Workshop with Stephen O'Malley and Oren Ambarchi

There was a concert and workshop in Cootamundra last weekend featuring a couple of my favourite artists, Alan Lamb and Oren Ambarchi. I've gained a lot of experience from Alan over the last five years but this was the first time I'd seen Oren other than his talk on an Unsound DVD and this live video.

With over 100mm of rain falling in the days leading up to the event, it had been scaled back due to the potential for danger on the unsealed road out to the site. So, rather than starting with a demonstration of Alan Lamb's wires on the Saturday, it began with the concert on Saturday night.

The evening began with an introduction to the work of Dr Lamb and a 25-minute collection of his recordings and those of Dave Noyze. I'd only recently heard a few of Alan's albums because they're out of print and I've avoided listening to Dave's work because I've been working on my own recordings of the wires that Alan and Scott Baker set up outside of Wagga Wagga. Since finishing a three-hour compilation of my recordings in February I'd been meaning to hear what's been happening in Cootamundra and this set showed a lot of variety.

It opened with a recording of Alan bowing against a backdrop of the wires building in intensity. Then moved on to a soundscape like a laser battle that was the 1km-long wires during rain. This was followed with either a recording of the wires humming against a dawn chorus of birdsong, or a series of chimes playing along the wires, then some more humming. The chimes sounded great, beautiful tones reverberating up and down the long stretch of the wires.

The intermission featured some wines from Charles Sturt University, their cabernet sauvignon was as light as I remembered but there was more of a character that makes me think of granite.

Then we were ushered back into the dim theatre as Stephen O'Malley and Oren Ambarchi improvised 40 minutes of guitar feedback. That might sound like an endurance test but it was awesome to have so much guitar tone wash over me and to get a sense of their interaction and how the subtle modulation was achieved.

The next day began with a workshop led by Stephen and Oren in which they detailed their set-ups and discussed their approaches. It was great for me because I've had a shortage of people to geek out with about guitar pedals and amplifiers.

Stephen discussed the challenge of created tension and release with guitar feedback because you open with the volume at eleven. He also explained how he uses an Fm tuning with a low A and what his effects do.

In the photo above you can see two Rat distortion pedals on the left, a box which splits the signal off to two (or maybe three) amps, a smaller box which splits the signal off to either a Roland Space Echo 201's delay or reverb (not pictured) or the Holy Grail reverb next to it, which is connected to a (Keeley?) compressor. He was using to Fender Twin amps and also a Ernie Ball volume pedal which isn't pictured.

Also connected were these sampling pedals, which apparently could record up to three minutes. I asked how much of the sound in the concert was layered feedback and Stephen said there was very little layering.

In comparison Oren Ambarchi said he tuned to an open A chord, also with a low A. The drone of that bottom string no doubt assisted the feedback, which Stephen directed by moving his guitar in front of the speaker a bit.

Oren had a Holier Grail reverb, an 8-second delay Alessis unit, a 16-second Electro Harmonix pedal and, on the ground, another delay, a ZVEX distortion (these last two Oren said he picked for their size), a volume pedal and a DOD King Buzz distortion. I think that's a tuner on top of the rack unit and on the far right is a Soundcraft Spirit mixer which he adjusted throughout the performance.

The delay above seems to be used a lot in his playing as well as the video I mentioned earlier and he'd slide the sliders to shape the sounds. The Ampeg amp was used for the direct sound, while the delayed sounds went through the Fender.

He mentioned that he'd had to leave two ring modulators at home due to flight baggage restrictions and that he used a Digitech Whammy pedal to get those bass tones you hear on his recent recordings. I'd wondered how he got those tones because on the album In The Pendulum's Embrace they sound so clean, like sine tones. Turns out they're harmonics dropped two octaves.

It was great watching Stephen O'Malley and Oren Ambarchi creating their sounds and improvising together. The rich and varied droning feedback made my body hum in a way similar to listening to the wires when they're amplified and I really dug being able to watch, learn and ask questions.