Panoptique Electrical – Sleeping Pills
December 22, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: Cyclic Defrost, #21, December 2008.
By Dan Rule
Having contributed to the Australian electronic landscape in countless forms and contexts, Jason Sweeney has now revisited and re-imagined a decade’s worth of solo ambient material.
It is a glacier in the night. A mountainous shadow, drifting and transmuting so languidly that it appears all but still. Moments come and go; shapes can be made out before losing themselves to the atmosphere and the ice. Echoes of piano call and resonate – partial melodies form – only to be swallowed, submerged, blunted in darkness and ambience and texture and drone.
There is an almost quixotic tranquility to this vista, but an ominousness too. Beauty and sadness and fears and memories intermingle and integrate and coalesce. It is lulling and alluring and narcotic; it is the instant before a dream. Buried neural activity at half sleep.
Let the Darkness at You – the stunning debut collection for Panoptique Electrical, solo ambient guise for Adelaide composer and electronic musician Jason Sweeney – finds its bearing in a nocturnal place, in the wanderings of the subconscious. Its title is no mistake.
“I wanted it to be a kind of sleeping pill in a way,” he says in his relaxed manner. “I wanted this album to be something that could help insomniacs like myself.”
According to Sweeney, who is best known for is roles in electronic duos Pretty Boy Crossover and School of Two – as well as his fellow Pretty Boy Cailan Burns’ collaboration with former Underground Lovers front man Vince Giarrusso in Mist & Sea – the record’s direction began to refine itself in the non-waking hours. “I was living in a basement apartment in the middle of Melbourne and was suffering very bad insomnia and having to work a day-job in an office, and was going a little bit loopy in the process,” he recounts.
“At the same time I was working on this record and it was pure joy to visit it every couple of days and just put the headphones on and lose myself in it. When it came time to sequence the record I was still having terrible sleepless nights and having to wake up at 7am to go to work, so I decided to create the track list early on and one that was very intentionally driven to put me to sleep.”
It’s quite a shift for the 37-year-old. While Sweeney’s work has always harboured an atmospheric leaning, Panoptique Electrical represents a far deeper and more thorough engagement. Over 19 tracks and 78 minutes, Let the Darkness at You shimmers with an enveloping palette of opaque, non-rhythmic atmosphere and beauteously melodic guitar, piano and computer-generated ambience.
“There’s no moment on the record where something pops up and seems weird,” he says, today chatting over the phone from his home in the South Australian capital. “I think I naturally always want to do something different, like, ‘Oh, we’ve had 10 minutes of that kind of feel, why don’t we throw something different in there.’ I think there are definitely ebbs and flows, but I didn’t suddenly want to bring in something with a beat just for the sake of change of pace.”
He puts the record’s aesthetic down to restraint. “It was almost like a kind of disciplinary approach; making myself work on the entire album with a particular feel in mind and not deviating from that. So it was kind of an approach of gathering a collection of this material, reworking it and then going to sleep every night with it on and seeing if it had that feeling that I wanted… The moment that I found myself being jarred into waking again I would make a mental note and re-visit, or take off, that track the next day.”
The source material at the heart of the Panoptique project has roots that extend far beyond Sweeney’s sleepless nights in Melbourne. Oddly for such a cogent body of work, the majority of the pieces that comprise Let the Darkness at You span a whole decade’s worth of separate projects and purpose-composed vignettes, originally commissioned for a string of individual performance pieces, installations and short films throughout Australia, North America and Europe.
But the collection represents anything but a passive retrospective. “All of the pieces of the album were chosen for their very specific feel or mood or type of composition,” he says. “It was a kind of rigorous selection process.”
“I spent a lot of time with different pieces that I’d written or had begun years before and set about the task of re-working or remixing them. Then I approached the album as a very individual project, something that could be built from scratch and be listened to as a whole, rather than a selection of various work. None of the material on the record is in its original form – as made for the dance, film or theatre productions – as a lot of this material was raw or very stripped back. It was like I had all of these starting points to work musically and then I could add, layer or subtract ideas as I went along.”
He prefers to think of it as new material. “Although I’ve really made the point that this comes from old material, in many way it’s actually really new because no one’s heard it before,” he says. “It’s only been heard in the context of a theatre performance or a dance piece or a short film, and usually it’s kind of hidden; it’s just sort of buried in the mix as a texture that’s not really all that upfront.”
“So I really wanted to bring all this stuff into the foreground and that’s exactly how I made the record – as a listener – as opposed to creating it from scratch. I could just listen to all this stuff and work out whether it would engage with someone as a record rather than as part of a live performance.”
