Talks with Jim Cole about Innertones


Jim Cole

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AV:  Hi Jim, nice to be talking to you again. For those who may not already know it, who comprises the Spectral Voices and how is it that you came to record music with them? 

JC:  Good to be talking with you again too Michael.  We Spectral Voices have always been Alan Dow and myself at the core, with other guest musicians joining us at various periods throughout our history.  Spectral Voices grew out of informal gatherings of those interested in overtone singing in southernNew England, beginning in 1991.  I searched for reverberant spaces locally because singing amid such acoustics helped us to blend and focus attention on drawing out the overtones in our voices, and encouraged contemplative listening during these improvisatory sessions.  My search for ever more reverberant spaces culminated in finding the water tower, which became our “home” for two and a half years. 

Alan began singing with me in ’92 and as we continued to sing with others in the water tower in ’94, Alan and I began crafting musical structures and improvising together more and more.  I had already invested in portable recording equipment to document most of the water tower sessions and Alan and I became ever more keenly passionate about developing certain musical ideas and recording the results in the water tower.

Many of these were formed the basis for the pieces on our debut Coalescence and follow up CD Sky.  After the water tower was demolished in ’96, a long search to electronically reproduce the acoustics of the water tower led to further refining  the sound that we had begun developing in the water tower era.  The music on Innertones captures music from both of these phases, as well as some solo explorations with looping overtone singing.  Spectral Voices on Innertones includes Sharen Baker and Damon Honeycutt.


Alan and Jim


AV:  Is there a difference between the music you record with the Spectral Voices and the music that you might record on a solo project?

JC:  Yes, and the only ‘solo’ music I’ve released has been of me overdubbing my voice by looping it electronically live on the fly with a “virtual water tower” atmosphere.  The music with Spectral Voices is distinct from my solo work so far in that each person in Spectral Voices is interacting live with others as it is recorded, whereas solo I’m interacting with myself moment by moment through quasi-live looped voices – it is all done live, but I’m responding to vocal lines I recorded moments before and blending what I sing “live” the next moment.

The two albums Godspace and The Way Beyond are entirely of this multilayered looping approach, whereas for Innertones there are only two pieces that utilize such live looping.  The distinction between my solo and group work blurs sometimes when Alan and I have incorporated looping along with live interactive singing for concerts.

AV:  What is harmonic overtone singing and what makes it so unique in regards to ambient music in general?

JC:  Harmonic overtone singing is singing two or more clear notes simultaneously.  There are actually many overtones in everyone’s voices that are generated along with the basic tone (aka “fundamental”) but we usually hear them collectively as timbre (tone color) rather than as distinct tones.  Overtone singers learn to modulate their vocal apparatus to attenuate many of these overtones while focusing a particular overtone that they’d like to ring out distinctly.  Basic overtone singing is where the singer keeps the fundamental note steady and projects one overtone along with it – by slightly shifting the resonance s/he can project a neighboring overtone in the next moment while keeping their fundamental note steady.  By doing this in succession, the singer can create a scale with the harmonic overtone series.  Harmonic overtone singing also encompasses singing an overtone that is in parallel with the fundamental, singing overtones contrary/independent of the fundamental (contrapuntal), keeping a steady overtone while shifting the fundamental, and more.  Most people hearing it for the first time cannot believe it’s “just” human voice.  Basic overtone singing sounds like the singer is droning a note while someone else plays flute (or whistles) over the voice.  Traditionally, the music that is made with overtone singing inCentral Asia (ex: Tuvan/Mongolian throat singers) and other places in the world is not necessarily close to ambient music.  We Spectral Voices used hugely reverberant natural spaces for our vocal overtone improvisations early on, and the music we ended up creating in the water tower was especially slow, spacious, meditative and mostly arrhythmic.  We didn’t know about such music/terms as space music and ambient, yet apparently that’s the closest rubric for the music that came from those sessions.  I recall one electronic/ambient listener remarking that our overtone voices sound more synth-like than a synthesizer at times – this voice-as-instrument approach is somewhat unique in regard to ambient music, yet I perceive a kinship with ambient electronic space music in terms of sound sculpting, filtering and shaping the textures in subtle and slowly-evolving ways.

