'Phoenix & Phaedra holding patterns'
A foundsound radio play
Live composition for portable radios, FM transmitter, 4 corner speakers, found sound textures, & Shruti drone box
"Sound is all around us. An ethereal tapestry of invisible radio waves and sound pressure waves fills our world.
Live in concert, Phoenix and Phaedra plays with our sense of place and scale, by using a surround sound
speaker system in combination with a short range FM transmitter which broadcasts to a collection of hand
held radios located within the audience. The concert is performed from the back of the space, out of sight,
thus removing the spectacle of the performer, and leaving an empty stage for a pure sonic-cinema experience.
The composition weaves together foundsound textures, spatial sonorities, and the Shruti Box, an Indian
drone instrument, which plays a central role in the work, with it's lulling and engulfing energies.
I wrote the work to celebrate the arrival of my new born son Phoenix, and is dedicated to him"
6 track CD 57min. Released August 2011 by Spekk [Japan]
<<< Buy the CD here from the audiOh! Kiosk >>>
1 On Air
2 Cyan sees through you
3 Eyrie of the Phoenix
4 Red Plumes
5 Eyes close in heaven
6 Love calls us to the things of this world
you are hearing track 6 [?]
Commissioned by A Thing About Machines Festival
World Premier at St John the Baptist Church, Coventry
[the emblem of the city of Coventry is the magical Phoenix bird]
email for booking enquiry
Venue staging diagram
Performance Technical Rider
The work is intended for performance in other spaces,
It would work well in most types of spaces and venues. The bigger the better
I need a 6 foot wide table with a clean Mackie 1202 mixer, 1 discreet desk lamp
I have my own set of smalli radios to bring.
I use a regular PA, but with the two left channel speakers and sub woofers placed at the front of the audience,
I use a simple pair of spot light bulbs to flicker basic silouettes of the audience onto the interior front walls of the space.
Please let me know if you would like an MPfree [Music Promotor Free MP3] download of the album for your consideration
A bed, dinner, travel, and a fee
Radios on stage before being given out to the audience
Concerts at The Bluecoat, Liverpool, and Kings Place, London. I have the Shruti box in my hand.
Inaugral concert in Coventry
Performance in Parma
Review from the Madieradig Festival 2010
Janek Schaefer looked excited as always. In a brief speech, he presented his 'live composition', a recent work called 'Phoenix and Phedra holding patterns'. Several portable FM radios were arranged among the audience, used as additional speakers, giving more depth to the music and space feeling to the audience. The usual speakers were on the stage, for Schaefer chose to switch off all lights and 'manage' the performance from behind. Sitting in total darkness, we entered into Schaefer's composition like in a vast cathedral. The piece was organized like a soundtrack containing several grandiose and often loud episodes with gravity-free sounds and loops, Shruti box drones, and separated from each other by interludes made of transmission-like and field recordings.
Review by SONOMU [Stephen Fruitman]
This milestone in the career of Janek Schaefer, the British sound artist and musician who has already racked up numerous weighty honours and accolades, also marks the return of the classy Spekk label of Japan after a year of silence.
Phoenix & Phaedra holding patterns is, it seems to me, an essay on that most topical of social and cultural obsessions, communication, the medium as opposed to the message. It is in fact a live recording – it couldn´t be otherwise – wherein a concert hall full of guests have each been given a (different model) portable radio as Schaefer, out of sight, broadcasts over a short-range FM transmitter. While they listen to his slowly unwinding, immersive composition of found sounds, electronic ambience and Shruti Box drones, we listen to them listening to it. Schaefer seems also to have recorded himself moving about the concert hall, perhaps scrambling up stairs and over catwalks to different vantage points from which to broadcast, as evident in the interlude ”Eyrie of the Phoenix”.
As tantalizing an idea it is, it would hardly be worth more than a note if the music itself was not of such restrained, majestic intensity and high quality – particularly the resounding ”Red Plumes”, almost a brief history of how sound has conveyed messages, suggesting a progression from the ancient custom of ringing church bells to digital microwaves. The respectfully restive seating of the audience at the beginning of the album and the very acoustics of the space captured by Schafer breed an atmosphere of sacrality, as does the recitation of a Richard Wilbur poem, perhaps another hint of the care and regard with which we should treat the art of communication in an age when it has become our primary form of life experience.
”The morning air is all awash in angels,” indeed it is.
Review Vital Weekly [Frans de Ward]
The omni-present Janek Schaefer produces a lot of work that goes along with audio visual work, but at the same time also stands well by itself as great music.
If I understood well, the music on this CD was transmitted during a concert to the audience holding hand held radios, while Schaefer was in back of the hall. I guess the music presented here is not an audience recording, but a line recording. The whole thing is dedicated to his new born son, Phoenix. I was thinking of the boy, in ten years time, asking Dad 'what is this'. Oh its a CD, see dedicated to you, I made it when you were born. I'd love to see his reaction.
