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THE MYSTERY OF THE SONGS-NOT-SONGS OF FOVEA HEX,
THE RECENT WORK OF IRISH SINGER CLODAGH SIMONDS

"BE QUIET, AND SEE WHAT EMERGES....."

by Daniela Cascela

"The Fovea is a tiny indentation in the retina where the sharpest vision is. Hex can mean various things — amongst other meanings, a jinx or a curse. In a way, to me, Fovea Hex means something like "through a glass darkly".

Imagine if you will, a handful of songs that seem to come from some remote past, yet are resonating today. Imagine melodies chiseled by the knowing hands of the undisputed masters of experimentation: manipulated, diced, refractured and recomposed in an osmotic exchange between form and its rarefication, line and space, graces and arabesques. Fovea Hex is the work of the Irish singer Clodagh Simonds, articulated over a series of collaborations that, in theory, seem very eclectic yet make an organic whole, composed of three EPs published between 2006 and 2007, which form the trilogy Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent. Songs-not-songs, songs which are also textures, songs which feel like thresholds, all take unpredictable turns and end up in unexplored territory: an insistent and cadenced refrain can transform into swarming micro-sounds, or a voice can pass from a decisive contour to an impalpable dissolving, as sounds of acoustic instruments grow together in nuclei of intensity that can swiftly change, leaving only a shadow of their original form. The music of Fovea Hex places sounds and words into portraits of blinding intensity, and it is surely for this reason that one of the undisputed masters of the perpetual pursuit of ethereal and sunken visions, David Lynch, invited the group last summer to play at one of his curated exhibitions at La Foundation Cartier in Paris.

The first EP of the trilogy, BLOOM, opens with Don't These Windows Open, an emblematic track in its design of fractured wakes and post-vocal streaks. And at the foundation, the subtle yet inescapable presence of Brian Eno. In We Sleep You Bloom, vocal cloaks and iridescent sounds cover and uncover a precious embroidery of metallic filament. The mature and assertive voice of Clodagh is brought out even more by the contrast of the ethereal and crystalline voices of Laura Sheenan and Lydia Sasse. In That River, the imposing triumph of two crossed harmoniums introduces a masterful voice that enters with a devastating urgency. Andrew Mackenzie is credited as having "lit from within" the material for Bloom. The production of this EP by Mackenzie, eminence grise of Hafler Trio, is one of his best works.

"I contacted Andrew," Clodagh tells us, "after reading an interview with him in which he said he was seeking any kind of paid work in order to help him meet some very urgent medical costs. I'd never heard of him, and had no idea what his work was like — he just sounded like an intelligent, aware person in a very bad predicament. Originally my idea was that he would just contribute something to a track on an album I was thinking of making — it was just to be a session fee, to help him out. But when I heard his work, I heard all kinds of sounds for which I'd been searching for years, as well as some sounds I'd literally only ever dreamed of — all superbly executed — and he, for his part, said that he really liked the songs I sent him — so the idea grew to do three eps. But it was much more work for him than either of us had anticipated — I'm still such a beginner, and I just hadn't realised. Apart from that, we encountered seemingly insurmountable problems with incompatibilities between his studio set-up and mine, which meant we were unable to work in the way we had originally agreed — there wasn't nearly enough flexibility. Throughout, he was disappearing off the radar for days at a time, which was very worrying for me — I was very aware of how ill he is, and how this project seemed to be adding to his stress levels, rather than helping with his medical costs! We managed to complete ep1, but at the start of ep2, he said he felt it would be better if I found someone else to carry on with, though he did very kindly agree to provide the "bonus cd" for the next two eps. Both David Tibet and Jochen Schwarz (of Die Stadt, to whom Andrew had introduced me, and the project) felt that Colin Potter was the obvious choice, and so the ball started to roll in his direction. Working with Colin was much more hands-on, we didn't have any technical problems, so we could work with a lot of flexibility and experimentation, and I taught myself how to do a lot of the purely technical tasks, so I was better prepared each time we worked together. Before working with either Andrew or Colin, I only had a vague idea of how I wanted these songs to sound — as always, I knew more about how I didn't want them to sound — and they both did a remarkable job of making sense out of my vague ramblings! I think both of them provided very substantial and significant contributions — in terms of ideas I would never have thought of, or else things I myself would have been far too technically inept to achieve. And also in terms of confidence in the material — I'm not exactly overflowing with it — there's always a part of me that's completely uncertain and diffident — but both of them were enormously positive and encouraging. I think it's largely thanks to that that I didn't dither too much, or end up floundering in an ocean of indecision. I'm really very lucky to have been able to work with two such gifted and skilled people".

