On Tuesday I found myself performing in Dublin’s National Concert Hall with an array of very talented musicians as part of Simon Quigley’s “A Night By The Ocean”. The video shows a snippet from the soundcheck, with Clare Kavanagh and Martin McCann duetting on “Ryan Vs The White Star Line”.
I shot it from my little guitar/electronics perch near the back of the stage. Below is a little run-through of the live setup, the challenges we faced and the workarounds we used.
In order to maintain a human, free feeling to the performances we avoided click tracks as much as possible. I used the old hip-hop “breakbeat” approach on many of the parts, splitting pieces of music into 1 or 2 bar phrases that I could “play” in sequence at whatever tempo the piece resolved to. We would have reference tempos at the start, but then let the piece flow.
One particular piece, “Lazarus”, uses two choirs, one male and one female, with them singing counterpoint in different sections. We didn’t want to use a click, so I had to do some clever programming in Ableton Live to get this to work. I had each 2 bar “segment” of each choir phrase mapped to its own clip (one male, one female), and set the triggering of the clip to be unquantised and in “Gate” mode”. This way the phrase would ply the second I hit the pad, and only as long as I held the pad down. I then grouped the tracks so I could trigger both male and female with one pad, allowing me to “step” through the choirs with my left hand, using my right for a sub-bass pattern at the end of the piece. Using MIDI and not audio clips allowed the natural attack and decay of each phrase to blur the lines between clips, making it sound very natural.
FROM CLICK TO CONDUCTOR
We had three pieces that needed to stay on click because they contained arpeggiated synths and had vocal cues for “free jazz” moments on the piano. Simon could hear this click in his ear, and I had my own click in my left ear. I also had Simon send his click on a cable to me, which I could hear in my right ear. I would then do a DJ-style “beatmatch” using Ableton’s Nudge controls to sync up. This has the great advantage of not requiring MIDI cables and syncing, as well as leaving me free to do what I like with drum patterns, note repeat, and other cool stuff. Simon would play any arpeggios or long phrases from his laptop, but I would have an empty sequence running, allowing me to completely improvise my drum, bass and synth parts.
Of course the string players needed to know where we were in the piece, so one of my jobs was to “conduct” them, marking the tempo using my own bastardised conductor gestures.
For the most part it worked really well, though I would love to get or build one of those visual conductor lights that Bjork uses.
Simon’s rig consisted of a master Ableton Live project per song, with a Novation Nocturn and AKAI Mini MKII for himself and Katherine. He also had a Korg synth for a few songs.
I was running my own Ableton instance, using Native Instruments Maschine for drums and “skitter” sounds. I also used it in Control mode for nudging the sequencer, and for starting and stopping. I had an Ableton Push also for triggering clips and clip groups, starting and stopping, playing in scale mode, and manipulating plugin parameters mapped to macros.
Of course all of this would mean nothing without the truly beautiful music; the vocal talents of Clare Kavanagh with her ethereal soprano voice, Martin McCann’s smooth emotional and dynamic delivery, Fiach Moriarty’s expressive lilt, and Katherine Atkinson’s captivating way with a melody.