Spoombung - New Music for Bass Guitar (1998)

Spoombung sees a return to much simpler instrumental music, featuring, for the most part, compositions and improvisations specifically for the bass guitar and Hopper’s own 'Spoombung' form for prepared bass guitar which involves hammering and plucking the bass into repetive patterns. The result can often resemble african percussion and gamelan orchestration in its harmonic diversity and richness. The strong, rhythmic forms explored in this recording place emphasis on texture and 'soundscaping' rather than conventional pitch alone.
Spoombung’s origins do not lie in the Jazz-Rock / Fusion world commonly associated with the bass guitar. Rather it is informed by the experimental & free-improvisational abstract music forms practised on London’s alternative scene and the digital, electronic ‘malfuntional’ music from Germany & Austria.

Background to Spoombung

Charles Hayward: Bells
John Butcher: Saxophone
Adam Brett: Sampler
Ian Smith: Trumpet

It was only when I began playing regularly on the small circuit of Improvised and experimental clubs in London around '94 that I felt there was somewhere I belonged. The free-impro scene satisfied my interest in contemporary electronic music and gave me an opportunity to contribute something irrespective of my 'rock' background. After the disastrous episode of the garlic album my brief was to develop my long -neglected bass playing and forget about having to produce a recording. However, by 1998 I was starting to feel very embarrassed about not having released anything since Stolen Jewels in 1990 and I also thought I was ready to make a record that represented some of the changes over the years. What finally prompted me to get my arse moving was the imminent arrival of a baby. I suddenly thought "Christ, I’d better get it done now or I’ll never have the chance when the baby’s here!" Spoombung was recorded directly to DAT or portastudio in real hurry on my own label, Thoofa.

Notes on the tracks

Scent of Eucris (Hopper):
This improvised piece attempts to work in a thematic, sequential way with long gaps and silences.

Mono Spoombung ( Hopper):
The Spoombung came about through an urge to create a repetitive, rhythmic form for the bass that would hold it's own integrity and have a simple appeal by way of it's own hypnotic
intensity. I'd been listening to a lot of African music, particularly from Cameroon, and was searching for a practical way of relating the attraction this music held for me to my own situation; the tradition Iconsidered myself part of; and the modern electronic instrument I play. I wanted to do this without 'going ethnic'. It was while playing with the quartet, Ticklish, around '96 that various notions I had about how to do this started to take shape and I finally began to develop some of the devices necessary to realise those ambitions.Ticklish as a group had equal value as a forum for discussing ideas as much as a musical outfit. 'Mono Spoombung' represents the form at it's most basic. The instrument is 'prepared' beforehand in time-honoured fashion with various articles such as paper clips, pins or anything that will alter the sound. A simple hammering technique and a rolling series of triplets and flams are used to generate the rhythm at a fixed tempo. With a little practice legato notes can be played while maintaining the beat. It's 'mono' because it only involves myself and the set-up is fixed in advance and does not change during the performance.

Assisted Spoombung ( Hopper / Flint ):
It became obvious that if I could find someone to move the preparations around while I played it might add more of chance element to proceedings. Enter Rob Flint, friend and video artist. Since '97 he's become my regular assistant. The idea of having an assistant is to give the piece more variety and a greater feeling of movement as it steps through changes in sonority, texture, tone and pitch. The chance element comes when articles sometime snag in the strings, making unpredictable clumping noises or start vibrating or rattling together (if I'm lucky).

F.O.A.D. Beaky ( Hopper ):
An electronic piece utilising a heavily processed bass sample.

Arsh Hoolahoom ( Hopper / Smith ):
A mono Spoombung and multi-tracked swelled harmonics from the bass introduce the trumpet of Ian Smith. Ian was one of the first people I asked to contribute to this recording.

INIT. Fumeburger (Hopper ):
The Spoombung makes way for more multi-tracked textures from the bass which eventually transform into a
massed section of harsh tremeloes. A quartet of Musical Saws and a box of light-sensitive artificial crickets conclude the piece.

Gu Gi Prime ( Hopper ):
This rotating pattern grew out of one of many improvising moments with Ticklish. The intermittent 'tune' was played onthe Sampler before I obtained a good Musical Saw.

Blubberpussy ( Hopper / Brett ):
Adam Brett and I have been playing together since '94 and our duo has gone through many changes. This
recording is from '96 and improvised live. The bass is the only sound source for the sampler as he puts it through a complex series of programmes and treatments. During the interaction between the two instruments, things I've played previously can return as distorted, bewildering remnants of their former-selves, leading, on occasion, to much confusion on my part.

Tum Tum Plume ( Hopper / Flint / Hayward / Smith ):
The Spoombung got it's first official outing at 'Accidents and Emergencies'; the event organised by Charles Hayward in Deptford, South London. I remember he played a series of cascading bells during the performance, and I knew I had to invite him to play on this assisted Spoombung with Ian on flugelhorn.

Tinfizzer ( Hopper / Flint / Butcher ):
This is an example of one of the more extreme things that can happen during the course of an assisted
Spoombung. The clips and pieces of metal become wedged and stuck to the pickups producing a trebly, rasping tone as they rattle against the strings. The beat slips in front and behind as the preparations are
moved or when they fall out of place. This track features John Butcher on saxophone.