AV:  Innertones, which was released this year, is the fifth album to feature Jim Cole and Spectral Voices. Now I noticed on your web page that the material on this CD spans works from 1994-2005. Is this CD a collection of previously released material, sort of like a best of compilation? 

JC:  The music on Innertones is all previously unreleased on CD, although the three pieces from the water tower sessions were part of an extremely limited homemade cassette release many years ago (though for this CD release they have been properly mastered and re-edited).

AV:  What were some of the guidelines that you used to determine what songs to include on this set of music? Was there a theme or an underlying thread that you wanted the listener to follow as they moved from song to song? 

JC:  It is about “inner” tones in our lives and the subtle feelings, images, sounds, impressions, smells, thoughts, colors, etc. that we daily experience.  Sonically, there are many “innertones” we heard more clearly in such an ideal listening environment like the water tower, and being in such a profound space for long periods of time encouraged a kind of contemplative process in us.  The highest overtones and the bass notes – the “outer voices” of the music - are readily apparent in many atmospheres, but it’s the innertones that sometimes need a special place to draw one’s listening in, so that we begin to hear and become conscious of them.  The theme of Innertones is about expanding our listening to hear the tones within every sound, and this is a metaphor for observing subtle workings of the mind and a gentle reminder to wonder and listen to the quieter phenomena in our lives.

AV:  Your website says that some of the songs on Innertones were recorded in a water tower. Tell me about what it is specifically that made these 3 songs on Innertones so special by having them recorded in a water tower.

JC:  These three songs were improvised from some melodic/harmonic ideas and the water tower atmosphere was absolutely essential to the way these pieces blossomed: we were responding to our surroundings and each other in the moment.  The water tower was an ideal space within which to develop such improvised music because the extremely long, blossoming reverberation allowed each of us to respond languidly to the emerging music.  It’s a kinesthetic experience improvising music in the tower because we were literally immersed in the profound resonance and the blossoming reverberations were vibrating all over and through our bodies.  It was definitely much more than just what we heard, and feeling these vibrations as a whole-body experience enhanced the creative process – a real time, real space (real space-time!) experience.

AV:  If not all of the songs were recorded in the water tower where were the other songs recorded and how is it that you use these other environments to bring out the feelings of the music that you are recording? 

JC:  The other three pieces on Innertones were recorded in our living room.  We used electronic reverberation and looping to create atmospheres similar to the water tower.  Our living room (an ideal listening space for the home concerts we host – called the “Gathering Room”) is an inspiring place to sing and create music in for me because it has six large picture windows on both sides that provide outstanding views of our wooded lot – it feels like being immersed in nature even though it’s “inside” – it’s so airy, spacious, and atmospheric that it profoundly influences the feeling of the music created in it.

AV:  Is there a particular song on Innertones that really stands out in your mind as epitomizing what it is that Jim Cole and Spectral Voices stands for in regards to the music you create?

JC:  The last piece “Once Upon The Playground” expresses hauntingly dynamic atmospheres, subtle shifting tonalities, wistful spare melodies, and an overarching expansiveness and harmonic complexity that seems to best characterize the music we’ve been developing over the past 15 years.  It’s also the newest recording on Innertones and I’ve continued to refine it as I’ve performed it live in recent concerts.

AV:  If someone has never heard overtone singing before but wanted to try Innertones as their first exposure how would you describe the music they will find there and the kind of feelings that might be evoked as they listened to this CD?

