a dream of red mansions
Dave Stafford, September 2010: For my next album, I wanted to continue to develop the “fierceambient” genre, but at the same time, see if there were other places that I could take looping.
One very important particular characteristic of “A Dream Of Red Mansions”, that was a new addition to the sonic arsenal, was the appearance of a new kind of loop, “The Strat Loop”. I had finally made a life long dream come true and purchased a Fender Stratocaster, so I figured out how to make the ebow work with it, and used it on a number of the pieces on this record.
Of course, the main difference, beside the totally different sound of the single
coil pickups (as compared to the trusty PAF – Patent Applied For – Dimarzio Humbucking
pickups on my Ibanez Destroyer) is the addition of the whammy bar, something I had
only ever had briefly, on one guitar, a Fender Katana, before, back in the mid-
This really is the best of both worlds then – if I want thick, solid ebow or guitar, the Ibanez with the humbucking pickups, for a thinner, reedier sound, the Strat with the single coil pickups – and, the whammy bar. How could I lose?
Some of the loops then have a completely different sonic “feel” than on previous albums – and if you were to compare “A Dream Of Red Mansions” directly to either of it’s predecessors, “Journey To The West” or “The Autoreverse Sessions”, you will hear exactly what I am talking about.
On the latter two albums, all of the loops have a solid, dark, mostly bass-
So there are a LOT of loops played through choruses, delay modulators, flangers, or phasers, and FEWER loops played into very large reverbs – and, there was the Strat with it’s whammy bar.
It was my hope that by doing these things, I would end up with a record with a very different character. I don’t know which of these, or if it’s all of these, things made the difference – but when I listen to this – I know that I succeeded.
It should be noted, too, that this is the last record I made before I fell very ill
in late 2003. So when I listen back, I hear it as a place where I stopped – I had
been developing methods of looping based on certain, logical approaches, applied
in sequence -
Then, my personal train got derailed, and instead of continuing to develop different looping styles, I pretty much just stopped, and, my next album, “all things being equal”, was to be a “rock” album. So at this point in time, in 2002, when I was making “A Dream Of Red Mansions” I was blissfully unaware of what was about to happen to me.
In a way, even though I did release my next album in late 2003, it was really “A Dream Of Red Mansions” that was my “last looping album” – because “all things being equal” was really a completely different animal musically and thematically.
In the meantime, during the period 2008 – present, I have been developing new loops,
new loop styles, and recording, so over the next few years, I will “resume” making
looping albums, as well as non-
For the moment though, we have “A Dream Of Red Mansions” – a loop album like no other loop album I had made to date.
Note: originally, the album contained 22 or 23 tracks. After a short period however,
I decided to edit this down, I was not entirely happy with the quality of some of
the pieces, so I removed several pieces, which then leaves us with the 18-
THE LADY DOWAGER
One of a few tracks that had a particular energy bow melody, one that I find still to this day to be piercingly beautiful, “The Lady Dowager” is one of a “series” of tracks developed for the record.
A lush, chorus-
So I would have “pre-
On top of this backing is that incredible ebow solo, a melody so full of hope, so heartbreaking, that it still moves me to this day. Full of long, glorious notes, sudden swoops up or down, aching bends, and long, incredibly quick runs up and down the neck – I know that I spent a lot of time working on this solo, and I tried different versions of it, with different endings, and then picked out the “best” ones for inclusion on the record.
But, besides the backing track, which was pre-
I can remember how it felt, when I knew I had done a good take, in retrospect, this
is, even though it’s really an improvised solo, this is one of the single most beautiful
I also love the guitar’s tone – the sustain, the lovely short reverb when the notes slide…the beauty of the long notes, how the tone changes subtly as the ebow is sustaining the note. Melodically, too, this is so positive, so upbeat – it just feels good. It’s a happy loop – and happy loops were never really my speciality.
