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“I have the right to be impressed by the babbling brooks, the crackle of the flame, to feel excited about the possibility of sounds being turned into a key that unlocks somebody’s memory or an emotional journey.”

Dubmorphology is a London based interdisciplinary artist and research  group formed by Gary Stewart and Trevor Mathison. Through experimental  approaches to sound art, live cinema and installations Dubmorphology blurs  the boundaries between the sonic, visual and performative. Its practice is  distinguished by its ongoing investigation into the unique spaces emerging in  museums, art galleries and public spaces formed by the shifting intersections  between audiences, authorship and participation.

— Michael McMillan.


Gary Stewart (GS): I was born in the UK to Jamaican parents, and grew up  in inner-city Birmingham – Balsall Heath – which meant it was on the mar gins, the hinterland, where Caribbean, New Commonwealth, and Irish were  predominant, while the English white were a minority. It was significant  in my upbringing that my grandmother was of Cuban descent, and would  play Afro-Cuban rumba music, but also coming from a mixed heritage of  Syrian, Lebanese, Indian, Chinese, African and Cuban, I grew up listening to  a diverse range of music. I also had an elder brother, Steve, who came up  from Jamaica when he was thirteen, but it never worked out so he left for  ‘foreign’ when he was eighteen and went to Germany. He brought another  sense of the outside world in my formation, because he was keen that my  world-view would not be located simply in Balsall Heath. Then I had my mix  up period which I’m still in. I loved Rupie Edwards’ ‘skanga, skanga, skanga’  – Ire Feelings (Skanga), the emergence of Black consciousness, particularly  during the hot summer of ’76, and equally the country and western from my  mother, with Jim Reeves.

My brother introduced me to early tape experimentations with various  reel-to-reel tape recorders, which meant I could create these crude rudimentary spatialisations. I was immersed in ‘Black culture’; standing outside  St. Barnabas’ Church where all the sound systems played, or the house  blues parties, because I wasn’t old enough to go inside. But I could hear the  muffled sound coming through. My interest in dub and Black music was  happening concurrently with another sensibility to be curious and inquisitive  to experiment. That moved up a level when my brother bought me a Denshi  Board from Japan, which was an educational kit for building electrical projects. In addition to making radios, transmitters and receivers, it also had a  microphone and a Morse code key. It quite literally blew my mind.  This was a gateway to a world of possibilities through making and  experimentation and led me to studying Electronics and Computing at  Nottingham Trent Polytechnic (now University), where I was getting into  Human League’s Being Boiled in the first year. There was also the emergence  of improvisation, free form and other movements in sound. I was part of the  non-traditional Turbo Sound System, where we made what could be called  sound installations; playing at Radical Black Arts: A Working Convention,  organised by The Blk Art Group and held at the Ukaidi Centre Nottingham  in 1984, was significant in the development of my mash-up practice. And,  with a sense of joy and awe, I continue to discover the roots of dub, and  being astounded and astonished by the things I continue learning, such as  the unknown practitioners in the Black avant-garde which we continue to  excavate and shed light on.  

Trevor Mathison (TM): I was born in the UK and brought up in Walthamstow with Caribbean parents and a classic traditional background. My family started going to a white Church of England church, which had a certain rigidity  because we could see the hymn numbers at the front and then could work out what hymns to sing in the service. But that didn’t work out eventually,  so we moved to a Black Pentecostal church with a Black pastor, which had  a different vibe that was more fluid. Musically there was the [popular hits]  K-Tel collection, or it was Liberace; my older brothers were friends with a  neighbour who was into The Beatles, and reggae came in a bit later. We had  a tape machine in the house, and my Dad bought us a cassette recorder one  Christmas. I was interested in making recordings, and seeing how the tape  got twisted, and playing around with the bass and treble on the radiogram. I  was fixated on the idea of how different frequencies could be cut out, which  raised questions about how the music was made.  

