15 Questions to Clodagh Simonds/Fovea Hex
When I was still a school boy, I used to turn off the light at night, turn up my stereo to the max and listen to "Ommadawn" by Mike Oldfield as loud as possible (strangely and in stark contrast to some other records I played, everybody in the house thought this fine and never interfered). The big finale of that work's first part started with a hypnotical chant, opening subdued, ominous and mysteriously, before turning ever more frantic and adjuratory. Back then, I could not imagine a more majestic music and in my fantasy, these voices will always belong to some veiled Indian girls, dancing to the beat of an invisible drum and stamping their bare feet in the mud. All childhood dreams must come to an end and so I discovered last year that in fact this little choir was made up of Bridget St.John, Sally Oldfield and Clodagh Simonds. Far from being a disappointment, this discovery actually lead me to the latter's first band (Mellow Candle, which she started at the age of 15 and which has by now attained a firm cult status) as well as her current project: Fovea Hex, a fascinating world made up of dense spaces within an incomprehensible vastness, nonlinear structures inside a circular vision and a collision of extrasensory harmonies and deep organic sonorities. Again, Simonds' voice is the focal point, acting like the rudder of a comet pulling slipstreams of light behind her, leaving glowing images on the retina. Again (just like with the gibberish of "Ommadawn"), her words are filled with beauty that makes you heart want to explode without completely revealing their meaning (maybe that is why David Lynch, who works in a similar way, invited her to perform at one of his exhibitions lately). She claims that "the gift of the gab" was passed on to her from generations of lyricists - just read this text to find out she talks poetry even when giving an ordinary interview ("There's a good ferment brewing. It's all changing shape.") But there is something which makes this music stand out and has made her new EP "Allure" (the last in a trilogy) an eagerly awaited treasure - and we are not talking about the all star line-up of Brian Eno, Roger Eno, Carter Burwell, Andrew McKenzie and Colin Potter here. Together with this team, Clodagh has created a music which manages to conjure up intense images and associations with sparse means, while remaining accessible despite its completely intuitive arrangements. It is not Classical, but has the same serene and pure grace of mediaeval motets. It is serious but not oppressive. it is dreamy but not bland. It is mysterious and majestic. It makes you feel like a schoolboy again.
Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hallo - I'm fine, I'm at home in Dublin, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, the sage is blooming and smells beautiful......
What's on your schedule right now?
I'm preparing for the second ever Fovea Hex gig, which is in Paris on May 24 - we've been invited by David Lynch to perform at the Cartier Foundation, who are running a major exhibition of his work. Apart from that - on my "to do" list: a remix of a beautiful song by Pantaleimon called "Under The Water", and then getting into some nice nonsense or other with Andrew Liles - plus there are 7 or 8 new songs incubating; and I also want to review 5 or 6 sketches I have for piano pieces; and there's some material of Laura Sheeran's which we want to start working on for her first album. And we're in the process of setting up a Janet Records online shop. Never a dull moment.....
What or who was your biggest influence as an artist?
The most enduring ones (which wouldn't all necessarily be musical) - in roughly chronological order - would be: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayaam, which my Father used to read to me as a bedtime story - I knew most of it off by heart by the time I was 6 or 7; Struwwelpeter; Phil Spector (Da Doo Ron Ron was the first pop song that I really loved); Gregorian plainchant; Bach; Hieronymous Bosch; the Beatles; the Incredible String Band; Planxty; W.B. Yeats, who I didn't discover properly until I was about 19. Ligeti - I remember stumbling by chance on a documentary about him and being stunned by not only his music, but also the things he was saying about listening and hearing, and just thinking to myself "Of course!! of course!" Sean nos. Brian Eno, perhaps especially "Another Green World", "Evening Star"(with Fripp), and "On Land". And his and Bowie's "Low". Nico. Rumi. Georgian music - the first time I heard it, it literally made my spine tingle, and it still does. If I won the lottery, I'd have a pied a terre in Tbilisi! David Hykes' Harmonic Choir; Rothko; Cocteau Twins; Tarkovsky; Arvo Part; Hafiz; early Irish poetry; Beckett (I was a bit of a late starter on him....); Bjork - as with Nico, her originality and bravery acted like a huge reassurance. For the sake of brevity, I've left out a lot of people (and I do mean: a lot) whose work I really do value and admire - but I think these are the ones who have rung the loudest and most enduring bells for me so far, "as an artist". These are the ones I never grew out of. There may be more to come, but we just haven't crossed paths yet.....
