Commissioned by Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop for the opening of the Creative Laboratories, Concrete Antenna is a site-specific sound work created by Tommy Perman, Professor Simon Kirby and Rob St John, which explores the past, present and future of the Workshop’s site.
We interviewed Tommy Perman, who gave us a deeper insight on his work, telling us about his inspiration, the bond with Scotland, the link between technology and art, his participation in the FOUND Collective in collaboration with Chemikal Underground and a lot more!
Concrete Antenna’s vinyl release is available to buy here.
ABOUT Concrete Antenna
Concrete Antenna’s sound has been gathered from audio archives and specially made field recordings rises, falls, breaks apart and splices back together across multiple speakers throughout the 22 metre tall triangular concrete tower. The work evokes the site’s various histories as a blacksmith, a railway siding close to the Newhaven docks and now a thriving creative workshop beside a wildlife rich cycle route.
Using a range of unusual production techniques derived from the tower itself, the recordings – foghorns, train whistles, gas work demolition, birdsong, construction work, wind in fishing boat sails and many more – are slowly reshaped in the piece, coalescing from their original form to something new, musical and celebratory.
The installation responds in subtle ways to the state of the tide at Granton, the prevailing weather conditions, and the movement of visitors in the tower, creating a unique experience for every listener. In doing so, the tower becomes a concrete antenna, picking up impressions of the imagined sonic memory of the site, which mingle with the natural soundscape trickling in through a periscope-like gap at the top of the building.
11 March – 22 December 2015
Monday – Saturday, 10am–5pm
INTERVIEW with Tommy Perman
You are an artist, designer and musician, which one of these disciplines was/is your first passion and how did it lead to the others?
To an extent I developed an interest in all of these disciplines at the same time.
My folks noticed that I had a certain flair for drawing and encouraged me from a young age. I can remember making lots of things as a child. I was always making my own cassette covers – I’d spend hours illustrating and designing elaborate foldout covers for imaginary bands. I remember thinking that some people get to do this sort of thing for a living and I dreamed that I could be one of them.
There was always a lot of music in my house growing up too. My mum sang in choirs, studied modern music at the Open University, and before I was born she used to review records for the Spalding Guardian. (She turned down the opportunity to interview Jimi Hendrix due to shyness_Read more here). She has a great vinyl record collection that me and my two brothers plundered in our teens. My dad played guitar in bands at school and more recently was a bassist in a blues band that gigged a lot around Scotland.
Me and my older brother used to do little jobs for him at the weekends, like scanning in photos and retouching them in Photoshop. I got into trouble in primary school for retouching a picture of my class photo – swapping heads around, adding beards and specs – that kind of thing. My teacher was furious and confiscated the black and white printout saying I’d breached copyright. I think she was just annoyed that I’d swapped her head with another teacher’s!
When I was about 14 my dad was laid off and perhaps foolishly he used his redundancy pay to buy amazing Christmas gifts for me and my brothers. We all asked for music equipment. My younger brother got a full size Pearl Export drum kit, my older brother a Gibson Les Paul and I opted for a midi sound module and a copy of Cubasis. (I should add that my parents had very understanding neighbours who were happy for us to make a lot of noise at pre-agreed times. And we really made a racket).
This was the pre-internet days and I totally struggled to set up the keyboard and get it to talk to the computer but once I did I started making loads of weird little electronic ditties inspired by DJ Shadow, early Ninja Tune and my older brother’s collection of Pussyfoot and Wall of Sound 12”s. I started sending elaborately packaged demo cassettes out when I was 16 years old but I didn’t succeed at getting anything released anything until I was 22.
So yep . . . drawing, computers and music have pretty much gone hand in hand with me for a very long time.
When was that new technologies became part of your work? Do you find that they let you better express your art?
I was born in 1980 and perhaps I’m from the home computer generation. As I already mentioned, my dad embraced new technology and I was exposed to computers from very early on. Working with technology just makes sense to me. Often when I’m not at a machine or device I’m thinking through processes and trying to solve a problem that’s arisen in a project.
For me the fusion of digital technology and more traditional analogue techniques gives me the tools to try and make sense of the messy, blurry place we live in.
Is there any technology you would like to further explore and integrate into your work?
There’s plenty of technologies I’d love to experiment with. The new micro-computer revolution (Arduino, Raspberry Pi and the BBC Micro Bit) is incredibly exciting. These low-cost yet powerful mini computers are great for using in interactive art installations and open up so many possibilities. I’m also fascinated by computer controlled devices like laser cutters, routers and 3D printers. Most of the drawings I produce are digital and 2D – I’d love to use technology to push them into more sculptural and architectural forms.