There was a notion that we had to go to music school to understand  how to make music, which meant they were other people who were not  me. Manipulating sound became another interest, such as listening to Lee  ‘Scratch’ Perry and working out how he created the different effects, such  as the different frequencies in the sound of the refrigerator. In many of the  sound system dances, weddings or house parties I went to, you would  hear the bass rattling through the building. The room or space itself had a  particular sound, as well as the kitchen, and outside on the street, where I  could hear the layers of voices, screams, shouts and that pounding signal  of the bass.  

Then, going to college – Portsmouth Polytechnic (now University) – and  music gigs, I discovered another body of music that was alien to what I  would be listening to normally. I found the methodology of making music  interesting, such as archive videos about Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, which gave  the impression that he had a massive fully equipped recording studio because the music was so rich, when in fact the technology he used was very  minimal. 

There’s also the idea of juxtaposition in jazz, in how musicians jam together to create another cadre or movement that becomes another sonic footnote that shifts the dynamics of sound history. There is the juxtaposition of orchestral, ethereal voices coming from a radio test signal or Radio  Luxembourg, with John Peel playing Burning Spear or Bob Marley on BBC Radio 1, with seeing them on The Old Grey Whistle Test on television. My brother liked Jimi Hendrix, but I thought dude Hendrix sounds like  a white man, so I felt alienated towards my own cultural music or sonic  history. Yet there was a long circular journey in reconnecting with that sonic  history, such as R & B or rock ‘n’ roll, with maybe Little Richard or Howling  Wolf, because other people take on board those musics that we tend to  distance ourselves from, even though it is already ours. And that music is  as much ours as it is anybody else’s. 

GS: Feeling alienated from our own stuff reminds me of early recorded  sound experiments, which greatly expanded my interest in popular music  as resistance beyond reggae in terms of jazz-funk, early rap, and punk rock,  which then all leads back to the source of Black music. It’s also fascinating  in retrospect that regardless of the abstraction that was taking place in our  interests, there was still this political underpinning, maybe not in a didactic  or literal form, but certainly everything was about revolutionary change or  trying to shift the circumstances of our environment.  

TM: Or just simply the right to experiment, and those experiments being  valid in themselves. When we look at Egyptian sculptures, the Sphinx or  figurines, we see classical pieces, but what we’re looking at is the armature  that is painted over, and in the same way with music what we’re listening  to is the armature of something else. When electrification became part of  the blues it changed the blues: how they played instruments and how they used the microphone created distortion with feedback. The small spaces  where the blues were played would be charged with discordant signals  of feedback, which is part of the audience and the band. And from that  recording, what we hear when played back is a certain inbuilt energy that  has been wired in. We then start wondering how to reconfigure that sound  we heard in a recording or live session using technology, such as putting a  microphone into the bass bin. I get excited about the idea of using different  technologies to create other sounds even though I’m trying to replicate  something else. And ideas around that sound signal can still be expanded  whatever I finish with.  

GS: It’s interesting to consider that when the music recording industry was  going through a crisis in the 1980s with overblown expensive studios and  the domination of record producers and labels, there was the explosion  of the home studio as a way of changing that power balance. Whilst that  is well documented, what is not acknowledged widely is that despite the  early technology being fraught with problems, such as synchronisation and limitations in sampling, Black folks were able to subvert that and use those  limitations to create quite magical and incredible music. Rather than it being  a point of frustration, they created new techniques and genres from those  limitations.  

TM: When BBC television’s Tomorrow’s World featured the first samplers,  they said it would make musicians redundant; to show off this new device,  they demonstrated how a flute in classical music could be imitated. Then  we realised that this technology could be made into something else, so we  could pick out different elements in a record or an environment to create a sound, and that becomes another groove, because the original instrument  and the new sound are in conversation with each other. There’s always a  construction and reconstruction within technology, so that, for instance,  sampling and scratching become the new sound.  

In sound system, there is a resculpting of the signal though the layers  of the music. We’re not getting rid of a problem in the track, we’re getting  rid of bands that enable the rest of the track to open up. So, with the graphic equaliser we can take out the bass and leave in the treble while the vinyl  record is still playing, and you actually see the smoke in the room moving in  response to that resculpted signal. Even the pit in the vinyl groove creates  a noise that our German brothers have used for the basis of another sound  – to make the sound unclean and give it some weight as vinyl noise, so that  playing around with distortion has become part of the sonic appreciation of  the track.  

