We chatted to Joe, a London-based ambient music composer, to discover the journey he went on through the Lake District National Park, to curate peaceful sounds of nature for Kokoon’s storyscape, “The Boathouse” and his hypnotic Dream Streams.
“I like to think of my work as an artist and a musician, as a series of attempts to translate and subtly amplify the quiet beauty of everyday life.” - Joe Harvey-White
Q. Hey Joe, who, what and where are you?
Hey, I’m Joe Harvey-Whyte, a London-based ambient music composer, sound designer and visual artist.
Q. How would you describe the work that you do?
I try to have a multidisciplinary approach to the creative process. Music (and sound more generally) has always been very visual for me, so I began making art that could add meaning to the music I was making or listening to.
Nature has always been a huge inspiration so I have often tried to emulate the sounds and visual patterns of nature in my work. Sound design and sound recording is also something that I really enjoy. I like to visit new places and record their ambience, these recordings then weave their way into my music. I like to think of my work as an artist and a musician, as a series of attempts to translate and subtly amplify the quiet beauty of everyday life.
With my music I often like to create a sonic landscape and just sit there…breathing slowly and contemplating. My music is glacially slow and my pieces allow me to take some time out from the fast-paced nature of much of life here in London.
The main instrument I use to create my pieces is the pedal steel guitar - an instrument typically found in country music, which I then manipulate beyond recognition through multiple effects’ units. The pedal steel is my expressive tool and the means by which I can access a whole range of different tonalities which perhaps others might get with synths, voice or classical instruments like strings.
Enjoy The Boathouse & Dream Streams by Joe Harvey-White on MyKokoon
Q. How do you get into the zone to create your music?
Improvisation is a huge part of how I compose music. That “beginner's mind” state of flow where you don’t quite know what you’re doing yet... Where your conscious mind hasn’t begun to over intellectualise the process yet. I’ve tried to cultivate that mindset over the years. I set myself the goal to improvise freely and continuously for 2 hours (sometimes much longer) and then revisit and build on any magical moments that occur during the session.
Much of my work with The Dream Streams has its origin in these long improv sessions. I find that using visuals is useful for getting me in this zone. I’m a liquid light show artist (you know like the 1960s psychedelic light show, oils and watercolour etc..) and I love experimenting with the abstract layers of colour to set the scene for my improv sessions. I also love space and the cosmos, so I sometimes like to project the live video feed from the International Space Station and watch that whilst I create. It’s really something else to soundtrack a revolution around the globe in real time!
Q. Can you talk us through the creative process of your production for Kokoon in the Lake District?
My sound recording trip into the wilds of the English Lake District was a wonderful experience. I have a vintage VW campervan which was my home for the week as I went off in search of remote locations to record sounds.
During conversations with Becca at Kokoon she had suggested a beautiful boathouse near Ullswater (in the Northern Lakes) as a possible source of inspiration for the sound story. Sadly the house was too close to the road to get good sound recordings but I carried on down the road and ended up finding the most amazing little boat landing. I hired a row boat to explore the far reaches of the lake and after rowing around for a few hours, found an idyllic little cove sheltered from the wind and with a shaley beach.
I landed the boat, unloaded all the gear and started recording.
Gentle waves washed over the shale and lapped against the boat, a choir of birdsong rang out across the lake from a nearby woodland and the sun beat down on the water creating gorgeous reflections of the surrounding mountains. It was one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been to. Many of the sounds you hear in “The Boathouse” were recorded at this very spot. Had I not been working I could have very easily fallen asleep right then and there!
The sonic narrative of The Boathouse was then carefully stitched together during the editing process. Creating a journey in sound is a real craft and took several revisions to make it feel natural and flowing.
Q. The Neumann dummy head looks fascinating (and slightly terrifying), could you explain what it is and how it works? Why do we use this?
The Neumann dummy head mic really is the leading industry standard for binaural microphones. For those unfamiliar with the term ‘binaural’, it refers to the method of sound recording that most accurately recreates the way in which humans hear sound.
We have two ears which sit either side of a dense oval shaped mass we call a head. The placement and distance between our ears mean we hear sounds differently depending on where they are coming from. A binaural microphone must therefore aim to emulate the scenario that our ears are in as closely as possible.
Sounds aren’t just noises, they are an array of complex directional information being captured by our ears and processed by our brain. Although sight is often seen as the most important sense in terms of orientation, when we close our eyes we are still able to tell whether something is in front of us, behind us, to the left or to the right.
With the Neumann binaural microphone, two omni-directional microphones are embedded within a dummy head behind two uncannily human-looking silicone ears. The sound bounces off the head and through the ear canals into the microphones just like it does when we hear sounds. The Neuman captures the exact direction that sound is coming from relative to the dummy head’s placement. As a result, sound recordings made using this microphone truly feel three-dimensional and immersive.
The most crucial thing about binaural sound recordings is that they are only truly effective when listened to on headphones. The Kokoon Nightbuds and Relax headphones create a world for these binaural sounds to inhabit and are the perfect playback devices for these recordings, which aim to help us unwind, relax and get to sleep.
Q. What was the most challenging/enjoyable part of the recording or production process?
The most challenging part of recording binaural audio out in the open is making sure you have the right location. Coincidentally this is perhaps also the most enjoyable part too!
