Archive for the ‘Artist profile’ Category

Apr 24

Nova Cat [2005-2024]

Nova Cat, Projekt recording artist, unofficial label mascot, and Projekt-founder Sam Rosenthal's pandemic companion, has died. In lieu of flowers, we request you consider a small donation to Sweet Pea’s dental gofundme (more on that below).

Nova was 19+ years old. Sam adopted her from the Oregon Humane Society in 2018 when she was 14. Nova was bright-eyed with a charming, calm personality. She quickly grew accustomed to life with Sam, his son, and visits from Sam’s partner Mercy. “When adopting an elderly cat,” Sam reflects, “I look at it as hospice care. We never knew how much time she had left. I gave her a loving final home to live out her years.” It was soon discovered that Nova had thyroid issues; one was removed and soon the other required twice-daily medication to treat hyperthyroidism. Through a number of additional health problems over the years, "Nova cheerfully kept on going,” Sam recalled. “The many thousands of dollars of medical bills was worth it to have this sweet little 7 lb kitty in our lives.”

Throughout the pandemic as Sam worked at home keeping Projekt moving forwards, releasing hundreds of great albums, Nova often jumped onto his chair to squeeze him over to the edge or get on the desk for pets.

Nova developed a raspy purr from a throat health issue. In 2022 Sam recorded Nova’s purrs to create an album; Nova Cat Purring Sounds was born. Mostly ASMR, a few tracks on the debut featured synthesizer parts Sam unearthed on a cassette from late-summer 1987, discovered while preparing the reissue of Black Tape For A Blue Girl’s Mesmerized by the sirens. Their second album, StellarPurr (2023) had more of Sam’s vintage electronics. During her final months, Nova and Sam discussed a third album. In the end Nova gave her blessing to the idea. “So long as Sam actually plays something new this time,” Nova added with her usual dose of sarcasm and love.

Sweet Pea is Mercy’s kitty, adopted on that same December day in 2018. Although the cats didn’t live together, when Sam proposed to Nova that her obituary include an ask to help Sweet Pea’s dental fund, Nova quickly agreed. Nova was too old to go under anesthesia to get her teeth taken care of, but she often commented how important dental health is to a cat.

Sam says, “It’s difficult to believe she's gone, and I won't see her around the corner. I often took breaks from my desk and Projekt email to search around the house and see what she was up to. After work and dinner we'd often settle on the couch at 10pm to watch some YouTube. She'd flop on her side to scratch the back of the couch as I pet her belly. She enjoyed her last few days in the sun eating whipped cream and treats. She lived far longer than I expected; it was sweet to have all this time with her. It's sad to walk around the house and know I'm without my constant companion."

The following is an enhanced version of something Sam wrote to Mirko of deepspace when his kitty Smoo was passing:

It’s hard to be put in the position to play god and make the decision to end a kitty’s life, but our cats know we’ve always done the best we can for them, and they harbor no ill will toward us when we make this difficult choice. We do what we have to do, and then life just continues on. We have to remember the good times and not get too pulled down into the sad. Because neither the good nor the sad can be changed anyway. They trust us and know we are doing what is best for them. I imagine it's a relief to be a cat and not comprehend death nor think about not being on earth anymore. It’s just another nap in the sunshine, falling asleep while the person they love pets them. Take care, Nova.

Above: Sam with Nova just a few days ago. Below: Nova in 2019.

Dec 06

Projekt 40th anniversary interview @ OBSKÜRE

This is the original English version of Sam’s interview that appears in French magazine Obsküre (Read it here in French.) Sam discusses the history of Projekt, how the business has worked out over 40 years, and some of his proudest moments:

Q: 1983-2023: this year marks the fortieth anniversary of your label, Projekt. How do you feel about this achievement, and how do you look back over the years?

SAM: It’s amazing that Projekt is still here 40 years later. Few businesses make it this long, so it’s quite a surprise. It is great to survive as a business focused on art. I am fortunate to earn my living running the label. I love paying the artists their royalties; it’s nice helping all these great artists get their music to the world.

Q: Can you tell us the story behind the creation of Projekt? What was the starting point?

SAM: In high school I ran my fanzine (Alternative Rhythms) writing about alternative / punk / college rock / electronic bands. Many of them were local bands in South Florida where I lived. Back in 1983 there was no easy way to hear the music I was writing about. The options were to see the band live, or buy their cassette or LP. I decided to put together a cassette of some of the electronic bands I liked that I was writing about. Their releases were obscure and hard to find, and who wanted to spend $5 on music you had not heard before? My idea was to put a bunch of the bands together on one tape to expose people to the music. Pretty much the idea behind Projekt today: I release music I enjoy and hope people will discover these artists, and grow to love them.

Q: How did you perceive the music scene in the early eighties?

Most of the music that people listened to was (bad) pop music. Pretty much the same as today (laughs). I was into the weird music, underground indie stuff that most people had never heard of. With the fanzine, I was hearing more and more music not on major labels, often self released. Attrition was one of the first that was doing exactly the musical style I found interesting. My favorite artists back then were Soft Cell, John Foxx, Marc & the Mambas, Eno, Tangerine Dream. In fact, I’ve made a Spotify playlist of music I listened to in the ’80-84 era. One of the acts on there — Futurisk — was a great South Florida minimal synth / electro-punk group; I wrote about them in Alternative Rhythms. Jeremy released his music on 7” single. If Projekt had been a few years further along, and a bit more established, I definitely would have loved to release his music on the label. Finding “unheard” bands and promoting them and getting their music heard has always been one of my favorite parts of running Projekt. Whether it was LYCIA or Aurelio Voltaire back in the day, or new acts Arin Aksberg, DELREI, and VEiiLA, it’s really enjoyable to be in a position to think, “I like this! I want other people to hear it!”

Q: Projekt has made a name for itself on the alternative music scene with its darkwave and ambient aesthetic. Why did you choose to highlight these two seemingly distinct worlds?

SAM: My band Black Tape For A Blue Girl encompasses both genres. These were styles I was connecting into. As BlackTape got more attention in the late-80s and I met artists and music writers and Projekt gained distribution, it made sense to bring additional artists onto the label. The label became known for the ethereal, goth, darkwave sound in the early 90s with Thanatos, Love Spirals Downwards, SoulWhirlingSomewhere & LYCIA. When I started releasing Steve Roach & vidnaObmana in the mid-90s the ambient side of the label began to blossom. Now that sound is where the label is focused. There are still some vocal releases, but I’d say 85% of the new albums are electronic-ambient.