I was thinking of this, as I thought two things:
That's how I came to think of the 10-year old Phoenix asking daddy: why is this is all so dark? I couldn't think what to answer, but Schaefer has some time. So for, a little bit older, this is all no problem, as I think Schaefer did another excellent CD, although perhaps not necessarily shedding new light or making a radical change in his career, but as dark, austere atmosphere as it is, its great. (and I say hi to Phoenix, who will no doubt read this in ten years).
Review by Textura
Phoenix & Phaedra Holding Patterns is precisely the sort of inspired conceptual soundwork we've come to expect from experimental composer Janek Schaefer, who was honoured a few years ago as British Composer of the Year (Sonic Art 2008). In this case it's an hour-long, live concert composition (recorded at St John the Baptist Church, Coventry, UK) that's “performed” with its creator offstage, a move that gives the piece more of a gallery installation-like presentation, despite the fact that the audience is collectively present to experience it. They aren't merely passive spectators, however, as their presence is needed for the piece to come into being; more specifically, the concert material is produced when a sound system and short range radio transmitter broadcast to a set of small radios held by the audience members.
In the inaugurating section “On Air,” crackly sounds—voices, lulling organ tones, and machine noises—drift through the ether, cumulatively forming a flowing symphony of abstract sound. With the advent of the subsequent piece, “Cyan Sees Through You,” an Eastern drone dimension emerges, with Schaefer adding the hypnotic sounds of the Shruti Box to the ethereal drift of hazy radio and sound wave textures. It's this style that predominates, appearing as it does during “Red Plumes” and “Eyes Close in Heaven,” with the former presenting eleven minutes of thick, absorptive swells of hiss and organ tones and the latter pushing the material's hypnotic drone potency to a higher level. On the album's longest piece, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” a speaker's melancholy delivery establishes a plaintive tone after which the eighteen-minute setting blossoms into a thrumming, immersive dronescape of oceanic scope. Though Schaefer created Phoenix & Phaedra Holding Patterns in celebration of the birth of his son Phoenix, there's little that directly ties the piece to that life-changing event aside from the pretty, lullaby-like melody that tinkles throughout “Eyrie of the Phoenix.” It's a detail of incidental note in a work that, while not necessarily signifying a radical advance, nevertheless contributes positively to the distinctive body of work he's in the midst of creating.
Review from Brainwashed [Anthony D'Amico]
This performance was commissioned for 2009's A Thing About Machines festival, an event devoted to the theme "Spaces Speak." Such a theme is right up Janek's alley, as he has long been interested in the role that architecture plays in the listening experience. He is also fascinated by the fact that we are constantly immersed in a sea of unnoticed waves and transmissions, so he artfully combined them by transmitting some components of the piece to radios distributed to audience members throughout the concert hall. In album form, sadly, Janek's clever spatial and acoustic manipulations are unavoidably lost, but Phoenix & Phaedra is still an enjoyably warm and crackling soundscape by one of the world's finest sound artists.
Despite the fact that this is a live performance commissioned to meet specific conceptual criteria, Phoenix & Phaedra Holding Patterns is very much a serious musical composition (rather than a mere installation or performance experiment) and a major work in Schaefer's discography. In fact, he wrote it to celebrate the birth of his son (Phoenix). Unfortunately, I have no idea how Phaedra fits into Janek's vision, as her story involves false accusations of rape, sea monsters, and suicides, none of which seem to occur here. Instead, the six pieces here are largely based on decidedly less lurid Shruti box drones. Schaefer is far too idiosyncratic to make a conventional drone album though, especially since much of his notoriety stems from innovative use of found sound and his singular talent for modifying record players. Given that, it is no surprise that this material is pleasingly varied and unpredictable, but it is pretty astonishing how "musical" Schaefer is able to be without much in the way of "real" instrumentation. I imagine it is not easy to construct a coherent, engrossing, and constantly shifting hour of music with some records, some field recordings of birds and machinery, and a box that makes a drone (used far more sparingly than I would expect).
The strongest and most immediately gratifying moments come when Janek makes unexpected textural or melodic detours, such as the "dying music box in a wind storm" interlude in the brief "Eyrie of the Phoenix." More importantly, however, there is a very exacting mind dictating the ebb and flow of all the various sounds, so this isn't a drone album with some unexpected elements so much as an absorbing, surreal, and oft emotionally resonant aural narrative. Happily, Schaefer usually displays a great deal of tact and nuance too, eschewing conventional build-ups and climaxes in favor of oases of blissful shimmering nirvana ("Red Plumes," for example) linked by enigmatic passages of collaged field recordings. The overall experience is akin to a good story elusively unfolding as a series of fragmented impressions.
