Musicians Richard Talbot and Duncan Meadows of Marconi Union and musician and web developer Raleigh Green discuss their recent cross-global collaboration
TO EXPERIENCE WEIGHTLESS/ENDLESS, CLICK HERE
Introduction by Billy Zhao
Recently, Siena Oristaglio and I spoke with Marconi Union and Raleigh Green about the making of Weightless/Endless, the hidden complexity behind simple works, and the fundamentals of a beautiful collaboration.
BILLY ZHAO: My first question is for Marconi Union. Can you tell us a little bit about the original eight-minute “Weightless” track?
RICHARD TALBOT: Originally, it came about through a commission. We were approached with an opportunity to make a piece of relaxing music with consultation from leading sound therapists in the UK. We don't normally do those sort of things, and we've always been a bit wary of some of the connotations of relaxing music, but it sounded like a pretty interesting project. It became especially interesting when we found out that they were actually going to do some scientific testing of the piece once it was finished — they were going to actually try it out on people and do brainwave measurements. So we said, "Yeah, we'll have a go at that."
BILLY ZHAO: This piece was named as one of the most relaxing tunes ever created. How did the research into its calming properties transpire?
RICHARD TALBOT: I think the first thing we would say is that we've never made any claims about its relaxing properties — that's something other people have said. We were just interested in the writing and recording side of the project. All the testing happened after the fact and we weren't involved in that process. While we were recording, we received some advice on how to use sound and rhythm to supposedly lock into people’s brainwave measurements and we kind of applied some of that, but we work pretty intuitively. Once we got those ideas, the rest was done by feel and intuition.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Had you previously been interested in the neuroscientific aspects of music, or was this a new development?
RICHARD TALBOT: It wasn't something we had really explored much at all. We'd read things about it and had a general interest but it wasn't something we had actively pursued. This seemed like it might be an opportunity to approach our music from that perspective. But ultimately, we like the idea of working intuitively and have our own processes for working and ways in which we interact musically. We're pretty set in our ways now and we'll probably just go on the way we always have.
BILLY ZHAO: Raleigh, have you worked with science and music together in the past?
RALEIGH GREEN: Not in a formal sense, although I suppose it depends on how broad your definition of science is. If you think of science as the organization of knowledge and information, then this is something that artists and musicians work with every day. I think that there is often a great deal of overlap between art and science and it's something that I certainly find both fascinating and inspiring. On a base level, it seems like artists, musicians, and scientists are similar in that in their own way, they are all driven to try and figure out how the world works and then express it to others in a way that make sense and in a way that allows others to build on what they've done. I know that when I learned about Marconi Union’s original "Weightless" piece and the scientific studies that were connected to it, I was immediately interested in learning more about the piece and the band that created it.
BILLY ZHAO: Marconi Union, when did you decide that you were going to extend “Weightless” into a full-length album?
DUNCAN MEADOWS: Very soon after finishing the original track. What we liked about it was the overall sound and so we ran with the textures that we had begun to create. So it was immediate; it provided a lot inspiration for us. In fact, the album came about very quickly, which was great.
RICHARD TALBOT: I think that's pretty typical of us. Most of our albums have come out of inspiration from maybe a single piece of music where we thought, "That's got a great atmosphere and we want to pursue that further.” It's a really common kind of thing, I think. I guess almost all our records probably start off like that. You never know quite when it's gonna happen, you know? We start, we make a few tracks and it’s a bit nice, but then suddenly one just captures our imagination and it's likem "Wow, let's do more of that, it's fantastic!"
BILLY ZHAO: You all have worked with visuals and music in the past. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you've done in a live setting?
Recently, we worked with a juggler who was wearing motion sensors so that, while the act was going on, the accelerometer built into the motion sensors would trigger different audio filters and sounds within the live set-up. In doing so, we created a framework and an environment that enabled us to improvise with each other using multi-media elements.
— Raleigh Green
RICHARD TALBOT: We've done a bit with visuals and music, but we'd like to do more. We use films when we play live. They've been specially made with a guy called Karl who appears on stage with us. Some of them are synced up and linked to the tracks so that there are instances in the films that directly correlate with what's happening in the music. We quite often play in the dark with just the films.