Q: Questions that will undoubtedly be difficult for you to answer: which Projekt artists have had the greatest impact on you? Which albums are you most proud of having released?

SAM: Projekt has 415 releases and the Archive digital side label has roughly 300 more. That’s a lot of music. These days Projekt puts out around 50-60 albums a year. I wouldn’t want to pick one and seem to be ignoring the others, so this is just off the top of my head here. The album I’ve listened to the most often for pleasure is Steve Roach’s 1984 Structures from Silence; it now has been on Projekt longer than on the original label. I’m very proud to have that one on Projekt, it turns 40 in 2024! I’m also proud to reissue Michael Stearns’ classic albums such as Planetary Unfolding from 1981. But as I said, discovering new music is really the thing that keeps it all interesting for me. It has been so cool to be the label that first release LYCIA, Aurelio Voltaire, Unto Ashes.

Q: Forty years is almost half a century! There have obviously been ups and downs. Could you tell us about a particularly happy episode, and perhaps a harder one. And a few tasty anecdotes along the way?

SAM: The hardest was the early 2000s. Projekt had gone deep into debt in the late 90s, and I had to downsize the staff from 10 to 2 to get things under control. I caught up on past-due royalties, dealt with the debt and put things back on track. It was fortunate I downsized when I did, because 2002-2007 was a hard time for small labels as unlicensed digital ate away at CD sales. Many labels didn’t have the ability to get out from under their debt, smothered by returns from stores and/or stores going out of business without paying their bills. I was fortunate to start early at fixing Projekt’s financial problems.

As far as ups, I’d point to 1996’s Projektfest in Chicago. It was a two-day concert with 1000 people in attendance. 97’s fest had 1100! It was so great to have all those label fans in one place. Those were the peak days of Projekt’s fame. I have to give a lot of thanks to Patrick Ogle, who was Projekt’s publicity guy at the time. I’ve known Pat since high school, we have the band Thanatos together. Pat pretty much conceived the fest, and was one of three or four people who got it all together.

Q: That sounds amazing. Are there any special events organized to celebrate this 40th anniversary?

SAM: No special events. No special releases. Continuing at my job of putting out a lot of great music. And doing interviews like this one.

Q: I’ve seen on Facebook that you’d like to see the Projekt faithful get involved in perpetuating its memory, expanding the label’s Wikipedia entry and so on. For example, would you like to see a major publishing project evoking Projekt’s history, a bit like Martin Aston’s book on 4AD?

SAM: I have no interest in spending a few years of my life putting together a book about Projekt’s history. That is too much work, and I need to do my job to keep the money flowing to all the artists. If somebody wants to write a book, have at it (laughs)! Peter Ulrich (former Projekt artist) has a book about Dead Can Dance, the early 4AD era, etc. Projekt is mentioned a bit in there. Writing a good book is a big job.

As far as Wikipedia, yes, I would like our entries expanded. There’s so much more to include on the Projekt Records page, the Black Tape For A Blue Girl page, and any of the artists’ pages. It would be nice to connect with an editor to help fill those out.

Q: You remastered your 1984 electronic Round Trip debut this year, and your name is irrevocably linked with that of black tape for a blue girl? What do you think about your career as a musician?

SAM: I’ve gotten very good at creating music, and achieving what I set out to do. The Cleft Serpent (BlackTape, 2021) is a perfect album. It says exactly what I want it to say, and Jon and Henrik did fabulous jobs contributing to my vision. It takes hundreds and hundreds of hours to make an album like that! Creating music with lyrics, a theme, a story, it all takes time. I flesh out the concept, live with it, make sure the plot makes sense. Do all the recording, writing, design. When I feel like I have something new to say which can match the albums I’ve already created, I’m sure I will head back into the studio. I have no rush to make music for the sake of getting something done.

Q: As a label owner, how do you see the music industry evolving? Over the past forty years, we’ve seen the emergence of the CD, then its death, the digital revolution and streaming platforms, piracy, the return to favor of vinyl and cassettes…

SAM: The full answer to that would take hours (laughs)! Streaming is the key to all of our survival in 2023. Vinyl and cassettes are fun, but as far as “profit” they are a bit of cream on the top. Even the acts who have the best physical sales still earn around 95% of their royalties from digital. I know, I know! This doesn’t sound as romantic as you might expect. Keep in mind that I’ve been at this for 40 years. It’s my job. I have pretty good business sense, for an artist. So a lot of your questions get me into a logical business perspective. I know maybe you are thinking more about the beauty of the physical format, which I definitely do appreciate. It’s that my job as the label boss is to see where the industry is headed, not to get stuck in where it was. I keep up on what’s going on, to make sure I can do the best job for all the artists I work with.

Now, for Black Tape For A Blue Girl, crowdfunding at Kickstarter is my primary business model. I fund super-deluxe LP, CD and MiniDisc editions with the generosity and support of the people who love the music. I like making my beautiful color-vinyl releases. They are so sweet to look at. I’m the only act on the label that relies on crowdfunding. Aurelio Voltaire is out playing live, spreading his music and entertaining his fans; while also doing a ton of streams on the music. YouTube, Spotify, everywhere! Steve Roach is creating a lot of new music, and doing major concerts a few times a year. Pandora and iTunes are two of Steve biggest streaming sites.

The Projekt Bandcamp page is incredibly successful for the label’s acts. Like I mentioned earlier about the first cassette, bandcamp is now the main way I expose people to the variety of artists on the label. Projekt releases all new albums at Name-Your-Price for the first month, which gets a lot of people to hear the music. And it brings in income for the artists as well.

Free is people’s favorite price point (laughs).

How an artist brings in fans and sales is a bit different for each of us. I think that’s the answer to “how do you see the music industry evolving?” Every artist has their own thing that works for them. There’s no right answer. But there is a wrong answer: Only thinking about what worked in the 1990s, or thinking that one strategy will work for everyone.

Q: What can we wish you for the future?

SAM: A long life with good health. I wish that everyone gets to do the things they love, with the people they care for, and are able to do it for as long as they want to.

