Joe Frawley's soundtrack to the subconscious

Joe Frawley of Norwich is a post-ambient composer/musician.
Joe Frawley of Norwich is a post-ambient composer/musician.

You might be the type.

At one time or another, bolting awake in cobwebs of nightmare, or even crawling lazily to consciousness from a languid but eerie nap, you wish you had a soundtrack to go with the shreds of already-fading memories of those nocturnal voyages.

Actually, you DO have soundtracks. Close by, even. You just didn't know it.

Consider the work of Joe Frawley, a Norwich-based composer whose quiltwork of aural collages has quietly earned him an international audience of dark-ambient/soundscape/avant-electronic fans. His latest CD, "Carnival," is just out on his own label, Joe Frawley Music.

"I started out wanting to be a traditional composer," Frawley says, nibbling a tuna melt at Mister G's recently. "Choral and piano stuff; romantically accessible and easy on the ears. At the same time, I was experimenting with tonal music and listening to a lot of Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush, and techno and house music."

Frawley, who studied at Berklee School of Music in Boston for a year and then graduated from the University of Connecticut, might well have followed the original musical path - until he and his wife had twins.

"At that point, I had to find a way to play music and yet make sure they could sleep," he says. "I got a computer and some headphones and started experimenting with audio processing. One day, I was layering some samples over a piano piece I'd written - and it all clicked. Not much later, I put out my first CD - and people actually responded to it."

That was in 2006, and the enthusiasm spurred Frawley. Since, using a DIY ethic, as well as the Internet, Frawley has found a variety of download and CD outlets for his albums, which include "Speak of this to no one," "Left Cincinnati," "Joe Frawley Ensemble," and "A book of dreams: Works for processed found sounds and piano," which is a compiliation of two earlier Eps, "The Hypnotist" and "Tangerine."

In addition to selling CDs over the website, Frawley was contacted a few years back by the prestigious Clinical Archives netlabel, an outfit that distributes music for its artists through digital audio formats over the Internet.

Frawley had been e-mailing a variety of DJs for college and online ambient and experimental podcasts and radio stations - with encouraging response - when Clinical Archives asked him to record. He has since done three albums for the label.

"It's been a very flattering relationship," Frawley says, "and it's fair to say it's provided me with an international audience. I don't want to give the impression that there's a daily bombardment from fans. But if ever someone downloads or buys my music, I get e-mail. I've made friends all over the world."

Frawley has no plans to perform the albums in a live context, though, if indeed sales continue to expand, it's something he'd have to think about.

There's no blueprint for a Frawley album, but certain elements typically occur: skeletal but lovely piano lines and orchestral washes; "found," sampled or acted-out voices with the ghostly qualities of old film dialogue as heard from a distant room; and looped effects ranging from whirling helicopter blades to traffic and nature snippets to effects such as the shivered sound of icy breathing, sighs, or laughter.

Frawley sculpts these into short pieces that, when puzzled together into a whole longer work, are at once melancholy and spooky yet nostalgic and yearning. The spoken word bits often conjure impressions of incidents or moments of lost youth indelibly imprinted in the yellowing pages of memory.

He does in fact use samples of dialogue he might hear in film or on video, but Frawley will also sparsely suggest a set of human sounds he wants to hear - someone really cold, someone very relaxed, someone who's just run up a flight of stairs. On "Carnival," he gave such a wish list to someone like Mélanie Skriabine, who'd done French-language bits on the album.

"She was so good with the language stuff that I asked her to go out on a limb," Frawley explains. "She was very good and a great sport about it because I could see how such things could easily sound odd or make someone uncomfortable."

While Frawley's recordings sound wondrously conceptual, the process is actually quite the opposite. He starts with simple exploration: maybe a self-generated piano piece or a found sound or voice sample resonates, and he builds step by step from there.

"I'd like to have concepts, but to do so and make it happen is hard," Frawley says. "A sound might suggest something, and then I can go about reinforcing that. Things tend to take a life of their own. On 'Carnival,' for example, the CD was halfway done before I discovered it was going to be about a carnival."

Frawley says he's learned that, somewhere during the process, a story inevitably emerges and reveals itself. He's learned to trust that.

There is no set way to begin or end a project, either. Often, Frawley cuts and pastes snippets and sections until the flow reveals itself as the natural storyline. He also instinctively knows when an album is done.

"Each one is about 30 minutes long, by design," Frawley says. "At the risk of sounding pretentious, these CDs are meant to be listened to as one work. I think if you actually took the separate songs and put them in an iPod mix or whatever … well, I can't imagine that they would work the same way."

Perhaps oddly, Frawley doesn't listen to ambient or experimental music.

"I feel like I'm kind of a jerk when well-meaning people recommend music to me. But I won't listen to it. I only have so much time, and I don't want to scrape ideas from something I've heard," he says.

Unlike many artists who utilize the Muse as personal reflections of themselves or to explore their own subconscious, Frawley follows a decidely different path.

"The music is not a representation of 'me' or an expression of 'me,'" he says. "I don't know who 'me' is, honestly. When I sit down to create, I want to get as far away from 'me' as possible. I think art is an escape from having to be 'me' all of the time."

To learn more about Joe Frawley's work, go to

His CDs are also available

in New London at the Telegraph.



In addition to the highly recommended Joe Frawley, here are some artists and works you might enjoy that go beyond the standard John Cage/Brian Eno/Steve Reich/Tangerine Dream roster of superstars in experimental/electronic/ambient music.

Bass Communion - "Ghosts On Magnetic Tape"

Robert Fripp - "A Blessing of Tears"

Andrew Thomas - "Between Buildings and Trees"

Peter Chilvers - "Stormwatcher"

Fovea Hex - "Here Is Where We Used to Sing"

Robert Rich - "Gaudi"

Patrick O'Hearn - "Indigo"

Salem - "King Night"

Tim Story - "Beguiled"


Loading comments...
Hide Comments