Helena Celle by Stewart Smith
Helena Celle is the electronic music alter-ego of Kay Logan, who has emerged as one of the most exciting talents and deepest thinkers on the Scottish music scene. The first Helena Celle album was released on Night School in 2016 and she recently followed it with Copy Music, a collection of oddball rhythmic bangers. This year has also seen the release of Nothing New Under The Sun, the latest album by her virtual chamber group Time Binding Ensemble.
In this wide-ranging interview, Logan discusses these projects, her adventures in weirdo punk bands Herbert Powell and Anxiety, and the philosophical and mathematical methods behind her Counterflows commission.
Stewart Smith is a music and arts journalist and academic, with a particular interest in alternative cultural histories of Scotland. He recently launched Ion Engine, a newsletter dedicated to underground and experimental music from Scotland.
I thought I’d start by asking about your musical background, how you got into it.
I never had any music lessons. Everyone does music in first and second year at school, and I remember getting put behind a drum kit and thinking, “I’ve literally never seen one of these in person before” and them being like, “Alright, well, can you play?” So that was that was my only experience really. I think it was probably the case that a lot of schools in Scotland, they’d have a room with Casio keyboards and they just put you down in front of those. And you wouldn’t be taught anything, they’d just leave you to practice on that. I always remember there was a guy in my class that could play the Mortal Kombat theme. No one knew how to play piano or keyboards and we’d be like “what’s this?”
My dad played acoustic guitar but he was self taught. Instead of doing music in school I did art. We had a subject that was kind of like electronics and computer programming. And it was actually the teacher that I had for that who recommended I do sound engineering at college. I was doing microcontroller programming, but the teacher, I remember he brought in guitar pedals one day. It was the first time I’d ever really seen any of those. When I started college, you could get Educational Maintenance Allowance. You’re meant to use it to buy stationary but I went to Cash Generators and I got a Beringher mixer. If you run the output of the mixer back into the mixer you can change the pitch of the feedback.
So you were doing no-input mixer stuff?
Yeah. And that was kind of the first thing I really messed about with. It’s like having a really basic oscillator. I got a phaser pedal with my EMA money as well, so I had that and the mixer. And then I managed to get a tape recorder. That’s why I’ve been using dictaphones for quite a long time. I remember I used to go to Poundland, they used to sell packs of cassettes, six for a pound. And then I got the Tascam Portastudio, one of the really small ones, and that was the first time I ever started recording anything.
I bought my first laptop with the EMA. And I got Reason, because in college they were they were using it for a lot of stuff. I got Max MSP because I wanted to try the stuff that I did with mixers. You quickly discover it doesn’t really work the same way, but you can do all these other things with it. And I feel that there’s just a natural progression from plugging mixers and pedals back into themselves to working with something like that. It just becomes more complex.
The first things things I did when I was in college was improvised stuff. And one of my lecturers was Ruaraidh Sanachan [aka Glasgow underground legend Nackt Insecten]. He’s very professional as a lecturer. I always remember trying to coax out of him, ask about the noise stuff. And Andreas Jönsson [Moon Unit, Single Helix] as well. He was a lecturer too. They were a massive influence on me.
What kind of stuff were they teaching you?
Just general music and music technology. We had a class with Andreas where every week we’d bring in a recording that we liked and we’d listen to them and talk about them and how we thought they were made. That was a really good class. We also did one with Ruaraidh that was the fundamentals of live sound where we would set up an entire PA during the course of the class. People could form fake bands and we would do live sound for them.
I remember all the Cumbernauld College lectures were at that Group Inerane gig [at Kinning Park in 2011] Some of them had made videos of it and were showing us that. At that same time I was getting into playing guitar and bass and I’d never really heard anything like that before. The timing and the rhythm of it was really a big deal for me.
