Augmenting reality - Beatie Wolfe's Raw Space
There was a time, in my deep, dark and ever-so-slightly dank past when I regularly attended the launch of a new album. Over on-trend bottled beers and record company vol-au-vents, scribes would be entertained by the artist or artists in question, followed by an opportunity to mix and mingle, invariably accompanied by a ferocious record company press officer doing their level best to prevent any awkward questions (you know, about drug busts, tour "larks" and inter-band creative differences).
So today I enjoyed a somewhat circular return to this world with my 'attendance' of an album launch with a difference - a very big difference, in fact - which could easily be described as truly post-modern. Beatie Wolfe, the London-born singer-songwriter who, with her first two albums built a very credible reputation for both her melodic dexterity and use of digital art in combination, today launched her record Raw Space with an event that combined a novel convergence of digital and physical music with an augmented reality experience.
Wolfe and Nokia Bell Labs, the storied research institution now owned by my Finnish employer, hosted a vinyl playback of the album from an anechoic chamber (essentially a sound-absorbing room), combined with 360-degree augmented reality content and streamed over YouTube. Now, if this sounds like just a promotional gimmick (and in my day I experienced some intensely wacky stunts...) there was technological merit to the exercise: Wolfe says that she wanted to challenge the current streaming experience, which audiophiles, particularly, will concur might be convenient but from a listening point of view, quite flat. Noting that streamed music is "somewhat compressed both sonically and creatively", Wolfe wanted to celebrate the album form - "its artwork, arc, narrative, music", the things that still count for those of us queuing at dawn the other Saturday to get our grubbies on Record Store Day releases.
It's not the first time Bell Labs has collaborated with the art world - over the 50 years of its E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) initiative it has worked with the likes of John Cage and Andy Warhol. Today's Bell Labs president, Marcus Weldon, says this latest meeting of music and science is particularly novel. "This collaboration with Beatie looks at the intersection of art and tech in a truly inspired way," he says. "I couldn't think of a better project or artistic collaborator to champion the next phase of this defining exploration of the human possibilities of technology."
It's fair to say that musicians have enjoyed a mixed relationship with technology. There has been, of course, the tacit acceptance of commercial streaming services as distribution platforms, even if the vast majority would still prefer you to buy their albums in a physical form. My friend Steven Wilson famously drove a car repeatedly over an MP3 player in his Insurgentes documentary, part in protest at the sound quality of compressed music and part in protest over the download culture killing off the art of the long-form album. Peter Gabriel - a pioneer of studio innovations and whose father was an inventor and engineer - has warmly embraced digital audio with a considerable emphasis on promoting higher sound quality formats like lossless compression, while at the same time re-releasing his albums on audiophile-grade half-speed vinyl. And, yes, you can hear the difference.
In Wolfe's case, it's been about melding music, technology and art, something she's been doing from the very beginning of her recording career. Her 2013 debut Eight was the first album released as a hologram (it required an iPhone and a projection accessory to play it), while its 2015 follow-up Montagu Square (respectfully named after the onetime abode of John and Yoko where it was recorded) was made available on NFC-enabled business cards. That, Wolfe explained to Wired magazine, was "a synthesis of music and history", something you could say today's event -given its marriage of the resurgent vinyl album with the emerging canvass of virtual and augmented reality - was a vigorous example of.
As for the album itself, Raw Space embraces all of the ingredients I enjoy in the current generation of guitar-based singer-songwriters, in particular The Magic Numbers' Michele Stodart: a strong influence of Americana, brooding without being morose, romantic without being soppy, upbeat without being over-poppy. Songs range from the refined West Village coffee shop soul-bearing of The Man Who and the deliciously drawling Pure Being, to the countrified warmth of Gimme Some Love and the rootsy vibe of Broken Bird. For a big, ballsy rocker like Oh Darling there is the contrasting intimacy of As You, while the piano-and-strings ballad How Can I brings out the rich timbre of Wolfe's voice, as well as the pleasing balance of her writing - neither overwrought or underwrought.
There is a pleasing resonance to Raw Space but not so familiar as to be predictable. Far from it. It's launch, however, opened up a very different realm, one which I'm pretty certain we haven't heard the last of. Just when you think you've seen it all, someone like Beatie Wolfe comes along at opens up a completely new dimension. More power to her.