Name: Andre Burgos aka Brown Calvin
Occupation: Producer, composer
Nationality: American, Puerto Rican
Recent release: Brown Calvin's d i m e n s i o n // p e r s p e c t i v e is out via apk.
Books: The Jazz of Physics by Stephon Alexander; Songs of the Unsung by Horace Tapscott; This Planet is Doomed by Sun Ra
Films: The Cry of Jazz; A Joyful Noise; Rockers
If you enjoyed this interview with Brown Calvin and would like to listen to more of his music, visit him on bandcamp.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
My parents were both musicians before having kids, and they were always listening to great old music. My siblings are visual artists who always exposed me to great contemporary stuff, and I have always had a deep connection to music, partially because some artists, genres and sub genres remind me so much of family, friends and different time periods in my life. For example, Santana makes me think of my dad, Bob Dylan makes me think of my mom, Tracy Chapman makes me think of my sister, Digable Planets my brother, etc.
But I also think all beings have an innate connection to music / vibrations / sound on a core spiritual and evolutionary level. I think it is an important and overlooked force of nature, something like gravity.
I started playing piano at an early age, but was discouraged by the technique that I was learning because it felt more like learning to color by numbers than learning how to mix paint and come up with an original image / sound. I quit piano around age 11 and was more into creative writing which evolved into writing hip hop lyrics around that same age.
My biggest influences at that time growing up in Philly in the 90s were things my brother and my peers exposed me to, the biggest one probably being The Roots, but I was also really into Outkast, Common, Black Star (Mos Def and Talib Kweli), The Fugees, The Pharcyde, Digable planets, De La Soul, Biggie, Tupac etc.
I moved to Puerto Rico when I was 19 (2006) and had some experience performing and recording as a rapper, but decided to get back into piano and music theory (with encouragement from my sister) at the college level with the initial intention of making beats for myself to rap over. The more I learned about music, and the more I dug into the music that was sampled by and had influenced my favorite artists so much, the less interested I became in the formulaic way I was approaching hip hop and my music.
There was no turning back at that point, and when I moved to Portland in 2009 I stopped writing lyrics almost entirely and continued to study, to practice, to dig, to archive, to listen and immerse myself in music.
Some people experience intense emotion when listening to music, others see colours or shapes. What is your own listening experience like and how does it influence your approach to music?
My favorite thing is getting to this hypnotic place where I can close my eyes when listening to music and feel like I exist in the music. It feels like a dream state where I’m not conscious, yet I am not asleep either. Not really thinking, just fully listening.
It doesn’t happen all the time but I can feel it at times when I am performing, creating, and listening to my music and for me, when I get there it gives me affirmation that I’m going the right way.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
The simplest way I can put it is that I used to want the music I listened to to resemble music that I was familiar with because it brought familiarity, comfort, nostalgia, etc. This led me to having sort of a competitive mindset regarding music which I think is a byproduct of the way we function as a society which is ultimately counter to being really progressive as an artist.
That approach generally led me to feeling like I didn’t have a strong artistic voice, or ‘as much’ to contribute when comparing myself to artists I admire. The truth is no one will ever have an artistic voice just like mine and as long as I follow that voice and stay true to myself I don’t need any validation from anyone. The validation is in that meditative state, in the deep knowing and connection that I feel to all things through the music.
Now I want music to sound so new and so unique and personal that it can be disorienting, trigger unlearning, brain-soiling, flood my mind with wild ideas like peace, community and hope.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
I technically identify here on earth in these times as a black Puerto Rican cis male with a strong emphasis on the fact that none of these labels are remotely monolithic.
Growing up I did think of these as more monolithic entities and felt like I never fit perfectly in with them. As a light skinned dude with a white mom growing up in Philly I didn’t feel like I identified as black, and when I would go to see family in Puerto Rico I couldn’t speak or understand the majority of what people were talking about, and didn’t really feel like I could really identify as Puerto Rican.
I would say my approach to art and music was similarly clear cut and that I thought I should make hip hop that was basically the same thing everyone else was making but maybe some better catch phrases or punchlines. All of this was of course my perception and as I grew artistically, spiritually, and as a person, I started to see that between the black and white lines are so many colors. The colors start to show us and tell us about our true selves if we open up and listen.
It’s kind of funny thinking about how I felt like an outsider searching for my identity for so long in a society whose biggest deepest questions are something along the lines of “how did we get here?” “what is the point of this?”
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
That inspiration can lead to new ideas, new concepts, new approaches and ultimately progress that might not have been imaginable at one point.
And that although limitations and boundaries can be really helpful in the process of creation, that they should also be questioned and examined and reexamined and challenged because if they aren’t our ‘progress’ will always just trace and resemble those same boundaries and limitations again and again.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
I listen to a lot of old jazz, reggae, latin and African music, but I think the common thread of all the stuff that I am really drawn to, is that the artists were very forward thinking, original, and innovative for their time. They were always trying to incorporate new sounds and concepts, and defy genre and categorization.
