voices from the desert - dave stafford

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voices from the desert

dave stafford

1992

active looping

Dave Stafford, August 2010:  At roughly the same time that the first tracks for Bindlestiff’s first album, “Early” were being created, I began on my own to experiment more directly with looping on my own, as a solo guitarist, and “Voices From The Desert” is, again similarly to “Early”, by Bindlestiff, a compilation of my very first, tentative, experimental/looped solo works.

 

This sets the stage for a series of solo albums that would emerge more regularly beginning in 1994/1995, but “Voices From The Desert” can be considered to be the prototype, the first attempts at using loops, along with energy bows, as a musical device.

 

In the early 90s, I was absolutely restricted by the longest “looper” or looping device that I owned, which at that time was only just 4 seconds in length.  This meant that most of the material on this first album is comprised of “short” loops, which gives it a completely different character to later works where I had the luxury of first 8 seconds, then 196 seconds, and eventually, 16 minutes of loop time available.

 

I believe on one track on this album, “The Scattering”, I may have had the loan of Bryan’s 16-second delay, which would have seemed like an amazing thing to me at the time - sixteen seconds. An eternity !

 

I’m not really sure, looking back through the mists of time to this first solo effort, just what was used gear-wise, although in some cases I can made accurate guesses.  There is certainly a Boss DD-2 delay pedal, which was the first ever “looper” I ever had, which I believe could do one second of loop.

 

Then I graduated to my first Digitech rack device, which could do four seconds of loop – the DSP-128.  This was my main looper for a year or two, until I graduated first to 8 seconds with the Digitech RDS-8000, and then later, in 1995, to the exquisite and full featured Oberheim Digital Echoplex Pro – with it’s amazing 196 seconds, which could be one loop, or divided into up to as many as nine loops, quantized, reversed, multiplied and otherwise manipulated in the most amazing ways.

 

But that was the future, back in the very early 90s, for these first five “loop experiments”, most of the loops were one or two seconds long at the most.  So of necessity, this gives the pieces a very busy, choppy kind of feel, it was just impossible to do smooth, long, beautiful loops WITHOUT a long delay device, so – well, you just “made do” with what you had.

 

All five of these tracks take as their inspiration the novels of Frank Herbert, at the time, I was re-reading the Dune series, in particular, the last two of the series, and some of the moods and sounds just evoked mental images of that amazing, fictional world – so all of the titles on this album, refer to different places and events in the last two of the five main Dune novels.

 

 

TO WALK OUT OF THE SAREER

 

An unusual lead-off track, and I believe that this entire piece has been reversed. What’s good about that is of course the whammy bar guitars go in the opposite direction from normal, which creates a very unique sound, but then when the ebow melodies come in – there is no sound on earth quite like a reverse ebow.

 

Mysterious, strange, this weird reverse melody on top of that throbbing, alien “thumper” bass part – I really like this little piece.

 

The short loops set up an amazing rhythmic pattern, which to my mind reminds me mentally of the “thumpers” that the Fremen used, while at the same time, also reminding of the rhythmic noise of first contact heard in the radio telescope lab in the film “Contact” – that thump, thump, thump, ominous, dark, that either meant the approach of giant worms or the existence of far off aliens – recalling, somehow, both.

 

This little track just seemed like a nice little distraction, a way to ease into this strange, repetitive, short-loop based music.

 

 

DAR AND TAR

 

The second track, “Dar and Tar”, referring to two of the Bene Gesserit characters in the Dune series, is more an attempt to do a Fripp-style solo on top of a very layered ebow backing.  I spent ages layering ebow after ebow after ebow onto a giant, virtual “A minor chord” created from long, individual ebow notes, that just goes on and on, and then played distorted guitar solos on top.  Originally, this had a very “in-your-face”, noisy, distorted solo on top of most of it.

