In order to understand the origins of 'House Of Illustrious', a heavyweight ten-CD boxset representing a decade's worth of works by Martyn Ware and Vince Clarke for various arts and corporate projects, it feels necessary to go back in time, specifically to Ware's time in the first line-up of The Human League. With 'Reproduction' (1979) and 'Travelogue' the Sheffield trio of Ware, Phil Oakey and Ian Craig Marsh delivered a complex hybrid of tentative electronic pop infused with an earnest, almost Radiophonic Workshop-esque investigation into the sonic possibilities of electronic instruments. By 1981, Ware and Marsh had departed to form the influential British Electric Foundation and its side-project Heaven 17, and Oakey had reshaped the League into the polished synthpop line-up that released 'Dare' in 1981; the same watershed year saw Heaven 17 deliver the smart electronic soul-pop of 'Penthouse And Pavement', while in the depths of Essex, Vince Clarke and his bandmates in Depeche Mode turned in their first annual report with 'Speak & Spell'.
Clarke left the band he'd helped form after releasing that first album, forming Yazoo with Alison Moyet, whose first album 'Upstairs At Eric's' - like those first two Human League albums - contained some huge early synthpop hits, as well as two experimental pieces made from cut-up vocal snatches and atmospheric soundscapes. A few years after Yazoo broke up, with Clarke setting up a short-lived record label and working as its in-house producer, and recording tracks with various singers, he formed Erasure with vocalist Andy Bell and together became one of the most successful and enduring electronic pop duos.
Their success. The two years before had seen the duo deliver their analogue synth-dominated 'Chorus' album and they had scored their first and only UK number one single with the kitsch 'ABBA-esque' EP. For their next album, 'I Say I Say I Say', Martyn Ware was suggested as a possible producer. "That was the first time I met Martyn," Clarke explains from his home in Maine. "We met in a pub in West London to talk about the production of that particular album, and then we got to know each other and became friends." That album found Erasure deploying choirs, bluesy songs and atmospheric sounds alongside their trademark uplifting emotional pop, leaving an impression every bit as inexplicable as the light-hearted title.
"They were a huge influence," he confesses when I ask if he'd listened to the early Human League. "Not only were they an influence, but I was a fan. Most of the time making that record with Martyn was spent with me asking questions about how they made a particular sound on those two records. Those records were so ahead of themselves, so ahead of time and still now sound totally unique. I couldn't help but ask him," Clarke laughs.
After working on 'I Say I Say I Say', Clarke, Ware and Heaven 17 vocalist Glenn Gregory began working on various film and TV compositions, sometimes collaboratively and sometimes separately. "That kind of working to brief thing," sighs Ware dejectedly. "Well, it's not something I've ever loved to he honest with you. Glenn still does a lot of it to this day but I'm not quite so good at working to that kind of specific brief where you're dealing with agencies and if you don't deliver it then you're wrong."
In the late Nineties, with Gregory setting up his own commercial music business venture, Clarke and Ware were given the opportunity to do something very different with their shared loved of electronic sound's potential. "We were commisioned to do a piece of music with a 3D soundsystem at the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield," explains Clarke. "It was the first time that the soundsystem had been used in a public space and it just gave us the opportunity to make music in a different way, you know. We weren't making music to necessarily fulfill the listener via an uplifting chorus. We were making sounds and music that went in all sorts of directions, so you actually felt the music in a different way. It was just a unique opportunity and from that sprang the whole idea of the Illustrious Company." The music for that first project was released in 1999 as the 'Pretentious' album, a remastered edition of which is included in the new boxset along with the only other officially-released music from Clarke and Ware's collaboration, 'Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle'. For a musician who admits he would sleep in his studio if he could in order to make even more music, making 'Pretentious' was clearly a formative experience. "It was a whole new field for me. I'd never done anything like that before, it was the first time me and Martyn had worked together properly on a joint project and there were no rules. It was like, okay, we've got this amazing soundsystem, let's see what we can do with it, let's throw some sounds around and see if we can move people just by doing that, and not necessarily by using angsty lyrics or something."
