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A refreshingly unfamiliar sound [2010-09-09]

Since 2004, John Cromar has released music under the name of Noma, primarily on the Kovorox Sound label.  John's music as Noma is a breath of fresh air - texturally rich, free of ego, completely removed from musical convention and yet somehow always engaging.  He skirts along the borders of the ambient, avant garde and noise genres, among others.  He was kind enough to give me detailed, lengthy answers to 15 questions via an email interview that shed quite a bit of light on his idiosyncratic methods of composition.

m[m]Your music seems to exist completely outside of any 'scene' or convention, even that of the avant garde.  What inspires and influences what you do (groups, concepts, etc.)?                                                                                                                                       John: I am quite often inspired by paintings and books that I am reading or have read.  A lot of music inspires me.  If it is music I dislike then this can urge me on.  If it is music I enjoy then I am very pleased it exists.  The writings and music of Morton Feldman have been a huge influence on me over a number of years.  The life of John Coltrane inspires me.  I do not want to start on musical influences as the list would be endless.  I am a huge fan of jazz, classical, metal and other genres.  I am inspired by the beautiful and the horrific.


m[m]What would you say is Noma's "mission statement"?
John: I do not really have a mission statement.  I really just want to record all the time or be listening to music, sound or silence, all the time.  I am lucky that other people seem to like some of the things I make.


m[m]Would you consider your music a spiritual endeavor?  Explain.
John: I do not think that spiritual has to imply alliances with the supernatural BUT it can often have those connotations. I do like making music that can encourage me (or others) to stop thinking OR at least slow down the thoughts. Music that does not cheat time but maybe alters the sense of time.  There are obvious long drone tunes that I have done which sound like there is little happening and I like them.
John If someone says they fell asleep while trying to listen to them then this is a compliment.  Recently I got a message from a friend (Fergus) saying that one of my tunes (Friede in Den Gedanken) had been on loop to help Elaine's new baby (Charlotte) go to sleep.  I was thrilled. I am not religious, but I really enjoy religious music from all over the world.  Again-too many things to Liszt.


m[m]Do you play live and if so, how?
John: I do play live although I much prefer recording.  When I play live I tend to put household appliances through the pickups of a guitar.  At the moment I do not use effects and the neck and strings are not on the guitar.  I just use the body.  I make use of things like hairdryers, razors, electric toothbrushes, handheld fans.  The sets can be pleasant and meditative or a bit harsher.  They can be rhythmic or steady and I also think visually interesting and funny.
I have been playing live for a number of years and have been lucky enough to tour Europe and play a few sets in Japan.  This was a dream come true.


m[m]How do you typically get started on a new track?  Is there any particular mood you are typically in when this happens?
John: There is no particular mood involved in the process.  I tend to record at night.  Life gets in the way of recording all the time.  I wish to record all the time or sort out tunes that are not quite finished.  I am more into the process of creating than the end result.  I usually just move onto the next thing.  It is rare for a day to go by without recording or at least dictaphoning some sounds, playing the acoustic guitar, piano, organ or sax.  I do not really want my music to reflect my feelings or express anything.  More just a delight in sound.  Obviously there are a few exceptions.


m[m]How did you get started making music?
John: I have loved music as long as I can remember.  I had piano lessons from the age of 7-14 and then learnt the guitar for a while with James Cree.  My friend and I were constantly recording nonsense into basic tape recorders.  I have endless tapes of woeful guitar noodlings and keyboard crimes.  Eventually I got a 4 track tape recorder and effects unit from a friend and this was very liberating.