Nov 17

An odyssey through the golden years of space disco

An odyssey through the golden years of space disco

By Patrick Ogle

Projekt is poised to release the Alan Elettronico album Electric Mind (Deluxe Edition). This extended version has SCADS of new material. Featured are remixes by Ryan Lum (Love Spirals Downwards), new signee VEiiLA, and ambient icon Erik Wøllo. Alan Elettronico began creating music in 1998. These early efforts include records of the drone ambient variety. He continued to be periodically involved in creating new music while also working as a poet and teacher. Electric Mind (2021) was his first release for Projekt Records and is an eclectic, joyous, electronic throwback that becomes positively addictive the more often you listen.

Electric Mind (Deluxe) Name-Your-Price Download at Bandcamp

This recording sounds like many of the better electronic soundtrack music from the 70s and 80s and, frequently, you can dance to it; is this similarity coincidental?

“Not a coincidence, I spent almost two years trying to capture the original sound of that specific kind of music,” says Elettronico.

He describes the process as a philological effort to reproduce sound libraries of digital synths while keeping the production similar to the standards of that time period.

“Inspiration came from Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, which is based on the same premise. It’s a homage to the music that made me love music,” he says.

This is a joyful effort, it isn’t some dry attempt at reproduction. You will want to dance. It is entirely possible you won’t be able to stop yourself. Although the artist had stopped himself from making music for some time.

“My Projekt Records debut came after a long hiatus. I hadn’t made any music since 2009, while my first and only album released when I worked in the collective named Oem Quartet, was distributed in 2006, and it was a dubstep album for which I provided the melodies,” says Elettronico. “So my debut under Projekt is a lot different from what I used to make. I wanted to explore some kind of music I used to listen to when I was a kid.”

Likewise this is a different sort of release for the label — not generally known for music likely to make you dance. Not all of this record has that vibe but a significant amount of it does. Elettronico’s most listened to recent records give an idea where his mind is musically.

“I am totally in love with Tension, Kylie Minogue’s last album. Production is insane, and songwriting is brilliant: you can enjoy the levity of the pop side, but when you are a producer you can get amazed by how any sound is well crafted,” he says. “Same for Everything But The Girl’s new album, a worthy comeback.”

It might seem curious that an award-winning poet like Elettronico creates music with few words. He doesn’t think it is peculiar at all.

“I don’t think it’s strange, as a poet I have always worked on sounds, and this is the same when I make music,” he says.

He also notes that he hasn’t used his poems for lyrics but that he occasionally uses lyrics on the same topics like the question of identity. But mostly? It is about music.

“I guess that when I make music I want the sounds to speak for me,” says Elettronico.

What does Elettronico hope you, the listener, will get out of his music?

“When it’s about wordless music, the reaction may vary: anyone can see anything in those patterns, and I like that. I particularly enjoy when my music gets people to dance,” says Elettronico. “I don’t mean in shows, people are there to dance and would dance to anything; I mean when they hear it by chance and start bobbing to the rhythm without even realizing. That’s when music gets deep.”

This release has brought Elettronico back into the musical realm, and he doesn’t have plans for another hiatus.

“The Deluxe Edition of Electric Mind has given me the chance to collaborate with a lot of people, fantastic musicians. It was Sam’s idea, and I can’t be more grateful to him and all the Projekt artists who worked on the ambient remixes,” he says. “This experience has convinced me to work on some ambient material I have kept in my archive, not sure what I was going to do with it. I think I’ll give it a chance for the future. For live gigs, I am working with Ekranoplan, one of the artists featured in the remix album, and very active in live sessions around Italy.”

Dec 08

Paulina Fae: in dreams…

Paulina Fae: in dreams…

by Patrick Ogle

Paulina Fae is a musician and fine artist. There is a dreamlike quality in her work be it aural or imagery. There is something about both that seems to slip through the fingers just as you feel you are about to define it.

“I think there’s a running theme with my music in that the songs are elemental and explorative. There isn’t really one specific thing I’m aiming to communicate; it’s more a ceaseless desire to make and share music, however it may be,” she says.

Fae has been releasing music since 2007 with her discovery of Garageband.

“DAWS were completely new to me. I had no knowledge of the technicalities of mastering songs. I wasn’t sure where I was going with it and was debating whether this was something that I wanted to keep doing as a solo recording artist. But as I experimented and learned, the more I improved. I was playing around mostly with piano and vocals at first. It took trial and error to unfurl the technical issues in finding my sound.”

And that sound is refined and perfected in her latest record, Glow. It calls to mind ambient artists and performers as divergent as Zola Jesus and Kate Bush. The comparisons are specious and only a vague point of reference for the uninitiated; Paulina Fae really sounds like Paulina Fae.

To get to this point she experimented and figured out what worked… and what didn’t.

“The opening song on my debut album Bloodroots was a song I’d written for a friend and fellow music enthusiast who’d passed unexpectedly. It’s called ‘Rachel and Sitka.’ That one I think catapulted me into a song-making obsession. I discovered how exciting it was to create this way, and it opened up a new way of thinking for me. I might remaster some of those early songs one day. Maybe. That first album is no longer available to the public,” she says.

As a kid in the 1980s she wrote songs and lyrics but, as is often the case, had no outlet for them except, as she puts it “hissy tape recordings.” She left music behind and delved into visual arts.

“Eventually I learned how to use Logic Pro, which I started using after my third album. That was a game changer in enabling me to do what I really wanted with my music, to fine-tune and master better than previously,” says Fae.

Her music and art do intersect.

“One complements the other. The visual lends voice and interpretation to the sound and vice-versa. They play off the other, and both forms act as narrator. New directions and ideas pop up. That’s how The Secret Language of Trees happened in 2019-2020,” says Fae. “It’s a ‘graphic novella’ book of 11 lyrical stories intertwined with 11 songs. The drawings evolved with the songs; the songs evolved with the drawings. It was a really exciting project for me. Part of it was planned ahead of time, part of it was spontaneous.”

Fae takes different approaches when writing her songs.

“For the most part I’ll play around on the keyboard, the guitar, the ukulele, or in Logic. A little whisper of something happens, and I build it from there.”

She notes this is similar to how she draws.

“The songs have a will all their own and once they begin, it becomes an obsession to structure and layer in a way that complements the personality of a song. It’s always a journey and I never know what will happen — the possibilities are endless; I like that. It fuels me.”

The latest record, Glow, is, according to Fae, part of a trend toward happier songs and her figuring out how to get the best out of her voice.

