Distinguising Features

   

We know you can hear us...

The afternoon I travelled out to meet Vince Clarke and Martyn Ware at the former's home in the opulent commuter belt out beyond Heathrow Airport, a perfect 180-degree rainbow formed an arch over the badlands of west London. The rainbow seemed auspicious: Clarke and Ware used one as the index of tracks on their second collaboration, 'Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle', where each of six tracks is allotted a colour and a mood ('White: you are in heaven', 'Blue: you are under water'). A simple accident of sunlight and rain, but an apt backdrop to this occasion.

When 'Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle' dropped through my letterbox, I was expecting a synthesis of the two men's work: Ware's sassy amalgam of Motown brass and Walker Brothers melody with Heaven 17, Clarke's sublime choiring pop with Erasure. The title, a reference to the aircraft piloted by the female enforcers of the vintage TV sci-fi series 'Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons', conforms to their sensibilities: both men are firmly grounded in the grand sweep of pop culture, and that title brought the Captain Scarlet theme tune - da da-da da! da da-da da! - twanging back in the memory.

This misconception was swiftly if painlessly dispelled by the contents: a lush wash of deep, deep ambient, a music almost perverse in its refusal to indulge the pop operatics of Erasure or those bravura workouts of electronic funk favoured by Heaven 17. Yet there was also something else at work here: this wasn't the usual daft noodling of so much ambient music. It has a cinematic quality, dark undertows, disturbances and tensions, even moments of ridiculous camp (those trilling concert harps). The sleeve notes described it as music 'intended to promote profound relaxation', although Martyn would later confess, during one of many explosions of rude laughter, 'That was a load of cobblers!'

These are men with a mission. In the semi-circular lounge of Vince's startling flying saucer-like home - think Frank Lloyd Wright meets The Jetsons - overlooking the semi-circular indoor pool they explained the manifesto of Illustrious Co Ltd. Illustrious was incorporated on 3 July 2001 (Clarke's birthday) to mastermind their campaign of, if not quite world domination, then some serious sonic subversion. Heaven 17's Glenn Gregory, who was going to work with the duo until other projects took him on an unexpected detour, came up with the name. It might suggest that Illustrious Co Ltd is following the ironic corporate semiotics of BEF and Heaven 17. 'No no no no no no,' Vince insists, and I actually went back and counted those six notes on the tape. 'Forget all that BEF ironic shit - '

'Well,' Martyn demurs, 'actually, we might disagree on that...'

'That actually was BEF,' says Vince. 'It was ironic.'

'This is our attempt to sound credible in the corporate market!'   says Martyn.

Illustrious, then, is simply a name, an adjective: of great renown, famous and distinguished; glorious and great; an obsolete term for shining, a 16th century word from the Latin illustris, bright, distinguished, famous. And that's just the Collins definition.

The duo have been friends, drinking buddies and co-conspirators for nearly a decade, since Ware produced Erasure's 'I Say I Say I Say' in 1993. Daniel Miller suggested the collaboration, and both found that the other was a long-time fan of their work. 'It was an awe thing,' Vince grins, watching to see if Martyn blushes, but he's obviously been here before. Ware had, of course, been producing since (at least) 1981's 'Music of Quality and Distinction', and made minor history as the only producer Erasure didn't end up loathing.

'We're similar, very similar,' says Vince. They share the same 'cultural references', says Martyn, not to mention a similar vintage as fortysomething veterans of post-punk pop who have been through the mill and don't want to play that particular game any more, thank you. While neither Heaven 17 nor Erasure have split - the former have a new studio album due in 2002, and Erasure are still a working unit - for some time both men have wanted to take their skills into other areas, specifically in collaborations with people working in other disciplines, be they dancers, sculptors, painters, filmmakers or performance artists. The wisdom acquired during a combined forty years in and out of the pop charts inspired them to look a little further afield, hence the wildly differing backdrops to 'Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle' and its predecessor 'Pretentious', their debut. Daniel Miller, iconic muso-founder of Mute Records, which released both recordings, told them he thought 'Pretentious' was a terrible title, but true to their muse they stuck with it. You can only warm to a duo who not only pre-empt hostile critics (in fact, 'Pretentious' got rave reviews) but actually hand their critics the ammo themselves.

'Pretentious' developed out of their involvement with the ill-fated National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield. Ware may live in London, but he is still a son of Red Mecca. When he heard that the Sheffield project had secured the National Lottery funding to go ahead, he 'wanted to get onboard immediately'. Prior to the Sheffield project, most pop-themed attractions in Britain amounted to tawdry collections of memorabilia or animatronics displays that, in his view, 'really just cheapen the memory of how music can change your life'. The Centre's response was keen, particularly as it was hoping to feature a performance space for three-dimensional sound manipulation. However, while the Centre had the vision, it had 'no idea how to achieve it technically'.

