Monday, October 6, 2008
We Were Never Mnml, October 2008
Last month I had spring in my steps, this month it’s all I can do not to curl up in a ball. What a difference a month makes, eh? Maybe it’s the implosion of the world’s financial markets (which prompted a moment of schadenfreude, followed by the niggling reminder that it’s gonna be the already vulnerable who bear a disproportionate burden of the suffering); maybe it’s the fact that Obama still only has a couple of points over McCain (not that I'm so naive to think that'll make 'the difference'); maybe it’s the publication of several reports stating, bluntly, that ‘catastrophic climate change’ may already be inevitable (regardless of decisive action that is, in any case, not forthcoming); maybe it’s Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan or… in any case, I’ve been feeling dark. Not depressed, but dark. People have been asking me, ‘why are you angry?’ My rejoinder is simply: how could any right-thinking person not be angry, the way things are going? Or, to put it another way, how to stay skeptical and enthusiastic, and not succumb to resignation and apathy?
Never fear, music is here to help. For me, the music that’s been especially helpful in these darks times is ambience of one kind or another. Here are a few things that have really, really been helping me to soothe my beast.
Koss: Four Worlds Converge as One
A 2006 release by Japan’s prolific Kuniyuki Takahashi, this is a recording that I begin a lot of mornings with. The ‘Four Worlds’ in question are, judging by their titles, each dominated by an element. We start with Water, then move through Fire, Air, then Earth. Water, the longest composition, is entirely beatless Eno-esque ambient. Fire and Air bring in more rhythmic elements, then Earth is basically ambient house. What none of these tags gets a handle on is the way Takahashi manages to be both light and deep. At low volumes this is an amazingly gentle, soothing listening experience, but turn it up and it totally envelops you in its mood. A future classic.
Sly and the Family Stone: There’s a Riot Goin’ On
I listen to this as ambient, or, at the very least, for its incredibly strong ambience – the overwhelming feeling is one that’s strung out and muddy. It’s not funk or soul, it’s the inside of Sly’s head, and it’s a place that manages to make beautiful music despite (and sometimes because) of all that jaded bitterness. Never mind ’71, Running Away might as well be the anthem of USA 2008. And hey, a 1971 album that incorporates drum machines to drive mid-tempo instrumental grooves?! How can something so spiritually shagged nonetheless engender so much creative innovation? Here’s proof: going to seed is also the beginning of new growth, new possibilities.
Ezekiel Honig: Surfaces of a Broken Marching Band
Honig is working in the interstice of several genres: music concrete, microhouse, electro-acoustic ambient, and field recording. Often process-driven music ends up being limited by its obsessions. What’s great is how Surfaces… takes all these elements and weaves them into engaging compositions that are emotive, beguiling, sonically interesting and eminently listenable. I was so impressed with this album I contacted Ezekiel for a 'quick' Q&A. What I received exceeded all my expectations…
A 'Quick' Q&A with Ezekiel Honig
Tell me about your compositional process. What would a typical Honig composition involve?
I don’t think there’s a strictly typical compositional process, but there are definitely certain consistencies. I think there are some aspects of sound which resonate more with me, and especially since I don’t make attempts to specifically fall into one genre or another, I’m at liberty to go in the direction that feels ‘correct’ for lack of a better word. Making music is an extremely personal experience for me in that it needs to be something that I feel represents me as a person, not just as an artist, and not just the song itself. I think that’s why I’ve always had a hard time trying to make a more upbeat techno track. Something doesn’t seem right, and it starts to veer left of what it is supposed to be, because I love techno but it’s not what comes out of me naturally. It took me a while to embrace that and leave making ‘proper’ dance floor techno to people who do it better, and just enjoy listening to their work.
To answer your question a bit more directly, I always start with a basic idea that is either a loop or a melodic direction, and once I have a germ of a song that I am excited about, I build on that, making variations and seeing what ideas those variations spawn. It begins with playing with sounds I like and thinking about their relationship to each other or what instrumental bit I feel like working with and arranging and processing and editing until it makes sense. It takes a while for a skeleton of a song to take shape. It’s more about tiny pieces and ideas, almost like jotting down notes until they add up to a more meaningful story or structure of some kind. Often the place where I begin turns into something completely different, where a byproduct becomes more interesting than the original direction and takes over the song and then splits into two or three things that all go off towards their own place.
Musique concrete: how does it inform your intent, your method, the outcome?