I think it is important for us to build on what came before us and to leave something for future generations to build on. Part of building on some of the rich traditions of music that we have here on planet earth is actually learning deeply about some of them, immersing yourself in what resonates with you, and also learning a bit about the history and the context of these artistic movements.
This can help to understand where you might feel like you come into the picture in the context of your own surroundings.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
Fender Rhodes, Teenage engineering op-1, Akai MPC, Roland SP-555 and 303, Roland JX8P, way too many records, cassettes, miscellaneous percussion instruments, toys, tape machines (reel to reel and cassette) way too many FX pedals, computers, DAWs, plug ins. etc.
[Read our feature on the Roland TB-303]
I think working with new equipment can yield new approaches and processes so I’m always checking out new stuff, or old stuff that seems interesting. Limitations can help breed creativity, and all pieces of equipment come with different sets of limitations. For me working with so many different tools helps to keep things interesting and to keep reinventing my process which leads to new ideas.
I think we are in a time where analog vs. digital or what DAW or interface you use is basically irrelevant, I think the most important thing is how something fits into your workflow or how it can open new approaches to how you work or new ideas for exploration.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
It has definitely shifted to a bit less of a routine since the birth of my 2 year old daughter.
I try to stretch and do some breathing exercises in the morning when I wake up, and then practice piano for about an hour before making breakfast. Depending on the day I either spend time with my daughter playing music, playing with toys, playing outside, listening to records, going for walks, or I come up and work in my studio space.
Some days I’ll have bandmates and collaborators come through to work, sometimes I just work solo. After dinner I usually come back up to the space to create or if I’m too tired, sometimes I just listen.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
With dimension/ perspective, I wanted to make something that felt collaborative, but it was towards the beginning of the pandemic and none of the musicians that I usually work with were getting together at that time. The project ended up being a collaborative piece with local visual artist Eatcho, who did the album art.
As the music evolved, I would send it to him and he would send back visual concepts, things he’d seen, things he’d been thinking about, and we influenced each others processes that way. I wanted the music to be as influenced by the art and concepts we had been discussing as much as the art was influenced by the music. I approached it sort of as though it were its own creation story, which comes from many of the conversations we had, and from witnessing my partner Mia carry and birth our daughter.
I had also been thinking a ton about the concept of perception and perspective because of how apparent it is that we kind of all exist in our own isolated dimensions because of our perspectives even though we are all related and connected. So I wanted the music to convey that in a way as well.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
I think ultimately my preferences around these depend on the context of the music, the setting, what mood I’m in, etc.
It took me a while to realize that I don’t really listen to dance music much when I’m listening in solitary for instance, and when I’m sitting down to listen intentionally, I like to feel like I’ve been warped into a totally different dimension. Ultimately I find that less predictable music helps me to get to that transformational place a bit easier.
As my process has developed I see the importance of both private and collaborative approaches to making music, and I feel as though my private process has evolved intentionally to mimic some of the energy, interaction, and spontaneity that usually comes from working with other artists.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
Music is a force of nature and a form of communication that relates to all matter in the universe. I think new approaches to art can help formulate new approaches to societal problems of which we are facing a multitude.
We need radical, drastic, daring, bold, creative solutions. I hope that my music can encourage people to think outlandish thoughts of peace and progress.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
My grandma had very bad amnesia at the end of her life, and one thing that sticks out to me is even though she consistently referred to me as her brother or my father when she would see me, at 95 years old, she would sing songs that she learned in elementary school. One of the songs was even in English which she had stopped speaking well before that point. My sister would bring old music for her to listen to and they would sing and listen together and my grandma would remember all these classic songs from so many years ago.
That stands out to me as a great indicator that there is something much deeper to music and the way we connect to it than we know or acknowledge sometimes.
There seems to be increasing interest in a functional, “rational” and scientific approach to music. How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
That music is a missing link and one of the great unaccounted for forces of our universe. Imagine if we thought gravity only applied to things on earth for instance, but didn’t account for it in how the planets move and orbit each other.
How differently would we approach our world if we societally acknowledged water as a living entity (like many of our ancestors did) instead of a “resource” or a “substance”? How we are thinking of music as a society in my opinion is similarly limited, and ultimately problematic.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I think the difference is that music is a form of communication, but not so much a technical surface level of communication but a communication of something deeper.
It’s like making references to our collective forgotten history that we all subconsciously get. Breadcrumbs we left for ourselves that remind us where we come from.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
I think that sometimes when we communicate with words it can be harder to imagine outside of the realm of our linear, time-based, aging, mortal physical existence here on earth. This physical experience is totally different from where I think our spirit comes from and is connected to and ultimately will always exist in.
That spirit plane is divine, supreme, continual and absolute, which is almost impossible to conceive of in this mortal body we exist in now. I think music comes from that place, like all life does, and connects us back to our infinite ancestors and to our divine, supreme, all-knowing lineage.