Do you know Chris McCroy? He’s in Catholic Action and Casual Sex. And he went to college as well. So the first time I ever got paid to do live sound was because he was putting a gig on and he didn’t have anyone to do sound for it. So that was at the Old Hairdressers, which was what introduced me to that venue and the whole scene around that. I remember one of the first ones I saw was Iain Findlay-Walsh playing in there. This was the first time I’d ever seen anything that bordered on performance art. I just didn’t know what to make of it. I couldn’t quite figure out like what he was trying to do. And that opened up a lot of questions.
So honestly most of it came from Cumbernauld College and being encouraged by people like Ruaridh and Andreas.
So what kind of stuff were you listening to back then?
The music that would have been around me when I was really young would have been stuff my dad was into like Black Sabbath, Nick Cave. I think there’s the connection from Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to Alastair Crowley. And then you get that whole counterculture that crops up around that like Throbbing Gristle. I remember watching a video of Throbbing Gristle doing ‘Discipline’, and I’d just never seen anything like it. I think there’s this massive element of identity formation and opposition to the world around you, especially if you’re a teenager who’s singled out in one way or another. Growing up in a pretty rough area or community you start to go with these extremes, it’s like you’re kind of testing the people around you because the people who are okay with that will then be the ones who really matter. I got really into anything that seemed as socially unacceptable as possible. Throbbing Grisle were really important to me. As were Coil, but more so.
Why were Coil so important?
I guess on some level, it was the queer thing as a teenager. I’ve always had this aversion to socially accepted or culturally normative aspects of like gay culture. Coil being a band that was two gay men, it seems like, oh there are people like me who are doing things that appeal to me or feel more representative. So Coil were huge for me. Through them I would have gotten into Japanese noise like Merzbow and Aube, which was really interesting to me. Autechre would been through them too, and Pan Sonic. They would also have been a gateway to electroacoustic composition like Bernard Parmigiani and Alvin Lucier.
I’m often wondering, you know, how different my life would be if it were not for that. I’ve always had the drive to do things on my own and research things on my own terms. I suppose if it’s an aspect to your personality, that you’ve got this willingness to do things on your own terms, then you’re going to use whatever tools are available to you. It’s strange, because when you’re a gay person in working class communities in Scotland, you often end up feeling like a bit of a class traitor, kind of at odds with things that the people around you find acceptable, or the things people that are interested in. Does that make sense?
Yes – people can internalise a particular idea of class identity. And then there are people in the media and politics who cynically exploit that.
Absolutely. And I think that it’s so pervasive that it’s quite often internalised by a lot of working class people themselves.
So let’s take it back to your early years in Glasgow with Herbert Powell and then Anxiety.
Herbert Powell came about with some of the songs that I recorded at Cumbernauld College. I was just looking to put a band together to play songs that I’d been writing and then it very quickly became more than that. It became this fairly open thing where we discovered a certain mutual interest in bands like Sun City Girls, This Heat, Cardiacs, Captain Beefheart, Mothers of Invention. We were really into Rock In Opposition stuff like Henry Cow. King Crimson. A lot of stuff that straddles the line between prog and punk and post-punk and avant-rock, to elements like jazz and free improv.
All the songs we wrote had improv-within-parameters sections in them. I remember playing a gig in the 13th Note and a guy shouting after one of our songs like, “how do none of your songs have keys?” It’s got like 20 key changes! [Our drummer] Billy would count off. He would say “it’s got mare keys than a janny’s bunch.” We’d have all these really stupid timing and counting strategies in songs, and the sort of thing where you’re basically all playing a different song at the same time.
We were all in weird places in our lives and quite volatile, so we never released anything. We’ve been making attempts over the years at recording something which we think may be available soon, but I’m always hesitant to say that. We’re technically still a band, I talk to them every day. We started recording again just prior to the lockdown. So that’s been been an ongoing thing. We’re very inspired by Greg Turkingdon’s Amarillo Records and we’d really like to do something like that, release things on our own terms.