Sweeney’s fascination with music stretches back to his childhood in Adelaide. He recalls hearing The Cure’s 1985 opus The Head on the Door as a pivotal moment. “I remember listening to that album over and over,” he laughs, “and thinking that I wanted to play the guitar properly.”
He began experimenting with various keyboards and guitars and began recording his meanderings to tape. He tracked his first demo as a 17-year-old in 1988 and remembers a lively Adelaide community radio environment as having a formative influence on his decision to pursue music. “With Three D radio in Adelaide, you could just submit demos and they would just play any old thing,” he says. “If you’d give them something, they’d play it on radio, so that was really quite motivating for musicians in Adelaide, especially in the early 90s.”
“You could make stuff and they’d play it and you’d just go ‘Wow!’ he laughs. “It was actually like this sort of strange training in itself for becoming a musician, because there was this validation to doing this stuff. I think a lot of Adelaide bands go through that. They might be really shy or something, but then their stuff gets played on Three D and their ego gets a much-needed massage and it’s like ‘I can do this!’”
Nonetheless, Sweeney went on to study theatre and performance, with his music filling the role of welcomed artistic aside. “Funnily enough, when I made my own theatre and performance stuff, I never made my own sound for it,” he muses with a chuckle.
It wasn’t long before music became the chief focus, and Sweeney’s rambling discography confirms as much. He has partaken in innumerable projects and collaborations over the years, including late 90s flirtations with Karl Melvin and Louey Hart in Sweet William, as Madeline’s Wreath with Louey Hart, as God Burning System with Rebecca Johnston, and in the early 00s with Janiece Pope as Par Avion.
Long-running projects like Other People’s Children with Nicole Lowry, solo pop project Sympatico and Pretty Boy Crossover have spawned nine full-length albums – including Pretty Boy Crossover’s luminous 2007 record A Different Handwriting – upwards of 20 EPs, splits, singles and cassettes, and countless compilation appearances. Recent work as School of Two (with Harry Whizkid), Luxury Gap (again with Lowry) and Mist & Sea (with Burns and Vince Giarrusso) has seen another full length – Mist & Sea’s stunning 2007 record Unless, and two more EPs.
Despite his prolificacy on wax, it’s been Sweeney’s soundtrack and score work – which forms the basis of Panoptique Electrical – that has perhaps been his most enduring focus. During the last decade he has worked on films and performances in locales as sprawling as Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Wagga Wagga, Glasgow, Brussels and Los Angeles, whilst also completing an artist-in-residence at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada.
“It’s probably what I do most, and that’s been increasing over the last five years,” he explains. “I am pretty fortunate in that most people I work with – film or theatre directors, choreographers – give me free reign over what I can make. I usually get a kind of idea of what sort of music they’d like or, as with film, you get to see the rushes or edits and know (or at least think I know) what sort of music is needed to either enhance a mood or provide an unsettling feeling.”
“Sometimes, however, I am asked to make specific types of music for productions and to be honest, this music didn’t make it to this album because the instruction was ‘can you make a kind queer dance club track’ which I did but it was part of the job of soundtracking and not necessarily something I was passionate about making. I think I’ve been doing scores and sound designs long enough now that people who approach me to make music for their works know the kind of sounds or style that I make so they don’t ask for rock anthems.”
Indeed, the fact that the skeleton of the compositions that comprise Let the Darkness at You were originally commissioned for someone else seems irrelevant when listening to the record. In actual fact, the collection’s introspective qualities are such that it’s hard to believe the works rose from anything but Sweeney’s very personal musings.
“I guess everything on this album was probably the closest to me and had the most resonance for me out of all the stuff I had made for other people,” he says. “It’s the most personal collection of music that I’ve ever done and it does feel a bit vulnerable to put it out there. I’m not from a classically trained background, yet this record felt like I was undertaking a massive exercise in composition and pushing myself harder in terms of the way I would structure music and the listening experience. If this album was to say anything about me then it would be a kind of personal plea for stillness and reflection – to quieten things down.”
“Also, while a lot of the pieces were written for other people, at the same time I felt that they weren’t used to the fullest capacity they could have been. So you know, it was an opportunity for me to say, “I really loved this piece of music that I wrote for someone, I mean, some of the piano pieces on the record were mostly written for short film and the filmmakers ended up using maybe two notes from that piece. The composer obviously wants all his or her music in the foreground,” he laughs. And I love soundtrack composers whose music is used by the filmmaker in such a way that really does, not necessarily impose an emotion, but provide some other feeling that maybe wasn’t in the film beforehand. So it was definitely an opportunity to pull out the whole feeling of a piece.”
