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Twilight Circus

Dub science, dub vibration: Discussions with Ryan Moore from Twilight Circus.

Twilight Circus provided some of the most satisfying and spacious bass and drum mixes of the 90’s: Eerie low end frequencies veering randomly underneath complex mixes, with harsh snare cracks and soaring effects complimenting the depth of the subterranean bass undertow. The most distinctive aspect of these recordings is a powerful sense of brooding mood and atmospheric presence.The tracks have a “landscape like” quality, many of the tracks sounding like they would make excellent contributions to a prospective road movie or “film noir” soundtrack. From the seismic vibrations of “Rolling Thunder” to the searing high frequencies of “Binghi Brain Melt Mix”, Ryan Moore’s compositions have always been innovative and distinctive, relying on live instrumentation with a bare minimum of sampling. Imagine Scientist meets Eno in a ruined city, deep under the sea on the ocean floor, or imagine King Tubby meets Can, soundclash style, in a jungle forest clearing: This is music of dreams.

Now Twilight Circus bass player Ryan Moore has teamed up with DJ Spooky on a remix project. I caught up with Ryan Moore recently to discuss his work and influences. Unsurprisingly, the interview focussed on intense BASS resonation and its effect on the human form, psyche and sensibility.

Can you talk about the importance of bass in the Jamaican tradition and its importance to you?

“In reggae music a deep fat bass sound is essential to the depth of the physical experience. Early sound system operators in Jamaica understood the profound effect of bass on the people that attended the dances. Besides this, back in the early days in Jamaica in the 50’s and 60’s most of the bass on Jamaican recordings would have been played on a big acoustic bass of the type used in jazz. These acoustic bass instruments have a deep, rich low end vibration: In fact they are in a lower register, one octave lower, than a regular electric bass. So the young people who were to later become the musicians, producers and engineers in Jamaica grew up with this reference point. Also, look at the other music that was coming in to Jamaica at that time: Early Stax and Motown also had a very deep, low end bass pressure. People were going for a punchy low “thump” on the electric bass. It’s interesting to note that in the last decade there has been a massive swing towards deep bass vibrations again in popular music forms such as drum and bass , Junglist and two step.”

Can we talk now about the effect of bass on people’s body and psyche? You know the feeling when a pounding “b” line drops, the vibrations impacting the abdomen, up through the solar plexus like a wave, up to the chest, lower neck, in the head, up to the temples, behind the eyes. Why is that signal so pleasurable and calming?

“These low frequencies just have a deep physical effect on the listener, and in the case of reggae or other styles such as Drum and Bass, these frequencies and vibrations can have a hypnotic, trance inducing power, especially in situations when the volume is high such as at a sound system session. It’s just that much more heavy.”

When I interviewed Russ D, we spoke a lot about “subsonic bass waves” which are subliminal bass waves of sound, experienced and felt rather than audibly heard. Can you give your views on “sub 30 hertz” vibrations as used in roots and culture, dub or any other form of music?

“I believe officially humans are supposed to have the capacity to hear from around 20 Hertz up to 20 K Hertz when we are born. Personally I don’t think there’s too much in the area of 30 Hertz or lower which gets cut on to vinyl due to the inherent limitations of the medium. Most vinyl cutting houses would “roll off” the real sub lows below 40 Hertz because that is seen more as more of a “frequency pollution” which would take up space in the cut, yet not add to the overall listening experience . Engineers for most live concert PA’s and clubs will also cut these sub lows because they eat up massive amounts of the amplifiers power. Now, regarding a roots and culture or dub session, much of what we perceive as sub low bass vibrations when we are at a roots dance are in reality certain harmonics and distortions: Resonances set in motion from speaker box movement and amp power rush. Some sound systems and clubs will actually use a sub harmonic synthesiser to introduce these subs into the mix. Bill Laswell used this to good effect in a lot of his music. These vibrations are felt rather than heard: Ever seen a deaf person enjoying dancing even though they can’t hear the music? They can still “feel” where the beat is! Bass is an EARTH tone. I recall reading that planets apparently have their own resonating tone: Really low frequencies like 0.1 or 0.2 Hertz. Frequencies and waveforms do effect, lead and influence our perception of the world. Besides sound, this is also in regards to light movement and brainwaves.”