 

However, when it came time to remix it for digital, a few years later (the original Voices From The Desert had first been released on cassette) for the CD release, I felt so dissatisfied with the “lead guitar” playing, that I removed all of it, leaving only this ominous, layered backing track, that slowly grows on your consciousness as you listen.  I feel it works far better standalone than it did as a backing – it is just almost, but not quite, ambient.

 

 

GHOLA-MENTAT

 

Now we are moving into the real realm of ambient for the first time, with the 13 minute long opus “Ghola-Mentat”.  This piece is both reversed, and I believe, also, slowed down, slowed to half-speed by recording at 15 inches per second but then playing back the tape at 7 ½ inches per second during mixing and mastering (the more I listen to it, the more I believe that to be the case) but regardless of how I achieved it, I am very proud of the strange, unearthly mood that this piece has.

 

Strangeness emanates from it, rather than it being a song or a tune or a track, it’s really just a strange, subterranean, underworld, hidden, dark, slowed-to-a-crawl ambient experience.  The weird sounding, self-colliding, low-pitched reverse ebows (apparently the sound of choice on this record) working away, bumping into each other in random musical collisions, while other ebows drone quietly in support.

 

This is all energy bow, pretty much every sound on this record is an energy bow, because, despite only having “short” time duration delays and loopers, I really wanted to play LONG pieces with LONG notes, and to be able to create ambience using the brilliant tool that an energy bow is.

 

“Ghola-Mentat” could be said to be one of my very first real successes at doing just that – the piece can percolate away and 13 minutes slip by in what seems like 3, or, it can grab you and pull you along, oh so slowly, and it seems like you are part of it for hours, even though it’s really only … thirteen minutes long.  It has almost no sense of time, which is a quality that only the very best ambient pieces have.

 

 

THE SCATTERING

 

And then we come to “The Scattering”, which is one of the longest pieces of music I have ever recorded, and probably THE longest done at “one sitting”.

 

I remember for this track (which was “side two” on the original cassette) that I set out to very purposefully see just how many loops I could manage to get going at once, and then I was determined to see if I could “solo” to that for the entire 45 minute duration of the tape. I almost made it, it clocks in at 43:25, which is very close indeed to the original intended target time.

 

It’s a piece that requires a long view, it requires patience, in that there is an enormous amount of repetition, which is sometimes good, sometimes not, but if you stick with it, there are some lovely changes of mood, where for example a long running loop suddenly STOPS, leaving a beautiful silence, which the song then proceeds to carry on over.

 

The ebow solo on top of this piece is truly remarkable, that I could play, with that much bending, with those strange, atonal, Indian and other bizarre scales, with bent harmonics, all that going on, for FORTY-THREE MINUTES plus, with the quality and consistency with which I did – is remarkable.

 

And – recurring themes.  At 11.44, suddenly, I am playing a melodic theme that I hadn’t touched for many minutes.  Certain ebow melodies crop up over and over, in perhaps slightly different forms, at different times, during the piece.

 

The loops are short, tense, with a strange pulsing quality, like a nervous universe of uncertain stars, all pulsing unhappily behind this bizarre energy bow melody.  I’ve never HEARD so much bending (the hardest thing to do of ALL with the ebow) in an ebow solo, or so many pushed up/bent harmonic/vibrato sounds in my life.

 

The melody is very, very strange.  The song just becomes more and more hypnotic as it goes along, but the lead guitar retains your attention, keeping the elements, somehow, all tied together.

 

Then, after what seems an eternity, suddenly, at about the 13:20 mark, one of the loops stops (when I finally had a second, in between ebow solos) and there is this amazing calm. Into which the melody plunges once again, but now, sounding strangely different, the whole character of the atmosphere of the track changing in that one act of me pushing that delay footswitch to “off”.

 

Also, the ebow solo takes some very unexpected turns, playing some VERY long notes, and just doing the oddest, most unexpected things. Long, long bends, long, long notes, atonal riffs, there is nothing “major scale” or “happy” here, this is a serious journey, as “The Scattering” is, which refers to millions of displaced people in the Dune universe – well, this is the soundtrack to that event – millions of human beings scattered to the farthest reaches of the universe during this cataclysmic musical event.  The ebow drives them there, atop the massed, short, pulsing, evolving short loops.

