This latest instalment of Music in a time of Global Crisis brings the conversation to Neil Stringfellow. Based in Norfolk, UK, Neil is a sound artist and musician operating under the name of Audio Obscura, exploring a wide range of styles, including electro-acoustic, musique concrète, IDM, and field recordings. In addition to recently appearing on labels such as Bibliotapes, Naviar Records, Cloudchamber Recordings, and CO-DEPENDENT (OUT TODAY – CHECK IT OUT!), Neil releases music via his own Bandcamp page.
In this feature, Neil talks about how Covid-19 has impacted his music making, reflects on some classic experimental works that have been recently revisited, how streaming cannot compete with the physical live music experience, and staying true to yourself and the music as a way of creating positivity.
How have the widespread lockdowns in response to the Covid-19 crisis affected your music making?
The coronavirus did affect some work that I had planned. I was meant to go to Venice, Italy for a week of field recording which was to be developed into a project / album but that got cancelled. Likewise, I had a project in Kent, UK, based on field recordings that I was planning on making at Derek Jarman’s cottage in Dungeness with a follow up concert, but this was also cancelled. The field recording side of my work has all but stopped by the lockdown.
Aside from the field recording side of things, as a musician who makes most of my music alone in a home studio the practical basics of making music in this setting didn’t change at all. What did change was being aware that this was a unique moment in time and feeling the need to document that moment in music. I set about creating new music on a daily basis once the UK entered lock-down and instead of reflecting on the tracks and spending a number of weeks editing or making new arrangements of a track I just uploaded them to my Soundcloud page daily. (I published the album as the Self Isolation Tapes on Bandcamp at the end of April.
The tracks were certainly finished but didn’t go through my normal music making process (what I call a period I call fermentation.) Typically, this means that when I make a track, I will proceed till I have a basic arrangement that I am happy with. I will then leave a track for around 2-3 weeks but sometimes for as long as 2 months until I listen back. When I come back to a track after such a break, I can hear new possibilities and a direction to take it in. A lot of my music is made this way, the fermentation period gives me the distance I need to hear the flaws in my music and to edit out; it’s a self-imposed method of quality control! With my musical responses to Covid-19, most were started and finished inside 24 hours, a few took 2-3 days only. By doing this I didn’t give myself that fermentation period but rather uploaded the track in a raw but basic state, which felt liberating and more in the mood of capturing the moment.
It has been said (in a review) that my style of music is “perfectly suited to dystopia” – (last year I released a cassette only release of a soundtrack for George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ on the Bibliotapes label) so perhaps the effect of Covid-19 helped me explore this element of my music anyway. Certainly, the use of dark textures and doing things like sampling the radio news about coronavirus and sampling my kids playing in the house helped keep the music within a lockdown theme. It’s been an interesting time and I made some music I am proud of that would never have existed without this lockdown situation.
What music, new or old, have you been listening to lately, and have your listening habits changed as a result of the current situation?
I have listened back to a lot of the classical and post-classical composers who inspire me. The output of Gavin Bryars from the 1970s, especially; ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ and the ‘Sinking of the Titanic’. My habits did change a bit, I enjoyed a few of the Tim’s Listening Parties on Twitter when I wasn’t making music. I also really enjoyed having the doors of home studio open (they open out into my garden) and hearing the birds and lack of traffic. That was amazing and I’ve also made a few field recordings of those birds which have not yet made it onto any new tracks.
Consequence of Sound reported the worst week of album sales since the 1960s (28th March 2020). Do you think the coronavirus outbreak will have a lasting negative effect on the music industry?
It might but I don’t really have any interest in the ‘music industry’, it’s not a term I consider important and don’t consider myself as part of it.
With more musicians live streaming from their homes than ever before, do you think this trend will continue once things improve?
Perhaps, I think live streaming can have a place alongside the traditional live gigs. I had three gigs in April cancelled because of coronavirus but one took part as a live stream – it was enjoyable but it’s not the same as a live performance in front of people.
What do you think we as music makers can be doing to create positivity right now?
Just stay true to your musical ideas and vision and make music that reflects where you are in the world. Use the time to approach artists and ask if they want to collaborate remotely (I’ve made a track during lock-down that had cello recorded in Stroud, UK and saxophone from Canada just by sending files via WeTransfer). Also supporting the people that you like on places like Bandcamp etc…