When it comes to ground-breaking keyboards, while the Moog and Mellotron are still kept a place in our hearts, the Zyklus got left behind. Electronica pioneers Vangelis and White Noise ranked amongst users … as was the early ‘90s band that took its name.
PETER MUIR talks looping with WARREN GREVESON – the man who’s bringing it all back this autumn with a new CD/DVD release in ‘Dolennu’ …
Peter Muir: OK Warren, given that the Zyklus lies at the beating heart of your new band, Dolennu, let’s start with a quick look at how that all came about…
Warren Greveson: Well, a few years ago I was working on my last album Songs From The Grand Massif (SFTGM). This had been done in two parts. Half of the tracks were recorded some time ago, along with the first half of my Voyager album, and I had gone to Jon Hiseman’s studio to record him playing drums for me and also to mix the album. During the mixing process it became clear that the two halves didn’t make a whole. The Voyager album was very electronic, apart from Jon’s drumming, think of the soundtrack to Blade Runner but with attitude! The SFTGM tracks had a jazzier feel, being bass, drums, guitar, piano, sax, flute, bass clarinet and trumpet.
I decided to complete the original Voyager album first and then set to work on the SFTGM tracks. I had lost touch with the sax/flute/bass clarinet player and didn’t feel that trumpet alone would have sounded right. I was talking with Jon and he said that the violin player from Paraphernalia, Billy Thompson, didn’t live too far from where we had moved to.
He suggested that I got in touch with him. I had now written five tracks that would work well with Billy’s violin playing, so I contacted him. I went over to see him and took the tracks that I wanted him to play on. He played some terrific stuff on them, far better than I had imagined. He’s a wonderful player and a great improviser, not to mention a terrific live performer. I took several takes with each track, both for the tunes and solos and had a real problem in deciding what wasn’t going to make it onto the final mix!
The five tracks for SFGTM were completed and I went back to Jon Hiseman’s studio to add the drums. I had a feeling now that the two halves still didn’t gel and I much preferred the second, violin-driven, half. I sent a copy of all of the final mixes over to Billy for his comments, really to check that he was happy with how the violin sounded. His only comment was “Why aren’t I playing on all of it?”! So that was it then, he’d confirmed my suspicions…
I re-arranged the original first half to work with violin, adding more guitar and some synthesiser in there too, and went back to Billy’s studio where he added his magic again. The result was a far more coherent and better album than I had had originally and SFTGM was released soon after.
PM: But how did that lead to the Dolennu project?
WG: I’d been a member of the pioneering loop-based electronic orchestra Zyklus with Neil Ardley, John L. Walters and Ian Carr.
Neil, John and I all had a particular quirky piece of electronica called the Zyklus.
We would program MIDI loops into the machine and play them all together, triggering those loops from whatever MIDI devices we could get our hands on – keyboards, guitar synths, drum pads, an electronic saxophone; and even two very esoteric controllers – one which resembled a small piece of drainpipe which would trigger different notes depending upon where you bashed it and even a light harp, which you played using your fingers through laser beams of light inside a small square frame!
I’d been familiar with the process of using loops for almost 30 years, inspired by the works of Steve Reich and Terry Riley. We used to perform his work In C, which is the most perfect piece to play on a Zyklus.
During the SFGTM recording sessions, Billy got out his Zeta MIDI violin and asked if there was anything I could do with it. It wasn’t making the sounds that it was supposed to. It’s a beautiful instrument, badly let down by the module that it connects to, which turned out to be the problem.
Only one string would make any attempt at making any kind of sound, and that wasn’t a good sound anyway. I spotted that the connector lead to the sound module was the same type as for my guitar synth/processor, so I brought that over at the next session and we were amazed by what came out – Hendrix on a violin! I wasn’t using the synth at the time, so I left it with Billy to experiment with.
The results were incredible – silky smooth violin one moment, morphing to extreme distorted mayhem (imagine putting a violin through a Marshall stack) and synthy sounds to round it all off. The potential was really huge.
Billy also said that he’d always had the idea of trying some kind of loop-based project. He had a fairly simple looper pedal at the time, along with a number of other pedals. Adding the MIDI violin completed his arsenal of sounds and we christened the lot “The Moat” because it wrapped around him like a moat around a castle, which we have a fair few of around us.
