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The Indelible Attraction of Chris Abrahams’ Sound Worlds

The Indelible Attraction of Chris Abrahams’ Sound Worlds

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I spent some time over the holidays and into the early part of 2023 going back through Chris Abrahams’s discography, relistening to favorites, and further exploring albums I needed to become more familiar with. Beyond his distinct compositional style and unique palette, Abrahams’s commitment to sonic exploration to create engaging, unexpected sound worlds stands out. 

On Follower, Abrahams’s newest album for Room 40, angular arrangements construct a foundation for intertwining disparate tones and timbres. There’s drama and tension, and strange landscapes emerge from endless clattering layers between open cracks. Each piece immerses us deeper in this universe. It’s a beguiling, wonderful place to explore.

Follower is out now on Room 40.

What are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?

I remember the first time I ever played the piano. Friends of my parents were going overseas and needed a place to store their old piano. My mother took my sister and me to their house to look at the instrument. It was a Steck upright. I recall us being astounded by the magic of pressing a button and having a quite loud sound come out from somewhere behind the wooden paneling. We gave emotions to the notes—high notes were deemed ‘happy’ and low notes dark and mysterious. We constructed simple narratives around the phenomena.

I remember lying in bed as a small child and hearing records being played in the living room at parties my parents threw. My father had spent time in New York in the late 40s and had developed a love of jazz, particularly Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman—I have his autographed copy of Benny Goodman’s 1937/38 Jazz Concert no 2, somewhat worse for wear. As a kid, I listened to pianists, including Jimmy Yancey, Meade Lux Lewis, Fats Waller, and Pete Johnson. 

Was there something specific that pushed you to start creating your own sounds?

I’d always been relaxed about how a piano should sound. The Steck upright was not a great instrument, and when the friends asked for its return, my mother purchased a Richard Lipp and Sons upright dated 1918 as a replacement. It was a massive upright with extended bass strings, complete with romantic candle holders on the front panel. It was tuned to a semi-tone below concert pitch, but it was unstable even then. As a result, there was a lot of chorusing and microtonality to the sound it produced. I tried to lessen the effects by threading a necktie through the strings to lessen the chime—unbeknownst to myself, at that age, I was shaping the sound of the instrument by filtering, preparing, and applying an envelope modulation.

Piano is a forgiving instrument with regard to personal responsibility. Unlike most other instruments, if a piano is out of tune or broken, it’s generally considered not to be the fault of the pianist. My formative years spent playing the piano were on eccentric and old instruments. And I got used to them. I think some of the things I’ve gotten into as a pianist, particularly in the realms of string resonation and repetitive overstriking, are directly related to my acceptance of these pianos. 

I was in my thirties before I gained a working understanding of the meaning of such terms as ‘envelope’ and ‘LFO.’ The DX7 provided a key point in my musical evolution. I’d owned a DX7 for a decade before I started to press the edit/compare button. Until then, I’d used it as a portable Rhodes or Hammond. In the eighties, people tended to program it for purposes of imitation—a lot of the time, bell-like timbres (FM is better at gong-like sounds than subtractive synthesis). Its on/off functionality allowed for a post-modern approach of rapidly shifting yet recognizable timbres, and this was how a lot of the time, it was used. It was the first synth to have a culture of third-party programming surrounding it; famous musicians would peddle their own ROM preset cartridges. 

By the time I started programming the DX7 in earnest, laptop computers were being used to make glitchy electronic soundscapes, which I found the DX7 excelled at. Its name is onomatopoeic; it sounds like electricity. Without going into too much detail: owing to aspects of the aliasing on the Mark 1 model, in the high pitch ranges, glitchy noise can be generated. This is programmable and stable in that the patch can be stored on a ROM cartridge and performed on any DX Mark 1. I’m yet to come across a virtual version of the DX7 that emulates this. (I’ve been told it’s to do with the chip in the Mark 1). I discovered that by using the rudimentary LFO and by varying its speed, one can develop spikey textures that give the impression of dismantling a noise down into its constituent parts. 

So, the DX7 represented my first foray into experimental electronica. I should state, however, that I’m not an FM synthesis specialist. I’m a DX7 player. 

The Kurzweil K2000, which I began using in the mid-90s, was also crucial to my development. With this sampler, I began to understand and name basic physical attributes to sound production. I still use a K2600 for certain tasks.

