Ellen Southern: “I can express myself best through the words of others”
I met Ellen Southern online when my band hackedepicciotto were asked for a joint interview with Dead Space Chamber Music to discuss making music with found/environmental sounds. I had not heard of her band before and after the zoom conversation, which I enjoyed very much, I listened to their music on Bandcamp.
Dead Space Chamber Music are a beguiling mixture of medieval / renaissance music combined with sound recordings and contemporary influences. They manage to evade nostalgia despite working on very old material and their concerts have a magical yet very modern sound-art quality.
We had been invited to the podcast because we both enjoy using unusual instruments and when our UK tour was being planned, I immediately thought a double billed evening with Dead Space Chamber Music would be perfect. The tour materialized and watching them was as enticing as anticipated. Ellen’s vocals and her use of sound objects within medieval melodies were especially riveting and whilst traveling from Bristol to London and then to Manchester we often spoke of our work methods, discovering that we are both fans of Sacred Harp music. Her thoughts on all these subjects were so interesting that I invited her to a conversation for Kaput magazine to be able to delve into this matter even more intensely.
Danielle de Picciotto: How would describe what you look for in music that you listen to and that you compose yourself?
Ellen Southern: What I look for, in music I listen to or make, is hard to define but I know it when I hear it. I doubt I am alone in this. It’s not a genre, it’s more an atmosphere, or certain atmospheres. Whether it’s ethereal and mysterious or visceral and driving, there’s always something unsettling, unnerving, like looking behind the curtain so to speak. Something that can speak to both the light and the dark, the tension and the beauty.
But in broad brushstrokes, my evergreens would be found amongst the dark jazz of Lynch / Badalamenti, early music in general (medieval / renaissance music), eerie classical such as Ligeti, doom metal from Black Sabbath onwards, heavy / experimental rock, and early industrial / electronic and 80s goth / synth to dance to.
There are so many great current artists too to be found on Bandcamp – a great platform to support artists – such as Jo Quail for example, and she’s for sure someone we (Dead Space Chamber Music) feel a musical connection to even though we sound different.
You work a lot with music out of the past. What interests you in this?
In terms of lyrics, I’m not driven to write my own, and coming from singing in choirs for – sacred and secular music from all different time – I find I can express myself best through the words of others, through words that have stood the test of time and been spoken through the ages from many mouths to many ears. Thoughts and feelings resonate through time, and it is very potent to engage with material from hundreds of years ago which can connect to someone now, the words emotionally moving them or the music making them physically move. I will sometimes vary words, or even make up my own sounds (glossolalia) to express what I feel is right about how we are interpreting a certain piece, and what it means to me to deliver it. I feel I can be most generous when I can touch on something bigger than me, beyond my brief lifetime. Everything has been felt before and I love remembering that, tapping into a timeless human connection, and getting reassurance and relief from that. It makes it easier to get away from the minutiae of my life which is not that interesting and move into the open timeless place where I need to be. I crave this transformation. It is me but it isn’t me.
In terms of early music there’s the initial sonic attraction. I love the sound of modal music, drones, the instrumentation, the interesting rhythms, and odd tunings. I love the variety of it – there are hundreds of years of music to discover with many facets and influences going on in it – just like now, music and ideas travelled and evolved in relation to each other.
Early music comes mainly as fragments of melodies and lyrics, often part reconstructed. So, for us (Dead Space Chamber Music / DSCM) as a band, it is enough information to inspire varied arrangements – rhythms, harmonization’s, melodies and bass parts, use of loops, samples, or live sounds – but not too much to constrict our imagination. So, it’s more like having a jazz chart than a classical score. We don’t attempt historical recreations and we don’t qualify as academics in this area. That is a whole specialist field which we do not claim. We love period performances, period instruments etc. There are brilliant people doing this already like in early music festivals, which we love attending. But we want to exist in the space between this and say experimental heavy rock or industrial. We reinterpret this historical material and treat it as contemporary music, really, give it bones and blood and visceral expression. What we do also isn’t cosplay or pretending to be in another time period, we create our own language of ritual. For me, a lot about what we do is giving this historical music a new kind of physical presence in the here and now – embodied and not always polite, so it can be moving, unnerving, and have an edge, especially when a lot of the themes in our music are about things like fear or loss.
Are you classically trained?