Listen to the ebow note that starts at 1:34 – it just goes on forever – while the loop supports it SO beautifully – and then, a tiny swoop down, and back to that heartbreaking melody…
I should state up front, that this is one of no less than seven “versions” of this loop, which I look at as being the “Dream Of Red Mansions Thematic Loop”, that appear on this album. For the record, those are, as follows:
A set of three short songs, each with a different short energy bow solo, and different atmospheres:
“The Lady Dowager”, “The Lady Wang”, “The Lady Xing”
Two “loop only” versions with no solos whatsoever, but with different atmospheres:
“Ning Mansion” and “Rong Mansion”
One standalone piece, a mid-
Finally, a full length version, the jewel in the crown of the collection, an over
This has to be the most extreme example of loop-
Now we return to the more familiar minor key tonalities of Dave Stafford, but with
a difference, instead of the bass heavy, thick ebows of the past, we now have the
thin, but solid, reedy, but strong, “new” ebows – again with a modulation-
This loop features a descending motif, a very, very slow one, that is lead by very
In this instance, the loop is left to speak for itself, no solo required, although there are more solos on this record than on most. It’s always a difficult call, whether you should “play over” a loop or not, and many times, I would make the decision, as I did in this case, that the loop itself is so beautiful – that it doesn’t NEED anything else.
After the very major key, positive, happy first track, it’s a sombre contrast, but
it adds to the mood of the record, it brings it to a very real place, where sad moods
This is the first of three in a short series of descending motif loops, this version is later joined by “Auspicious Shade Hall” and “Emerald Morning Hall” to create another thematic undercurrent on the album, the “sad mood” undercurrent of these three loops contrasted sharply by the “ happy mood” of the seven “Dream Of Red Mansions Thematic Loops”.
Because I wanted to shake up the patterns, I wanted to include some extra pieces, some very short pieces, that would “break up” the loops – to stop the record just being an endless series of ebow loop after ebow loop after ebow loop. Not that there is anything wrong with that – but I wanted something different for “A Dream Of Red Mansions”.
During the sessions, I experimented with new guitar sounds, and particularly with what I could do using the whammy bar on the new Strat, so from those experiments, came two short distorted electric guitar pieces, “Pinger” and “Yinger” (named after two characters from the book, the classic Chinese novel “A Dream Of Red Mansions”) and this is the first.
It’s a very distorted guitar, in a very odd, large reverb, and, it’s more “whammy’d” notes than normal ones. It’s also incredibly short, so it’s almost over before it starts.
It’s not meant to be a piece of music, it’s more a theme, a tiny melody, that makes a brief, very, very textural statement – and then is gone, only to return again later in the form of it’s sister piece, “Yinger”.
PEAR FRAGRANCE COURT
Another first, a piece of slightly strange sounding digital piano, something I had not yet really played on record – and again, this is not so much a song but rather another album theme, that appears, very briefly, and then is gone again.
The change of texture across the last three songs – from lush layered ebow loop to
distorted whammy guitar-
This is just a happy little piano melody that I did several variations of, and then used the “best three” on the record, to continually “break up” the loop pieces. It’s partner pieces; “Happy Red Court” and “Seeping Fragrance Pavilion” are the “duet” versions; whereas “Pear Fragrance Court” is the one “solo” version. I think these very short pieces provide a really nice diversion too, between the rather more “serious” loops.
BAOYU AND DAIYU
Now we have one of those aforementioned “Strat” loops, which, after many years of
ebow notes that did not shimmer or bend wildly, sounded and seemed so strange to
my ears, initially, until I became accustomed to it, because they contained “bent”
notes courtesy of the whammy bar. This piece was I believe inspired by a David Sylvian/Holger
Czukay collaboration, I remembered being struck by all the “bendy” loop-
This loop features a pretty “large” reverb room, and in that room, a lot of quite
busy melodies, including one REALLY strange one that recurs at regular intervals.
I like the way you just start getting lulled into the loop’s spell, and then that
There are also some really beautiful whammy bits, shimmering high speed pulls, long,
slow, whole tone bends – a lot of different ways to whammy are present in the loop.
Even a Jimi Hendrix low string “murmur” whammy is back there somewhere, humming
I think this sounds like no other loop I had ever done to date, it’s sort of like a “junk loop” in that many different Stratocasters were thrown very quickly into the piece, and then I just let it play – so it’s content was decided VERY quickly, then, the atmosphere selected – then, it just…goes. So it was created quickly, on the fly, and yes, maybe it’s a “junk loop/Strat loop”…but nonetheless, it has a unique atmosphere that is all it’s own.
In this particular guise, as “Ning Mansion”, we hear the “Dream Of Red Mansions Thematic Loop”, this time, unaccompanied by any solo, in a lovely reverb atmosphere – and, without the solos, it becomes, clearly, a different (yet already familiar) piece of music. It slowly, slowly fades in, crawling into our consciousness, and maybe, our ears are waiting for an ebow solo – but that solo never comes.
