by Mathias Wagner
Your music uses mainly dark sounds. Why do you eliminate the higher frequencies so consistently?
For me, an oversaturation of high frequency sounds tends to numb the ears. I like to start with a warmer, darker pallette of sound. Any higher frequencies I add as I develop the piece are more striking and meaningful because these sounds have a very specific reason for being there. There aren't as many high frequency sounds in my music, but those that are there take on much more significance in the musical and timbral evolution of the piece than if I just used them indiscriminately.
Do you use samples?
I use a sampler extensively. You will hear it in most all of my music. I almost always create my own samples. I always have a feed running off of the mixing console so I can take a little sound bite of whatever I'm working with at the moment. Sometimes I create loops and other mutated events from the main mix, then proceed to sample this material. The best analogy is like a food chain where one fish eats another fish, then another fish comes along to eat that one, and so on.
Your works don't follow the ordinary principles of verse-chorus-verse. They remind me of a slow river which flows silently: one doesn't miss any detail when not looking at it, but after a while, the flowing begins to change one's mind and feelings and effect you try to evoke?
I am certainly not a verse-chorus type of guy. You speak of a slow river of sound that changes your mind and feelings without you having to be conscious of how it works. By that description alone, I feel that I have succeeded in communicating with you through my music.
It's all about retaining an extremely high level of subtlty and nuance. I find a lot of inspiration from sights and sounds in nature the original ambient music. My sense of timing and movement with the forms I create are related to deep listening outside the studio, and the results are always fascinating to me. But until you asked this question, I never really analyzed the process. It's intuitive, really quite natural for me to feel the movements of nature and my responses to them, to want to express them through music.
You could say "verse-chorus-verse" is a classic form for translating into sound the way the human mind in our culture perceives things. The "slow river" that you speak of is my way of striving to translate the way the mind of nature works. That's what my wife says anyway, and in thinking about it, I have to agree. As a writer and music critic, she spends a lot of time researching such things. In fact, she says that living with me and watching me work has given her the opportunity to analyze in depth my particular artistic process as it unfolds and compare it with others. So generally, I make music, and she takes the time to figure out how and why I did it, which makes for a lot of interesting discussions in our house. Her take on this whole question involves "the human ability to experience much more sensory input and emotional nuance than our conscious minds can pinpoint, remember and describe."
For instance, if I compose a piece of music after watching an incredible sunset in the desert, I want to capture and communicate as much of that experience as possible: The indescribable colors that transmute through the sky in all directions as the earth slowly turns. The sounds of the wind blowing through the cactuses. The coyotes howling. The birds chirping and whizzing by. The quality of warmth in the air. And, perhaps most important, all the feelings that pass over and through me while this is happening. These things cannot be put into words. A painter might be able to capture the scenery and color of any given moment, but on a piece of canvas, you can't express the slow transformation of the entire landscape and the continually evolving effect it's having on you.
A verse-chorus-verse formula is too rigid for this kind of expression as well. In such music, you can successfully convey the more conscious feelings you had, and surround them with a certain amount of musical nuance to fill out the picture. But when you were watching that sunset, all kinds of feelings, thoughts, senses and perceptions flowed vividly through each other and were inseparable. The immense number of details cannot be singled out and consciously acknowledged. Yet as you sit out there and take in this sunset, the flow of it all does "change your mind and feelings," as you said earlier.
As a way of trying to describe the significance of what I'm doing, we came up with a quote by Paul LaViolette, who is head of an interdisciplinary research foundation in Oregon. He says that whenever we form a thought, we in effect simplify the nuance-filled complexity of the world. We also simplify our own feelings in reponse to that world. He says that it's beneficial to be able "to tune into feelings before they get abstracted into a thought. People who can do this are able to directly tune into data of far greater complexity. Such sensitivity fosters creativity and the ability to see things in new ways."
For me to try to squeeze the experiences that inspire my music into a verse-chorus form (just because that's the way some people think music should be written) is to ignore the incredible wealth of nuance that can be expressed in music. I let the tempo and rhythm of the experiences that inspire me shape the music. In terms of nature and my response to it, that form happens to remind you of a slow river flowing silently. The real key is what you said right after that: "one doesn't miss any detail when not looking at it, but after a while the flowing begins to change one's mind and feelings." I think your description is about as close as it comes to conveying something that, in reality, can never be described in words.
