Vocalist Gretchen Jude and percussionist Kevin Corcoran have produced their debut as a duo. Hirakito is an expansive, 59-minute “exploration of space and time, warped via the lens of modern recording technology and the inclusive spirit of free improvisation” according to the album’s notes. It’s a synthesis of raw improv recordings captured in multiple settings.
Jude, Corcoran and I traded emails this week.
Does Hirakito tell a story?
Jude: The sounds of an opening door and a closing door serve as a frame, but otherwise, no story. I definitely hope that people have some significant (to them) experience of our work. But personally I prefer music that has some relation to time rather than narrative structure. My favorite listening experiences comprise a very different relationship to time.
Corcoran: Hirakito could tell a few stories folded into one another. The Japanese word 開き戸 refers to a hinged door opening, which relates to our decision to edit the album in a way so that sounds move through multiple environments as though the listener is passing from one space to another.
Arriving at this title developed out of our exploration of the words “sashikomi-hiraki” which describe a particular set of gestures in Japanese noh theater that I became focused on and thought of in relation to our own gestures when improvising together. Gretchen found multiple ways to define these two terms by deconstructing them, and we became focused on the term hiraki, which led us to realize that thinking in terms of a series of openings is an interesting way to approach the recordings of our improvisations we had collected.
While Gretchen and I had both been active improvisers in the San Francisco Bay Area, we did not become well acquainted until happening to be in Tokyo at the same time, where we attended an outdoor performance of takigi-noh. So it is fitting to arrive at a title for our collaborative practice through this association. None of this was a thematic concern in advance, and the work is not narrative. So most of this will not be evident or important for the listener, who is welcome to find their own story as they relate to the work.
The notes describe “exploring the limitations” of your equipment.
Jude: This project works against the idea of recording technology as an ideally transparent (i.e., objective, inaudible) medium. Every device in a signal chain adds its own individual characteristics and quirks. We were happy to work with, and sometimes even foreground, these rather than aiming for some sort of hi-fi audio ideal.
For me specifically as a vocalist, one main technical limitation here is the reliance on only a relatively distant stereo pair of mikes. I was always aware of this, especially in the recordings in my apartment. I would tend to place the recorder closer to where I’d likely be standing, and move closer if I was making quieter sounds. But in the midst of improvising, this concern would fade from my focus, and anyway, it’s impossible to 100% accurately gauge voice volume from inside your own head!
Since people are generally used to hearing a close-microphoned singer (especially in studio-recorded music), the presence of the voice in these recordings with a different relation to the microphones may appear diminished. When I’m singing quietly, especially in a non-resonant room, my vocal sound is not foregrounded in the way that we normally hear.
Is this problem or not? I don’t know. It may end up sounding to some like I am not a “strong” (i.e. loud/foregrounded/projecting) singer. But for me, it is interesting to take a different approach to the human voice – as only one of many sonic elements in a space rather than making the voice a musical symbol of human subjectivity, which frankly gets really boring and limiting to me.
Some work I’ve done in other ensembles has shown me how fun it is to sometimes (as the vocalist) fade into the background, become the accompaniment to some other instrument (or even blur sonically into other sounds), and then switch back again, playing with other roles/musical relationships.
People who prefer the conventional relationship (of the singer being front and centre, performing for the audience and expressing a message/emotion), may find my approach unsatisfying, lacking in skill or even simply unremarkable/accidental. This is one of the major questions the work poses to listeners.
Corcoran: As a percussionist, it is challenging to think of the limits of the instrument because the category of percussive sound is so broad. Musically, there are many extended techniques of bowing, stroking, rubbing and scraping instruments, which I spend a lot of time working on and which many percussionists share and further with their own personal nuances. So how can I build upon these techniques and take risks that result in surprises? Maybe by incorporating certain gestures or body language in relation to the instrument or bringing in other sound sources and considering them percussive. Is pressing a button on a cassette player to play, stop or fast forward a field recording a percussive act? The loud click of the button must be, at least.
I’ve received numerous hour-long recordings already this year. Did you set out to produce something about that length?
Jude: Actually, this is shorter than our first cut (which was around 90 minutes). We definitely wanted this on a long-playing medium, so that it could be a continuous listening experience. As I recall, one main compositional concern was to include long-enough recorded segments in each particular acoustic setting to allow listeners to enter that space and become accustomed to it – so that the sudden transition to a different recording milieu would be very noticeable, even visceral.