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Jason Sweeney Jason Sweeney
photo Steve Phillips
ON HIS NEW CD, LET THE DARKNESS AT YOU, JASON SWEENEY (AS PANOPTIQUE ELECTRICAL) DRAWS ON SCORES HE'S CREATED FOR PERFORMANCE, DANCE AND FILM ARTISTS (VERSION 1.0, TANJA LIEDTKE, FIONA SPROTT, CHUNKY MOVE, UNREASONABLE ADULTS, PVI COLLECTIVE AND OTHERS) OVER THE LAST DECADE.

The result is contemplative and dreamy, never soporific. The experience feels like (as much as listening is a kind of associative seeing) being drawn slowly through vast star fields (an image we are so used to from film but are unlikely to ever experience)—the pulse of the journey is comforting, spacious, but there is always the sense of something unseen, out of frame, another layer of sound, a brief thundering, a mechanistic blip series, a too real wave of static, a distant voice, another presence approaching, or the heavens about to empty of stars—a never quite ominous entry into sheer darkness. None of this is literally evoked, the album being neither predictably 'spacey' nor mindlessly ambient, although late night listening can yield the relief of high quality distraction and the curious comfort of a free-floating melancholy that Let The Darkness At You generates.

Is Let The Darkness At You a collection of examples of your work that simply co-exist or were you aiming for a higher and enduring unity?

I approached this collection of compositions as if I were beginning a completely new project, a new album and indeed a new musical identity. In many ways the pieces that appear on the album began as extracts or minimalist sketches from works that I had made for various productions since 1998. So it was really a process of starting from scratch and re-composing. None of the material on the album appears in the original form it took in the shows or films they were made for. I really was aiming for a sense of sonic unity, a deliberate attempt to create a total listening experience and to be very conscious of not making something that was a disjointed collection of tracks for the sake of putting them out. It's kind of my instinctive reaction to compilations that labels or artists put out where generally you can only enjoy one or two tracks, whereas with Let The Darkness At You I wanted to make sure that there was consistency in the track sequencing and an elimination process when pieces didn't feel right. For example, anything with an obvious beat was the first to go! In this way, it's very much an album of immersive, melodic pieces with intermissions that flow from one to the other. Because the works on this album were written at various times in various places over a 10 year period, there was a challenge to ensure consistency and find themes or motifs and bring them together. In some cases compositions were even mixed to form a single piece.

Are you happy with the album title as a unifying one?

Let The Darkness At You was a name that the label owner, Steve Phillips, applied to the final track sequencing I gave him and it really did seem to sum up the feeling of the record and gives an entry point for listeners. Ideally this album is nocturnal listening...to kind of disappear into darkness or sleep or the night. I spent a long time at night with all of the 19 pieces, literally sleeping with the recording every night for about two weeks after days of mixing tracks. I did this because I wanted the album to be a bit like a sleeping pill or a somnabulistic experience for listeners. I was having a particularly bad case of insomnia during the time I was working on it so if it didn't put me to sleep then the next day I would have to revisit the album as a whole and re-construct or re-work pieces. My intention is for the album to carry you through a unified listening experience for the whole 80 minutes.

How do you compose for a performer or a company, always from a new beginning or do you build on your body of work?

Each time I am approached to work on a score for performer or company it's a completely new approach. There might be times where I draw upon a piece that has never been used or was a sketch somewhere else that is stored away, knowing that it might work for the 'sound' of the production, but generally I start from scratch. There's always going to be a kind of 'sound' that I produce that might be associated with my previous work but I'm conscious never to impose previous ideas into a new project. But I think there's always a building on from previous works and learning from the last piece or wanting to revisit phrases in the music.

Do works you collaborate on have a significant impact on your composing?

It really varies, and depends a lot on the artists I am working with. With my ongoing association and collaborations with pvi collective there is kind of an unspoken trust, which I love, when they get me started working on a new project. Sometimes Kelli and Steve from pvi might suggest a kind of sound or play me something they've been listening to, but more often than not I'm left to my own devices to construct a score. Other artists I've worked with have been much more specific about the sounds they want. When I worked with the late and great Tanja Liedtke (to whom I've dedicated a track I was working on for her) she was much more specific about the kind of mood, beat or even specific sounds she was after. It was the making of music for structured and very specifically timed choreography where a dip in the sound correlated exactly with a moment where a dancer would fall or something would 'shift' in the performance. This was really exciting for me (and I dearly miss her and her approach to working with artists) as it set new challenges, especially for a musician who was used to finding his own way in to a work.

