Innerviews, music without borders

Mark Wingfield
Imaginary Places
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2010 Anil Prasad.

For British electric guitarist Mark Wingfield, the words “organic” and “electronic” are not mutually exclusive. He explores highly-imaginative tones and colors via his instrument and it’s done without reliance on conventional effects, amps or pickups. His unique take on the guitar has served as the basis for an impressively diverse discography and dozens of compositions that showcase how he extends the guitar’s boundaries, as well as the many genres and influences he chooses to integrate into his work. A handful of the forms Wingfield’s output encompasses include jazz, rock, classical, and global sounds from Africa, India, Japan, and Turkey.

His new CD Sleeper Street exemplifies his wide-ranging musical philosophies. The album focuses on bridging jazz- and fusion-oriented performances with electronic soundscapes and beats. It features comprehensively architected compositions that leave room for large doses of improvisation. It’s not surprising Wingfield would want to integrate spontaneity into the recording, given Sleeper Street brings together several top-tier British jazz musicians. They include saxophonist Iain Ballamy, drummer Jeremy Stacy, keyboardist Robert Mitchell, and bassist Yaron Stavi, all working within a highly collaborative context that lets their unique personalities shine through.

Wingfield first garnered serious attention in the mid-‘90s, when he took part in ResRocket, a virtual band that combined live, in-person performances with real-time contributions from others via Internet connections. In addition to Wingfield, the group included celebrated musicians including Matt Black, Peter Gabriel, Todd Rundgren, and Dave Stewart.

Wingfield has since emerged as a renowned musician and composer in his own right. His work has been the topic of lectures and workshops at prestigious music schools across Britain. And his compositions have been performed across European concert halls. He took Innerviews deep into the philosophies that drive his multi-directional output, as well some provocative, personal advice he feels can help propel other musicians into new and uncharted territory.

Your guitar and compositional output is based on a unique combination of organic and technology-based expression. Describe the balance you’ve achieved and how you got there.

I'm always looking for that sound that will lead me somewhere different—a sound that lets the guitar take flight and render into music and imaginary places. I first heard that with Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis' late '60s work. Their music went past the limits of what we previously knew. Jimi used a lot of electronics to do this, and at times, so did Miles. Yet with both there was still a strong sense of fingers and breath in the sound. For me, the physical fingers on guitar is the essence of it, but I like the way you can use the beautiful and sometimes startling colors electronics can offer.

Some of the technology I use in composition is there to allow me to play things on the guitar that would otherwise be impossible. For example, on the track “The Serpent” from my last album Three Windows, I used the Roland VG-88 V-Guitar System and guitar synth to play chord voicings that aren’t normally possible on guitar. I discovered a lot of these voicings composing some pieces for piano a couple of years ago. The sustain pedal on a piano allows you to play chords that encompass the whole keyboard and I wanted to be able to play these on guitar. It’s basically the same principle in that I'm using the VG and synth to act like a piano's sustain pedal.

I also like to use samples a lot, which is another way technology comes into what I do. I tend to use samples that almost sound like something you know, yet you can't quite say what it is. Since you don't quite know what the sound is, your mind can create an imaginary place for it, which the music can inhabit.

Synth keyboard sounds to me are very important as well, to the point where they can become part of the composition. That’s because when I compose, I'm often trying to turn an atmosphere I feel into music, so getting the right synth sound to do this can be crucial to me. That means in most cases I need to go in and build the patch myself, which is fine because I love doing that sort of thing. I see it as part of my craft as a composer—and music geek.

Elaborate on your finger-based approach and what inspired it.

It was influenced by listening to sax and trumpet players and hearing how much they could do with the tone and how much they could vary it. Then I'd pick up the guitar and every note sounded more or less the same, like "ping." That's the sound an electric guitar string actually makes when you pick it. I was using all kinds of fuzz boxes and different amps, choruses, etcetera, to try and get a more interesting tone variation in the notes, but it just didn't cut it next to a sax or trumpet. I was just putting a different coat of paint on the "ping."

So I set about experimenting with different ways of sounding a note with my hands, different things that could be done to change the tone just with your fingers, and all the different movements you could do once you'd hit the note and it was sustaining. At that point I realized that this was what I needed to play what I was hearing in my head. So I locked myself away and woodshedded it for some time, getting those things together.

What specifically about the Roland VG-88 do you find so appealing?