 

Sometimes, the melody becomes dislocated, frantic, or does strange bends UP – again, defying the logic of the ebow itself, this is such an unusual usage because of the sheer quantity of bends and those strange, strange bent harmonics that end in finger-wagging vibrato.

 

Moments of pure melody, where the ebow climbs up and down, moving into the desert spaces, working along this amazing 43:25 timeline – the amount of concentration needed to even make it through a take like this was phenomenal.

 

At about the 19:00 minute mark, some lovely, short bends, added into the loop, give the next section a very sad, eerie feel – slowly changing the nature of the backing, too, by making alterations as I went.  Then picking up that impossible solo yet again, and trying to propel it, and myself, through almost 45 minutes of music.

 

I believe there is only ONE of these, I made no other attempt, because I realised I could not do it “better”, or more probably, I simply could not do it “AGAIN”.

 

So while it’s not exactly what I would call “easy listening”, it is hardcore ebow lead guitar on top of an almost frantic, pulsating layer of yet more, still more, never-ending ebows.

 

After the intense experience of “The Scattering”, I felt it was best to return to the more palatable world of ambient.

 

 

IN THE NO-GLOBE

 

The genesis and creation of “In The No-Globe” is shrouded in mystery, it has a lovely, dark, super quiet sound that lends it an even more mysterious air, and I really just don’t quite KNOW how I created this track.  It’s intentionally very low level, mastered and mixed down, normalised to a very low percentage, so it sounds much quieter than the previous tracks.

 

This was intentional, I wanted something that was ethereal, almost non-existent, to represent the experience of being in the No-Globe, a place where ordinary existence is suspended while the outside world goes on around, out of sync, out of sight and sound.

 

Wanting to capture the feel of being in a strange, quiet, detached “space”, again, all of the sound in this track is certainly reversed, and possibly some or all of it is also slowed to half-speed, in a similar fashion to “Ghola-Mentat” but with a fairly different outcome.  Particular attention was paid to the stereo effect, although how this was achieved is beyond me.  

 

While I can’t tell you a lot about how “In The No-Globe” was made, this was once again, one of my very first forays into ambient, and I think this track is one of the most successful on the album, and is a very good representation of using creativity to achieve a particular goal. I really, really like the eerie, strange, sound of this track, how it sounds like it’s slowly revolving, moving not just left and right in the stereo field, but actually spinning AS it moves across…an almost imperceptible feeling, lovely, delicate, so fragile that if you breathe, it might break.

 

Wind-like sounds, slow-swooshing like alien birds landing ever so deliberately in an alien desert, winding down to earth, drifting, lost, bewildered creatures floating through slow moving space and then suddenly alighting…only to lift off again and float from space to space to space.

 

I can imagine that this could be the soundtrack to a dream, a strange sort of mildly disturbing/while at the same time mildly exciting kind of sci-fi dream, where impossible things are happening, impossible sights and sounds – and “In The No-Globe” is the soundtrack.

 

The quiet mix, the intentional bringing down of the album’s tempo, it goes from the full on noise of “The Scattering” to whispered clouds of nearly invisible music, cloaked in mysterious waves of ambient sound, gradually wandering off, disappearing almost without you noticing.

 

 

 

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Fading into silence, the track gradually dissolves into what becomes the conclusion of the five unique moods that are the tracks that make up “Voices From The Desert”.  After 18 years, it still stands up well enough for a first try.  I am certainly very proud of the two very ambient tracks, and the rest have survived the test of time well enough.

 

To attempt a forty-three minute piece armed only with the most primitive of looping devices and to do as well as I did, well, the pieces on this record arrived easily and naturally - not bad for a first attempt.

 

 

 

Please see the entry for “Pay Your Respects” to read what happens next.

notes from the guitarist’s seat:

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