I gave myself permission to create this kind of music, and felt that I have  every frigging right to make this shit. We all have every right to listen to the  music we listen to, and we have every right not to listen to any music. And  that’s the mantra I keep reminding myself of, because it’s self-evidently the  right thing to do for me. I have the right to be impressed by the babbling  brooks, the crackle of the flame, to feel excited about the possibility of sounds  being turned into a key that unlocks somebody’s memory or an emotional  journey. I have the right to be constantly inspired and enthusiastic about what  sound can do, and try to work out how we can use it in a creative way in  relation to a question or an answer that we’re trying to put forward in relation  to a performance piece or a film piece. This is what I hear in this space and  these are my reasonings for using this. I have this piece of kit that does this,  and I think it will be an interesting way of manipulating this to do that.

When I started working with Black Audio Film Collective during the  1980s, I began recording phone-in conversations on radio news programmes  and then chopped up some of the phrases such as, ‘They don’t know who  they are or what they are’. I then sprinkled those pearls of wisdom as juxtapositions in conversation with the noise. There was a mood music that was  already around us, so what better way than to insert these statements as  reflections of their position, not in praise of them, but because they had an  idiotic ring to their mantras. It had a mesmerising post-industrial feel that  could be cut up poetically and mixed with an abstracted dub bass line. This  was not on the same metre as classical reggae, because it meant riding the  red signal on the monitor and controlling it if it worked.  

It’s not noise for noise sake, but trying to be sonic architects and building  something that has its own movements or refrain, and taking an idea from  the filmmaker/artist Pervaiz Khan in setting the raga as patterns of notes  different to Western scales and melody. Finding a poetic voice or tone, and  then we can dive down under the carpet and pull up the floorboards. And  even how that may end, sets up how we get into the next movement or  refrain. 

GS: Similarly, during the 1980s, I was working with Banner Theatre in  Birmingham, and Strange Fruit in Nottingham, looking at the political con text of the period transformed through musical production. Similarly, I was  thinking about alternative storytelling, special approaches to sampling and  other techniques, which was all in service of how we articulated ourselves  in terms of the political landscape. During that time we were both operating and fully engaged in that political project, and it brings itself to bear in  our current practice.

TM: In relation to how Gary and I got together to become Dubmorphology,  we were on similar pathways that intersected on different projects and  friendships. Then, at some point, we said well there’s no other game in  town, why not? We could annoy people by ourselves or we could annoy  people together, and so far that’s dumbfounded a few people.  

GS: In essence, it began as a living laboratory. Some formal educational  spaces and places in the past, that appeared to be open and provided a  space that was discursive and going in a particular direction, were ironically  or paradoxically conventional in their thinking and direction. They were speculating on the future rather than giving space for things to emerge, which  you can’t anticipate. 

Our modus operandi has been to provide each other with a non-agenda  space to experiment and express ourselves in a way that is not confined  by normal expectations. It isn’t a necessity that we agree with each other  all the time but, as it turns out, most of time we do. We’re having a conversation with ourselves that explores ambiguity, because spaces are more  complex than they might appear at any given moment. As Black artists, we  tend to be defined as two-dimensional with a pre-determined speculative  future about how our practice should develop. First and foremost, we’re  a laboratory of ideas and that gives carte blanche to do anything in many  respects.  

TM: I saw a noise concert online, where they were using feedback. They  were on the street with battery-powered speakers, foot pedals, and hitting  and dragging a microphone across the floor just to get feedback. They’re  playing with these signals and onlookers are just standing looking at them.

They explained that they were influenced by heavy metal, and we saw one  of them lying on a table getting feedback from twiddling with knobs on an  amp. There’s always a range of possibilities that we get introduced to. We  could use aspects of dub when it becomes noisy, when the needle comes  onto the record or when the record stops and there’s a hum, or reaching  back into the archive and finding voices to speak in place of us speaking,  that evokes a certain cultural and political memory that locates this noise  in a grounded historical context and gives the audience another point of  reference. That’s how we start to investigate the sonic possibilities.  