It informs the basic building blocks and conception of my music in the most direct way possible. Because of the work of people like Cage and Schaeffer decades ago, there are tons and tons of people working with sound in a different way than had previously been known. Simply, it taught me that anything is fodder for music, and I embrace that wholeheartedly – to the extent that I don’t consider using electronic sounds (synths, drum machines, etc.) because there is so much interesting sound in the world already, and it’s impossible to run out of material when you think of it in that way. I use a computer and software to arrange and process and construct music, but the most interesting way for me to work is to make music that begins outside of that apparatus and use the computer as a tool for putting songs together and working with the sound I put into it.
Thinking of all sound as music is a complete game changer. It levels the field between a guitar, a drum machine and the sound of walking on the pavement. Once you accept that as your beginning, music can’t be the same thing or be thought of in the same way. I think that’s the biggest division line between those who think of music as harmony (or how that word is classically defined) and those who think of music as any sound that has been structured for that expressed purpose, or those who flat out equate the term sound with the term music. I would say that I’m most interested in the place where all those terms meet and become the same thing without losing a sense of the material being created for the purpose of being listened to. I find certain sounds that are captured, processed and edited in a particular manner as interesting and beautiful as anything that would fit the usual definition of melody. Working from a musique concrete perspective brings one to that place, though by no means is that the only road there.
The software, the interface, the technology… are they important for you? How active is their shaping role? Do people use the technology or does the technology use them? Plugging in and turn: what does it transform?
I guess the last question was a good segue into this. I think of technology as a tool. I don’t fetishize it for its own sake, but I see the beauty in the possibilities of what it affords us. I have never been particularly interested in the newest gear or software or anything like that. Even when learning a new piece of software I’ve always wanted to dive in and just start working, and picking things up on a need to know basis. I think it’s so easy to get bogged down in cool new plugins or synthesizers or software, and it can keep you further from the goal, which is to make music and keep progressing in the music that you make. It’s just like graphic design or film editing or any creative practice where the computer has revolutionized how people work. It makes things easier and it does create some new possibilities which didn’t exist before, but it doesn’t make you any better and it doesn’t do the work for you. That being said, I would almost certainly not be making music if we only had conventional instruments at our disposal. It was through the filter of electronic music that I became interested in working with sound and through the ease of accessibility of music software that I was able to begin doing so.
Why found sounds? Why every day life? Why an emphasis on incidental ‘noises’?
On a certain level I can’t really answer this question. A lot of this is just instinct or what resonates with me sonically on a more emotional level. Yes, at first I became interested in these musique concrete ideas within electronic music genres like techno or house, and the idea that you might use a kick and a snare and a hi hat, but that the sounds substituting for percussion were something entirely different (cardboard box, plastic CD case, etc.), that could work on a purely sonic level, but also be something more than simply the places they held or the instruments they stood in for. They could mean something more on a subconscious level, because they add something to a song which could only exist with that specific sound, which adds what it does in that specific context and performs the function it performs in a way that can’t be detailed or explained, but is somehow understood. Why does one song work for one listener and not work for another? It’s personal taste, but within that taste it’s hard to determine what it is that connects (or disconnects) for each individual. Even if you think you know what it is and are an astute listener and have a good musical vocabulary, you could still be wrong about what that thing is.
So, the sounds of everyday life began as an exploration of the mundane as some way of looking at how the most seemingly boring object or incident can open an immense sonic universe, and on some level relates to a more personal experience. Re-appropriating sounds carries some semblance of the space form where they originated.
Why the emphasis on the micro?
This is one of those instances that fall into the category of rationalizing something after the fact. I tend to work in an instinctual way and then observe and self-criticize after in order to arrive at the final material. I think a lot of thinking and deciding goes on while you’re doing something else, where the brain is processing some issues in the background, while you’re actively and attentively processing others, so you arrive somewhere and don’t know specifically how or why you got there, but afterwards you can piece it together and figure it out somewhat.
I began making house and techno-ish music at a time when what got me most excited about this sound was the micro house movement, or whatever you want to call it. I can honestly say that if Perlon, Playhouse and labels of a similar nature didn’t exist in 1997/1998 then I would not be doing what I do now, as far removed as it may be. I think with music, or visual art, or anything like that, you build on what came before you, even if that isn’t what you’re trying to do. The context of the time and your areas of interest make some decisions for you regardless of whether you think about it or not. So when I began using microscopic sounds it was because the music I liked the most was using microscopic sounds. It was similar to using an 808 kick to make techno, because that’s a common sound people use when they make techno.
