Interview: Joe Walker

Joe Walker is an architecture student at Arts University Bournemouth, UK. His practice explores the intersection of music and architecture; first through the invention of a new musical instrument, and then through a compositional process involving field recordings of abandoned spaces under the title “Extreme Territories”.

It came about from working with an old piano. I took it apart and did some drawings and took some photographs, and then I analysed the mechanism and simplified it. It’s all made out of recycled plywood, which is meant to go with the ethos of the exhibition.

As someone with no first-hand experience working with the innards of a piano, the mechanism has always struck me as relatively simple.

Well it’s all finely balanced. Nothing’s fixed; it all floats and hangs really elegantly. With this instrument it’s a bit more clumsy and forceful. The return on this is done by springs – it’s such a simple return, whereas with the piano it’s all felt and soft…I couldn’t recreate that. I wanted to do something different anyway. It works in some respects and in others it doesn’t, but it was the experience of doing it and trying to materialise sound through a product.

I was constantly in the workshop; originally the whole scale wasn’t right, so I had to add this whole bit on…I thought, “should I start again?” And then I was like, “no – it shows a process. It’s ad hoc. I’m just going to roll with the prototype thing.”

I guess that’s a point of interest for those visiting the exhibition: the ability to see the construction process and trace it back to its point of conception. I read that you did some blueprints for it?

Yeah, there were all the CAD drawings. It had to be very precise. I’d make it and then realise that it had to be a bit different, so I’d have to redraw the drawing. It was all about working with this one drawing to make sure that everything was consistent. There were a few things that weren’t consistent, and that’s when things started to go wrong. A particular plate had to be remade…it was setup in a way that it could fail critically from one simple mistake.

So is this the first instrument you’ve made?

 Yeah.

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I’ve always wondered how someone would go about it. I mean, these blueprint drawings and CAD drawings have their roots more so in architecture…
 

It definitely helped that I have that ability to make something so precisely. A violin-maker would be very skilled at working wood and would have templates to work with, whereas I don’t have that. I have to try and build it from the fundamentals, making things exact in a drawing and then trying to reproduce it with materials. That’s when the crafting element comes into it. I had to be a perfectionist the whole way through, but it’s not perfect!

Well that’s the thing – you don’t have a basis for it, even if certain elements are derived from existing instruments.

Yeah, exactly. [pointing to the “neck” of the instrument.] Well this is the length of a bass guitar neck.

Was that deliberate?

Yeah. I thought that’d be a good place to start – it meant that I could make sure that the nut and the bridge are a similar distance so that I could get a note I’m familiar with. It’s the same with the guitar strings. [pointing to a shorter string further along the instrument.] The length of the first guitar string is supposed to be the length of a guitar.

On a piano, all of the strings would be roughly the same length in the middle of the instrument. That’s how you get a chromatic scale. But when this instrument was tuned, the notes would be at much bigger increments – E A D G or whatever – so then you have different chords you can do. I’d like to have it tuned to open A or something.

What did you tune it to when you recorded it for the album?

When I did the piece I tuned it to standard tuning. But because I was bending the notes and stuff, things would go out of tune and it would go all over the place. It was really difficult. That’s the other thing…[pointing to the pegs that attach the strings to the body] these need to be screwed into something a bit better. I was going to buy guitar tuning pegs and use those but I wanted to do it all myself, so I had to drill holes through the screws. And then the string snapped so I had to buy another set. It was really stressful. I was going to do 24 keys – two octaves – so I really glad I didn’t do that.

Did you have a sound in mind when you constructed it?

Well the reason the hammers are all bolted so crudely is so that they can be changed. I’ve laser-cut different materials and I was going to experiment with those, creating this real interchange between the materiality of the instrument and the notes. So I’d pick a key note and say, “that’s the wood note”, and then work with that to see if it drives a new piece of music. So you’d do certain chords and they’d have different materials – it wouldn’t just be an A chord, it’d be an “A plastic” chord. The intention is to remake it.

That’s a really sweet idea. Obviously there are ways to alter the timbre of existing instruments – you can pluck a piano from the inside, for example – but I can’t think of many examples where the relationship between pitch and material is this distinctive. 

It’s all built from the idea of doing prepared piano. That’s where it started – the idea of interrupting a machine before it makes its sound. But I think it’s even more immediate if I can do it like that.

And do you play music generally as well?

Yeah. I guess I could say that I can play bass, guitar and piano to a certain extent, but if you asked me to play a song it’d be a bit difficult. I’ve only been playing for a few years – piano I’ve only been playing for a year – so I can play, but it’s not conventional.

So you don’t aspire toward some technical pinnacle. 

Yeah. I don’t want to be a concert pianist or anything like that. But that’s where this whole thing of mixing music and architecture becomes really interesting. That’s what I’m doing as my degree. If I hadn’t been doing architecture, the album would be completely different. I’m not trying to be a musician – I’m an architect trying to make music.

How welcoming has the course been in perceiving sound as an architectural practice?

They’ve been really good; Channa [Vithana] more so than others. There are some architects that have a real interest in music, and he really understands the concept. My peers don’t understand it as much. When I do a site visit I’ll do a sound walk, closing my eyes and trying to listen to the sounds. Last term I was the only one to do that. It’s a different way of experiencing it – I reckon the way you experience a space is half to do with what you’re hearing as well as what you’re seeing. They’re really supportive and they want you to find your signature as you’re designing stuff.

I understand that you did some recordings in abandoned spaces?