m[m]I admire the uniform simplicity and cryptic nature of your album packaging.  What are your thoughts on the relationship of record packaging to music?
John: The 12 releases that Lea Cummings (Kovoroxsound) kindly put out have images that I selected.  We both felt they were quite bold and simple as well as being inexpensive to make in my own home.  He made the templates and I chose the colour of card.  It was a continuation of the first Kovorox release (A Drone Poem in 3 Parts).  I love packaging and I totally agree with Frank Zappa's idea of the fetishism behind holding the product and reading the info while playing the tunes.  I really like vinyl as the packaging, images and words are that much bigger.  In a way it is a shame that new generations will miss that by simply downloading OR they will not experience buying a tape because the cover looked interesting.  I got into so many bands via the art work.
As well as the Kovorox releases I am also very pleased with the packaging that Alastair Mabon (At War With False Noise) provided for a double CD-r (Lacrimosa/Nidus) and a split CD with Rejectamenta (Adam Cresser).  Very pleasing!!!!


m[m]For some of your albums, various experimental recording techniques are listed.  For others, such as "Mara", they are not.  How were those beautiful drones created?
John: Lea wanted a little description for each release and this I found hard to do. I also felt that I did not want to be too serious or too silly.  I do not record music under the influence of anything except perhaps coffee and I still have problems remembering how I did certain things.  Often I will not remember how the tune sounds unless I play it.  With Mara I think tracks 1 and 3 are mutated keyboards with many layers of processing.  KR-0 is a brass bowl and guitar reverbed beyond


m[m]Judging by your work, you are obviously concerned with pushing yourself and your art forward.  Are there any specific new directions you foresee you'll be taking Noma in the future?
John: I am not actually too bothered about pushing myself forward.  I really just want to make music that I want to hear.  At the moment I am trying to do more collaborations with people as I am not very comfortable playing with other people.  I would like to have a blog where people can get some of my music.  This would make me a bit more self-sufficient.  More and more I would like to provide sounds for art instillations or films.  I have done bits and bobs already in that direction and I hope
for more.


m[m].  I agree that reading the liner notes while listening to the music makes it a more complete experience...  It gives the eyes something to do.  Speaking of which, you said you were interested in creating sound for art installations and film.  What do you imagine would be the nature of these films?  Are you interested in creating them yourself, or perhaps performing a 'soundtrack' to someone else's work?  Have you ever thought of using video in a live setting?
John: I have made long tunes that I think are suitable for gallery spaces.some of them range from 20 minutes to 3 hours.  All can be looped if required.  Recently I was asked to provide the sounds at "Aphrodite at the Waterhole" which was an event featuring 17 European artists.  Some of the people contributed paintings, sculptures, film and many other things.  This took place because of Fritz Welch and others.  He wanted me to provide the sound for the opening and the final day.  I basically hid myself in a utility cupboard and made use of some of my longer organ tunes and tunes which I call "nothing music" or "less than nothing music"...  I also played 3 short live sets during the day.  People could look through a small window if they were curious about the sounds.  I really relished the chance to have my longer tunes playing while people viewed the artists' work.  My music was not too intrusive and people commented on how nice some of them were.

John The whole experience inspired me to make many more of these lengthy tunes.  In my dream world I would like to have a library of sounds that people could use for film, dance, atmospheres and gallery shows.  In fact, I do BUT I would like it to be online.
In my own gigs I have sometimes projected films (Les Religious Sauvages) behind me and others have chosen to project black and white films behind me.  I tend to ignore visual things at gigs and if I am at a classical concert I always close my eyes.  I have used my laptop to project slide shows of my own art, photos and death masks.
I would love to create more music or sounds for other people's work in all areas.


m[m]What are some of your favorite sounds from nature and unintentionally created sounds of civilization?
John: I love most sounds and feel that all sound is music.obviously there are some sounds that I really do not like but I can deal with them by dictaphoning them and placing them into one of my tunes.  I love the sound of rain, water, streams, waterfalls etc...  I have been mad about bird calls for as long as I can remember.  I also love city noise. construction, drills, sqeaking gates and doors.  I have hours of such things in the vaults.  It may sound odd but i have noticed the big differences in train sounds throughout the world.  Some very nice tones and noises.  The first thing I did when I got a computer was take a 15 second dictaphoning of an ambulance and stretched it for an hour.  it ended up sounding like 50 trumpets playing a Grisey piece.  I do like experimenting and feel a bit like a scientist in the lab.  the process is more fun than the result.
John I love the sound of foreign languages and will use them, but I try and avoid scottish accents and my own voice.  The joy of editing can remove all trace of me.  I love placing sounds among other sounds, which would not normally occur.


