Blake Gibson (Broken Harbor)
I'm quite new to your music and the name Chronotope Project. I was curious what "Chronotope" meant and googled it. I...didn't really understand, care to enlighten your listeners?
Jeffrey Ericson Allen (Chronotope Project)
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me, Blake. "Chronotope" is a marvelous word that was coined in the 1930s by the Russian philologist M.M. Bakhtin to talk about time (Greek: chronos), and space (tropos) as a conjoined concept, so it literally means "time-space." The medieval Japanese Zen master Dogen called it "uji," which was his way to refer to certain aspects of the meditative experience. The relationship to my music is that I frequently find myself exploring the phenomenon of a sonic texture (taking the soundscape as a "place") that changes and is changed by the passage of time, understood either as rhythmic time--discrete durations punctuating silence, or structural time--the larger periods marking sections of a composition. I'm always asking myself as a composer how sound expresses a journey in time, or conversely, how the meaning of the passage of time makes itself known through a series of sound events. By switching these lenses back and forth, my musical work enacts this chronotope paradigm in ways that are often unexpected, even to myself, so it has been a rich metaphor for my work. Also, quite frankly, I just thought that "chronotope" sounded cool. I hope this makes some sense; I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate and have never quite gotten over it.
Deep stuff! Guessing from your bio, you aren't exactly new to music. How long have you been composing? What's your background in music? What influences you to create this style of music?
How long have I been composing? Hmm--good question. I recently came across some piano pieces I wrote as an adolescent, so I'd have to say forty-some years, on and off. My musical background is fairly diverse, but my foundational training was classical. I began cello studies with my grandfather as a child, and that thread has run through my entire life. I've had a bit of University training, but mostly my study has been private or autodidactic. I have a few years of experience playing with orchestras, and that has done much to inform my sense of arrangement and texture. And for years I played with a semi-improvisational acoustic music ensemble, which taught me a lot about listening deeply and communicating musically in real time. My group, Confluence, concertized a bit and recorded two albums, and that also helped me hone my arranging and engineering chops, since we did most of the work in my studio. An early, acoustic-electronic solo recording, Vanish into Blue (1992) had several tracks played on the nationally-syndicated radio program "Music from the Hearts of Space," and did fairly well both critically and in terms of sales—that was the beginning of my work with electronic music.
I've also enjoyed working with theatre and dance, collaborating with several modern dance groups and an experimental theatre group, for which I produced a full-length original score to accompany the mask drama "The Descent of Inanna." Over the years, I 've continued to work with choreographers, since I find the meeting of physical movement and music to be stimulating and nourishing on lots of levels.
As an ambient composer, I 've had many influences, so my answer might vary according to when I wrote the music. Literature and mythology have always had a huge influence on me musically. A sense of story informs almost everything I do. As far as composers are concerned, some ambient music heroes who are always near the top of my list would be Erik Satie, Brian Eno, Jonn Serrie, Steve Roach, and Arvo Part. These days, there are a lot of wonderful folks working in the ambient music realm, and I try to make as much time as I can to listen broadly and deeply. More and more, it's not so much individuals who inspire me as the culture of music making that is evolving in this genre. Contemporary ambient music eschews musical "stars" almost as much as it rejects traditional forms. I love that it's wide open, and that my listeners include an incredibly diverse group who are more interested in music and sound than they are in a fixed type of music or in personalities.
These days, probably my biggest inspiration for ambient music is meditation practice and the great Buddhist traditions from which I have been learning over the years. From these, I've learned the value of spaciousness, and I find myself gradually letting go of musical complexity to embrace the richness of simplicity and the appreciation of the present moment. That's where the journey is leading me right now.
It makes sense that you've worked in theater; there's a real cinematic quality to your music, especially your new release, Chrysalis. Care to talk about the new album a little bit?
Sure. Chrysalis is my first album to be released under the Relaxed Machinery label, and a recording that includes pure ambient, soft-techno /trance, minimalist and new age influences. A chrysalis is an incubating chamber in which a metamorphosis takes place, a good metaphor for the manner in which these various elements are combined and cooked, to emerge as organic forms in and of themselves. The title track was written while I was listening to a lot of deep dub/house and soft techno music, and I wanted the rhythmic ostinato that pervades the whole piece to be a kind of "carrier" wave" for various atmospheric gestures. It uses just a couple of melodic motifs that are transformed in various ways for inflection and sonic storytelling.
"L'Avenue du Ciel" ("Avenue of the Sky") combines atmosphere, rhythmic cycles and a long bansuri flute-like melody that is stated once at the beginning and again at the end with completely different accompaniments to highlight different aspects of its shape.