The stuff I did on the DX and the K2000 had a significant impact on the way I thought about piano playing. I began to view the piano more as a sound-producing machine than as something governed by culturally normative ideas of music-making. I started to see the piano string as an oscillator or resonator and the pedals as effects (sustain=reverb; una corda=filter). Certain playing techniques could effect the sound, such as: ‘distorting’ the resonance by using repetitive overstriking; pedals could be used to achieve an LFO modulation; a sort of FM occurs with sympathetic string resonance. I don’t think I would have had these ideas without The DX7 or K2000. 

Did you always want to be a musician? 

My musical outlook wasn’t exceptional for a teenager in Australia in the 70s. I was into The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Frank Zappa, among others. 

At age 15, I first heard Red Garland’s piano playing on Cooking with the Miles Davis Quintet. This was an epiphanous experience. Until then, I’d played in various bands with friends—at one point, I even tried to play bass guitar. After hearing Miles Davis, I set about trying to emulate something of the elegance I experienced with Cooking, and from that point on, I decided to take things seriously. 

I’d love to know more about your approach to composing and putting an album together. When I think of your work and your records, I’m always drawn to how there is always something so cohesive (I hesitate to call it a theme necessarily) about each one. Do you generally start with an overall idea for a record and then work on pieces in that space, or is it more the other way around where you are working on music, and the album starts to reveal itself?

For the albums I’ve made for Room 40, there are three stages I go through, and the borders between these are somewhat blurred.

The first stage is one of recording performances. I tend to amass a library of recorded performances done on many different instruments. Some of these might be live performances in front of an audience; others might be from another recording studio, others from my living room, and others from synths in my studio. The editing of synth sounds and samples occurs during this stage; once I’m satisfied with a patch, I tend to use a keyboard to play the synth—I believe the physical playing of a keyboard to be an expressive undertaking, not just a means to an end. I think it’s also a unifying methodology. There are exceptions, of course, but overall, I manipulate material via the keyboard.

In the second stage, I’ll begin to juxtapose recordings in a multi-track setup. Some bits will reveal themselves as starting points, and I’ll build around them. This, of course, is highly changeable as the pieces develop a direction. I often find I’ll need to record more material if I feel a piece needs it. I enjoy the process of juxtaposing as it distances the composer from the material and allows for the unexpected to happen. I don’t like the feeling of being in control of everything. 

The third stage is one of refining. I edit and mix. More and more, I find this stage rewarding and addictive. In the past, I’d only been able to approach a recording by practicing the material and hoping the performance on the day would be ok, expense being a major issue. Many times now, this is still the case, but the albums for Room 40 have all been completed over quite long periods, done largely outside of commercial studios. With modern technology, one can ‘sculpt’ to one’s heart’s content. This is very liberating. 

And, of course, you’ve just got your latest album out on Room 40 – your sixth for the label! – Follower. First, how did you meet Lawrence and begin working with Room 40? It’s been such a fruitful relationship.

I met Lawrence in the early 2000s. He came over to my place with an old friend, Clayton Thomas. I played him some of the material I was working on, and he offered to release it. This became Thrown, my first album. 

Until then, outside of my group projects with, say, The Necks, I’d only ever done solo piano albums. Thrown used techniques I’d developed while working in the radiophonic realm with people such as Sherre Delys and Rick Moody. I’m very grateful that Lawrence encouraged me to continue in this vein.

One aspect of Follower I am really drawn to is the overall sound design and how the palette is so rich and inviting, but the sonic spaces the music occupies feel so pristine and almost glossy. Your work often does this so well – playing with dichotomies and contradictions, and I’m curious about what draws you to this kind of creative work? And building on that, in the album liner notes, this phrase stuck out to me, and I kept coming back to it as I was listening: “the ambiguous spaces between music and noise” (which is also part of a longer statement that mentions tonality and atonality as well as rhythm and texture). I really like that phrasing. What do these things mean to you – thinking of ‘noise’ and ‘music’ especially – and how do you approach these ideas to explore these ‘ambiguous spaces’ in your work?

I think there’s an intentionality to the record, which would suggest a musical approach, an emotional and haptic connection that uses the keyboard as the interface. On the other hand, there is also a juxtapositional and knob-twirling approach which can create unexpected outcomes. Some things are left to chance, and other things are purposely created. The radio interference recorded in a carpark underneath a shopping mall can become quite understandably emotive when combined with something else; the resulting track can occupy more than one logical space at the same time.

