Sounds, Stories & Maps
‘Mountains and Plains’ is an instrumental album inspired by a roadtrip across the USA.
On the road for 10 weeks, from NYC to LA, crossing 15 states with a trusty field-recorder to document their sonic wonders.
Every piece was started on location during the road trip using locally found sounds.
Further overdubs were recorded in studios in London & France.
It will be released in various formats later this year.
Meanwhile, here are short background stories, sound sources, locations views, and a few book recommendations.
(Click on the photos for satellite views)
We’re in Cambria, San Luis Obispo County, just off Highway One. Home of glorious Nitwit Ridge, a ramshackle house built from 1928 to 1978 by a local garbage collector, Arthur Harold Beale, with found materials. This folk-art masterpiece was his answer to the extravagance of Hearst Castle. On the beach, pacific breakers on the rocks, benches made of driftwood, the smell of salt as the sun goes down over the edge of the world.
(Schimmel upright piano & S-Cat Dubsta delay, ARP 2600 synthesizer, Musser Ampli-Celeste, Toy glockenspiel, Stingray bass, found sounds)
Route 66 has made its place in the pantheon of great highways, but there are countless others which were also once full of promise. Many of these remain, without purpose, fighting clumps of weeds pushing through the abandoned tarmac, alongside useless blank signs advertising terminally closed diners. Someone built a bigger, faster, straighter road, someone found a better place to go.
(Schimmel upright piano, Buchla Music Easel synthesizer, Musser Ampli-Celeste, Toy glockenspiel, Squire & Longson upright piano, Baby drums, Stingray bass, found sounds)
Read: ‘Route 66 – The Final Cut’ Gerd Kittel (Thames & Hudson)
A Megapolis never sleeps. However, watching dawn rise from Griffith Park, one can feel its daily reawakening. Los Angeles spreads out below the observatory and, as the day breaks, its sounds and rhythms merge. At first, each sound rises individually, then they mingle with others to form a complex daytime tangle, eventually disappearing into the night and being reborn endlessly.
(Modular synthesizer, Musser Ampli-Celeste, Toy glockenspiel, Squire & Longson upright piano, Fender Telecaster & The Big Trees pedal, found sounds)
Abiquiú is a remote small town in northern New Mexico, the starting point of the Old Spanish Trail. It sits in a vast panorama of squat, lumpy mountains rising above stands of cottonwood trees – a landscape of poignant beauty made famous by the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived here and in nearby Ghost Ranch from 1945, and still home to a thriving artist community.
(Schimmel upright piano, Buchla Music Easel, ARP 2600, Musser Ampli-Celeste, Toy glockenspiel, found sounds)
Read: ‘Georgia O’Keefe & Her Houses’ Barbara Lynes/Agapita Lopez (Abrams Books)
Driving is relentless across the unforgiving Texas plain. For hundreds of miles, oil derricks nod their heads amongst neatly stacked cotton bales, sporadically interrupted by gigantic herds of cattle. Our two lanes of tarmac have railroad tracks in tandem and disappear into the horizon. Out of nowhere, a mighty, endless train appears and snakes alongside, ferrying unknown freight across this barren land.
(Schimmel upright piano, Macbeth Elements synthesizer, Musser Ampli-Celeste, Stingray bass, found sounds)
Read: ‘Some Trains In America’ Andrew Cross (Prestel Books)
At the river’s edge in Bywater, New Orleans, there is a retired, burnt-out, beautiful cargo dock, leading to a crumbling boardwalk with train tracks to nowhere. It has sweeping views of the Mississippi and Downtown skyline. Despite its many upheavals, the Crescent City is burgeoning with new life: in the adjoining Crescent Park, flowers bloom and butterflies flutter.
(Schimmel upright piano, Buchla Music Easel synthesizer, found sounds)
Read: ‘Unfathomable City – A New Orleans Atlas’ Rebecca Solnit / Rebecca Snedeker (University Of California Press)
Another day, another highway, another junction: it could be anywhere but it happens to be here. Highway 61 was immortalised by Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan, and crosses North to South, from Minnesota through Louisiana to New Orleans. The town of Rolling Fork sits at the 61/14 crossroad. It is nowheresville, Missisippi, but it has something. Anywhere has, if you look hard enough. For one thing, this is the birthplace of pioneering Gospel singer Willie Mae Smith.
(Schimmel upright piano, Modular synthesizer, Stingray bass, Macbeth Elements synthesizer, Rhodes 73 & pedals, Korg 700, Musser Ampli-Celeste, Baby drums, Toy glockenspiel, found sounds)
Read: ‘The Storied South’ William Ferris (University Of North Carolina Press)
The construction of this unfinished antebellum mansion for a cotton baron started in 1859. As the Civil War approached, his workers went to fight for the Union, and their remaining downed tools bear witness to the sudden wind change.The silence in the main hall is deafening. The eerie air among the damp trees surrounding the octagonal building is heavy with Spanish moss and the sounds of defeat, revenge, and slavery. Longwood would make a brilliant Opera.
(Schimmel upright piano, Squire & Longson upright piano, Stingray bass, Godin guitar & The Big Trees pedal, Toy glockenspiel, found sounds)
Recommended book: ‘The Soundscape’ R. Murray Schafer (Destiny Books)
It’s twilight over Taos Pueblo and the sacred Blue Lake. We are in the oldest continuously inhabited community in the USA. Snow is melting, leaving deep murky pools amongst the high rolling frosty desert-brush, junipers and squat pines. Centuries of magic and spirituality drew Mabel Dodge Luhan to start a literary colony here in 1917, blazing the trail for countless other artists in search of inspiration and retreat from our frantic world.
(Schimmel upright piano, Stingray bass and The Big Trees pedal, GRP A4 synthesiser, found sounds)
Recommended book: ‘Edge Of Taos Desert’ Mabel Dodge Luhan (University Of New Mexico Press)
It’s winter in Mesa Verde, SouthWest Colorado. Through the light falling snow, the flat-topped Mesa rises from the plain and is visible for miles. Inhabited from c7500BC, impossible stone villages were built hanging below the cliff tops. There is no more human life here, the Mesa has been deserted since 1285, 500 years before the Spanish (re)discovered it.
(Schimmel upright piano, S-Cat Circuit Bent Casio MT68, Modular synthesizer, Musser Ampli-Celeste, Stingray bass, Fender Jaguar guitar, found sounds)
Recommended book: ‘Photographs Of The Southwest’ Ansel Adams (Little, Brown & Company)
The Mississippi meanders, wide and indifferent, past the infinite cotton fields. Poverty is palpable and the flat, damp earth oozes The Blues and unrelenting toil. There are scattered clusters of semi-derelict mobile homes, with a clapped-out truck here and a washing line there as the only evidence that they haven’t been abandoned. And yet, every roadside stop is full of smiles, stories and sounds.
(Modular synth, Schimmel upright piano, Macbeth Elements synthesizer, found sounds)