Yeah. We did this thing called Extreme Territories, which was basically a collaboration between two people from Architecture, two from Fine Art, two from VisCom [Visual Communication] and two from Graph Design. And then there were our French counterparts. We went to France and we worked in this completely blank studio, and then we went to visit this abandoned hotel. We could do whatever we wanted, basically. We were just given those two words: “extreme territories”. So I met two French guys that wanted to make music as well, and we just took little Tascam recorders and made loads of noise in the hotel. We mixed it all together and did a live set on the last day, making it as we went – so we had the recordings we made in the hotel, and then this old guitar that we plugged into the whole thing. I mixed it all together and added some gentle synths and stuff. But everyone was still working – aside from a couple of people, no one stopped and watched us.

Does that way of working appeal to you? I’ve been to festivals where they’ve had free improvisation tents that are active for most of the day – there’s no pressure of a fixed performance time or an audience. It’s quite liberating.

Definitely. Because I haven’t been doing music for very long, I’m not used to being a performer. It doesn’t feel like a performance – more a gated piece of time to be creative, which is easier for me to deal with. If things go wrong it doesn’t matter so much, because people don’t have expectations; we’re just practising, it’s okay.
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I’m intrigued as to how easy it is to develop an acceptance of mistakes as an architecture student. If you make a mistake during a big piece of architecture, the building’s fucked! 

In the learning environment they encourage you to make mistakes. It’s quite liberal. It’s okay as long as you don’t fail! They encourage you to be really creative and brave in your designs. I think that’s probably influenced what I’ve done.

So it’s a case of reining it in later, rather than starting off overly dull and practical?

Yeah. But yeah, that was a great week. I took it forward and used a couple of the pieces and synchronised some bits, making them a bit more regular. It’s difficult to work out whether I’m going to be making a field recording piece – like, a sound art piece – or a track with rhythm, harmony and pace etc. And Channa, who kind of became the producer for this record, said that I need to have harmony and songs. So that was a real challenge to try and mix field recordings with music.

Do you naturally consider field recordings and music tracks as distinct from eachother? 

I did a project with Jez Riley French in Dorset called Land Dance, where I just helped him do what he did. He helped me make a distinction. He never uses music in his work. I mean, I feel like I can’t be the one to make that decision on what music is, but I guess I already have in my head while I’ve been speaking to you.

I guess that comes in part from having to adhere to an academic framework. 

Yeah. I wrote about it during my dissertation, talking about whether John Cage’s 4:33 was music. That was really interesting. It’s definitely opened my eyes – I’m just open to new sounds and I don’t really care if it’s musical or not. But I think the listening experience is different.

You mentioned John Cage’s 4:33 there – in the context of your course, how free are you to consider the way in which time is used within music could potentially be seen as the equivalent of space within physical architecture? 

That’s an interesting way to look at it. When I think about 4:33 – the fact that he’s taken out a little square of time to say, “this is me making music”…those constraints are really important. So I’d say, “alright – let’s try and make two minutes or music.” Or, “let’s work for two hours and see what I produce”. So it was always about time and how long things took. It was really hard to know when to stop and start something new, or to know when a piece was finished. I never knew when a piece was finished. I suppose it’s when someone listens to it and goes, “yeah – that’s good”. That’s enough for me.

And I guess you had some time constraints around making the record?

It had to be ready for this exhibition, which was really useful and stressful. I had a few months to do it, but the content of it would change quite often. Some pieces would be built from me experimenting with synthesisers or on my computer, or some would be a field recording that could stand on its own…I was going to two discs where I did a piano version of everything, but not all of the pieces would work through a piano. There’s one piece called “Taps” that is purely percussive –I couldn’t really have created that on piano. So that changed it as well.

What’s the record called? 

MAP Soundtracks. It was important to keep it connected to this. The album was created in the same time frame that the exhibition was curated.

Does the record have a conceptual basis? 

Everything had to be in some way contextual. I don’t think there’s any piece on there that was made for the sake of it; I was always either inspired by something we did on the day, or it would be literally taking a recording and re-using it. It had to be inspired by architecture or a space I’d been to.

Did it make it any easier having a context to work with? 

Because I’m not defined – I’m not a guitarist, or a pianist, or a sound artist – it was hard to know what I’d create with. The process wasn’t defined by the use of an individual instrument. I made loads of different pieces and they are all so different, so it was really hard to pull one album together; questioning whether this belongs here, and then going, “but I like this one, so why shouldn’t it be on here?”

How do you feel about it now it’s finished?

I’m really happy with it. There are always going to be things that I’m going to want to change. The tracks I made at the start of the process are so different to the ones at the end; not just stylistically, but the quality isn’t as good. They can be re-used though so I’d like to do them again. The only thing is that I can’t use these spaces again, you know? That’s what is unique about it. The synth stuff I can recreate, but I’m never going to get that situation again. The environment, the atmosphere, the place…even if I went back there, it’d still be different.

It’s nice to have a document of circumstance. Was it strange to perform these pieces? Like, playing the recordings of one space into another.

That was a massive thing: are we representing space or are we using that space to make something new? What are we trying to say when using field recordings. And then that raised other questions; like, is it okay to add FX to a field recording? Because it’d probably sound cool if I added a bit of reverb or something. Often it’s best to leave it raw and uncompressed. But those decisions were really hard to make.

I think it also comes down to me finding a style. This is all still so new to me. I’ll listen to something and go, “I wish it had that tone or texture”. As I produce more stuff, I think there will be more of a style and I’ll be able to define myself a little bit better.