So if the three “Lady” tracks are short songs, based on a single loop, each with a special, different ebow solo on top, then “Ning Mansion” and “Rong Mansion” are it’s “loop only” companion pieces, stripped of all solos, they are clearly shown to be a powerful, beautiful piece of music anyway – and for me, this loop is the heart and soul of this record.
That the same loop successfully informs both “The Bee-
The loop suddenly stops, the reverb falls away quickly, and a spell cast, is quickly broken.
HAPPY RED COURT
As mentioned above, this is the second version of, one of the duet versions of, the somewhat strange sounding digital piano, but I really was delighted to finally have a “grand piano sound” available, so “Happy Red Court” and it’s companions became one of my first, tentative experiments with software synthesizers.
I like the innocence of the melodies, and the way the two melodies intertwine, a short musical journey, where two spare, singular melodies wander and collide almost randomly.
I really think that these short pieces, while in themselves not stunning musically, are a very important “part” of the whole experience of “A Dream Of Red Mansions” – and having this tiny, happy interlude, with it’s tinkling, happy piano, is an important textural change, a break from the endless ebows, and, it just goes to serve to make the ebows sound even BETTER when they do return.
THE LADY WANG
And “return” those ebows certainly do. Over a lovely, light phase shifted version of the “Dream Of Red Mansions Thematic Loop”, an amazingly bendy, flexible, beautiful ebow solo floats, doing the most astonishing SLOW bends over the backing loop, and in a very short time, delivering awesome amounts of beautiful melodic energy to the piece.
One LONG, really LONG, slow bend brings the piece to a very sudden end, where the loop is removed, and the ebow note comes to a sudden, shuddering stop. In one minutes and thirteen seconds, that ebow solo has said more than a hundred 10 minute long guitar solos could.
The three “Lady” pieces are all just different takes of the same short bit of ebow melody, tried out using different effects and atmospheres, but this version just takes my breath away. The ending is particularly amazing – could not have planned it if I wanted to. This is just the way it happened, and, “The Lady Wang” is my second favourite of the series of three.
Now, immediately following “The Lady Wang”, and strangely, having the SAME backing
loop, “The Bee-
A deep, very slow-
While your ears are trying to figure just what on earth is going on – the loop begins to fade, and is gone before any of it’s mysteries can be unravelled.
This is a most unusual circumstance, that I should absolutely explain – this track, “Xifeng” (one of the principal characters from the book “A Dream Of Red Mansions”) is actually, originally, taken from my 1997 album entitled “1867”. The reason it appears here, on a 2003 loop album, is complicated.
I wanted to include the character “Xifeng” since she is one of the principal figures in the story, one of my favourite characters, but the problem was, I had already RECORDED a track named “Xifeng” for the “1867” album five years previously.
I didn’t know what I should do. Create a new track, and call it “Xifeng” – which would be extremely strange and confusing. I toyed with that idea, discarded it. Then I thought about recording a “new version” of Xifeng, but at the time, just could not get into the musical space where I could do that.
I left the problem alone for a while, for a few months while I finished up the rest of the album – just set it aside, and forgot about it. I had planned on doing, or finding, a “live version” of “Xifeng” to put into this slot – but, so far, I have not done so. So in the end, I thought, OK, temporarily, I will just place a copy of the “old” “Xifeng”, from the master of “1867”, into this slot, and I will replace it with a live version as soon as possible.
And then, life got in the way. All my good intentions were for nowt, and now, over
eight years later, I still have the “temporary” “1867 album version” where I would
prefer to have had a different, preferably live version. Now that I am actively
working on music projects again, I will re-
I hope to rectify that in future, however, having said that, the acoustic/loop piece fits beautifully into “A Dream Of Red Mansions”, and, it brings one of its most important characters into the fold, so how can this be wrong?
After the mysterious sound of the previous track, the bright, uptempo “Xifeng” is really the perfect next step, and again, it adds yet another really unusual texture – in this case, heavily looped acoustic guitars – into a record that is all about texture. For the full information on the track “Xifeng”, please refer to the detailed discography page for the album “1867”.
