Max Eastley: Images of Sound
Interview by Fergus Kelley (Avant, late 1997)
[Excerpt from the article:]
Max Eastley began in the late sixties to investigate the relationship of chance to music. Using kinetic sound machines or the environmental forces of wind, streams and sea. As a consequence his career opened out into these various branches of creative and philosophical exploration. He has exhibited his sound installations internationally, and collaborated with a wide range of artists, musicians and filmmakers, including Brian Eno, Peter Greenaway, Evan Parker, Thomas Köner and Eddie Prévost. After a tour of Japan with David Toop the album Buried Dreams was released to critical acclaim.
Tell me about the instrument that you play – how you came to create the Arc?
It actually started life as a sculpture, well, one of a series of sculptures – very large flat wooden bow shapes pulled into tension by steel strings which were fixed in trees and played by the wind. They were about ten feet long with metal resonators and purely acoustic. They had just been exhibited outside the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and I had them in my studio when Hugh Davies asked me to perform with him in a gallery where we were exhibiting. I just took one along, struck the string and flexed the bow, changing the pitch. Its ancestors are the musical bow, the Tromba Marina, which was alleged to have been used for signalling between ships, and the monochord, which is used to demonstrate the harmonic series. Subsequently I adapted one of the originals: made it smaller and in two halves so that I could transport it, put on a magnetic pickup and amplified it. That’s the basic form. The pitch range is much larger than conventional stringed instruments. You can pluck and bow the string, stop the string along its length and change the pitch by flexing the body of the instrument, so that quarter tones are possible. It’s very subtle, definitely not tone/semitone, it’s more like a voice. Add digital effects and you have a formidable array of resources. I’m always finding new things, it’s like another planet. It almost plays itself – maybe it remembers its beginnings as an Aeolian Harp.
In what contexts do you use it?
As a solo instrument in live performance and in recordings. I used it almost exclusively when I toured Japan with David Toop, and it features on our album Buried Dreams. I have just used it for a project with Martyn Bates recording Songs of Transformation, which are songs from the collection known as the Child Ballads.
This sounds like an unusual departure?
Well Martyn has already recorded two albums of murder ballads with Mick Harris, and he contacted me as he heard I was familiar with the Child Ballads. We exchanged tapes, arranged some meeting and recorded eight of them in one day. The songs were not radically changed in text or melodic line, but I improvised on the bow with some additional tapes of my installations.
They sound very far away from the usual folk song genre?
We tried to re-emphasise what is there already which is chilling, dark, beautiful, and frightening all at the same time, like a dream. It felt to me that I was painting psychic landscapes in which the voice unfolded these extraordinary narratives.