The second EP of the trilogy, HUGE [2006], produced consequently by Colin Potter alongside Simonds, brings the Irish musical inclination more into focus such as in the disarming opening track, Huge (The Joy Of Trouble), a rhythm slowly expressed in 3/4 time by deep bass — a hymn to loss and rebirth exalted by a myriad of miniscule sonic events that shimmer and sparkle all around the "heartbeaten" voice of Simonds. Here the benevolent ghost of Brian Eno wafts on the keyboard until the vocal weavings completely open out into the abstract violence of A Song For Magda and flow on into the surreal release of While You're Away.

"When I'm writing, I refer to a visual impression of what's unfolding. But it usually tends to begin with sound, with sounds — inarticulate, not "words" — and then I try to listen very attentively — it's a bit like looking at something and un-focusing your eyes — it's quite hard to do. As soon as I begin to get a thread, there will be some kind of simultaneous visual imagery — and then I just weave the two in and out of each other — the words reveal themselves, the images reveal themselves, and the process continues — almost like a right foot, and a left foot, and me somewhere in the middle, trying to hold the balance. I usually have no idea at all, at the start, what the song will say. And sometimes it really is a very slow tortuous process, it can be very frustrating — other times, it can be very fast and clear. But I do always know without any doubt when it's finished — there's never any doubt in my mind when the process has been completed. Apart from writing, my main practice has to do with pitching — I've devised a routine which I try to adhere to daily, and it takes 30-40 minutes. I either use the little harmonium, or else sine waves — sine waves are extremely unforgiving, and they show you very clearly how to be accurate. If you want to sing with minimal mannerisms or technique, you really need to make sure your pitching is true. The first singer to impress me this way was Robin Williamson — in fact I had a conversation with him once, when I was about 18, and I spent a New Years Eve with all of them in Scotland. I remember him saying how important he felt it was to find the singing voice that truly corresponded to your speaking voice — was an extension of it. So I've been interested in that for years. I think a lot of people regard their voices as some kind of fancy car you go off for a drive in, and you need to keep polishing it, and pumping the tyres up, and adding to the gadgets. It can make me feel physically ill when I hear voices like that. So I just focus on staying true, pitch-wise, and being aware of my breathing — and that's it. But I have to say it's easier said than done. It's probably just as much work as cultivating a vibrato and doing all that polishing! Apart from my voice, I try to keep my listening exercised in various ways. And I try — perhaps not as wholeheartedly as I could — to improve my sightreading, which is terrible".

In ALLURE [2007] the Potter/Simonds production duo comes across delightfully once again: the spell reiterates, and in less than half an hour it entwines stories, creates moods and unusual spaces. Nothing is linear, the words echo back in memory, even when they're absent, resonating almost as halos of light — and yet again in an extraordinary setting of field recordings, traditional Irish instruments such as the bodhran, stellar strings (provided by, among others, John Contreras on cello and Cora Venus Lunny on violin). Clodagh moves further and further forward into an expressive territory that transcends the words yet doesn't withdraw from itself. She conveys the words in her singing and then she lets them exist as pre-semantic sounds, yet undeniably human.