AUSPICIOUS SHADE HALL
The second in the “sad mood” short series of ebow loops, “Auspicious Shade Hall”
presents this distinctive loop in a very dry, slightly effected room, the ebow parts
are very real, not being over-
I really like the “dry” environment, and often, when taking a series of two or more
different versions of the same loop, I would undertake the decision to just leave
the piece alone, do a version that is completely DRY, or one that has so few effects
on it that it might as well be un-
This is one such take, and for me, the stark, beautiful, pure ebow sounds are almost
painfully beautiful. The very high-
Then, just as we are getting used to being there, we are ushered out, and back to the familiar, happy theme of the album.
As if reassuring us that “everything is alright” the unadorned, lightly-
I really like these “loop only” versions – they present opportunities to present what might be overlooked – just how beautiful the loop ALONE is. And in this case, with it’s very minimal treatment, this loop STILL sounds amazing.
Just when it’s really getting under your skin – it’s gone. A very short reverb of some description being used as the sole treatment, the sudden, beautiful ending is one of the highlights of this piece – a spectacular ending to this beautiful loop.
SEEPING FRAGRANCE PAVILION
The third grand piano variation, another duet version, this time, much more intense, the two singular parts really competing for attention – furiously unfolding, almost racing for the end, but also working together, to create that happy mood and atmosphere that keeps reappearing in the Mansion – due to the ever changing textures, moods and construction of the various pieces.
So beginning with “Pear Fragrance Pavilion”, moving through “Happy Red Court”, and finally, here in “Seeping Fragrance Pavilion”, we have a third, albeit very different, “theme” running, the melodic piano themes, and when mixed in with the “Dream Of Red Mansion Thematic Loop” and the “sad mood loops” and the experimental distorted whammy guitars of “Pinger” and “Yinger” – what we have eventually is something like four different themes moving through the record, with the very occasional unique piece.
One of those themes has seven representatives, another, three, another, two, and another two, and so on – but what they do, is provide familiarity and comfort to the listener – because each theme, when it returns, becomes more familiar as the record moves towards its conclusion.
The second of the two short distorted electric guitar parts, “Yinger” is the very
slightly longer of the two, with some lovely double-
Like its companion piece, it’s also incredibly short, again -
After the lovely, innocent, happy duet that appears just before this, the dark, mind-
The dream that is “Xiren”, which for me is a true highlight of the record – that
lovely ebow melody that informs the three “Lady” piece, is here, re-
First, the loop just plays. A lovely, short, repetitive pattern. Finally, the first
ebows arrive, tentative, hesitant, playing just one or two notes – but this time,
so deliberate, so incredibly SLOW – as if the melody is timid, it doesn’t want to
reveal itself at first, but eventually, it starts to come out of it’s shell, even
going through some high-
The ebow overdubs are more of an adjunct to the loop rather than actually solos – they help, they assist, and they build the mood even more than the loop itself does. Positive reinforcement from both the loop itself and the melodic ebow solos.
“Xiren” is the full version of the piece of music that permeates this album, we catch glimpses of this melody, different variations of that melodic theme, in the other pieces, particularly the three “Lady” pieces, but “Xiren” is the holistic, complete version, that brings us the full experience, and also, because it has time to develop properly, it’s also the most complete and satisfying version of the “Dream Of Red Mansions Thematic Loop” – and perhaps, well, tied with “The Lady Xing” because of the amazing ending of that version, for my favourite version of this most central theme to the album.
And in terms of the book, “A Dream Of Red Mansions” – of all of the ladies, it’s “Xiren” who commands the most mystery and power, so it is fitting that hers would be the best and proudest version of all.
EMERALD MORNING HALL
This to me is one of the saddest, most moving loops on the record, I enjoy it in all of its incarnations, but this one is possibly my favourite. Something about the tone of the looped ebows in this particular reverb environment, a beautiful sustaining quality – and in particular, the very high pitch notes seem so clear, so present – drifting in above the clouds of ebows that populate the centre of the piece.
Atmosphere and still more atmosphere, this piece is very straightforward in terms
of what it contains, just a slow, evolving, gradually descending motif, nothing drastic
or sudden, a very deliberate descent into an ever-
Each slow, slow wave of sound, like a slow pulse, reaches your senses so…deliberately, in such an unhurried manner, and then, after wave after wave of sound, the piece slowly wanders away into silence.
This then, the third in the “sad loop” trio, “Alpinia Park”, “Auspicious Shade Hall”, and now, finally, “Emerald Morning Hall” – here is the last version of the “sad loop” theme, to be followed immediately by the last version of the “happy loop” theme…
THE LADY XING
Now we come to the final representative of the “Dream Of Red Mansions Thematic Loop” which in some ways is my personal favourite out of all the thematic variations, because of that amazing ending – that note that just hangs on for dear life, even after the backing track has long abandoned it – and then still so firmly resolving the piece, saying in essence “the end is HERE”!