The only minor issues that I have with this album are that some of the Shruti box-centric passages are not uniquely Janek Schaefer-esque and that it is slightly more successful as an artistic statement than as a piece of music. The music is certainly quite good, but a large part of my enjoyment stemmed from an intellectual appreciation for Janek's high-wire act of weaving a complex and compelling tapestry of disparate threads together without ever using density as a crutch. Schaefer's mastery of his craft is impressive–it is very rare to hear abstract music that is this deliberate, uncluttered, and clear. I definitely wish I had caught the actual event, but this makes for a very rewarding consolation prize.
Review from Paris Transatlantic [Massimo Ricci]
Janek Schaefer's albums constitute a remedy against the cynicism spreading among the arbiters of avant garde taste who consider the act of listening within their own selves a deadly sin. Phoenix & Phaedra Holding Patterns, dedicated to the composer's youngest offspring, was conceived as a piece to be played at the back of an auditorium, the stage left empty in order for the audience to realize that the sound, not the performer, is what really counts. A surround speaker system reproduces a "classic" superimposition of static harmonic layers generated through transistor radios alimented by a FM transmitter, a multitude of found sounds (including spoken snippets) and a sruti box whose mantric droning informs extended segments. The music moves across different stages of evocative imagery, textural grain and definition constantly varying, forlorn loops and melancholic arpeggios entwined inside a blur of reverberation. Crackle, hiss and what sounds like it could be a vacuum cleaner appear and fade away, as chordal washes in wavering calm introduce poignant flashes of soul-enhancing limitlessness. 2008's British Composer Of The Year knows how to balance intuition, sentiment and physical reaction in the conscientious listener, the spectrum of our deepest feelings becoming broader with the passage of time.
Review from Silent Ballet [Jack Chuter]
There’s something unique about the way in which Janek Schaefer marries field recording and instrumentation. Recordings of public spaces, clicking machinery, hollow thuds of hard boot on aged floorboards – they’re all clear and unmistakable, and trigger corporeal and relatable visuals. Yet the musical elements tend to be more abstract. Electronics come guised in echo and delay, reversed and processed until they’re just whispy clouds of something: beautiful beyond a doubt, yet providing the listener with no distinct reason why.
The relationship between the two elements is absolutely glorious, a combination of the noises we know with the strange objects of dreamworlds. Shopping malls become blessed with divine and mysterious balls of light, while the familiar crackle of needle on vinyl gives way to some sort of aquatic symphony, like a secret archive recording of a supernatural sub-ocean world. These elements contrast enough to stay distinct, and yet the chemistry between them is a wonder.
There’s plenty to marvel at even before knowing the context of this work. It was recorded live across a surround sound speaker system, and featured the transmission of several sounds to hand held audience radios. Unfortunately, a big part of appreciating Phoenix & Phaedra seems reserved for those who attended the performance. The juxtaposition of surround sound immersion with the intimacy of the hand-held radios is entirely lost when diluted down into stereo. Yet the work still holds up just fine. The sounds of Phoenix & Phaedra aren’t dependent on context – while the live setting may have been stripped away in this recorded version, there’s never a sense that the artistic essence of the work is taken with it. The personalization of sound is simply refashioned. It’s no longer about audience placement, as the work becomes a portable entity to be placed within the context of the listener’s choosing.
Only occasionally does the spark of innovation dim. “Red Plumes” lacks the sense of space and movement of the other pieces, and smothers itself a bit too densely in placid, faceless drones. It’s not just that it carries the a familiar sort of watery ambient feel. It’s also devoid of the interaction that gifts the rest of these pieces with life and vibrancy: interactions between sound and empty space, between dream and reality, and between the listener and these (mostly) gorgeous imaginary environments. Just take the closing track, “Love Calls Us to the Things of this World”. What appears to be the rustle of bags and ticking machine cogs is perhaps an observation of how compelling everyday sounds can be, particularly when placed in conversation with Schaefer’s sumptuous electronic lashings.
Review of the concert at Kings Place London promoted by Arctic Circle
INTERVIEW BY CORMAC FALKNER
Director of A Thing About Machines Festival, Coventry, UK.
Commissioned the concert
“Phoenix and Phaedra holding patterns” was commissioned as part of ‘A Thing About Machines festival 2009’.
The theme of the festival that year was 'Spaces Speak', how does architectural space figure in this piece and your work in general?