Do you see yourself as part of a certain tradition or as part of a movement?
Not really. I don't feel quite at home in any tradition or movement that I can think of. There's always something that means I don't quite fit. I did find out about 10 years ago that my paternal Grandmother, Molly Daly, was directly descended from a long line of old poets, the O'Dalaighs, which perhaps explains a hereditary gift of the gab!
What's your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?
Yes and no. I think there's a crisis that goes way beyond just the music scene. But it's reflected there pretty accurately, in various ways. One of the more obvious ways is that payment is not so widely seen as a necessity. The reality that that there's a price for everything. And that you get what you pay for. It has to do with values. If you think - turn back the clock 150 years - unless you were in the presence of a musician, or musicians, you could have no music. The only option was live music. To hear music was a huge treat, a real special occasion. The musicians had to have learned how to play - they paid in blood sweat and tears. Perhaps you might have had to travel miles to hear them. Now that payment is not necessary at all - you just need to buy the cd, or buy the software, and if you're clever enough, you don't even have to pay for that. And the results, perhaps, are telling. But any crisis is good, because it precipitates a backlash. I think that's already evident - there's a good ferment brewing. It's all changing shape.
What does the term "new" mean to you in connection with music?
I mistrust the quest for novelty for its own sake. To keep moving is vital - but there's more than one direction to move in - it doesn't have to be horizontal. I believe you can find something really fresh by just going deeper in, or by magnifying - shifting levels, instead of tweaking away at the surface details, or tinkering around with new toys, tempting though that is. Intensifying the way you work. YOU - not your tools. I would question the idea that to arrive at something new and original, you must necessarily be radical, and extreme, and assiduously avoid anything that's ever been done before. That's a pretty klunky way to go about it.
How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
I've been doing a lot of exploring the past few years, because I wanted to go more deeply into sound, whilst continuing to explore song as a form. An ongoing experiment! One of the main things I've learned is that for me, extremes aren't a very fertile place to work. I've seen several times now that if you're working on a song that seems to call for an unusual setting, so you're trying this, and that, investigating less obvious approaches, you come sooner or later to a fine line beyond which everything starts to sound horribly contrived and awkward, the form collapses, and you're left with something that sounds like a first year art student let loose in a recording studio. It's something to do with the fact that they're songs, not sound collages or assemblages of deconstructed voice. The fragility of the process of getting a song right makes it really exciting. You reach the stage where the sounds are really engaging and rich, they're the right sounds for the piece; the shape is just right to contain them - it all begins to form a fabric that meshes and binds with the voices and the words - and it's still a song, even though you've pushed it out quite far. And then you make one more adjustment, shift one element, or add one more thing, and suddenly you've gone too far - the cohesion is gone, it bursts, and it's just a misshapen sonic blob. My first tentative experiments were some years ago with Russell Mills (having sung "Golden Hair" on his "Pearl & Umbra" album). But I still feel like a beginner. I'm continuously learning so much about what you can and can't do with this hugely expanded palette of sound which we can now access and play with, and combining it with the form of song - and both Andrew Mckenzie and Colin Potter, who have had to bear with me floundering and crashing around as I started to find my feet during the course of the Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent project, have been amazingly patient, and I feel very lucky to have been able to work with them.
How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
They're very interwoven. I sit down at the piano perhaps three or four times a day, and I always spend some of that time improvising. If something starts to happen which has a strong flavour or character to it, I'll either write it down, or put it on the iPod. Periodically, I'll listen to all the little fragments of improvisation, and sometimes, I can hear that there may be one particular thing gradually taking shape, perhaps three different phrases, but they clearly belong together, even though I may have played them days or weeks apart, and not consciously remembered them, let alone connected them. Then there are various processes of distillation, and further improvisations based on the original ones, and a song starts to take shape.