JC:  I’d encourage them to read the reviews of Innertones at our site as they describe our music in words better than I think I can do.  What I experience listening to the music on Innertones is colored by the feelings I experienced while making this music: Joy, Wonder, profound intensity and restlessness of spirit that’s supported by a foundation of deep stillness and a sense of adventure.  I’m not sure if this will help someone who has never heard overtone singing or our music before.  I encourage folks to just go experience the music fully without any preconceived ideas or expectations…in other words, I’ve attempted after all to be non-prescriptive about our music as much as possible, and I hope folks are as surprised and delighted (each in their own way) as I was when I first heard overtone singing – it’s a wonderful experience, and no amount of words or description can really do it justice.

AV:  Is the music on Innertones altered in any way during the mixing or production process or is what we hear on this CD just your voices? 

JC:  It is just our voices recorded live.  The water tower pieces are live direct to stereo microphone with no overdubs.  What you hear is exactly as it unfolded in the water tower.  The group and solo music recorded in the Gathering Room is just as it sounded in the moment of its creation, meaning, there are no further overdubs or electronic manipulations or reverb added after the moment it was recorded.  “Once Upon The Playground” was edited because of some distortions in the raw recording – so those portions were excised to give a clean recording for the album.

AV:  Tell me about the feelings that you felt whilst you were creating Innertones or any of your music for that matter? Do you consciously think about what you are doing or is there an improvisation to the singing at all? 

JC:  It’s both consciously intending the emerging music as it’s being improvised as well as just “riding” with the overall feeling at times.  I love to explore the continuum of this balance and it seems some of the best music evolves through this dynamic process.  I’m often surprised by “unintentional mistakes” that inevitably occur in improvised music, and these often become integral to an evolving piece.  Nowadays many of my guitar-with-solo-voice pieces have many fixed modules within a fairly set form, yet there’s almost always improvisational breathing room so that they can continue to evolve.

AV:  Since this music spans over a decade of recording how well does it hold up in terms of the recording standards that you might apply to a project recorded this year?

JC:  The oldest recordings on Innertones are from the water tower era and I haven’t thought much about how I would go about doing such field recording now because I don’t have access to a water tower or similar huge real space – probably I’d use similar tools but maybe also try mixing a far stereo microphone placement with a nearer stereo mic in such a space – that’d allow dynamic manipulation of space/atmosphere in the final mix (like what I’ve been doing with the “virtual water tower” electronic set up these recent years).  It looks like I’ll be recording with another overtone choir this fall (’07) in the cistern on the west coast (the one that was the impetus for me to find such a reverberant space locally), so I’m looking forward to learning how they record voices in such a field environment.  The newer pieces on Innertones are recorded similarly to the standards I’d likely apply to a present project.

AV:  Tell me about the dynamics of the interaction between the various singers during the recording of the music that you included on Innertones.  How is it that you all stay on the same page so to speak in terms of where you want the music to go?

JC:  This is why I enjoy singing with Alan Dow so much and why I probably won’t do a Spectral Voices project without him:  we have sung together for 15+ years so there is much shared musical experience - and we have similar musical values.  That, combined with the “reverberant-space-as-instrument” sound that we’ve been developing allows the improvisations to cohere often with just a few singers involved – more singers would make it dicier as the combined result relies on each person listening and concentrating so carefully throughout the improvisation.  That said, fully improvisational approaches have fallen flat on their faces in live performance sometimes (we learn much from such experiences!), and much of the 150+ hours of water tower recordings, are clear “misses” even if there are some interesting elements in them – that’s where critical editing is crucial.  It takes time for any particular group of singers to improvise well together and the ultimate quality of the results depends on their individual and shared experience.

AV:  Any final thoughts about the music of Innertones or the making of this CD that you might want to share with our readers? 

JC:  It’s a joy that the diverse recordings over Spectral Voices’ history on Innertones flow well and I’m glad this evolution is represented on this album like a retrospective - yet it’s all newly-released music.  This album has been many years in the making and I’m completely pleased with final mastering and result. 

Thank you Michael for providing this opportunity to voice these ideas about Innertones here at Ambient Visions.

AV:  Always a pleasure talking to you Jim and I look forward to whatever you might decide to put your hands to doing in the future. Thanks for talking to us and good luck with this and future releases. Take care.