Junto Profile: Darren Bourne (aka halF unusuaL)

From Nottingham, England: ignoring dead ends, composing for dance and theater

This Junto Profile is part of an ongoing series of short Q&As that provide some background on various individuals who participate regularly in the online Disquiet Junto music community.

What’s your name? Darren Bourne, halF unusuaL

Where are you located? I’m based in Nottingham, UK, where I was born but moved away soon after, and my formative years were spent on a farm in the Cotswolds until around the age of 5, when the family returned to Nottingham. I’m told I used to sing all the time on the farm, which led to singing in choirs as I grew up. I took up piano and then tuba, which was actually my main instrument until my early 20s, playing in a number of concert bands and small ensembles. 

I spent a number of years in Guildford, Surrey, where I studied on the BMus Hons (Tonmeister) course, after which I landed the job of house engineer at The Lodge Studios in Suffolk — a residential recording facility owned, and often used by, The Enid, who I once played keyboards with at the Hammersmith Odeon — a great experience! I ended up moving to London, working in various studios in the UK and abroad, engineering and programming (using Cubase when it still did only MIDI) on mainly album and singles projects for bands, some of which you may have heard of and some you probably haven’t. 

Eventually I was drawn back to my hometown to take up a more stable role at Nottingham Trent University as a technician in sound, which then led into teaching. I haven’t played tuba for years, but now play bass guitar to satisfy my love of the lower end of the spectrum! I even made my own bass guitar, which you see the head of in the accompanying image.

What is your musical activity? My musical activity goes back as far as I can remember and in many ways revolves around a search for sounds I’ve not heard before — kind of a “lost chord” thing. I remember hearing Rick Wakeman’s Rhapsodies album, which blew me away in terms of pointing to what might be possible with synthesizers and studio wizardry. My own “studio set up” consisted of an old Elgam organ and a little later an Octave Cat monosynth (well, kind of duo-synth), and I teamed up with a guitarist friend to experiment with sound. Later still things “took off” with a Tascam 244 Portastudio, when I could start to create things a little more like the Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, and Japan, etc. I was listening to, by that time — alongside Stockhausen, Varèse, Cage, and Eno, all of whom helped feed my inner philosophico-musical geek!

Still later, my gear list incorporated a Boss DR-110 drum machine and Casio CZ-101 phase distortion multitimbral synth … the sky was (obviously) the limit!

Many years later, I’m still obsessed with creating new sonic spaces, and technology is now available — hardware and software — that makes it a very exciting time to be involved in sound and music making. I like to engage with the Disquiet Junto weekly challenges as often as I can; similarly for the weekly haiku challenge from Naviar Records. I played a set as part of a live gig for Naviar a few years back in London and I tend to work a lot in collaboration, creating sound for other projects. To give a flavour, I’ve most recently been involved in creating the sonic backing for a text-based speech piece and also for a guided meditation for sleep. So, as well as more traditional music creation — and you’ll find various bits out there — some of my work is reasonably hidden.  For example, I’ve created soundscapes for the (very) contemporary Bodies in Flight theatre company and also Sakoba Dance Company as well as various short art film and even commercial video soundtrack work over the years. I tend to get involved with projects that sound like they will be interesting … 

What is one good musical habit? I think my early battles with a very technologically limited setup taught me to see what things were capable of if you push them beyond what they’re supposed to do. For example, I butchered the little spring reverb from the Elgam organ to open up more FX possibilities, much to my parents’ dismay at the time; I think they thought I was going to electrocute myself … and thankfully I managed not to! So, I guess my “good musical habit” is to follow things through: Keep going, even if it feels like a dead end. Blind alleys often seem to open up into cool and unexpected sonic spaces … eventually!

What are your online locations? I spend most of my time on SoundCloud and Bandcamp, but more recently I’ve been playing with visuals and taking a little more interest in YouTube. Please subscribe! ;-) Also Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

What was a particularly meaningful Junto project? It’s so difficult to choose only one of the Disquiet tracks! Many have something a little special for me; I counted around 150 halF unusuaL Junto tracks to date, but that’s based on a SoundCloud search, so there may well be more … 

One that sticks in my mind is actually a terrible piece of “music” from around four years ago, but it captured a unique moment. It was the 340th brief, which was to “record a piece of music entirely on the go.” I happened to be at the coast that weekend, so I decided to record some sea sounds and just left my recorder going as I walked along the beach … At one point I needed to take a leak (!), so I found a secluded sand dune to do so. Suddenly, a little furry animal appeared out of nowhere, presumably to see what all the running water noise was about! I think we were as surprised as each other … It was a perfect “haiku moment” — and what’s more, captured in sound on the recorder, so that became the contribution to that week’s brief as it was. At the time, I really liked that it took so little “effort” but a whole tonne of coincidence to manifest. At around 30 seconds you can just hear my surprised, “Woah, what are you?!” above the noise of the sea, etc. It’s always stuck with me as a special moment — I guess you had to be there! 

In working at a school, have you discovered interesting generational differences? There’s a lot to say about this, but very briefly, one key difference is the cognitive “scaffolding” available to different generations. It’s less usual, for example, for colleges to resource explorations in tape editing — I remember having great fun with chinagraph pencils, razor blades, and recordings on tape, and there was something really fascinating and rewarding about engaging with sound (as audio) as a physical medium. That bodily experience enabled a particular way of understanding how sound “works” as well as leading to distinctive creative results. On a similar note, my time working in studios called for knowledge and skill in lining up analogue tape machines as well as often having to work within the limitations of 24 tracks. The need to line up a tape machine is now rare and modern digital systems allow practically limitless tracks, depending on available processing power.

This isn’t necessarily good or bad, it’s just different. It basically means that different generations are thinking sound differently, which leads in different directions.

Do you feel that the music you record for theater and dance is “listenable to” on its own, or does it work almost solely in the context of the intended performance? This is a huge question and, again, I’ll give a couple of headline thoughts. My view is that soundtrack work can stand apart from its intended context but it changes in the process of divorcing it. In my view, all music is “listenable to,” but people can choose not to listen, for very many reasons. The missing piece in any music or sound work is the listener, and it’s pretty much impossible to know how a piece will land when creating it. A theatre or dance piece in some sense reduces that abstraction and lends meaning to the soundtrack — so, whilst the soundtrack often plays a supporting or more subservient role, it’s enabled by the context to play a particular role in the whole. Out of that context, interpretations, opinions and tastes can proliferate again. Hope that makes sense!

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