Exotic Easy Listening, analogue Techno, martial arts movies, Bollywood soundtracks, Tex Avery cartoons, cult TV, New York Improv - David Shea samples the lot. Report by Clive Bell. This article originally appeared in The Wire 144 (February 1996).
David Shea is a new breed of composer for whom nothing is alien. His new album, Tower Of Mirrors, on the Belgian Sub Rosa label, is based on a 17th century Chinese novel about the dreams of a monkey, but it contains tributes to both Easy Listening maestro Martin Denny and that most subtle of pianissimo classicists, Morton Feldman. "Oh, they're not so different," says Shea on the phone from his home in New York. "They're both a form of exotica."
Tower Of Mirrors has a vast scope: 24 pieces beautifully structured over 75 minutes, most of them devised for Shea's characteristic combination of samplers and live instruments. It opens with the sound of children playing in the countryside, but soon plunges into a dream world: "A green tower full of thousands of mirrors; each has a name beneath it, and when Monkey looks into a mirror, he enters that world."
Some of these worlds become, in Shea's words, "Tributes to composers of Ambient dance music." "The Machines" has virtuoso analogue synth programming by David Morley, while "The Pure Land Illusions" rattles along at a furious 155 bpm, complete with enormous Chinese gongs and a trumpet solo by Dave Douglas (a member of John Zorn's Masada). "Believe it or not, Sub Rosa are releasing a 12" vinyl form this record," says and astonished Shea. "They're tired of all that is avant gard nonsense: they want a hit!"
Still in his late twenties, Shea grew up in America as a Buddhist and martial arts fan. "My musical background was a very split experience: on the one hand as a record fanatic and composer for classical ensembles; on the other playing keyboard in hardcore, punk and ska bands. I even sustained one year of torture at a conservatory, but that was a nightmare. In 1985 I came to New York. I didn't know anybody. I didn't have any money, so I used whatever I had which was improvising. I did a lot of vocal concerts, because I didn't have any instruments. I met a lot of the younger half of the improvising scene, that was the strongest musical energy going on at the time."
Shea's recordings have featured many of the New York improvisors: Shelley Hirsch, Zeena Parkings, Ikue Mori and Anthony Coleman all performed on his Shock Corridor tribute to film director Sam Fuller. John Zorn and Tom Waits's guitarist Marc Ribot contributed to Hsi-Yu Chi (released on John Zorn's Tzadik label and based on yet another Chinese novel). "I need players who are able to change their minds very quickly. If I give a description, say a Techno-Xenakis-Brahms type of melody, they know what I'm talking about, they know how to put their brain into that gesture. And that's as important for these pieces as being a player who's technically gifted in a style."
Cinema is central to Shea's work, literally and metaphorically. He describes his 1994 album Prisoner (based on the BBC TV series) as seven pieces "linked as a type of sound cinema. The compositional methods and forms are chosen as musical solutions for setting scenes, similar to scoring a film; the difference in this case being that the music itself is the action.
"The strongest influence on what I'm doing hasn't come from musicians; it's equally come from writers, from film makers, from theatre. So if I've watched nine Sam Fuller films the week before, I don't set out to make a film or do something with those soundtracks, but I concentrate on doing in music what I found in those films. the same with Tex Avery cartoons or Hong Kong action films - it's concentrating on what the directors did in their medium with what they had, from their traditions, from their perspective, and then doing the same thing from mine."
Shea will be coming over for his first London concert this month. He'll be playing at London's Conway Hall, but it sounds like he'd be happier at Leicester Square Odeon. "The last couple of times I've toured, I've concentrated on playing in cinemas or theatres. Every time I play in jazz clubs, rock clubs, even dance clubs, there's a half an hour confusion factor of 'What's going on?' You hear the sound effects with a James Bond sample and Albanian bagpipes going underneath, and you think: 'What's that about musically?' Somehow, if I'm doing it in a cinema it instantly makes sense to people."
Shea himself plays mainly samplers, but doesn't feel the machines are necessarily liberating for a composer. "There's all kinds of garbage made with samplers, and all kinds of garbage made with violins." Much of his approach stems from working with turntables in the 1980s. "With turntables I did very little manipulation. It was mainly about putting the records down and finding the connections between the material that were already there. A lot of times it was unbelievable, I'd put three records down and the less I did the more interesting it was. I thought that must mean the connections are there; and they don't need to be created or synthesized, they just need to be given a context where they can be heard."
Hong Kong action directors and Indian Bollywood movies provided Shea with models where film makers and composers were already working in this way. "They can be unbelievable ancient and ridiculously modern at the same time. It's just a case of understanding how things are connected, not making the connections. In a work of art you can give a context where the connections can be seen more clearly. Which means they're there in politics and economics, too."