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Anglo-Electronic

An Interview with Electronic Musician Ian Boddy —

By accounts, Ian Boddy’s entrée into sound art was spontaneous. While reading biochemistry at Newcastle University in the late 1970s he walked into the Spectro Arts Workshop’s electronic sound studio and, in one sense, never walked back out. These were the years of the Berlin School, when Tangerine Dream, Manuel Göttsching, Klaus Schulze and others were building long, innovative synth structures on the Krautrock floorplan, and when such things could actually be heard on late night BBC Radio and the Saturday afternoon Alan Freeman Show. So much seemed possible in those years. The analog synth was a gateway into a new universe of expression, especially for those, like Boddy, without formal musical training.

Ian_Boddy

Photo Credit: Paul Gilby

The cassettes he recorded between 1979 and 1982 do much more than map an evolving style, or chart the technical possibilities of the hardware. And while certainly the rock and classical structures of Schulze and even Kraftwerk lay submerged, these three early tapes are complex affairs with no less complex lines of imagery. The tracks often become looped tone poems, not unlike the more well-known chapters in Jean Michel Jarre’s catalogue, but overall its flavor is pure and without tendencies. With 1983’s The Climb, as well as his performance at the first UK Electronica Festival the same year, Boddy let his music spread out into the atmosphere, developing—if you will—a kind of meteorological style, evolving into more tonally and texturally varied orchestrations, incorporating Düsseldorf-style drang and dramatic neo-classical denouements, creating atmospheric spaces rather than narratives.

Because we have grown accustomed to synth music and tape loops as part of incidental music on screen and as part of the New Age movement, it is difficult to listen to an album like The Climb without thinking of less descriptive and more derived efforts. But it, and all of Ian Boddy’s work I’ve heard, is highly complex and non-schizoid, wants attention to its economic subtleties, and builds on everything for which it reaches. It is easy to imagine entirely new worlds while listening to it. Especially in the dark. In the pit of the night. The uniqueness of this body of work stems from its distinctly Anglo electronic sound: something less romantically ponderous and psychedelicized than the sounds of the Teutonic commune, more poetically contained; more Vaughan Williams than Schumann, more Coleridge than Novalis. Like Portion Control, who blazed a very different trail with their art, Ian Boddy saw the analog synthesizer as an instrument to be played—tapped into, seduced—rather than applied for its sundry effects. Yet his obsession with electronics and production has not seen him down the cold and narrow path taken by so many conservatory competitors.

Floating, Images, 1980

 
Understanding Ian Boddy is not an academic matter. His compositions are easy to access, yet they are not platitudinous, aggressive, or showy. He is a composer who has found freedom within formal parameters rather than an emotional explosion, and has deepened the question—and answers—of what can be done with sound.

Unsurprisingly, Boddy is also a sound designer and library music artisan. Since his early years at the Spectro Arts Workshop he has built his own studio in Middlesborough (northeast England), where he continues to record and produce his art, as well as generate stock music libraries for use in films, on television, radio and elsewhere. In fact, it is very likely you have heard some of his work in this capacity. In addition to his collaborations with Robert Rich, Markus Reuter, Erik Wøllo, and others, he owns his own record label, DiN, on which he releases his own materials, and those of like-minded sound artists.

 IanBoddy_Liverpool_800

Photo Credit: Nigel Mullaney

Aram Yardumian: Images, Elements of Chance and Options [i] are, in spite of how you may feel about them now, sophisticated statements for their time; they don’t feel like the product of someone still in the process of learning to use the VCS3 and String Machine. How do you think this can be explained?

Ian Boddy: Well, thanks for that positive assessment of them. As you can imagine, looking back on these after a period of 30 years feels rather odd. I was a young man then and full of the energy and passion that youth blesses you with. I was so excited to have the opportunity to work with the gear at Spectro and to begin my sonic explorations that anything seemed possible. I had always been good at art and in a way what I discovered I could do with the analogue synthesisers and studio equipment was to paint pictures in sound. So even at this early stage I wasn’t simply just messing about with sound, I had a definite visual idea in my mind’s eye of what I wanted to achieve. Listening back to these pieces for the first time in many a year I can still see what I was trying to do, the vision I was trying to paint.