“I have more fun making songs these days, a little less frustration. The frustration is still there but not the way it used to be. I play guitar and ukulele and incorporate those sounds into the songs, which I didn’t do before. I play a lot more with the sounds than I used to, organically,” she says.

Like many musicians she looks back at earlier work and wishes she knew then what she knows now but it doesn’t bog her down in creative nostalgia.

“As artists we’re often critical of our own work. But of course, it’s how we progress. I try to honor the earlier work; it’s all connected.” says Fae.

If you are looking to see her live you may need to take a trip to the Land of Nod. She says she hasn’t played live in the earthly realm.

“I mean, I remember a lot of dreams playing live. But playing live here, for real — I haven’t. I enjoy recording and mastering songs, putting them out and then making more songs when I’m ready,” she says. “That’s where I put my energy and time. It’s an invigorating experience, personally. A passion. But the idea of playing live — I’m always open to possibilities.”

To paraphrase Delmore Schwartz, “In dreams begin possibilities!”

Oct 21

deepspace: Exploring the Blue

deepspace: Exploring the Blue

by Paul Brandon

deepspace is Mirko Ruckels, a genre-crossing musician with a musical history that resembles more a patchwork quilt than a resume. His March ’22 release Superradiance was his first with Projekt, and its follow up The Blue Dunes has just been released. There’s also two Projekt collaborations with fellow Australian artist, theAdelaidean, and eleven other studio albums.

And that’s just in the ambient genre.

To call him restless is something of an understatement. In his twenties, one of his (several) rock bands was discovered in the Australian ‘Unearthed’ competition run by national radio broadcaster Triple J. Mirko has studied and performed opera with the University of Queensland, worked as a professional songwriter with BMG, obtained five degrees in music, arts and psychology, including two Masters, has been in an award-nominated Americana band, self-produced, recorded and released three albums of solo psychedelic guitar pop music, written a score for a computer game, an album of Beatlesque-XTC-Jellyfish inspired with duo Norskiosk and co-written, produced and performed two albums with ARIA-nominated musician Sarah Calderwood (which are the Australian equivalent of the Grammys).

So yes, he can most definitely be called restless. But sewn through all of these vastly differing projects has been his output as ambient artist deepspace. We sat down in a coffee shop in his hometown of Brisbane, Australia to pick apart some of those threads starting, of course, at the beginning.

P: When did you start creating ambient music as deepspace? Was there a particular catalyst for it or did it come out of nowhere, driven simply by curiosity?

M: I look back now and can see that I started creating ambient music as a bit of a response to a frustration/burn-out with more conventional music performance. I had spent over a decade (starting in the nineties) playing guitar and singing professionally as a musician, working in various guitar bands, often performing up to six nights a week. I started work after 10pm, finished at 2am, got home an hour later and slept until midday like some kind of strange nocturnal creature. Such is the life of a working musician, and I’m sure some of the readers will identify. It got old after a while. I also worked as a songwriter for BMG, writing relentlessly and shopping songs; I worshipped at the altar of pop song writing and filled books with hundreds of songs. My musical inspirations were musicians like The Beatles, Elliot Smith, XTC, Jellyfish: Anything with intricate melodies, vocal harmonies, interesting harmonic changes, and usually a late 60s influence. The nineties were an interesting era, and you couldn’t escape grunge or Britpop music if you were a band, so there were some of those influences creeping in as well.

After the early 2000s I turned to, in what you might see as a surprise, opera. I had started singing in choirs at university, and then found that I had a strong tenor voice with operatic potential. I ended up performing lead roles such as Don Jose in Bizet’s Carmen, Tamino in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Ferrando in Cosi Fan Tutti and other works. However, I felt I was a little too neurotic for a career in the area as it was highly competitive and demanding, and due to some difficulties between warring stylistic factions within the music department and also my own neuroses, I eventually backed out. I felt a bit bruised by the music industry, and it was a year after that in 2007 that I started recording the first deepspace album. I felt like I could be my true self doing this music. I am a very introverted person, and the music not only sounded like the inside of my head, but I could do it without any of the pressure, politics and noise of more conventional musical projects. Just me, my keyboards, guitars and a computer.

Some people say that you are your most true and joyously ambitious self when you’re eight years old, and you spend a whole lot of time away from and then eventually returning to that state after a whole lot of intervening noise and chaos. Well. When I was eight, I was obsessed by inner worlds, science fiction, fantasy, bells, and faraway sounds. In 2007, I returned to that state. I figured if I can’t navigate the perilous seas of the existing music industry, I can make my own seas. The music flowed out in response at that point.

P: What seems apparent to me is a perceived conflict between being in a band and writing ambient music. Being in a band is social; there’s collaboration, writing, arranging, rehearsing, other egos, and of course the live performance aspect, whereas producing ambient music is by and large a very solo affair. For you, I’ve always thought that it was more than that. Ambient music seems like a solace. You enjoy working in bands, there’s been some incredible bursts of creativity within the different projects, but usually after each, you retreat back to gently lapping shores of the drones and the atmospheric environments. Do you find yourself compartmentalizing yourself somewhat between projects and genres, or do they all occupy the same creative headspace? There’s also the personal aspect to this as well — bands take up a tremendous amount of internal energy, and a lot of that can be spent just dealing with differing characters, directions, and also the shedding of a certain amount of control and not just sitting back in the delicious solitude of composing.

M: I feel like the performative side of creating more conventional music in a band has always been a little at odds with my personality. Even though I did enjoy performing, especially with good friends, I still always felt like I had to ‘mask’ a little and be more extroverted than I actually am. When you are in, or front a band, you need to carry the evening and engage the audience. I find myself getting exhausted by that and by all the noise and activity. Ambient music is my oasis. I love empty liminal spaces, abandoned places where there are no people. I love nature, space, and getting deep into those environments. I guess that’s where the idea of deep ‘space’ came from. It’s not necessarily about ‘outer space’ per se, it’s about spaces and entering them with your imagination. And it’s a space in which I exist happily. And I know that others enjoy those quiet imaginative spaces too.

P: So following on from that a little, the structure of a band — and for this I’m generally speaking of the kinds of bands you’ve been involved in — is somewhat conventional; lyrics, melodies etc. Your composition path, is it generally improvisational or do you map out each piece thematically, sonically, technically? And I guess that question lends itself to the entirety of an album too as to whether you have an overarching auralisation of an album as a series of pieces or a whole? Da Vinci said that ‘art is never finished, only abandoned’ — are you one of those people with a cupboard full of hard drives crammed with musical jottings, settings, phrases and tones?

