Sound and vision blog

13 October 2020

Making of: The Unearthed Odyssey

Written by AWATE, Artist-in-Residence for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. 

In 2019-20, I was the Artist-in-Residence at the British Library Sound Archive for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. I was tasked with creatively using the sounds (up to 7 million!) in order to showcase the recordings in the collections. I decided to focus on the topic of migration and over the course of several months, created a conceptual Afrofuturist album spanning three centuries called The Unearthed Odyssey.

Watch the full performance of The Unearthed Odyssey here

It’s the story of children on a spaceship being taught the history of Earth. Needing to find another planet, they have been sent out into the unknown for safety like so many people in the story of humanity. It takes place on the one day a year they are awoken for an audio lesson in human migration. The teacher takes the form of an artificial intelligence interface which uses hip-hop production techniques to explain migration using samples from the British Library sound archive.

I used recordings from the World and Traditional Music, Pop Music, Drama and Literature, Oral History, and Wildlife and Environmental departments. The scale and depth of the sound archive made me want to use parts from it all, rather than focusing on one collection, period or location. With more time, I would have used even more!

The narrative structure is laid out with the first song as an introduction. From there, there are three movements or acts. Act I: Original Home. Act II: The Journey. Act III: New Home. Within these acts, the musical style would change significantly, with the first compositions consisting entirely or mostly of layers utilising samples from one recording. As the piece progresses, more additional production and virtual instruments are introduced for a fuller and more modern sound.

Much of this is a step-by-step guide to how the piece was created. Many of the thought processes I had when producing this piece haven’t been included. I am probably still processing them now. For greater detail into the themes and ideas I worked with and was attempting to communicate, please watch the Q&A with Kieran Yates from the premiere.

AWATE 1Above: A screenshot of a Logic Pro X arrangement and sample editor windows showing parts of composition and waveform of sampled recording.

Part I: Listening

After researching the collections I wanted to use and downloading 66 recordings from the sound libraries and servers, the most important task at hand was listening to all of these potential samples! I had run through them all quickly in order to determine whether the audio quality was usable and how interesting they sounded but now had to go through them all - some being 20 seconds and others more than 3 hours.

For every audio file, there was a story and I used the British Library itself as well as online searches for greater context on the subjects in the recordings, the time, geography, politics and the archivists themselves. This was to have an understanding of what I was listening to. To centre my listening and to inform the direction of the new work that I would be turning these recordings into.

With that said, the most important part of the criteria in shortlisting and using these sounds in the first place was how dope they sounded. How cool or interesting they were. Whether they could be manipulated into another sound to evoke emotion with the use of effects. My purpose as the Artist-in-Residence was to entice people into the archive. Stories and context are important but first and foremost, I wanted to make amazing music.

AWATE 2Above: A screenshot of a list of the downloaded recordings labelled by catalogue number.

Part II: Chopping Samples and Beatmaking

The next step after deciding which sounds I would definitely be using would be the part I have always relished - chopping samples and placing them/triggering them. For the uninitiated, this is the audio equivalent of a collage - going through a magazine with a pair of scissors, cutting out bits you find interesting or that would work well together aesthetically or thematically and finding ways they can interact with each other on the page before sticking them down. Making art out of art. Using found material to express how you are feeling. The tools of necessity after public funding for arts has been cut and you cannot afford to play or learn an instrument.

For Unearthed, I used two broad techniques for this. One of them involved using the slice tool in my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) of choice, Logic Pro X, to cut the pieces of the recording I wanted to use and place them on the linear editing window to create loops or patterns based on the BPM (Beats Per Minute) that I had set the project to. This is a fairly straightforward way of placing samples and works well for using slightly longer chops or when you don’t want to go through the next process which is…

Using a sampler. On Logic, my favourite stock sampler is the ESX24. I would chop the parts of the recording I wanted to use, then drag the files into the editor window on the ESX, create a new group, drag them into there and in the groups tab, set the polyphony to one. This meant that the samples could now be triggered using my ‘qwerty’ keyboard or music keyboard via MIDI or drawn on the MIDI file. Setting the polyphony to one meant that each chop would interrupt the other so that no two could be played at the same time. Poly = many. Phono = sound. For this technique, I used my keyboard to create interesting new patterns using the chops and recorded them.

