So much of Richard J. Birkin’s craft centres on human connection. His new record Vigils exhibits the warmth and understanding of an intimate conversation, with classical instrumentation (piano, strings) navigating space with a patient, empathetic grace. Yet instead of confining his music to the concert hall, Birkin often turns to creative technology to bring audience engagement into the 21st Century – for instance, his Songs For Spoken Words project involved transmitting written poetic passages to an app on audience mobile phones, with the pace of the poetry dictated by Birkin from the stage. Where so many artists either yearn for the organic interactions of the pre-digital age or thrust themselves into the beeps and binary of today, Birkin finds ways for both to harmoniously co-exist, channeling breath and physical caress into the mediums of wire and radio wave.
Below, Birkin recalls piano-purchasing fantasies in strange antique warehouses, explains how to engage with a professional string quartet for the first time and illustrates how HTML code can be as much a canvas as the musical stave.
The first time I listened to Vigils, I was taking a sunny walk around a lake near to where I work. A lot of those lush and orchestrated pieces really aligned with that environment. But sitting in my flat on a dark evening where only half of the lightbulbs work, listening to those “Vigil” piano pieces…I read somewhere that you wrote a lot of these pieces in a spooky old mill that used to be your studio?
Yeah. The piano pieces, Vigil I through VI, were all based in the mill.
It sounds as though they were probably written at night?
A couple of them were actually written during the day. “Vigil I” was written at that studio on a bank holiday Monday when I had nothing to do. The whole mill was empty so it was a little bit spookier, but it was still daytime.
The actual recordings were done in various buildings where I live in a little town called Belper, just north of Derby. At the end of my road there’s a community centre with a nice piano in, which I used on “Vigil I”. All the other “Vigil” pieces were recorded in a piano restoration room in the middle of an antiques warehouse in another old mill in Belper.
On one of the “Vigil” pieces in particular – I think it’s the second – you can hear something clunking around as you’re playing it. So were any of these pianos in a pre-restoration state?
It was a lovely piano. The reason I went there was because I was still trying to find a place to call my own studio, and I didn’t have room for a piano in my house. If I’d had room at the time, I would have bought that piano. It was a lovely restored Yamaha. There was no piano restoration work going on; it was literally where this restorer puts his restored pianos so that people could have a look at them and buy them. It’s just in the middle of all these crazy old antiques…there are Victorian fishing nets you can buy and all sorts of weird stuff like that. Lots of stained glass. It’s just a really strange place. When I moved here I kept going back there to try pianos, fantasising about when I could find a home for one. Sadly that piano was sold before I got my studio. I’ve got a different one now.
Judging by the sound of those pieces, the piano seems to have quite a few quirks and unique characteristics. Do you have a period of “acquaintance” with the instrument, where you negotiate a playing style that accords with how the instrument sounds?
Yeah. A good example of that is on “Vigil V” towards the end of the album. The pace of that piece was completely dictated by the piano – I would just wait until things had stopped resonating before I went to the next chord. And then “Vigil VI” just came out of that, because I just played those last two cadences from “Vigil V” and made a new piece out of it. So yes – there was definitely a dialogue between the instrument and me.
Did you produce the record yourself?
Pretty much. I produced all of the piano bits, went to a studio in London to record most of the string bits, and I did some of the electric guitar bits with some guys in a Derby studio. I guess you could say I was the producer, given that I went to each place and told people what I wanted.
Do you find that to be a creative process in itself?
Yeah. My album before this one was under the name Emphemetry, and that was done in the same way: I’d have an idea of the kind of piece I wanted to make, and if I could make bits myself I would do, but if I needed other people for some bits I would go and get them. I’ve done projects in bands before where we’ve gone to a studio for two weeks with a full plan and executed it alongside a producer. But with my own stuff…I like the feeling of assembly. I like the feeling of knowing what it should sound like, but not hearing it back until it’s completely done.