After a hiatus of more than twenty years since the release of the Mellow Candle cult album Swaddling Songs, an Irish folk milestone released in 1972 when Simonds was only nineteen, she returned to the scene on Russell Mill's disc Pearl and Umbra, singing a cover version of Syd Barrett's Golden Hair with a voice of abandonment that heralded what was to follow. Then in 2006, the year of Simonds' re-emergence, apart from just launching her new project Fovea Hex, she also appeared on the Matmos EP For Alan Turing, and recorded a version of Idumaea for the Current 93 release Black Ships Ate The Sky. If in her first guest appearance Simonds leaves her voice in the remarkable hands of the two vivisectioners par excellence, in her second appearance her voice seems exposed and powerful, further testimony of the extreme versatility of her artistic skill.

"I've been writing since I was 10 or 11. But I wasn't very good at pursuing success, I guess — I lost my appetite for being part of the Music Business quite early on, and though I never stopped writing, I wasn't really ambitious enough to do any big pushing. I spent years doing a variety of dayjobs — and it was actually a health scare in 1992 that woke me up to the reality that I'd let music slip on to the back burner — suddenly that made no sense — it was my main passion in life, and I had let it slip! So I stopped working and moved from London back home to Ireland — to West Cork, which is really beautiful, and quite remote. A baby grand piano appeared for me as if by magic — and suddenly, despite being poorer than I'd ever been in my life, I found I was ten times happier. I spent my days gardening and writing music, remembering how to relax, and pretty much living on air! Over the course of the ensuing 15 years, I've slowly (and with a great deal of blood, sweat and tears, because I'm a bit of a technophobe) learned how to work a virtual studio, and there have been various projects, all experimental in nature — but this is the first one that has seen the light of day.

"I didn't really "decide" on any particular elements I wanted to bring to it — I don't work in that preconceived way — although I'm usually pretty clear about what I want to avoid. Once this project began to move, I just tried to pay as much attention as possible to what was happening as it unfolded, peripherally as well as musically, in order to honour whatever was required to keep it moving towards completion. At certain stages, certain cues appear — and of course if you're focused on a very clear and preconceived target, and you're determined to get everything into a certain shape, you'll miss them. But it can be more interesting to keep some of your focus very immediate, and follow small, localised indications. Your own atmosphere affects what lands on your plate anyway, so it's not as if you're opening everything up purely to random chance — that way of working doesn't appeal to me either. Fixed plans are at one end of the spectrum, and random chance is at the other — I guess the way I work is mostly intuitive, and it's somewhere in the middle. The clarity comes with the way the thing itself unfolds — and the beginning is always a bit obscure and uncertain".

In the liner notes of the three EPs, the musical contributions by others are described using unconventional definitions such as "shredded piano", "shifting and sieving", "tricks of light", "beds of shimmer", "melancholia implants", somehow reflecting the re-shaping of conventional structures that is tried out in each new piece and setting a frame for mindscapes within each song reflecting a very peculiar way of listening.

"The way I see it is: the less attention you pay, the more your experience grows dull, through any of the senses. You get what you pay for. I had some strong tastes of this as a small child, which stayed with me, experiences of whole other worlds which are always there — we just literally don't notice them. One very strong experience I had was thanks to a Bechstein grand which was on loan to my family from a friend of my Mothers — we had it for a couple of years. It had an ornately carved music rest, and one day, I stopped in the middle of playing, just for a pause, and for some reason planted my chin on the top, so my face was right up close to the music rest, and I could see these tiny, tiny filaments, much finer than hairs, trapped in tiny cracks in the wood — I could see them moving, like seaweed under the water. I held my breath, and they were still moving, moving, though I myself could feel no breeze or movement of air. It suddenly struck me that they were in a different world to my world.... they had been there all along, but I never noticed. I had never even noticed the tiny cracks in the wood! For a few moments, I was completely entranced. Then I went back to playing, and forgot all about them — and a few days later, I suddenly remembered again — put my face up close to the music rest, and yes — the cracks — and the filaments were all still there, moving even if I held my breath — that tiny world was there still, and I had forgotten all about it. I became fascinated with the whole thing — the tiny world, and also how I kept forgetting about it — I would come home from school, barge into the room, bang away on the piano, sing at the top of my voice for half an hour — completely oblivious. And then suddenly remember, and feel like an enormous clumsy giant oaf, as I put my face to the music rest again! So I began to wonder about the whole business of noticing things, or not. We don't pay enough attention — we're not really taught how to. So what we get on our plates every day looks humdrum, ordinary, tedious, homogenized, repetitious — it reflects exactly the kind of attention we pay. We absorb that, and we are influenced by it — and we get caught in a vicious circle of the "same old-same old". We don't even realise we have a choice. And if we don't exercise our attention, it atrophies, just like anything else — it becomes much harder to stretch. I was very excited once, I think I was around 14 or 15, by listening to Ligeti speak about this kind of thing — I chanced upon a documentary on TV — I had never heard of him. The music was absolutely breathtaking — I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Not only that, but at one point, he was walking through a park, talking about the sounds there — the traffic, the birds, the peoples voices, the leaves on the trees rustling, his own footsteps, the dog barking a hundred yards away — and I can't remember exactly what he said — I just remember feeling so exhilarated and thinking "He knows about this thing of overlapping worlds!!". I'd never spoken to anyone about it because I thought it sounded so mad. So he gave me a real boost, and I began to think perhaps it wasn't quite so mad to think that way".