What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What's your approach to performing on stage?
I've never regarded myself as much of a performer, more a writer. But last year I did two solo performances supporting Current 93, first in Ravenna - my first performance for many years - and then in Moscow. I kept it very straightforward and simple, I just did four or five songs on grand piano, a couple of them with cello, viola, violin, and harp, but extremely simple parts. In a way I wanted to see how it would be - would I die of a heart attack?!! Or squawk like a hen??!! I've been telling myself for so long that I'm not a performer! I wanted to see if I'd sink or swim. The first time, in Ravenna, I felt semi-hysterical with nerves all day..... right up until the moment I was standing in the wings waiting to go on. And then, literally seconds before I went on, I suddenly started to feel that I really wanted to go out and sing for everyone. It was very unexpected. I felt completely calm, as if a switch had been thrown. I think the atmosphere helped - that particular kind of audience. David Tibet is a unique performer - he is very much himself, and an extraordinarily sincere person - and I think something really powerful comes across because of that. It isn't style or technique or vocal polish you're hearing, it's David's voice - a human voice. It's transparent, and something elemental shines through it, so he's a very charismatic performer. And his audience aren't sitting there waiting for dazzling technique and a load of gloss - they're not really looking at the surface - as a performer, I think you can sense that, and it's very welcoming. As regards "what constitutes a good live performance" - I think you can't formulate that too exactly - it's a kind of magic, isn't it? The space itself is important - if you're seriously challenged acoustically, or nobody can see, that will hamper everything of course. But the magic doesn't seem to be confined by the style or presentation - I've seen very simple, unpolished performances that have had it, and extremely elaborate, lavish ones that didn't. (But also vice versa!). Apart from that, I think it has something to do with presence - the degree of presence of the performer or performers, the quality of attention from the audience - those two things are reciprocal, and if they're balanced at the right point, (which is rare, and when it does happen, is a mutual achievment) then the present can suddenly become very vivid, and both the performers and the listeners sense it, and the whole experience then becomes more heightened, vibrant, charged.... everyone participates in a kind of luminous present for a while. The most reliable killer of that magic seems to me to be when the performer is on automatic pilot - they know what they're doing so well that they might as well be doing it in their sleep. The Seasoned Pro. You can sense when it's basically an exercise in repetition, and you just want to leave after the first five minutes. At least, I do. As regards "my approach" to live performance, nothing is too fixed yet. Fovea Hex performed for the first time at the Donau Festival in April this year, supporting Larsen and Nurse With Wound. Rehearsal time was very limited and there were various last-minute and mildly catastrophic technical restrictions we just had to work around - like having to deal with the reality that 95% of the laptop element wasn't happening - but there was enough flexibility in the material and the players for it to work anyway, pretty much semi-acoustically, and it was really encouraging to see that. I like the idea of keeping that kind of mutability, of not always having the same people, the same arrangements, and so on - have the songs so that they can come to life under various sets of conditions, not just one. For the Cartier Foundation gig, we'll have Michael Begg of Human Greed with us, joining Colin Potter in generating the more electronic ingredients, together with violin/viola, (Cora Venus Lunny) cello (Kate Ellis), keyboards and voices (Laura Sheeran and myself). Christina Vantzou (of The Dead Texan) and I have been discussing various back projection ideas, and she's providing us with something simple - we may go further down that road. Recently I've had quite a rush of ideas for visuals - just something for the eyes while the songs unfold. But my experience in that world is zero - I'm just about to start learning about it - and it's quite possible that some of the things I'd like to try aren't going to be feasible...... but there's only one way to find out!
A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern compositions can no longer be qualified as "music". Would you draw a border - and if so, where?
Seems to me everyone would draw that line (or rather, very wide and wobbly border) in a different place, mostly I guess because what's good for the goose is... another man's ceiling, as we all know. My hoover and my fridge both sing different little harmonic-packed songs. But what do I achieve exactly by trying to "decide" whether they qualify as music or not? More interesting to see that I don't always hear it! Sometimes I wonder if perhaps having a huge mental concept doesn't interfere somewhat with the muse, or take up a space which the muse could otherwise occupy. I love to listen to birdsong, for example. I don't think there's a big concept going on in a birds brain. But I have no doubt the muse is on their side, and also on mine, when I simply listen.