DUNCAN MEADOWS: There’s a Scottish painter called Colin Lawson who painted a series of oil paintings inspired by various albums and tracks that we've made and we often use those as backdrops as well, whereby there’s a slow video morphing between different images, which we think looks great.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Raleigh, can you speak to the ways in which you've worked at pairing visuals to musical tracks in the past?
RALEIGH GREEN: Sure. I’m in a group here in Boston called NonDuo with a good friend, Loudon Stearns, who is actually the guy who introduced me to Marconi Union. We focus on technology combined with electro-acoustic instruments and we use midi to connect my guitar to a computer set-up that allows me to trigger visuals as we play live. We're starting to get more and more into multimedia. Recently, we worked with a juggler who was wearing motion sensors so that, while the act was going on, the accelerometer built into the motion sensors would trigger different audio filters and sounds within the live set-up. In doing so, we created a framework and an environment that enabled us to improvise with each other using multi-media elements. Loudon is actually in the process of putting together his thesis, which will be a one-hour NonDuo concert. It’s going to incorporate dancers, digital projection, music, environments… It's going to be really amazing. So, this Marconi Union project is similar in the sense that it expands the whole notion of new media and multi-media. This is an exciting time, because computers are now powerful enough to handle it. Multi-media and the combination of sound and visuals is by far one of the most exciting and gratifying spaces to work in.
BILLY ZHAO: Can you tell us more about your process of making the interactive Weightless/Endless piece?
BILLY ZHAO: Where did the original image that is now on Weightless/Endless come from?
RICHARD TALBOT: We can't take all the credit for that, actually. We regularly work with a really talented guy called Ian Hazeldine, and he's done quite a lot of our artwork. We tell him what we want to convey, and sometimes we give him a few images to work with or whatever, but then he kind of comes up with stuff. He did the sleeve for the Weightless album. The images for the interactive are drawn from the artwork he did for that.
DUNCAN MEADOWS: Raleigh, perhaps you could explain how that process worked between you and Ian?
RALEIGH GREEN: Well first, I just had Ian send me the album cover to see what sort of materials we were working with, and it's a fantastic cover. It appears to have a hand-painted, textured background with a sharp vector image — sort of geometric stars — in the foreground. So I had him send me over the materials. I processed the background image and stretched it out very long, in order to make the CD cover appear to move in an endless loop in the background, to give it a feeling of perpetual motion. I took the vector star images and deconstructing the parts into layers. Once the assets were separated and organized, I then put it back together knowing that the individual parts of what started out as a CD cover could now be manipulated, rearranged, animated, and become buttons or whatever, all within the web app. During this whole process, Ian was always available to help supply whatever assets I needed. In fact, there were a number of times that Ian went way above and beyond the call of duty. For example, when I stretched the background image out to create the moving background, unwanted image pixelation and blurriness occured. To rectify this, Ian graciously created a new background image in the original style of the CD cover especially for the web app. He was a huge help throughout the entire process and a real pleasure to work with. From the get-go I knew not only were these images really compelling and wonderful, but that they could be deconstructed in a way that would easily lend themselves to interactivity and animations. Indeed it ended up working out great.
One thing I noticed was that people were uploading their own looped versions of the original “Weightless” track onto sites like YouTube. I think I saw one that was 10 hours long. So that started me thinking about how we could create something that was more satisfactory than that, and perhaps had an element of participation as well.
— Duncan Meadows
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Was it also because of their particular geometry and symmetry that it worked that way?
RALEIGH GREEN: Yes. There were actually two stars on the album cover and one was symmetrical and one was not symmetrical. I went with the symmetrical one as the main sort of object in the app because — just from the symmetry of it — I knew that it could transform and spin in such a way that it would work out really well. The nice thing about the geometry of it is that the star can start out in an original state but it can also transform and then reconfigure itself while still looking whole, like it had intended to be that way, which just ended up giving lots and lots of different options for configurations. So, early on, once I had my layers formed, I then took all of my assets and put them into Hype, which is the software I built the web app in, and moved layers around, and tried many different configurations of what the star would transform into from the state it started at, and I went through a bunch of different iterations and chose the one that felt and looked the best.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: How did you go about incorporating the musical aspects into the structure of this unique interactive element?
