By the Cobbled Path: an espresso with Brigitte Beraha

Image Credits: Photo by RJ Fernandez

September 7, 2022

The music collected on the album “By the Cobbled Path” is an intimate journey into the world of vocalist and composer Brigitte Beraha.

> Ivano Rossato

“By the Cobbled Path” is made almost exclusively with the human voice. How did the idea come about?
It started off as a research and experimentation on the voice which I decided to document. I hadn’t had a teacher or “studied” per se for a while which I was finding a little frustrating, so whilst I was mentally preparing myself to delve back into it, I started recording some solo experimentations from home, with or without pedals. I also took these relatively new electronics with me anywhere I went and enjoyed setting the microphone outdoors, in strange sounding bathrooms, etc. and started playing with the environment and sonic landscapes I found myself in, which was really fun and inspiring. I was also enjoying ‘taping’ field recordings everywhere I went, with a zoom mic or even with my phone, when I was on the bicycle for example, thinking ‘you never know, I might use some of this’ and the more I did this the more I knew I would.
The pandemic sadly meant less playing with others but also allowed me to focus on my voice and this new project in more depth. That’s when I started taking lessons with Luciana Souza and Theo Bleckmann who were both amazing mentors – we talked through my ideas, I played them snippets of things… They were great and so encouraging. They helped push myself further than I would have done on my own, I think, and it was helpful to see them genuinely believe in my project. I couldn’t have done any of this without the financial support of Arts Council England thanks to whom this idea could be brought to fruition. 
How do you combine composition and improvisation in your personal creative process?
They feed off each other. I improvise something and it concretizes into something more set and compositional which then gets twisted through improvisation and change to something else in an ongoing process. When writing for a group, the same thing takes place, but you are giving compositional material over to other people that will manipulate it in different ways through their improvisation to inspire you to present them with different compositional material. It’s all very cyclical and never-ending, which I love.
What compositional and recording process did you follow?
I didn’t follow the same compositional or recording process for every piece. Some pieces are totally improvised and recorded in one take, and others are chopped up or a few layers added on. For example, Come On In was recorded outdoors and is one take of live looping which also captured the external environment. Added onto the track is a recording of the ‘boiler’ door in the kitchen – the old boiler had a noisy clock attached to it which I loved capturing, especially since that boiler died and finally had to be replaced. Doors was a poem I wrote. This piece went through so many different stages! I recorded many squeaky and other sounding doors, initially thinking these would make it into the piece itself but in the end, it felt too gimmicky. So I spoke the text and then improvised around it. The melody at the end, though initially improvised, has now become the Doors Theme on gigs. Moonstruck, the longest piece on the album, also started off as a poem I wrote. Theo noted that the lines of the text could be moved around, perhaps deconstructed even whilst retaining their meaning.
So armed with new inspiration, I was again experimenting with improvising around those words, with and without electronics. Initially, I thought this was going to be a 4-minute piece or so, but when I played some of these ideas to Luciana, she saw through the material that I was presenting, that this could be a longer piece, with a few sections, and urged me to think of it as a symphony, which I found scary (i.e. more work!) but also loved. So from then on, I had a clear skeleton structure to follow and knew it would have three movements. The tricky part was that I decided I wanted to record it all in one go rather than in separate sections as I wanted it to sound as organic as possible. In fact, what you hear is a full take from start to finish, and apart from the main poem and the main riff idea at the beginning, when I recorded this, everything was improvised, including the melody of the text.
Too Far to Hear my Singing was the first piece I started working on towards the album. I was reading a lot of poetry at the time, and by then the lockdown was in full flow so I was playing with ideas of deserted land and space and loved recording from the inside of the house, the external noises of children, cars passing by after the rain, which are all there on the recording. I set up the mic in the living room and recorded simple piano chords or notes through my delay pedal, then explored singing different versions of the poem, which ended up with this particular melody. I had also set up a mic in nature so was singing outside as well whilst moving around, which you can hear at the end of the piece. Then I went to Chris Sharkey, who mixed and mastered the album via a little post-production, managing to bring out some of the textures that I had forgotten were even there!
This music and these sounds leave a deep feeling of “intimate” and “physical”… 
I am glad this comes across in that way… This is in fact me welcoming you into the world I was in at the time and I am not really hiding anything, in fact what is presented to you is that world, the environment I was in when I recorded all this material, as well as the state of mind I was in. You’re coming on bike rides with me, and hearing what I was hearing at the time. The piece I think Our Neighbours Might Be Aliens started off with the upstairs neighbours doing work in their bathroom with a very loud saw, and this was right in the middle of me recording a lot, so not ideal. Then I thought “hang on, I am loving recording the environment I am in, so why not this?” and put that angry sound through my reverb and delay pedals which created this amazing monster that I improvised with and around.
Each song builds a three-dimensional visual space: is it a concept that characterizes the album you had in mind from the beginning?
I am not sure what I had in mind from the beginning. I knew I wanted to have ‘conversations with nature’, and hoping that it might result into some kind of work, but what the whole process was going to be and end up sounding like I didn’t really know until I got stuck in. Then yes, I started losing myself in this magical space which gave me purpose and comfort, in finding my own place within that space: both as a spectator and participant, in the stillness and buoyancy of life. No one needed to know that I was there, and yet I definitely was.
How do you bring the compositions of “By the Cobbled Path” into a live concert?
When I was writing for and recording ‘By the Cobbled Path’, I knew I was also writing for my quartet ‘Lucid Dreamers’ (Alcyona Mick, George Crowley and Tim Giles) whom I couldn’t play with at the time, as this was right in the middle of the lockdown. In fact, we recorded very different versions of ‘Doors’ and Too Far to Hear my Singing on our new album ‘Blink’ which was released last May and which we have been touring since; we play these live and differently every time! We have also started playing and improvising around Moonstruck at some of our concerts, another interesting process to recognise the piece yet see it morph into something else, so for example in this formation I have harmonised the 2nd movement and am now hearing a new, 4th movement for the band to play.
Although ‘By the Cobbled Path’ has been getting a lot of love, I don’t think people necessarily realise that some of the album was recorded ‘live’ and with no overdubs, which is maybe why I am yet to receive invitations of solo live performances! I haven’t gone out of my way to seek them out either, but if anyone invites me, I certainly will consider this and actually find the idea quite thrilling. There would be a lot of free-improvisation involved and would sound very different as my trajectory keeps changing, but it would certainly be done in a similar spirit. Regarding my current live set-up, it’s more or less the same as the one I used on the ‘By the Cobbled Path’ and ‘Blink’ recordings, a small selection of pedals (delay, looper, reverb..) but mainly my voice! I haven’t delved into the world of Ableton as yet and I also currently like to perform everything live without any pre-recorded sounds as it’s so much more exciting and fun that way for me, for now anyway! I like imperfection and I love surprises…
What are your plans for the near future?
As mentioned above, I am currently touring with my quartet. I am writing some new music for the group towards a third album and hope to continue touring in Europe and the UK as it’s such a joy to play with these amazing musicians to appreciative audiences. As for another solo album, I think it’ll come at some point but I am not there yet. Lockdown gave me the luxury of time, though it would also be interesting to see where the music takes me if I am running out of it…
Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes: an espresso with Nate Wooley copyright Jazzespresso 2022.
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