56n are Graeme Hawley (of Oldham) and Derek Martin (of Dundee), living in Edinburgh for over 18 years, and together for 15. Sleevenotes is their first album. It is not so much something that you listen to, as something that makes you feel you have been listened to. A record in sounds and words of the passing of time, during which love endured, relationships deepened, dreams stalled, and 56n sought refuge in the night sky, garden plants, and their neighbourhood. Personal and honest, it will feel familiar not just to audiences who have loved hearing these words on stage, but to new audiences who identify with the 21st century themes and its strong sense of artistic integrity.  In short, it is a soundtrack to now. Timeless, relevant, considered.

The sleevenotes to the album (of the same name, and hence the name) contain poetry which can be read to the music.  After the initial album finishes, the tracks can be listened to again whilst reading different poems from the Poetry Remixes section of the sleevenotes.

Remixing music with alternative words can draw out nuances in the music, create different impressions and contexts, or add an additional layer of intensity or meaning.  Here's what the band have to say about aspects of the new album:

 

"It's an album of memories and feelings," says Graeme.  "You could bracket it as lo-fi music, but we tend not to get overly worked up as to how it is defined.  It was certainly recorded in a domestic environment and low cost way, but from the outset we recognised that it was a difficult piece of work to categorise and in some ways that was liberating.  In essence it is a suite of classical music pieces, but we think of it as also ambient, or alternative.  Sunset is world or folk music to us.  What wasn't apparent at the time of composing and recording was the influence of church bells, but when we started to listen back to the recordings that sound was there, especially so on Trieste and Mensheviks' Lament".  This perhaps should have been no surprise; Graeme grew up near to a church with an active bell-ringing group of which he was briefly a member.

The music was composed and recorded in a relatively short space of time.  Some embryonic ideas had been kicking around for a while, but nothing serious was done with them until Graeme had the idea for releasing a collection of poems as sleevenotes to an album.  He had previously published a collection of poems called Reclamation Marks in 2004.  A couple of years later he began to perform his poems at spoken word events and slams.  With success coming in 2008, claiming the first ever Scottish Slam Championship title at the Aye Write literary festival in Glasgow, he began to perform more regularly and develop his own particular style.

"The bit of the project that took the longest was selecting the poems and then synching them with particular tracks", says Graeme.  "It was difficult to just select one, and sometimes the mood of a track changed when you put a different poem with it.  That's where the idea of poetic remixes came from.  So rather than select only eight poems, we picked six to match with six of the pieces of music to start things off, leaving Mensheviks' Lament and Sunset as instrumentals, and then created a section of poetic remixes so that the listener / reader could try this out for themselves.  Sometimes I'm worried that I have over-thought this whole thing, but at the end of the day the music and poetry components can be regarded separately, so if someone would rather then they can consider that they got a two for one deal on something".  "We don't know whether we have released a CD with poetic sleevenotes, or a poetry collection with a soundtrack," Derek adds.

One of the highlights of the entire process was the recording of Sunset.  Derek, a long term fan of Lisa Gerrard, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Sigus Ros, had been especially interested in pseudo language / alternative language and world music styles at the time of recording.  A holiday to Cyprus and watching the sun set left an indelible mark on both of them.  "We sat watching the sun set over the sea this one particular night.  We had gone especially to watch it again.  Once it had dipped and had started to paint the undersides of the few clouds that were around, we turned to leave, only to see at roughly 180 degrees a giant full moon rising over the other horizon.  It blew our minds," Derek recalls.

"It gave us a real sense of planet earth, not that we'd been oblivious to it before, but it was our own Earthrise moment", adds Graeme.  "We were on a round ball in between other round balls, and we got the kind of sense of the cosmos above that you normally only get at night by looking at the stars and planets.  That's what was so potent about  the experience I think - that it was still daylight.  Space is dark, but we could see space in daylight.  Perhaps we're weird, maybe everyone else is constantly aware of our cosmic situation, but I suspect not.  If we were we'd be more cautious and careful than we are, as a species".

"So, I had asked Derek if he could vocalise a sunset, and he said he'd give it a go.  I asked him a couple of times over a few weeks, but didn't think the idea had got under his skin that much, so I left it".