Probably the most important thing for me about the VG, apart from its sound-designing ability, is the fact that it captures every tiny thing you do. That includes down to the angle of the pick on the string. If you scrape the string, you can hear that perfectly. In some ways, it preserves more of these details than traditional effects boxes, which tend to obscure them all in a layer of sonic paint.

Traditional guitar sounds are obtained by sending the guitar signal through various boxes that modify the sound in three of four basic ways. You have various types of distortion, delays, and tone and volume controls. But basically, you’re hacking away at, or adding to, the basic guitar sound. Finally, the signal goes into a guitar amplifier which does its own version of these same things. You can get some very nice sounds this way, but the number of and character of these different sounds are very limited. These types of effects basically haven't changed in essence since the '60s, yet technology in other areas has moved on by orders of magnitude.

Part of the history of the electric guitar has always been to use the latest technology and see where you can go with it. So I see this as part of the instrument. The Roland VG is new technology. It allows you to work on the sound at a much deeper level. You're not just modifying the sound a bit—you're actually reforming it. But the VG is not a guitar synth and that's an important point to me, because guitar synths don't capture the tonal details and variations in your playing. With the VG, the tonal quality of every tiny noise you make comes through just like with traditional gear, and that's very important to me. The Roland VG isn't the only unit that uses this sound modeling technology of course, but most others are based around the idea of trying to recreate the sounds made by the traditional gear, and that's all you can do with them. The VG also allows you create your own unique sounds that no traditional gear could make, yet they still sound very much like a guitar. That’s because they're formed from the original sound your guitar makes. It’s this combination that allows me to get the sounds I'm after.

Although the VG is an integral part of my sound, I'm also now using Logic Mainstage on a laptop as a front-end to a variety of software that has opened many new creative possibilities that are great. I still have the VG feeding direct into the monitors, but I've now got sounds from the laptop along with that. This opens an even wider sonic palette with a lot of interesting potential.

I find your choice of the word “ethical” intriguing when you've described how you feel software tools should be applied to music-making.

This isn't really an issue in jazz and improvised music, but I think it’s affecting a lot of other music. We are now at the stage, with the latest releases of studio software, that performances can be completely manufactured on a note-per-note or phrase-by-phrase basis. This is exactly what a lot of studio tools are now aimed at. Vocalists don't need to be able to sing in tune because there's software that will fix that automatically. You can now grab a note and simply drag it onto the beat and the software stretches it so the rest of the track stays in place. This means if you have a singer or instrumentalist who doesn't know how to phrase a line in an effective way, the producer can fluidly manipulate the phrases on screen into something better.

Of course, a few people will use this technology to do something really interesting and creative, but I think mostly it will be used to churn out sanitized empty crap. A great singer—or even a good singer—will give a performance which carries in it their emotional reaction to the song. A good proportion of the artistic and emotional content of a performance is contained in the subtle pitch and rhythmic variations. So, if a producer manufactures this performance, it may be "technically" perfect, but any real artistic or emotional content is going to be erased. Real performances are not perfect, but the emotional and artistic messages they contain go beyond that.

Some musicians argue all that matters is the end result, and that it doesn’t matter how you get there. What’s your take on that?

I'm not a purist who thinks all music has to be recorded live in the studio. I think the studio is a fantastic creative tool, but at the heart of almost every great recording are the performances.  However, there are hundreds of albums coming out where all the drums, bass and often guitar are quantized. This means that any real performance information is lost—if there was any. What I mean by performance information is the feel or emotion of the performance, a lot of which is contained in the exact timings of what is played, and that is all lost when you quantize it. On the other hand, the musicians may have struggled through the song, barely staying in time, so there was no performance information to be lost. After quantization, you wouldn't know which it was and it wouldn't matter because the music would probably be completely sterile.

Of course, there is a lot of great music being recorded by musicians who have learned to play their instruments. But I hear a lot of new music in which everything has been quantized and Auto-Tuned, including rock music. The fact that studio tools are aimed at just making this easier and easier is something I find disturbing. A lot of music is about a performance. A performance, either in the studio or live, is a direct communication of the musician or singer—it just comes out and they feel it. It’s a translation of their inner state and their reaction to the music. You don't have to be a virtuoso to do this. You just need to have basic control of your instrument. This is the way we have communicated through music since the beginning of time in almost all styles and all cultures. Although a good track can have a strong element of programmed material, that's not enough. For me, the best results almost always come from the actual performances played within that.