So I’ll have an idea about a piece, and then I’ll go and record the piano part as I’ve got the time and the access. And then that’ll just sit on my hard drive until two months later when I get in a studio with a string quartet, and I’ll come up with an idea for them to do over that…with some of the stuff on this album, I don’t think the quartet even played to the piano, so the first time that it all came together was actually in the mix.
I grew up reading all of that Brian Wilson stuff about SMiLE. I’m not for one second equating my process to Wilson…but you have an idea and you record it, and then you have an idea for another bit and you record it in another session, and you just know that when you put the two together it’s probably going to work. That’s an exciting process; assembly is as much a part of it as the writing.
It sounds like there’s been a lot of conscious deliberation about the way instruments sound in the recording. For example, when “Moonbathing” comes in, the brightness of the guitar is quite alarming in contrast to the gloom of the previous track.
The presence of “Moonbathing” is a very conscious thing. A lot of people have picked up on the fact that it’s very different to the rest of the album. For me, it’s about all the same stuff. Keeping that in there was…it’s not like people were telling me to leave it out, but people sort of go, “oh – I’m surprised that it’s there, and it was a shock when I heard it”. Four minutes later you have the voice coming in, which is even more of a surprise to some people. I think it’s nice to introduce that different palette of sound. I think of it more like a soundtrack to the stuff the album is about than being an album of music, so in that respect, there were always different elements and atmospheres to a soundtrack.
I’ve read a little bit about the record’s subject matter, but would you mind talking about that a bit?
When I’m writing for myself and thinking about themes, it’s a little bit like flypaper. I’ll start with an idea, and then as time passes and I read more books and news – and, you know, just experience life – different ideas will stick to that original theme and then it will become something else. This album started out as me trying to soundtrack bits of Murakami’s Hardboiled Wonderland & The End Of The World.
There’s also a chapter in Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, where he recollects when the first phones got installed in his part of America. It was a chain line, so whenever you picked up the phone you could hear the other conversations that were going on. He remembers all the different people in the various connected houses tuning in. His mother would sing down the line, so it was almost like this collected concert down this phone line. It’s a beautiful part of an absolutely stunning book, but it made me think about this day and age; that technology has evolved considerably, and we’re still trying to do that which was a restriction of the technology at the time.
Was there any part of the record concept that only became apparent when you’d finished it? Perhaps something that you were working at subconsciously that only became clear in retrospect?
Yeah, there’s definitely an element of that. When I listen back the record before this one – A Lullaby Hum – I’m still hearing things that I did subconsciously, and I’m still experiencing them for the first time. A lot of the creative process is completely unconscious and instinctive. A guy that was interviewing me last week asked if I deliberately repeat the motif from “Accretions” in “Vigil III”. At the time I thought “I don’t think so”, but listening back to it I obviously do, because I was in that sort of mood and thinking about those sorts of things, or I was playing the piano in that particular way.
That flypaper is always happening. It’s not like I finish the album and throw it away; I’m still reading things that add on to those original ideas and developing stuff that might turn into the next album.
Do you get an opportunity to explore any of that during your live shows? Does it allow you to elaborate on the material?
I’ve not really played much of the Vigils stuff live. I only really started doing it last weekend…
You played at Derby Cathedral, right? How did that go?
It was quite special. I was playing before Haiku Salut – who are fantastic – and Grawl!x, who make this really wonderful glacial indie pop. Playing with those people was fantastic, but being able to play in that space and on that grand piano…it’s the tick in the box for me as a musician. I went to town on the atmosphere, and got them to turn out all of the lights and just had a spotlight shining from behind me so that I cast this big shadow on the ceiling. I was kind of invisible and in silhouette.
While I was doing it, I thought that there must be a reason why I wanted to do that. And then I realised that it’s because of the silhouette; I’d never really thought about it before, but obviously it’s a theme on the album. And the section of that Murakami novel is all about shadows. It all links in, and those bits that work are going to stick around and be repeated. We’ll see how it goes as I work on the show.
It looks like you’ll be performing in a variety of different spaces when you tour next month. It must be interesting to adjust your performance depending on where you’re playing.
