Looking back on Bowhead

With the Bowhead display coming to a close at Hull Maritime Museum, it’s time for me to reflect on the project.

I can say that I am really thrilled with the response it got- I couldn’t say for sure whether people liked my piece, but it was in a major event which was seen by a huge number of people, and that’s pretty great for me.

I had the aim to push myself creatively, tie together a lot of the ideas and musical fragments I’d gathered over the past few years. I was lucky enough to be told there wasn’t any stylistic limits on what I could and couldn’t do, which to me meant two things:

  1. I can do all the crazy stuff I’ve always wanted to do!
  2. A lot of people will see this, try and make the best work possible.

My impression from watching the film was that the poor whale was alone, and also trapped inside a virtual ocean with no companionship of any kind. This got me thinking about how sometimes loneliness can come from over-reliance on technology, and this kind of informed the cold sound I wanted. I wanted some things to be clearly electronic, but there to be a trace of a soul there from the whale’s perspective with live takes also being there. I chose to use reverb as way of showing space and depth in the video- it’s a big ocean. The other issue I had was that I’d promised to have three video soundtracks ready for my coursework, so I had to think about how to get a good standalone piece of music but also fit it into a three-part set too.

I used Ableton as a starting point for everything, as it’s just so versatile, and it was surprisingly easy to spot the video, marking out the key points such as “Whale swims onto screen” and “eye close up.” I then printed off a storyboard of from stills of these hitpoints, and sat with a pen writing what I felt the mood or tone should be at each of these moments in the video. I felt this would force me to identify any dull parts of the structure, and embellish or change things. The other aim was to make sure that the music would be coherent, and the whole video had one train of thought, but a lot of departures along the way. This stopped me worrying that I had a nice start and end, but no way to link them, as I had a clear path between each hit point.

From this I then added a tonne of tracks in Ableton which reflected my storyboard’s content. I wound up changing it a lot as I got the ball rolling, but it was a solid starting point for me. I even took the step of adding in empty blocks into the timeline to give me a sense of how dense the sound would be at different points. This was all completely cosmetic, but it helped me organise in the same way that an essay plan does.

I had made a note on the storyboard that I wanted long stretches of sound as a starting point, which would give everything some kind of tonal centre. Funnily enough, the best result I had was from playing a D minor Arpeggio on my Danelectro Longhorn, and just stretching it to the length of the video in some free software called PaulStretch. The job went from being tough to painless in the space of half an hour. The result was that there were natural swells in the stretched sound from the different notes being played, but also a gradual shift in notes, but most importantly, it didn’t sound like a guitar and much more like a bedrock to work from.

From this, I had a few ways I could go, and wasn’t sure whether to chase the field recording route, or the other idea of using extended guitar techniques. In the end guitar won out, as it felt more hands-on with how I shape the music. I’ve done field recorded music in the past, but with this being my chance to make something big for an event, it felt right to include my own composition and playing in a more proactive way.

I have long been a fan of the band Sonic Youth, and haunted their tunings website when I was younger, so the idea of using a guitar and making it go beyond the standard sound palette was really exciting to me. The plucked notes came from my Yamaha Pacifica with a drumstick rammed between the strings at the pickup, and then tuned it to GAFDGF to try and fit into the D minor notes in the stretched notes. I then improvised to the video, recording live and keeping anything that worked. I settled on the single note pattern after a few runs, and then did a “proper take” of it. I wanted a big moment where the whale swims past the screen and away from the viewer, so I hit the (by now) detuned strings of the guitar with the drumstick to create a big crashing sound. This was treated with preverb (reversing the recording, giving the reversed version reverb, and then putting it back to normal, giving the effect of the sound swelling in), EQ filtering, and reverb. It sounded pretty eerie as it was, so I kept it like that.

Some of the other ideas kind of just fell into place. I wanted some uncomfortable points in the music, with unpredictable bursts of electrical sounds, and whilst I got some interesting sounds from my Thereminator box, they were too low in energy to take the foreground. They stayed in the background, adding extra texture, but I was lucky enough to still have some feedback loop experiments I did when I was around 16 years old, and they had the perfectly sterile, claustrophobic, unpredictable sound I was after.

These were the main building blocks to the music. I added a lot of layers of noise from both the Thereminator, and the recordings once I’d cut them up into chunks of interesting sounds. I felt like it was missing something at points, so I added in a really high pitched midi note from a synth in Ableton, used DSP to pitch it even higher and then threw it to the left and right speakers at a really rapid rate to try and create something mimicking the shimmer of the water.

If I could redo the project, I’d definitely have listened to the mix on different speakers, as I felt I mastered it a bit too quietly, or that it lost it’s punch at the Museum compared to on my headphones or monitors at home. However, this was my first attempt at mixing anything, and the balance between tracks is good enough I think- that final mastering mix would have been the icing on the cake though.

I felt like I achieved what I set out to do, and the reception it’s got from people has generally been pretty positive, so I’m going to say the project went okay. I learned a tonne in the process, and enjoyed making the music hugely.

Leave a Reply