Interview: Ingrid Plum

Ingrid Plum is a conceptual artist working with sound, voice, space, video, currently based in both Denmark and England. Plangent is her debut record. Much of Plum’s previous work has centred on site-specific installation, which no doubt informs Plangent’s acoustic and environmental awareness; throughout these pieces, I hear the warmth of tiny bedrooms rip open to reveal stretches of the Danish coast, which in turn scrunch back into beautiful balls of intimacy. The soundscape forever inhales and exhales.

I sent Plum these questions a few weeks back, and was delighted to be presented with answers that dive deep into the creative and technical processes of Plangent. You can listen to/buy the album right here.

I’m really drawn by the intimacy of Plangent, a lot of which seems to derive from your approach to recording. For instance, “Love On Loan” is littered with nasal breaths and the scrape of fingernails. How did you approach the recording of Plangent? Were there any particular parts of the process that were particularly conducive toward this sense of intimacy?

I spent a year recording Plangent in three different countries with 18 different musicians so the recording process varied massively from different spaces to different performing techniques and communication methods/scores I used. The intimacy thing is something a lot of people describe that has always come out when I perform. I recorded my first EP in a tunnel, so when I went into the studio I was intent on creating some atmosphere and intimacy through the recording process in preference to added effects trying to retain the essence of a performance through different microphones and different recording techniques.

When I was recording musicians it was just me and them, a really intensive and concentrated atmosphere, and when I recorded my vocals I engineered myself so what you’re hearing is me singing alone in the studio. Then I used a lot of field recordings and blended recordings from different spaces together to get that feeling of being somewhere specific as my previous work has always been site-specific and recorded in one location, but this time the location is really a creation for the album that came from my mind and the songwriting collage. The recording process was one of trial and error to get this atmosphere right for what was in my mind and through that I built a wealth of sounds that were both deliberate and accidental. I’m into using accidents if they work for the song and I don’t differentiate so much between noise and music, so those incidental sounds are kept in there constructively to build each track.

I sense a confessional quality to Plangent. To what extent is the record a vessel – or public diary perhaps – for secrets and personal experiences?

Well, I would say each song is a true story, and all the field recordings are recorded as I travel so you are taken on a journey with me in many ways. As much as it could sound like myth-making I truly am a bit of a travelling hermit so the idea of consciously having a public diary makes me cringe, but I’ve always had this compulsion to creatively share my thoughts in various ways. If I could express what I do through the album in other ways I probably would, it’s a necessity to express what I can’t – not a desire for others to know my secrets. By the end of a year of recording and then a year of figuring out how to self-release Plangent (after refusing several record labels) it did feel like something of an exorcism, those songs and sounds were definitely of a specific time in my life.

The promo I received for Plangent contained a track-by-track info sheet, detailing everything from the microphone choices to the mixing notes. It’s been interesting to listen to the album while examining your accompanying notes, particularly where they divulge your atmospheric intentions for the music (i.e. the annotation of “balance of delicacy and monolithic instrument”, which refers to the organ of “Psithurism”). What were your reasons for including this?

I’m a tech and vocals geek, and personally love it when artists include notes. I used to spend my teenage years poring over recording notes and then later uncovered their meaning in learning my own recording methods. I’m also self-released and self-produced so I wanted to show it’s all part of one big, crazy, ambitious idea that took so many people and places to achieve a process that might sound deceptively simple.

A lot of the field recordings on Plangent seem to fixate on the wind and the waves. Why are these elements of particular interest?

I am based by the coast in two countries, Denmark and the UK, so these sounds are threads that run through my life. I grew up in the countryside and need to be near the sea and the forest. I think we all feel most alive when we’re in the elements, the wind, the water, and connected to the land. It took so many attempts to record the wind, maybe two months alone just on that. I guess I fixate until I get the standard and quality I want, so there’s a lot of material by the end. There’s also fire, so all the elements are there. Sometimes I think all we artists do is try to place a frame around nature.

The record features a variety of guest collaborators (including Kev Nickells, who I’ve actually seen perform a couple of times before). How did you go about choosing the guest personnel for Plangent?

I really thought about what each song needed individually and brought in the artists I knew would bring those qualities to it, the whole album is like a huge collage in that way. I’ve been lucky enough to work with so many talented people over the years and even luckier that they all said yes. Each performer on Plangent is so incredible – I like to work with minimal rehearsal time and keep it sounding fresh when recording so I chose people who can deal with that and are able to come out of their comfort zone. I remember reading somewhere that Beck used to sack his band when they got good because he liked the sound of when it was still new, almost falling apart. I don’t know if that’s true but it stayed with me. I have a background in free improv so as soon as things get predictable I’m off pursuing some other direction.