AY: I don’t think of you as a pure virtuoso, recording only for the sake of demonstrating talent and technique. And yet I am also not sure I see an ongoing subject matter unfolding in the albums—a thread to bind together the images you create with sound. You know, Ash Ra Tempel doing albums about levels of consciousness and that kind of thing. With what do you grapple as an artist? What ideas make it through into the music?

IB: Referencing what I said above, there is often a visual aspect to my music. I tend not to look at the more human side of things such as politics, religion or relationships, I’ll leave those to song writers. I’m more interested in nature or the universe, aspects to life that are bigger than mankind. However, as I’ve been composing music for such a long time, it’s impossible to continue a single narrative thread over such a time period. Furthermore, I’ve done a lot of collaborative albums, so working with other musicians always brings up different aspects and inflections to the music. Sometimes I’m after describing a “feeling” in a sort of water-colour brushed way in which I leave plenty of room for the listeners’ own interpretation. And then again sometimes I’ll go with an idea for a track as it just “sounds cool” to me and it’s important sometimes to do music just for the pure joy and fun of it.

Skylights, Options, 1982

 
AY: I have heard you use the word ‘heritage’ with reference to your place in the genealogy of electronic musicians. Although I have my own ideas, it might be interesting to know more about where and how you see yourself fit into the history of this genre.

IB: This is not really a question I’m that comfortable in answering. I guess in terms of British electronic music—at least in the genre niche that we’re discussing—I was there at the start alongside musicians such as Mark Shreeve. British EM was in a way a good 10 years behind our friends on the continent and never really achieved the same degree of success as the classic albums of the 70?s. As such it’s difficult to gain a totally objective viewpoint on this and for me to see how significant or otherwise my contribution has been. I think I’ve used the word “heritage” more to describe the particular branch of EM that I have come from, which is very much that of the early Teutonic Berlin School musicians. Plus, as I was around when analogue synthesisers were the only game in town I have a great predilection for that type of sound.

AY:  Do you find biochemistry and sound art have an intellectual intersection? (I know how Giancarlo Toniutti would answer this…)

IB: Interesting question, I’ve never been asked that before. On the one hand, the fields of science and music/art don’t seem to have so much in common. The former has a rigour and exactitude necessary for its evolution, whereas the latter deals very much in emotions and feelings. However, electronic music via its dependence on technological equipment often requires an analytical approach. Standing in front of a large modular synthesiser – which I often do – it is necessary to learn not only the basic physics of sound production but also the bewildering interface these instruments often confront one with. The heavy use of computers and software accentuate the need for these skills even further. But beyond these purely technical aspects, electronic music is no different to any other form of music, in that emotions and intuition play a major role in the actual mystery of the inspiration that leads to the composition of a piece of music.

AY: Over the years, you have performed over 150 concerts in Europe and America. What are some of your outstanding memories, Best and worst, which you might like to record for posterity?

IB: There are many great memories from my performances. Let’s kick off with one which combines both the best and worst: my first performance in the planetarium of the world-famous Jodrell Bank radio telescope. What a cool place to play and actually my first planetarium gig. All was going well until quite literally the second-to-last chord of the last piece, when there was a power cut and everything went off—all my gear, all the lights—leading to total darkness. All I could do was chuckle and once power was restored I played an extra improvised piece which allowed me finally to finish off that final chord.

I’ve not had too many bad things happen in concerts. Sure, the odd technical hitch here and there but nothing major, although when I played as the headline act at the 1986 UK Electronica my set was plagued by interference over the PA from a local taxi rank outside the venue. It’s just about the only time I’ve had to stop a set whilst the technicians tried to solve the problem. They couldn’t, so I just had to soldier on with various taxi calls always seeming to penetrate the quieter moments.

