Working from ‘The Vennel’, his home studio in South Queensferry, Scotland, composer and producer Ben Chatwin creates a musical language permeated with an ambiguity, or tension, between the electronic and acoustic worlds. More than just a meeting of the two, what emerges is a daring, vivid and emotionally-charged music unshackled from a traditional sense of structure and genre. Following The Sleeper Awakes (2015) and Heat and Entropy (2016), Staccato Signals is Ben’s third album under his own name. It’s a bolder and more ambitious record than anything he has written before, largely the result of relinquishing different levels of control over the musical process. It’s an album which smoulders with an almost aggressive darkness, yet one that is laced with melodic glimmers of light.
Ben initially set out to make a purely electronic record with Staccato Signals, using primarily analogue and modular synthesisers, harnessing the unpredictability of hardware sequencers to write melodic lines rather than by hand with a keyboard. This was about giving up control to the machines – leaving them to their own devices, allowing chance and random elements to decide the direction of the music, ultimately making them more of a collaborator than a tool. However, towards the end of its writing, not satisfied with the results, Ben was overcome with the feeling that he needed to push what he had created further into new territory, in order to invent entirely new sounds and textures. He decided to work with a string quartet, exploring innovative ways to fold, bury and combine both strings and brass into his industrial, noisy and chaotic electronic template. Again, this was about giving up control – working with other musicians, allowing them to improvise and arrange parts in order to find those special moments where something unexpected happens. The writing process became a search for those moments, the short, sharp flashes of inspiration – the staccato signals.
This constant pull between the acoustic and the electronic, man versus machine, and the agile production Ben utilised to maintain their balance, is what gives Staccato Signals its powerful and beguiling character. Over time, for Ben this came to reflect the relationship humans have both to nature and technology, and the control we try to enact over our environment. Due to his breath-taking surroundings of the Firth of Forth and the North Sea, a major oil and gas reservoir, and his hometown of South Queensferry, a historic site of witch executions, interconnected themes of oil, fire, and burning burrowed their way deep into Ben’s psyche while writing ‘Staccato Signals’, surfacing within the textures of his music. Throughout the album mournful strings are engulfed by harsh, all-encompassing synths, while disorienting climaxes of blazing electronics recall the deafening loudness of an inferno. Yet while the jagged, synthesized textures that needle the album together might call to mind such devastating imagery, the acoustic instruments that feature throughout the album continuously provide a more human counterbalance.
Ultimately, Staccato Signals is the product of a composer pushing his music completely past the outer limits of how it was originally conceived to sound, by giving up control over his equipment, other performers, and giving in to his environment: