x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The Maserati engine: A musical performance in Dubai

Using its cars' engine sounds to make music, Maserati has started something genuinely different.

Howie B's Seven Notes project aims to turn the Maserati's unique engine sounds into music tracks. Photo courtesy of Maserati and Bowers & Wilkins
Howie B's Seven Notes project aims to turn the Maserati's unique engine sounds into music tracks. Photo courtesy of Maserati and Bowers & Wilkins

They say you should never meet your heroes. That you will almost always be disappointed, because the reality is nowhere near what you've built them up to be in your mind, and I'm sure they're right. But every now and then, you might get to meet somebody you never realised was your hero in the first place, so without the weight of expectation on your shoulders or theirs, they can shine without the pressure to live up to any ideals. And, for me, it turns out that a Scottish man known as Howie B is a bit of a personal hero.

I adore discovering new music and my palate is as varied as the weather in my home country, which I share with the man formerly known as Howard Bernstein. Turns out that he's rather fond of finding new talent, too, but I doubt that any artist he finds will have been involved with anything remotely like his own latest project, known as Seven Notes. And he was right here in the UAE, performing on Wednesday night in front of a very select audience at Art Sawa in Dubai's Al Quoz area. There was a new Maserati Quattroporte outside the building, which might have given the occasional onlooker a clue that there's something automotive going on inside, but I guarantee they wouldn't have had the first clue as to what.

Engines make sounds, no matter their displacement. Some are nondescript, some are interesting and some, like Maserati's V8s, are utterly intoxicating when opened up. I wouldn't like to count the number of times I have banged on about the sound of a car's engine over the years, but I know it's significant - for me, the sounds a car makes is of paramount importance, it forms a vital part of its character and gives it a personality. A Maserati engine, no matter what your taste in cars, makes sounds that allow it to be unique in a world of ordinariness.

For me it's music - nothing more, nothing less. When I hear a supercar's war cry, it's some sort of four-wheeled Pavarotti. But a Maserati makes sounds that matter even when it's just ticking over at a standstill - something that has obviously not been lost on the engineers that make sure these cars sound the way they do.

If you climb inside a new Maserati, you will discover that the onboard sound system is manufactured by a British company called Bowers & Wilkins. And if you set foot inside any recording studio, no matter where in the world, there's a high chance that the speakers used will be made by the same firm. Sound in its purest form? Absolutely. If you want a set of B&W speakers for your living room then you'll need to set aside a tidy sum (start thinking along the lines of Dh300,000 for the top-end stuff) but, once you've experienced them, you'll realise what your ears are for. You can listen to the most familiar music through these speakers and it's like you've just heard it for the first time.

Bowers & Wilkins in a Maserati might seem, however, to be a waste of time and money. When an engine sounds as good as that, why would anyone want to listen to anything else? It's a fair point, so Maserati decided to do something that (so far as I can tell) no other car manufacturer has done before: make actual music from the glorious sounds emitted by a thoroughbred engine. Maserati called its partner, B&W, to get the ball rolling - and B&W called Howie B.

"I'd been working with them on various projects over the years," he told me before Dubai's debut public performance, "and they called me to see if I'd be willing to give this thing a shot. They had no idea what was expected, all I knew was that they wanted to make music from the sounds generated by a Maserati engine. Anyway, I said yes."

Howie B is nothing if not an experimentalist. As a 17-year-old in 1980, he made up his mind that music was what he wanted to be involved with, so he went knocking on the doors of any recording studio he could find in his home city of Glasgow in Scotland. "They all told me where to go," he recalled, "so I packed my bags and headed to London."

Penniless, he survived on the equivalent of around Dh120 a week, "squatting" in a disused property while spending his days chasing what appeared to be an elusive dream. "I wanted an apprenticeship, it's as simple as that," he told me, "and one studio I called on said yes."

That studio was run by two rather famous composers: the German Hans Zimmer (who went on to score the film Gladiator, the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy and many others), and Stanley Myers. "I worked with them for three years, making the tea and just hanging out around the studio, soaking it all in. I was still squatting, still poor, but I was doing what I always wanted to and learning their craft," he said.

