Questions from Allen Bogle
1) You are considered one of the premier leaders in the realm of electronic/ambient/atmospheric music, in the beginning was there any impetus, influences that pushed you into this direction?
So many influences it’s hard to list them all! I don’t think of myself as a leader of anything – I just want to make good music that resembles what’s in my head. When I was a teenager in the ’70’s I began listening to all sorts of experimental and underground music. I don’t know why this appealed to me, except that I seemed to have a built-in sensitivity to certain moods or ways of listening. I found myself drawn to a range of music that dealt more with texture than with melody (or with melodies that interact with a drone, as in modal music.) I began discovering composers like Terry Riley, John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Bill Fontana, Harry Partch, Brian Eno, Jon Hassell, Cluster, Popol Vuh, music from Java, India, North Africa and elsewhere. When I started out, I was heavily influenced by the minimalist and fluxus ideals of art that could activate one’s perceptions rather than point to it’s own content. I wanted to make music that functioned more as a psychoactive sound sculpture, or a new kind of ritual, not in the mundane sense of entertainment.
2) Over the passage of time in your career, what has provided the creative stimulus that has moved you into the various musical directions that you have taken?
Most of the time, there is a sound-world that bubbles up from inside of me. It enchants me to the point that I want to transform it into reality. It tends to dictate my directions. Curiosity drives me, too, a desire to learn new sonic vocabularies and enter into new understandings of musical structure. But perhaps more than anything, there’s a yearning, an urgency to find that place which rings true. It’s an ongoing search, and the albums are a bit like signposts along the way. They can seem a bit hermetic and perplexing at time, but they’re the closest I can come to complete transparency.
3) Looking over your career one can see the different stages that you have
undergone, with major differences from Rainforest to Gaudi to Below Zero and
your recent work, Amoeba’s latest. Would you consider this a natural
evolutionary part to experiment with different soundscapes or do you feel
the need to explore a more uncharted environment? In fact one might even
state that you are restless every five years….
I’m always a bit restless, and I like to experiment. My musical directions don’t exactly move in straight evolutionary lines. Sometimes I meander out into some unexplored territory, and make a few albums with new-found techniques. Then I might start missing a feeling from some past work, and I’ll try to make further developements within more familiar territory. I shift between several different directions in this manner, adding new vocabularies as they develop. My earliest music was very slow and peaceful, hypnotic and harmonic. Releases like “Trances/Drones” or “Inner Landscapes” would fit this category. Then I began exploring just intonation, which pulled me into the realm of rhythm, melody, and world music. There was a developement period through “Numena”, “Geometry” and “Rainforest”, where I found a way to integrate electronic and acoustic instruments with some of the non-western influences. Many of the Hearts of Space releases in the early ’90’s, like “Gaudi”, “Propagation”, “Strata” and “Soma” (with Steve Roach) evolved further explorations along these lines. I felt a need to experiment some more after that, and began exploring new ways to make sound, with chaotic systems, controlled feedback and computer based signal processing. These experiments formed into the album “A Troubled Resting Place” and triggered a series of slow, intense releases like “Stalker” (with Brian Williams), “Below Zero” and the latest “Humidity”. Then, on “Seven Veils” I re-explored the thread of melodic ecstatic music which I set aside after “Propagation”. Amoeba continues to develop in parallel to all this, with our particular flavor of diffuse, introspective vocal music. Occasionally I even revisit the Sleep Concerts, and I recently finished a 7-hour DVD called “Somnium” that harkens back to that idea. These directions seem to make a loopy zig-zag rather than a linear evolution. Basically, I follow the music where it leads me, and it doesn’t always make sense from an intellectual or commercial perspective.
4) How do you go about recording a track? What are the creative processes
that go through your mind when beginning a composition? Do you start with a
particular sound or do you have an overall idea as to what direction to
Usually I compose each track to fit within a context of an entire album. It’s difficult for me to start the process until I have a sense of the context, the feel, mood, and texture. The future album becomes a complete image, a gestalt in my mind. It becomes the album that I want to hear when I scan through my CDs, only nobody has recorded it yet. At that point I can begin, although I don’t yet know the specifics of each piece. The gestalt leads the music, and each piece takes shape to fill a form that awaits it within the final experience. It’s a feedback loop, not a one-way process. As a piece takes shape, the instruments and methods tend to suggest new directions, and these suggestions may or may not suit the destiny for that piece of music. I try to sort between the possible futures and decide which directions a piece should take in order to satisfy my cravings as a listener. Each action creates new possibilities. Eventually I know a piece is finished when when it satisfies that craving, when it feels like the music that I want to hear.
5) You seem to embrace the latest in technological advances within the music
community, can you tell us some more about the seven hour DVD “Somnium”
release? Is it a throwback to your sleep concerts, or are you lengthening a
single composition into an idea or theme? Also, what do you think of the
recent advances into DVD visual/audio as it pertains to your music, do you
see future visual collaborations to accompany your audio tracks?