Not in the conventional sense, no. My approach to singing has always been to develop a solid core technique – to understand how to use the voice as a full instrument and not impose a genre or sing in a stylized way but rather to give myself the tools to explore. I have worked with voice teachers to understand the mechanics – the breathing, which muscles to use, using resonating chambers within the body, ‘changing gear’ between registers: chest, head, falsetto etc. But I can say that I mainly learned to use my voice by singing in choirs, in a variety of genres, spanning early music (medieval / renaissance / Tudor and Elizabethan etc.) jazz, classical, Welsh language, folk, gospel, as well as workshops in Bulgarian singing , contemporary classical / extended technique and bel canto.
Singing in harmony allowed me to linger at the back while I built my confidence and tuned my ear, and I got more able to hold a line amongst others. It was a great way to use the musicianship I was also learning – reading sheet music and so on. Then I progressed to standing out front and taking solos. I made a deal with myself to do all this before even holding a mic, and I am so glad I did. When I was ready, that was my reward and I started playing with loops etc. I highly recommend group-singing to anyone, whether in a choir or with friends in close harmony. It offers a wonderful sense of camaraderie, and the health benefits are well documented.
You sing Sacred Harp music. Could you explain what that is, how you discovered it and what you find interesting in this form of singing?
Around ten years ago I was listening to Cerys Matthews’s BBC radio show. Some singers did a live session and they put the score on twitter. That was the first time I saw shape notes – the form of music notation used in Sacred Harp which is based on the familiar fa-so-la system. I was immediately captured by the sound and was determined to seek out a group and start singing this music.
Shape note singing is a whole living tradition with its own conventions, and I like that. I am not a scholar in the subject, or a spokesperson, but I can outline some distinctive things about it from my experience of having sung it for some years.
Sacred Harp singing is singing the shapes in the tune book called the Sacred Harp, first published in 1844. There are several books and singers do alternate, but that is the main book we use. It is sung a cappella (unaccompanied), and I believe the title comes from the idea that using the vocal cords to sing is like playing a ‘sacred harp’, which is a beautiful idea.
It is rhythmic, almost shanty-like, which is achieved by ‘accenting’, so emphasizing certain beats to create a pulsing sound, and I often find myself swaying backward and forward while singing. We sit in 4 parts, bass, alto, tenor, and treble, in a ‘hollow square’, as in there is a space in the middle where each person takes it in turns to lead the song of their choice. We all face inwards because it is a participatory form of singing – it is not performed outwardly. We use our arms to visibly beat the time – the effect of hundreds of singers beating time is mesmerizing. There are not really dynamics, it is sometimes called ‘shout singing’ as it’s a pretty full-on way of singing. When you stand in the middle of the square you get a kind of bombardment of a quadraphonic effect – the first time I experienced it with about 140 singers I felt like I was having an out of body experience of being lifted up by the sound, and was left shaking, there’s nothing quite like it.
The harmonies are very bare, like ‘power chords’, so lots of octaves, 4ths, and 5ths (a group in Bremen describe it as ‘a Capella heavy metal!’). The scales are generally pentatonic, a candidate for a ‘universal’ scale as it is found all over the world, so it’s instinctive to many people. The song forms are hymns, anthems, and fuguing tunes – where different parts enter and leave at different times, a dynamic spatial effect as the tune physically travels around the square. We don’t stick to the keys in the book, we use ‘keys of convenience’ relating to where each tune sits best with the voices, and we all sing out the chord before each tune using relative pitch. We sing the names of the shapes first and then the words, choosing which verse/s we like after the first. You don’t have to be able to read music to start singing, if you sing regularly you learn by osmosis. There is no conductor, and you can move between parts too – but I stick to alto as I am happiest there.
The words are of course sacred / religious and have very strong visual imagery which I enjoy. There is a kind of formality to the whole thing that I like too, it helps me focus entirely and be present. I missed it so much in lockdown that we (Dead Space Chamber Music) did our version of a Sacred Harp song, one of the best-known songs, Idumea. You can hear it on our Black City Sessions EP (on Bandcamp). Of course, it’s a different thing when it’s a band with an audience, with just one voice and huge dynamic variation, but I enjoy the difference – we lean into the drama of the song, and I love performing that one live.
You also mentioned that Sacred Harp singing has helped you train your voice – could you mention how you train your beautiful voice in general?
I am not saying this will suit everyone, but for me, my voice, and what I want to do with it, Sacred Harp singing is a one stop shop of vocal technique. Singing this tradition every week gives me the maintenance I need to have my voice ready to go at any time, and able to reach anywhere and everywhere I need to go with it. Also, as the years go by singing the same songs, it’s a way for me to notice natural changes in my voice, for example a deepening of tone that comes with age, that informs my choices when working with the band.
