FOUND and Aidan Moffat collaborate on new project #Unravel
Installation based on events from Moffat's life
A sentient Aidan Moffat machine full of roguish tales. A band made up of instruments that play themselves. A prism for seeing how the past is affected by the present. FOUND and Moffat’s project together, #Unravel, is all of these things and more, as Claire Sawers discovers
As the old saying goes, there are three sides to every story: yours, theirs, and the truth. Or in the case of Aidan Moffat’s latest storytelling project, there is his version, her version, and somewhere, maybe lost forever in the mists of time, the facts about what actually happened.
In a ‘new interactive sound installation’ at SWG3, Glasgow, Moffat can be heard telling different versions of the same stories. There are dewy-eyed memories of a teen holiday romance that ended with a moonlight grope in a rowboat on the lake (or, did the girl actually knock him back after the disco? Or was he a gent, and did he knock her back?) Then there’s the time his ex-girlfriend moved out of the flat they shared, and he was an embarrassing, ‘howling, hysterical’ emotional wreck (or, was it the ex who couldn’t keep it together, and him who comforted her?) Tales of strawberry wine and ecstasy; police being called to deal with a stalkerish, jilted schoolboy; a self-harmer; a frisky policeman’s daughter – the different tellings of Moffat’s tales explore the nature of memory and truth.
Moffat was approached by the Edinburgh-based art-pop band, FOUND, last year to collaborate on a sound-meets-storytelling project they dreamt up – like several of their other projects – on the back of a beer-mat one night in the pub. What about an unreliable record player which played a slightly different version of a song each time the needle hit vinyl? Using their love of invention and product design, the record player would trigger a self-playing band – beautifully constructed of course, its minimal surfaces hiding state-of-the-art software. But what if the mood of the lyrics could change depending on the weather, or the number of people listening at the time? They liked the idea that the truth could vary depending on how well the story was remembered, or what mood the storyteller was in.
‘They called me exactly at the right time actually,’ nods Moffat, over a pot of tea, his recognisable Falkirk accent coming from somewhere underneath a beard and an electric blue cagoule. ‘I’d been reading a bit of experimental literature, and some stories by [1960s British novelist] BS Johnson. He did a book in 24 unbound chapters, they were like little pamphlets, and you were encouraged to shuffle them up. McSweeney’s have tried similar things too. Mark Saporta, a French guy who was reprinted not long ago, his writing got turned into a phone app that shuffles itself.’
Not only had he been thinking along similar lines, he was a fan of FOUND’s work. He’d seen FOUND’s robot-operated Chinese dulcimer in Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens back in 2008, and collaborated with them during last year’s London Word Festival, when they took along Cybraphon, the ‘emotional, musical wardrobe’ that won them a Scottish BAFTA.
Both Cybraphon and Unravel – machines designed with help from longtime colloborator, Professor Simon Kirby from the University of Edinburgh’s Language Evolution and Computation Research Unit – have a very sensitive side, and don’t react well to criticism. Cybraphon was designed to be a robot diva – going in the huff and playing sad songs if it wasn’t being paid enough attention on Twitter and Facebook, but bursting into jaunty tunes if its popularity was on the rise.
‘I can imagine Cybraphon trying to wind up Unravel actually,’ says Moffat, about FOUND’s new toy, due to start stealing limelight away from Cybraphon any minute now. ‘I can just hear Cybraphon casually dropping in, “me and Aidan hung out in London actually – we spent a night together”.’
Where Cybraphon brought to mind 19th century mechanical bands, with instruments lining its antique wooden frame, Unravel is a sleek, contemporary beast, in dazzling white and bright blue plastic. Visitors to SWG3 pick a 7” single from a box of records – INXS, Julee Cruise, Tom Waits and Chris De Burgh are all in there – then play it on the turntable. Unravel’s Hammond organ, tubular bells and drum-kit spring into action, and Moffat’s voice is piped through speakers.
But Unravel reacts to the room, measures weather conditions and the size of the crowd, and responds accordingly. Shyness or a show-off streak may skew the performance and make Moffat burst into song, with FOUND on backing vocals, or a gloomy day of rain may produce a more downbeat, whispered spoken word version of a story. Where Cybraphon’s mood is altered by the volume of Tweets and Facebook ‘Likes’ it receives, just one negative Tweet about #unravel can bum it out immediately, and bring on a melody in a minor key.
‘Cybraphon was pretty whimsical,’ says Ziggy Campbell, who co-wrote music for Moffat’s lyrics with band member Tommy Perman. ‘Unravel is a lot meatier, and much darker.’ They left the storytelling up to Moffat, who picked ten songs, wrote stories inspired by them, then made different versions of them all.
Sometimes only two or three words vary from one version to the next, but very dainty amounts of fine tuning let Moffat amplify details with hard-hitting effect. For example, in a knuckle-bitingly awkward-to-overhear drunken voicemail in ‘More Than Everything’, the narrator begs the girl, ‘Please pick up, I know he’s with you.’ But swapping ‘he’ for ‘that prick’ in another version adds a different tone, like a colour filter over a camera lens. The listener wants to cringe one minute, or maybe put a comforting arm round Moffat, then will suddenly feel the need to push him into a taxi home.
A clock inside Unravel also lets it know when it’s past the watershed (4pm, for those who’d prefer to hear the uncensored version). When ‘The Minister’s Daughter’, which plays when ‘Freak Scene’ by Dinosaur Jr. is picked, comes on in the morning it might tell of a coy girl rebuffing Moffat with a slap in the face. But in some post-watershed versions Moffat ends up ‘punished and pummelled and pumped’ by her. And a carrot.
So did Moffat have to dig deep into his imagination for subject matter? ‘All ten stories are based on true events from my life,’ Moffat offers, unblinking. ‘I’m just not telling you what version is the truth.’ So the man who flips on Babestation after his girlfriend leaves in tears; the shy, clumsy teen; a sweating lad lurking outside HMV to catch a glimpse of ‘workskirt arse’–- they could all be him in disguise. ‘Put it this way, I don’t think any of these are exaggerated to the point where I’m not capable of it,’ he smiles.
Already the FOUND team have been approached about doing a TED talk on Unravel, and are smoothing out details of an Edinburgh Fringe show this August. Plans for a phone app are being discussed, as well as a book and record further down the line.
‘Nowadays we’ve got so used to the idea of a record or an MP3 being this absolute, perfect product, a set rendition that stays the same over time,’ says Campbell. ‘It’s like the truth; that’s meant to be something fixed and definite, but it can vary a lot. Unravel is supposed to be a medium that shows how unreliable the narrator can be.’
‘People want to hear and read things that they don’t talk about themselves,’ adds Moffat. ‘No one’s nice all the time, and rather than lying about something that’s happened, I think it’s healthier to just come out with it. I don’t get easily embarrassed, you could say I have no shame. So the truth – whichever version that is, is fine with me.’
UNRAVEL will be open to the public from Fri 20 Apr–Mon 7 May as part of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art at SWG3, Glasgow.