“It’s me indulging in things other than really forgiving, melodic music – I wanted it to feel like it came from nothing, and for it to have a sense of real growth, and end up like a document of real events that happened. Everything on the record was played live; it all just came out that way without being planned. I wanted to present the music in its rawest form.”
‘Wysing Forest’’s genesis came during Abbott’s six-week spell as the musician in residence at the Wysing Arts Centre in rural Cambridgeshire, although he didn’t know he was writing it at the time – he originally used his residency, in the freezing winter of 2012, just to play about: “I spent the time just trying to quite indulgently make noises I liked, letting the music emerge,” he explains. “There was no plan to make an album. I was just making things that pleased me.” He would give live performances to the other residents and to visitors, and after generating several hours of interesting sound, Abbott cherrypicked the best sections and bound them together into a thirty-minute piece that was given to Wysing’s visitors on an mp3 player to listen to as they wondered around the Arts Centre’s grounds. After that proved successful, Abbott discussed the idea of expanding the piece to album length with his label boss James Holden, and finally, 18 months after improvising to himself in the icy isolation of Cambridgeshire, ‘Wysing Forest’ as a full-length LP was born.
The idea of ‘Wysing Forest’ existing as an album in the traditional sense, however, doesn’t sit easily with Abbott. For a start, throughout our conversation, he frequently points out the intrinsic nonsense of a series of live improvisations and explorations (as opposed to chiselled, finished arrangements) existing in a form that can be repeat-played: “The whole point of working like that is that you capture a moment,” he insists. “You can’t recreate that moment, you have to keep doing something new.”
More fundamentally, though, he also rejects the idea of an album being a studio-prepared creation where the disc or the download itself is merely a representation of a set of musicians, preferring instead to see music as something far more immediate and present: “Try and forget about everything else and experience it as something that your speakers do,” he suggests of his own record. “When you put speakers on, and sound comes out, that noise is there, in the room. It’s a real vibration that’s happening. When you’re making music, you can either create an impression of something by slotting the sounds together to create a recognisable scene, which I’m not interested in, or you can make music that comes out of speakers and happens, and that for me is the exciting thing.
“Put a speaker on, turn it up and let it do its thing,” he continues, warming to his theme. “The performance is the speaker making its noise, and once you start thinking about the speaker as a sound object instead of a conduit to a kind of mysterious, imaginary world beyond – once you start looking at the speaker as an object which performs noises at you, then it’s a really different experience. That’s the thing I love most about dance music, because most of the time it happens on fucking big sound systems, and that’s a physical experience: people in front of a sound system are responding to that noise because those noises are hitting them, physically. Maybe my music is designed for more a domestic environment, but it’s still about the noise the speakers make in the room, not the illusion of another world beyond them. What I like most about electroacoustic music is that fundamentally it’s not about illusion. It’s about sounds coming out of boxes with cones that move air. That’s exciting to me.”
If this feels like quite a radically academic, oppressively reductive stance to take on something as affective as music – this is not an outpouring of emotion, but simply a variably vibrating man-made box! – Abbott offers redress: “A man playing a guitar is holding a box that’s making a noise into a room. I mean, even a voice comes from a box. And a speaker is the same thing, it’s just the point of this project from the outset was to try and realise this notion that you can humanise something that’s overtly mechanical, like a speaker.”
He uses an example from ‘Wysing Forest’ to try and explain himself. ‘Amphis’ is the 12-minuter at the front of the album which opens disconcertingly, becomes progressively more screwy and then veers into the sort of tripped out abstraction that prompts lucid dreaming before calming at the end into gorgeously deep sub throbs. Recorded live in front of an audience, there are occasionally audible coughs, and towards the track’s conclusion there’s the sound of the grille on the room’s PA rattling from the bass. “It’s the nicest sound on the record,” enthuses Abbott. “It’s just a really good noise. On some level, you understand that’s the noise of something loud, so by recording that you capture a sense of the weight of the sound, and also the fact that it happened in a room, which means you’re listening to a space. It blurs the line between which sounds are electricity and which sounds are just the world making a noise. And I like that grey area.”
More broadly though, it seems this humanising of the usually sterile, perfectly preserved world of electronic music is something of Abbott’s life-work. “There are lots of ways to make very simple music with electronics,” he begins, laying out his ambition. “But trying to isolate and define the things that turn machines or software into performative and enigmatic instruments – that’s the game, I think. That’s the challenge. Trying to capture what it is that makes something a human performance or a human experience is a very intangible thing.”