With pvi collective there is often a scoring of ambience, noise or sounds that 'places' people (often roaming the streets in headsets) in a given moment of a performance. So, when they hear music with beats they know it's time for an announcement or that a member of the public is about to be approached by a performer. It's like making 'guide music' which I really like creating, little signatures. But sometimes the scoring is much more subtle, allowing for a live sound operator to integrate or mix up my music with a live feed of the performers. Working on version 1.0 shows has also set specific challenges because their works are very driven by spoken texts from transcripts and therefore the sound scores have to accommodate a kind of dual listening process. The audience has to hear what is being spoken but, of course, I want people to be affected by the sounds too!

Are you an onsite collaborator or do you look at the work, go away, score it and send it in?

Again, it does vary but I prefer to work onsite when a piece is being made as I'm reluctant to just be a provider of background music. I'm involved quite heavily in performance making so the nature of collaboration as a sound artist is imperative for me in the same way it is to be a performer in a work. I'm a total advocate for sound not just being a secondary concern or a last minute thought or addition to works. All the artists I work with feel the same way, thankfully, and are all interested in sound scoring, from desires for total sonic immersion to pure moments of silence. I like engaging in the various languages of performance making and how to communicate 'sound' into these devising processes. However, if I can't physically be in the room during a creative development of a work I usually have a DVD working copy or constant script updates or ongoing phone or email communication with the artists. I like to work pretty quickly and responsively so I tend to provide a lot of material along the way for people to listen to, comment on, discard, use or to work more on. Again, one of the great pleasures of working long-term with pvi collective is knowing their process and sharing a very intimate devising language which means I can often work on scores for them from a distance.

Do you get to do live mixes for performances?

Ideally, I prefer not to do live mixes for other people's shows these days, mostly from a purely practical point of view in that I can't generally be there for seasons or touring due to my own practice. I think the live mix thing has to be a conceptual necessity or an imperative part of the work itself, rather than an artist wanting a composer to do it live because, say, it saves having to make final choices. I really now need to be utterly convinced if someone wants me to do a live mix, outside of what a sound operator can do on my behalf. It is also often a case of me wanting to leave the choice of placement of my compositions up to the artist in the end, which I'm totally happy with. I'd prefer to provide a sound palette for someone to play with that feels right for them because sometimes the composer might not always be the best person to make that choice. Having said all that though, with my own performance work with Unreasonable Adults, I'll always prefer to be live mixing because it is inherent in the work and the concept.

What are your favourite acoustic and electronic tools for composition, and what's the dynamic of their relationship for you?

Acoustically, pianos always win the day! Preferably old ones that have been neglected in a CWA hall or found in salvage shops. For me, not coming from a classically trained background, a piano is really the only instrument that I feel friends with. They capture the melancholy and sadness that I desire in making scores. But then, once I've recorded a phrase on a piano, it goes through electronic processing in Logic software, which is the primary electronic tool I use. It's only recently that I've started using soft instruments and a MIDI keyboard! I have a tendency to want to work with found recordings too and turn them into melodic phrases, such as finding a malfunctioning speaker in an underground carpark, a crowd in a sports stadium, a shortwave signal from Kuwait and then taking this raw material away, turning it into an emotive chord progression through layering, reverbing, tape delay, pitch shifting. It's about where the intensities and subtleties are in those sounds, even when they are left raw. I like to degrade everything when I work digitally, to the point where anything clean sounding is almost eliminated. The piano, for example, when put through various stages of amplification or re-recorded through guitar amps, can transform into this epic lo-fi orchestral sound from another planet...it's beautiful.

Why are you titled Panoptique Electrical? It looks steam punkish and evokes surveillance theory...or is it just another playful persona?

Panoptique Electrical has been the name of my recording studio since 1995. The name really just came about because I loved the look of these two words together. It could roughly translate to being an electronic panopticon but I guess, a bit like the music, it's open, expansive. It just seemed appropriate, when trying to establish an identity for this accumulated sound work, to take on that name because it is where the sounds originated or got made. I've never wanted really to use my own name for recording projects because I want to see them as open to other inputs, which is certainly the case with Let The Darkness At You, which I also see as a collaboration with the record label's owner, Steve Phillips, who came up with a lot of the track names on the album and also created all of the artwork in response to the music. In the future I'll be working more with multi-instrumentalists Zoë Barry and Jed Palmer on both recordings and live performances. So there's a sense of something BBC Radiophonic Workshop-ish in the name or a kind of imaginary sound lab or transmission station which allows for both great experiments to happen but also the potential for sonic failure. Perhaps it's my ideal location for being an artist, looking out over a wide expanse but attempting to stay covert. Who knows.


Panoptique Electrical, Let The Darkness At You, music by Jason Sweeney, Sensory Projects, CD SRP057

RealTime issue #88 Dec-Jan 2008 pg. 46

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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