m[m]When looking for new gadgets, is the date at which something was made important to you? Why?
John: Mostly my musical equipment is down to money and luck.  I have been given 4 electric razors by people who got new ones.  The same with hairdryers.  Charity shops used to be a good source for childrens toys.  I have far too many keyboards, synths, organs and various other goodies.  My girlfriend has a piano which is rather handy.  The date is not important but I do to favour older keyboards.  I do not have anything new and my favourite beast is the SIEL.
John Sometimes you just find things that people are throwing out.  I found a lovely custom amp which only needed a new plug.  It has the best distortion ever.  The best £40 I ever spent is on a Yamaha organ.  Full size with bass pedals.  each time I play it, it gives me so much pleasure.  I was doing the salvation army a favour by moving it.  They should have charged £200.

m[m]Analog or digital?  Why?
John: I sometimes try to blend both to get a nice warm sound.  So I may have 3-4 tracks from the organ and one from the SIEL or a layer from an ancient sampling keyboard.  Sound forge can be handy for mutating sounds.  Effects pedals can be great for making awful keyboards sound mighty.
John I do make tunes on the laptop that come from nothing. electronic and mutant.  With the 8 track I tend to have things exactly as I want them and then place in the PC. The dictaphone pieces often have city sounds or me recording ideas via keys or guitar.  Often I just leave them as they are.


m[m]What is your attention span and work flow like?  Do you usually start by working on the beginning of a piece?
John: My attention span is strange, I can spend hours doing tedious edits of dictaphoning sounds, removing a click or crackle which I do not want.nobody would notice but i know it will annoy me if it is in the "final mix".  Some of the long tunes that i do have, have me just sticking the notes down with string or tape and leaving the room (to make my tea)---often i have a few backing tracks which I am lazy about BUT later I start to get quite involved.  Still, i always have a book or sudoku near.  I love looking at paintings while a track is doing it's thing.  I love having earphones on for the long tunes.

John I usually start at the beginning of a tune but feel that much of my music need not have a start, middle or ending.  I sometimes forget about tunes and go back a few weeks later with fresh ears and decide that it needs one more thing or it is fine the way it is.
John I love the fact that something you compose and spent ages over can sound random and improvised while something you made up quickly, with little effort, can sound like it took years to do.  That is when analysing music can be a bit of a farce although i love reading about classical music and jazz.  Perhaps they can be commented on because there is theory involved.


m[m]. Anything else you think is relevant?
John: I suddenly realised something silly but vaguely important in my musical development which perhaps explains a lot of the directions I went in.  When I was a student I used to clean in the local hospital.  This involved using hoovers and various other machines.fairly boring but i loved the drones in the hospital. if I was on my own I would drone/sing/harmonize along with the hoover. The best thing was in the blood transfusion centre which had massive fridges holding the blood. they had their own tone.that with my own hoover and voice led into some silly "musical" excursions and my first attempts at recording a hoover in the speech therapy department with the microphones they had.  The noise was too much for the microphones, hence I tried through the pickups on one of my guitars.  Thankfully I was never caught doing such silly things.
I also used to love getting my head shaved as the sound of the trimmers and razors against my head were rather pleasing.  I then went and bought my own.

Thank you to John Cromar for his time and insightful thoughts, and to Roger Batty for setting this interview up!

The majority of the Noma releases can be purchased from Kovorox Sound http://www.kovoroxsound/  & you can hear samples of Noma’s work here

Josh Landry
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