Perhaps following the Zen principle 'first thought, best thought', Ware was up for it immediately. So was Clarke. 'Martyn had this idea. He said "I've got this really excellent blag in Sheffield,"' Vince laughs. '"We can do it in four days. Let's do it." So we started off by making a really extreme fast piece, to demonstrate the system.'

Clarke and Ware 'sourced' a three-dimensional sound system, the Huron Processor produced by the Australian company Lake, and set to work on what would become the first track on 'Pretentious', the 14-minute 'Music for Multiple Dimensions'. As a solitary yellow plastic duck drifted across Vince's pool below us, Martyn explained the hardware.

To paraphrase him, the Huron Processor is a computer with the capacity of eight or so PCs (or perhaps four Mac G4s) that uses a surround-sound setup of eight speakers on two tiers in which you can place up to fifteen different sound sources in any three-dimensional space of your choosing. The sounds can remain static, or they can be shifted at any speed and in any direction around the 3D space. The Huron Processor can also construct a 3D soundscape that makes the audience 'hear' that it is being moved around the space, rising or sinking, or moving in any way the sound designer wants to place (or send) them in the auditorium.

'That's really confusing,' Vince jeers. 'This is the Basildon [his Mecca] version, right? You got the speakers in a circle at different heights. You sit in the middle of the circle and we programme a piece of music that moves around you. In stereo, all you do is left or right. With this system you can do height, you can do depth. The weirdest thing is the height. You get sound that moves from your shoes up to your head and then way above you.'

'It's like a rollercoaster for your ears,' says Martyn. So much so, it seems, that they thought about putting a PG certificate on some of the wilder sonic effects of 'Music for Multiple Dimensions' when it opened the Centre's 3D sound auditorium.

From quadrophonic stereo to the Holophonic system used by the likes of Psychic TV, noise happening on three planes is nothing new, and they're at pains to stress that the Huron is chiefly a tool. You're meant to be listening to the music, not the machinery.

The Sheffield commission and their discovery of the Huron Processor seem to have been particularly liberating experiences. While we can think of atypical pieces in both men's careers - Ware's early work with The Human League on 'The Dignity of Labour, Parts 1-4', say, or BEF's 'Music for Stowaways', and some of Clarke's arrangements for Erasure - none of these gave warning of what would appear on 'Pretentious' or 'Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle'. Parts of that debut could be Lalo Schifrin on acid, blowsy Hi-NRG club anthem or trance drones that out-minimal minimalists such as Jon Hassell or Harold Budd. The nearest album I could think of comparing 'Spectrum' to, and I actually confessed that I feared joining Vince's duck in the pool for daring to mention it, would be Wendy Carlos's 'Sonic Seasonings', the 1972 double album on which she presented her Mooged-up answer to 'The Four Seasons'.

When they stopped laughing, and it became clear I wasn't about to be thrown to the ducks, Martyn confessed 'I love that album!' He adds, however, 'I was much more impressed with things like 'Timesteps' [her 'overture' to the soundtrack of 'A Clockwork Orange'] and the really abstract stuff, which deeply affected the way I thought about music.'

You could spend hours roaming the last half-century of arcane electronic music with Martyn Ware, whereas Vince Clarke declares himself, as you'd imagine a composer for Depeche Mode, Yazoo and Erasure might, as 'the tunes man. I just do the tunes. I could do a tune for anything!' Yet they remain staunch admirers of the other's work, and find their different approaches complement each other. Not so much chalk and cheese, perhaps, as brainiac and dionisiac. If they had past lives, Ware's was probably Albert Einstein; Clarke's, Chopin.

'It's a respect thing,' says Vince. 'Martyn respects me, and I respect him. Although not always...'

So you keep your different opinions?

'Hopefully ...' he laughs - italics his.

The Sheffield music centre went the way of a number of under-powered Lottery projects, but Clarke and Ware realised they were on to something. Commissioned to prepare a one-off sound environment for the launch of an advertising company's Internet offshoot, they took over part of London's Roundhouse arts centre, wrapped it, Christo-like, in white and gave it what we might call, borrowing a term from David Byrne, a light bath. 'Light bath' comes from Byrne's music for choreographer Twyla Tharp's 'The Catherine Wheel', but he borrowed the idea from dramatist Robert Wilson, who has used bare stages bathed in shifting colours to open his operas. As the assembled partygoers guzzled their way through the canapes and the cabernet, 'Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle' unfolded in 3D from hidden speakers while the space itself phased imperceptibly through washes of white, yellow, red, blue, green and back to white.

'The irony of it,' says Vince, 'is that it was for a corporate party. I mean, it was suits.'

'The music was meant to be on in the background,' says Martyn, 'while people networked or did whatever it is you do at corporate parties. But we liked the idea of subverting people's moods over a period of time without them even realising. It was almost like a drug experience. People were coming out of there pretty spaced out.'

Suits or not, afterwards some partygoers thanked them for what was almost a mystical experience. Coming from suits, says Vince, that was particularly sweet.

