Interview: Collectress

"The tensions of interconnection and separation, of tradition and experimentation seem to carry. Listeners often comment that our music is strongly narrative."

Collectress are a multi-instrumentalist chamber music collective based in and around London who have just released their new album Different Geographies. We had a chat with the band to hear all about the album, it’s creation and inspirations as well as what they have been up to between albums, forthcoming live dates and how they have developed as a musical unit since Collectress started.

(((o))): Your new album Different Geographies is out now, how did the creation and recording of the album go? 

Collectress: We tend to work very collaboratively, each of us might bring a seed of an idea to the group and we explore it together, or pieces emerge on the fly in a post-lunch improvisation.  The initial sounds and basic structures, ideas and identities of pieces tend to emerge quite spontaneously and intuitively, but then the developing, cooking and recording process takes years. We all live pretty rich lives in different parts of the world/country, so even negotiating time together sets the pace of the whole process. Then as a collective, the final forms and details of each composition are reached collaboratively; time spent exploring variations and edits often far outweighs the time spent on the initial emergence. This blend of intuitive, spontaneous, and crafted working through has become a core part of our approach.

We also record as a group, as a live ensemble ideally in a single take. All tracks were recorded over three days in Caroline’s attic. Later the next year we decided we wanted to re-record Roaming Bones and many of the vocal overdubs. We did this over two days at Alice’s house looking out to Seaford Head and Newhaven Harbour. But again, our divergent existences mean that mixing decisions and overdubs happen in a distributed fashion over time –  for example, the addition of the vocal and violin outro parts on ‘Landing’ and the samples on ‘Words(Mars)’.

(((o))): Who did you work with on the album and what did they bring to the sound of Different Geographies

Collectress: We co-create all of our music, developing on improvisations and seeds each of us bring, with the final arrangements decided upon collectively. Whilst we include two cellos, we had a strong urge for more bottom end on some tracks, so invited Andy Waterworth (Rebecca’s brother who plays with her in Penguin Cafe) to play some bass on ‘In the Streets, In the Fields’, and ‘Landing’. It turns out that Rebecca’s dog, Pepo, howls to order, so he makes a guest appearance too.

We have recorded and mixed our own stuff in the past, but it frees you up as a performer if you are not worrying about mic positions etc. during sessions; and it can be helpful to have fresh ears to bring fresh perspectives to mixes. We invited three other friends into the process to record, mix and master. Joe Watson recorded; he is an amazing musician and engineer both for his ears and his spirit. He creates as Junior Electronics and is keyboard player and producer for StereoLab. We did the rough mixes, and handed them on to the amazing Tim Allen who worked his magic on separation etc. (and might have inserted a sneaky bass line); Dylan Beattie then did a great job phase-stroking the whole thing for the final master. We know them all well and they ‘get’ it. Although we relish being quite autonomous it is really helpful to have input from outside of our immediate circle.

Food has always been a central part of our creation process. Caroline’s husband Peter is an amazing cook and Alice was living with French chef at the time we recorded at her house. The importance of good food to our sound must not be underestimated.

(((o))): What has the reaction been like to the new material you’ve released so far? 

Collectress: Great, so far. The tensions of interconnection and separation, of tradition and experimentation seem to carry. Listeners often comment that our music is strongly narrative. But there are no words, so these are very open, maybe ‘latent’ stories, with space for interpretation. People’s responses tend to be quite individual. We’ve had some beautifully vivid accounts from young children about the stories they hear. Stuart Maconie picked up ‘In the Streets…’ for an airing on BBC 6Music’s Freakzone which feels like a natural home for us and reviewers have noted the otherworldly feel of the record.

(((o))): What is the significance of the title of the album? 

Collectress: Different Geographies references the practical realities of making music together at a distance. The words, the idea and the method grew out of the fact that we have been living quite different lives, in often far flung spaces for the last few years. It no longer feels OK to fly – or even drive – somewhere for rehearsals, or even one off gigs; plus our schedules made it a struggle to find time to all meet. More positively, on our various trips we took to sending each other pictures or field recordings to keep in touch and share where we were, in the manner of a postcard. These remote transmissions gradually became a way of sharing material – sonic and visual – from which the concept and method of the album grew.

So #DifferentGeographies became a Collectress HashTag which both celebrated the fact that our lives were so varied and rich, but also transformed the challenges of actually ever meeting to play into a fresh creative impulse and method in itself. Perhaps remote collaboration is something we all need to learn to do more, whilst keeping the quintessential interpersonal dynamic of music making. Like the slowly evolving layers of the landscape speak to a geologist, the tracks on the album are a record of the ways that our individual lives and experiences have inspired, interrupted or influenced our collective music making. 

