An interview with Claire Sawers, December 2020
The experimental performance and sound artist Sholto Dobie is part of the extended Counterflows family. He took part in a Counterflows × Scottish Sculpture Workshop residency in Aberdeenshire in 2018 which involved an outdoor audience tuning in to his homemade animal calls in a disused quarry, then last year he performed a surreal, fun set with DIY inflatable plastic bag instruments and slide whistles at the festival in Glasgow.
Originally from Abbey St Bathans in the Scottish Borders, Sholto is currently living and working in Lithuania with his partner Dovilé. As part of a 2020 commission from Counterflows, he has made a new video of a mesmerising portable organ that he built during lockdown, also featuring some outdoor swamp recordings and a hurdy gurdy.
We catch up on a video call just as it’s starting to get dark in Lithuania. By the time the call is finished, it’s dark in Scotland too. Sholto has come to Druskininkai for two weeks, a spa town in Southern Lithuania, to make field recordings and go over old audio clips that he’s made.
He took a last minute booking on a room, as it’s a cheaper alternative to hiring studio space, which he can’t afford to do full time. It’s his own kind of self-funded residency.
“The other day I was out very early in the morning, making recordings. A police car slowed down to see what I was doing. I must have looked very suspicious.”
“I wanted to attach the camera to bits of the instrument that are moving, and try to capture the motion. The organ is a bit more difficult to get into places, but my hurdy gurdy is more portable. The hurdy gurdy has a circular wheel motion, so I attached the camera on my phone to make some rotating videos.”
At the start of the year, Sholto was due to take part in a two-month residency at the Cité des Arts in Paris with Lia Mazzari, followed by a month-long European tour with Shakeeb Abu Hamdan. Both plans fell through as the world went into lockdown so Sholto decided to rent a studio near his home in Vilnius instead.
“I knew I had an opportunity to potentially spend months on a project – making mistakes, figuring things out carefully, taking my time. I usually use cheap materials and all my instruments are quickly made. To have all this time felt like a huge luxury. Being able to watch the day to day progress felt really good.
“I made plans to build an organ; one that didn’t need electricity and would be small and portable. I spent a month and a half doing research. Some libraries were letting you access stuff for free at the start of the pandemic. I spent a lot of time online, reading old books on archive.org. I learned about the process, rather than just finding the fastest ways to make something work.”
Sketches for organ construction, 2020
Sholto earned money over the summer making food in the Vilnius DIY arts venue, Empty Brain Resort, where he’d first gone to hear experimental gigs and ended up making a lot of friends. In fact, he’d planned to put on the Warsaw-based Widt Sisters (another Counterflows act from 2018) in the venue in September, as one of his Muckle Mouth nights, the series of DIY events he’s been running since 2014, but the lockdown restrictions put the brakes on that too.
As well as working on building the new instrument, Sholto spent several months cooking and buying ingredients.
“I’d visit these old school markets where people would sell stuff from their gardens. My Lithuanian is pretty bad but I’d buy fresh herbs, or hazelnuts, cranberries, whatever was in season and super cheap. Then I’d go online and find stuff to cook with it. I approached the organ making in a similar way I guess – when I cook, I find different recipes online then use several together.”
Sholto’s primary fascination was with the organ bellows and he started looking into bellows technology from the 1800s.
“That interested me more than the pipes and the keys. I started by making the bellows and figured if I failed, I’d still be able to use the air supply for something. I didn’t go crazy, but I did find Italian leather online – a change from the bin bags that I normally work with! Leather stretches over time and keeps being malleable so seemed the best material to work with. For an upcoming project I think I’ll look into vegan options. This time though, I spent 30€ on lambskin leather and waited six weeks for it to arrive.”
Sholto took inspiration from the Renaissance tradition of small chamber organs that were lightweight and good for travelling. Usually commissioned by rich nobility, the small scale ‘table organs’ were then played on the musician’s lap, or on a table in someone’s home.
His research also led him to a story of a legendary organ that needed seventy people to operate the bellows. Apparently the sound could be heard from miles away.
“The organ is an instrument with these grand, religious connotations. So you can imagine how terrifying it would be for people to hear something being played miles in the distance. I was interested in how you go from that to a super decorative, entertainment thing.”