RALEIGH GREEN: Well, the main thing I did was I asked Marconi Union to send the music to me very early on in the process so that while working with and building the shapes, I could listen and get a feel for what sort of moods and feelings the music was getting across. From a technical perspective, using the CD art and sounds from the album, we built a web-based, interactive musical object. Sound clips and audio loops are triggered by tapping on the same abstract geometric shapes that make up the instrument. However, from a feel perspective, I think it was the early listening that led the app into its present form.
BILLY ZHAO: You mentioned that you took the background of the image and stretched it into this loop that creates an endless background flow. What other aspects of this piece would you say integrate the idea of duration into the interactive?
RICHARD TALBOT: I think Raleigh must be fed up with hearing endless bits of audio that have been sent to him. We worked on the idea of using loops that are of different lengths and different textures so that they interact with each other in an ever-changing fashion. If you have something looped that's one length and something looped that's another length playing simultaneously, the ratios are going to change between them and — indeed — you get this shifting kind of texture. We worked quite a lot with that idea and Jamie Crossley [the third member of Marconi Union], who's not here with us today, has worked for hours and hours experimenting with loops of different lengths and editing them, and having them go quieter and then go louder and all sorts of stuff. The idea is that you can go on Weightless/Endless and hit three or four triggers and have a piece of music that lasts for as long as you like without any further involvement — or you can intervene and change things. You can involve yourself in the piece as much or as little as you like and still get something pleasurable out of it.
BILLY ZHAO: It's like an instrument that never stops, which is really amazing. Visitors get to play around with different layers of your music.
DUNCAN MEADOWS: Yes — we wanted there to be a sense of the listener being able to create something rather than it being a passive experience.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Is it replicable? If I find a combination that I love, would I be able to go back to it and recreate what I've done, or is it ephemeral in that sense?
While working with and building the shapes, I could listen and get a feel for what sort of moods and feelings the music was getting across. From a technical perspective, using the CD art and sounds from the album, we built a web-based, interactive musical object. Sound clips and audio loops are triggered by tapping on the same abstract geometric shapes that make up the instrument.
— Raleigh Green
RICHARD TALBOT: No, you can’t — because actually, we didn't really want that. We wanted people to always be finding something new, not just repeating something. It's the idea that whenever you do it, you have a different experience. Because the star revolves, you never know which point on it triggers which sound. They’re in different places on the screen all the time.
RALEIGH GREEN: Yes, I think it has a nice built in unpredictability to it. Partially because of the different audio lengths and — even though there's a certain number of audio clips — not only can they be combined in all sorts of different ways, but as Richard mentioned, once they start playing, wonderful things start to happen. The differences in the lengths and the superimposed polyrhythms that are created end up sounding different every single time you play it, and even as it continues to play.
RICHARD TALBOT: If you triggered three or four of those loops and just sat back, they wouldn't repeat themselves because obviously the relationship between each loop would keep shifting based on the fact that they are different lengths.
BILLY ZHAO: Do we know how many possible loops there can be?
RALEIGH GREEN: Right now, as it stands, there are 32 audio sounds that can play simultaneously in the browser, which is actually sort of stretching it. I think hypothetically, you could even go beyond that, but there's a certain threshold at which it would not become practical. Playing audio on browsers in this way is actually pretty new as far as being something that's practical and workable. So, the notion of playing multiple audio clips with multiple looped timelines is really sort of on the forefront of what a web app can do.
BILLY ZHAO: And that's exactly what you guys wanted at the very beginning, to create some sort of interactive that allows people to play with different layers of audio.
The idea is that you can go on Weightless/Endless and hit three or four triggers and have a piece of music that lasts for as long as you like without any further involvement — or you can intervene and change things. You can involve yourself in the piece as much or as little as you like and still get something pleasurable out of it.
— Richard Talbot
DUNCAN MEADOWS: Absolutely, and I think at the beginning, because we have very limited understanding of Raleigh’s programming and coding world, it was interesting, the interactions between us and Raleigh in terms of discovering what was possible in relation to our rather ambitious ideas. That Raleigh was actually able to, in the end, find solutions for it, is incredible. I think that the success of this app is, in the main part, down to Raleigh's work. I still don't really understand how it works, to be honest. [Laughs.]
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: I love the idea of a collaboration that expands into including other people — like crowdsourcing knowledge, in a way.