GS: Prior to becoming Dubmorphology, an important aspect of our respective practices has been how we engage with archival material, historical  artefacts and ephemera, like seamstresses, as a fundamental way of working in our craft. We engage with the collection in a theoretically rigorous  way, but also dynamically bringing it to life. And thinking of innovative ways  to do that is at the nexus of creativity, technology, history and culture, and  has been the means of exploring the intersection between those shifting  boundaries.  

The other aspect of Dubmorphology is rooted in hedonism and the  pursuit of pleasure, because we create these imaginative spaces that are  about change. Audiences come to our events, installations or gigs because  they want to be immersed and seduced by what we do; and we enjoy doing  that, because it’s reciprocal.  

We tend to be known just for our sound, yet we’re immersed in creating visual material as well because we think holistically and there is no fixed  narrative in place.

TM: An early Apple software created fractal visuals in response to sound;  and for me, there is always an interplay between the sonic and the visual  in a real-time juxtaposition. We create collaborative pieces like Passport to  Pimlico (2019)1 that share authorship with the audience by enabling them  to play with pre-selected and unfolding narratives that randomly intersect  in the soundscape. In this context, we’re quite interested in video mapping  that takes the conversation outside, such as projecting images onto the  skin of a building, such as the Advent(US) Festival at St Mary’s Church in  Walthamstow (2016). This becomes an interrogation or investigation of a  space, like Barclays Bank, so that the building is alive with its past in the  present.  

GS: We’re very much in tune with using the power of music and visuals  to create these environments for sharing, for collaboration, for questioning, transformation and transmutation. And it’s not a coincidence that the  concepts for the Mission to the Land of Misplaced Words (2015) project at  Tate Modern, and others are interesting, but the glue that holds a project  together and enables it to work intuitively for audiences, is for them to step  into an environment that takes them out of their day-to-day lives, and places  them somewhere else. It’s an invitation not to be passive, but rather to be  fully engaged for a sense of oneness, to use a hippie phrase.  

TM: There’s a notion that a Black avant-garde doesn’t exist, because we’re  supposed to make regular formal music from classical down to jazz, reggae,  

1 The classic 1949 Ealing comedy film, dubbed by Victor Fraga ‘a prescient warning and  the perfect allegory of Brexit’, forms the fractured backdrop to Dubmorphology’s collaborative sonic experiment as part of Beaconfield Gallery’s Spirit_off: Dreaming Utopia  series. 

hip hop or soul. Certain people can experiment, but not us, because that’s  not what the establishment expect from people like us.  

GS: The avant-garde establishment may acknowledge the likes of Lee  Scratch Perry and King Tubby as avant-garde practitioners and box them in canonically, but they still won’t acknowledge that others have been actively  engaged in experimenting right now and in the past.  

TM: An analogy is the trope in American movies where a guy pulls up in  his car to a dance or a soirée and throws the keys to a brother, because  he thinks he’s the one parking the car. Sometimes when we go to these  avant-garde events, we’re waiting to be told to park someone’s car or asked  whether we’re part of the catering service. They look at us questioning why  we’re there. We then realise that we should be creating our own record  label, and invite people who we find interesting to make stuff on our label.  

GS: Fragments of disconnection. The irony is that those very institutions that  champion the avant-garde and working outside of the mainstream impose  their own myopic walled gardens. It’s not seemingly overt on their part, be cause it’s part of their lived experience and they just can’t help themselves.  

Afrofuturism is useful in highlighting a genre, practice, or way of working that is unfamiliar. But from my experience, the problem is how the term  is used in institutions, as it doesn’t seem to suggest how practitioners can  be more expansive in their thinking, because it tends to categorise. And  even how some of my sistren and brethren use the term, it doesn’t intend  to be a walled garden, but it does feel like that.