"Graeme was upstairs working on one of the other pieces.  I had been downstairs developing a sound and melody that I had been working on for a few days.  I wrote some pseudo text down and shaped it around the melody".

"Derek came upstairs and said 'I'm ready to do sunset now' or something like that.  I said ok, and pressed record just in case.  He sang it all the way through from start to finish.  I didn't know what to say.  We listened to the recording and felt that we had just captured that moment of sun set again.  I added some strings accompaniment which developed the sense that Derek had already created of the drama of the build up to the sun's disappearance followed by the warmth and colour of the afterglow.  I played it back, and Derek said he wanted to sing over his original recording.  He did, it perfected it, the whole thing was done in 15 or 20 minutes," explains Graeme.

After the recordings, each track was worked on meticulously to try and create particular sounds, iron out clicks and hiss and the kind of background noises you get when you're not in a recording studio.  "Some tracks were more straightforward than others," says Graeme.  "We used Audacity to do our own mixing, equalising, tweaking, whatever you want to call it.  It was really time consuming and absorbing.  We laboured over it like horologists.  But the end results were pretty much what we were after.  Manipulating the echo and treble on Ballet, for example, gave that sense of hearing a second hand upright piano being played in a college or community hall with someone working out a ballet routine or something like that.  When it came to matching a poem, I set a poem that I had been performing under the title 'Make Puberty History'.  The music knocked some of the harder edges off what is essentially a poem about looking back on options and choices and imagining things differently.  Musically it's extremely simple and nothing to write home about, but the image that the recording evokes in my mind makes the whole thing work for me.  I've stood outside rooms looking or listening in to activity, music, drama, lectures, and thought about my own skills and interests and wondered if I should take up a class, and found myself looking back, questioning.  I think a lot of what the music, and the poetry, captures and reflects is ordinary, and that's what I like about the album as a whole".

On that subject, they are keen that people take form the album what they want, but are also happy to identify the themes that they found themselves working with; bereavement, illness, time, regret, debt, acceptance, aging, relationships, families, love.  "There all perennial themes really," notes Graeme.  "There is also a theme of dickheads and idiots that runs through the poems as well I think it is fair to say.  Minor irritations, observations about 21st century life, delivered in as calm or resigned a way as possible.  That picks up on where Reclamation Marks left off, a sense of knowing what you are about and believe in, and not feeling the need to do battle with people who disagree.  There's a sense of composure, acceptance, and hopefully hospitality too".

Back to the music, Graeme describes the work that went into a particular piece, Fragments.  "It probably isn't possible to hear how much work went into that piece, but it was the one I developed the strongest connection with.  Against a backdrop of some sad things that were happening in our lives, I recorded some doodling I was doing with the strings instrument voice of the Clavinova.  It captured my mood at the time, which was understandably melancholy.  But in the same way that life felt in need of soothing and harmonising, I wanted the piece to sound less brutal, which was how it sounded to me.  Honest, but too difficult to hear.  So I developed some piano work over the stings track.  I cut and pasted and edited and chopped for hours and hours until I ended up with this.  It is "fragments" and "fragments", noun and intransitive verb.  I could have recorded it all again from scratch, but what I wanted to do was to try to make something sad beautiful and acceptable.  You can just hear a few joins and jumps, but the piece is actually littered with them.  I'm ok with it, it's just the piece's scars, lead joins on a Tiffany lamp.  For the set poem I went with a piece I used to do called 'Advice' because of the mood of the poem and the image of shattering at the end.  But I think I might prefer the Oldham remix about bird flight and starling murmurations.  The poems about illness and loss I chose not to set with Fragments.  This ended up being the way of the album - themes crossed over and kept reappearing either in music or poetry form".

Neither Derek or Graeme know how the album will be received.  "There is an audience for the poetry, we know that", says Derek, "and we hope this will both add a new dimension for those already familiar with the poems, whilst introducing the poetry via the sleevenotes to new audiences too".

"It's also about the artefact", adds Graeme.  "It will be available for download, but we personally think it is best in hard copy, and it tries to deliver something of value in terms of owning a physical CD.  Perhaps some people will only be interested in buying one or two tracks, which is great, but we think that you get more out of listening and reading the whole thing as a package".

Sleevenotes is released by Colon : Press on 24 February 2014.

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