Even if we haven’t actually released anything it’s more about the communication and this relationship with your friends. But during one of the periods where we weren’t doing anything, that was when we started doing Anxiety. It’s just me, Michael [Kasparis] and Calvin [Halliday] now. I think we decided that what’s most important is the rhythm section and the vocal, so we’re not going to constrain ourselves to having to use a drum kit and a bass guitar for that. We’ve been sending a lot of stuff back and forwards in the lockdown, so that’s hopefully gonna become something.
And all the while you were doing Helena Celle.
It was 2016 the first album got released, but I recorded it significantly earlier, probably 2014. And the recording just sat for ages not doing anything. I gave Michael the recordings and he was like “oh, I’d like to release this if you want”, and I said “yeah, but I recorded it two years ago so you know I can’t do it live.” So that was part of the whole thing for me, that I was releasing this album that I no longer had the equipment that I made it with.
Was it a Groovebox you used?
Yeah, a Roland MC-303. Kieran who was in Herbert Powell, I recorded a bunch of it at his house in Cumbernauld just straight into a dictaphone, live, no edits. There was that whole thing of people asking me to do it live. I’d never performed live on my own before and a lot of my time since then has been spent figuring out how I like to perform on my own. Hence the reason for so many different aliases as I’m quite often doing things that sound quite different to each other.
I’m not striving to do anything new. I feel like that’s kind of a recipe for creative disaster, for me at least. I don’t like there being any element of worry or apprehension or expectation. I think for me it’s just about trying to be true to the way you feel in the present. It’s almost like everything you do is a manifestation of circumstance and time and place and your state of mind at the time and your material circumstances. The past two years before the pandemic, I was working full time in audiobook production. And so a lot of the stuff I was doing then, a lot of the Otherworld stuff, I had this microcassette dictaphone and I would record my commute in the morning, all these different things. They were digging up the road outside my work and I just went down at lunch and left the dictaphone in the doorway.
A lot of that that for me was like an embodiment of your circumstance and not only that, but you’re thinking in those terms of the imaginal or what’s going on in your subconscious. You think about how your dreams are influenced by what happened recently or important events in your life and I really like to conceive of art in the same way. I really don’t like to have anything feel like contrived or like I’m trying to make something for a specific purpose, it’s just all about representing that circumstance and its impact on the subconscious. Since doing the Otherworld album on Night School, it’s been a case of working out what technologies can be used to convey or represent those subjective contents.
I think for me, it means you’ve got a very involved ongoing relationship with a part of yourself that most people maybe ignore and I think is probably responsible for a lot of societal ills. And to be aware of subconscious motives and the autonomous ongoings, the psyche that you’re not consciously perceiving. At the time I’d been doing psychoanalysis for a while and that allowed me to develop the language to think about what I was actually trying to do, which has always been a very intuitive thing. I think ultimately for me, that is what art should be and it’s certainly what improvisation is. It’s an ongoing participatory relationship with with the subconscious, with the imaginal. And I think there’s a long historical, historical lineage of this being the case. I feel like that’s what the surrealists were doing, like Leonora Carrington, I’m a big fan of her. And there’s this tradition of visionary art, or mysticism, and representing these things. You even have it in people like JRR Tolkien or Urusla LeGuin, where it’s all about giving form to the contents of the imagination, which are impacted by your material circumstance and your daily ongoing.
So I think it’s all very fluid. It’s all about using the technology that you’ve got at hand to represent these things. That’s changed over the years for me, there’s been points where I haven’t had a computer, my computers broken, I can’t afford a new one, I’m using my phone or tape recorders. At the moment, I’ve been okay for work, so I use Max MSP and a Waldorf Blofeld synthesiser, which I really like. It’s really good for sound design. I use Max MSP to control that. There’s a really specific time frame where I was listening to a lot of the music from mid to late 90s computer games, and particularly stuff coming out of Japanese development studios. A lot of them were using the Roland sound canvas. A lot of that stuff reminded me of some of the sounds that The Residents were using when they started using samplers and MIDI. I’m a huge fan of the Residents and I think their approach to what they do has been very, very important and life affirming for me, especially that they’re still doing it. And I wouldn’t be surprised if their interpretation of the idea of representing your subconscious, as the purpose of art, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a similar thing there.