I’ve certainly had many more really good memories, such as playing at the very first UK Electronica as well as the Purcell Rooms at the Southbank Centre in London. Playing in front of almost 1300 people at my first Dutch gig at the Klemdag festival in 1993 was also a great thrill. In my early years I certainly got very nervous before a performance, but gradually over time your confidence grows and you can actually get some time during a performance to almost sit back and let the atmosphere sink in. I remember playing at one of the Gatherings shows in Philadelphia where this happened. I was playing the piece Elemental which has some very grandiose chords and the combination of the venue (a beautiful church with lovely stained glass windows), lighting, and audience vibe was a really magical moment. I came off stage for the interval so pumped up that once I got into the dressing room I literally couldn’t stop jumping around with the sheer unadulterated joy of what I had just played. It’s moments like these that make all the hard work of preparing for concerts so worthwhile.

AY: You may be aware that we have seen a surge of interest in Library Music, at least among samplers and collectors, in recent years, however unlikely that seems. Not least because your own listenership has requested De Wolfe make your sound library available on CD. But also, interest in Joel Vandroogenbroeck, Alessandro Alessandroni, and others who recorded for Coloursound Library and Sermi, the Sonorissima Series, Joe Meek, et cetera, has been on the rise. What do you think is behind this?

IB: Actually I wasn’t aware of this. Just so that folks know, this type of music is written for library music companies whose job is then to get it used on TV, documentaries, films, adverts etc. If it gets used both they and you as the composer get a royalty. Usually this type of music is, as far as the public is concerned, completely anonymous. You very rarely get your name on the end credits of a show or film. As such, it’s not really usually available for public consumption in the same way that a regular CD album is. The library music company I write for is called DeWolfe and they are very well known in the UK in the media world. They certainly didn’t hire me because of my regular album releases, although they were quite pleased that I had that background. It was my various distributors who requested that I get some of these CDs, as their customers had heard and wanted to collect these titles. So I requested DeWolfe allow me to purchase a limited quantity of these albums for sale in this manner. I think they were quite surprised by this but were happy to go along with it. But companies such as deWolfe do have a great depth of back catalogue that contains some real hidden gems. I was recently going through my old vinyl collection and was amazed when I came across an old DeWolfe vinyl album from 1979 called Push Button by K. Jenkins & M. Ratledge (so basically one half of Soft Machine!)

Destination Zero, Liverdelphia, 2013

 
AY: It is incomprehensible to me that you have never worked on a full-scale film soundtrack. Do you reject these offers or are people simply unaware of what you could offer a film?

IB: Probably the latter! To be honest, it’s not that simple. I’ve chosen to stay in my native Northeast of England and not migrate down to the big lights of a London or Los Angeles, where certainly there’d be much more opportunity to pursue such work. Also, I have to be realistic: I’m not classically trained and there are some extremely talented composers out there who are, and so if a traditional orchestral score is required I’d find that next to impossible to do. Also, at the stage of life I’m at, I’m not sure if deadlines and all the pressure that comes with that is something I’d actively seek out. That’s not to say if someone wanted to utilise my particular style in a production that I’d say no, but it’s not something that keeps me awake at nights.

AY: I do hear Vaughan Williams in your cross-harmonics and that chromatic lavishness peculiar to Elgar in those of your later works I’ve heard. Is there anything consciously traditional, or even liturgical, about your compositions?

IB: Well, that’s interesting that you should mention Vaughan Williams, who is certainly my favourite English composer. I’m not sure if I consciously incorporate that style of harmony into what I do. Although, as I mentioned above, I’m not classically trained, I’ve certainly over the years picked up a lot of information. I’m particularly interested in the myriad different scales and modes possible which often lend the piece a certain flavour. Obvious examples would be the use of a whole tone (for weird spacey) or pentatonic (for oriental) scales. But at times I’ve taken this further—for example, on Dervish which I released with Markus Reuter, where we based the seven pieces on each of the modes of limited transposition documented by Olivier Messiaen.