One day in 1985, when Zimmer and Myers were working on the soundtrack for the film that made Daniel Day Lewis a star, My Beautiful Laundrette, a sound engineer didn't turn up for work. "So I just stepped in, I operated the equipment and did a job I'd become familiar with while spending all my spare time in the studio. It worked and I ended up being credited on the film. From that point on, everything changed."

No more social benefits, it was time for Bernstein to start making music. And what followed was a magical career. He's worked with Soul II Soul, Bjork, Massive Attack, Annie Lennox, Brian Eno and U2, writing, producing, mixing and engineering. He's been the man behind some of my all-time favourite music and, until this point, I had no idea. No wonder, when it came to crafting music using the sounds of an engine, Maserati and B&W turned to him.

"I thought about it for a month," he said. "And all I could come up with was the idea of making a synthesiser that replicated those sounds. But after talking with Maserati's engineers, and hearing them talk about the notes they listen out for when tuning the engines and exhausts they work with when developing a new car, it hit me. I decided to use those notes to make music." Seven Notes was born.

Wednesday, in front of about 300 people, Howie B performed the very first public hearing of this music. Starting with a 30-minute symphony that he completed in the past few days, what followed was an extraordinary experience that couldn't help but captivate an audience that has probably seen, heard and done it all. "I cannot believe what we've achieved with this thing," Bernstein said. "There's a finite line, though, before this becomes a gimmick."

What he has done is craft haunting, atmospheric and ambient music, using the seven notes generated by a Maserati V8 as some sort of bass line. "We took two cars, a Quattroporte and a GranTurismo, to three different venues, and stuck microphones all over them. At different rev ranges, the sounds were recorded and over several months we just experimented, getting as many audio tracks as possible in a variety of scenarios. Once those were in the bag, I set about writing the music and got into the studio to lay down the tracks."

Using a fairly unknown Irish folk band called All We Are - for instrumental layers - Howie B commenced doing what nobody else had done before, in the world famous Abbey Road studios in London.

Music is such a subjective thing that it's almost impossible to describe using the written word, much the same as describing the sounds made by an engine, so I shan't bother. "I think everyone was expecting me to use the sounds recorded when the engines were screaming and hitting the rev limiter," said Bernstein. "But instead I chose to use sounds that are more subtle, using them as a foundation on which to build the rest of the music - music that I always wanted to be accessible to people from every walk of life, no matter where in the world. And that meant no rock music and no singing."

The resulting tracks are totally unique, as you might expect, and Maserati's people, as well as Bowers & Wilkins', said they were blown away by what they heard. "It's incredibly rare to be granted total artistic freedom, even in this day and age," said Bernstein. "But that's what I got."

In the Art Sawa building, in front of the performance area, seven different circular yellow pads were fixed to the concrete floor. Each represented one of the notes used to create this atmospheric music - 5,500rpm is in the key of G, 2,500 is E, 3,000 is D, and so on. Attendees were invited to step onto the pads, generating the appropriate engine sounds through a bank of B&W's reference speakers. It's a gimmick, yes, but it easily demonstrated the science behind this project. But who, I ask, is gaining what from this so-called tour, with Dubai as its first venue?

"For me it's different," said the talkative and friendly composer. "For me it's just a joy to be able to interact with people who are fascinated with new and interesting music. For Maserati and Bowers & Wilkins, it's obviously all about highlighting this successful partnership."

I got the impression that the commercial aspect is something that doesn't sit well with Howie B. He's gone from zero to hero over the years, and says he still can't get his head around success or the trappings of wealth. What gets him excited is experimenting with music, creating sounds that are unique. "I've become a bit obsessed with this project," he said. "Maserati engineers enthuse about the music their engines create and being able to turn that into actual music has been an absolute privilege. I reckon there's an album's worth of material to make and then I think I'll call it a day."

Seven Notes may not do it for you, but that's art, isn't it? But, if like me, you've ever been transfixed by the soundtrack of a sports car's engine, you'll no doubt appreciate what went on here this week. Maserati's engineers might have written the original score but the V8s are the orchestra, with or without Howie B's involvement.

khackett@thenational.ae

To hear the Seven Notes performance, visit www.thenational.ae/lifestyle

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