Frequence Magazine 002 (France)
by David Sottile
What led you to take up music? (particular influences, aims, etc.)
I first started to explore sound and music in the mid-70's. I was in my late teens by that time. I grew up in San Diego, California. Most of the memories from my youth are ones of spending large amounts of time in the desert, mountains and ocean/beach areas. I would start with the sunrise in the desert, drive through the mountains, and later watch the sun set into the Pacific Ocean. This was a kind of ritual I would perform often. Since I have no brothers or sisters, I was comfortable doing many things alone. Music was always my best friend at these times. It was quite often a soundtrack to these journeys. And it still is, thankfully.
I was never interested in making music for conventional reasons. In thinking back, my need to create music emerged at a point when I was overcome with undefinable and quite uncontrollable urges to "sculpt" sound as a way to express and exist in a kind of rareified "zone" that was quite different from "the real world." In other words, the ideas of slowing and altering time, bringing into focus an awareness of my inner life, and expressing some kind of ancient memory could all merge and emerge together in the sounds I was able to bring through. If I had been born at any other time, this might have been impossible for me to express musically - the strange sounds available to me through synthesizers and other sound-altering electronic devices allowed me to sculpt sonic worlds and feelings that could take me outside the realm of everyday human experience. I first heard hints of these possibilities in the European electronic music of the 70's only because through these artists, music involving electronic instruments was brought to wider audiences. I was excited the first time I heard these recordings because finally I discovered instruments that could recreate this inner world I described earlier. I could never have expressed these "places" with purely acoustic instruments, and if that had been my only choice, I never would have become a composer. I might have instead had to take up surrealistic painting or something. But music turned out to be a much better vehicle than the visual arts could ever be. Through music, I can express a hundred different sensations slowly churning, evolving and completely transforming into something else over the course of a 70-minute piece.
The only other place these feelings were accessible to me was when I left the city and went out into the desert. In fact, nature remains the strongest influence on my music to this day. You can hear this in the various periods of my work. Over the years, there's no doubt that it's become more focused and obvious. Since "Dreamtime Return", the strongest ongoing influence is my primal relationship to the earth and what it does to me psychologically.
Your music is basically electronic. How did you come to use traditional instruments?
I started to create directly on synths in the mid-70's : Arps, Moogs, the first Rolands. Their hands-on, twist-the-knob and carve-out-a-sound processes were for me, ironically, the traditional way of creating sounds. These were my first instruments, and I remember that feeling of finally discovering "my instrument." They were capable of helping me to externalize many of the feelings I spoke of in the first question. The most important aspect was I could move in a sound and stretch it out, let it breathe, give it life, even at its most basic form. The move to non-electronic traditional/ethnic instruments came from my ongoing search for sounds of power and deep expression, from whatever source at that point. Starting on the synths gave me a great basic understanding of the foundation of sound and how to manipulate it for my own purposes. Synths have taught me to listen deep into the music and to search for new sounds from a variety of different instruments. I am not a purest in any sense and have no concern for breaking any academic taboos. In using traditional instruments, I use my intuition and respect of the culture I am borrowing from - for example the didgeridoo which I've been playing and blending into my music since 1988.
The advent of sampling technology was responsible for furthering my interest in acoustic instruments as well. Quite often the original would sound more dynamic and multi-dimensional if I combined it with the sample of itself and played these side by side. For me, the best is to blend both using the sample technology to mutate the original. When the two are blended, something strange and magical starts to emerge.
Why are you so fascinated by traditional or tribal music?
I find a "truth" in this music that simply speaks to me directly. In spite of the growing cultural pollution of indigenous people throughout the globe, the essence of traditional music and art maintains an ancestral link to the center of the culture at issue. This center, this most basic construct of their reality, is heavily connected to their cultural perception of time. Since music creates and plays with time, the music of any culture is a way to tap into one of the most important aspects of life (and death), something that is shared and yet expressed differently by people of all tribes and civilizations. The experience of time - and ritual events marking its passage - is crucial to understanding any culture. For me to experience the music of these different cultures invites me to look into their sense of time. this takes me deeper into their culture, beyond a surface level.