Are "serious" and "popular" really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?
There are different kinds of music, yes, but I think those two particular words make a false distinction. It bothers me when people use the word "popular" in a pejorative sense, meaning that anything that's appreciated by a large number of people must ipso facto be less valuable or interesting a piece of work than something which only a handful of connoisseurs can get into. A 5-course gourmet meal that's taken two days to prepare, washed down with three different superb wines, and served by a pair of French penguins can be a fantastic experience. But if you insist on eating like that every day, always sneering at the riff-raff, and demanding complicated sauces and hand-churned butter from Normandy with everything, you'll soon be fat and slow and have a small number of very heavy bloated friends with bad livers who will break your chairs. On the other hand, if you live on petrol station snacks and Twix alone, you'll be spotty, wired, always hungry, and possibly unable to sit down at all. I personally think a balanced diet is best, including a fair amount from cultures and times other than the one you were raised in - I think that's really good for your musical digestion. Generally, I think agility is a very underrated thing - some people seem to actually pride themselves on being stuck in one place. I think it's a really good idea, if you can find the time, to periodically listen to something which is way outside of your norm, and really listen. Keep your ears on their toes......
Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
I think everybody - whether they're an artist, a farmer, or a telephone engineer - has a duty to keep reminding themselves that they're part of a bigger picture. Play your part the best you can, according to your understanding of it, but don't lose sight of the reality that you're a participant, and it's never all about you. It's easier for a farmer or a telephone engineer, but a lot of artists - perhaps because they work in solitude more - seem to have a predisposition towards narcissism and self-importance. And if they're also the kind who really get off on adulation and applause, they can end up in a very weird place indeed. If you're an artist, and you also have children, and they're not your absolute no. 1 priority, I'd say you've got it pretty bad. You might have been born with the kind of psyche or imagination that needs to "produce" rather than the kind that's more disposed to stimulation by the products of others - but you're still just a part of the fabric. We're all in it together, and I think you're on dodgy ground if you start to feel separate in any significant way.
True or false: People need to be educated about music, before they can
really appreciate it.
You can appreciate music strongly on an instinctive and intuitive level and be very satisfied. But if you also deepen your understanding, you'll be richly rewarded on another level.
Imagine a situation in which there'd be no such thing as copyright and everybody were free to use musical material as a basis for their own compositions - would that be an improvement to the current situation?
A few brilliant and original people would be invisible and starve. A lot of smart chancers would swagger around delivering plagiarized gloop, which would all sound strangely similar. Various dead people would not be thanked and their work would not be recognized. So I guess nothing would really change...
You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
If it was up to me, it would be more like a huge circus, and it would have to be in a timewarp. Many of the stars would have to rise from the dead, because a lot of the people I like best are dead. Since we're in a timewarp, I could make a cameo appearance as a 7 year old bareback rider in a sparkly leotard (my first ambition!). Actually I can't think about this any more - I've already thought of about 40 people and I don't want to drop any of them - and I just keep thinking of more. There would have to be at least seven different tents, with completely different atmospheres, (one would be a cinema), various animals, a large river, a lot of exotic snacks and drinks, a cathedral, some very expensive rugs, free accommodation and an abundance of clean bathrooms of easy access, and it would go on for several weeks. I would need a great deal of money and a very great deal of help. I'm pretty sure the festival organisers would end up asking someone else.
Many artists dream of a "magnum opus". Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
No. I don't have those Magnum Opus dreams either - I pretty much take one thing at a time. I never quite know what I'm doing until it's done and finished. I think I would get a very strange and contrived result if I tried to aim for something very specific each time. For others that can work well - but it's never worked for me. I work better in a back to front kind of way, in the dark - a bit like developing someone else's photographs, you start out with a glimmer and some blurred outlines, you don't quite know what's there, and you just have to be patient and not agitate things too much or turn the light on too soon. Be quiet, and see what emerges.
Interview by Tobias (Tokafi.com)