When Billy mentioned a looping project I immediately thought of the Zyklus.
PM: So you had the equipment and the personnel, how did you go about making the music?
WG: I dug out my trusty old Zyklus, now officially an electronic antique, and tried to remember how to work it! While it was capable of producing some incredible music, the editing side of things left a lot to be desired. A 2 x 40 character display, which was fading fast, was a little more austere than my 27” Apple monitor connected to my Mac!
I started playing with it again and came up with some ideas, some of which dated back to the Zyklus days, some of which were new works. I took these round to Billy’s studio, where we rehearsed every week, and together we started to come up with pieces that worked for the two of us to perform.
The Zyklus is a very fragile instrument that doesn’t like travelling about. Retrieving “songs” (for a better word) was very slow and fairly hit-and-miss. It would crash every now and then too. But there were two bigger problems – the display was getting so faint that I could hardly see it and would have no chance in a gig situation; and the clock that worked out the tempo was also wrong.
We had to create blank loops to import into Billy’s looper pedal so that he could build up his loops in real-time and these had to match the tempo that the Zyklus was working to. It took a lot of painstaking work to create those loops, but we did eventually manage it. The display was much less easy to solve, so in the end I decided it just wasn’t feasible to use the Zyklus in a live performance, which was a great disappointment to me. [I’ve since found a replacement screen and fitted it into my Zyklus; it’s so bright now I need to wear shades using it!]
PM: That’s a real shame; how did you replace such a unique instrument?
WG: I began the search for a software-based MIDI looper that could perhaps do what the Zyklus did. It took a long time, but I discovered that there was nothing that came even close! What I did find was a very obscure piece of software called the Zyklus Improviser; something that, on the face of it, would do something similar.
I played with the software for ages and found that, apart from the fact that is was actually nothing like the real Zyklus, it had some interesting compositional tools and real-time mangling of the loops played into it. But, the editing was quirky, there were a lot of bugs and it also had large sections of the program that hadn’t been written. In the end, although I’d worked out some interesting pieces using it, it was also just not reliable enough for live performance.
PM: So near yet so far, what did you do next?
WG: I noticed that the Zyklus Improviser software had been written using some software called Max, which I was familiar with. A version of Max was included with the Ableton Live software, so I downloaded a demo version of Live and could see immediately that this was the system to use. Live wasn’t a software version of the Zyklus hardware, but I could see a way to make this work for this project.
PM: But you had works developed using the Zyklus hardware and the Zyklus Improviser software. How could you port it across from those systems?
WG: With a lot of difficulty and time. It took me ages to work out how to take the pieces worked out previously on other platforms and get them into Live. But it was possible and, as is often the way, the pieces evolved again into something else.
The real revelation was getting hold of the Ableton Push controller. Push really transformed how I could work with the software. I particularly liked how it could either control the launching of loops and could also be used as a keyboard in itself, albeit not in the traditional piano-key way of triggering notes. It was almost like going back to the old Zyklus band days and the crazy controllers we used then, except that Push just seemed to work for me. So I got a second one and now use one for launching loops and the other for playing notes. That, with my MacBook Pro (running Live) and a Korg Kronos X synth for handling any notes that I play live (with a small L), is my Live (with both a small and capital L) rig. I’m really happy and settled with it.
Billy was getting frustrated by the flexibility in his looping pedal, so he got a Boss RC-300 Loop Station. This gave him far more freedom to experiment and also made his Moat even bigger! Plus, our problems in creating blank loops immediately disappeared with what we were using. Again, as with the original Zyklus band project, we didn’t need to synchronise my rig to Billy’s, as we would be constantly retriggering samples and it would stay in time.
PM: Well, that’s sorted out the technology, how about making some music then?
WG: Exactly … now we had a stable platform on which we both could work, we could press on with using it. I had a number of pieces by now and we spent our rehearsal time working on them. Billy also came forward with a couple of ideas which I took away and turned them into Dolennu pieces.