It is an essential part of the way I think about sound and my wider body of work. Having trained in Architecture, my sense of place has been moulded towards the understanding that sound is only revealed through space. I think about sound in my compositions as a journey through spaces, but also as a material that has to be sculpted in space. In this composition, half of the audio was played over 4 PA stacks in each corner of the darkened church to wrap the audience up in the physical and spatial experience. The other half was broadcast on an FM transmitter to a bunch of portable radios given to the members of the audience to hold. I was then able to mix the scale of the sound right down to a little radio voice in your held in your lap, and influence our sense of space in the church and the music. Each space I play or exhibit in has a direct relationship with the work I make. In fact ‘Space’ is a core ingredient of all my work....
It's interesting that you use the the phrase 'wrap the audience up' because I find there is always a warmth to the sound of your work that maybe comes from the choice of instruments and/or field recordings. Can you explain where that aesthetic comes from?
I usually try to aim for ‘beauty’ in my composition work. That is a very subjective and flexible ambition. I’m not sure I always get there., but I simply attempt to make beautiful work and the music often determines its own outcome as well. It’s up to you to decide if you agree with me. I’m not a fan of harsh sound [in general] when it comes to music. Natural sounds can be forceful and beautiful. In the church where I recorded this album the voluminous stone architecture expanded the 4 corner PA sound, which enabled me to envelop and saturate the audience in a soundspace that was alluring rather than aggressive. Loud and full of uplifting energy at times, but not fierce. In fact volume and space are inextricably linked. The warm lulling drones of the Indian Shruti Box and other foundsound textures were indeed composed and sculpted to wrap them all up. The portable radios on the other hand allowed the sound to become very intimate. As with my previous live composition ‘In the Last Hour’, I recommend this sort of album to be heard for the first time lying down in a darkish room with a good pair of headphones [no iPhone in the room!]. This focuses the experience of listening, and relaxing, and avoiding the distractions of our era, which really helps you get inside the sound. After that, listen as you like.
Is Phoenix & Phaedra part of a larger body of work or does it stand alone? Do you see a thread through some of your recordings/live performance/installations or is each project an isolated piece of work?
Yes it is part of a body of work using radio transmitters in fact. My first piece to broadcast was the Memory Museum back in 1996 from a pedestrian underpass to the motorway flyover cars speeding past above tuned in to Radio 1 [recently published in the book ‘Transmission Arts’]. Phoenix & Phaedra holding patterns has a loose theme exploring the airwaves surrounding us as we fly with the mythical Phoenix bird, so the transmitter and associated sound textures and radiowaves seemed to go together as ideas, along with the portable radios etc... Other radio/transmission based works that I have been working on are the ‘Secret Service’ and the ‘Local Radio Orchestra’ which I am touring at present. ‘Love Song’ which I completed just after my wedding also used a transmitter and floating radio headphones at the heart of the piece. But in the end each project is of course unique, and based on a given context, and are all inter-connected within my developing practice. I can’t think of much in my portfolio that is out of character, and friends note my work has a certain characteristic that we can’t quite put a finger on.
What is the role of the audience in this piece? how much control do you relinquish and how do you feel about that?
In this piece, the Transmitter broadcasts to all the radios on the same frequency. So the audience do not perform with them, as they do in my other Local Radio Orchestra installation. The role of the audience then is to sit back and enjoy the sound cinema experience. I call the album a Live Composition. I work out and compose what I am to perform live, and then improvise a bit with the textures as they emerge. I am performing a live diffusion of the sound that responds to the audience vibe and the room acoustics etc which is a pretty important part of the experience. The CD is an edit taken from both the master mixing desk and the room microphone recordings, capturing the essence of the concert and composition together.
What is a transistor radio like as an instrument? is that how you think of it and what has drawn you to it?
Radios make very intuitive instruments, as you get a very tangible response from any move you make on the dial. This cause and effect also creates a fear of the unknown as it is difficult to predict. You have no way of knowing what is coming next usually, but in normal use that is what is so great about radio... It’s a lucky dip experience. I’ve instead been exploring more controlled ways of making the radio work in a more cohesive and expanded manner with my own music. In Phoenix & Phaedra holding patterns I tried to use the real magic of ‘Wireless’ radio to play with the scale and character of the sound in the church. I mentioned above that it’s taken me quite a while to come back to the transmitter and radio. I guess I had not thought of it like an instrument before, which it is for me now. I think the simple magic of how sound is transported across space via radio waves, which is essentially invisible energy, is quite fantastical. The further away you are from the transmitter, the less energy gets to your radio and eventually drowns in the sea of static as you go out of range. It’s also how I feel about the mystery of how a vinyl groove works so successfully and simply. I find it hard to fathom... Both these basic mysteries of sound reproduction fascinate me, and indeed have inspired many of my projects.
Thank you for the questions, and the commission Cormac....
And thank you Nao, for your gorgeous custom card sleeve production
If you look closely in the photo of my shed [where I composed the album], you can see the cover image artwork hanging next to the dart board on the left.
Janek, 4th August 2011