A Winged Victory for the Sullen Break Down Their New “Invisible Cities” Score Track by Track
Adam Wiltzie provides a necessary field guide for the stage production soundtrack’s experimental orchestral drone.
The duo behind A Winged Victory for the Sullen have always been primed to soundtrack the type of bizarre stage production that is the industrial-set dance-and-visual-arts adaptation of the Italo Calvino novel Invisible Cities. Dating back to his work with The Dead Texan and Stars of the Lid, Adam Wiltzie’s been constructing ominous, near-apocalyptic soundscapes pitting menacing drone against a more approachable ambient sound, which took a modern classical turn when he teamed up with pianist Dustin O’Halloran in the tail end of the 2000s to launch AWVFTS. With Invisible Cities, though, we’re finally gifted with a visual component to the duo’s evocative compositions, pairing their postmodern murmurs with strikingly apt visual spaces brought to life by dance.
In spite of the spare sounds of their score, there are plenty of strange textures heard over the project’s distilled 45 minutes. It seemed necessary, then, to have Wiltzie step in and define those sounds which, as it turns out, range from felted piano, to garden mulch, to water cooler bottles. Hear the soundtrack in full below, and read on for his commentary.
We try all things and achieve what we can. This is our pitched piano. We have been working on this patch since we first experimented with it on Atomos. It’s layers of different pianos played simply via a Native Instruments Kontakt sampler patch. We would love to release a sample library of these sorts of things as, honestly, it feels as if I am forever creating new patches during recording cycles.
2. “The Celestial City”
Three simple layers on this one: Eight-piece choir, small brass section, and a modular. We recorded multiple layers of the choir in Budapest and ran the ostinato part through a simple modular set up and processed some phrases. Leo Warner, the director, really had a hand on helping this one evolve emotionally—especially with the brass part, as it came last—as he told me specifically that this city in the book Beersheba needed to have this breath of light at the beginning. The book has depth and complexity in which the mirages of cities express the extremes of human experience: desire and despair, love and grief, birth and death. I had read the book previously before meeting Leo, but his interpretation has left me with a better understanding of its importance.
3. “The Dead Outnumber the Living”
There is a lot of dialog in the performance, and this is one of the main pieces. The song title sort of preceded the music in a sense, as we created some simple melodic palettes with some simple analog sounds. On this particular occasion, and with the randomness of the sounds that were coming out of the machines, it led to something we were both quite pleased with. In the end we found a way to anchor it within the context of the sound of the record.
4. “Every Solstice & Equinox”
I am beginning to recognize the fact that nothing is true. It’s all down to perception. For example, Dustin originally felt this one sounded too much like Atomos VII, but I really found it unique enough to present to the director. So with all collaborations there are disagreements on certain matters, but we have learned to trust each other enough that despite our different personalities we can look at the big picture, and ultimately that is what can make a collaboration shine.
5. “Nothing of the City Touches the Earth”
We had a warm bond with the director, a very open and direct dialogue, so we had to find a way to leave some of our classic AWVFTS emotional sounds at the door and go for some extra pace for a few of the bigger dance sequences, as this one had about eighteen people running around on stilts. He was looking for cold sounds, cold feelings, and this one really has the thread that weaves the soundtrack together. Cold modular synth pulses as the counter weight to the harp that was recorded with Margaret Hermant in my Brussels studio.
6. “Thirteenth Century Travelogue”
This track is one of the intermission pieces. 59 Productions designed a theatrical world in which the (seated) audience are fragmented into four corners of a wide, long, low space, and so it required set changes that were extremely difficult to pull off in under two minutes. Each of the four seating blocks had screens that came down with a sort of audio/video interlude to take the audience on the journey to the next Invisible City, and of course allow the set change to work without losing the momentum of the arc of the story.
7. “The Divided City”
One of the simplest tracks on the recording, just piano and guitar drones. For the piano we used Dustin’s August Förster stand up and some special felt that he procured from his time living in Italy. We just use duct tape to stick pieces of felt to the soundboard hanging down in between the hammers and the strings. Pure softness.
8. “Only Strings and Their Supports Remain”
This was a concept I was experimenting with for a while: to have the orchestral drone morph into a simple solo violin arrangement. It took a few different tracking sessions to get the layers of strings correct. The large string ensemble sessions in Budapest were done in a series of overdubs so we could have more control in the mix, as traditional music of this nature is done in one pass. We also brought down some microphones from our own studios, using Coles 4038 ribbon mics as a kind of alternative Decca Tree (spaced microphone array most commonly used for orchestral recording) and a set of old water cooler bottles with microphones dangled inside.
9. “There Is One of Which You Never Speak”
This is the bookend of the pitched piano, except this time we added the solo viola to accompany a big moment for the dancers from the prestigious Rambert Company in London. I must thank Leo Warner again for giving me some intellectual inspiration in the form of the concept of the work completely disintegrating into nothing, as we went severely into experimental territory with this bit crushing layered distortion filled coda.
10. “Despair Dialogue”
This is my favorite piece on the record for some reason. It started as a little piano ostinato that we ran through a modular, and made a loop in an old Oberheim loop machine I used to use in the early ’90s. It really craps out when it gets hot, which gave it this fuzzy sound. I sampled some simple paddy guitar tones through an old Alesis Midiverb 4, and made this (typical Adam process) Kontakt patch made of analog garden mulch. Then I ran it through Francesco’s 16-track two-inch tape machine, and we resampled it again and spit it out, and that is the sound you hear at the beginning. It needed two stages of crappiness to get to the warm glowing glow. I love the overdrive that shines out towards the end of the piece.
11. “The Merchants of Seven Nations”
A little backstory for the song titles: they are all taken directly from Calvino’s novel and are directly connected to the different cities that are visited over the course of the theatre piece. This is the bookend to “Every Solstice & Equinox” with the addition of piano. And the ostinato organ part was recorded at the Grunewald Church in Berlin where we recorded the piano for the AWVFTS self-titled debut.
12. “Desires Are Already Memories”
-This is the continuation of the choir that leads to the climax of Invisible Cities. The trick is to re-awaken the power of the song for yourself and to keep trying to find what it is that made you love it in the beginning.
13. “Total Perspective Vortex”
And here we are at the end, and this is the climax, coda, and accumulation of the almost two-hour theater production, where the past, present, future all collide into a place where everything is connected, so we really had to push the limits of what we normally gravitate to. Melancholia bookends what is by far the most bellicose track we have ever released under the A Winged Victory for the Sullen moniker. We made a Kontakt patch some years ago with Hildur Gudnadottir, as she used to share a studio complex with Dustin in Berlin. We recorded about an octave and a half of some solo notes of her falsetto, and we dropped the pitch down an octave, and that is the male-sounding solo voice you hear on this track. The end product is always the same: profoundly flawed, but that is what makes this soundtrack work….