Describe the creative process behind Sleeper Street.

I wrote all the songs over a period of weeks and during that time I also designed all the synth patches and samples. Then Iain Ballamy and I worked together on the tracks, making changes and improvements here and there. When we got together in the studio, it was a pretty organic process like most jazz albums. We discussed various approaches to different tracks, sometimes staying close to the approach I had when writing, and other times changing approach on the spur of the moment.

Despite the fact that all the musicians are well-known in the U.K. in their own right, Iain and I were the only two who had worked together before. But knowing the styles of all the players, I felt it would work well. I was hoping for some spontaneous magic and that's exactly what I got. I couldn't be more happy with how everyone played together. But that's not surprising because all four of these guys are such great musicians. Iain is such an original player and has a profound ability to bring the most out of a piece of music with his playing. Jeremy Stacey is an amazing drummer and I think the drive and intense rhythmic dialog he provides throughout the album really makes it exciting. Robert Mitchell is a phenomenal player too and can make great things happen on either piano or synth, which is quite rare for a jazz player. And Yaron Stavi is another fantastic player. He has a warmth in his playing and tone that gives the music a solid emotional center, which was essential for this music.

What tend to be the biggest musical challenges you face in your creative process and how do you overcome them?

Pushing the boundaries of what I know and can hear is the biggest one. That's always a challenge, but for me it’s also what keeps me interested. It takes me a lot of work and effort to push out of the known into something new that also still sounds satisfying. I spend a lot of time exploring structures on the piano, moving onto paper or guitar and then back onto the piano. I'm searching for something that I already know on some imaginary level, but haven't yet discovered how to describe with notes. It’s something I can't quite hear yet, but intuitively know is there. It can take a lot of work to find these things, but it’s very satisfying when you do.

Some feel the best instrumental music is that which is designed to tell a story. What’s your belief?

That's exactly how I see it. It’s very much about storytelling. Both improvising and composing for me are about translating or rendering an inner state or story into sound. Very often for me, a piece of music is about a time and a place, imaginary or real, and the story of the lives in that place. It’s not a story that has a plot with a beginning or end. It’s more of an emotional story or the story of lots of people all in one. It’s abstract, which means the story doesn't need to be definite or concrete. The details can take different forms for different listeners. But for me, it is about telling these stories. Music is by its very nature abstract, and that's what makes it great for telling these sorts of stories. Even if each listener hears his or her own interpretation of what you're saying, something of what you felt is contained in there.

You promote yourself separately as a guitarist and composer. Why?

To some extent, these are separate worlds. I have composed a number of modern works for classical players. These works get performed in completely different venues to often very different audiences than my jazz-based output. Having said this, I have mixed the two musical forms. The album Three Windows is in part about that mixing of composed classical composition and improvisation. I composed the harpsichord parts, which often formed the basic structure of the music and then Iain, Jane Chapman and I improvised within that structure. Although a lot of my compositional output is jazz-based, composing for classical musicians presents a whole different set of possibilities which I'm also very attracted to in a different way. So, I’m working in two separate worlds and they don't often cross over. In one way though, it’s all part of the same music to me and I'm sure I’ll do more work that mixes the two areas in the future.

In discussing your work as a composer, you've described what you think constitutes music and what you feel is another art form. Elaborate on that for me.

My view is that music is the language of emotion and I think this is built into our physiology. As a composer, you are inevitably working with this language, and every note you write is part of that language.

There is plenty of evidence that rhythm, melody and harmony are built into the physiology of our brains and to ignore that as a composer, I believe, is a misunderstanding of what music is. I think the way our minds decode music and the way music carries its emotional message, is via one or more of the three elements: rhythm, melody and harmony. In my opinion, without one of these elements, a given sound does not have the discernible mechanisms needed to contain musical information, or for our minds to decode it and understand it on a musical level. It’s like spoken language—without any vocabulary, grammar or pronunciation, you can't say much. You might make some interesting noises, but it won't be speech and it won't contain the information speech carries. Timbre and dynamics can add to the meaning and impact of music, but on their own are not enough to carry musical information, in my view.