They got to move this on to an even greater scale when they were commissioned to create a similar environment for the launch of the latest Sony Playstation system. This might be called the Penthouse & Pavement theory of Illustrious Co Ltd: they are more than happy to work with global corporations, as that will fund works they are developing with less wealthy or simply unknown talents. One project that is firing their imaginations at present is an invitation from Oxford academic Paul Bonaventura to work with finals arts students who are developing inter-disciplinary projects - sculpture, film, photography, sound - with departments as diverse as History and Anthropology. Before that, however, they have to complete an even more ambitious project: to devise an interactive soundscape to be choreographed by Vanessa Fenton, a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet Company, which will be staged at the Royal Opera House Studio in February 2002. The piece is based on a poem by the late RD Lang, the alternative psychologist and author of 'Knots', and requires a sound environment that can respond to a dancer's movements. Considering this array of varied media projects, it seems that even before they announced it to an unsuspecting world, Illustrious Company was on a roll.

'For me,' says Martyn, 'the blue touch-paper was lit for real when I went out to the Venice Biennale, which happens every two years - '

Vince just can't resist: 'Which you would do,' he interrupts tartly, 'as "biennale" means it happens every two years - '

Martyn ignores him.

' - and for the first time I was mixing in the private shows with artists and talking with people involved in that world. I suddenly realised that a lot of these things are down to who you know and being in the right place at the right time. When I discussed the idea of the 3D sound project and the idea of collaborations between musicians and artists, everyone I spoke to thought it was a very interesting idea. And we're talking about some seriously big hitters as well. We're currently trying to contact people like Bill Viola, Damien Hirst, Anthony Gormley. But we're also interested in collaborating with up-and-coming artists, and maybe there'll be an educational element as well. So, obviously, the corporate thing pays for that end of it. It's a balance of the two that we're aiming for.'

Vince's deadpan seems to suggest that this sort of thing wouldn't start riots in box-office queues in Basildon, yet when I mention some of my favourite 3D artists - Cornelia Parker, for example, or James Tyrrell - both declare themselves fans as well. 'I think at the end of the day we both like the same art,' Vince says, although Martyn's guffaw suggests there may be occasions when they beg to differ. The key to these proposed collaborations, as they repeatedly stress, is the shared creative process, where everyone involved has equal input, and where everyone and no one is credited as creator.

'We're up for anything, basically,' says Vince. 'The main thing is for us to do something creative, something that will be a juxtaposition between artists.'

'We're eager to learn,' adds Martyn. 'That's a key part of it. I want to learn what makes visual artists tick.'

'And maybe we can even inspire them as well,' says Vince. 'It may just be a pile of bricks, but we can make it better. We can make it a really excellent pile of bricks!'

There goes lunch with Carl Andre, then.

The Clarke-Ware project has also triggered what we in the words racket would describe as a paradigm shift, a drastic change in the way things are done. While Mute released the first two recordings - 'It made sense,' says Martyn, 'It got word around about what we're doing' - that may not be the case in future. They are planning to record and release 'every single thing we ever do, at least on the Internet but probably also by mail order. We're going to do that indiscriminately.' They are not, however, writing Arts Council applications or flirting with multinational A&R departments. The penthouse will be underwriting the pavement...

Recordings are, in any case, only a snapshot of the live event, and even on headphones only a part of the Huron's 3D effects translates to bog-standard stereo. Perhaps taking a page from The Residents' manual of obscurity chic, they will be restricting some projects to unrepeated limited editions of one. They may even erase the music for some events, as happened with the PlayStation launch soundtrack ('Basically,' Vince chuckles, 'Martyn forgot to save it to the hard disk...').

With the fallout from Napster still settling and dot.coms dying like flies, they are cautious about the predictions made for music on the net. They realise, however, that with the spread of broadband communications and the growth in low-end technology, the Internet is the place music has to go in the future (hence the Illustrious website, designed by Altered Images founder Malcolm Garrett's web atelier, AMX). However, for the 3D aspect of their work, the growing popularity of multi-speaker home cinema systems and encodable DVD technology is of equal importance. As prices fall, the Huron Processor's live 3D effects could be replicated in the comfort of your own lounge.

Many musicians of their age might already be thinking of buying the fish farm, but Clarke and Ware are embarking on an adventure into territory charted by very few before them. It's not without its risks, but the potential is vast, as even these early projects have shown. 'We're totally maverick,' says Martyn. 'We want to be outsiders, because that enables you to do things on a whim.'

It helps, of course, if you are, by your own description, 'So confident that we can pull things off that I don't think there's any artistic performance or mutual endeavour that we couldn't bring something to. Once you get away from the fear of being knocked back, there's no limit to what you can achieve. A very simple philosophy, but it works.'

Ladies and gentlemen. The illustrious Vincent Clarke and Martyn Ware. At a Venice Biennale near you soon.