M: My composition is generally quite structured with some exceptions. Because I studied (and teach) music, I developed a harmonic language that I am very conscious of. I will intentionally use certain chords and musical structures that I love and that have become part of my musical language or often per-album palette. For example, in deepspace I love using chords with bass notes that are not on the tonic but are a third, fourth or fifth below in the same way that someone like Brian Wilson (Beach Boys) did – you’re basically inverting the chord, and it creates beautiful nuances, not unlike highlighting an object with a light, but from different angle each time creating a new beautiful vision every time even though the object is the same. When these are paired with other chords that are unusual and borrowed from distant keys, I become a happy chappy: I start to see a gallery of strangely-lit objects. Then the music starts suggesting itself. The listener doesn’t necessarily notice all this (unless they are another ambient musician!) It doesn’t sound clever, it just sounds interesting, evocative and a bit fresh and hopefully recognizable as deepspace.

So yeah, the composition process tends to be structured and so do the albums. Blue Worlds I for example, focussed on the colour blue, and I consciously tried to find ‘blue’ sounds. The Dream Polaroids was an idea of creating pieces that were based on photos taken within a dream. That gave me a wonderful angle of creating dream-like dioramas of sounds. The new album, The Blue Dunes, is made of music that suggests the landscape. A rich blue landscape of dunes. It’s a concept album with an accompanying science fiction story (inspired by the music) about a figure that enters a vast blue desert and experiences…well, you’ll have to read it (laughs).



 Yet the pieces are not structured to the extent of a notated composition where all the parts are written out. So, the ambient compositional process isn’t that different from writing a song. Structured, yet within an aural context, occasionally with chord charts. With a song, I try to find a melody or a chord progression that captivates me and then structure that into verses and choruses. Same thing with ambient music, except it might be an A section and a B section, or sometimes through composed, which means it’s ever-changing and not sectional. A difference between a song and ambient however might be: getting microscopic with sound – I might find a progression or sequence that I love but play it in a way where I’m barely touching the keys, and then I might filter and mutate that as well, it depends.

P: What’s easier for you, crafting a lyric or crafting a tone?

M: 



They’re both a separate game. Yet I will spend inordinate amounts of time on either until I feel it’s perfect. I have a very high wastage rate of pieces (and songs) sitting in my vault of unused ideas. I don’t like the idea of overpopulating my discography with half-thought-out ideas, and I get very selective and neurotic about what goes on an album. I’m sure if there are any ambient composers reading this, or anyone else in an artistic or a craft-based profession, they are probably nodding their heads right now.

P: So Brisbane’s home, and you are one of only two Australian artists on the Projekt label, but you count, by most people’s standards, a fairly broad cultural background of a German father, a French mother. You were born in Germany and spent seven years there before moving to Australia. Music is an odd beast — our creations are like these little private bricks that are our personal contributions within a public brick wall that meanders though many different cultures, and ambient particularly seems less bound by tradition than a lot of other forms — but do you feel a certain amount of pressure on you from different ambient sub-genres or even new age music, and I’m wondering whether you think about where you fit, or if that is even a concern?

M: It’s interesting to develop your music over time and to hear other people describe it. The ‘space ambient’ tag has been used quite a bit with deepspace. And people start to compare you to others. Spotify for example groups you with other artists that listeners also like. I have mixed feelings about this. I think every artist is always a little suspicious of labels and being part of a group of artists as it can feel a little bit like a genre prison and is not so healthy for your creativity as creativity requires air and freedom. If you look at the deepspace discography there are as many non-space albums as there are space albums, in fact, probably more non-space albums, so genre labels are not always very accurate.

I think creativity and inspiration are the guiding factors for me in terms of what direction I go in. If I’m getting bored with a sound or genre, I’ll automatically adjust and create something that excites me. I become disinterested very quickly if I don’t feel a particular feeling from what I’m creating, which is a good safeguard I think. I feel that you really have to create your own path and as French composer (one of my all-time favorites) Claude Debussy said, you should follow your pleasure. I don’t really write for any other reason – it’s certainly not for money. Too many things in this world exist for either competitive or pragmatic reasons. Let’s have a few things that just exist because they are beautiful or unusual. I think art provides that. P: Your biography mentions the deep joy you found as a child with non-melodic, almost atonal sounds such as lawn mowers, distant trains, church bells. You’re not particularly known as composer that uses found sounds in his work, so I’m assuming that your tonal constructions are an attempt to return to that almost meditative state. Do you find that you’re successful or does the process and focus of creation become the meditation more so than the result?

M: Both. My body fills with strange calm pleasure when I create but also when I listen to the result of what I’ve created and to ambient music that I enjoy in general. When I first heard artists such as vidnaObmana, Alio Die, Steve Roach and Telomere, I realized that it must happen for others as well as for me. That was a very exciting moment for me. When I was little, I would feel a sense of magic in certain places. I would look into the corner of my room and feel there was something exciting there: a vista, a diorama, a hidden world, an unexplainable sense of adventure. It’s hard to explain, but that would cause me to sink into a dream state. I put some of this down to my autism. I would enter an altered state upon hearing certain sounds which is something that still happens to this day. I experience it intensely when I hear the sound of bells. When I hear church bells, for example, my head buzzes with pleasure, and I just drift off into that place. I can listen to bells all day. When I hear distant noises, the same. Imagination, and a non-defined sense of anticipation, adventure and richness pervade my senses. When I hear a propeller plane going overhead, for example, I enter a trance state. I love drones and unfocussed sounds. Lucky for me then, ambient music is precisely the place where I can then play with these sounds.

P: Two of the recurring non-musical themes I’ve seen through your music are the sonic interpretations of deserts and the use of the colour blue as a grounding for a lot of your work. Does that come from a particular sense of place within Australia, a country known for wide deserts and the deep blue of the sky and the sea? What do you think are your main sources of inspiration? Do you draw from specifics like landscape, cityscape, people or particular subjects, or is it a much more internal process: childhood triggers, memories, questions?

M: To the last question, I would say that I draw from specifics often. They’re often external states rather than internal representations of feelings which music also deals with wonderfully, but I would say deepspace is ‘outside’ both in vast spaces and microscopic spaces with maybe a few exceptions. I am obsessed by deserts and have been since I was little. There is something so beautiful in those empty spaces, shifting sands, distant plains, and I’m very fascinated by them in a way that I don’t even fully understand. Maybe it’s the autism again (laughs).