RALEIGH GREEN: Absolutely. It’s a community process.
RICHARD TALBOT: I think one of the things that's interesting about it is that it looks so simple that you can't see how much work went into it.
RALEIGH GREEN: Richard, I think you’re right. The pinnacle of design is to fool people into thinking that something is simple.
RICHARD TALBOT: Yes. It's a mark of success, isn't it, just like with music?
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: I was thinking about how in ballet, there's so much work involved in preparation but the end result looks effortless. So, a question for both Marconi Union and Raleigh — what is your philosophy on collaboration like, typically speaking? Both of you seem very open to collaborating with others.
RICHARD TALBOT: I think we've just got one simple criteria and it’s, "Is what they want to do interesting?" [Laughs.] Are we interested in what they want to do and if we are and we think we can make something good together then, yeah, let's look at it.
RALEIGH GREEN: As I was approached by these guys, I instantly knew that this project was going to be compelling because it was at the exact intersection between music, art, and technology. What better place could there be for like-minded individuals? It was a no-brainer.
RICHARD TALBOT: To be honest, we don't do nearly as much collaborating as we'd like to do, just because we don't come up with the right kind of things that we'd like to collaborate on. It's not something that you just want to dive into for the sake of doing it. You've got to have a spark there that says sort of, “We can do something that's really good together.” But when we have done it and it’s been those kinds of circumstances, it’s been just a really good experience.
RALEIGH GREEN: It is nice these days that we're able to really collaborate on a global scale.
RICHARD TALBOT: Yes.
RALEIGH GREEN: What a wonderful thing to do — not only to be able to have this conversation across the globe — but to be able to collaborate with people on different continents. It’s just fantastic.
BILLY ZHAO: Marconi Union, you have been in Manchester while Raleigh, you've been over here on the east coast in the States, and this whole entire project has happened in a kind of virtual setting. It's amazing.
DUNCAN MEADOWS: I agree. Maybe even a decade ago this wouldn't have been possible.
RALEIGH GREEN: I think that actually gets to the heart of collaboration. You know that it’s possible nowadays with all these wonderful tools to really get a lot done — especially because technology lends itself so well to recycling and reusing assets and data. If you pool together your resources, you can end up getting much, much more done. If you've got more hands involved, you can take on bigger and bigger projects.
RICHARD TALBOT: The other thing that's really important is that it's taken an enormous amount time to make something that doesn't look technologically-orientated. I'm not particularly interested in the idea of exploring technology apart from in how it can allow you to achieve something. It's a tool, not an end in itself.
RALEIGH GREEN: It was easier to pull that off because Ian’s artwork was so organic to begin with. It has a hand-created quality to it, and as a result, it made it easier to hide the technology and make the app feel organic.
RICHARD TALBOT: To be honest, we're not very good at handing over stuff to other people. I think we feel strongly about how anything we're involved with should sound, should look, whatever. It’s hard to say, "Right, we'll trust someone with their vision of what we're doing." But I think we knew that about you pretty quickly and with Ian in the same way. That's when you get proper collaboration, isn’t it? When there's that genuine respect and you can say, "That person knows exactly what they are doing and it’s going to work out really well.”
DUNCAN MEADOWS: Something else that we’ve gotten out of this collaboration is that we’re going to take what we've learned and are going to start applying it to our own music as well. We haven't gotten too far with it, but it's certainly provided a lot of inspiration for the future.
At that point, it started to become a community effort.
— Raleigh Green
BILLY ZHAO: What are the next steps for both of you?
RALEIGH GREEN: The next thing directly on my agenda is working with Loudon, preparing his big NonDuo thesis project. So we're meeting regularly and putting together assets for that. I've also got a number of my own long-term projects underway that are all at different stages of completion, but it’s nice to have the flexibility to temporarily set those aside as interesting collaborations, like this project with Marconi Union, come along. But it’s always going to be going in the same direction, if possible, involving the combination of art, music, and technology — that's where I get the most excited.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Marconi Union, you've talked about wanting to perform Weightless live in a durational way. Can you speak a little bit about that?