I’m looking forward to that. Obviously the music lends itself to spaces like a cathedral, where the space is as much a part of the event as you as a performer. I had last-minute show booked the other day, where I’m going to go and play in Manchester supporting Adem. That’s at a place called Fred’s Ale House in Levenshulme, and I was wondering whether I should tailor the set for the backroom of a pub. In the end I decided no – I’m just going to try it as is. We’ll see how it goes. It might fall flat on its face. When I’m doing the tour it’s just me performing, so I can quite easily just keep doing what works or try different things.
A couple of the reviews of Vigils seem to be particularly drawn to the intimacy of your music, so it’s possible that it’d adapt quite well to that sort of space.
I hope so. In past years I’ve played in hundreds of rooms like that with a guitar and a loop pedal, and it’s only now that I’m bringing out the piano pieces. There’s no reason that it shouldn’t work, only that it’s a bit more unusual to have a guy playing spooky instrumental piano music in the backroom of a pub.
What’s it like shrinking the music back down again to solo pieces, now that you’ve expanded them to feature string quartet and other instrumentation?
It’s been nerve-wracking, but the cathedral show made me think that it’ll be alright. I’ve steered away from the pieces that rely on the string quartet and just played the pieces that already existed before the strings went on there.
Did I read that this was your first time working with a professional string quartet too?
Yeah. My first experience with a string quartet was on the album before, where I got a local group that was made up of music teachers. One of them was my music teacher at school – we met at an event and I was like, “I’ve been wanting to do some string quartet stuff; would you come and do it? I don’t have any money”. She said that it was fine as they just do it for fun anyway. So then I had my first experience with writing for a string quartet and scoring it out, and that was “flying by the seat of your pants” style stuff. They were all really helpful. From that positive experience I decided I wanted to do that across a whole album, so in the interim years I’ve been working on how to do it. I’ve built up the experience through a few other sound art projects: booking the studio, booking the professional musicians to come and do it, not completely shitting myself the whole time and knowing that it’ll just work because they’re great players.
Going in with my material and the Iskra Quartet was great. They’re so disarmingly lovely. If you’re a fan of that stuff, which I am, you think about the fact that they played with Johann Johannsson when I saw him. But you know – one day they’re playing with Johann, and the next they’ll go play on a Take That record, or go on Jools Holland and do the backing violin for a folk band. They just love playing. The voice in the back of my head is going like, “you’re just a dude from Derby with no music degree”. But then Iskra come in and go, “hey – this is a really nice score. Shall we do a run through?” And then that’s the take, and it’s more wonderful than you ever thought it could have been. Some people are addicted to loud amps and guitar solos – I’m addicted to writing dots on paper and getting other people to play them.
What’s the biggest thing to overcome when learning to write for a string quartet? What do you need to be armed with?
In lieu of any academic terminology, you just need to know how you want it sound. I haven’t got the patience to make MIDI strings sound like I want them to. I use them to write, but you just know that there’s another 30% on top that’s just not transcribable, so you just have to know that it’ll be alright.
Also, it’s about having the confidence to go, “can you make that sound a little bit more dusty?” During the recording of “Vigil VI”, one of the things I said to the two violinists, John and James, was “can you just imagine that what you’re playing is coming out of a gramophone in an empty room?” And they go “ooh – that’s nice. I haven’t been told that before.” That’s another great thing: I guess classical players are regularly spoken to using the correct terminology, so for someone to come along with just an idea or concept or mood…that might be quite refreshing. They seemed to like doing a couple of run-throughs and trying to sound old fashioned.
And did they get the sound you were going for?
Yeah, 100%. That was the last thing we recorded together, just as the cellist and viola player were packing away in the control room. Because it’s just a short piece, we just played it through a couple of times in the space of a couple of minutes and I said, “a bit more gramophone?”, to which they said “yep – we know what you mean”. [laughs] It’s nice when you can say that and people don’t think you’re mental.
From what I’ve seen in interviews, it seems that you’re a reasonably big Mark Hollis fan.
