Tim Exile and the Heritage Orchestra joined forces last year for the premiere performance of Tim’s new Bardo EP. Liam O’Mullane finds out more from behind the scenes during rehearsals…
When it comes to technology-based live performances, the word ‘live’ is an incredibly fluid and often misleading one. I’ve seen acts press play on Cubase and dance behind their laptops, perhaps tweaking the odd parameter here and there but the majority of the music being heard was prepared back in the studio. To me, this is not ‘live’, but sadly, this minimal-effort approach that’s usually used to justify the ‘live’ tag on tour listings runs rife in today’s mainstream circuit.
Thankfully, this isn’t always the case. For instance, a group like Pendulum, though commercially successful themselves, have successfully made a traditional-esque transition of taking their music and its sound to the stage. This is all triggered live via keyboards, drums, vocals, bass and alternative sorts of ‘other-category’ controllers. But this is just the album-to-stage acts we’re discussing so far and there is another side to consider – the performer! These people are primarily known for their live shows; they may have released music as well, but a huge part of what they do is crafted in a live performance situation. An artist who’s a great example of this is Tim Exile.
Tim has been doing his performance work for more than ten years now and although his setup has modified over the years, he’s concentrated on keeping the core of it the same. This allows him to learn his technology inside and out so he can play it like an instrument. I first saw Tim perform around 2003/4. At that time he was using a more humble setup in terms of MIDI controllers, but the core of his approach was pretty much the same as it is today: to twist sounds inside-out as he performs. Today we’re seeing his take on doing this alongside a live orchestra.
Sections A, B, C and D were put together into this colourful state using MIDI parts in Logic. Co-composer Finn McNicolas worked hard to develop a naming and colour system so it was easy for the conductor to understand the labelling of each sub-section.
Taking on Influences
We’re attending rehearsals today for Tim’s new Bardo EP, which is to be played live at Blank Canvas the following day. Blank Canvas is now in its sixth year and it’s an event that hosts only the most forward-thinking types of performers. For instance, they’ve previously commissioned and hosted the famous Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra performed by DJ Yoda and the Heritage Orchestra.
The orchestra has also played with Aphex Twin, among other artists, and it is there that Tim and founder of Blank Canvas Will Dutta started to talk about the project we’re witnessing today. Tim tells us: “I’ve known Will for a long time now and during the Aphex Twin: Remote Orchestra event in 2012 at the Barbican in London, we both discussed how we’d love to do something together along similar lines. He left that night just saying ‘let’s see’, but he later pulled the opportunity out of the bag and here we are today.”
Will is also the Artist-Curator for Chimera Productions, who commissioned Tim for this EP. The Blank Canvas performance is at the Village Underground, which has an industrial, warehouse rave-type feel to it. Today’s rehearsal space seems more fitting for a classical music situation. We’re at Blackheath Halls, which is a 600-seat concert hall with all the traditional decor and acoustics – it’s a stark contrast to the final venue they’ll be performing in, which has a much more raw and industrial feel to it.
The Initial Plan
Upon hearing the first few performances in rehearsals, it’s obvious that a lot of work has taken place since Tim and Will first discussed the performance in theory. Tim explains how it all initially began to gain its form: “For me, the important aspect from the start was to have the orchestra running through my instrument setup so I could alter and mash-up the performance. In terms of composition I teamed up with my friend Finn McNicolas; he’s the guy I usually call when I’m struggling to get ready for a show. He’s more orchestrally minded than myself, so for this project we started by hashing out a basic structure to the piece.”
To our surprise this is when Tim clarifies that he doesn’t mean composition work at this point, he’s actually referring to a stage where they visually designed the form of the piece as a concept. This was a point when they drew a narrative arc of how the whole performance would go: “This was done before any notes were written; it’s a kind of a mood-board and asides from the last breakcore track – which was something I’d written quite a while ago – the rest of the music was to be completely new. We used reference tracks to communicate the type of feel we wanted to go for in each section and worked on these in smaller sub-sections.
Instead of working with horizontal rows like you would in Ableton Live’s Session View for each section, we used vertical columns within Logic, but the same piece-by-piece approach of working applied. We’d have anywhere between eight and 16 sub-sections for each of the four main sections. These were labelled A, B, C and D, which were then numbered afterwards with sub-section numbers like A4, A5, A6 and so on.”
Developing the Form
During the initial stages of development it was just Finn and Tim working together: “Finn would take the notes I gave to him for my initial ideas in terms of orchestral accompaniment. He’d then use Vienna Symphonic library to create a MIDI arrangement. It was at the end of this process that we passed the MIDI files over to the conductor (Tom Trapp), who worked them into more orchestra-friendly notation in Sibelius.”