“Somnium” is basically a sleep concert on a disk, except as a studio recording it’s more thickly layered than the live concerts. I tried to maintain a level of detail that will make it work at different listening levels and at different times of the day (since I won’t be able to control the listening environment as I can in a live setting). For almost two decades I have been waiting for something like DVD that allows me to distribute this long-form music. “Somnium” won’t be using the video features of DVD at all, since the music itself will fill the carrying capacity of the medium. Anyway, I prefer to let the listeners create the visuals in their heads. I certainly can envision future audio/visual collaborations, but I would want it to be something more interesting and creative than a simple music-video style production. I have discussed some ideas along these lines with my friend Brad Cole, the photographer whose work appears on Stalker and Humidity. I proposed an idea for a gallery installation using my sound textures along with some of his mysterious slow motion film footage. DVD would provide a good medium for this collaboration. Also, I just started some interesting discussions with a visual artist in New York named Michael Somoroff, which could develop into something interesting.
6) Your latest Amoeba release is a radical departure somewhat from your
earlier work, why the foray into vocals and how would you categorize it?
Some musical ideas simply need vocals to communicate. Amoeba is probably closer in style to the music I listen to most. I’m not sure what to call it – perhaps just ‘experimental pop music’ – I just think of it as music. It’s a natural outgrowth of the influences that Rick Davies and I bring together. Amoeba owes much of its sound to a long lineage of introspective songwriting, going back to people like Nick Drake, John Martyn, Nico, and Robert Wyatt. I could point to albums like Pink Floyd’s “Meddle” or “Obscured by the Clouds”, Durutti Column’s “The Guitar and Other Machines”, David Sylvian’s “Gone to Earth”, or the incredible last album by Talk Talk, “Laughing Stock”. These all have some things in common – calm diffuse slowness, introspective honesty, textural complexity, restrained musicianship. Amoeba gives me a new chance to develop some of these influences into a new personal voice. It’s also a bit of a laboratory for new production ideas, which get incorporated into my solo work and into some of the work I do as producer (such as on the recent Meridiem project.)
7) What do you think about the influx of smaller labels, such as Hypnos,
Manifold, etc. Does it allow you to release more of your experimental side
that you could not do on the HOS label?
The smaller labels certainly do give me liscense to explore my less accessible terrain; but I’m actually quite impressed with how far HOS (Fathom) was willing to travel with me down that road. They released “Stalker” and “Troubled Resting Place”, after all, which are rather deep pieces.
My CDs on Hypnos are actually jointly released with my own label, Soundscape. This relationship allows me to release an uncompromising album like “Humidity”, and to bring some early albums back into print, such as “Inner Landscapes”. By the way, my next CD on Hypnos will be a reissue of my first album “Sunyata” from 1982, long out of print. I remastered it last year and Hypnos felt we should re-release it. It might come out later this year, or maybe early in 2001.
At this point in time, it is very easy to form a “label” and release music. The hard part is to distribute and market the albums you put out. The internet is certainly changing the way artists can sell their own private releases, but marketing still plays a large role. I am lucky that I’ve developed a sufficient reputation to maintain a bit of visibility with these more obscure releases, but it’s a different situation than with HOS: lower overhead, smaller scale, more control. I have always been free to pursue my creative whims, there’s just a better mechanism now to release this work and actually see a small income.
8) What does the future hold for you concerning what direction you would
like to go? Is there anyone you would like to collaborate with? Who are you
listening to right now?
The music I listen to most is probably closer to Amoeba than to my solo work. One of my favorite CDs of the last few years is Massive Attack’s “Mezzanine”. I like the latest Lori Carson album “Stars”, Beth Orton, Elliot Smith, singer/songwriters who are willing to go out on a limb. From other cultures: a singer from Mali named Oumou Sangare recorded an exquisite CD on Nonesuch called “Moussolou”; another favorite is by Amina Alaoui called “Alcantara”, a beautiful album of medieval Andalusian/Moroccan music with the poetry of Ibn’Arabi.
Regarding collaborations and upcoming directions, my next two new projects will actually be collaborations. I am starting to tackle a big new project, which may take some time since it involves new skills. This will be called “Rites of the Bronze Age” and will attempt to reconstruct a musical culture from the Akkadian/Sumerian period roughly four thousand years ago in the region of Syria and southern Turkey. This will be an acoustic recording with a small ensemble of friends, playing mostly reconstructed ancient instruments. I am also beginning to work on the new Amoeba album, which will follow this years’ release of “Pivot” on Release Records (due in September). These two should keep me busy for a while.
I’m not sure I can summarize the direction I’m headed in a few words. It’s more like an outwardly expanding circle than a linear momentum. I simply plan to keep challenging myself, and to keep trying to express that kernel of reality that hides under the surface.