Words by Neil Stringfellow (Audio Obscura) about the collaboration with Black Sonar on the album A Scream From Outer Space.
Sharing files across the internet with people you’ve never met is a uniquely interesting form of making music. I’ve been involved with a few collaborations over the years but you never quite know how it will work out. I’ve done some which have never led to the music being released and had a one or two which fizzled out. Sometimes though it world beautifully and the resulting music just clicks and feels just perfect.
When Black Sonar, a post-rock duo from Italy contacted me in 2018 and asked if I wanted to collaborate, initially on 1 track, I agreed having no idea where this would lead. We soon began taking it in turns with one of us starting a track and passing it onto the other, we did so always without any pressure, expectation and with complete creative freedom.
Black Sonar, Alfonso Montagnese & Michael Facchini, now also live in two different cities, Rome and Florence, Italy respectively and I’m based in rural Norfolk, England.
Slowly after over 4 years of building tracks in this manner we made an album, a concept album about the Voyager Space probes, which is being released by Subexotic Records on 29th April.
Alfonso & Michael reflect fondly on the process:
“The collaboration with Neil (Audio Obscura) was initially focused on one track only. The interaction between our two different sonic worlds and music arsenals immediately worked well. So we continued this artistic conversation working on other tracks, without having a precise idea of where we wanted to go. The idea of composing an album together emerged gradually. The common decision of making a concept album also matured over time: at some point we realised that we were in outer space!
Track 1. Swimming In The Dust
This was actually the final track we created together for this album and perhaps the most coherent in terms of the concept. The female voice is that of my partner, Susila Subramanian, narrating a text I wrote inspired by the book ‘The Vinyl Frontier’ by Jonathan Scott, a book all about the creation of the gold discs on board Voyager space crafts. The idea that really struck me reading this book was that once humanity is extinct, these two gold phonograph records could become the last cultural artefacts of human civilization. The sampled voice greetings you hear are the original NASA recordings included on the gold discs before the launch in 1977. The middle section of the track is Black Sonar in full cosmic flow with some beautiful playing.
Track 2. Voyager 1
The band in Italy started this track by sending me the initial repeating guitar you can hear early on and I spent some time just looping this, adding beats and experimenting using different tempos and drum patterns. Finally when I settled on something I liked I slowly built up the music, atmospheric synths and samples, adding the crucial tempo change mid way through. At this point I sent it back to the guys in Italy still not in a finished state and it was then the guitar parts in the 2nd half of the track were added really lifting this track off into a different dimension. I cried when this came back to me as I was so moved by the beauty of the piece. Making this track and hearing how we fed off each other’s ideas really made me think we could create something special.
Track 3. Voyager 2
The idea of collaboration to me is often about being conscious of leaving space for the other musicians to flesh out the piece. This track is a perfect example, it was one I started and I stopped myself at some point in the creation and paused to see what the others could bring. So the bits I contributed, the beats and background sounds are fairly sparse enough when on their own. After sending the track back to Italy the additions of keys and layers of guitars really helped fill out the track perfectly. I’ve learnt that with musical collaborations sometimes what you leave out is as important as what you put in!
Track 4. The Asteroid Belt
I’ve often been drawn to the idea of music as ‘painting images with sound’. The Asteroid Belt is trying to conjure up a very specific image; the Voyager probes flying through the Asteroid Belt (a region of the solar system lying between Mars and Jupiter). To my ears the rolling bassline and guitars are the forward trajectory of the space crafts and the piano notes, the crackles, bumps and blips being the asteroids bouncing off the crafts, creating what I imagine to be some sort of cosmic pinball.
Track 5. Jupiter
To me the music and track title was an attempt to capture the mystery of voyagers Jupiter fly past. The music seems very alien to me, certainly something not of this earth.
Track 6. Pulsar
The initial files for this track arrived from Italy and this was a fairly complete but experimental track which I had much fun rearranging and developing. I added the voice samples from a Youtube space video about Pulsars and added loops and many small details of texture. The late melancholy organ sound is actually part of an older track of mine which was never released but yet seemed to fit this track so well. I recreacted this in the hope of adding a sense of the loneliness of these probes as they continue the journey outwards away from our solar system.
Track 7. Toward Interstellar Space
One of the album standouts for me and a great example of the collaborative process, this was such a fun track to create. This is one we made quite early in our collaboration and I’ve forgotten who actually started this track but all three of us bring different parts. The way the track develops and the sense of propulsion that gathers suggests to me the moment these Voyager crafts leave the planets behind and begin the journey beyond our solar system.
Track 8. Dark was the night
One of the pieces of music that is contained on the original gold phonograph discs on board Voyager is a piece called Dark was the night, Cold was the Earth by Blind Willie Johnson.
When I first heard that track I was stunned by its beauty and emotion. The title of this track is therefore named in tribute to that piece. The music on this track is mainly by Black Sonar, I don’t think I did a great deal to it now looking back. The mood of the piece certainly captures the idea of the loneliness of the Voyager probes which are now so far away and in just a short number of years will be without power and will disappear forever into the depths of space.
Track 9. Memories of Earth
What if Voyager could look back and recall the Memories of Earth, the screams and laughter of humanity?
This final track features field recordings from a child’s playground but I like how you can’t quite tell if the children’s screaming is a playful scream or something more fearful? This gives a certain sense of ambiguity which I think is matched in the music. Perhaps in time the only ‘memories’ of human civilization will be these space probes carrying these gold discs and we can only wonder if they will be forever left floating in space or may one day make contact with another alien civilization.