An example of where the liturgical has crossed over into what I’m doing is on the album Aurora from 2002, where the title track features an arrangement of the Kyrie from Missa Papae Marcelli by the 16th century composer Palestrina. It’s played at about 1/16th the original tempo and the chords are wrapped up in clouds of radio interference FX. I wasn’t so much interested in its specific religious meaning—more the stately feeling the harmonies provide in such a setting.

I think the use of such classical references opens up a whole world of opportunities in all forms of music but is particularly relevant in the world of electronic music.

AY: Does science-fiction media influence your soundscape composition? What are your favorite sci-fi authors/books, films, and shows?

IB: Well, I guess it’s hard to say anything other than probably yes. Having said that though, I have, certainly in my DiN era, actively tried not to use any overtly sci-fi imagery on the covers of the albums, as the whole synth music in space thing has really become so clichéd. In my pre-DiN days, I guess the two albums that are most closely allied to this genre are The Uncertainty Principle (1993) and The Deep (1994). The latter was certainly very much influenced by the James Cameron movie The Abyss.

DiN albums such as my first collaboration with Robert Rich, Outpost (2002), flirt with such influences but do so in a very open and non-specific way so as to leave much up to the listener’s imagination and interpretation.

In terms of my favourite proponents of this genre, then, there are many, but off the top of my head:

Films: 2001, Alien, Blade Runner, Stalker & Solaris, The Thing, The Abyss.

Shows: Star Trek, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica (the new version), Deep Space Nine.

Authors: Arthur Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert.

 

UncertaintyCover

AY: I think all your work is accessible without knowing what you were thinking and feeling while composing and producing. It would nevertheless be interesting to hear your own assessments of albums such as Spirits and The Uncertainty Principle, and whatever you can remember about your thoughts and feelings at the time you composed and recorded.

IB: Spirits (1984) was my second vinyl album. At the time I had just got hold of a Yamaha DX7 (one of the first to do so in the UK) and this, at the time, was a revolutionary synthesiser. I programmed a lot of my own sounds and I was wanting to do a whole vinyl side suite of music. I’d almost managed this on The Climb but was determined to fill up a whole side this time with a single piece. However, I wasn’t content to just let a sequencer run and doodle over the top like some folk seemed happy to do. I wanted it to have a classical structure in parts with themes that developed and were presented in different orchestrations. I was very much into reading dark gothic novels at that time (Poe, Lovecraft, etc.) and wanted it to also encapsulate this feel, including the gloriously over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek movies in this genre. So I recorded to 8-track reel-to-reel the opening and closing sections, including several gothic sounding themes complete with doom-laden bell chimes and manic harpsichord sections. These books end a great slab of sequencing which was really brought to life by asking a heavy metal drummer friend of mine to play along to this section. I think at the time it confused a lot of folk as it didn’t really sound like anything they’d heard before. It was cross genre and didn’t necessarily fit into what they expected of an electronic music at that time.

The Uncertainty Principle, Part 1, Uncertainty Principle, 1993

 
The Uncertainty Principle (1993) still remains my biggest selling album. The title is obviously taken from Heisenberg’s quantum physics theory, and as I have always been interested in astronomy and cosmology I was after referencing these sorts of ideas without overtly pointing to any specific film or book. I knew the feel and style I wanted and just went for it whole heartedly. I often look at the composition of an album as a whole in terms of how the tracks evolve over the course of the 50 to 60 minutes of a CD. Thus I go for highs and lows, dynamics and giving the album a sort of internal narrative so it almost feels like a story is being told, albeit one which the music just suggests and leaves up to the listener to delineate in their own mind what the story is.

This is something which I strive for even today. I want listening to an Ian Boddy album to be an event, not something which you just put on in the background. I want it to feel like a story is being told and for it to have enough depth and subtlety that you’ll want to come back to it time and again and to discover new things. But I’m always happy to let listeners come up with their own interpretation. I just provide the starting point.

 

 


[1] These three cassettes were reissued as a deluxe vinyl boxset by VOD this year.

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