Sholto struggled to find an organ expert to consult with, but eventually, with writing help from his Lithuanian girlfriend, sent an email to an organ builder in Lithuania, one of only five that he’s aware of.
“It wasn’t ok to be an organist or organ restorer during the Soviet Union, because of the religious connotations,” explains Sholto. “It’s an instrument loaded with meanings. I read that people could be sent to Siberia for being an organ builder. So most people stopped, retrained and did something else. Now most people who know anything about organs picked it up during the 90s.”
The organ builder didn’t respond to Sholto’s email at first.
“He ghosted me for ages actually. Then eventually he got back to me. He was nice, but confused about what I was doing. He’s a traditional organ builder, he plays in a church. I went to visit him and he gave me some old scrap wood which became really useful and a salvaged pipe from a church nearby that had burned down. It had been inside a wooden pipe, so was still intact – that was a really good find.”
Sholto became Facebook friends with the organ builder but hasn’t been back to show him the new instrument yet.
“Hopefully I’ll go back to see him one day, if he doesn’t ghost me again. From what I can see on his Facebook page, he posts a lot of very grand church organs in Italy and France. If he saw the organ I’d built he’d probably think it was the work of the devil.”
By late May, the organ was “sort of” finished, says Sholto, without any real disasters along the way.
“I want to point out that I’m not a natural craftsperson at all. I can really fuck up a shelf. It doesn’t come naturally. What I’ve made is still very handmade, amateur - it’s definitely not professional. But I planned each stage so carefully and methodically, so nothing really broke or didn’t work.”
Hearing him describe the process, he is clearly absolutely passionate about the workings and manufacture of these instruments. Did it become addictive, I ask?
“Yeah,” he laughs. “Yeah, I couldn’t stop until it was done. Some people are really good at working methodically, I usually am more impatient. There weren’t any real setbacks while I built it and then I wanted to share it with people quite quickly.”
The first thing Sholto did with it was an online performance for AMPLIFY 2020, a festival for sound artists co-curated by Jon Abbey of Erstwhile Records, which ran from May until September.
“I finished building the organ with that performance in mind, and made a really simple audio recording in my living room.”
In June, Sholto performed live in Empty Brain Resort, in front of an audience.
“It was really nice, a Sunday afternoon, early evening gig. People were super curious about the instrument and at that time there were no restrictions about performing in public.”
He performed live again in September, at Jauna Musika, a long running experimental festival in Vilnius.
The sounds he creates with the new instrument are beautifully soft, hypnotic drones, soothing and pulse slowing tones – very different from the booming sounds traditionally associated with an organ, an awe-inspiring machine designed to strike the fear of god into its listeners.
“I wanted to move away from that bombastic sound and create something more fragile. When I was building the pipes, they have stops in them called ‘gedackts’. They make this very rich, resonant sound, the overtones. I altered them to make them sound flat. I wanted a simpler tone. They create a breathy sound which I like, you can hear more air this way. It’s somehow more bodily, more delicate and intimate this way.”
Sholto’s previous performances have often focussed on air supplies, the sound of blown air moved through the room, often on instruments built and operated by Sholto in a deliberately clunky way.
“I’m drawn to quite emotive music with a certain sensibility. I like when that clashes with the comedic.”
Sholto describes his love of Charlemagne Palestine - who combines astonishingly moving church organ performances with his own sense of the ridiculous, often bringing teddy bears and furry toys onstage with him. In one 1970s video clip that Sholto loves, he’s riding a motorbike on a sunny island, singing along to the engine drones.
“It’s really beautiful but also kind of funny, says Sholto. “I like to combine sincerity with the eccentric. It’s not always deliberate. Sometimes I like to create an awkward atmosphere, with certain idiosyncrasies and a sense of the absurd. When I played at Jauna Musika, I’d put the organ up on a table to play it and someone said it looked like I was tending a barbecue. I liked that.”
His move away from the genteel chamber music style of the Renaissance towards a more improvised, less polished sound is a soothing and satisfying one. His DIY approach also unveils the mysteries of the church organ, moving away from the normally hidden organ player, sitting out of sight, high on a wooden balcony, blasting out doom-laden melodies like the Great and Powerful Oz. Instead he reveals the glorious, celestial sounds that can come from simple moving parts in wood and leather, carefully constructed, powered by air and perhaps something more sublime too.