The roots of your compositions are not even American, but more native and ethnic. How familiar are you with the origins and meanings of the musical cultures you use?
At best, in all my investigations of other cultures, it's not one-sided. There's a lot of exchange, people learning from each other. Music is an important way to see into the interior life of yourself and others, and a lot of this has to do with the way that music can change your perception of time slowing it down, speeding up, distorting time, focusing like a high powered lens to the moment.
The most basic element of any culture is its perception of time. For instance, ideas and habits that clock-oriented, European-based societies like our own think of as immutable truths don't even exist in the traditional aboriginal mindset. For any group of people, the experience of time exists at the "collective unconscious" level of their own culture. Most people are not even vaguely aware of how their perception of time colors everything they see and do. To understand your own experience of time, not to mention any other culture's, you have to be willing to delve into the unconscious, which can bring up all kinds of strange issues. This is very frightening for many people because they crave that security of thinking that their perception of reality is an absolute truth. They don't want to see the beauty of diversity in all the different cultures of the world because that would mean acknowledging that their way of seeing things is not the one true right way. The people who cause the most damage in this world heavily resist any attempt to make them see through another culture's eyes.
However, with music you can slip through the back door, so to speak, and give people an experience of another culture's perception of time before they can intellectually resist. In some of my pieces, I have gone one step further and tried to convey the feeling of floating through that magnificent void where it's very obvious that the intricacies of time and space are man-made constructions and not ultimate truths. I happen to thrive on this feeling. For me it represents freedom. But some people don't like to have the cultural rug pulled out from under them. Even if it's a vague, nameless feeling generated by a piece of music that challenges you to perceive reality in a different way for a few moments, it can be very disturbing if you're driven by a need for absolute security. That's why there are some people who love my music, and others who are very threatened by it.
My interest in other cultures also stems from my own personal need to have a relationship with sound and its origins. When I first became interested in the didgeridoo in 1987, I had no idea where it would lead. My intense fascination with the power of sound brought me to this instrument, and thus to my travels in Australia and my friendship with aboriginal didg player David Hudson. What's so amazing about the didg is that it's a 40,000 year old instrument that creates the same kinds of drones that I would go to great lengths to create on my synthesizers. All those years I was doing this electronically, I was trying to capture feelings of timelessness and of the immense power of nature. Then I found out you could do this by blowing into a hollow tree brance. Talk about changing your perception!
Since I draw inspiration from nature and try to capture its movements and effects on me through sound, I have also developed an interest in how other human beings throughout the world have attempted to do this. The people who live closest to nature tend to be the best at it, that's why I'm most strongly drawn toward what we call "indigenous cultures." Much of my inspiration comes from my own primal memories. But often this is more easily accessed by looking openly to other cultures.
Nowadays it's en vogue to idealize Indians (especially North American ones) as humans who live WITH and not against nature. You see it in TV-spots for example, and popular Western musical styles like Trance or New Age deal with a postmodern longing for that kind of indian "ecological innocence," for a mystical world full of wonders we lost long ago. Are you too trying to reanimate mysticism and transcendency through your music?
Part of this question was dealt with above. I think it's too easy to romantically reflect on the ideology of indigenous people. In the first wave of this, Western people tended to look for what they were missing and were sure these people held the secrets. But the real secret is not to blindly exchange your own culture for another culture's approach. The real secret is to be fluid enough to see behind the curtain of them all. In the process, you become a highly original human being who appreciates the diversity and wisdom of all cultures without falling prety to the dark sides of any of them and they all have their destructive sides. I share a certain affinity with indigenous cultures because of their appreciation for nature and their interest in keeping the earth alive. But this is not a craving for "ecological innocence." There's nothing innocent about the perspective I'm talking about because you don't give yourself over to anyone. However, it is a perspective filled with wonder because you are traveling through states of mind and realization that haven't been mapped out and trampled into a rut by a whole bunch of other people.
When, for instance, you feel comfortable playing with different perceptions of time, you are drawing inspiration from the place where the most basic building blocks of culture emerge, and in a sense, that is a mystical experience. But it has nothing to do with idealizing a particular culture.