The longest piece is "Trance-Missions," which again incorporates atmospheric textures, minimalistic rhythmic elements and melody based on a limited amount of motivic material, all carried on a larger framework that is "yin-yang-yin;" that is, it emerges out of a cloud, coalesces into a section with some rhythmic drive, then evaporates back into something etheric again. That's a common structure in my music.
"Reflecting Pool" is the most purely ambient of the pieces on this album. It's more sound-painting than storytelling, an almost literal sound picture of a still pool with occasional ripples. I allowed myself the cliche of mixing some actual water sounds with the music. As one of Brian Eno's "Oblique Strategies" reads, "Don't be afraid of cliches." Sometimes they work.
"Eternity's Sunrise" is based on a poetic image of William Blake. The harmonies are straight out of Debussy--whole tone chords, over which a long guitar solo rhapsodizes modally. All of this serves as a long introduction to the rhythmic central section that evokes a slow psychedelic sunrise--so Debussy plus Moody Blues. The ending basks in a warm glow of arpeggiated electric piano and harp and atmospherics that eventually resolve to a sweet major sixth. I'm really fond of this piece--it might be my personal favorite on this album.
I love Debussy, I can definitely see some influence in that you paint in many colors. None of the music I've heard from 'Chrysalis' feels like it was recorded with just one or two sound sources. I hear many different ethnic instruments in addition to electronic ones. What sort of equipment and instruments do you use? How do you go about creating a song, or album?
You're right, Blake, I do use quite a variety of sound sources: hardware and software synthesizers, samples and field recordings, and acoustic instruments. I tend to want to give the digital sounds something of an analog or acoustic edge, and to smooth the surfaces of analog sounds, so everything will blend nicely. Some sounds are so heavily processed that they bear little resemblance to the originals, such as the atmospheric sonority at the beginning of "L"Avenue du Ciel," which was originally a field recording from a busy mall, but run through granular synthesis and a variety of modulated filters. My favorite electronic instrument thus far is the Haken Continuum Fingerboard, which has a flat, continuous soft neoprene playing surface. It plays horizontally (pitch) and vertically (tone), and depth or pressure controls volume. Since there's no hard boundary between "keys," it can easily play slides and vibrato. It's enormously expressive, more similar to my cello than a traditional synthesizer. The Continuum is featured on almost every track of this album. I must credit Dr Lippold Haken for inventing this remarkable instrument.
As far as my process for creating a piece is concerned, it varies considerably depending on the nature of the work. I may have a definite conception at the beginning, or I may begin by simply playing with a sound, for example, working with a synthesizer and experimenting with different control parameters until I find something that intrigues me. I often lay down a drone, rhythmic ostinato or a harmonic progression I've been playing with as a foundation, extending it for far longer than I would anticipate the piece to run. Then I'll play off that, responding to the harmonies with a melodic instrument, or just listening closely to the soundscape to try to notice if there's something already embedded or implied in it that I want to bring out--there usually is. If there's a rhythmic section, I build that up separately, finding the right combinations of instruments and patterns. Layering tracks, adding counterpoint to melodies, responding to what is there already and beginning to build a structure for the piece comes somewhere in the middle. Transitions often require the greatest amount of time and attention. I sometimes build up too many tracks, so there's quite often a process of subtraction. And I usually mix as I go--in this style of music, I don't see that as a separate process from the composition. I give each sound its place in the stereo field, which is rarely static--and build the width and depth along with the "length" (placement in time). It's an organic and evolving process.
I try to take a break from the piece before mastering. It's always helpful to me to put the piece away and get some distance from it. I deeply respect good mastering engineers; it's very demanding on the ear. Mostly, if the mix is good, mastering touches are minimal. But this is an area in which I would love to develop my skills. Assembling an album is generally easy for me, since pieces tend to come in themed series, and I'm already exploring some similar territory. The pieces for Chrysalis were composed together, often in tandem. The pieces I'm making now have a different flavor, and I can already project the overall trajectory for the next album.
With your varied background in various musical styles and outlet's, what draws you to making ambient music in particular?
This is an open-ended genre that really allows me to be myself, without any need to try to fit into a lot of preexisting assumptions about music. While I deeply appreciate the various musical traditions that have occupied me and incorporate elements of them into my own work, I notice that the works I most resonate with all point toward ambient music. In any genre of music, I tend to gravitate toward slow tempos, quiet dynamics, atmospheric textures and a sense of the transcendent. A couple of years ago, I played a concert of partly classical, partly new acoustic original chamber music comprised solely of slow movements (we called it "Adagio: Music for the Soul"). We put this concert together because we wanted to create and sustain an atmosphere of quiet, intimate listening that invited musicians and listeners to commune together with the music, rather the usual setup in which an audience "consumes" a program which is "performed" before them. We even asked the audience to withhold applause until the very end of the program, since the silences between pieces became part of the experience. The response was very warm and sweet--those who attended shared our longing for music as a deep and quiet experience, a way to be "alone, together."