I Dreamt of C. Lyons ( Hopper / Carter ):
In addition to the Spoombung, assisted here by Emma Carter, this track has two layers of overdubbed
harmonics from the bass plus some intermittent Musical Saw.

Sloopthoom ( Hopper ):
A simple short phrase on the bass is looped and processed through a series of filters and other programmed transformations. A harmonic derivative was used to construct the'ambient' section.

Croclipslipped ( Hopper )

-Reviews of Spoombung-

Former Stump man Kev Hopper’s album is subtitled ‘ New music for electric bass’. Using his homemade Spoombung device - a kind of ‘prepared’ bass involving clips and a hammering technique - his record is certainly unique. It’s key element is a repetitive, percussive bass which resonates and chimes with varying tonalities. Distinctive it might be, but it doesn’t vary much. However Hopper also works trumpet, flugelhorn and musical saw into the textural weave. Fascinating.

Kev Hopper’s new CD is a cause for celebration given the unremarkable record of the electric bass ( unlike the acoustic double bass ) in experimental music. In fact Hugh Hopper’s 1984 (1972) was the last time I heard such interesting use of the bass guitar, and like Hugh, Kev comes from a rock background ( Stump were reviewed in Rubberneck 3).
Kev Hopper’s Spoombung preparations ( see Sleevenotes) extend the bass’ polyrhythmic potential, while his assistant( Rob Flint or Emma Carter) moves the preparations to gain greater textural variety and unpredictability. The higher tones have the taut and supple resonances of a tabla. Solo pieces sit comfortably along duos and trios, improv comfortably with electronic processing and multitracking. John Butcher’s tenor sax creates a biting, almost guitaristic, line in tension, while Ian Smith’s flugelhorn navigates a lighter, jazzier course and Adam Brett’s sampler deftly contorts Hopper’s infectious tangly rhythms which give the album it’s distinctive ambience.

The bass guitar has never had much of an avant garde following, really; even Laswell takes heavy cues from funkateers like Bootsy and Stanley Clarke, and if you want to be the closest thing there is to hot property on the avant garde scene then you pay homage to your jazz roots by biting the bullet and playing the double bass. Of course, there are interesting experimental bass guitarists out there, but they don't tend to be high-profile; they tend to be team players whose identity is, to an extent, subsumed by a band. They don't, in other words, tend to record solo albums like this one. Regardless of how the lineup looks on paper, this is Hopper's show. Ian Smith appears on two tracks, the others on one each, giving the bassman plenty of space to himself. Hopper mixes "live" with sampled playing, bass sounds with synths and non-bass samples, which gives this album the pleasant quality of being nigh-on impossible to analyse. His soundscapes seem densely layered, with the bass weaving in and out, appearing then submerging, flitting by disguised as an electronic blip, or appearing in a sample-haze mirage. It sounds as much like a contemporary ambient album as a solo bass workout, and there's no problem with that.

Proceedings begin with an airy six-minuter, the longest on the disk, which seems to be feeling out the space which the rest of the album will occupy, as if sending sporadic sonar messages to the bottom of some ocean trench. After this, Hopper's interest in African drumming takes over and we are, for the remainder of the album, in mainly rhythmic waters, propulsive and sometimes ametrical but throbbing ever forward. Containing, indeed, not a small quantity of funk.

It's time to talk about the spoombung now. This is a word -- a deliciously onomatopoeic word at that -- invented by Hopper to describe what is essentially a practice of preparation familiar to players of all stringed instruments, attaching crocodile clips and safety pins to the strings, or more brutally shoving lengths of wood or metal between or beneath them and so on. What Hopper brings into the equation, however, is a technical mastery of specifically bass-guitar-oriented techniques of slapping and popping the strings, using both hands percussively to create wonderfully bouncy cross-rhythms. The fact that Hopper's playing is so rooted in conventional bass technique, yet sounds so different, makes this more than just another prepared-strings exercise. And then watch out for the "assisted spoombungs", in which either Flint or Carter alter the preparations while Hopper plays, at some times resulting in gently shifting timbres, and at others, as on the self-explanatory "Croclipslipped", causing unpredictable mayhem.

This is a quiet, unassuming record which it is easy to miss the point of first time around. Hopper doesn't bludgeon the listener with technique or with new and exciting noises; he gently weaves a pattern which, like West African drumming, draws the listener in and plays out slow-moving, thoughtful complexities. Not that this is cerebral music; it's almost all about groove and about texture, which is why this listener was reminded of ambient electronica; it could almost have come out on Ninja Tune except that guys like Butcher crop up and the whole thing has a slightly-too-dark texture. Nonetheless, a cracking summer record from an eccentric inventor of new ways to make experimental music.

This album is as curious as the name suggests. Let your ears do a double-take - more than just another bass album, Spoombung is a collection of rhythms and sounds produced by a bass guitar with the aid of various paraphernalia and the occasional guest artiste. Hopper is well known on the London experimental scene for his sounds and improvisation, and this collection of compositions is very different and often inspirational.