There are whole books written about how relations between two civilizations never really get off the ground because of a lack of understanding at this level. The government of the United States, for example, has had tremendous trouble in their dealings with Native Americans because the two cultures represent a completely different perception of time. Ideas and habits that clock-oriented, European-based white society takes for granted don't even exist in the traditional Native American mindset, and vice versa. Psychologically, these two cultures live in completely different universes, and until they can find a common ground on such a basic, almost hidden, level like time, relations between the two can at best be hit and miss. So why haven't we figured out how to bridge this gap? Because most people violently rebel against changing their perception at such a basic level. They don't even want to meet someone half way. They want the other culture to change completely to their way of experiencing life. For any group of people, the experience of time exists at the "collective unconscious" level of their own culture. To understand your own experience of time, not to mention any other culture's, you have to be willing to delve into the unconscious, and that can bring up all kinds of strange issues as you literally begin to dissect the most basic constructs of your reality. This is very frightening for most people because they need that security of thinking that their perception of reality is an absolute truth. Once you break through and try to undestand the basic constructs of your cultural mindset, you can have the rug pulled out from under you, so to speak. You suddenly find yourself staring into a giant void where 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. I have found ways to express this place through my music, and that's why there are some people out there who love my music and others who are very threatened by it. Some people don't like floating through the unconscious, outside of time, staring at the magnificent void from which all thought-constructs come from and to which all things return. I draw inspiration and understanding from these issues in ways that are not always obvious through the music alone.
Do you think that this fascination with tribal music (or at least the reference to ancient cultures) comes from the "lack of history" of the United States, the need for roots?
I have never experienced a "lack of history" or the "need for roots" being an issue growing up in the United States. The unique history here, in fact, has been crucial to my realization of the things I just talked about. In Europe, there is a long standing historical precedent for a uniform perception of time. Spaniards, Germans and French people are different in many ways, yet basically they all live on the same time clock. This has been the reality there for so long that people actually believe that it's an absolute truth. Here in the United States, the european mindset has been contrasted with many other cultures and perceptions of time, so that it is much easier to grasp the relativism of concepts of time, space, religion, etc. Europe has also been having a much greater influx of other cultures in the past few decades, but the overall psychological impact is not as great because those people are coming into your long standing society and having to learn to play by your rules. (Although the recent conflicts over there suggest that some Europeans are feeling threatened by the influx of other cultural ideas.)
The United States has always had to negotiate with varying cultures. Since its beginning, it has had to deal with the Native American reality, as well as the realities of all kinds of other cultures at a time when the country was creating its own identity. Many things from different cultures were therefore woven into the fabric of the American mindset. Also, going back to the ideas of nature as an inspiration, the U.S. still has millions of acres of primal, untouched lands where man's influence has not been felt to any significant degree. You can go out into the desert and feel what it's like to be completely outside of civilization. That does something to you psychologically. Europe has many beautiful places to go in the country, but for the most part, these are farmlands very much influenced by centuries of human involvement.
Because of the rapid increase in worldwide communications networks, and the ability to fly to any country in a matter of hours, the whole world is starting to undergo this same kind of cultural revolution. As far as I can see, the ethno-tech-tribal-primal-electro-acoustic-ambient-next-age type of music/culture "fascination" is being explored intensely by artists worldwide precisely as a way of dealing with these issues, I do not see this as a fleeting fascination in search of lost roots, but as a creative evolution seeking to find its common roots beyond any one country and culture. Speaking for myself, this is really what drives me. Now there are some musicians that are acting a bit like Christopher Colombus, like they're trying to stake out new territory and possess it - as if to say, "I discovered America," or Africa, or Java, or Australia, or whatever. I am not interested in those aspects of the movement that stem from this sort of patriarchal and nationalistic ego pissing out its territory and finding its influence stained on popular culture and music. I am nourished by the people, places and music that give inspiration to the illumination of the unconscious. The sources of this inspiration often run deep and quiet. It's often a very subtle thing. Because many so-called tribal peoples live a simpler life that's closer to the mythology of the unconscious, I find a lot of inspiration in indigenous music both current and ancient.
I also find that for me it is a blessing to not feel some huge cultural weight of obligation to a long list of living or dead composers and the shadows they have cast. This is really quite a liberation in my mind and a true challenge at the core of creative life.
What is you general view of American society?
A general view of American society is a dangerous thing! First off I can assure you that the picture of America you get filtered through the media and the realities here are two separate things. I have seen those horrible American TV shows dubbed in German at 2:00 in the morning in Hamburg, and that is a frightening sight. Many Americans are repelled by these shows which never found success until they played in Europe.
At best, I find a type of restless spirit here that is inspiring. Since the country is so large in geographical size, I really find that the regions within America are more like different countries where the people speak the same language and yet have different cultural precepts. There is more difference between the east, midwest, northwest, southwest, and westcoast regions than people realize in Europe.
Outside of the indigenous American people, we all came from somewhere else by choice or by necessity. Here in Tucson, Arizona, the middle of the desert reaching 115 degrees F (46 C) average during the summer, you will find residents from all over the world living their lives in a really peaceful way. I see the best and worst qualities of the western world on display in America, all of which can be traced to other countries through the world.