Follower, and really your music more generally, has such a transportive quality to it. This goes back to what I was saying about the sonic palette and sound design, but it’s an album that creates these vivid, new worlds and takes the listener on a journey into them. I wonder, though, where are your thoughts regarding this transportive aspect of sound and how it, as a medium, can create spaces for shared experience?

Thank you very much.

I think I’ve always understood sound and music to be transportive. On a personal level, my earliest memories of music were of its ability to transport my father out of his 9 to 5 working life. 

On Follower, I constructed the album around 4 solo piano performances. For instance, I used a meandering bass piano legato on the track Costume as a kind of ‘lead actor’ moving contemplatively through a bleak landscape of bells and organ. I also had this bass’ breath’ which I made on a Waldorf Quantum, which added a punctuating rhythmic dimension (each track has its own bass punctuation element, BTW). I also had a distorted guitar recording I’d made years ago; this became the coda. There’s a very simple narrative structure to the piece: something goes along and then stops before something else comes over the top. I think it’s transcendent. 

A new kind of border is much more turbulent. The turbulence is modal and ‘musical.’ The piano, taken from a live recording, is juxtaposed with free-form percussion. There is also some distorted Q+ glitch that merges with the cymbals. 

The sound worlds I constructed on Follower are things I’ve worked on for a long time. Elements are included and jettisoned; placed up front in the mix and then turned down; pitch-shifted and distorted; modulated; and more. I want the music to sound a certain way: it’s not a completely random outcome generated by a methodology, with the latter more important than the former. I work intuitively. 

It’s hard to verbalize.

What were some of the biggest challenges with this album?

I don’t really view it as having ‘challenges.’ 

I try to just let one thing follow another, get lost in the activity of making something, and try not to create in my mind an ideated outcome that I hope to achieve. My views on what I make are highly changeable. Things I was once proud of can soon shapeshift into things I’m embarrassed about. Nothing is permanent. 

Having said that… I remember having a bit of stress over the aforementioned guitar coda. Originally it was much longer, and I thought it reached a nice mesmeric dimension through the slow repetition. Then I changed my mind and began to cut it back and back. I guess it was a challenge, of sorts, to reach a point where the repetition sat well with the textural and formal structure. 

I believe that time is a great modifier. My approach to Follower is not all that different from the approach on other albums for Room 40. But my taste has changed (in ways I don’t often consciously perceive). Also, the equipment I’m using is different and different things can be done with it. A ‘challenge’ might be to believe that what I’m making is fresh sounding. 

And what surprised you most about it?

I can only speak here generally. 

I was very pleasantly surprised when I got the test pressings from the manufacturer. Lawrence did a wonderful job mastering this for vinyl. It’s not easy to get that much bottom end on a record and maintain a rich and dynamic sound world. 

I was also pleasantly surprised by the cohesion of the pieces; it feels like a collection of pieces with an overall identity. 

This could change, of course. 

Can you talk a little bit about your collaborations with Mike Cooper – how you all met and came to work together and whatnot? I adore those albums. Are any new works planned?

I first played with Mike at a Now Now concert at ‘The Trequency Lab’ in the early 2000s. From that, we played together each time he came to Sydney. We also performed a couple of shows in Rome about a decade ago. Mike spent part of his teenage years in Australia and has a connection with it. 

Some of the releases are live concert recordings, and others, such as Oceanic Feeling Like, were recorded here at my place and then mixed over the internet. 

It’s an honor to make music with him. He’s coming out again next year, and we’ll hopefully make something new. 

To close, as we come to the end of the year, what were some of your highlights in 2022 and what are you most looking forward to in 2023?

Playing with the Necks for the first time in a long while was a highlight. We managed to tour Australia without a show being canceled—a far cry from our earlier effort.

Performing and recording with Springtime was a highlight too. We, along with Mick Harvey, provided a live soundtrack to the Chopper movie in Melbourne and Sydney. Most enjoyable

Also, playing in Brisbane on the organ of the Old Museum Building was a highlight, as was playing solo piano shows in both Canberra and Melbourne.  

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon or subscribe to The Jewel Garden.

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