FRACTURED AIR

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Chosen One: Loscil

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Interview with Scott Morgan.

A blurred line between beauty and horror, anxiety and calm.”

—Scott Morgan

Words: Mark Carry

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Loscil’s Scott Morgan has been responsible for some of the most captivating and stunningly beautiful ambient creations over the past fifteen years. Across a compelling body of work (beginning with the 2001 classic ‘Triple Point’) – the majority of which has been released on the immense Chicago-based imprint Kranky – Vancouver-based Morgan has developed his own unique style of textural rhythms that ceaselessly blur the lines of ambient, techno, drone and modern-classical. The recently released ‘Monument Builders’ marks the latest chapter in Loscil’s explorations through sound that lies at the intersect between nature and humanity.

The Canadian ambient artist’s latest masterwork unleashes a cathartic, hypnotic spell throughout; belonging to a dichotomy of worlds where an engulfing cloud of prevailing darkness prevails in tandem with the radiant light of hope and survival. Delicately beautiful ambient soundscapes drift majestically in the ether alongside the more intense, pulsating sound worlds. Take for example, how the fragile pulses of ‘Deceiver’ flows effortlessly into the glorious crescendo of ‘Straw Dogs’ or how the stunningly beautiful album opener ‘Drained Lake’ is gradually followed with the techno-infused ‘Red Tide’. A wall of intense moods, colour and textures flood these sonic creations, creating one of Morgan’s most accomplished and concise records to date.

A lyrical quality forever lies at the heart of Loscil’s recording output, and ‘Monument Builders’ is of course no exception. A striking narrative permeates throughout, where loss, identity and the relationship between humankind and the environment seeps through the musical framework of Morgan’s masterfully crafted sonic palette. The addition of horn arrangements immediately casts an ethereal quality; harmonies meld beautifully with a collection of old synths, warm textures of drone soundscapes and intricate patterns of divine sonic passages. ‘Monument Builders’ is a hugely fulfilling audio-visual experience, whose effect is utterly profound.

‘Monument Builders’ is out now on Kranky.

 http://www.loscil.ca/

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Kranky/

Scott Morgan

 

Interview with Scott Morgan.

Congratulations Scott on the sublime new record ‘Monument Builders’: a true tour-de-force, which unleashes such a cathartic, hypnotic spell throughout. Firstly, please talk me through the writing process and recording of ‘Monument Builders’ and your memories of constructing these particular tracks? 

Scott Morgan: The first step for me with most records is building a sound palette. I sampled and built a small collection of playable sample instruments out of resonant sounds like boiling kettles and steam whistles. I find the noisy aspects of these sounds make for interesting textures and include a natural pitch instability which lends them a kind of fragility. I also drew heavily on an old micro-cassette recorder to generate noise and further texture.

Once I had these sounds, I began building some basic harmonic passages and structures. I wanted to try something a little different with the bass and arpeggiated sounds so I spent an evening at my friend Josh Stevenson’s who has a great collection of older synths. We used his EMS Synthi and his Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 to generate some bass stuff. The last addition was the French Horn which was pretty Philip Glass inspired. I wanted something to root the harmonies in and the tone of the horn fit so well with everything adding this strange broken epic feel.

‘Monument Builders’ expresses such deeply-affecting emotion through the seamless layers of embedded ambient soundscapes and gorgeously crafted drone textures. Having seen your live set at London’s Possibly Colliding festival earlier in the year, I just loved how each sonic pulse matched the accompanying visuals (note-per-note) creating a myriad of utterly captivating moments. I feel this is translated here on record where a largely cinematic feel (and gripping tension) permeates throughout. Can you discuss the visual nature of the music you create Scott, and indeed the visuals that is created to accompany your music?  

SM: I’ve long been interested in the concept of visual music. I’ve experimented with visuals for a long time but only in the last few years have I began to treat it seriously again. I’m really interested in a non-narrative but also non-abstract form of visual treatment. Something that is evocative without being too referential to storytelling. Live visuals are extremely challenging for me. Loads of work. But I think I like this aspect of the medium. It’s not easy and the language is not really proven. Experimental moving images go back over a hundred years. It’s actually a really interesting history which arguably starts with painters or visual artists first experimenting with film. Despite the history and its longevity, it doesn’t get treated the same as music or even cinema. The current title of VJ really pushes it towards lighting and visual effects which definitely has its place but is not what I want to do with the medium. I feel like there is room for a truly synergistic experience that is not dominated by eye or ear.

I was very interested to learn that a VHS copy of “Koyaanisqatsi” and Philip Glass’s epic score in many ways proved the genesis of the new record. I’d love for you to recount your memories of first discovering this seminal work (and hearing the Glass score) and what makes this score (& film) so unique and important for you? 

SM: I first saw “Koyaanisqatsi” in a theatre in Vancouver in the early 90’s. I remember being quite moved by it. It was a spectacle and it was the first time I really felt struck in such a raw way by what you might call a non-narrative film. Most of that feeling was driven by the music. I don’t think that film would have a fraction of the impact without the score. Recently, when I viewed a rather beaten copy of the film, I was struck by not only the original, impactful and epic content, but how it appeared as a tarnished piece of history. When you think of where we are now with everything that’s going on, viewing this film more than 20 years later feels very strange. Seeing something that was once so epic, all warbled and torn yet speaking through time with this dire warning. It’s poignant and humbling in its own strange way.