Tim gives us an example of Finn and his work together: “Part II was based around various acid riffs that I made using Massive in Pro Tools. I moved the notes around until it sounded right while Finn worked on a straight-up monophonic piece to accompany it from the orchestra.”
Today’s rehearsal is the first time Tim has actually played with the orchestra live. To be ready for this day he had been using a virtual orchestra to rehearse with. This involved playing and controlling the musical cues and individual instrumentation of the orchestra from his iPad. In order to do this, when Finn surrendered the MIDI information to the conductor, he also exported the component audio parts made using the Vienna library for Tim to incorporate into his rig.
Tim explains how he used these to rehearse: “I set up a TouchOSC template on the iPad to control the audio files from Finn, which I incorporated into a special sub-path within my main Reaktor performance patch. This allowed me to simulate the orchestra and have full control over them as I perfected my own performance.”
Tim spent about a week with this setup, which allowed him to get a clear vision of what he wanted to do and also prepare any sounds he needed. He goes on to say: “Another large aspect of this time was spent practising how I could transition from one part to another and which loops to use, to a point when I could make a definite change to the next section.”
As we mentioned earlier, Tim’s Reaktor-based performance instrument has slightly changed over the years. Tim lets us know how this work has changed his approach: “When I first designed my Reaktor-based instrument at the start of my career, I wanted the ultimate improvisation tool; something that would let me explore the possibilities of electronic music in a live situation. The nature of this performance in particular has meant that for the first time I’ve had to script a large chunk of what I do during the rehearsal process.
As the performance has developed into more and more of a successful project in terms of its outcome, it’s showing me that my instrument doesn’t only have potential for pure improvisation, it can also work as a solo instrument with prepared performances in its own right. I don’t mean that everything is to be completely pinned down in a completely rigid way, as I think this boxes you in to some extent. But this project has helped me realise that there’s real potential in treading a thin line between scoring something and improvisation. If you get the balance right, you can create something really special.”
In order for Tim to work with the orchestra in his own style the whole ensemble runs to the FOH desk, where it is sub-mixed before it goes on to Tim’s rig for him to capture. Tim explains a bit more about the setup: “The orchestra joins towards the end of my signal path before a compressor, which is there to keep the levels in check. But there’s all sorts of internal level controls that I’ve programmed to be automatically controlled.
This creates an elastic behaviour, making the various sounds within my instrument interact with each other, so nothing stays at the same level. It’s similar to the principle of sidechaining, except everything responds to the level of everything else to create an overall parity in level, no matter how much is playing. For instance, if I brought in a new beat and pushed its level right up, the other sounds would fall back to keep the overall output the same.”
We left Tim and company at the end of rehearsals, and we must share our experiences of the performance. Because we were hearing both acoustic, amplified acoustic and amplified electronic music, there was a great sonic dynamic going on. For instance, Tim at times would be playing a drum track with the whole orchestra accompanying him, which created a wide melodic spread around the whole venue while Tim’s beats would drive sharply down the middle.
Then he’d sample the orchestra and they’d stop playing to put the focus on Tim’s re-working of a phrase through his instrument. This would then also bring the melodic sound into the narrower sense of space that Tim’s PA-driven output created. Next, the conductor would look at Tim for the nod to then bring back the orchestra, creating a huge layer of acoustic sound which worked beautifully with the piece’s arrangement.
And the Future?
A few days later we caught up with Tim again to ask how the show went. He excitedly told us: “It was amazing, the gig sold out! It had an electric atmosphere and was way beyond our expectations.” When we asked how the ‘on-the-day’ soundchecking went: “We had about an hour in soundcheck to rehearse, which was a bit shaky in places so we focused most on those.
I had a few issues hearing things in rehearsals but David Shepherd, who worked FOH, sorted that out for the actual performance.” He then tells us how the different venue and final technical setup felt for him during the performance: “To have a full-range PA, the rest of the full rig and lighting in place made it feel like I was playing a completely different instrument with the orchestra. It was a much more immersive experience as the PA was a big line-array affair.
It’s a good job I’ve been using that setup for so long and in so many different scenarios as I was dealing with a completely different sonic landscape during the performance from what we’d had in rehearsals. I think it would have been quite different if I wasn’t so familiar with my own setup.”
We’re keen to know if there are plans to do any more shows. Tim tells us that there is already an open conversation about more work as it was really well received and the orchestra plus the promoters are up for it again. In the meantime, as well as working on the next orchestral collaboration, Tim will continue to develop his Reaktor ensemble and continue to gig all over the globe. If you want a taste of the performance we’ve included a teaser video on the coverdisc to whet your appetite.
You can find out more about Tim, Blank Canvas and the Heritage Orchestra at the following links: