In what has to be one of the oddest opening tracks on any album, Will Menter’s Above And Below Ground Level starts with a tourist guide leading her charges deep into a French cave. The guide’s singsong voice and the shuffling, whispering tourists underline the cavernous ambience. Then the guide invites us to contemplate the Palaeolithic paintings in silence, and for forty seconds or so we listen to exactly that. “It needs a special kind of listening that is not very evident,” explains Menter on the phone from his home in central France. “I was trying to frame the silence at the end of the track, to build up to a situation where the listener is forced to use their visual imagination to conjure up what is happening. Anyway, the idea was to make this track inform the way the rest of the CD was listened to - so that was why I put it first.”
Menter has now released four albums on his own Resonance label, highly personal collections of recordings in which his sound sculptures compete for attention with chunks of his surroundings and daily life. A swarm of bees invades his bathroom; on a foggy hill he encounters cows wearing bells; he plays meditative soprano sax alongside a local cow, a waterfall, or footsteps running across a slate beach in Wales. Even a pair of new shoes triggers a whole piece celebrating leather and tile (“Stepping”). Menter: “The start of that was noticing that my leather-soled sandals made a nice noise in my sitting-room, which has a terracotta tiled floor. I wanted it to be recognisable as walking and at the same time musical. It veers between someone walking around, and a kind of tap dancing. All the slower sounds are straightahead recordings, though some are long loops – then the faster ones are sequenced on a computer, but it’s the same sources.”
On other tracks Menter’s sound sculptures and self-built instruments, constructed mainly from wood, water and slate, are variously placed under waterfalls, sampled and replayed by computers, or even destroyed by gales (on “Weathered” we hear a sculpture suspended in a tree collapsing when a storm blows down the tree). There’s a lot more going on here than simply documenting sound sculptures.
"I think of the albums as creating an imaginary world,” says Menter, “but I wouldn’t call it a fantasy world. I want it to be recognisable as a world that most people would know. And it’s music of course. It’s also to do with technology – having a portable DAT recorder and a computer means you can gather sounds in a certain way and develop ideas from that.”
Sculptor, improviser and saxophonist, Menter is clear that he has always seen himself as a composer too, right back to the late 60s, when he was writing music inspired by John Coltrane for his teenaged jazz group, Will’s Thing. Ten years later Menter was active in the Bristol Musicians Coop and founded the Zyzzle record label. One release was his own Community, “a radical approach to combining improvisation and composition”, played by a 20 piece orchestra. The group Overflow was another distinctive project, an octet devoted to interlocked hocketting techniques on dozens of instruments devised from plastic tubing. 1990’s Slate Voices paired Sianed Jones’s voice with Menter’s slate marimbas, christened Llechiphones from the Welsh word for slate. This multimedia presentation mixed music and sung texts with video projection and sculptural set design, and performances took place deep underground, inside slate quarries.
In 1998 Menter left Bristol for Burgundy in rural France. That strand of his work that dealt with sound sculpture seemed to be coming to the fore, and over the last five years, working in relative isolation, he has refined and expanded his sculptural work to the point where he currently has several exhibitions across Europe, and many pieces permanently installed in specific locations, often deep in the countryside.
“Around 1984 I took part in the London Musicians Collective Festival Of Self-Made Instruments, organised by Sylvia Hallett and Paul Burwell. We made sculptural installations, lots of tubes and dripping water. They were very improvised in terms of making things, not fully developed objects, more thrown together for a performance. Max Eastley, William Embling and Barry Leigh were involved; Barry was actually a plumber and helped me get into
pipes. Moving to France, I suddenly lost most of my network, so I had to explore ways of working on my own. One recurring interest is the borderline between humanly produced sound and sounds in nature. How does the human brain impose order on sound to make sense of it? We see beauty in nature and we see beauty in art, but probably with very different parts of the brain.”
I suggest to Menter that he is a type of composer for whom a relationship with his environment is crucial. “Yes, that’s close to how I would describe myself. That also applies to the visual aspect of the sculptures, and it’s one way in which the aural and the visual elements come together. I’m always trying to make something that harmonises with the environment. A current example is the “Towers Of Babel” project, a group of artists working this autumn in the Mainz State Museum in Germany. I made a piece (“Protecting Leaves”) in the museum courtyard, in a big plane tree. I had the idea of making a structure totally within the tree, that didn’t actually touch the tree. I didn’t want to hang things from the branches, but to relate very closely to them. Pieces of slate hang from a steel structure between the leafy branches. It works partly with little motors turning the slates, though it works more when the wind is blowing too. Then there’s the sound of the leaves in the wind. The visual aspect is that there’s a second physical structure in the tree, with “leaves” hanging from it, but leaves made of slate. So I’m making a discreet modification of the environmental sounds, not trying to dominate them. That’s definitely a big theme in my work.”
Menter’s next major project is called “Song Sculptures”, based around eight of his more transportable constructions. His trio called Slate (Benoît Keller on double bass, Pierre Corbi on slate marimbas and Menter himself playing the sculptures) will be joined once more by singer Sianed Jones for what sounds like a touring cabaret of musical sculpture. “These days I’m interested in some sort of elegance, visually and in sound too,” concludes Menter. “I’ve come a long way since my days of totally experimental free improvisation. I wouldn’t have talked about elegance then, but I do now. I’m looking for a sort of calmness, though at the same time (he laughs), of course I want it to be arresting and exciting too.”

first published in the Wire no. 237, November 2003

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