FOUND Collective, when and how was it born? With Ziggy and Kev, did you all have the same idea of what kind of “things” you were going to create? How did Chemikal Underground get involved?
FOUND was born out of a shared love of music and noise at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen where me, Kev and Ziggy studied. I think we had very similar ideas and the same kind of energy and enthusiasm for working collaboratively. There was a lot of irreverent cheekiness in our early work – which was largely alcohol fuelled. For years we took pride that our ideas developed in the pub. We were against what we perceived to be the pretentiousness of the fine art scene and to an extent the work we made together was a reaction to that.
We got involved with Chemikal Underground after we recorded our third studio album at their recording studio Chem19. Paul Savage mixed the record with us and really liked the album. He shared it with the rest of the label and they got in touch offering us a three album deal. I actually left FOUND in 2013 after the birth of my first child. We’d been making art and music together for over 10 years and becoming a dad felt like the right time for me to start something new.
There’s a strong bond with the territory in your work, Water of Life, the Great Circle app, what’s the relationship between you and your homeland? Does it play a big part in inspiring you?
The relationship I have with my homeland is complex. On one hand I absolutely love Scotland and I’m very proud and inspired by the creativity of the people who live here. On the other hand I don’t feel especially patriotic and I love traveling and learning about other cultures.
I can’t help be inspired by my surroundings – it’s something of a burden at times. I tend to develop obsessions with particular details that I’ve noticed when walking around my home city. I collect photographs of bizarre things which eventually find their way into my work in some form or other. I can often be found crouching in awkward positions photographing rubbish in gutters. I can only imagine what people must think when the happen upon a bearded, bespectacled man pointing a camera at a pile of broken plastic and weeds.
What’s the concept behind “Concrete Antenna”?
Concrete Antenna is a special commission for the new landmark tower at the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop (ESW). I’ve a long history of working with ESW – first getting involved with them in 2007 when they commissioned FOUND to write a piece of music for their 20th anniversary.
In 2014 they asked me, Rob St John and Simon Kirby to create a sound artwork for this very unusual structure that forms part of their brand new Creative Laboratories development. The building is designed by local award-winning architects Sutherland Hussey Harris and the tower’s something of a rarity in modern times, as on first viewing it serves no obvious purpose. It’s a very tall, triangular structure built from reinforced concrete and clad with brown clay brick. There’s an open doorway at ground level and when you walk inside the intimate floorspace you’re instantly compelled to look up to the large rectangular opening 20 metres above your head. This opening funnels the weather down on top of you and along with it the ambient sounds of the local environment: dog walkers and cyclists traveling along the old railway that’s now a cycle path; seagulls who’ve flown the short journey inland from Newhaven harbour minutes down the road; the sounds of people operating power tools and hammering in the sculpture workshop itself.
So Concrete Antenna combines recorded sound with the ambient sounds of the area to create a piece which evokes the site’s histories as a railway siding, blacksmith’s forge and now sculpture workshop. Rob has aptly described the installation as a “sonic topping out ceremony” for the tower.
In the project’s description the production techniques are defined as “unusual” and “derived from the tower itself”, can you elaborate?
The tower influenced so much of the sounds we made for the project both in the sound installation and recorded vinyl version.
As well as being an internationally renowned Professor of Language Evolution, my collaborator Simon Kirby is a highly inventive computer programmer. Simon created a couple of MaxMSP instruments and effects for me and Rob to use in our compositions. In software Simon constructed a virtual tower which we could play as an instrument – as though we were hitting the tall sides of the tower with percussion mallets. Then he created an audio effect that allowed us to play any sound as though it were resonating through the building. Simon also worked out the tower’s ‘chord’ – B E F# – which I used as the basis for a number of my compositions.
We slotted this “impulse” into a “convolution reverb” plugin which enabled us to add the tower’s distinct echo to our recordings.
Do you already have a new project in line?
I always have so many ideas churning round my head. There’s a couple of more major projects in the works. There’s one that I want to share with you though, so that it’s on record and I’m forced to do it!
One of my best friends Morgan Szymanski is a world class classical guitarist. He’s from Mexico City but came to study at my high school – we’ve been great friends ever since. He released a beautiful album called Estampas de Mexico (Sketches of Mexico) a few years ago. I’ve been hatching a plan to work on a follow up called Estampas de Edimburgo (Sketches of Edinburgh) which uses his original recordings as the sole sample source. It won’t be a remix album though – I plan to construct something completely different with Morgan’s original recordings and then we’ll collaborate and record some new guitar parts in response to my electronic compositions. I’m very excited about this project. The problem is I have two children under three and therefore no free time and Morgan has a very busy concert schedule, touring the world for most of the year. So we have exactly no time to do it but somehow we’ll make it happen!