There’s a beautiful moment when the balance is struck between knowledge and invention, confidence and inspiration. Often when you get people to play for a while something emerges that doesn’t feel so ‘performed’ and it also arises when you get them to take risks and challenge them a bit. There’s a truth in that somehow, and that was what I was aiming for. You can only really try that with experienced and capable performers who have their own creativity going on.

Tim and Will on violin and cello sound like they’ve played together for years but they were recorded separately and performed together for the first time at the launch, they’re just that good. Rachel has such a sensitivity when interpreting my songs and such a beautiful voice. The Vocal Ensemble brought the right blend of different vocal backgrounds and raucous energy to my sacred harp influenced harmonies. Kev and Al have followed a similar path to me in studying extended technique and pursuing the furthest reaches of their instrument. Essentially I chose people who are not only very skilled in their instrument but also really up for it, game for an adventure.

BY RICHARD BOLL

BY RICHARD BOLL

The album has a wonderful flow. Field recordings spill out the back of songs and vice versa. How important was the sequencing of these pieces, and is there anything special about the way in which the tracks interrelate?

The sequencing was very important because I wanted to make an album that was one piece, not a compilation of tracks. It was like weaving a tapestry with several colours of threads, bringing them in and out at the right times. I spent an incredible amount of time getting the mix right and mastered the album myself. It’s hard to put into words my methodology when but there’s definitely something special in the way the tracks interrelate. Apart from the obvious connections of collaborations that reappear such as Roger B Williams on the organ at the Union Chapel in London interpreting field recordings according to my graphic score, there are intuitive links that were about the songs and the places that I was thinking of when I wrote them that led to choosing certain field recordings and deciding between warm or cold instrumentation, acoustic or electric, strings or brass. My desire was to bring together several strands of my vocal and music practice in improvisation, songwriting and sound art to make something that was a cohesive whole. I don’t think any one song can represent the whole album, it’s not a single and filler enterprise, and it does kind of ask people to listen through.

I see you’ve performed in a variety of great venues this year, including St Andrew’s church in Hove and the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill (the latter of which is one of my favourite spaces). Given that there’s a lot of space and silence within your music, do your performances take on a different form depending on the acoustic setting?

Oh yes, completely. I spent years making site-specific installations and I use that approach to performing. Every room has it’s own resonance and also it’s own frequency that it vibrates at. The performance is my chance to get to know the space, to play with it not just in it. In fact I enjoy this so much I try not to play too much in the sound check so I can share that experience with the audience, it makes it a kind of playful and inquisitive and risky experience for all of us. I do a different set list every time and there’s always a lot of improv, new spoken word pieces as and when I write them. It’s been fun coming up with different ways of performing certain tracks from the album that are essentially unperformable.

When I founded the improv group Susurrations years ago I was exploring the weight of silences within music, something I now call ‘After Sound’. I think those silences have a special quality, that is an impression of the sound they follow, in the same way that if you stare at a colour and then close your eyes you get an after image. We all know the difference when the silence goes on longer to be an end of sound than between sounds, instinctively we stop listening and applaud. I’m still playing with this, excuse the pun. The silences and spaces are determined by all the variables of acoustics, venue, people… When you get to perform in such great spaces it’s like going to different restaurants; why would you eat the same dish every time when you have a different menu each time with some really tasty new possibilities? I really enjoyed performing at Full Of Noises festival because they let me write the menu.

What records are you listening and enjoying at present?

I just got the best christmas present of a replacement record needle that aren’t made anymore for my ancient Bang & Olufsen wedge record player, so I’m really enjoying getting reacquainted with my records. I’ve been listening to Soundscape Røst: Spaces and Species Vol.1 by Elin Øyen Vister which I picked up in a wonderful museum in Roskilde, Denmark and a great cassette compilation called Calendar Of Moons on Sofia Records, revisiting Nils Frahm’s Spaces and Jonathan Wilson’s Gentle Spirit, both really beautifully recorded and produced records and getting to know Alice Boman, Hugar, Jenny Hval and Hamid Drake’s work, in particular his Timelines album. I really enjoyed listening to Chris Watson’s premiere of Okeanos at the London Contemporary Music Festival recently too.

What’s next for you and your music?

I recorded “Everything Is Becoming Science Fiction”: a series of improvisational duos based on J G Ballard’s short stories with Ian Stonehouse and John Harries from Rutger Hauser and Graham Dunning last summer. We’ll be performing together at the Hundred Years Gallery in London on 5th Feb for the launch of the release on my label Plum Records. After that there’s a residency in Madeira and performing at festivals over the summer. Then I want to record a second solo album, this time totally site-specific so I’m hunting for the right new space to get totally immersed in.

Ingrid Plum’s website – www.ingridplum.com