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Creating Tim Exile’s ‘orchestral extravaganza’

Emma Gritt

Tim Exile Rebecca Miller 2008 2 269x300 Creating Tim Exiles orchestral extravaganzaTim Exile is as much an inventor as he is a musician. With a well-deserved reputation as one of the electronic world’s most innovative and forward thinking artists, since he began making music in 1999, he has dipped in and out of most genres, including the noisier ones.

On Thursday, Tim will get to tick the box labelled ‘work with an orchestra’, fulfilling a lifetime ambition for him, and creating an enthralling prospect for fans.

The amiable musician is the star attraction at Blank Canvas, an irregular celebration of pioneering electronica with a leftfield twist. This time, Tim will be live editing the Heritage Orchestra, changing they way they sound as they perform, adding and taking away, using a lovingly constructed music station he calls his ‘instrument’.

It is an ambitious project, and will present new challenges for Cheltenham-born Tim. While working with live musicians is nothing new for him, usually it’s a jam with just one other person.

“When there’s two of you, a duet, you’re light and can move around and can really listen to each other and go wherever, but I’ve never done something on this scale before, something with 32 players in an orchestra,” he says. “You can’t communicate with individual players, you can’t just stroll up and say, ‘hey guys let’s jam, just do whatever guys, do whatever!’ Obviously you need some structure to it.”

Tim will be able to manipulate the Heritage Orchestra as they perform. “They are going to be routed through my instrument, so I’ll be able to dip in to anything they’re playing and sample it loop it or transform it.”

He called upon a composer friend, Finn McNicholas, who he says has been able to help him translate his ideas, as well as offer some of his own. “We are just kind of creating this electronic, orchestral extravaganza. I think we are doing quite a bit of uncharted stuff, I think. Like taking the orchestra as a live source to sample and build all these textures out of. We are not pre-recording anything, everything happens as you see it happen.”

Tim explains that they have taken a rather modular approach to writing the score for the celebrated orchestra. “We are going to be writing it in sections, so in one section there will be a couple of little riffs, then within that section I can use my instrument to mute the strings or put them through some reverb or delay or reverse them in real time.

“The orchestra will be on stage with their instruments, they make a pretty decent noise so I think some of that will cut through, but they are all going to be mic’d up individually as well and then mixed down in to four parts and then fed in to my instrument, so most of the sound will be coming through the speakers via my machine, but I will be able to interrupt that flow whenever I like.

“It’s a bit daunting but it’s really fun. I think actually I was slightly sh***ing myself before I asked my friend to come on board, mostly as I’m just not that experienced – well, I have no experience – of writing stuff for an orchestra. I could probably do it but there would probably be lots of mistakes and I would waste lots of time, but now Finn’s helping out I can do the things that I’m really good at and he can do the things that he’s really good at. I’m really excited, I’ve always wanted to do something for orchestra, and now I have the opportunity to do it.”

Tim does have some orchestral experience, however. “I used to be a violinist, I did my grade 8 when I was 17 but I got into electronic music, DJing and sampling when I was about 15 and there was a bit of competition, and beats and breaks and sampling sort of won hands down, really. But I did play in a couple of orchestras, I was the guy at the back who ended up missing all the cues. You know when you hear an amateur orchestra, there’s always the one guy who goes ‘Eck’ [makes sound of a screeching string] in the silence and that was me.”

His instrument, a Frankenstein’s monster of effects boxes and keyboards sits patiently in the corner of the room. “It took me a couple of years to make – I say make, these are all things that you could buy in a music equipment store,” he says. Perhaps noticing my blank expression as I try and work out how the keyboards, boxes and MacBook all work in unison, he adds, helpfully, “they’re just like boxes that send information. Imagine this is like a very big iPad.” He takes position behind one of the large keyboards and says that the plethora of different gadgets hooked up to his laptop are comparable to different apps.

Layman’s terms accepted and understood, Tim then shows me his instrument in action. Using his voice as a sample, he steadily builds an intricate track, adding more layers that sample his original sound, and many loops. It’s exciting to watch, and Tim makes it look incredibly easy – which obviously it isn’t, especially for someone like me who used to be made to mime playing recorder on a 12″ ruler at school due to a complete lack of musical ability.

One of the benefits of having such an instrument is that it can evolve along with your ideas, but it’s not as simple as just adding a new gadget on a whim. Tim has to program everything so they work in sync, which requires several months of computer work, something he’ll start working on after the Blank Canvas performance.

“Making all this stuff takes forever and a year, so I’m going back to loads of programming, which will probably take me to the end of the year. And next year I’m hoping I’ll have a new instrument,” he says. “That instrument,” he explains, nodding at the again sleeping musical station in the corner, “is not ideal for writing music as I made it as an improvisation instrument, while the instrument I’m making has got all that and has got this added song writing thing so you can really give things a bit more of a structure. I’ll hopefully write an album and record an album.” The album, he hopes, will be recorded in a new studio he plans to start building in December.

The construction of the new studio is a physical marker of Tim’s desire to focus on creating after some time spent in rave capital Berlin. “I’ve done my time in Berlin, it was good. It’s easier to really focus on what you want to do in London, but in Berlin there is such a big party scene, which is great fun and it’s great to let loose and make connections and come up with ideas.”

With plenty of ideas collated, Tim returned to London. I ask him if he is planning a more AV approach to the new album, in the style of Squarepusher’s Ufabulum LP. “I don’t know,” he says. “To be honest, what I am more and more in to at the moment, having made these instruments and really kind of getting to explore that world, is less about the outcome and more about the process of music. The musical act, getting lost in doing music.”

His Buddhist beliefs are also playing a part in helping him understand what direction to pursue next, as he recognises similarities between the in-depth way he makes music and the way he loses himself in meditation. “The more I do of both of them, the more I realise they are pretty much exactly the same thing; having that experience when you tap in to something and get so absorbed in to it… I think that’s what I’m about, more than writing albums. I definitely want to write some more music but I think my life goal is to bring that process to other people, to give them the tools to allow them to really get lost in themselves.”

It is obvious that his head is whirring with possibilities for the new full length LP, and like a spinning top, it is still unclear where it will stop. “I think I’d want to do something that supports that kind of vision, really. It could be AV… I don’t know, I think I want it to be something that is even more out there. To do something that is explicitly about this sense of flow, this sense of improvisation, to do something that is almost like a ritual, an almost carnal ritual that is different every time and really involves the audience and doesn’t just come down to a bit of plastic, or an MP3. I want to do something that is new and fresh every time it happens and has got a dimension of flow that everybody’s invited in to. I’d want the album to be a centre point for that.”

Being immersed in bleeps and time sequences and soon code means that when it comes to downtime, Tim is unsurprisingly eager to listen to something totally different. “I’m almost religiously a fan of a podcast called Headphone Commute which is mostly beatless, mostly soundscapes, instrumental stuff and lots of weird piano music. Lots of different artists come in and do guest mixes, and pretty much all of the mixes will have a track by Brian Eno and a whole bunch of obscure ambient stuff,” he says. “It’s like medicine to me.”

Tim Exile is performing with the Heritage Orchestra as part of experimental music night Blank Canvas, at Village Underground, London on 5 September.

Tickets are available now

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