I also got thinking a lot about – purely because it sounded similar – was Frank Zappa’s later albums that he was making on his own with the Synclavier. They’re pretty difficult albums, not even just in terms of their musical content, but there’s a really heavy, nihilistic feel about them, I think. And that’s what he was like, as a person, especially towards the end of his life. I find them slightly difficult to listen to. It’s almost a sort of spiteful thing: “I’ve made all this music, and I think it’s meaningless.”
I feel like a lot of people my age have grown up with this implicit nihilism. That we’re biological robots in a meaningless universe, and the only thing that can bring us any joy is to work and consume. And I think it leads to a massive amount of mental health problems and substance abuse. That’s what drove me into Jungian psychoanalysis in the first place. When you’ve been brought up with this implicit nihilism, how do you then derive meaning from the ruins of that? And for me, I think that comes from that representation of the subconscious which is, to me at least, quite clearly this kind of subjectively transcendent and transpersonal thing. To me that’s an implicit empirical proof that there is meaning beyond the consumerist nihilism that people my age have been brought up with. It seems kind of essential to me for there to be be this shared essence of personhood. It almost becomes animist in a way because you extend that kind of personhood to non-human persons like animals and the environment, like a whole ecosystem around you and it all all shares this transpersonal kind of psyche.
It’s interesting you mention ecosystems, because you’ve talked about Max MSP in those terms. Does that tie in with what you’re talking about, a kind of musical ecosystem?
It’s hard to articulate, but it’s really interesting to me to observe the interaction between an indeterminate artificially intelligent system, and the imaginative capacities of the person who’s in control of it. It’s almost like a symbiotic relationship, you know? It’s been suggested that as artificial intelligence progresses, what will be of value to artificially intelligent non-human intelligences will be our capacity for imagination. Because that’s something they don’t have. And that kind of reciprocal relationship – because these things will continue to develop to the point where they’re something that we’re forced to think about. We can’t just bury our heads in the sand and refuse to deal with it until it’s right in front of us. I’m not like tech utopian in the slightest. Ideally, I think I’m pretty archaic. But I do make use of whatever technology is at hand to do what I’m interested in. And that’s been a really interesting thing for me to observe, like when you’re programming the system, the emergence of that ecosystem from your own imagination, and your intuitive response to its output. So it’s being shaped in this kind of feedback loop, which includes your subconscious. That to me is the kernel of what I’m doing at the moment.
I think a lot of people can quite often conceive of any music that involves programming to be a case of, “oh, you just hit the button and you record what comes out”, and for me, I’m quite keen for there to be always an element of physical interaction and real time response. I use like a lot of MIDI controllers, but rather than playing notes with them, you’re playing sets of values or conditions or events. There’s a thing in mathematics called a strange attractor, it has a fractal nature to it, it’s recursive. So it’s really useful for rhythmic applications and things that repeat, but you have this continual changing of it. It’s really fascinating for me to build an ecosystem out of things like that. And you have rudimentary artificial intelligence, things like Markov chains, and to have all this going on, and then have methods of human interaction as part of the feedback loop – I don’t see it as operating a machine, I see it as like you’re completing the circuit. And that circuit involves your own intuitive subconscious response to what you’re hearing, what you’re listening to.
I feel like the terms improvisation or composition or performance or listening, I think it all kind of becomes the one thing. It just becomes a matter of listening and responding. And whether that’s through physical interaction or changing programmatically values in the system or its behaviours, that’s really what I’m interested in at the moment. I’m really interested in the idea of multiple people constituting parts of that circuit. One of my friends, we’ve been sending some stuff back and forward. You can integrate Max MSP with Ableton Live. And Ableton Live 11, which has just been released, has a feature where it will intelligently adjust the tempo and respond to a drummer. My friend’s a drummer, so I’m quite interested in incorporating that into one of those ecosystems. If this is the world that we’re going to be living in, increasingly more so as time goes on, I think we need to think about how we conceive of art in relation to it. I’m not a fan of the whole Grimes, tech utopian, NFT world. But I’m fond of the idea that what would be of value to an artificially intelligent agent would be our capacity for creativity and our connection to our subconscious, our ability to dream.