It’s a note, and an ending, that makes a statement, that says, “this melody is so free and so flexible that it can leave the confines of the song itself, yet still exist as it’s own, unique entity”.
It’s a short version, there isn’t much time – but the time is well used. The melody ebow, sets up the ending, gets you ready for it, with a very long, slow, deliberate melodic climb down the scale – ending on one long note, then dropping to the final note – which is held just long enough, it’s out there alone, since the backing stops at the end of the penultimate long note – so the final one has to go it alone, but does so admirably – seeming natural and beautiful at the same time.
The final character from “A Dream Of Red Mansions” – “Baochai” has a unique sound and a very unique mood.
A single ebow starts us out, immediately joined by another, and another – and then we are away.
Heavily processed, this is a complete, from scratch, full live loop – so a long form, start to finish loop creation as opposed to a captured fragment of a “completed” loop as many of these pieces are, it’s just lovely to hear more and more of these delicate, unbearably fragile ebows piling up one atop the other, until a picture begins to emerge…
Repetition starts to get inside our head, we hear the oldest melodies returning now, but very quickly, the new contents become part of the loop and therefore part of our experience. I would say that the mood of this piece falls somewhere in between our “happy loop” and “sad loop” themes, perhaps “bittersweet” being the best single term to describe it.
It’s also very fragile, delicate with strands rather then clumps of notes, so it’s density is achieved through different means than some loops – somehow, all the pieces fitting together to make a unified whole even though there are gaps in the construction – it still works, it still resonates with it’s own unique musical ebb and flow.
So, with “Baochai”, a unique, live, standalone piece, the musical journey that is “A Dream Of Red Mansions” comes to an end.
“A Dream Of Red Mansions” was the last of it’s kind, it would be many years before I made a full album of loops, in fact, I haven’t really quite done so to date. Now, in 2010, I do have new loops in the can, and several in productions, so there is a lot of raw material for the “next looping album” which will probably not emerge until well into 2011.
Unfortunately, due to the events of 2004, this is the last in an unbroken series
of loop experiments stretching from 1992 to 2002 (and most of the way through 2003),
from “Voices From The Desert” to “A Dream Of Red Mansions”, which encompass a wide
variety of approaches to both guitar and to looping, concentrating heavily on loops
of all descriptions -
Not forgetting too, that this string of looping albums ALSO encompassed the production
and participation in Bindlestiff, where I did an entirely DIFFERENT series of loop
experiments, running precisely concurrently with my solo career – so from 1992 through
to 2002, from “Early” in 1992 to “Enlighten” in 2002 – so really, between solo records
and band records, I am actually on approximately 17 loop albums of one type or another
– I produced more than 12 solo albums during that period, and Bindlestiff produced
seven, and a couple of my solo albums could not really be called “looping” albums
even though they did have loops ON them – but that’s a massive number of very different
and diverse “loop experiments” made in an almost unbroken stream in a ten to eleven-
I would have gone on, made more “loop” albums, but when I fell ill in late 2003, the next project I worked on turned out to be a rock album – then, I did not really produce and recordings of note between 2004 and 2006, until the modest EP “The Machinations Of Heaven” from 2006– which contains basically two loops and four other compositions, some including loops – so hardly a “looping” album, nor a true successor to “A Dream Of Red Mansions”.
However, there will be, either in late 2010 or early 2011, a follow up to “A Dream Of Red Mansions”, the “next level” ambient album, and that record was actually recorded in 2009 but has just not yet been mixed, mastered and produced. Tentatively entitled “sky full of stars”, it hopes to pick up where “A Dream Of Red Mansions”, unfortunately and against my will, I had to leave off the unbroken string of ambient/looping albums and bring that ten year period of creativity to a temporary end while I sorted myself out.
So after a seven year absence from the world of looping, it’s with a great sense
of relief and anticipation that I am looking forward to releasing the long-
Please see the entry for “Live Performance Sampler” to read what happens next -
To fast forward to the next ambient album, please jump ahead to the forthcoming release “sky full of stars”.
notes from the guitarist’s seat:
quiet... peaceful... ambient music. pureambient music.
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