In Haunt

By Emily Oldfield

Bringing a whale alive through sound and music, channelling the tunes of the Irwell and ever-experimenting with new ways of making noise - welcome to the weird and wonderful, immersive world of XVelastín.

XVelastín is the artistic name of Xavier Velastín, a sound designer and artist who studied in Manchester and although now working in Leeds, is regularly involved in projects (often touring) across the country, encouraging experimentation and thinking through sound.

Whalesong

His practice involves using alternative instruments, including specially-designed costume, to create sound: as was the case during his commissioned performance ‘The Sounds of The Irwell’ for last year’s Not Quite Light Festival. Wearing a see-through plastic mac and using various equipment, as well as his own body, he strived to build up an immersive soundscape with water and a number of everyday objects.

No wonder then, that XVelastín is due to return to Not Quite Light Weekend 2019… and with something different entirely: for this is an evening (Thursday 28th March) titled 'HAUNTOLOGY' at The White Hotel, Salford, created by NQL in association with HAUNT Manchester (tickets available here). An immersive performance can be expected, as Xavier is a maker with a manifesto. The point he holds of the highest importance is to 'always try a new compositional method or tool for each project' – a driving force when creating new work.

During his artistic career Xavier has created a soundtrack for a contemporary dance titled ‘Human’, provided reactive sound for ‘constellations’, live music for ‘Unbelonger’ and is currently composer and  sound designer of ‘random’ at Leeds Playhouse – and that is to give just some examples. His central role as creator of the sound/theatre piece ‘Me & My Whale’ - which follows the story of a submarine captain who falls in love with a whale – has also proved popular.

Ahead of his performance at Not Quite Light Weekend 2019, HAUNT Manchester spoke to him to find out more – talking about the liminal spaces explored by sound, skin acting as an electromagnetic receiver, the homemade ‘Gentleman’s Gloves’ and plenty else …

Hello Xavier! You have previously described writing sound for theatre as one of ‘happiest accidents’ of your life – how did this come about?

“Hiya! Well, until I was about sixteen, I thought I was going to want to be an actor. I'd always been very into music, but I loved performing on stage. I was learning classical piano, so I didn't really have anything to bring to a band, and I've never really liked band music much anyway. I sang a bit, too, badly – but a bit too badly to make a thing of it. My A level music course convinced me away from drama and into composition.

“I also got really interested in ethnomusicology - the study of non-western and non-canonical music. And when I ended up going to Manchester to study music for my undergraduate, I decided to act in a play during my first term, to sort of recall what I had loved as a teenager. I got chatting to the sound designer from that production – I had never thought of writing sound for theatre as a thing before – and he kindly passed me on some gigs. I ended up making sound and music for most of the drama society's productions, and it is one of the things I do as a job now.

“Theatre is really weird and surreal. Coming from a music world, a lot of the conventions are pretty different – the obsession with story and storytelling, the need for everything to make sense, the idea of composers usually being part of the technical team rather than the creative team. I've always been pretty interested in collaboration rather than making a piece that I'm fully in control over, and the limitations for a composer in theatre can make for some really exciting processes. I would never have thought about getting into this… my family aren't big on the theatre, and I don't think I ever thought it would actually be exciting. But it is exciting. And it's definitely been an inspiration and an encouragement for my solo work too.”

Performance

How does it feel to be involved in the upcoming Not Quite Light Weekend 2019 – and why do you think an event like this is important?

“I think liminal times and spaces are really fascinating. It has inspired a lot of art. When I used to go on nights out more, I would actually love seeing that transition from the night-time carnival into dawn. Especially if you've gone out in town, and you see the people starting their day – delivery workers, cleaners, nurses – at the same time as others end them; clubbers, service workers, also nurses. Seeing it and being in it gives this very strange surreal impression of life. Intoxicants probably helped, too.