Australia is a beautiful and strange continent filled with these kinds of places and arid spaces that seem to go on forever. This feeds my imagination, and I’m quite proud that it’s a source of inspiration for me as it does feel very unique and something that I can show to people in other parts of the world via sound.



 Other aspects like the sense of something appearing then fading away into infinite silence. And creating a sense of vast spaces. And then finding an often quite specific title that describes that feeling. “Light in the Neptunian Desert” is one such specific title from The Empty Atoms. I felt like I was hearing a very lonely light glowing in the distance, but it wasn’t on earth, and the title appeared from that. That’s exciting for me and was one of the reasons I started deepspace. Both music and titles are prompts for the imagination of the listener, much like that corner of the room, or faraway sound, was a prompt for my imagination.

P: Let’s talk about gear for a moment. Artists tend to be creatures of habit with their favorite pens, brushes or guitars. Jon Hopkins springs to mind here with his use of an old ‘99 copy of SoundForge (and Win 98 needed to run it). Your career has been long enough that you would have passed through many generations of hard and software. Are you the kind of composer that sticks to what works for you, or do you regularly find yourself getting itchy to try the latest plugin? M: I’m not very technical minded – I don’t really care about gear or presets. I need things to work fast, and I need to be able to fine tune the sound until I’m happy, so I always like good filters. Synapse makes some good filters. Reverbs are all important. I love reverb; it’s the sound of the gunk in my head. Synapse again, makes a wonderful reverb called Deep Reverb that I use all the time. I use some pretty basic software. Maelstrom, which is a really old granular software synth in Reason. I love it and can make it sing. I have Omnisphere and Keyscape, which are a bit fancy but find that I don’t use Omnisphere that much as the presets are all a bit too authored and specific – I use it for some layering here and there. I like to make my own sounds rather than complex presets. I’m more likely to use something basic like Subtractor or Absynth or an interesting plug-in I’ve come across, like something from Arturia. I like some of the Universal Audio plugins, which are nice. I do use Vienna strings which is probably the most expensive bit of software that I use. I am largely software-based when I’m not adding guitar with my strat or adding other acoustic sounds like bells and odd instruments. I do use some found sounds quite a bit layered under parts – it can give a wonderful sense of space and a meta-sense to a piece. Suddenly the piece is an accompaniment to the found sound, whereas before it was the sole sound. I love that shift. It’s like a viewpoint shift from first person to third person.

Apart from using interesting found sounds that I’ve hunted down, I’ve used my kids quite a bit as sources of sound: “Whisper 1” from Slow Wave Cathedral has my son Luka whispering on it in a stream of consciousness manner. Both my daughters have had multiple spoken bits: one is a spoken section at the start of “The Great Thing in the Sky” where my daughter Astrid goes “Look there’s something up in the sky!” at the start. Another one is my daughter Pixie: she once said that she would like to ask Santa Claus if he is purple. That turned into a piece called “Are You Purple?” on Deep Blue Universe. There are more spoken parts in other pieces if you listen carefully. 
I have experienced the evolution of software and am seeing some stunning programs emerging now. But I don’t think it does that much for the creative process —you can’t buy the desire to express something. No plugin or instrument will do that. You are the thing that creates the music. You are the most important plugin or soft synth (laughs).

P: And finally, what can we expect from The Blue Dunes? It already sounds like you’re branching out somewhat with the inclusion of the digital booklet and story. Is it a more narrative work than your other albums?

M: The Blue Dunes is pretty much a concept album. Being the desert freak that I am, I was very excited about the footage of The Blue Dunes on Mars that came out a couple of years ago. I was initially very excited but then quite sad when I heard that the dunes weren’t actually blue, but only appeared blue due to the particular software being used in that the cooler areas appeared blue while warmer areas are orange and yellow. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story was my next thought, and I started to imagine walking into a blue desert. The idea was intoxicating to me. The music came incredibly quickly, and I had this very strong intuition: do not touch, do not add anything unnecessary to this. Don’t stuff this up. This resulted in the most sparse and minimal work I have done yet. I imagine the temptation Steve Roach may have felt when he wrote Structures from Silence to add a few extra parts here and there. But he didn’t. He must have instinctively known to leave it as it was, that it was perfect. Which it was and still is. Structures from Silence is one of the most perfect pieces of sound ever written. So, even though afraid, I decided to let the music speak as it is. The beauty of a desert is because of what it has, but also because it lacks so much else. I started listening to The Blue Dunes tracks obsessively — normally I listen to edit, check, critique, like most other writers, but I did actually get hooked on this one and listened to it every day for a few months. I don’t say that to influence the listeners. That would be really cheesy and probably ineffective, as I imagine ambient listeners as being intelligent and very selective about what they listen to. I say it to impress upon you that sometimes it’s good to really listen to your instincts and let something ‘be’ what it is, in spite of the pressure to craft something ‘professional’ that sounds like it fits within a genre.

Paul Brandon is a Brisbane-based writer, musician and photographer. His (sporadic) journal can be found at paulbrandon.com.

Jul 25

Erik Wøllo: dark, dreamy guitar sensibility

Erik Wøllo: dark, dreamy guitar sensibility

by Patrick Ogle

Erik Wøllo is a Norwegian electronic musician and composer with over 50 albums to his credit. Stretching back to the mid-80s, his releases are highly imaginary and engaging, building a bridge between grand realms and gentle, serene atmospheres. In addition to his own albums, he has composed pieces for ensembles, ballets, film, television and theater.

Wøllo’s dark, dreamy sensibility appeals to a wide audience. Chill, ambient, shoegaze, trip hop, classical, fans of all of these and more will find something to like in Wøllo’s work. It would be easy to imagine that a follower of Dead Can Dance or Elliot Carter could hear analogs to their favorites in this vast library of sound. There are songs I can see played in clubs (“Sojourn I” off of “Sojourns” leaps to mind. DJs: grab a copy to mix into your set). He uses the guitar heavily in his work which may surprise those who listen to it without knowing his history or his philosophy.

“My soundworld is built upon long suspended notes, drones and textures,” says Wøllo. “The main challenge for me has always been that the notes on a guitar string die out very quickly. It is just the nature of the instrument. Not like a violin, for example, where you can use the bow up and down to play long sustained notes. I often find there is a need to use a lot of additional studio treatments to create the sounds I want. I have several custom-made pedalboards and other tools that can transform what I play into something more textural than the original.”