So that feeds into the Counterflows commission – it has a lot of these elements you’ve been talking about.
Yeah, it’s kind of derived from the same system that I used for the Copy Music album. But because there was no opportunity to do this sort of thing live, which I’ve been really wanting to do for a while now, I figured that it would be the perfect opportunity to string together these recordings of improvising with such a system.
With Copy Music, the tracks are quite short. Here you’ve got a long form thing where you can develop ideas a bit more.
Yeah. Absolutely. And that’s really the part that is least involved because the system is put into a Roland sound canvas, with these built in sounds. But the rhythms that it’s generating and the melodies and all the indeterminate chance operations, it’s a matter of the kind of physical response to what you’re hearing in the moment. With the Counterflows recording, it all takes place in the present. It’s just this completely intuitive response to listening to the output of the system and the reactions to it, which I suppose is kind of parallel to improvisation in a way. That’s what I’m going for.
You’ve just released a double album of virtual chamber music as Time Binding Ensemble on Kit Records.
As far as I’m aware, the lineage of that sort of algorithmic music goes back to Bach and that’s something that’s fascinated me ever since I was a teenager. I was back at someone’s flat after a gig and someone was talking about the Douglas Hofstadter’s book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which on the surface level is about algorithmic thought in the arts. But it fairly quickly starts to get in the matter of how meaning develops out of a system like that. These are things that are all at play in nature, like Fibonacci. New meaning develops out of a recursive self-similar system. Some of the earliest examples of that music you’ve got is Bach fugues.
A lot of Time Binding Ensemble was kind of based around, like, what if you did that same sort of thing, the same kind of machine process. I wanted to do something that was immediately atmospheric, and there was that theme running through it of deriving meaning from the ruins of nihilism. So, I think that, in the end, the recording quality and the kind of pace and atmosphere of it, that was something I wanted to convey. But ostensively it’s like Bach fugues but really slow. And with bits of improvisation throughout.
I was playing with Nakul Krishnamurthy who’s also doing stuff for Counterflows. That was me running one of these fugue routines, but I brought a baritone ukulele with me and played that alongside it. I think I was meant to play for like half an hour and it ran closer to an hour, no one wanted to stop. So that was just a case of letting one of these fugue systems run and listening to it and responding to it. And so the latest release, I wanted to do a cycle of 24. I’m quite fond of the idea that every time you set an indeterminate system running, it’s like that thing, if a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one around to hear it… So we’ve got three spatial dimensions, and then the fourth dimension is time and the fifth dimension is potential. And there are all these potential outcomes from an indeterminate system, and that fifth dimension, that are stacked on top of each other. And as soon as you start listening to the system, the wave function collapses, and you’re observing one of these potential outcomes. Because up until that point, it’s totally indeterminate. I’m really fascinated by that.
That’s kind of at the core of everything that I want to do. So every time you record the output of a new system or routine, what you’re doing is you’re here to observe one possible outcome of it. And what I wanted to do for that latest one was to collect 24 of those but adjust the key signature with each one so we go round all 12 chromatic notes for each major and minor key so it would add up to 24. And then the track titles, Nycthemera, refer to a term that means something that consists of 24 parts. And so that’s all there is to it, that derivation of meaning from from nothing. It’s an encapsulation of a lot of the things I was interested in.
So are you looking forward to Counterflows?
Fielding introduced me to Annea Lockwood’s work, who’s been really important lately. I’ve been really, really interested in her work that was derived from field recordings. And that’s got me thinking about that sort of thing again. I’m pretty excited to see what everyone’s done.