As I get older, I have less and less interest in music as "entertainment." I want an experience as a listener that is more soulful, more intimate and more like meditation--so of course, that's also the kind of music I'm most interested in creating. I have also become more reclusive and monk-like, spending many happy hours alone, playing with sound and searching, like an alchemist, for the combinations of elements that produce a true and pure gold: self-understanding and self-transformation. Music has never be a livelihood for me, but it has always been a vibrant and meaningful life, and the life I'm most interested in exploring is the inner life. Ambient music is an ideal venue for this exploration.
Well said. You've already released two albums this year (correct me if I'm wrong), what's next?
Yes, Solar Winds and Chrysalis have both come out in the past six months, and I'm working on material for next year's releases, which will include a somewhat darker and more purely ambient recording--it might be called "Premonition," or something like that, as well as a recording with inflections from Asia. I have a track for that one already called "Basho's Journey," which features the Japanese koto and a low Irish whistle that sounds a lot like shakuhachi, set in an electronic drone-bed. I like the piece a lot, and want to make more pieces around it.
I have just been offered a commission for a modern dance piece from choreographer Bonnie Simoa, who has studied Balinese dance very deeply. She's looking for music with sounds of the gamelan, flutes, and atmospheric drone. Right up my alley. In fact, I'm meeting with the choreographer later today for more details. I expect the coming year to be very full, and am looking forward to extending my craft and finding new listeners who are interested in what I'm doing.
Wow, it sounds like we're going to hear quite a bit more from you in the near future! Before we turn this into a sprawling multi-page interview… let’s wind this down with some non-music bits and pieces…Married? Kids? Pets? Favorite book? Favorite movie/tv show? When you were a kid you wanted to be a _______.
I live with my partner, Larkin, in a place we call "Laughing Moon Hermitage." She's a dharma teacher in a Koren Zen Buddhist tradition, an author and painter, my best friend and muse. Also at the Hermitage we have Bodhi the dog and Monkey the cat, and an occasional grandchild to visit. We've created an beautiful Asian-inspired garden, and my studio looks right out on it, so I'm really grateful for that. We both love books and read pretty widely. My favorite book tends to be whatever I've read recently and loved, which at this time happens to be "Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists," by Kay Larson. It's a great book to read in tandem with some of Cage's own writings, such as "Silence," which offered me so much more than it did when I first read it twenty years ago.
We both really enjoy smart detective shows, like "The Mentalist," and "Poirot." And while Larkin is not really a sci-fi fan, I completely geek out on Star Trek reruns and high-concept movies like "Solaris" (The more recent one; I also really love the musical score for that film--wish I'd done it!)
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a mad scientist, to have a mop of crazy hair, a lab coat, and invent secret formulas that would do amazing things. After that, I really did want to be a composer, which is another kind of mad scientist, mixing up stuff and seeing what happens. In real life, in addition to keeping up an active musical life, I was a children's librarian and storyteller for many years, and have just recently retired to fulfill my dream of devoting myself to music full-time.
Thanks very much for your time, and the insight into your music. We're super happy to have you on board with Relaxed Machinery. Any last words?
Thank you as well, Blake, I've enjoyed our conversation. One thing I have come to appreciate about the ambient music community is that there really is a community in this pursuit. My experience with fellow artists, such as yourself and others on the Relaxed Machinery label, and more generally in the online ambient music realm, is that there is a lot of mutual support and interest in the work of one another, and a willingness to freely share ideas as to how to forge ahead with this music. There are very few if any pre-established forms, so we're all having to make it up as we go. That can be exciting, and sometimes terrifying, since it's hard to know how one is doing with it, other than through one's gut feeling of what works, and the helpful feedback of others. It is such a diverse genre, and there is so much room for all kinds of voices, that I hardly ever get the smallest whiff of egotism or competitiveness in in. Part of it, I think, is that ambient music challenges us all to become true and honest listeners, to pay more attention to the world of sound in which we are constantly immersed, to appreciate its many textures, timbres and rhythms. And real listening, deep listening, seems to involve a kind of letting go of the self, a suspension of the mind's habitual habits of trying and doing. This kind of listening is where the composer and listener meet as equals, co-creators of the experience. I am profoundly grateful to be a part of it.