He says that this lack of sustain was one of many reasons he started to use synthesizers in the late seventies. Needing control over the length of notes, he’s been experimenting with this ever since using ebow, slide, various sustainer pickup systems, programming delays, reverb and a variety of other effects.

But the guitar has never left his repertoire.

“Most of my albums do have string instruments in one form or another. Both electric and acoustic. Very often I use diverse guitar synthesizers or trigger other synthesizer modules with my MIDI equipped guitars. I am a melodic composer for the most part, and I feel this instrument adds more of what you can call human element or a human touch,” he says. “The direct touch with the fingers on a string or on a drum will often make the tone more alive, expressive and exciting for the listener’s ears. It can be very subtle and just the icing on the cake, but still it adds something. Something more interesting, it gives a certain depth to the total soundscape. The pieces might be more personal, direct and original.”

Wøllo doesn’t, of course, use only guitars.

“I have a big collection of synthesizers!” says Wøllo. “First of all I am a composer who makes electronic music. I have been attracted to this aesthetic since the late 70s. In 1984, as a professional touring performer in various fusion bands, I decided to work mainly as a composer using the studio as my instrument.”

“I started to play the guitar at 11. Through all stages in my career, from rock, to jazz, it has always been my main instrument. For several years I practiced more than 8 hours a day and studied diverse techniques. From playing classical pieces by Bach to diving into fusion John McLaughlin material. Today all this is in there somewhere as a part of my education and history but now mostly only as compositional fragments.”

“I can use any instrument, no boundaries. Well, a few exceptions… there are no saxophones in my recordings. They would not fit in my soundscapes. Certain instruments have a certain vibe connected to them. I have been working a lot with kanteles lately, a stringed Finnish folk instrument. Other than my guitars and synthesizers, I have a nice collection of percussion instruments from all over the world. I record these, making loops etc…”

With little reservation Wøllo says his favorite, and indeed indispensable, pieces of gear are his old Lexicon reverbs.

“I have a lot of them, still use them. They are essential in my work. On a mix, I typically use like 4 or 5 in the fx sends on the mixer channels, all with different settings and equalizing to cover the whole spectrum. Software reverbs can sound good sometimes and they have gotten better especially for small rooms and spaces. But hardware units do have more depth and complex sonic realism. Also I need to mention my e-bow, which has become an important part of my trademark expression.”

Wøllo also uses loopers in his work, especially his new release, Inversions.

“Using looping pedals is a way for me to quickly develop ideas, adding layers and trying out repeating ostinatos, etc. A great composition tool. Also, as a solo performer, these are great devices in a live setting,” he says.

His loopers include TC Electronics, Digitech and Boss.

“I used Ableton Live as a looper with MIDI pedals for a while, which is a complicated setup with a computer and soundcard etc. Hardware looping pedals are a better and a more intuitive solution for me, both in my house and in my studio. I have been using the latest Boss RC-600 a lot, which is a great leap forward,” he says. “Still, I miss a few options and possibilities in the looper pedals that are available today. More instant real-time control would be a great option to have. And also if the looper could be more sensitive to your playing, like a second player assisting you in real time. Giving instant feedback to you. But that is future…”

“In my 40-year career I have been exposed to and been listening to many different genres and working with so many different artists. When I sit down to compose, it becomes a symbiosis of all these influences and intuitively it turns into something new and personal as it is processed through my filters,” says Wøllo.

At some point in the process he says his compositions begin to have their own life and he follows that path. Inversions is a series of connected instrumental pieces with something of a dark sensibility. The release was recorded in Wøllo’s house in his kitchen and living room. He did not go into the studio at all.

“The best ideas often come to you when you are in the middle of doing something else. In my kitchen there is a nice spot for rehearsing, and I have a guitar and a looper always available there, ready to record. Over the years this has resulted in a lot of interesting, intuitive and exciting sketches,” says Wøllo. “For this EP I collected some of the best performances, formed as a suite in 7 short episodes that have a total length of 30 minutes. All performed on various electric guitars, looping pedals and effects. There are no synthesizers on this album.”

He says he is attracted to any musician that can play and deliver messages from their deep, inner self.

“Music is an abstract art,” Wøllo says. “It is so easy to get lost and distracted in the physical aspect of it — being too obsessed with technique, equipment and gear, etc. For me the challenge has always been less is more. To find the right note, in the right place in the right sequence of notes, and leave space around it so everything can breathe. Can I be in a state of mind beyond thinking when playing and performing, going deeper and getting the attention away from the self. Then the music can lift off. And in that moment finding ways into the subconscious, almost like research into the unknown mind. There is a consciousness and an awareness in this that can take a lifetime to achieve.”

With Inversions, Wøllo shows that there’s much more to uncover with this humble stringed instrument.

May 12

TheAdelaidean: Music, writing and mathematics are my three great loves.

TheAdelaidean: Music, writing and mathematics are my three great loves.

by Patrick Ogle

Sean Williams is an award-winning author and a professor of creative writing at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia. His book The Force Unleashed (based on the Star Wars video game) is a #1 New York Times bestseller. As a youngster he won the Young Composer Award in South Australia, and in 2017 he received the Australian Antarctica Division’s annual Arts Fellowship to research a novel combining the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration with H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.

He is also theAdelaidean, a musical moniker referring to the name of his home city. The musical project is so varied that you might think each release comes from an entirely different artist.

“My music suffers from the same problem as my writing, which is that I like to move between genres. I call this a problem, but for some audiences it’s the exact opposite, because it keeps things fresh. The common thread uniting my compositions for Projekt are that they’re all ambient, but while I started with lo-fi/lowercase textures, I’ve definitely been drifting towards cleaner sounds lately. Still slow, moody, patient, with a bit of a dark edge at times.”

There is continuity in the individual recordings, of course, but from record to record there are significant changes.

“Some, like Isolation and Inner Real Life, are conceptually defined early on: both of these albums grew out of exercises in music-creation based on source materials (tapes I recorded in the 1980s and jazz recordings from my father-in-law, respectively). In those cases, the final results grew organically out of the textures that were available. For other albums, like Solarpunk, the unifying theme came later: I think of these albums like collecting a book of short stories, in that individual works may not have been created with a larger purpose in mind, but just such a purpose forms subconsciously around them, and subsumes them, making them part of something much bigger.”