Your bands name is Dead Space Chamber Music – how did you come up with this name and how would you describe the music that you compose?
A dead space chamber (or anechoic chamber) is an environment, usually in a sound research setting, which is acoustically dead and has no reflection. It is used in places like research facilities, and they are literally that, dead spaces, so no echoes. It is said that when you stand in one, you can hear the internal workings of the body like the pulse, the heartbeat, and that can apparently feel quite unnerving and disturbing. So yes, we are not trying to say something specific in referencing it, but it’s that unsettling experience of being made very aware of your existence, or mortality maybe.
And then chamber music is an intimate form music that developed in peoples’ homes to be shared with friends and musical peers, and has a focused intensity about it, an attention to detail, and a spirit of musical dialogue or exchange between equals. There was something about that which appealed – even when making a large sound we always listen to each other, interact, and try to draw the audience or listener right in to that potent and active space where the sound is being created before them, and sometimes around them. We try and make it feel like as much of an immersive, shared experience as
possible, which can bring a sense of the ceremonial to the proceedings. So, our name combines these two things.
Thinking about it, another possible effect of Sacred Harp singing is that there is not so much a distinctive melody line sitting above the others, and as a singer working with instrumentalists, I like that idea that we function as a quartet – I like when the voice sits amongst others in the mix, and always ask for that at soundcheck.
Do you compose the music together with your band mates or do you compose the music and they play your compositions?
I don’t compose music for the band (Tom Bush guitar, Liz Muir cello, Katie Murt drums / percussion), we tend to work on things together, combining improvisation and historical ‘raw material’. With our more abstract pieces, we develop the distinctive elements of the piece that mean we can conjure it and we know when it is ‘in the room’, but how it manifests varies a bit each time. Free improv is a specialism of our cellist Liz, and I learned a lot from her about how to approach this. And then there is the early music element – usually brought into the rehearsal room as a very basic song form or a melody and some words, with a lot to be fleshed out between us. Tom, the guitarist, is especially good in researching this kind of material, and creating wonderful harmonization’s.
So, the more avantgarde material can turn into a song and back again, and vice versa. This is especially effective as our song arrangements have got tighter, more dynamically varied, and punchier over time, especially with the addition of Katie on drums, who is a very intuitive player. We aim for all our live sets to contain variety and hopefully feel like a whole piece. I get the feeling this is working, as people often perceive our sets as shorter than they are, so they must have been absorbed in it!
When working like this in rehearsal, we record everything with a zoom recorder or a cassette recorder, and then we listen back and make decisions about what we want to keep or develop. We all contribute our ideas, and I am endlessly surprised by the process. That’s why I love working with others as an equal entity.
Have you done solo projects? Do you work together with other projects besides DSCM?
I do sing outside of the band, and I have a collaborative event series that is ongoing. My solo project is called Site Singing. It’s something I pick up and put down, with occasional live performances, but otherwise it is more like ‘fieldwork’. It’s about using my voice as a way of interacting with site and making field recordings that form the basis of semi-improvised works. I take myself off on field trips with a zoom recorder to historic sites including ancient Neolithic long barrows, medieval ruins, and an abandoned Victorian stone bridge, and use my voice with no preconceptions as to the kind of sounds I will end up creating, as it is about being in that place at that moment. I also make visual art around these experiences. This practice and the approaches I develop though it for sure find their way into what I bring to DSCM, especially when performing in places such as churches and crypts.
I have done several collaborations over the years, including a tour and release with Bristol noise/drone artist BURL, appearances as part of The SeeR immersive performance collective (Dronica Festival, London, The Woodland Gathering, Cumbria, and Supersonic Festival, Birmingham) and as soloist for the acclaimed ceremonial electronic / AV work Kistvaen by Roly Porter and MFO (Mira Festival, Barcelona, and Les Garages Numériques Festival, Brussels). I was subsequently invited by Roly Porter to join fellow vocalists Phil Owen and Mary-Anne Roberts (of the duo Bragod) on the album of the same name, released by Subtext recordings in 2020.