This doesn't mean I think music necessarily has to be tonal in nature, or rhythmic, or harmonic. But it does have to have at least one of these elements in order for me to define it as music. There are certain kinds of things held up as music that I don't think should be and I think that's one reason why I spoke out about this. I read about a composer recently whose work consisted of a huge block of ice that sat in the middle of a room and melted. The sound of the water dripping was supposed to be the music. To me, that's not music and should not be called music. It should be called sound sculpture.

Having said that, I don't think there's anything at all wrong with sound sculpture as an art medium. Sound sculpture in itself is an interesting and completely valid art form. But I think it’s distinct from and should not be confused with music.

One might say “What difference does it make what you call it?” But actually, I think when you name it for what it is, the listener, the composer and the funders change their priorities in very significant ways. I think being clear about the definition would be a healthy thing for the future of composition.

You recommend musicians not listen to their favorite players to avoid being dominated by their influences. How did you arrive at that conclusion?

I think if a young player is searching for an original sound, that this approach can really help a great deal. I sometimes provide an analogy of 10 people on 10 islands. If you put 10 people on 10 desert islands with a guitar, the same instruction book and the same five Eric Clapton records, then picked them up five years later, most of them would sound like some version or other of Eric Clapton. If, however, you did the same thing and again gave them each the same five albums, but instead you give them an album of Japanese shakuhachi music, Stravinski, Miles Davis, Gambian drumming, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, you'll get a very different result. When you pick them up they're all going to sound pretty different from each other, because their influences are diverse. That's an illustration of the principle I'm talking about.

Everything you play is a product of things you've listened to. In a sense, there’s no such thing as an original musical idea. Originality is about interesting combinations of influences. The way you combine your influences and your choice of influences, will naturally be a result of your own musical personality. Wayne Shorter, one of the most original-sounding saxophonists ever, described how his playing is a bit of this person, and a bit of that, and a bit of the other—it all goes in, gets scrambled, comes out the other end, and that's him. That’s not an exact quote but it captures the gist of it.

You disagree that jazz is an intellectual art form. Instead, you believe it’s purely “gut-driven, instinctive music.” Why can’t it be both?

Personally, I don't feel it is both, but maybe that's just the jazz I like. By the term "gut-driven," I don't mean that it’s only the brute or base emotions that are involved. It can be any feeling at all and frequently is. What I'm talking about is the fact that jazz is driven by emotion, from the most subtle mood to the most powerful outpouring. At its best, it’s literally a translation or rendering of what the musician is feeling about the music and the moment, and that's the whole point. Music says what words cannot.

If I start mentioning some of the greatest names in jazz, like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Kenny Wheeler, Jan Garbarek, Pat Metheny, John Abercrombie, Terje Rypdal, Keith Jarrett, and Lester Bowie, what characterizes their playing and music is the feeling in it, not anything intellectual. Listen to Coltrane playing a live version of “My Favorite Things” for example. He plays the melody and then his sax takes flight with such uplifting intensity. It always knocks me off my seat. That's not about being intellectual when you play—that's about being driven by something emotional.  It’s obvious if you watch Pat Metheny play that what he's doing is not about intellectually calculating. He's completely immersed in the feeling of the music. Kenny Wheeler's work, some of the most beautiful and poignant music ever written, is emotional stuff. I think this is true for the vast majority of great jazz musicians.

Of course, there is an intellectual element to learning how to play jazz. Playing jazz often means improvising continually while the chords in the music change. This means you have to continually change the notes you play, as you improvise, to fit the changing notes in the music. To be able to do that takes a lot of study and practice—there's no two ways about that. But the point is, in order to really improvise well in jazz, you need to know these things well, so automatically, that you don't have to think. It’s like learning a language. To do so means you have to study grammar and vocabulary really deeply, and that learning is an intellectual process. But once you can speak fluently, you don't think about any of that. In fact if you tried to think about how you were forming the words or the grammar, you wouldn't be able to speak fluently. You just know what you want to say and it comes out. Playing jazz or improvising is the same.

You've explored several global musics in your work. How deep do you get into these traditions before attempting to incorporate them?

As deep as I can without being part of that particular tradition. For me, it comes down to spending time listening to a particular kind of music. I have a big world music collection including a lot of recordings made in the ‘50s and ‘60s of tribal music from Africa, East Asia and Eastern Europe—before Western music influenced those cultures directly. I think there’s a lot to be gained from listening to these pure forms of folk music.