Do you travel to discover new instruments and new sources of inspiration? Do you record sounds, ambience or voices and then work on them in your studio?
I find travelling is the best way to shake your cage so to speak and see where you really stand in your life on a basic level. I also travel, of course, to draw musical inspiration. My best trips to Australia were unplanned, and when you put yourself out there and trust the unknown, incredible things just start to happen. If it feels right, I will capture the moment with recordings and photographs. Sometimes this is used in some form in a piece. Other times, the recordings are used to put me back in the location for inspiration. In many cases, my senses are the best recordings. Many of the ancient rock art sites in Australia were just too filled with spirit to infect with recorders and cameras. Spending the night in the site or sitting for several hours quietly will give me incredible inspiration that I can still call on to this moment. In terms of history that moves me, there is something unspeakable about sitting at an initiation site upon a stone seat worn smooth by over 30,000 years of activity.
Talking of your recording studio, how do you work? What kind of equipment do you have? Do you create your own sounds?
For recording I have a 16 track Adat system, Tascam 8-track, 2 Panasonic DATs, Soundcraft Delta console. On the synth side, both analog and digital : Oberheim Xpander and Matrix 12 (analog dream machines!), Emax 2, Korg M1, Wavestation, Arp 2600 and sequencers, Akaï Mpc60, processors by Lexicon, Sony, Eventide. Also to balance out all the electronics : 8 didgeridoos in various keys, assorted drums and percussion, prehispanic flutes and ocarinas, lots of strange sound makers and a collection of nice-sounding stones. As for programming, I love to get lost in the creating of sounds. Since sound is the foundation of my music, for me the carving out of new sounds is vital in the way a painter creates his own colors. Sometimes a sound will send me off for hours, and I become absorbed in the feeling it will create over time. Other times I will head into the studio with a specific sonic landscape I want to explore. It's never the same from day to day, and that's why I am still compelled by the entire creative ritual.
Some of the sounds you achieve are very sophisticated and could stand up on their own. Have you ever thought of composing in a more electroacoustic field?
I have many ideas of working in a more exclusive electronic sense (again) in the future. I feel that some past work has occupied this field, depending on your definition. Since I have never had any affiliation or interest in the cloistered academic realm of electroacoustic music, I would guess the official composers in this field would see me as a heretic, a position I would enjoy.
Let's talk about Suspended Memories, the group you have formed with Jorge Reyes and Suso Saiz. How do you all divide up the work? Are you the basic composer of each piece? (because you program the electronic instruments). Do you do the mixing? (on both the Suspended Memories albums, the mixing seems particularly complicated)
The first Suspended project "Forgotten Gods" was recorded and mixed in my studio over the course of six days. We met and developed our musical relationship in strictly live, improvised, "on the edge" concert settings. The approach in the studio was very much the same approach. Also I think you can hear the division of roles on "Forgotten Gods" more clearly than "Earth Island". In any case I quite often would start the ball rolling by firing up some different rhythm and texture combinations in the Mpc 60 sequencer drum computer. From that point, nature would take its course and without a lot of wasted words the pieces would take shape. I would start recording quickly as we were going, often submixing along the way. On "Earth Island" it was the same sort of story except we were on tour in Spain and Germany. We went in the studio at the end of the dates in each country. The difference being at this point we were in larger studios with more tracks but still under the gun with time pressure. Because of the larger space, we could all play at the same time, several pieces were recorded live. We would then roll the tape back, listen to see if we liked the take and proceed to add elements to the foundation, sometimes completing a piece in a short time. It was nearly a year since we had played together, (the last time being "Forgotten Gods") and with two days rehearsal we were back on the "edge" again performing and recording. I feel this kind of intuitive trust is what Suspended Memories is about as a group. It's refreshing capture the moment and not labor over the music for long periods of time ; this can be a danger of becoming a studio bound monk, something I am guilty of as well.
Are there any other musicians you would like to work with?
I recently produced a West African group and through this opportunity met some incredible percussionists. I will work with a few of them in the future. I have a wish list but I think I will keep it under my hat.
Are you interested in performing live?
The answer is yes. I have been performing live consistently in solo and group settings since 1978. Starting in the "old days" of non-programmable analog synths, patch chords and many kilos of gear. I love performing live and the way it feeds the music and keeps things honest. One interesting thing is over the years it's been exciting to integrate the new technology with the old. With the computer's arrival, using it in performance presents new challenges to keep the experience "live," instead of hitting the play button and letting it go. With the electronics, I always try to keep things available for spontaneous change and reaction to my collaborators or to the spirit in the air. I predict that the next series of solo concerts will be of a more intimate nature with less gear and more emphasis on complex processing, real-time loop performance, perhaps a bit more abstract.