A 'hard labour of love'? Whatever travails may have beset this project, the outcome certainly makes it all worth it. Stunning album from some of my favourite ambient/experimental luminaries.
Fine sounds, wonderfully mastered by Lawrence and Ian.
Applause, plaudits and grateful thanks to all involved!
The origins of the Black Elk Quartet started with some sketches I made in 2004 - 2007 whilst living in Italy for a while. These were textures and pieces I could never quite get to a point I was satisfied with whilst there and involved lots of drawn out piano, synth and guitar sketches.
The evolution from there came about from working with my netlabel friend Ryo Nakata (Ryonkt) in 2007. I compiled a double album of music alongside Ryo and Danny Norbury over the next couple of years, and one other artist (secret I'm afraid), that was my love letter and imagined soundtrack to 'Beauty and Sadness' by Yasunari Kawabata. After two years of working solidly on this, the artist in question pulled their material for their own album with some pretty fierce comments about the collaboration due to how long and obsessive I had become with this work.
After a number of months of depression and a lack of confidence in any of the music I was producing as a result, I found myself suddenly working on a remix for my good friend Clem Leek. At the same time, and around the release of the double Maps and Diagrams albums on Nomadic Kids Republic, I started talking to and creating really fun music with Tim Martin (Maps and Diagrams) which evolved to become Ouvala.
Despite initially working on separate projects with each, as things evolved, the remix Danny and I had worked on for Audiobulb alongside our work with Jason Corder as Kinder Scout (Preco), ended up producing stems I randomly looped on reels and edited constantly. These unused sketches and edits i made with Danny's stems would become the bulk of the Black Elk sketches, live shows and even our Faintly Recollected release over time.
Eventually, in a late night bout of frustration at not quite snapping everything in the right place, I sent the pieces I'd made with Clem and Danny to Tim, not telling him who was involved or what it was. Within a matter of four days, Tim had added beautifully subtle electronic layers and had reinvogorated the pieces and my energy towards a new project.
I promptly invited my friend from local live shows in Tokyo, Aki Tomita, to sing on separate pieces in the same key which I then transferred to these pieces. And after another few months of editing sent the project to each of the collaborators to see what they thought. Everyone was shocked at how this had come together and the result of a few years of working alongside friends randomly had paid off.
Ultimately I had split the original work for 'Beauty and Sadness' into two releases: Rion 'Fireflies' (with Ryo Nakata) and 'Sparks' as Black Elk, and the results made more sense and came together so well. And whilst strictly not really a quartet (the only track we made involving each of us is 'Aphotic Widow'), it felt like a group effort and great relief personally for me to have these pieces all tied together after years of creative frustration.
I wasn't sure how people would react to this album in particular, and was so exhausted from the obsession of the process of making these alongside my four year project, 'The Shattered Light', decided to put both out in small editions in Japan only. With the help of our friends P*Dis and Linus, the album was a bit of a sleeper hit (such as can be in the ambient scene at least) and got rave reviews in Japan which was a pleasant surprise.
We were invited to do a small tour in Japan during Christmas 2013 on the back of this, and to help fund this I released a lot of the original sketches I made with each of the guys separately (as well as a live show by myself with Danny and my old mate Konntinent) as Japan tour CD-r's. The live shows were to be the Black Elk Trio (myself, Clem and Danny) after a couple of performances together prior to this. The tour however was suddenly cancelled with a few weeks to go, and with non-refundable flights we ended up putting on our own Christmas show at home, as well as playing alongside Flau on one night, and a show organised by Hakobune and Chihei Hatakeyama on the other to packed venues and a huge amount of love.
I'd tied up the follow-up 'Anchor', which was mostly sewn from other sketches and based largely around my work with Danny, a bit before the tour with the intention of releasing a little after. I'd had it mastered by Lawrence English and featuring great cover art by Jaime Montefort (once again). However, the album just never settled and the toll of being at the centre of a project like this once again and trying to iron out individual issues while we talked about it during the tour took too much out of me to carry the project on. For those interested in 'Anchor', the unfinished album actually features as a 'Sketch' on one of our four 'Sketches' releases that we put out in editions of just 50 CD-r's for the tour.
I'm often asked about Black Elk (Quartet) and why we never followed up as promised. Geographical distance and the burden of producing something truly collaborative in that situation impacted this really as the debut and tour took so much time and energy as the 'architect' of the project. The other simple truth is it took until 2019 to get the album rights properly transferred after years of issues with certain distributors and illegal artist uploads. It took time for me to get to this point, but also to a point where I wanted to quietly share this work again after all the 'industry' issues involved as noted above (and beyond).
The album and tour is something I am immeasurably proud of, and it led to such beautiful friendships with each of my collaborators. Despite all the hard (painful) work that the project always seemed to involve after the beauty and care of the creative process, it is one of those albums that still sounds fresh and youthful to these (now) old ears. It is an album about struggle and finding joy in the bleakest of situations, and of course in this case, life imitated art. I still find joy, great joy, in this little musical adventure I had the great fortune to create alongside dear friends.
released November 23, 2020
Written and produced by Ian Hawgood with:
Tim Martin on electronics (tracks 2 - 9)
Danny Norbury on cello (3, 7, 9)
Clem Leek on piano (1, 2, 9, 10)
Aki Tomita sings vocals on ‘ Sparks’ and ‘The Blackest Sky’
Mixed by Ian at Fudo Inno, Kasukabe in 2012 looking out onto the rice paddies
Mastered by Lawrence English
Remastered by Ian Hawgood
Cover photography by Jaime Montefort