I have recently featured on two collaborative releases. ‘Where The Green Translucency Beats’ is a track, I worked on with composer Andrew Cooke on called Lethesowe Bell, a loose concept album based around the myth of Lyonesse (also referred to as Lethesowe), a kingdom off the coast of Cornwall which, according to legend, was lost to the sea in a single night. It had a castle-like cathedral, and it is said that the tolling of the bell can still be heard from beneath the waves. I created the vocal for ‘Where the Green Translucency Beats’ in a single take ‘field-recording’ style in a resonant concrete underground space that was part flooded at the time, and you can hear some water towards the end. I sang the words of the poem ‘Sunk Lyonesse’ by Walter De La Mare (1922) as an improvisation, using the tonality of a well-known Cornish funeral song (Padstow’s Farewell / Farewell Shanty), into which the sung poem morphs. The other recent release is All That We See or Seem, a project created in lockdown between myself and Johanna Puuperä (violin, modular synthesizer, additional vocals) in Finland and Gruth (concept, production, electronics) in Brazil. The LP is two long-form pieces, around 20-30 mins each: “Myrskymielellä”, adapted from an 1891 poem by the Finnish national poet, Eino Leino, and “A Dream Within a Dream”, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe´s 1849 poem. The two pieces are quite different to each other, one growing from textures and whispers to a very driving crescendo, and the other being quite hypnotic and dream-like. It is released on Miasmah Recordings (Berlin) and is currently receiving some great reviews which we are happy about.
And then Dark Alchemy is an event series I curate with Tom from DSCM and our friend Tommy Creep, a modular synth artist. It is a way for us to bring new artists to Bristol and for us as a band to test out new ideas or work in progress, for example film soundtracks, an acoustic set, a suite inspired by Twin Peaks, and most recently a set of festive carols. As well as live events, Dark Alchemy has taken the form of collaborations, releases, and livestreams, and was an important way for us to stay active, reach out and stay connected to others during the pandemic.
But DSCM is my main focus. In addition to performing, I do the visual art for the band, with Katie doing the design and layout (she is also our band photographer). We work together on our videos and streams, with her doing wonderful work with editing. And Katie Liz and I work on merch together which we like to be quite adventurous with be it a reliquary to house the cassette of our latest album The Black Hours, liqueurs such as Ypocras and Clarey made from medieval recipes, or things like photo zines or handmade aromatics to accompany certain releases. So, for me the band is like a ‘total artwork,’ which fits with my interdisciplinary approach to creativity.
Your music also has a sound element to it (broken porcelain for instance). Is this element important to you?
Could you name a few inspirations in this field? Projects or bands that work with sound that you appreciate?
We all like experimenting with ‘extended techniques’ on our own instruments, and this is a kind of extended element of my own performance where the sound and the action are both expressive. The choice is always symbolic to the meaning of the song, that’s the rule I impose when choosing objects to use. It’s a creative limitation that makes me think carefully, which I like. I suppose this gives it more of a seriousness than the playfulness or humor that using found sounds can have, but that’s the way I like it – it has more of a sense of ritual. I sing in different languages (Welsh, Old English, medieval French, Latin etc.) and so I like that these physical processes are a kind of clue as to the meaning of the song – I like layers and mystery in performance, and also when I work on the band artwork. I like hidden meanings that people can sense on a more intuitive level. I like that we know what the intention is, and that is inherent in the action, but also that people watching or listening will receive and experience that in a way that means something to them. I am always expanding my sound making objects and I love how it gives me a way to connect to the moment, be present and engage with the audience, as my focus becomes their focus. It’s also an extension of the idea of percussion, and I have started roping Katie in and we have started coordinating some found sounds which I really like – so in our recent set both of us are going right up to the audience and dropping nails and tacks onto metal trays in front of them. And this choice has a reason on a certain song. You must come and see us live to see how!
I have to say that listening to early industrial music, and Einstürzende Neubauten particularly are an inspiration, especially seeing them live. I am also fascinated by foley art (sound effect creators). I have watched some documentaries, DVD extras, and films like Berberian Sound Studio (very creepy!). We have done some live film soundtracks and I got to indulge this fascination alongside singing and looping / using samples. The foley artist is of course not someone you generally see or even think about, but for me there’s something intimate about showing how a common object can turn into something magical and transportive. That’s what performance can do in general – it can take us from our daily lives to a place where something inexplicable can happen.
What are you working on now and what are your plans for the future?
After a very busy pandemic of releases, collaborations and livestreams, and a very structured couple of post-pandemic years with the release of our 2nd studio album The Black Hours and a 3 date UK tour with hackedepicciotto, we now actually have an open field ahead. We have some exciting ideas for a 3rd album and several EPs in mind, material we have road tested, so we need to find a way to record things well and as inexpensively as possible. We want to keep working with other artists too, on new music and on live events including Dark Alchemy. We got amazing reactions to both our album and our live gigs, so now it’s finding a pathway to sustainably keep producing and playing, which can be a challenge.