Bass movements, bass culture! Do you have any particular memories of a live situation when you were profoundly affected by the bass, or the spirituality of sound?

“My huge moment of “bass epiphany” came when I saw The Wailers. It was in the early 80’s. Nothing comes near that experience. Errol Brown was the soundman. Hearing the bass in that context and hearing the interplay with the drums with this massively huge, deep, loud sound made me realize reggae bass was a SERIOUS thing, more serious than I had ever imagined. It struck me as a realization, that every bass note played would have a big physical effect on the listener when played at that massive, seismic volume. I realized too that if the wrong note was played at those volume levels, it could have a bad effect on the listener, affecting them in a negative way, possibly inducing nausea. Bass: It’s a big responsibility! I was fortunate enough to meet Family Man at that time, and I asked him for some tips on bass playing. When I saw The Wailers on the second show, I remember Family Man coming out and turning up one of the low bass EQ sliders on his amp even more. Intense is the only word to describe the impression it made on me.”

What of extreme experiences when you played out over a sound system or club PA?

“I don’t have my own sound system but an extreme experience I’d like to recount to you was when I played in Israel about two years ago. Sharon had just got elected and I was playing in a bomb shelter refuge of all places! I was struck at how some tunes could take on a whole different level of meaning depending on the environment or circumstance they are played in. It was deep. At one point, spontaneously, I took a relentless Burning Spear chant, “we don’t want no war!” and just started subtly merging that repetitive mantra into the mix I was playing. Given their circumstances in Israel, I could notice how people reacted to it. You could see it having an impact on the psyche of the people. Yeah, that was quite an experience.”

Which bass sound and bass players have influenced you the most?

“Family Man and Robbie Shakespeare. I was so influenced by the classic figures of reggae bass, but also great players like James Jamerson from Motown and Dick Dunn from Stax. I was also really impressed by Charlie Mingus and his approach to bass playing. Even though he was clearly a virtuoso, he would lay back and play the simplest of things if that would fully support the structure of the song: No ego.

Of course I also have to mention Lloyd Brevett from The Skatalites, who is the real “granddad” of Jamaican bass players who went on to influence countless later players with his sound and phrasing.”

I listen to funk and I love it. I listen to jungle and I love it. Hard jazz too. But it’s only when I hear a roots reggae or dub tune, that the bass and the space, echo, the emptiness and the low end in the tune drops, that’s when I feel like “I came home” , and that the bass and the empty space in the dub is definitely a spiritual thing: Do you agree? Dub gives me a meditative peace of mind and steady state. What do you think?

“All I know is when I first heard dub in 1981, I had a reaction: I thought, “WHAT IS THIS?” I was so attracted to the cavernous sense of space, the echoes. My take on it back then and my own theory which I wanted to develop was, that the drums and bass hypnotize the listener and mesmerize physically, whereas the other sounds on top, the higher frequencies and effects, influence the mind. So the combination of the two would provide the ultimate hypnotic trance- inducing experience to send the listener off on a journey to: Who knows where? As an experiment, I wanted to combine dub bass and drum patterns with more esoteric sounds.”

I think there is a certain depth in your sound and atmospheric mood and innovation which sets you apart from a lot of your contemporaries: Its obvious you are heavily influenced by many other dub originators, but you seem to have striven to create very much your own sound and vibe altogether. Any comment?

“In the studio, I follow my own instincts without too much contrived pre planning. So where it goes is actually a surprise to me. I am the sum of all kinds of different musical experiences which lead up to where I am now.”

Ryan, thanks for you time. I appreciate your contribution.

“No problem. I had a good time with the questions. They caused some sparks to fire in long dormant parts of my brain!”

Copyright protected: Greg Whitfield. May 2003.

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