STEP SONIC: Composer & Sound Artist Jo Wills

“Across the board, we’ve only scratched the surface of what we could do…the sky really is the limit”

Jo Wills is a composer, sound designer and producer based in London.  In this interview, Jo leads us through his background as an artist and the innovative use of technology that allows us to combine live music and dance in Step Sonic.

What is your background as a composer/producer and how did you and Tom meet?

I studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, initially on the Classical double bass course, but I switched to electronic music half way through the degree. Before getting to GSMD, I was involved in the classical music circuit but also getting in to DJing and the burgeoning DnB scene in Bristol in the 90s. Those felt like distinct musical worlds, I didn’t see the link between it all until I got to GSMD, then I started trying to bring those two worlds together in my practice. I’ve been working as a composer in a variety of contexts since then, from TV and film stuff through to Installations, various band projects and contemporary music ensembles. I’ve always been invested in new ways of making music and working across art forms. Tom and I met when he was starting to work on RISE and was looking for a composer with similar musical interests, we had some great conversations about the links between sound and movement and the evolution of dance music culture in the UK. I got on board with that project, that was I think in 2006, we’ve been working together off and on on various projects ever since. Notably, ROAM and Digitopia for TDC.

Where did the idea come from to turn physical objects into instruments for the dancers?

Its something that Tom and I have talked about a lot over the years, Tom has been asking questions around that idea for a while. I worked on Digitopia, we were looking at how to connect sound and movement digitally on that project, kind of through that process, talking about all the stuff we weren’t doing in Digitopia, working in the digital realm, that lead us to trying to find analogue ways of harvesting the sounds that dancers can make. I’ve done a bunch of work with contact mics and trying to amplify unusual sounds, we had a lot of hypothetical conversations about how we could transpose those ideas in to a live movement context. A lot of the issues with that are around scale, trying to deal with the need for sensitivity from the instruments, on a scale large enough to dance on authentically, with out it being impossible to control.

How did you go about sourcing materials?

Thats been a long process of trial and error, there were some guiding principles, Plate reverbs have been around for years so there was a body of work to take inspiration from, the boxes we use are basically giant Cahons. The floors were harder to figure out, the first protypes were sheets of MDF with battens underneath and bits of Toms faithful old yoga matt. Scaling it up and making it tourable has been hard. They’re made of Birch ply with pine frames, and bridges between the boards to aid sound transfer, everything you do to the instruments changes the way they sound, varnish reduces the sensitivity of them, and smooths the surface of the boards to much so we had to oil them. Everything thats gone in to them is the product of multiple attempts, its been a pretty steep learning curve. We’ve spent a lot of time in timber yards and B+Q, looking at different densities of rubber to isolate all the individual instruments etc.

What technology do you use to make it work?

The instruments all have contact mics attached to them, with custom built pre amps that manage the impedance differences in the system and allow us to use long balanced cable runs, there are shotgun mics accross the front of the stage and a driver mounted on the back of the large steel sheet at the back of the stage so we can use it as an instrument in its own right but also play other sounds through it.
My rig is based around Ableton Live where I’m doing all the processing, an Ableton Push 2 controller and an Akai APC40 for controlling it. Then we have a Focusrite 18i8 interface with an octopre giving us a total of 16 mic pre amps to run all the instruments through, then a power amp that sends signal to the plate reverb. I’m using ACS custom in ear monitors and mixing the show live, so all in all, theres a lot of plates to keep spinning, the Push 2 has been invaluable in letting me work fast without having to have my head stuck in a laptop, its a very intuitive control surface and It lets me play with the dancers, like were in a band together. The Akai APC 40 gives me tactile mix control so my right hand is creating while my left hand is balancing more or less.

Did you have to give consideration to the tone and frequency each instrument would create and how those would blend?

Yes, a lot of thought and effort has gone in there, although not always in the way you might expect. The main concern is about having controlled transfer of sound, the floors panels need to transmit any sound movement that happens anywhere on an 8ft square to a single transducer (the contract mic) so its less about the sound of the board, more about transferring the sound the dancer makes to the microphone. Then we have had to do a lot of work around isolation, so you can make a noise on one board and it only minimally transmits to the board next to it, so they’re all surrounded by and sitting on high density rubber. Each piece of wood and microphone we use behave slightly differently so theres been a steep learning curve there as well. contact mics are famously temperamental things to work with, they may be cheap to make but they’re very easy to break and the ones in this show get a lot of abuse, being jumped on day after day.

What are the challenges involved?

Managing feedback! the floors and boxes essentially work as enormous mic diaphragms, they’re super sensitive so each new venue we rehearse or perform in, we have to tune the gear to the room. The show needs a lot of bass in it, but if for example your on a sprung floor, that bass can transmit straight back to the instruments very easily.

Getting comfortable with the whole setup, to do the performance well I need to know the specifics of each setup well enough for all the technical stuff to be happening almost subconsciously, we’re still scratching the surface of whats possible with the instruments which means that each new set off processing we try our throws up new things that need managing in performance.

The building process has been full of enormous pit falls, making everything tourable, durable, liftable and resonant has been like trying to find a way through a complex maze.

What have you most enjoyed about the project?

Seeing the ideas work, when we try out a processing setup on on of the instruments and the dancers immediately find ways to interact with it and then I can vibe off of what they’re doing, hitting on the golden ideas basically! having the chance to make thighs that we’re been talking about for years.

Given the opportunity, are there extra things you would add to expand on the performance in future?

Yes for sure, there are some things that didn’t make it in to the show this time round, not least of which is a beautiful 3 metre high 2.5M square 32 string harp, we also had a water tank that we could play sound through, both great ideas but just not manageable within the time limits of this tour. I’d also really like to to try expanding the floors, you could cover the whole stage in them in theory, which would give us so many options and increase the working area for the dancers. I’ve also been thinking about using more metal, maybe giant hanging steel bars or tubes, a bit like hanging xylophone bars….

Across the board, we’ve only scratched the surface of what we could do with this stuff, each process can be explored deeper, as we all become more in tune with the process, the sky really is the limit with what we could make.