Why Jane Harbour looks for a Happy Accident when composing with Spiro

Spiro is a machine that runs on many fuels; classical minimalism, electronica, Bach, systems music, punk and folk, to name but a few.  These influences breed riffs, rhythms and tunes which fight out their place on the 10 tracks on Repeater, an anthology drawing from our 4 albums for Real World.  Here are some thoughts about how we use traditional music in Spiro.

How, when its there, it becomes a springboard to create something new, and when it isn’t, it often leaves ghosts behind.  The majority of Spiro tracks fall into the latter category, but traditional tunes have always been a very important part of what we do. Three tracks:  ShaftThe White Hart and Burning Bridge, see them coming out to play on Repeater, a collection that to us sums up our musical and familial history.

That history, it must be said, is pretty sordid, and has included a fair amount of abuse – of ourselves and each other, but also of some innocent traditional folk melodies, and, subsequently, from many a frustrated purist, who has often been moved to throw stuff and bellow ‘you can’t hear the tune!!’  But if you could hear the tune, then the tune would’ve won the fight, and where’s the interest in that?  The excitement for me is in creating a general melee in which those tunes are fighting for their lives amidst strong opposing forces – riffs, systems, other tunes and rhythms.  Perhaps any kind of relationship is more dynamic if there’s a bit of interaction, friction, a bit of dissonance, where the elements are being forever changed and dented by each other.  In Spiro we’ve all sustained mutually inflicted injuries enough to know this, but I feel it’s especially true regarding the relationship of musical ideas to each other – that’s what to me makes interesting new music.

Spiro record 'The Copper Suite' at Real World Studios in 2018. The piece is based on three English traditional folk songs

Jon, guitarist and tireless enthusiast of the stunningly beautiful northern English folk tune tradition, is my combatant in the band.  My own natural creative instinct is to pull in the direction of original composition; original melody, riffs, systems, layers, dissonance, – the bigger, thicker, crazier and more vertiginous, the better. Jon gravitates towards traditional repertoire, dressing the tunes like the pop stars they once were, in fantastic bold grand spangly cloaks of chords, and keeping in check any transgressions beyond a 4-minute pop song structure.  We love what we both stand for but band fights do happen (which, traditionally in Spiro, often end viciously by reminding the other member of their most despised ear-worm) but hey, it makes for an interesting dynamic, and the fight continues, but thankfully mostly in the actual music.

When creating a track from a traditional tune I’ll first set up a kind of Spiro dating agency.  Hopeful bright pure English melodies are introduced to a suspect array of moody edgy riffs.  I’m looking for that Happy Accident – or should I say that Beautiful Uncomfortable Accident – a chemistry between the two that’s just right.  I avoid like the plague the Boringly Comfortable, or the Mutually Queasy.  Once a match is made, the tune, and all the other musical elements in the track, are treated like characters in a (fairly traumatic) story.  You get to know them as they set out on a journey; they collide, break each other down, destroy each other, change each other, get re-born, become fused together.

I want to care about them and myself feel a little bit broken down/destroyed/fused (could be a self-destructive streak I guess).  In the track Shaft, the tune Bobby Shafto gets mashed up in the middle section, and reduced to what sounds more like morse code, but the tune is actually still there.   I’m Over Young To Marry Yet in the track Burning Bridge has to deal with another melody line playing out alongside it.  Original tunes don’t escape this treatment either – I’ll write something only to disintegrate it  – so the tune of The Vapourer survives, true to its name, only in the air between the instruments at the end of the track, absent from any one part, but heard as a result of the three together, in one gloriously unhealthy co-dependent mash-up.  We Will Be Absorbed, after all… (a tune that follows the same fate).  Darkling Plains has three tune lines vying for attention with each other.

“When creating a track from a traditional tune I’ll first set up a kind of Spiro dating agency. Hopeful bright pure English melodies are introduced to a suspect array of moody edgy riffs.” Jane Harbour

One of the many reasons traditional tunes are so inspiring is because they needed to be strong enough melodies and/or ring emotionally true enough to people to be passed down aurally through the generations, giving them a timeless quality that we revere.  Good tunes survive like strong human genes – to quote Bill Bryson on evolution and survival in ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’:  they have been ‘healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so’.   I uphold those qualities of truth and emotional resonance as something to try to aim for – in writing the tunes for We Will Be AbsorbedWelcome Joy and Welcome SorrowThe Vapourer and I Fear You Just As I Fear Ghosts, I’ve been looking for some raw truths in myself.

I also love traditional music for it’s danceability, and – for all my love of chaos – for the strong backbone of structure that it gives to a track. The strong chord sequences that the tunes Bobby Shafto and The White Hart suggest, allow the arrangements to roll effortlessly around those chords long after the tunes have finished, leaving endless riffing possibilities.  This approach has gone on to inspire non-traditional tracks such as Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow, whose structure rolls ‘both sane and mad’ (Keats) to its conclusion.  At times I’ve simply nicked Jon’s chord sequence but not the traditional tune it accompanies, and used it as a springboard for writing new material (Vapourer / I Fear You Just As I Fear Ghosts), traditional structure still wonderfully intact.   Eastern European rhythms alone inspired The Sky is a Blue Bowl, written after the band’s ‘Hamburg’ – an early tour of Hungary.

Melody of one kind or another is for me the first building block of a track, but I’m not prescriptive about how I get my kicks in this department.  Riffs can have enough melody to carry a track.  Sometimes they’ll come out spontaneously when I’m playing or come into my head, other times I’ll spend many a happy hour on the sequencer painstakingly constructing them and using systems to converge them – I love writing parts like the Burning Bridge riff in which a tuneful line is fighting with another line; so the track is a fight within a fight, a kind of fractal tussle.  In Yellow Noise I wanted to create a track that survives on riffs alone, like a bit of electronica, using its tunefulness in a techno way.  Put it this way, if melody is our building block, then riffs are our mission statement, manifesting in many ways and in many juxtapositions.  Could be we all pile onto one riff, bigging it up before breaking it down; or Jase juggles as many simultaneous lines as you care to throw at him, like a kind of human sequencer; or Alex punktuates (no spelling error intended) the sound with his instinctive, edgy, painfully beautiful riffs.

Last year I was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 to write an orchestral piece based on archive recordings of traditional song from the Peter Kennedy Archive.  This was obviously hugely exciting.  I was able to work with the BBC Concert Orchestra, conductor Martin Yates and six of the BBC Singers and chose to create a tale which continues the personal journey of the notorious folk figure and admirer-spurner Barbara Allen.  In the piece, Kynde, she has – you guessed it – a total breakdown as she tries to come to terms with her regret after her would-be lover dies.  In the same way I love to melt down instrumental themes, I used systems to convey Barbara’s confused, fractured thoughts and her longing for re-connection and clarity. I disintegrated the voices, and the story, cutting and painfully repeating the stark truth of the archive tape’s words, juxtaposed with Barbara’s vulnerable internal world, represented by the live singers.  I had a lot of fun, and Barbara turns out alright in the end.

As for the future and Spiro’s next album, rest assured there’ll be plenty of meltdowns to come – oh and the music might crack up a bit too… we have a lot of fun, and the tunes turn out alright in the end.

By Oran Mullan

Published on Tue, 03 April 18

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