“When I was making more 'music', most of the better things I'd write were done after a night out, or after a night in making sounds until the morning. There is something to be said for the timelessness of night being pushed back by the inevitability of dawn. When I did a residency by the banks of the river Irwell for last year's Not Quite Light, that was maybe the first time I'd really explored it from an in-and-of-itself sonic point of view. It was really ear opening. The event itself was great, too. A lot of people had put a lot of work into it, and it paid off. So I'm really excited to be coming back.”

Concepts such as risk-taking and being daring are often seen as somehow dark. Do you think this is the case when it comes to sound… and why is risk important to your work?

“Risk is really important to my work. A few years ago I realised all the things I was making and doing with sound – piano, Djing, instrumental composition, electroacoustic composition, producing – it was all supported by and hidden behind some sort of framework. Whether it was other people, or the tracks I had selected to DJ with, in some sense there was a limit to how good and bad it could be.

“When I started doing live things with my voice, especially when it was just me alone on stage, or me and a microphone, I got that rush that I found when I was in school of being on stage. When I get behind a mic, and there's nothing else around, it could be the very worst thing that people have ever seen, or the best. I live for that shit.

“So my solo work now tends to be focussed on having everything created in front of you – even if I'm using lots of different microphones and hacked devices and speakers, if I'm not doing it, nothing happens. And if I do it badly, it's terrible. This clashes a lot with the theatre sound design work I do, since theatre people get all flustered whenever 'tech' is out of control. But that's kind of amusing, too. I think you have to push limits a bit. We're in an age of constant reproduction. I have to do new things, or do old things new, to find new modes of expression. Especially given the ridiculous state of the world, it's in some way down to artists to rethink experience.”

Concerning the theme of darkness… sound has many mysterious qualities. As a sound artist, do you feel ‘in control’ of it or can it still surprise you?

Haha… I guess it does have many mysterious qualities. Compared to seeing things, hearing can be a lot more muddled and indefinite, and that can lend you to think weird things when listening. Sound constantly catches me out.

“I did a residency in 2017 at the HopBarn near Nottingham (i.e. the best place in the world!), and sound artist Angie Atmadjaja showed me this weird effect you can get with low frequency sounds. Because of the physical properties of the sound waves, which at low pitches are huge (I always imagined sound waves as like, nanometres, but a 50hz tone has a wavelength of almost seven metres), you can walk around the room when different tones are playing and hear completely different sounds as the waves cancel out or reinforce each other. Anyway, that was cool.

“I think I like to actively seek losing control. A theatre director once told me how theatre making is a gradual process of loss of control – a writer loses control to a director, the director to the actors, the actors to the audience. It's sort of at the basis of communication that as soon as the voice in your head turns into sounded speech, you stop being able to control it.”

XVelastin

What have been some particularly memorable projects that you have been part of?

“Me & My Whale is the biggest and longest project I've worked on. I started it as the dissertation for my masters, when I was in London, in 2016. It's the story of a submarine captain who falls in love with a whale but told through live sound and music. It's close in form to theatre, and it's inspired by my work as a theatre sound designer; but its heart is as a sound piece. We're currently touring it – we performed at Partisan in October and we've got a couple of dates in Newcastle and Sheffield coming up. The stage is full of sounding objects – a water bowl with a hydrophone in it, a metal music stand with a contact microphone, a few regular microphones, a motion-capture device and a gaming joystick. I use the programming environment max/msp to create and manipulate all the sounds live.

“I'm really proud of this piece. This has been the first project I've had funded by the arts council, which has basically let me work with some really incredible people – most closely with my collaborator Hannah Mook, a writer-performer of Manchester contemporary theatre companies Paper People Theatre and Powder Keg. We first met when I was doing sound design for Powder Keg's BEARS, which was at the Royal Exchange Theatre – that was also really fun. For that, I rigged the stage – which was made up from recovered metals and plastics – with vibrating devices and contact microphones, so I could shake the stage and process the sounds coming from it. I made a mix of my design, and also wrote about it on my website. I have the most fun working with others, and delving really deep into a process as a group.”