You need to find a place with the right combination of sonic ingredients which will be interesting to the listener, but at the same time not too distracting. The microphone is hard to maneuver so it will often remain stationary and drink in the sounds that surround it. Choosing the right orientation within a setting is crucial. And very importantly, as far away from a road as possible!
One of the things people in cities noticed most about the first few weeks of lockdown was the sound of birds. Much of our human noise stopped so we could finally hear nature. Human noise pollution is a huge problem for anyone involved in recording the sound of nature. We’re noisy creatures who build noisy machines. Almost everywhere you go, when you stop to listen there will be an aural presence of Humans (distant rumbling of roads, aeroplanes etc).
On this trip, in order to get to more remote locations I needed to go on a trek with the equipment. This is the really hard part, carrying over 15KGs of bulky sound equipment up and down the fells, onto a boat and then through a forest was tough to say the least. But the result was a calming and secluded space, seemingly untouched by humans. That’s when you get the real pay off.
You’ve done all this hard graft carrying and searching out the right spot, then you just sit there, perfectly still in that sublime space listening to nature living and breathing all around you. You can’t get much more immersive than that!
Q. Can you share with us some of your favourite songs/sounds that inspire you, or which are a result of your music/creative processes.
- Erik Satie - Gymnopedie 1 - 3
- Carl Sagan - Pale Blue Dot (not music but 3 minutes of pure cosmic inspiration)
- Ell Kendal - Marlen
- Small Hours - John Martyn
- Max Richter - Sleep
- The Hanging Stars - Water Song
- Joe Harvey-Whyte - Flatland / Spaceland
- Language - Suzanne Vega
- Apollo - Brian Eno/Daniel Lanois
- Moss Garden - David Bowie/Brian Eno
Listen to Joe’s playlist on Spotify. Aptly named A very small stage in a vast cosmic arena, it takes inspiration from his Dream Streams influenced by space.
Q. What was the inspiration behind The Dream Stream and how does it work?
I used to suffer badly with insomnia and I’m still struggling with tinnitus. I would spend hours trawling through YouTube for “sleep music” “relaxation sounds” “meditation music” etc. Sadly I couldn’t connect with a lot of the music I found on YouTube which had a very repetitional feel... By that I mean that you could tell it was a loop that would come back over and over again.
This loop recognition is something that many insomniacs will tell you is the most annoying part of music for sleep. It really sends the busy mind into overdrive rather than helping it wind down.
In the end I decided to start making my own sleep sounds. Years of experimentation using different combinations of sounds, tones and textures culminated in the creation of The Dream Stream - a series of constantly evolving ambient sleepscapes. The most important thing for me was to create a calming atmosphere that would put the listener at ease and then slowly develop it over two hours.
The Dream Stream is a truly glacial listening experience. The pieces move so slowly that you hardly notice that they are constantly guiding the listener deeper and deeper into a state of relaxation. As each piece progresses, the sounds gradually slow down in order to help the listener wind down, breathe more deeply and eventually drift off to sleep. I use effects that emulate the sound of breathing and the pedal steel at times sounds almost choral.
Q. Have you got any interesting projects in the pipeline you can share with us?
One, I’m just about to release my debut EP “Flatland/Spaceland”. It is due for release digitally and on 10” Vinyl in July/August via None More Records.
It features two 10-minute pieces. The first track “Flatland”, is a glacial and meditative ambient composition which emanated from a pedal steel improv session. This track seeks to explore and evoke that which lies just beyond our perceptual field. Its unfolding is sprinkled with strange sounds that somehow feel familiar.
The second track “Spaceland” takes the first track and refracts it through an orchestral lense. I worked with classical composer Ell Kendal to create this piece which utilizes a 26-piece ensemble. Ell’s scores are quite idiosyncratic and are more of a gentle guide than a definitive representation of the piece as it should be played. Orchestrating and recording all the instruments for Spaceland took around a year, with additional challenges provided by working through the pandemic.
The pieces were inspired by the 1884 novella ‘Flatland’ written by Victorian schoolmaster and mathematician Edwin A. Abbott. The book is set in a hypothetical 2-dimensional world in which all things are completely flat. The protagonist (A Square) is visited by a strange creature from a higher dimension (A Sphere) and is guided through the world of 3 dimensions. After this strange experience he then returns to Flatland only to be deemed mad when he cannot show or properly describe to his fellow Flatlanders where he has just been. The book was used by Carl Sagan as a useful analogy for explaining the 4th spatial dimension in his TV series COSMOS.
Two, I am just about to launch a new immersive audio visual project with an experienced sound therapist. We use sounds of the pedal steel, himalayan and crystal bowls, gongs, percussion and bells and pair them with carefully curated coloured visuals. The music is performed live and visuals are projected onto the venue walls, ceiling stage to create a fully immersive and meditative listening experience. Follow @sound.o.unity on Instagram for more.
Grab your Kokoons and tune into “The Boathouse” by Joe and Kokoon. Follow the steps below:
1. Download the MyKokoon app:
2. Head to your MyKokoon library and select “Feeling Anxious”:
3. Scroll down and find the audio called “The Boathouse” and tap on it. It should start playing automatically:
4. Sit back and enjoy 20 minutes of the relaxing storyscape