Nick Wales Interview: Writing Music for “AM I” Dance Production

As part of the 2014 Melbourne Festival, Sydney’s Shaun Parker & Company presented Am I, an ambitious dance production featuring the music of Nick Wales. Greg Phillips caught up with Nick on the set of the show to discuss the creation of the music and finding that perfect balance between traditional instrumentation and electronics.

Contributed by Greg Phillips for the Roland Australia Blog
Video filmed and edited by James Philiips

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was in 1980 that Talking Heads’ lead singer David Byrne first sung those immortal lines, “And you may ask yourself, well … how did I get here?” and “You may ask yourself, am I right?… am I wrong?”, exploring themes of personal identity. In 2014, with his dance production Am I,  Sydney-based director and choreographer Shaun Parker takes that thread, delves even deeper into our psyche and considers the whole meaning of life. Am I my culture? Am I my faith? Am I a random cosmological consequence? These are some of the questions Parker set to music and dance in conjunction with composer, musician and producer Nick Wales.

Some of you may be aware of Nick Wales’ work with acclaimed instrumental group CODA or his collaborations with Sarah Blasko. For Wales, the Am I project was an ambitious one, creating a soundtrack to life from its beginnings to now.

“The brief from the choreographer Shaun Parker, was to make music that represented all of humanity, which is a really tough call to do,” explains Wales. “I was really drawn to exploring world music, acoustic music, tribal music … a lot of drums, Indian drumming and also Armenian music. That was really important for me because I felt that the sound of Armenian music sat between east and west. It didn’t sound like Turkish music, it didn’t sound like western scales of music. It has this other-worldly quality that I was really drawn to. So I took little fragments of Armenian traditional song and created new works out of that for the singers to sing. Also there’s the idea of devotion … devotional music, religious, spiritual devotion is common to all cultures. So that was another thing I tried to bring into the score.”

To achieve the desired results, Wales decided that there needed to be an electronic aesthetic but with the use of acoustic instruments. “I just love the duality of the two,” says Nick of his modus operandi. “The very pure digital with the organic instruments, I think there is something really beautiful about it. I am drawn to the warmth of strings, the warmth of a bass clarinet, the organic warmth but I also really love Detroit techno, as a passion of mine. So it is about combining those two elements into what I do. If we are using pedals or loops or electronics, it’s about augmenting the sound, not making it overly electronic. We use a lot of interesting delays in the work which just add a temporary edge to the traditional sounds, that brings it into the 21st century in a way.”

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The set design for Am I is quite sparse, apart from the featured, expressive light matrix background, which at times becomes quite blinding. It allows for the dance troupe to be the total focus. Above the stage action sits the group of talented multi-instrumentalists, which includes: Tunji Beier (exotic percussion), Alyx Dennsion (vocals, percussion), Jess Green (guitar, baglama), Jason Wolfe (bass clarinet, wind instruments and harmonium), Bree Van Reyk (percussion, marimba), Jesica O’Donoghue (soprano) and of course, Wales on viola and assorted traditional instruments.

There are three main instruments which are connected to effect pedals in the show, the viola, violin and guitar, plus the bass clarinet uses a Boss RC-30 as a sampler.

“We used the samplers as augmentation,” explains Nick.  “So Jason is often triggering himself playing and then he’ll perform over the top of that. Just to create an integrity within the sound …  we use the technology to augment what we are doing.

Initially a variety of effect pedals were used in the creation of the music including a Boss TE-2 Tera Echo and Boss RV-5 Delay, trying things out to see what worked for the show and what didn’t. What turned out to be one of the most important pedals however, was the Boss OC-3 Super Octave.

“Because we don’t have a bass player, not a true bass in the ensembles,” explains Nick,  “we needed to put some subs in. I use that pedal on my viola to bring some bottom end into the group. That was a very specific need that we needed within the group to really try to fill out the bottom end … also the bass marimba. Now although it is a bass marimba, it doesn’t have a super low end, so we use those devices to create true bass within the group.”

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Wales and Jess Green, the guitarist also made great use of the  Roland SPD-SX sampling pads in Am I. “We are looping phrases and also creating very long drones,” he says. “There are a lot of drones in the work that carry through different pieces and fade out. It’s sort of this backdrop to the whole work, these series of drones. It’s like there’s this macro drone world going the whole time. The SPD-SX, the sampler, we use that as a true sampler but in a very subtle way. There’s all these surround sounds in the theatre and there’s a universe of little digital birds sounds … we call it the digital universe … the sampler is always triggering them within the surround sound of the theatre.”

While Wales and co play their instruments, they’re also keeping one eye on the performance below via the monitors in front of them. In a live show like Am I, there is no room for error. Consequently, all of the effects need to be preset, with minimal tweaking occurring during the show. “All the pedals are preset, so it is just a matter of going to the set patches and then triggering'” Nick says. “We have our notes there and everyone has a very specific thing to do and a very specific time to do it. The use of the technology is quite precise, it’s pretty much like triggering a musical event.”

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The combination of a troupe of amazingly talented dancers with inexhaustible energy, some inspired choreography, and Nick Wales extraordinary score performed superbly, make Am I an absolute artistic triumph. It’s no surprise that the production will travel to Germany next year and most likely America as well. As for Wales, there’s a recording release of ‘Emergence,’ his collaboration with Sarah Blasko and the Sydney Dance Company and in 2015, a major international film project called True Spirit.

Hear some of Nick’s music on Soundcloud:

www.shaunparkercompany.com

boss rc-30 loop station

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