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Digitonal: Beautiful Broken – an interview with Andy Dobson

A very candid interview with Andrew Dobson, electronica pioneer.

Written by Amelia Gregory

Andy Dobson is Digitonal: a classically trained melodic electronic music pioneer. He is back with a brand new album called Beautiful Broken which is a gorgeous slice of cinematic electronica inspired by Steve Reich and the Orb.

Where did you originally train as a clarinettist and singer?
From childhood basically. I was surrounded by classical music from a very young age. My local church and primary school both had music at the heart of everything they did so it was just total immersion. I had piano lessons from about 6, clarinet lessons from 8 and was singing the treble solo in the Allegri Miserere at 10. I can’t ever remember a time when it wasn’t part of my life.

You have been making music as an electronic artist for nearly two decades, what has changed in your life over that time, and how have these changes informed your music making?
Too much really. It’s quite a thing to look back on it. In practical terms, the shift from hardware to computers, and in particular Ableton Live, has had a huge impact on how I practically write music. Although it’s also underlined the importance of the fundamentals for me too – the cleverer the software gets, the more inventive I find I have to be to do what *I* want to do in it, rather than how the software wants me to work. This album really was a return to basics for me in how I write – less reliance on the software processes and more on my own musicality. In personal terms – a huge range of extreme happiness and depths of despair in various cycles. Some of the most profound unhappiness I could imagine knowing, and yet also, as I’ve grown older, a coming to terms with who I am, both as a person and as an artist, and learning how to be both those things better. I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years in all sorts of ways, and, whilst the music is rarely directly influenced by specific events (in that I don’t really write “about” things), that overall journey of growth and learning is definitely reflected in how the music has evolved. It’s a life’s work really, which is why I also know that I’ll always make music and it’ll always evolve.

digitonal - live
Why was it so important for you to create space within the music featured in this new album?
I think that was part of the growing up bit really. My temptation was always to over-orchestrate things and I think that was reflected in the pace of my life. I came to a point, particularly last year, where I needed to find some space in my head. Mostly I think I needed to generate contrast and a better balance of the many fronts that I was struggling with, and use my emotional resources more sparingly and I think that this profoundly impacted how I wrote. Even in the mixing stage I learnt the value of subtractive mixing, of taking out frequencies and levels and musical elements until the bare minimum of what made the part work was left. Out of that comes a far greater musical coherence, particularly when the piece itself might be fairly complex. Also learning not to contrive things to sound a certain way (like on a festival stage for instance when I was doing a lot of music festivals) was an important lesson. Whilst I love complexity in music, going back to minimalism was, I think, my way of decluttering my head and focussing on what was really important in the music.

How have the collaborations on this album worked?
With great difficulty by and large. It’s definitely a much more solo effort than previous records which were more heavily co-written. Partly that was because Samy is so busy now and time and distance means we just don’t have the hours in the day which we used to. Most of this material was written over a very long period and gradually hammered into shape. It would normally take on big leaps and bounds (particularly We Three for instance) when we played live which has been gradually getting more difficult. There were many revisions. We did most of the violin recording in about two days. The harp was a single session in my front room. Georgina Hoare, the wonderful cellist on some of the tracks, was introduced through a mutual friend and was kind enough to put down the basis of most of the cello parts for me to structure. Samy then recorded Ivan’s bits separately on the back of another session he’d done with him – I wasn’t even aware of it. So it kind of came together very slowly through little pieces of effort as we could fit them in. We did the final mix in one long weekend at Samy’s place, a good year after the original recordings. I’ve learnt to work this way, even though it’s quite contrary to my nature which tends to be more directly collaborative.

In what way has the music of Steve Reich informed the making of Beautiful Broken?
Well Reich’s obviously a major influence and always has been – my first released track was Drencrom on the Toytronic Neurokinetic compilation which was a clumsy attempt at trying to recreate that style using digital production techniques. This project was born from a recognition of the cross-over between what Reich, Nyman, Riley, Bryars etc were doing and what I was hearing in the chill-out rooms of 90s techno clubs. But it’s only really in this record that I wanted to really explicitly address it. So Proverb sets the same text as Reich’s piece of the same name (albeit musically very differently), there’s snatches of Reich-style marimbas in Autumn Round, and then obviously Eighteen. I originally wrote the basis for Eighteen for the 64-bar-challenge that a music community ran a few years ago. I’d been listening to Music for 18 Musicians loads, particularly movement IIIA, and just wanted to kind of give it a go. But I put it into 5/4 instead and went my own way with it. It’s got some little musical in-jokes, like using the celeste part to announce each change in section, and some direct quotes for those that know the piece well, but really it was my own way of making tribute I suppose. It’s a pretty trendy thing to do now I suppose, but he’s such a huge figure for most of us that’s not surprising. I always think that his melodic touches are never recognised enough with most people focussing on the rhythmic elements and that was mostly the attraction for me. Influence is rarely direct for me, but more a kind of vibe thing. There’s touches of it throughout the record, even when I’m not being explicit about it.

Where can fans see you play in the coming months?
Hopefully something to announce soon on this, but we are playing the Greenbelt Festival in August which I’m really looking forward to because I think it’s going to be a very diverse audience who’ll be more attuned to the delicate moments than our usual electronica audience often is.

Beautiful Broken by Digitonal is out on the 4th of May 2015 on Just Music


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