RICHARD TALBOT: We've gotten quite excited by generative music and the durational side of music, and partly that's because of talking to you and the stuff that we've come across subsequently. We've always liked the idea of long pieces of music, anyway, and we're cooking together an idea where we create a sort of meta-version of Weightless, which may be drawn from all the different Weightless tracks but will be a different entity in its own right. It will be part generative and part performed, but by performed I mean, probably, with laptops and that kind of thing rather than any traditional instruments. And we're interested in doing a long durational performance, maybe overnight, or 24 hours, or something like that.
BILLY ZHAO: Have you attended long durational performances or performed in a long durational format before?
RICHARD TALBOT: I've seen a long performance of "X for Henry Flynt" (1960) by La Monte Young which is a very long piece of music involving elbows on pianos, and a few more musical things like that.
BILLY ZHAO: What was the experience like for you?
RICHARD TALBOT: It's always that thing — I think I experienced it when we went to see Marina's recent performance at Serpentine — of how you enable yourself to become part of the work. And Weightless/Endless is about that as well, in the sense of that idea about how you let yourself detach and disconnect and just be free within something. I think that's what we’re hoping for with the live performance, that you can disconnect from the space that you’re in and just absorb the sound and the atmosphere that's being created sonically.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: You've talked about doing this in the dark too, right?
RICHARD TALBOT: Yes, that's right, because the disconnection would be greater, in a sense. Do you know about that idea of audio-scaffolding or audio-latching? It’s about how we connect with the world through the sounds that we hear. That we might, say, tap our feet and that connects us with the physical space that we're in and the sound that we're hearing. In this case, it's using the sound to disconnect from other spaces. If we did that in the dark, you wouldn't have the visual connection with the space that you're in — you'd only have the sonic connection. So that would make you, in effect, weightless.
They were then picked up in 2005 by All Saints Records, one of the pioneering ambient labels, who released their second album, Distance. This featured a darker, more electronic sound. Plans to release their third album A Lost Connection were thrown into disarray by a major label takeover, to the disappointment of both MU and All Saints decided it was necessary to part ways. Consequently, in July 2008, Marconi Union launched their digital label MU Transmissions to sell their music via their own website. The first release was their long awaited third album A Lost Connection.
The following year, 2009, saw the release of Tokyo on Bine Music, a German label associated with cutting edge electronica. According to press releases and reviews, Tokyo was inspired by media images of the city. In the same year they joined forces with the UK label Just Music, with whom they have released all their subsequent albums, A Lost Connection (2010), Beautifully Falling Apart (Ambient Transmissions Vol. 1) (2011), Different Colours (2012) and Weightless (Ambient Transmissions Vol. 2)(2014). Also in 2012, they re-issued Under Wires and Searchlights and Distance.
Over a period of two years, Talbot and Crossley collaborated with Jah Wobble; together they released an album called Anomic on 30 Hertz records in June of 2013. In 2010, the band announced that Duncan Meadows had joined on a permanent basis, having previously played with them at a number of live gigs. Different Colours was the first album from this new line up.
For over a decade, Marconi Union have performed at various events in the UK and Europe, including Big Chill (UK), Palac Akropolis (Prague) and, in September 2012, they appeared at Punkt Festival in Norway, an event curated by Brian Eno.
Raleigh graduated Summa Cum Laude from Berklee College of Music, where he was the recipient of the B.E.S.T Scholarship, the Professional Music Award, and the Quincy Jones Award. In addition to formal music studies at Berklee, he has also studied privately with notable world-class musicians Charlie Banacos and Mick Goodrick. Before attending Berklee, Raleigh studied art at the University of Missouri where he received a BFA with a focus on computer-aided multimedia, watercolor, and figure drawing.
Proficient in many styles of music, Raleigh is the author of "The Guitar Style Resource" (Alfred Publishing) and “Guitar Altas: Jamaica” (Alfred Publishing). In addition to performing and recording throughout New England, he is also a principal guitar instructor at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and is co-leader of the experimental band NonDuo (electro-acoustic performance art). Raleigh is also proud to be an artist endorsee for D'Addario strings, Planet Waves gear, and Hercules stands.
In addition to being accomplished in guitar performance, education and music technology, Raleigh is also a web designer, an app and eBook developer for the iPhone and iPad, and a custom HTML5 widget and interactive web animation specialist. Raleigh's inspired designs bridge together his passion for music, art, and technology.