One of the great aspects of ‘Monument Builders’ is the rich organic feel and dense quality to the seven musical odysseys, whilst there always seems to be a sense of a gradual building of atmosphere that forever intensifies as the rich narrative unfolds. I wonder were there challenges posed during the music-making process and more specifically, to ensure the interwoven pieces undergo seamless transitions? In this regard, just like your previous output, I like to visualize the record(s) as one long single piece with several movements or sections carefully embedded within.

SM: I like to work on albums as whole gestures but sometimes the compositional process is much more haphazard and the resulting record is more of an edited construction than a designed one. But I think this is true of any creative process. Truthfully, Monument Builders is the shortest full length I’ve ever composed. I really wanted to confine myself to a 40-minute LP – to see if I could be more precise with the expression and perhaps force myself to cut some pieces that didn’t quite fit. This was actually extremely challenging but also very liberating. Some things had to go or be shortened. I think what you end up with is a much more focused experience.

Themes of the environment (and its destruction) and decay infuses deep beneath the musical trajectory. Can you discuss the inspiration you drew from the anti-humanist writings of photographer John Gray (reflected in the song title of ‘Straw Dogs’) and the aerial photographs of Edward Burtyaskis? 

SM: I’ve struggled before with summing up what it is about Straw Dogs that resonates with me so much. But I think I am drawn to art and ideas that walk a line between positive and negative forces. There is a certain kind of nihilism with John Gray…  a sense of defeat. Humans are over-consuming creatures that, like any other animal – will grow in population and consume until their environment is decimated. But he doesn’t just leave it there. There is still room in his analysis for morality. It’s like knowing about our own individual mortality should not preclude giving up on living. Anyway, like I said, I struggle to sum it up but enjoy his writing a great deal.

Burtynsky occupies a similar space. His works show an ironic beauty largely from an aerial perspective of the earth as affected by humans. It’s ugly when you think about the scale and the context but it is visually stunning. I’m drawn to this sort of dichotomy and think I really was after something like this with Monument Builders. A blurred line between beauty and horror, anxiety and calm.

The dynamic range and series of counterpoints that is contained on ‘Monument Builders’ creates such a timeless, otherworldly sound and dimension to the record. For example, the gradual ambient bliss of ‘Deceiver’ comes in the wake of the pulsating rhythms of ‘Straw Dogs’ (the album’s centrepiece and towering crescendo) with scintillating horn arrangements; whilst the delicately beautiful ‘Drained Lake’ (the glorious opening theme) is followed by the more techno, beat-infused ‘Red Tide’. I wonder did a certain track (or specific section) inform the rest of ‘Monument Builders’? Also, did some of these musical layers existence pre-date the album’s genesis, so in a way older artefacts of songs blended in with new ideas and works? Did any happy accidents occur in the studio that surprised you?

SM: When I got into the studio to commence work on Monument Builders, I started building a new set of sounds and, as per usual, there were a handful of discarded pieces before anything stuck. I believe Deceiver came out first. This isn’t remarkably new territory for me…  though it’s much more harmonic than drone-based. I’m not sure any one piece informs the others, but I do try to take a body of sounds in a few different directions and push them away from anything overly comfortable. I think it’s important to force yourself away from the sound that makes you comfortable even if it’s gravitational pull is strong. I’m very comfortable with my sound, but also enjoy bending it and twisting it a little now and then to see what breaks and what sticks.

I’d love for you to shed some light on the library of sounds in which become the building blocks of this wholly unique (Loscil) sound and the mind-set and creative approach utilised when it comes to joining all these many layers into a record? From a compositional point of view, what musical voices do you feel serve a major influence on you, Scott?

SM: I think I already alluded to this, but I’m very interested in generally noisy spectra. Sounds that derive their fundamental pitch from moving air, whistles, flutes, beer growlers, anything where the fundamental pitch is obscured by the noise of moving air, creates an interesting texture. This approach, applied in different ways, has always been a part of my core working process. I’ve always struggled with synthesis. Although I’ve used it in some form, for bass sounds in particular, synth pads whether they are analog or digital have never really worked for me. I just enjoy the inherent unpredictability of real world samples when they get layered up. Adding to this, I really love the dynamic combination of electronic and acoustic. There is something about adding a live instrument to the palette that adds a new dimension to the sound. It also helps further blur genre lines which I’ve never been content with.

Lastly, the album closer ‘Weeds’ points to new horizons with divine textures of voices ascending into the forefront of the mix. This for me perhaps represents one of the most spellbinding moments of ‘Monument Builders’, particularly when the electronic pulses begin to converge. Can you talk me through the construction of these particular layers and indeed the sources of these sounds?

SM: Weeds started as an improvised part of my Sea Island set. I still perform it this way, as a series of performed phrases that get built up gradually. It really is all about dynamics and I think I really wanted to push away from the floating feel of a lot of my music. Weeds is intended as a slow motion opening up of sound, driven predominantly by the vocal samples. It is probably a little more cathartic a piece that the others. Less of a spot for quiet contemplation than a kind of intense, emotional explosion.

‘Monument Builders’ is out now on Kranky.

 http://www.loscil.ca/

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Kranky/

Written by admin

December 7, 2016 at 7:16 pm

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