Firstly, he gave me the chords that would become the second track on the album: Berwyn Blues. This was interesting as he gave me a sequence of chords to work with. We were possibly looking to work with a remixer further down the line and so the idea of using odd time signatures seemed a good idea. I took the chords that Billy had given me and wrote the entire piece in 7/4 time. We’d been working on this in rehearsals for quite a while before Billy realised it was in 7/4 time, which I thought was good as it meant that it sounded like it wasn’t in 7/4 time!
The other piece is called JLP Special and is the opening track on our new album. The JLP refers to Jean-Luc Ponty, one of Billy’s heroes, and is inspired by his work. It was also possible to bring this work to life as Billy could now use his MIDI violin (and quite a lot of his Moat) to get the kind of sounds that he always envisioned would be needed for the piece.
There was much more of an arrangement with this piece, so fitting this into the Dolennu framework was more difficult. There weren’t any tunes for the piece, so Billy asked if I could come up with something, which I did. This made the arrangement process slightly easier. I remember playing Billy my ideas and his comment “Well, not only did you throw the baby out with the bathwater but you tattooed it first” did make me smile! Once he’d heard it through a couple of times and then started playing it he took to the piece and it’s a very strong track now.
PM: What about your pieces? How did you work those out?
WG: We used the same processes with my pieces as with Billy’s. I’d come up with some kind of framework, bring it along to rehearsals where we’d play with it and then I’d reflect on what was happening to make changes where we needed to. We recorded everything that we played so that we could check out what worked and what didn’t. It was an iterative process and great fun, the rehearsals were always great fun.
Billy’s great to work with, very easy-going but at the same time he will stick to his principles. I can’t remember ever having a difficult moment during any part of the writing and recording process, which is unusual.
PM: Which piece did you bring to the rehearsal first?
WG: That would be Just Fibbin’, which is the last track on the album. It’s based on the Fibonacci sequence, which goes 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 etc. The next number in the sequence is the sum of the previous two. I had a number of loops that were written in different time signatures: 3/4, 5/8 and 4/4 and these tumble and collide with each other throughout the piece. I particularly liked the tune that I‘d written to go with it, it’s very angular and manages to use all 12 tones in it, even though the underlying chord is C. Music is very mathematical and so using a mathematical sequence seemed like a good idea.
The piece is very open and we had great fun playing it – I think some of the rehearsal takes were nearly 40 minutes long! We actually filmed a version of it, which I edited down to something more manageable. That’s the most open and improvised piece that we do, that’s why it’s the most fun to play.
PM: What was the second piece?
WG: That is The Breathing City, the third track on the album. It was originally titled What The Funk?, but was changed after we started the recording process. This was greatly influenced by Billy’s MIDI violin, a lot of the sounds you hear in the track are played by Billy on his MIDI violin. We used some of his original phrases recorded at rehearsals on the recording, they were that good.
This was the first piece I used the Live software exclusively on; we hadn’t worked on this piece before I changed my rig.
PM: Pripyat has an interesting story to it?
WG: Yes, that’s the fourth track on the album. Parts of it were developed using the Zyklus Improviser software, but the original idea came from an earworm that I woke up with one morning. I couldn’t get it out of my head; I rushed up to my studio to get the rough ideas down before I forgot them.
This also changed its title. It was originally named Waltz For Poppy. Poppy is my granddaughter, but once the piece started to develop I realised that it was far too spooky for her! [I still owe her a piece of music…]
I began to see this as a theme for an abandoned amusement park/circus that would be inhabited by ghosts. I imagined the images there and they drove the direction of the piece. I started looking for images of abandoned amusement parks and found the story of the fairground in Pripyat. The park was due to open on May 1 1986, but unfortunately on 26 April 1986 the main reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded.
Pripyat was the town built to house the workers at the plant and is very close to the reactor. The whole town was evacuated and the amusement park never opened. It is still inside the exclusion zone around the crippled reactor, but people have gone inside to photograph it and it is the most haunting (and scary) place that I’ve ever seen.
PM: You’ve now got the material, how did you record the album?
WG: Most of it was recorded in Billy’s studio. We did between four and six takes of each track. We recorded Billy’s live violin plus the loops that he made up during the performance. My parts were recorded as MIDI, rather than the actual sounds; this would make editing and the construction of the final track much easier. I would then take all of the material away and audition it all to find the best takes of the tunes and Billy’s solos.