(((o))): What inspired the music in Different Geographies

Collectress: Tracks tend to start off either from a seed that one of us brings, or out of group improvisations rather than any particular conscious source. Having said that, some of the tracks were more and less directly inspired from the 1937 recording of Virginia Woolf’s “Words”. Alice lives at the bottom of the River Ouse, who’s valley Woolf lived in for many years and who’s waters took her life (Woolf’s not Alice’s). The harmonic progression of the two tracks ‘Words(Mars)’ are composed directly from a transcription of this text – mapping letters to the chromatic scale and jiggling octaves to capture the river-like flow. Other titles and texts are also drawn from Woolf’s writing (‘In The Streets, In The Fields’ and ‘She Must Shut Her Eyes’). But the sentiment of the text – the ineffable independence of words themselves and the questioning of education as necessarily ‘better’ – also resonated strongly with us, both in terms of how we make music and our various relationships with the culture of formal pedagogy in the UK today.  

Each track has its own genesis – another form of different geography – the process of making as a group weaves these all together – like cooking with distinct ingredients to create something that is a new entity in itself.

‘Mauswerk’ is born from explorations on the keyboard – the spatial rather than harmonic logic creates a slightly disorienting landscape where it’s not clear quite which way is home. ‘Harbour’ is a meditation on harmony and nostalgia.

(((o))): You have released ‘In The Streets, In The Fields’ as a single. What has the feedback been like for that particular track? 

Collectress: People find it beautiful and enchanting, possibly a bit bewitching too. We intended the interweaving piano motif to be quite mesmeric and it seems that it has that effect.

(((o))): ‘In The Streets, In The Fields’ is influenced by Virginia Woolf’s ‘Words’ recording. What is the significance of that piece in the track? 

Collectress:In The Streets, In the Fields’ comes from the essay Virginia Woolf wrote about “Words”. We liked the sense of the transience of language as evoked by the crackly recording of her reading the essay, of time passing and of spaces shifting, of being in one place yet another at the same time, in ‘different geographies’. In this technological world of ours, Woolf’s “Words” speaks to us from the past, visionary in suggesting we are mere vessels for language to occur, adapt and move around in. ‘In the Streets, In the Fields’ melodically ‘sets off’ and in some way is doing this too, its simple structure unfolding, shifting and developing over the course of the song.

(((o))): You have released a short film for In ‘The Streets, In The Fields’. Can you tell us about it and it’s themes? 

Collectress: The film for ‘In The Streets, In The Fields’ was always going to include dance as a means to explore and express the music. We talked about parts of the body, colours and elements to include. We each gave our interpretation and filmed ourselves dancing at our own respective ‘different geography’. What you see in the film is a layering of those interpretations to the rhythm and layers of the individual parts of the music, to create an indefinable space that we hope has something recognisable and grounded but that also allows for an element of getting lost.

(((o))): What are the main similarities and differences in the music of Collectress today compared to when you released your debut album Mondegreen in 2014?

Collectress: Making and playing together is defining. We make chamber music. Not as a genre, but as an activity –  of playing and listening, together, in a room. This probably underpins the essence of our connection with each other – responding to each other and the room in the moment. This will never change. We also all still play the instruments we played as children – cellos, violin, piano, flute, so those all feature.

Mondegreen was recorded in a beautiful church, and we very decisively kept that simple, live, sound. By the time we recorded Different Geographies we knew that we wouldn’t get time to do all the overdubs and mixes together, in the same room, so we embraced a more distributed approach, a more ‘collaged’ and produced sound. We had been working a lot more with synths and samples in live gigs through 2015-2016 and we wanted to experiment with bringing those worlds together.

(((o))): What have the band been up to in the five years between the two albums? 

Collectress: As a group we’ve minimised our live shows, largely because we’ve all been engaged with other projects. But we’ve done a few focused collaborations which have allowed us to really explore wider arts which have always infused and underpinned our making. In particular we made three iterations of a show #Light Dial, created in a collaborative residency at Rambert, with dancers Miguel Altunuga, Hannah Rudd & Antonette Dayrit and artists Rutter & Bennett. We’ve also performed as part of the Melting Vinyl 20 Year Special; supported Kathryn Tickell as part of the London No Voices season; performed at the National Theatre’s Riverstage Festival; and (a bit surreally) had our music feature in a worldwide Gucci collection launch campaign, but that’s another story…