Of course, I didn't start making music with such a complex agenda or perspective in mind. The music I have always wanted to bring out seemed a very natural reaction to life experiences that were most powerful when I was away from the cities and people. So my relationship with selected other cultures stemmed from a feeling of kinship to certain activities and pursuits within the tribe, clan, etc. In particular the role of the shaman has held the most importance to me. Since my first discovery of this type of individual over 20 years ago, I have felt a lot in common with the activities and the basic personality traits. The shaman is the one who serves an important purpose in his tribe precisely because he lives outside that culture and sees through it. Shamans travel through psychological states that most other people are afraid to even acknowledge. Yet the shaman can sometimes be of assistance in healing other because he can, at the moment when it is most needed, make people aware of possibilities that their own society knows very little about.
What do you think of the concept "new age"?
For me, new age has always been a marketing term, the same as the current "ambient" thing. Record companies more than anybody need this, but I don't. The music has its own life, and that's all that's important. The press and so on will always have some kind of box to put it in, and that is sometimes frustrating. The ideal listener is someone who's really listening through ears that are not held prisoner by outside influences of marketing and polotics.
Reviewing your album "Origins" I wrote: "It's like the planet itself is starting to sing." Is that one of your aims: to create a REAL world music, which is no longer belonging to one region or culture, but simply to the earth?
It seems to me you are an ideal listener! How about another term, "earth music." If we have to have a term, I like this one. You might have started something. You are perceptive about the blurring of boundaries. I feel most at home with people who feel this in the music.
Your music seems to be very old (maybe from the didgeridoo), timeless, melancholy, full of pathos like dark non-objectional paintings. Do you consider yourself as a painter of sounds?
Absolutely a painter as well as a sculpter of sound. I have always had the sense that my hands are shaping and holding a tactile source when I create my sounds and music. Also the situation of working long hours alone in the studio is similar to that of a painter. I think the mental process has parallels. Often in the studio, I spend a lot of time "looking" at a piece in progress.
My home and studio is in Tucson, Arizona. I have a large window looking out onto the desert, and at different times of day the light in the studio and out on the mountains changes. This often changes how I will hear-see the piece. Also about that windowonto the desert: From my console, all I see is a dramatic dawn-of-time desert mountain range. It looks like the sound of the didgeridoo. In fact, when David Hudson was here, he felt as though he was in Australia. Living in the desert is still my main source of inspiration.
Imagine the year 10,000: a crew of archeologists finds a copy of your CD "Artifacts" and it's still playable.... What do they learn about the year 1995 by that album?
I thought about this same question while "digging up" Artifacts myself. It's hard to say what they would learn, of course, because that would depend on what humanity had learned by the year 10,000 and what they had forgotten by then as well. If human beings are still on this earth by that time, however, I assume that they would have learned how to live with nature in a way that allowed man to evolve and create and learn without simultaneously destroying the earth and the other species that share it. From that perspective, I would imagine archeologists would sense in the music a turning point, a time when humanity was comfortable with technology yet also beginning to appreciate the genius of nature on its own terms and learning a few things from ancient cultures that traditionally lived in harmony with it.
Do you literally try to create the musical artifacts of our time and culture, which last for a longer time than the rest of pop?
As I sit here typing this into the computer, looking around on the desk, I see artifacts everywhere a fax machine, telephone and answering machine (that all seem to break down on a timed schedule), cd's on the shelves, a few magazines laying on the floor. All of these things will at some point find their way to the local garbage dump, or better yet recylcing bin. I think that popculture is built on the disposable, and again that popular music is the gauge for this. Since I have chosen to live outside of this world, I don't consider the shelf-life of my music. It's simply not an issue, never was.
Somewhere buried within the fabric of a piece on Artifacts, I created loops of the phrase "when we become the artifacts." This has a lot of meaning for me since the objects we put so much importance on a few yars ago, a few months ago and right now are already obsolete by some people's standards. All of the instruments I use, regardless of their place in the timeline, share the same fate. So the creative spirit that lives beyond the pieces of wood, plastic, metal and bone is what drives me. I create music as an ongoing process of discovery for myself. The various influences that shape this process these days are more and more non-musical. When the music ends up on a cd, with other people hearing it in their own way, then the ritual continues.