With sincere appreciation to Paul Tatro and the Glastonbury Citizen for permission to reprint here:
To the motorists and shoppers that frequented the Buckland Hills area in the mid 90s, an enormous cylindrical water tower was likely one item in a series of unremarkable industrial monuments that dotted the landscape. For South Glastonbury resident and Conservation Commissioner Jim Cole, it became a beacon, a recording studio and a temple that evoked the best of his artistic experiences.
It was nearly ten years ago when he and long-time collaborator Alan Dow discovered the tower and with a few cohorts began using it for artistic purposes. With the help of a large pipe fitter’s wrench, they managed to break into the abandoned tower through a nearby hatch on the ground. The tower eventually became the studio for a pair of recordings, Sky and Coalescence, released by Cole himself under the name Spectral Voices.
While such a venue may seem totally inappropriate for a rock n’ roll band, or any band for that matter, Spectral Voices – as the name may imply – is an a cappella outfit. But unlike most a capella singers, the music of Spectral Voices has no words or lyrics.
Instead, Cole and Dow are able to manipulate parts of their mouths and throats to produce what is known as “harmonic overtone” singing. It is a technique that is difficult but rewarding to master. If done properly, the singer is capable of creating chords of two or more notes simultaneously thereby harmonizing with him or herself.
According to Cole, to create the best results acoustically, this technique relies heavily on dimensions of space. In the utter absence of instrumentation, Cole considers the singer’s surroundings fundamental to both the creative process and its eventual product. Space, he says, is an instrument in itself.
Because of the heavy reverberation, utter silence and pitch blackness offered, singing in a water tower was ideal for Spectral Voices, says Cole. “You hear everything in super slow motion,” adds Cole of the tower, “there was between 20 and 30 seconds of reverb.”
The tower was 120’ tall and 27’ in diameter. Those conditions made talking nearly impossible, but the complete deprivation of outside light and sound heightened the sense of hearing and amplified the subtle vocal overtones.
Over the course of three years, he and his friends visited the tower frequently to sing and enjoy the unique atmosphere. Eventually, they began bringing a DAT machine to document the experience. At the time, Cole says they had no intention of producing a finished recording.
However, it did not take very long for Cole and his friends to have a brush with the law. After a police officer discovered their parked cars nearby, the group was confronted and Cole and his friends were ultimately arrested for breaking and entering.
Once in court, Cole faced a potential penalty of 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. As luck would have it, Cole’s attorney had previously worked for the owner of the property – Tolland Bank. Unexpectedly, they were excused and Tolland Bank was agreeable, offering Cole and his friends use of the facility.
In total, Spectral Voices recorded over 150 hours of singing in the tower. Like much jazz, the music is improvised and relies on the artists’ intuition. He and Dow have been working together for years, but according to Jim, “we’re on the same page in many ways. He knows 90% of the time where I’m going to go [musically].”
In 1996, Cole was awarded an artist fellowship from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, which supported the production and release of the Spectral Voices debut CD Coalescence.
When he was working on his Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology at the University of Connecticut, Cole began playing the guitar. Even then, he says, he gravitated to places such as vacant stairwells to practice.
But Cole’s musical creativity did not really germinate until he graduated and began a stint with the Peace Corps. Fresh out of college, Cole found himself in the heart of Thailand surrounded by a society with very different cultural values.
“I wanted to live in another culture, not just travel but really go more deeply into living somewhere else,” says Cole who now speaks fluent Thai.
The experience has had many life-lasting effects for Cole who, since returning, has worked in Hartford for the Catholic Migration and Refugee Services as a job facilitator for refugees.
While in Thailand, Cole became integrated into a deeply Buddhist culture. Everyday life, says Cole, involved meditation and spiritual reflection. Cole was even ordained as a monk by a forest monastery in Southern Thailand for a period known as the “rainy season.” The contemplative lifestyle and Eastern philosophy appealed to him profoundly, says Cole.
It was the harmonic multi-note singing of Tibetan Gyuto monks that inspired Cole to begin singing. The calm and eerie music of Spectral Voices clearly reflects Jim’s experiences with Thailand and Buddhism. Upon listening to their harmonic musical drone, it is difficult to imagine the sound as a product of two voices, and one’s mind is indeed compelled to stroll.
Although Cole has performed outside of the water tower, he says the music needs a venue that is conducive. Their next performance will take place in a chapel and while they must synthesize the water tower sound, Cole says he is very excited about being able to sing amongst the awe-inspiring architecture, the stained glass windows and the high ceilings.