Individually, as musicians we’ve continued to collaborate with a rather snazzy array of creative bods, including Philip Selway (Radiohead), Penguin Café, Rambert, Ockham’s Razor, Mary Hampton, Evan Parker, Ianncu Dumitrescu, Julie Kjaer, Thor Magnusson, Chris Kiefer,    

Caroline continues her work as a singer-songwriter alongside music teaching. Rebecca has continued her work as a senior lecturer in fine art and 3D at UCA Rochester exploring the combination of vision and sound in performance and installation as well as being the cellist in Penguin Cafe. Quinta is busy enjoying her PRS Composer Award at international residencies with the likes of Terry Riley, Phill Niblock and Julia Kent. Alice has been developing new approaches to ecological monitoring using sound and developing feedback instruments whilst working as a Lecturer in Music and Music Technology at the University of Sussex.

Collectress is fed by and feeds this rich nexus of creative/intellectual currents: it’s a kind of sanctum for shared making.

(((o))): Who would you love to work on a Collectress album in the future?  

Collectress: In an ideal world we’d clone ourselves so we could work together more. But outside of Collectress, it might be more about situations, spaces and places than people that we hanker after. But musicians or other artists? Probably we’d all answer that differently – a resurrected combination of Sun Ra, Vaughan Williams and Shostakovich, with some Meredith Monk and Laurie Spiegel thrown in?

(((o))): How did Collectress get together in the first place and what were your aims for the group and their vision? 

Collectress: We met nearly 20 years ago partly through friends, partly from shared bills in Brighton. It was at a time when there was lots of new music developing and being played live, it was very free, fun and inventive and exciting times. It has always been very organic, about playing and creating, with no particular goal or agenda – maybe that’s why the gestation periods are so long!

(((o))): Who have been the biggest influences on the music of Collectress? 

Collectress: Each other, but also Meredith Monk, Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

(((o))): Will there be any Collectress live dates once the album is released? 

10.04.20: Different Geographies Album Launch – The Rosehill, Brighton

09.05.20: Collectress plus special guests – Daylight Music, Union Chapel, London 

(((o))): What has been the most memorable gig that Collectress have played so far? 

Collectress: Can we name more than one? A most memorable one was at Cafe OTO in London, that was the show where we devised a whole theatrical theme around a Katherine Mansfield short story, we visualised the narrative with costumes, props, sound effects and surreal performance art gestures. This element of theatricality has been a continuous thread through our performance work, and has allowed a space for humour and creativity when the music has at times become meticulously refined.

Another time (in the period of writing material for Mondegreen) we performed at an art gallery for the opening of a friend’s exhibition. It was an interesting one because we marked out the area where we were to play with criss-crossing of string, like an elaborate cobweb which contained us and connected us, also providing much amusement when we needed to change positions to play different instruments.

And then another time we composed music specifically around the theme of ‘birds’ for a one night only performance at a private view in London. Rebecca sealed the audience into a room with a paper screen consisting of a beautifully illustrated tree and nest containing eggs, we then entered the room using scissors like beaks to hatch our way into the room, where we then performed our four bird songs, one of them being called ‘Owl’ which was later recorded for Mondegreen.

We all love playing in non-mainstream venues, so most of our gigs have quite particular characteristics which persist, as we like to have an artistic site-specific response. We relish the freedom and unconventionality to create a visual narrative in our performances which in turn allows for an evolving playground of ideas.

Performing music with Rambert, where we also explored movement and dance ourselves alongside the Rambert Dancers, blurring the boundaries between musician and dancer, with an interest in the limitations of movement our bodies had in comparison to classically trained dancers.

Recently we performed as part of Mary’s Hampton’s Salon Imaginaire series at West Dean College. We sat among the audience in flying suits and 3D goggles playing musical saw and flute with the ceiling-high bookshelves of the Old Library rising up around us. We’ve performed in gale force winds outside at the De La Warr Pavilion, and at the National Portrait Gallery, overlooked by giant oil paintings of political congress.

We’ve played soundtracks to early films as part of a Man Ray retrospective with the crackle of an original film projector gorgeously colouring the entire evening. Wood and stone are usually very friendly acoustically to the kind of music and instruments we play, so Ben Eshmade’s Daylight Music shows at Union Chapel are always a treat to perform and the wood-panelled Quaker Meeting House was a beautiful setting for our Oxford Contemporary Music show.

(((o))): What have been some of the proudest moments of your musical career so far? 

Collectress: Collaborating with Rambert has definitely been a highlight, but apart from that maybe actually getting around to creating, recording and releasing our own albums. Writing the music is the easy part, the recording and releasing part has been the challenge: but it is this tension and stretch that makes us who we are, and the music what it is.

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