Once you get past a certain point though, you begin to think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Now I can say that I still use sounds which are a very close-up view of objects because I record larger pieces and then look for the part that interests me most, or works the best in a particular song. So, if I throw a bunch of plastic bags against each other, and I am looking for a sound to act as the “snare” in a rhythm, than it’s going to be a tiny edit of that larger piece of sound that was made by those plastic bags. I guess because of my musical background, and musical interest background, I shy away from longer percussion sounds. I enjoy tightly cropped percussion rather than those hits which have a long tail to them. Of course, once you leave the realm of percussion, the whole microscopic idea goes more towards inspecting the tiny surfaces of sounds and bringing out parts of their character which were buried in there. That probably interests me because it’s all about looking at melody as sound to work with, rather than as a particular thing which is supposed to be approached in a particular way.
How much/in what way does NYC and all its cityscapes influence your ears and your music?
At the risk of repeating myself, I think my surroundings influence me, and I don’t know exactly how. I’ve lived here my whole life, so it influenced how I began creating music as much as it does my current process. On a surface level, you can only record the sounds around you (assuming you’re doing the recording) and once I leave the confines of my apartment the cityscape is what is there. In terms of the general space and tempo of the music, you could argue that I would do things differently if I lived somewhere with more quiet and more space, but it could also just be my natural inclination.
What have been the biggest landmarks in the landscape of your development?
As I wrote earlier, discovering the ideas of musique concrete was huge. Deciding that I didn’t make or want to make dance music, but rather that I made and wanted to make music which was influenced by dance music, was a turning point that allowed me to embrace what I do naturally and run with it and work on that and develop along those lines. It’s funny, but this is all about format, which makes it about the business of music distribution rather than music itself. I had to accept that I made CD (or mp3) music, and not what most would term “vinyl friendly” music. Because I was DJing and buying vinyl, I wanted to put out music on vinyl, but it wasn’t really functional enough to be popular with DJs or picked up by record labels that catered mostly to DJs.
Since then I think I’ve been steadily moving along a continuum that I set up for myself and the goal is to make advances from album to album which make sense as part of the larger view of all the releases taken as a whole. I think I’m utilizing more instrument sources because I thankfully have friends who play acoustic instruments, and I’ve been messing around more with instruments that I can’t actually play, but I feel good about processing the results into something that makes sense. It’s funny, but if you begin from a techno standpoint than using acoustic instruments is experimental. For me, the idea of approaching a bastardized form of a band is so interesting, even though it’s the most basic pop music ideal and is sort of boring. The idea of using instruments I’ve never worked with and building things in order to work with them is so exciting to me, because it’s within this context of initially not caring about traditional instruments and never thinking about music in terms of a band or what instruments you’re supposed to use. Coming at the idea of processing traditional instruments from a pure interest in sound affords endless possibilities, especially when combining it with the sound you can capture in the world around you.
What has collecting and arranging sounds using the methods you’ve developed taught you about sound?
It has helped me develop my taste for what I find sonically interesting, and how it can exist anywhere at any time. I think the great thing about recording incidental sound and using it in the context of a musical piece, is that it involves your personal sensibilities, which are always at work (hopefully), but it involves your specific view of sound and your process of working with it to a greater degree in comparison with tweaking an instrument or processing a sample differently. It captures a sound which hasn’t existed anywhere ever in the exact same way and then grabbing a piece of it which is likely different than the piece that someone else would have grabbed.
What’s been obsessing you lately? What really gets under your skin (musically, generally, cosmically, dermatalogically)?
Well, in the interest of remaining on topic, being a producer of music, from both a personal perspective and that of a label owner, I am constantly thinking about the pros and cons that the music industry transition brings, and what is going to come out of it in the next 10 or 20 years. In a way, I feel like an old timer because I actually love vinyl and in general crave a physical object with packaging and art, even though the music itself is a different material then what it’s contained in. (Vinyl is of course different, because it sounds the best!) At the same time, I think it’s nice how this fairly new era of music, or again, music distribution and consumption, is bringing with it the de-fetishization of the object, leaving it to be more of an interrelated web of music and social groups and shuffling from one interest to the next. I suppose this de-fetishization will inevitably bring with it a re-fetishization, because there is bound to be a backlash of some people who see the beauty in physical music releases again, once they are tired of having no connection to something besides the information in their computer/mp3 player/etc. I may be in this category, but I’m not sure yet.
I find it compelling how the game has changed and there is more of an immediacy to everything, and yet for the most part labels and artists feel the need to remain inside the system that requires albums and lead time for publications to write about a release and everything that is part of the way the industry functioned 20 years ago. I acknowledge that I am part of this too, though that might change soon. It just seems that at some point not far off the whole situation will open up a bit.