While listening to the music of Fovea Hex a sentence by William Butler Yeats as quoted by Harry Partch comes to mind: 'I hear with older ears than the musicians'

"It's strange to me how often this comment has come up already — many people have remarked on some ancient quality to the music, and it's really interesting — I certainly didn't set out to "achieve" something like that. (Then again, I'm pretty ancient, ha ha ha!!!) Seriously, I am actually very interested in a lot of old music — just recently I found a strange recording of Coptic music from the 5th century. Another favourite is some Alleluias from 4th century Gaul — and some fragments of ancient Greek music. Of course there's a big degree of speculation about all of them, nobody can be quite certain how to interpret these old, old documents — but they each have a very distinct character anyhow. I discovered not long ago that my paternal Grandmother, Molly Daly, was a direct descendant of a very well-known line of bards or poets, dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. There are a couple of ruins, one in Co. Clare, and one in West Cork, of the schools which they ran. I was fascinated, because only a few months before this discovery, I had begun to feel very drawn to early Irish poetry, yet I had no idea that there was this connection. I've always been interested in the past, and in tradition, and I've never been satisfied with exclusively contemporary music. I'm a bit of a variety junkie — my appetite is for a lot of different things, not for a lot of the same thing. I started to explore various kinds of ethnic music while I was living in New York in the late 70s — I even studied Persian music for a while (not long enough, sigh....). Any of these forms that have endured generation after generation after generation have a huge strength to them, as if they have their own life, and just need to land on a living being or two, in order to be heard — they've accumulated a force of their own, and they only need a vehicle. I wish I knew more about our own Sean Nos singing — it has an ageless, extraordinary beauty to it — sometimes I dream of just vanishing to the wilds for a year or two, and really learning about it — but for the moment, it remains a dream! (Like going to Tbilisi and spending a couple of years there, or returning to my studies of Persian music.) But at the same time as having all this affection for old forms of music, I have a very experimental streak, and I really do enjoy exploring the textures and sounds which we can access now, now that we are able to manipulate sound so much. My personal interest is to combine those with the form of song — the impulse to form a song is a very, very ancient impulse, and it's a challenge to get that combination of "ancient" and "now" right, and working. I like the idea of including the past in the present — not just dumping it and forging ahead, rootlessly. I feel strongly that the notion that we're inevitably "making progress" as we move forward, inventing, replacing, modernising — is dangerous in some way. Which isn't to say that we don't make any progress at all — but this unquestioning belief that everything, in every way, is getting better and better, and the past is something dead? To me it seems the past is only dead if you kill it, either by enshrining it in an aspic of nostalgia, or else ignoring it completely, and believing that only novelty has any value. If you can find the right way, the past can nourish and enrich the present, and can become an intrinsic part of it. I believe we may have thrown out a great many babies with the bathwater in the name of "progress". If that is so, we have no idea what we're missing, and what we've lost, because we believe so firmly that we're constantly making improvements and moving forward. We think we know it all, and if you ask me, we've forgotten most of it".