Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I’m a full-time musician, a lifestyle that is really important to me. It’s a bit under fire right in the middle of the Covid-19 outbreak, but I’m staying positive that this lifestyle can still exist when we’re on the other side. I have to be my own manager and stay detail oriented to keep things moving forward, but I consider all of this part of my artistic practise.
There’s a lot of different ways to be involved in “music” and they all have different strengths. This lifestyle means I don’t have a regular schedule imposed by anyone else around me, and I find a lot of power in organising and structuring my own time. Like my creative work, I need a system to react to, so I’ll create a system or logic for a day and then allow myself to break through it. If I don’t have that structure to rub against, I feel completely aimless. I like writing first thing in the morning when I can. I feel fresh and clear. Honestly some of my best work seems to take place when I just haven’t really interacted with anyone and get directly to work, coming in “clean”.
The music community is incredibly important to me, and I try to find ways that I can give to the community as it gives to me. I play with a new music ensemble named Bearthoven where we commission and perform work by composers in the community, and it’s a way to offer our skills as performers and interpreters to support other artists. I also find it extremely important to go to shows and support my friends.
I’m extremely inspired by the arts community in New York, the work, the camaraderie and the compassion. My label Whatever’s Clever was started by my roommate Ben Seretan (an amazing songwriter / composer himself) and collectively run with a group of our friends. It feels good to be working on this release with people I’ve known for years and trust deeply. The whole community in New York is unbelievably supportive and lots of people have really showed up for me at points in my life. Now we’re together from afar … finding new ways to support each other without gathering at venues. It’s a resilient bunch and I love the community so much.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
The connective tissue of “New Topographics” was born out of a fascination with this Richard Brautigan poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”. It really captures both the earnest hope and ironic distance I feel regarding so many existential unknowns humanity is constantly grappling with. After a few successful experiments recording sound-translations of the poem (the sound of writing it out and translating it to Morse code) I continued to abstract it in as many ways as possible to see where the process would take me. I didn’t start with a plan like, “I’m going to make all these tracks based on this poem”— But I kept retranslating it and finding interesting textures.
I got to the finished version of these tracks by tuning my awareness to, and feeling when a track had no more space to fill. I tend to lean towards a minimalist approach in art making, I value transparency of process, and in this project it also manifested in the mix. Whenever I got to a point when I felt like there was nothing else to add I’d stop.
I cut a lot of fat during a late stage editing round, trimming the tracks to their essentials. Jaich Maa was probably the last track I finished. I had Elori Kramer come in and listen because I trust her ears and knew she understood my language. We talked it out and she encouraged me to cut extraneous ideas and keep it slim. We also did a pass with Elori playing her Juno and she nailed these watery textures that really polished off the track. At the end of the process Elori ended up as only other musician playing on the record.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I like to be clear headed to feel like I’m in the right state of mind. Early in the day is great because I have a crisp focus. I don’t have a rigorous meditation practise but I have my ways of tapping into a lighter state of being. Once I’m settled it’s just about getting into the flow. Something happens when I go deep on an idea without interruption for a couple of hours. I become hyper present with the thought and I’m able to explore it in a more profound way. It’s like dialling in the focus on an idea microscope.
I’ve also gotten more comfortable knowing there are strong days and weak days in the creative process. A strong day can be finding one new idea and a weak day can still be productive if something previously unknown has been explored, even if it sucks. The scheduling aspect of creative work is really helpful. It’s hard to find myself suddenly thoughtful. I need to set aside specific time to dive into some ideas and see where they take me. Blocking out a day or a few hours to see where it goes. I try to avoid email and text during these periods since it takes my focus away from the creative task— if I can get lost in making one track for a few hours I’m probably on the right track.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
I came to music through the lens of performance. Studying and performing written music is refining the interpretation and embodiment of musical material. And these elements are hugely important in any musical context. I believe a performer must be fully present in the expressive act to truly communicate to an audience. If the performer is not 100% in the moment, no audience member can stand in. The performer is leading the way for everyone else sharing the space. This also speaks to the vitality of having a community to share that space. The community is the live experience.
Writing music requires more isolation and tinkering. It’s all about uncovering new languages of expression, excavating material that better expresses experience than previous expeditions. Playing live is about being present in the moment.
This is particularly interesting to me because the way I play my solo music live is radically different from how it was recorded. After the mixes were finished, I had to translate them back into my body. This meant allowing the improvisation that inspired so much of the recording process to come back in. I was able to take the improvisational spirit and physically attempt to put it back into the shape and form it is on the record.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I have an object-oriented approach to sound, and I think that sounds intrinsically want to behave certain ways. Part of my creative process is learning and understanding a sound and following the sounds lead. For instance, on the track “Spinning Blossoms” I used this Casio “steel pan” sound. Extremely corny on its own but with some delay it really started to have a voice. In that sense, I’m just cataloguing a ton of sound sources in their best dressed and composing by finding which ones get along.
I definitely think about music as a micro-ecology— everything co-existing, occasionally responding to each other and occasional ignoring each other. Tracks like “Cold Moon” and “New Moon” are perfect examples. If sounds are getting along then I don’t have to micro-manage them.
To me “composition” is more of a broad stroke / wide angle view. And “sound” is a more microscopic one. I’m capturing as many sounds in their natural habitat as possible and then zooming out to see how they live together.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
I think of sounds as a physical object, like a sculptural material that can be manipulated in different ways depending on it’s sonic texture. I’m not synaesthetic but it’s definitely easier for me to discuss music in physical / non-musical terms.
I think the way that we “feel” our perception is an important part of the creative process. I wouldn’t say it’s about “touch” but maybe some metaphorical way that those are linked. We have to feel what we’re making with our sensory receptors.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Making work is a way of processing my experience. It’s a product of my awareness, my sensitivity to that awareness and my reflection or exertion of that sensitivity. So, by personally processing some kind of social or political thought, it naturally becomes entangled in my work. For instance this record, “New Topographics” was a lot of me processing the unknown specifically through the lens of this term I had become obsessed with, “Hyperobjects,” a Timothy Morton phrase for “objects” that are unbelievably large in scope and size and lacking in singular physical form (like global warming or, honestly, Covid-19). This pandemic is a global experience of a hyperobject in the most direct way: We can’t “see” it but we are experiencing it in hundreds of different ways.
These hyperobjects are therefore analogues for our emotional experience, because these are also infinitely large and lacking in physical form. They’re similarly known and unknown. And I think becoming friendly with the unknown is at the core of the human experience. You start thinking about the nature of consciousness and you open up Pandora’s box— that the base of our understanding itself is basically unknown…
I make art because I feel this experience of unknowingness as simultaneously strange and normal— I express this experience by making work on the brink of my own understanding.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
I think we’ll keep chasing the unknown and attempting to express what we don’t understand. Hard to say what it will sound like but I’m sure some of it will be dope.