Yeah, I love the Talk Talk stuff and that Mark Hollis solo record. Actually, I hadn’t really heard the later Talk Talk stuff until I did A Lullaby Hum, and a reviewer mentioned that there are elements of Cluster and Talk Talk. I thought he must have been joking. I mentioned it to a mate and he said, “no – have you not heard the last two albums? They’re like Spiderland. You should know about them.” Obviously I was instantly hooked. There’s all the story and myth around those records. It’s very addictive.
When I saw you mention them, I started to identify a lot of similarities in terms of your use of silence and anticipation.
Yeah, I agree. Again – it’s not a conscious thing, but the existence of those albums and the things that Hollis says about silence being better than even a little bit of noise…when someone you really respect says something like that, it sticks with you. It’s not like I sit down at the piano and go: “what would Mark Hollis do?” But you just have that courage that if you do nothing for a little bit and just let it happen, that’s okay. That’s one of the main things that sticks with me about those latter Talk Talk and Hollis records: let anything happen and it will just happen.
I understand that you also make use of “creative technologies” – mobile apps, etc – as part of your practice, often as a means of engaging the audience in an entirely different way. How did you get involved in this?
When I was trying to find a way to make a living in music in my 20s, I started pursuing a lot of stuff to do with digital creativity. I absolutely fluked my way into a job for a technology start-up in London where I just kept getting asked to do weird stuff. I don’t know if you’ve ever been part of a start-up, but there’s always something where it’s like: there’s a job to do, but we’re not really sure what the job title is or if anyone could do it. I was the guy who said, “pay me and I’ll see if I can figure it out.” Because, you know – I’m a musician, so they knew I was creative enough to give it a go, and if I couldn’t do it I would say so.
When that start-up folded, I got a job back up in Derby with this agency that came up with mad ideas for stuff. The Royal Shakespeare Company came to us and said that they wanted to do something online, and we ended up producing Romeo & Juliet on Twitter. TFL asked if we wanted to do anything with the London Underground, so we made a game that ran off Oyster card data. I had a good five solid years of being in an environment where I’m using technology to make my bat-shit crazy ideas possible. So when I became a professional composer and left that world, it stayed with me. Coding some HTML is as frequent a canvas as going to the piano. From working in that way, I’ve always thought about the presentation element of the music I’m making or vice versa.
For my first project as a professional composer, I’d heard about this commission in Nottingham for something interactive in the middle of town. So I came up with “Night Sun”, where people would activate the music by turning the handle on a music box. I commissioned someone to write a story and someone to take some photos. It was triggered by an Arduino, and now whenever I think of people interacting I go: “could I do that with an Arduino?” The great thing about that kind of stuff is that you Google your idea and usually someone has thought of a component of it already, so you can just download their code and work off it. It’s a bit like Lego – I find bits here and there, and put them together to make what I want.
I love the premise of incorporating audience mobile phones into your performance.
Thanks. Yeah, that was for Songs For Spoken Words. Originally that project was just going to be a website. Through talking to Tom Armitage – who’s this amazing creative technologist – I got the idea that you could do it in a performance environment on people’s phones. So we did it, and now that technology exists we’re going to use it for other things as well.
It seems that a lot of your projects have a conceptual basis, or another element with which they’re in dialogue. Is that the most comfortable mode for you to work in, or is that just how it works out?
It’s just how it works out. The music is always driven by a guiding idea that’s separate from it. Maybe that’s the device I need to finish things and say “right – that’s now a thing.” Otherwise I’d keep sketching and sketching and never finish anything. But as soon as I have an idea, I can visualise how it’s going to look when it’s finished.
So just to finish up – obviously you’ve got a UK tour next month in support of Vigils. What else is happening in the immediate future?
I’m writing the score for a short film called Edith, starring Peter Mullan and Michelle Fairley. They used “Vigil I” in the trailer. I’ve been writing the score for that today, actually. That’ll come out in April or May.
Richard J. Birkin’s website – rjbirkin.co.uk