Ahead of his homecoming show at the Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts on campus, we caught up with multi-instrumentalist composer and producer Joe Acheson, who conducts the imagined orchestra which is Hidden Orchestra. The solo studio producer seamlessly blends classical and electronic styles, using acoustic instruments and field recordings on this latest album Dawn Chorus.
Dawn Chorus uses an extensive amount of birdsong and field recordings from around the UK and abroad, what influenced you to incorporate these sounds into your work? And how does travelling inform that?
I think my earliest inspiration to use field recordings was probably LTJ Bukem’s Earth series, compilations of drum and bass and trip hop, on which tracks often featured nature atmospheres in the background. Around then I first started recording my favourite streams and waterfalls in the woods near where I lived and recording rain and thunder out of my bedroom window.
I started to find that a lot of things I recorded weren’t just ambient atmospheres, but contained little bits of rhythm or pitch information which I could use.
The track ‘Wingbeats’ (2016) was based around synchronised recordings of birds’ beating wings I’d recorded all around Europe, and when I was looking for an atmosphere to set it against, I decided to use one of my dawn chorus recordings – which led to the idea of creating a whole album on which each track was set to a different dawn chorus recording, and each filled with dozens of other sounds, musicians and associations from the places where I recorded them.
I don’t actually know that much about birds – I can’t distinguish very many by their calls – I appreciate them most as singers, part of a natural soundscape when many voices combine as a choir.
Whenever I’m travelling, or on tour, I carry a microphone in my pocket to record sounds that I stumble across, often in buildings and cities or public transport – machinery, traffic in the rain, faulty extractor fans or dripping pipes – but also out in the countryside, around the coastline or sailing to small islands.
Your live set includes a strong visual dimension with live projections and on-stage cameras, can you explain a little bit about the setup, and why you use it/how it compliments the music sonically?
We’ve been working with Tom Newell of Bristol collective Limbic Cinema since 2011, gradually developing the show to the point where we now like to have him at every gig. He’s on stage with us, manipulating bespoke footage and live camera feeds, directly responding to the musical performance, sometimes mapping the architecture with projections, and controlling LED lights with video so they respond to both the music and the video.
The music is built on contrasts of fast/slow, light/dark, and designed to work on several levels simultaneously – most tracks have half-time and double-time beats running at the same time, and in general, the interpretation is left to the listener.
Also I’m not usually writing about anything specific in a track, they contain many fragments of different associations from all the different recordings and contexts used, and are written over long periods of time in a lot of different moods – I’m simply following my instincts, playing with sounds and music in the studio and hoping they take me somewhere good.
Meanings of Hidden Orchestra include a reference to hidden orchestras in theatres, opera and old movie halls, and the concept of writing narrative soundtracks for films that haven’t been made.
Finally, our on-stage setup is to have the two drummers at front and sides of the stage, with myself (on bass and electronics) and Poppy Ackroyd (piano and violin) in the middle – leaving the front/centre of the stage empty to emphasise the lack of a conventional frontman who would pull focus from the rest of the musicians.
For all these reasons, visuals work really well in the setting and with the music – and it’s important that they are relatively abstract, not dictating a narrative, and that they complement and augment the live performance. So Tom has created footage for each track, small video artworks created from candles, ink, nature – non-CG ‘organic’ material to reflect the way the music is creating electronic styles without using synthesisers and drum machines.. He triggers and effects this footage live, mixing in effected footage from eight on-stage night-vision cameras placed around the instruments, using feeds from the audio signal to lock in a really dynamic and responsive show.
Writing and recording the album in solitary, how does the album transpose when performing live with other musicians?
In the live setting, the music often comes across quite differently – though it’s kind of just like listening to the albums super-loud… But something about seeing and hearing the two live drummers, the live bass, and the live piano and strings lends a more epic quality to the experience…
We perform in a lot of different contexts – and respond to different crowds in different ways.
We try to tailor set lists to the occasion to an extent – not all the same tracks work in the evening in a seated concert hall as do at 1 am in a packed club or a festival field…
Hidden Orchestra has always been a marriage of classical and electronic, creating electronic sounds by acoustic means – what are your musical backgrounds in both classical and electronic music, how did that fusion come about and become informed?
My mother was a concert pianist and piano teacher, so I fell asleep to a lot of Classical piano drifting through the floorboards throughout my childhood – otherwise, there was not much contemporary music in the home. I sang in choirs and studied instruments at school, playing in orchestras and learning Classical composition techniques while at the same time discovering bands, playing in bands of all kinds, gradually learning to DJ and produce music, going to a lot of gigs, concerts, experimental music and sound art festivals, and mainly hip hop, drum and bass and dub club nights. I dabbled in running a digital label and put on some good over-ambitious nights that I didn’t lose too much money on… enough to stop doing it pretty quickly…
I also became interested in sound design and did a lot of work on documentaries and radio dramas, frequently also making music for them out of the extraneous found sounds which I recorded while recording actors or interviews in and outdoors.
I’d been messing around producing music with computers since I was 9, from Classical preludes and fugues through to hip hop instrumentals – but I guess the Hidden Orchestra project started when I decided I wanted to start writing my own original source material for sampling. This is when I began writing short Classical pieces for different instruments or ensembles, and then using the sampling techniques of Electronic styles of music to take the very best bits of these (and highlights from field recordings) and combine them to create something I wanted to hear.
We are very excited about your show at the ACCA, being signed to a Brighton label (Tru Thoughts), and living in Brighton yourself, have you got anything special planned for this hometown show?
We’ve got seventeen shows in front of audiences in cities across Europe to warm up for it, so it ought to be pretty polished by then… Being the last gig of the tour is always special anyway, but even the highly-specced venue itself will make a big contribution – ACCA has a hefty sound system in a great acoustic, multiple powerful projectors, and a beautiful Steinway grand piano, the perfect recipe for this show.
Words: Rhys Baker