AWATE 3Above: A screenshot of the programme ESX24 and its editor window with imported samples. It features the list of samples and an image of piano keys. Doing this allows the samples to be triggered like keys on a piano.

With my samples placed on the arrangement window, I then build the rest of the tracks using drums, bass, piano, synth and experimental sounds. The extremely talented Gabrial Ryder came in to lend his talents on the keyboard and piano to add additional production on many of the tracks. Many of his parts were integral to the intro and second half of the piece. I used various plugins to create effects and unique sounds such as EQ, reverb, delay, chorus, flanger, bitcrusher, distortion, step editor and compressors. All of the instruments and plugins were stock Logic sounds that I manipulated into one of a kind textures.

Part III: Oral History

Having created eight distinct instrumental songs, the next step was to listen to the various recordings I had collected from the Oral History and Drama and Literature collections. I searched for stories from immigrants and children of immigrants to the UK and elsewhere. Specifically, I wanted anecdotes of people in their countries of origin before migrating, descriptions of the journeys they undertook as well as what it was like for them adapting or growing up in a new place and how they were treated or made to feel.

Listening to these stories was quite emotionally taxing. Some included people describing surviving severe abuse or fleeing the Holocaust and horrific wars, others describing feeling completely alienated in their new countries and some included all of these things. This listening process took longer than I had anticipated, simply because I needed to take the time to properly recover from hearing people talk about such things, even when they had an indefatigable spirit or sense of humour about it. Much of the subject matter, I could relate to or had a connection to through members of my family.

In Logic, I listened and extracted excerpts as loops to my hard drive as separate files labelled by keywords based on who was interviewed and what was mentioned. From there, I could attach colour labels to each recording based on whether I would use it or not. Within the Logic sessions for the beats, I placed the oral history samples and fine-tuned them using EQ, reverb and other tools as well as turning the beat down during some of the stories and cutting the beat out at certain points. I was effectively using the stories as the lyrics on the instrumentals.

AWATE 4Above: A screenshot of bounced audio samples from oral history interviews featuring the interviewee, keywords and colour label.

Part IV: Arrangement

At this point, I had eight songs done with the sample based instrumentals and interwoven spoken parts from the archive and it sounded great! I arranged the tracks based on their subject matter to fit the narrative of the first section after the intro being about the original home, second section being about the journey and third section about the new home. They were also arranged according to the richness and complexity of the music, especially in terms of additional sounds and virtual instruments in Logic. For the most part, after the introduction song, the first section features production taken solely from the archive with the piece progressing into more and more additional instrumentation, while keeping the sound archive samples as the main ingredient.

From here I had to construct the wider narrative with the spaceship premise that had been decided on but did not yet feature. For the voices of the children on the spaceship, I spoke to a group of children from immigrant families in south London a few weeks after taking them on a day trip to the British Library with some wonderful staff. I had a stereo dictaphone which I walked around with while asking them questions after setting the scene for them. Having training in Philosophy for Children with the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education (SAPERE), I allowed them to interrogate their own thoughts and search for connections in what we were speaking about, listening to their own experiences.

In Logic, I chopped this conversation into the parts I wanted to use and arranged them in a window with the 8 finished tracks. Like the oral history samples, I applied processing tools to these samples to make them clearer and added a gated reverb to my voice. For me, the idea of the children today putting themselves into the shoes of futuristic travellers and having a conversation with the oral history parts was important as it reflected the same relationships the instruments and music samples were having.

The final addition were sound effects from the archive which I used to accentuate certain songs and transitions. These included wildlife recordings of birds and lions, the launching of a ship into the harbour, a boat in the ocean and real sounds of tanks and bombs from World War II. I feel these grounded the piece, bringing it back to Earth due to the inclusion of natural sounds that would stand out in such a futuristic narrative.

AWATE 5Above: A screenshot of the final arrangement window featuring the 8 tracks, voice over, children audio and sound effects.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage, @AWATEMUSIC and @soundarchive for all the latest news. 

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