TM: In relation to Afrofuturism, we’re proper space cadets. It will be around  for a little while longer until another movement comes along, maybe even  ‘lockdown futurists’. This will emerge from outside of the institution, and  when the institution locks onto the movement, and money and funding  become involved, they’ll be telling us, ‘You’re not actually Afrofuturists,  you’re “lockdown futurists’’’ – another binary of futurists and non-futurists.  We’re always playing catch-up, and by the time we catch up other people  have moved on, because they’ve found some biochemical circuit-breaking  tofu-eating Afro-vegan non-binary futurists.  

There are still things for us to learn, and I don’t think we’ve exhausted  that at all, rather, the question is how are we going to get paid for it, or are  we going to do it anyway, because we want to do it, or will there be anyone  interested in seeing it? I don’t know, but if you come along, we’ll have a conversation and we’ll explain the rationale behind it. It’s also about going out  and seeing what other people are doing, and realising that we’re not that  bad, to justify what we do in the wider scheme of things. The key is having  the opportunity to show and explain the things we’re interested in, and to  find fellow travellers along the way and be supportive of their interests and  them being supportive of us. It’s a non-destructive investigation of sound.  

GS: Prior to the current situation, we had already mapped out a series of  small soirées with like-minded people. We’re still curious, we’re still hungry,  we still have a sense of urgency; that sense of being globally connected and  wanting to converse with other people. There’s no point in waiting for any  institution to validate or give us the stamp of approval. Just getting on with  it, as has always been the case historically. There may well be two men and  a dog at your place (or may not); but it tends to be the opposite, because if you build a field of dreams, people will come.  

Though younger practitioners have different obstacles to navigate the  path, we’re excited about them joining the crew, and seeing and experiencing how they’re responding and creating new sound pieces.  

TM: It’s also how the young use the technology, because I may have a piece  of kit, but I’ve never seen it used like that until a young person plays with it.  There isn’t a pure essence except our perception at this particular time  

with our particular interests, just like the armature of those Egyptian sculptures. There are many ways to see the light, just get out in the sunlight and  you’ll feel it on your skin; don’t hide yourself in the shadows. I think we’ll get  onto that idea of setting up that record label.  

Edited transcription by Michael McMillan, in collaboration with Gary Stewart  and Trevor Mathison, of an oral history interview conducted on Zoom,  October 2020.  

Gary Stewart 

Working with digital technology as an artist, producer and curator over the  last thirty years, Gary Stewart has been involved in pioneering initiatives and  projects around the world that explore and interrogate social and political  issues of identity, culture, technology and creativity. Formerly Head of New  Media at Iniva, the Institute of International Visual Arts, London, where he  curated Iniva’s digital programme, including installations, exhibitions, public  and online projects, he has been freelance since 2011, creating collaborative environments within, between and across the unique spaces emerging in  public spaces, art galleries and museums.  

Trevor Mathison 

Trevor Mathison is an artist, composer, sound designer and recordist. His  sonic practice, centred on creating fractured haunting aural landscapes and  integrating existing music, has featured in over thirty award-winning films.  

Mathison was a founding member of the cine-cultural artist collective,  The Black Audio Film Collective (1982-1998), where his body of sonic de signs defined and situated for the Collective’s film and gallery installations,  including Signs of Empire, Handsworth Songs and The Last Angel of History.  Mathison has continued to work with some of his former collaborators from  Black Audio (John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul and David Lawson) creating sound  design for installations and feature documentaries, including Mnemosyne  and The Unfinished Conversation. His latest compositional score features in  Slave Rebellion Re-enactment (John Akomfrah and Dredd Scott, 2019) and  Garret Bradley’s award-winning feature America (2019).  

Mathison has also founded and been active in a number of other ex perimental sonic groups – Dubmorphology, Hallucinator and Flow Motion.  He has also been a pioneer of sound installation work. His most recent  sound performance took place at CAPC in Bordeaux in 2020 where he was  commissioned to make a sonic response to Lubaina Himid’s installation  Naming the Money.

© Gary Stewart and Trevor Mathison