met up with Matthew in Barcelona, February gone and we were catching up or attempting to, on the last 10 years since we’d seen each other. I mentioned that I’d been working on the KaleidoSound Project and he was interested in seeing one, so I showed him ‘Flow’ and he was kinda impressed. Couple of weeks Iater I sent him a stack of audio I’d produced for the videos I have to create and it was then he suggested I put together an EP.
What does your artist’s name f5point6 signify?
f5point6 was the name I gave to my freelance photography business. In the early days of my exploration with photography I had an Art teacher who happened to be a freelance photographer. He tried in vain to explain the purpose of the aperture and it’s numerical values, but I never quite understood how we got f5.6. Many years later when I started freelancing I couldn’t think of a better name. I think f5point6 is quite relevant to what I do, I feel light as opposed to see it and I prefer to feel sound as opposed to hearing it. I want to create cinematic or visual sounds, hiding meanings amongst the frequencies.
You are also a professional photographer (and mentor with Olympus Digital UK). Do you see the music you create as an extension of photographing images? And how does one feed into the other? Is there a track from the album which best highlights this?
I think they’re are all part of the same philosophy as I feel the sounds I create shape my images but sometimes this can also work in reverse and a strong image will inspire sounds. The philosophy of Light, Shapes and Space is not only synonymous with visual creativity as I’m working on interpreting sound in the same way.
If I consider the 3rd track, Altocumulus, I think if you listen carefully you’ll feel the Light and the Shapes of the clouds and be immersed into that environment. The arrangement is simple with Space so that you hear the subtle changes. The impulses, keys and bass, represented the delicate wisps and bold lines that are attributed to these kind of clouds. There are also the airy synth pads which evolve and expand to interpret their movement.
What is your favourite camera? Do you own one?
I’m not sure I’m a ‘favourite’ kind of person. I have quite a huge collection of cameras but my Olympus PENF is almost always on me, not because it’s my favourite but because it’s practical. In the last couple of years I’ve introduce my son to film cameras and remembered how much missed the process of capturing images. At the end of the day, my cameras are just the tools I use to express myself. I have cameras for when I’m on a commercial commission and cameras for everyday moments.
Can you talk us through the process of how you produced one of the tracks from the album, and about any favourite pieces of software / hardware used? Do you generally start with a single note or idea, or something suggested by reading or watching something?
When I sat down to think about Apotica, I guess it started the same as all my projects. I mind map the concept and draft a simple script. So I was thinking, heavy deep sea equipment, submerging and light so minimal and rare that you were fortunate if you ever got to see it. So when it came to finding the sounds I cast them them as you would for a movie. I had some sounds that, when soloed, were better but in the arrangement risked the harmony of the whole project. Most of the sounds where captured with a sound recorder (Olympus LS-P4) and then altered and reworked using Adobe Audition. For the raw analogue bass my goto is the TAL-Noisemaker vintage synth plugin, you can really go in to make the modulations and LFO movements work for you as I was aiming to take the listener into the unknown. The main sound which hits you in the middle to upper frequencies was a layer of 2 synths in unison. For this I used Native Instrument plugins. I sequenced and arranged the whole thing using Ableton (my crack version of Logic stopped when I inadvertently upgraded my Mac OS 2 years ago… grrrr!).
Which speakers do you find best for experiencing sounds?
Wow, now that’s a big question for a non-tech like me! I kind of switch between headphones (AKG K550 MKII) and speakers (Dynaudio Acoustics BM5) at different stages of production. The real people in the know would probably admit these aren’t the greatest but… hey they work for me.
Has the space and time around the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in you discovering any new influences, either within or outside of music – books, films, painters, music etc?
Yeah, I’d say so. All the crazy insignificant things we obsess about have disappeared leaving us to ponder and celebrate the things that are important. I lecture at a six-form college that used to take 16 hours a week off my life, 4 hours travelling a day. Now I’m not squeezing onto 4 trains (one way) trying to get home before our two kids go to bed. I’m now lecturing via Google Hangouts online and having more time to re-engage with the people and things I love. Only this morning I was listening to one of Miles Davis’ masterpieces, ‘In a Silent Way’ on the Panthalassa album. It was probably the first time I’ve listened to this in like, 10 years or more. I’m a huge fan of Miles, even played a trumpet between the ages of 5 and 12, but I couldn’t believe the influenced it obviously had on me. There are parts of ‘Nova’ that are reminiscent of the vibe that Miles creates (mines more of the Primark version)! At the time they labelled it ‘Ambient Jazz’ .Up until 6m 42s you’re weightlessly suspended by the deep dark undertones, occasionally being pulled to one side or the other by the sounds of John McLaughlin’s guitar. My mission is to dust off some of my Jazz albums from the artists who first pushed that early electronic sound and add some real hardware to my production methods.
Do you think life will alter in any way after Covid-19?
The real question is how can it not alter. Not sure how much of the change will be down to the need to survive or to create a more resilient and global economy, but I’m hoping something positive will come out of this experience and we learn from our mistakes.
And finally. Can you tell us about your plans for moving forward?
Moving forward I’m 2 tracks short of my 2nd Project, and hopefully release, and then I’m going to shift my focus back to the video installations and think of ways I could make them interactive. I’m going to involve my son in this process because he’s the kind of creative I wished I had a whole classroom of!
Hit play and R. Cleveland Aaron’s magical notation invigorates what you will hear as worlds collide and gently explode. The ambience at work here is not the breathy, washing over you in the background kind, but is fully engaging in strange and remarkably exciting ways. Otherworldly melodies are played with at times, sometimes beautiful notes are explored too such as on the stunning Altocumulus. At others an almost oriental channelling occurs, or is that the grainy, improvisational echo of freeform jazz in the distance? The treatment of sound twists around the stereo in forward-thinking ways which are never far from emotionally challenging/ rewarding in equal measure. Perhaps the proof is found in the concluding hot crackle of Sun Fire with its undulating keys which are both wholly precise, yet madly expansive: tearing at edges, speaking intelligent language in new forms.
Beginning this latest collection of pieces from Steve Hadfield is the blistering uncertainty generated by The Sunlight. Residing in grainy tension this exploration of mood tears at the edges of emotion as shimmering Sitar sounds collide gracefully against whirring synthesizers. And so that very clash of ideas, influences and more continue to pursue their objective. Not so much ambience but a series of unfolding suggestions pulsing with imagination, resulting in cause and effect – sometimes dark, sometimes light. The simpler numbers such as the piano adorned Space work wonderfully well, while the following Reflections escapes into a world of feeling as treated orchestral notes and natural intonations sync together in perfect harmony. The choral harmonies of Middle Distance complete the journey via fuzzy intensity which fades off into the distance as memories are touched upon and then exploited passionately.