There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
This is a difficult question, and I don’t think I’ve found the right way to answer it yet. It’s certainly a mysterious thing, and it should remain so. There’s a lot that can be lost in translation, so to speak, when the paths of aesthetic experience are given too much clarity in language.
For me, personally, I suppose there is an element of spirituality but that’s only because I define spirituality to be something quite removed from what the typical connotations might imply. For me, a spiritual experience is one of a deeply altered state, whether it’s psychological or physical or whatever, and it is something that is felt in a unique way because it changes your sense of being, like how you relate to yourself and the world and what your experience of reality is, even after you’ve come out of that altered state.
I have the same kind of experience whether I’m working on a piece or whether I’m listening to my own music or another music that affords a similar mental structure.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
Yes, this is a thing that I’m very conscious of. Early on when I was first starting to explore electronic music, I found it really difficult to work with computers and compositional software. Of course, I record digitally all the time and I do so much editing and mixing, and that’s typically always digital in the final stages as well. So I’m certainly not opposed to digital technology in any way. But I think that for me the DAW-as-instrument is serving a more obvious means to an end, which allows me to keep it within certain limitations creatively.
I’m really attracted to limitations in instruments, and I’ve never been able to make a meaningful connection when composing with computers for that reason. This is probably the reason that I gravitated toward non-modular analog electronic instruments, because they are very similar to acoustic instruments in their boundaries of design. It’s of course different for everyone, and no technology is inherently better or worse than any other, it’s just a matter of preference and what feels intuitive.
From an editing/mixing perspective, I’m not really sure what I would say is the definitive ‚end‘ moment for me. I have a pretty strong sense of how I want something to sound when it’s nearing the end, and I always trust my intuition on whether I’m happy with it or not. If I’m not happy with it, I keep working. If I like how it sounds and it’s doing what I want it to do for me, then in my mind it’s complete and there’s no need to keep going. If I’m happy with what’s happening but I also want to keep exploring, usually I’ll think of anything further as something separate, so there’s still the completed work that I want to keep in existence, even if only for myself, and then later on there might be some other variation of it.
I know people struggle with this kind of thing a lot, but for some reason it’s never really been a huge issue for me knowing when something is finished or not. It’s definitely a useful skill to practice.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
Yes, that stage of letting music sit for a while is very important – critical, really – in what I do, but for me it’s a huge part of the compositional process rather than something that I do when I’ve decided that the piece is finished. I’ll of course still listen to pieces when they’re finished, but it’s totally different and once I feel something is complete I’m okay to just let it be and move on.
While I’m actively working on something, there’s always an enormous amount of time spent stepping away from the work and just listening over and over again, with breaks in between. I probably spend more time just listening to a piece while in the process of composing it than I do actually working on it. A single piece for me often takes somewhere between 6 to 12 months to complete and during that time it’s always a back-and-forth process of working intensely, then taking a step back and listening to see how I feel and to see what needs to happen next. It’s so important for me to be able to just sit with something and let the subsequent steps arise gradually and naturally.
I’m always working on multiple things at the same time, and I suppose this process is well suited for that style – I can work on one thing, take a pause from it such that I’m just listening to it at random times throughout my day over the course of weeks or months even, and then at the same time I can actively work on something else. I don’t really understand how anyone could create music without the act of stepping back and listening being a huge part of the process.
Of course, just giving time to something while you’re working on it can be hugely beneficial as your mental states will shift and thus the way that you hear something as well. There’s no set amount of refinement or improvement that I adhere to – some pieces come together very quickly and need little adjustment, other pieces come together extremely slowly and require a lot of work, some pieces begin to emerge but then maybe you hit a wall and have to abandon the entire thing, and that’s okay too.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
It’s interesting to me how much this varies between different musical practices. I know that a lot of people who do more straight-ahead songwriting and that sort of thing often are removed from the mixing/production aspects, even by choice, which is completely unimaginable for me. With respect to the music that I make, mixing and production are fully integral parts of the compositional process. There is no ‚finished piece‘ before the mixing and production elements come into play. A lot of focus in my work is placed on gradual changes and subtle variations in texture, and both of those things are directly related to mixing and production.
For instance, the piece „For Organ“ from All My Circles Run, was recorded as a series of about a hundred different notes, intervals, and chords, all with different combinations of harmonic content on the drawbars of the Hammond organ.
There was no piece when I left the studio – it came together while I was mixing. That entire album was created that way, actually.
„For Voice“ was a very similar process of recording numerous vocal sounds and then editing everything and mixing them together and adjusting the vocal timbre and the space of the piece through various production choices.
I love working in studios but sometimes it can be a bit awkward if I’m with an engineer who isn’t really used to the way that I work. Typically a musician comes into a studio and they know what they want to record and they go and do all the tracking and maybe they overdub some unexpected stuff and try out different things in terms of mic’ing and all of that – I do work that way sometimes, Pale Bloom was essentially recorded that way, and I do enjoy working that way, but a lot of the time I prefer to use the recording session as an opportunity for gathering sounds that I’ll go and work with when I’m back in my own studio.
I don’t master my own music, but I’ve been very lucky in that my partner is a mastering engineer, so he does all of my mastering. He would probably disagree with this statement because I’m kind of a control freak, but I try not to get too involved in the mastering. I’ll give him notes about certain things, and then beyond that I just let him do his job. We’ll of course listen together when he’s finished the various passes and kind of work together towards a final master. Production has always been a really fascinating creative practice to me, and I would love to do it in a more conventional studio orientation for other people one day.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Not really, no, I wouldn’t say that I experience that sort of thing too much. For me, working on a piece of music or an album, like actually creating the work, is as satisfying as the final product; it is the process of working on music that I enjoy, and that includes the listening aspect as well. When I release something into the world, it becomes different in that regard, it serves a different function in that it’s finished and no longer belongs just to me, but the journey of the process I went through in working on it always remains and the music itself will always be there for me in the way that I needed it.
I’m not at all interested in controlling how people experience my music outside of me, I think it’s impossible to control anyway, but it’s also just not really an attractive idea to me artistically. So when something is complete it’s not really a sense of loss for me, more so it’s a sense of closure, a fulfilled end, and I get excited about moving onto the next thing because usually the next thing has already been percolating in my mind and likely has already gone through a lot of planning and thinking. I’m always working on several things at once, ideas and processes are always overlapping, so I never really experience a complete void when something is finished; there’s always something else that I’m working on and involved in at the same time, and there are always new ideas that emerge at various times to move on to.
I’ve never been the type of musician who dedicates myself entirely to a single piece or album, finishes it, and then moves on to something new after a period of time.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing 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?
Thats an interesting question, and I think the notion of ‚spirituality‘ as an expression of heightened experiences becomes relevant again. I think that the way we relate to various situations in our lives, or the way that we relate to memories and experiences, no matter how simple they may seem, is always changing and the details of our daily lives can be just as meaningful in one way or another as anything else. It’s interesting to think about how the mundane and the prosaic can be re-imagined or reconfigured as something more poetic or symbolic, and I sort of think that the ability to parse such things out is part of the nuance of human experience.
Music and art naturally function in this way, but they certainly aren’t the only sources of it. There are of course seemingly mundane tasks that can elicit a different and important mental state – for example, there are numerous theories about how this sort of effect emerges from wrought, physical behaviour and certain forms of bodily repetition. Yes, I think that working on music is a very specific way of using one’s mind, and there are definitely things that I feel I can express and experience through music that I don’t or couldn’t in other tasks. It’s hard to say exactly what that element is, though, and I think that’s sort of the point – if such an archetype could be easily expressed, then it would probably be something that one could access some other way, outside of sound.