I don’t quite remember where or when it was that I first saw Eamon Roy, Hannes Lackmann and Will Hoffman perform together as Aia Trio, perhaps because I saw them so many times in a short period that all the instances have blended in my mind. I can only remember that each and every time I was captivated by their unique performance style. They play so hard IN to each other that you can nearly hear them listening to each other.
I spent a few months gently stalking them, going to their shows and their parties, before we eventually played a show together. Jessie was in the audience so I invited the four of them on stage for my final song. When Aia Trio came in at the end of HEATHER with their monk-drone choir I knew it was something worth capturing if we ever got the chance. I approached them immediately after their own set was over and they agreed.
Almost a year passed, though, before we could make it happen and it was during this period that the ideas for the Thorn Variations came to fruition.
Ideas often feel like nothing at first, so close are they to the previous idea or to the source. In the case of the Thorn Variations it all started when I, almost jokingly, put the clap pattern from ‘The thorn in her finger’ through the same process Steve Reich used to create Clapping Music. Using this process, a single rhythm is pushed forward one unit at a time until it returns to its original form. The basic idea is easily demonstrated by writing it out in binary code, replacing rests with 0s and notes with 1s. The first and the last line are the same and the digits move one to the right to create the next variation.
I thought this idea might make an amusing video performance. A cute tie-in to the first Dirt Hand EP.
Later, though, I read Reich’s ‘Drumming’ and was captured by the simplicity of the highlights in the first half of the piece. I wanted to hear how they might change if I let the players choose their own highlights in an improvisational setting. This then became THORN and informed the basic frame-work for the recording session.
I wrote out a total of three sets of variations on ‘The thorn in her finger’ clap pattern, one in the original 4/4 and two truncated into 6/8, as well as chord charts for each song, and booked a day at Sing Sing Studios.
Aside from Eamon on guitars, Hannes on drums, and Will on piano, we were joined on the day by some musicians I play with regularly: Jessie L Warren on vocals and percussion; Sam Boon on alto and baritone saxophones; and Andrew McEwan on MS-20 and percussion. Ingrid Zibell, who at times plays harp and synthesizer with us, was unable to make the date so we were saved at the very last moment by Anika Ostendorf on vocals, Solina Strings, and percussion and Tushara Rose on percussion. Special mention must also be made of the surprise addition of Danni Ogilvie on drums, who, paired with Hannes, formed one of the most sensitive drum partnerships we are ever likely to witness.
Another intentional surprise was the concept itself. I wanted to capture the sound of the players thinking, not just trying to get their parts right, so I told them as little as I could get away with before the date. There were no rehearsals and most turned up completely blind. But they were unfazed and we quickly got to work applying the variations to each song. In LION, each player chose a variation and created their part using that variation as a blueprint. For THORN we split in half, 5 of us clapping the whole of the variations and the other 5 reacting freely to the resulting polyrhythms. Then in CREATURE we used the same idea as in LION but only in the choruses. HEATHER contains none of the variations at all but it was the catalyst for this entire recording so it had to be here.
Originally this recording was devised as a quick, cheap, process experiment that could be slapped together, put out and then moved on from. The quality of the performances and the level of hard work put in by all those around me have convinced me otherwise.