It’s a quality that’s written all over the album, which gently oscillates between moments of introspection and outright emotive beauty. The stunning piano arrangement and subtly fuzzed textures of It Rains Today (for Tanja Leidtke), the arcing, spectral motif and gently idling underbelly of Tingling Cheeks are Love and title track Let the Darkness at You are some of the most charming sketches. The shimmering dynamics of Glacier Show I, The Paws Before Entering and Falling Snow; the gently reverbed piano atmosphere of Albury-Wodonga, May 2006 and the haunting opacity of Glacier Show II make for further highlights.
One of the most striking qualities is Sweeney’s ability to render genuine, definable sonic dynamics into such pointedly minimalist compositions. “I think that comes from having a low boredom threshold,” he laughs. “It’s interesting because one of my favourite kind of drone acts is Stars of the Lid. The music – even though it’s kind of relentlessly or uncompromisingly minimal and somnambulistic and really kind of sleepy – there’s just so much going on. And because of the slowness of it and the pace, the variation in their music astounds me.”
“I like the fact that you can have something really minimal but have a lot going on. It doesn’t have to be upfront but can kind of come in and out of the mix. I guess it’s kind of an orchestration in a sense.”
Indeed, the classical world also played a role in fashioning Sweeney’s aesthetic. “I’ve been listening to a lot of early music by a composer Thomas Tallis, who did a lot of sort of vocal chant stuff,” he says. “I was just kind of listening to the different dynamics within, say, a 14-minute piece he’d written for 20 voices or whatever, and I started thinking that it would be really interesting to apply that to drone music or stuff that’s a bit more experimental. I kind of wanted to treat the album as if it was going through several different movements.”
The process behind the recording points to a much more deconstructive, contemporary patois. While most of the pieces grew from the piano, Sweeney fed the untreated motifs through various processes, adding delays, static and distortion and various abstracted field recordings, often creating another syntax entirely.
“A lot of the material is very raw piano phrases recorded in a shed in Albury or country SA,” he admits. “Some of it is re-processed string parts. Some of it is samples of machines or static or weird things I’ve collected from underground carparks and so on, and then set about the task of ‘tuning’ these sounds into musical material.”
“There is actually no guitar used on the record even though I think it’s been mentioned that there is. All that stuff is piano put through vast amounts of distortion and echo boxes… I usually obsessively record a lot of piano phrases whenever I can get my hands on one, which has either been on artist residencies or in a CWA (Country Women’s Association) hall on the road to somewhere. I just take a small WAV recorder and put it on top the piano and record stuff for hours, sometimes just drone variations on a couple of notes or chords, or repeated motifs. Then I have hours and hours of small pieces that just wait to be treated. There’s a few tracks on the record that are pretty much the piano piece only put through a slight amount of delay, but retain their original form. And then there are more expansive tracks that are re-worked in Ableton Live and lose their identity as a piano altogether.”
Panoptique Electrical extends far beyond the purely sonic realm. Sweeney speaks of the project – and it’s visual and thematic identity – in terms of collaboration. As he goes onto explain, the involvement of Sensory Projects label boss Steve Phillips was far greater and more personal than that of mere logistics.
“He’d intimated to me a few times that he had this collection of paintings and work that he’d done, but we’d never really talked about it at any great length until we were sort of thinking about this record,” recounts Sweeney. “Steve must have showed me some sketchbooks or something and everything he had done was strangely perfect. The artwork came from older material and, a bit like the music, he had gone back and revisited and reworked it for the purposes of the album.”
The same went for the song and album titles. “I’m usually a control freak and titles come before anything,” he laughs. “These songs originally had these really dry titles based on what they were made for, like Sequence One or whatever. But Steve had a whole lot of titles based on either things he’d responded to in the music or titles he’d just had sitting around in his notebooks, including the name of the album. So that became part of the collaboration on this record as well.”
“It just felt really nice to have that stronger connection to the label, rather than just one as Steve being the guy who puts out the records and does all that other stuff, but instead on a deeper, artistic level. It’s always been a friendship-based relationship rather than a business one. I kind of see Steve as a core collaborator in Panoptique Electrical- I kind of see this potential for even installation work with Steve.”
Despite its palette, Panoptique Electrical’s artistic objectives are nonetheless humble. “It has been incredibly heartening to hear of others who have said the album has helped them drift into a deep sleep,” muses Sweeney.
“I recently gave a close friend of mine the album who has been very ill the past half year and is on a very aggressive drug which causes chronic insomnia. She told me only last week that the album has been the one thing that has truly helped her with resting and sleeping and is now helping her through her treatment,” he says.
“So, for me, the album has succeeded.”
By Dan Rule, with additional reporting by Bob Baker Fish.
Let the Darkness at You is out through Sensory Projects/Inertia.