Again, I had real trouble in deciding which of Billy’s solos would make it to the final mix. That was really hard and there are some great out-takes that I may get round to resurrecting in the future. I particularly remember the opening section on the first take for JLP Special. Billy was very wound up (in a positive way) and when he started playing it almost knocked me over! The energy was just incredible and I immediately thought “this is the start of the album. If that doesn’t make a statement then I don’t know what will!”
All of the pieces were much longer when we recorded them, we would never have been able to fit an original take of each track on the album. As I worked through the editing process I would send over rough mixes for Billy to listen to. The final part of the editing process saw me reprogram the drums so that they were less loop-like, more like having a real drummer.
Eventually we had the five tracks mixed, but Billy wasn’t happy with the drums. Although the programming was pretty “real”, Billy wanted a real person to play, particularly on his tracks. I understood what he was getting at, so asked if he had any suggestions. He came up with an old friend of his, Steve Roberts. Billy gave me his CV and, once I had seen it, I had no problems at all with him playing on the album.
Billy contacted Steve and he agreed to come up to my studio to re-record the drum parts. I had a decent Roland MIDI kit, so suggested that he used that; he could also use it when we get to play live, solving the age-old problem of having to set sound levels to the volume of the drums. This would have been a particular problem if we were playing smaller, more intimate gigs. Steve had never played a MIDI kit before. He came up for a couple of days; we set him up and sorted out his monitoring on the first day.
He recorded the drum parts for the entire album on the second day. I was absolutely blown away by both his playing and attitude and knew that there would be no problem with him playing with us in a live situation.
Half way through the session I could see that this was really going to work, so I asked him if he’d like a solo on Just Fibbin’. I had originally written a section in 13/8 (13 being the next number in the Fibonacci sequence after 8) but had taken it out when it wasn’t working at our original rehearsals. Steve said he was up for it, so I added the original instrumentation and asked him to solo over the top, which is terrific!
After several weeks’ editing, Steve’s drum parts were on the album and the mixes were complete.
PM: I see though that the Dolennu album has both a CD and a DVD. Why is this?
WG: Very early on in the project I had thought about integrating video with live performances. We’re an instrumental band and I felt that visuals would add something that would make concerts more interesting – both to listen to and see. I’m a big believer in collaboration and this would be the perfect mix in my opinion.
I had worked with Maurice Lock on my Voyager for Orchestra and Four iPads project and was really pleased with how it had turned out. We had done live performances with the orchestra, complete with the four iPad musicians, in both the UK and the USA and all had been extremely well received. In fact, Billy was one of the original iPad players at the world premiere.
I spoke with Maurice a lot over this, how he could work with video loops (and maybe even incorporate the odd bit of live webcam) and we were certain that it would work really well. Maurice would decide what the video content would be and he set about finding the necessary video clips.
I sent over rough mixes to Maurice as I was working on them to help him visualise the pieces. Both Billy and I had ideas on some of the tracks but we would leave the creation of the visual content up to Maurice.
Once he had got together all of the media that he needed, then he would run a performance of his video against the final mix and record that as a single video take, which I subsequently edited against the audio to produce the final videos for the DVD.
The DVD has exactly the same music mixes as on the CD but has the video that would be shown when we play live. It was at this stage that What The Funk? became The Breathing City because of the wonderful start to Maurice’s video – the city is literally breathing.
Whilst all of the videos were produced to accompany the music, it’s quite possible that in the future we shall write music to fit one of Maurice’s videos.
The DVD is an integral part of this project, not a last-minute add-on, and I’m really pleased with how it has turned out. The album looks and sounds fantastic, the actual package looks wonderful! Everyone at Market Square Music, who are releasing the album, has been very encouraging and they’ve been a fantastic bunch to work with!
PM: Finally, why are you called Dolennu and what bearing did that have on the album?
WG: The four of us are based in Wales and we felt that a Welsh name would be correct to have. I thought about this for some time and eventually came up with the word Dolennu, which is the Welsh name for looping.
MORE ON THE ZYKLUS AT http://www.muzines.co.uk/articles/zyklus-midi-performance-system/1058