Can you tell us a bit more about the variety of instruments you use… and why the ‘unconventional’ approach?

“The instruments I use are usually a mix of amplification and some sort of computer-based processing. I really like using contact microphones, which hear through solids rather than air, because you can zoom into the very quiet, internal life of objects. I buy them now, handmade from Jez Riley French, but the first one I used I made. They're amazing. I remember putting one against one of those portable heaters – the ones with the panels that look like normal radiators – and plucked the metal. The sound that came out was this massive low vibrating tone, something you could never hear through the air. But you can also use them as a sort of pressure sensor. Using software, I can set it up so that when I tap it, or whatever it's attached to, it triggers some other sound. This is the basis for a lot of my live electroacoustic works, as it means I can play without being stuck behind a computer…I hate seeing a sound artist perform frowning behind an Apple logo.

“My favourite 'instrument' that I've made is called the Gentleman's Gloves. They're really stupid. They're a bunch of audio cables (jacks) taped to the fingers of a pair of big hiking gloves, then plugged into a PA. When the tips of the cables come into contact with skin, they release this big horrific buzz. That's because the moisture on our skin acts as a big electromagnetic receiver, so the buzz is the ground hum from nearby power lines (it gets terrifyingly bigger if I move closer to a socket). I've even had it once pick up shortwave radio. I made it because I got annoyed at cables. The reason they're called the Gentleman's Gloves is in homage to Laetitia Sonami, who made an instrument called the Lady's Glove, which responded to finger and hand movements in a very sophisticated and expressive way, and I figured this was the male equivalent.

“A really good DIY instrument, I think, has to be one that you are always learning from – in the same way as a conventional instrument – one that takes a long time to master, and practice. The most refined I've got in terms of expressivity and technical sophistication is probably the Air Marimba. Created for physical piece Unbelonger in 2017-18, they use motion-capture to play a variety of virtual instruments, including tuned percussion, processed vocals, and synthesised tones. Listen here.”

Vocal Vertebra

Has the landscape of the North inspired your work, would you say?

“Landscape has never been a primary influence on me as an artist; I am pretty obsessed with water, though. For last year's NQL Weekend, I undertook a residency by the River Irwell that flows between – and divides – Salford and Manchester. I spent a weekend getting up at dawn to experience how the river and riverside sounded at its different points. It was a really amazing experience. I usually make work in collaboration, so having this very personal relationship to the river for that time was a big change for me. The piece that I performed at Night Lights was a live piece trying to recreate the experience using things that I found on the river banks – broken crockery, plastic bottles, beer cans, bits of polystyrene, building materials, foliage. I was recreating my thoughts and feelings as well as the sounds themselves. You can hear a bit of it here.”

Can you tell us a little more about your future plans?

“A theatre show that I've been doing sound for is opening in Leeds – it's running until the 16th February at the Leeds Playhouse. It's called random, and it's about a family torn apart by a random act of violence. It's a really moving piece. Then in a few weeks' time I'll be in Newcastle performing Me & My Whale at the Star & Shadow, and another time in mid-March at Theatre Deli in Sheffield. I want to develop a few pieces to take around festivals this or next year, so mostly I'll be working from home on that. And aside from that I'm continuing the never-ending search for work and commissions. And of course I'll be at the Not Quite Light weekend on the 28th March!”

Find out more about XVelastín on his website.

Image 1: XVelastin - whalesong - Cred: Ana Roitenberg

Image 2: XVelastin - M&MW Metil - Cred: Luca Rudlin / PeopleStaring  (still taken from film)

Image 3: XVelastin - &itbreathes_blueout - Cred: Xavier Velastín

Image 4: XVelastin - Vocal Vertebra - Cred: Unknown (audience member. The event was Vocal Vertebra #3 in Barcelona ran by Gregorio Fontaine).

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