When composing, I will choose a particular piece of music that really resonates with me, say a group of tribal people in Gambia performing a song with drums and voices. I'll choose a section and transcribe that. I'll then have a look at the structure of what's there and imagine what it would sound like with different instruments playing different parts. I might play it on the guitar or write it into the computer. Either way, I will mutate it and search for the core of what I like about it. What I'm looking for is some part of it that inspires me. It might be just one bar of music in the end, or it might be just one part of the rhythm or one instrument. Whatever it is, it has to make musical sense to me within the context of my own musical world. Otherwise, even if I love it, I can't use it as an influence.

Jane Chapman is one of your key collaborators on your previous albums. Describe your attraction to the harpsichord/guitar combination.

I worked closely with Jane on the Three Windows album, which was a joint concept. Although I composed most of the songs, the germ of the idea that I used as a starting point for composing, often came from musical experiments Jane and I did together, with a lot of important input from her with ideas and sources. She's also a great person to work with and a very creative mind—a real innovator.

To me, the harpsichord is like a giant guitar, only it can do all sorts of things the guitar couldn't possibly play. It sounds the notes in basically the same way as a guitar. You have metal strings which are plucked, only it’s done mechanically by pressing notes on the keyboard. It can be very percussive or lyrical, and it’s had quite a renaissance in that it’s now a popular instrument for modern composers to write for. That’s due in part to Jane's championing of the instrument in modern contexts.

The great thing from a composing point of view, is that Jane is such an amazing musician, she can play practically anything you throw at her, even seemingly impossible things. Though very much a classical musician, she also understands improvisation. Traditionally harpsichordists have always been required to improvise accompaniments in a similar way a guitarist or pianist plays jazz chords, and as far back as the 17th century.

Tell me how you hooked up with Iain Ballamy and what it’s like to collaborate with him.

Iain played on my last album Three Windows. When I first heard him play, I instantly became a fan because he has such a distinctive voice on the sax. When you hear Iain, you just know it’s him right away. He’s one of the most sensitive and intuitively expressive sax players I know of. When I was composing for Three Windows, I kept hearing sax in my head and I just had a feeling Iain’s playing would work well with the songs. So when it came time to record, Jane and I gave him a ring and asked him to play on the album.

When I started composing for Sleeper Street, I wanted a full band sound which included sax, so of course I asked Iain. I liked the idea of a lot of the melodies being played in unison with the guitar and sax, which is something you don't hear often. Collaborating with Iain is great because he’s always coming up with really interesting ideas. He worked with me quite a bit on Sleeper Street and I think it benefited a lot from that.

What is your approach towards integrating ideas and feedback from the musicians you work with?

I love that collaborative thing, where the music is a shared experience, something that comes together from a meeting of minds. When composing for a jazz album, I write the songs, the chord progressions, melodies and some of the sounds. Then I hand it over to the group and let the musicians tell their own musical stories and converse within that. At that stage, I'm just another member of the band. I’m looking for the essence of what I was trying to create—the mood and feeling—to come across though their interpretations.

During the recording session for Sleeper Street, Iain in particular had some great, spontaneous ideas, which added a lot to the recording. Jeremy Stacey and I mixed the album together, and for me that’s also very much part of the creative process. His creative input there was indispensable. So, a lot of the album, though still my concepts, chord progressions and melodies, is very much the sum of all the players.

What future projects can we look forward to from you?

My next project is working on a new album with Swiss keyboardist and composer René von Grünig. In many ways, we have a shared musical vision. We’ve collaborated on many projects and our forthcoming release will be our fifth effort together. René has such an original voice on the keyboard and he's such a brilliant composer that it's always great to work with him. So, recording this new album is something I'm pretty excited about. We have some really interesting new ideas for the album. As I mentioned earlier, I'm exploring some new technologies using the laptop with the guitar, which are presenting some amazing possibilities. Musically, this is going to be the most ambitious album René and I have done to date. We've got a lot of cool ideas we're working on both in terms of composition and sounds.

What terrain do you feel is still unexplored for you as a musician?

There are endless things to explore because music is an infinite thing. When I compose something, it’s a matter of discovering the combinations of notes that describe the inner state or feeling I have. When I find a way of describing a particular mood or feeling musically, that can often feed into improvisation too, though not always. So, in a sense, every time I sit down to compose a new piece, I'm likely to hit unexplored musical territory. I think there's also a lot to explore sonically, in terms of creating and working with the new sounds technology is making available. In some ways, I think we're only scratching the surface in this area.