Sounding like an old London trade guild, whose crests can still be seen around the Square Mile if you look hard enough, the Illustrious Company became Clarke and Ware's business for supporting works for art installations, galleries, museum exhibits, ballets and corporate commissions from bluechip names like BP and AT&T, many examples of which can be found making up the eight hours of music on the House Of Illustrious boxset. Whittled down from around twenty hours of projects, Ware explains that the box is designed to give an overview of the different types of projects the duo have worked on, ranging from pieces that delve into the realms of atmospheric synth sounds through to pieces created entirely from field recordings. It all feels like a long, long way from their work in pop music, and something that Ware is keen to explain isn't the type of 'ambient' concepts that Brian Eno was integral in the development of. "Eno's got a particular take on ambient music which is very hypnotically electronic, and some of our pieces are like that," says Ware. "I owe a debt of gratitude to Eno for making me so interested in this field of music in the first place, but I feel what we do has a much broader range of applications in the real world. We call it 'applied soundscaping'."
Explaining the pair's approach to producing commissions, Ware returns to the notion of working to brief he hated so much at the beginning, delving into the vernacular of modern businesses to emphasise his point. "Over the years we've developed a practice, where people approach us because they know that we offer creative solutions to something they can't define properly," he enthuses. "It's not your really strict 'we're selling cornflakes and we want a piece of music that's thirty seconds long and it's got to be cheerful'. This is more like 'we have a notion for an event', for instance, a launch event or it might be something really commercial, or it might be something that's more educational like a museum or an exhibition space; they know roughly what they want, and we help them organise it and spatialise it, but a lot of the time it's our own compositions."
One of the most surprising pieces in the entire collection is 'Shine', which takes up a whole disc and has the rare acclaim of being one of the least obviously musical pieces in the whole collection. Recorded for the Metalwork Gallery, the subject matter for 'Shine' concerns itself with the use and manufacture of some of the most utilitarian things in our homes - cutlery. Clarke chuckles when I tell him that the piece, a lot of which was comprised from sounds captured in Sheffield's surviving steel factories, forced me to re-evaluate what constitutes sound. "Well that was a 3D sound experiment," says Clarke. "We wanted to really explore the possibilities of the system and the idea of having a kind of 'industrial' backing to music. Martyn went in there and made the field recording and we incorporated it into a soundtrack."
"You know this record isn't meant to be verses and choruses and bridges, and middle eights," reaffirms Clarke. "It's meant to be experiments in sound. I think the sound of a steelworks is a very unique thing, and if you can incorporate that into music then hopefully it sounds kind of interesting."
"I'm constantly doing things in Sheffield," says Ware of his home town. "I love Sheffield, I love the Sheffield people, my family still lives there, and it's important to me to do stuff that's associated with Sheffield, because it isn't very good at shouting about itself - it needs all the help it can get in terms of publicity, hence the central spindle of the construction was actually made in Sheffield." The construction, as Ware calls it, is the lavish presentation box housing the ten discs making up House Of Illustrious. Designed by Malcolm Garrett and Tim Milne, the packaging sees the CDs stacked carefully atop one another, a solid steel spindle running through the centre, bearing the legend 'made in Sheffield'.
Ware explains that he chose the name House Of Illustrious because it sounded like a cross between a Hammer Horror film and an exclusive perfume house. If the name of the project hasn't evolved over the many years that have gone into planning the compilation, the idea for the packaging itself certainly has. "The original concept I had was just a bridge too far. I wanted it to be a solid block of acrylic with ten CDs embedded in it that you had to actually destroy to get to the CDs," he says. "I'm a packaging fetishist anyway and I love things with weight, that have a lot of conceptual depth, that feel and look like they've had a lot of work put into them, that's what this is." Ware laughs when I suggest they've created the musical equivalent of a coffee table book.
Ware hints at new projects in London that represent Illustrious Company's largest and most prominent works to date, talking about sonic modifications to architectural spaces with such enthusiasm zeal that you feel like you're interviewing Le Corbusier, whose work with concrète composers Edgard Varèse and Iannis Xenakis on the 1958 Philips Pavilion similarly fused sound design and modern construction. Meanwhile, earlier this year the Company scored its biggest hit to date, with the 400m 3D soundscape enjoyed by around four million visitors to the Olympics in London. 'Tales From The Bridge' signals the Illustrious Company's move into bigger and bigger projects. If the 'House Of Illustrious' boxset highlights anything with its lavish design and array of radically different commissions, it's that it doesn't matter how large or ambitious the project is, it's the detail - in this case the sonic detail - that matters.
Words by Mat Smith
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'House Of Illustrious' is out now.