Solarpunk has a lo-fi indie vibe that might seem at odds with the ambient and almost orchestral stylings of other recordings. It is a record that would not be out of place on Canada’s Arts & Crafts label.

“Solarpunk started as an assembly of two-plus hours of fragments that over some months I arranged and edited into what the album is now, a whole thing in its own right. I think of this as a very powerful metaphor for how positive futures come into being, through the efforts of many disparate people towards an end they might not even be aware of, entirely, until it arrives.”

Over the years Williams says he has had a variety of processes which were dependent on the materials he had on hand.

“I’m not a natural performer of any instrument, but I can and do occasionally knock out progressions on a piano if I’m looking for inspiration,” he says. “I also love the timbre of instruments, and I have a background in sound engineering that taught me lots of old-fashioned techniques to manipulate recorded sound, many of which have been baked into DAWs and can still be useful.”

Sometimes Williams starts with a simple loop that he feels has possibilities. Then he works with the other materials and sounds that he has at hand.

“Occasionally I use randomness to get me started or to get something that’s stalled moving again. I’m fascinated by the many different means available of varying existing musical artefacts and using them to build something new,” he says. “There are a lot of common elements that wind through my music, although they’re so mutated that I’d be amazed if anyone has noticed. My process, like my music, is in a constant state of evolution.”

Williams employs a variety of instruments in his releases. On Isolation, he plays piano, autoharp, tuning fork, alto recorder, bicycle bell, windshield wipers and… slinkies. You may notice some of these items are not, strictly speaking, instruments.

“My most recent compositions are made in a mixture of Ableton and Audacity, and I’m still deciding if either of them counts as an instrument, although obviously they’re both crucial to lots of people’s processes, including mine,” says Williams. “Although I studied music composition and found success with formal styles of writing, I regard my explorations through software as being a very slow kind of improvisation, so in that sense I guess my computer is indeed my main instrument. My study just happens to be full of keyboards and guitars and other cool things that I use to get a particular sound evolving in my own fumbling way.”

Williams is something of a gear head but like many of us his eyes are bigger than his wallet.

“Man, I love gear so much, but I’m constantly forcing myself not to buy any. Space is an issue, and so is money, of course, otherwise I’d own one of everything (old and new: I’ve always wanted a sackbut, for instance),” he says. “ I also like to be portable. Next year, I’ll return to Antarctica to overwinter, making an album while I’m there, and there’s only so much gear I’ll be able to take. Laptop, headphones, a mic or two: anything more than that can’t be guaranteed. So keeping it lean is definitely my current philosophy. When I get back, though, and the home studio I’m planning is built, all bets will be off.”

Music, writing and mathematics are Williams’ three great loves.

“I’ve always said that just one part of my brain handles the labor involved in each of them, and although that’s probably an over-simplification, I’m sure it’s partly true. All three involve specialist language, and structures, and logics that frequently overlap,” says Williams. “I constantly find myself performing intuitive calculations that draw from each of these fields, to the benefit of the final result, I think. I’m sure I’m not unique in this; I’m equally sure that there are other methods of creation that are just as valid.”

Williams says that, unlike many people he knows, he doesn’t create visually.

“I don’t even ‘hear’ what I’m composing either while I’m composing, in the strict sense of the word. I’m playing at a more theoretical level, if that makes sense (and without wanting to claim any superiority in this approach; it’s just how I work),” he says. “This concept of music-without-sound is something I explore in my novel Impossible Music — and one can see audio-visual outcome of this speculation in a work called ‘vocem video’ (link: vimeo) that I created with Ian Gibbins, an acclaimed visual artist, poet and former neuroscientist. The idea is that you can turn off the sound and still gain a sense of the music from the images alone. That, in fact, was how it was premiered at the launch of the book.”

The name “theAdelaidean”, as noted, relates to Adelaide, where Williams has spent most of his life.

“I was actually born a four-and-a-half-hour drive to the northwest in a country town called Whyalla, but “theWhyallan” didn’t have the same ring to it,” he says.

“Adelaide a large-ish city by international standards (over a million people) but considered small in Australian and has always struggled with its role on the national and international stage. Embracing the arts and arts festivals is a big part of its cultural identity — boasting Australia’s first writers’ week, for instance — but the fact of its remoteness has often made it a difficult draw for visitors from far-off. Like Australians in general, we tend to look outside our local community for new and interesting stuff to celebrate, so we’ve perversely suffered a bit of a creative brain-drain here, despite being in theory an arts-friendly place to live and work. I’ve managed to stay here through an international writing and music career that now spans over thirty years, but I know plenty of creators (those who need physical audiences, for instance) who moved elsewhere and never came back.”

Williams says these facts have given the city an interesting, if frustrating, relationship with the arts. There is a tension that helps the creative process, even if this isn’t always appreciated in the moment.

“Adelaide recently became a UNESCO City of Music, which is exciting, although some of the shine has come off that with the cancellation of our Unsound music festival due to lack of government support,” says Williams. “Recent governments have been ambivalent when it came to supporting individual artists too, such as writers and composers, in favor of larger enterprises — TV and computer games, say, or operatic spectaculars by composers who have been dead for centuries. This is a shame, but maybe that makes us living artists work harder, and better, in order to succeed on our own terms.”

Regardless of the trials and tribulations of the arts in Adelaide, Williams says it has been a great place to grow and develop as an artist.

“The landscape influences me (several of my books in particular). Sometimes the isolation from busier cultural centers like Sydney helps me find my own creative vibe: it’s often easier to find a stillness here that’s missing in big cities,” he says. “The reason why I chose the name ‘theAdelaidean’ for my ambient persona is simply that it’s also the name of the tallest building in town. It was being built when I needed to choose a name, and I thought it would be cool for promo shots — taking an ugly apartment and owning it for artistic purposes. But alas, there’s no big neon sign projecting my brand across the plains. Curse them!”

theAdelaidean’s Solarpunk is available at Projekt’s Bandcamp page, Spotify, Pandora, and all other digital sites.

Apr 20

Peter Phippen, “these flutes became my teachers.”

Peter Phippen, “these flutes became my teachers.”

by Patrick Ogle (photo credit: Victoria Shoemaker)

Peter Phippen picked up his first flute over 30 years ago: a small, crude bamboo penny whistle. He paid 25 cents for it.

“On and off in the 80s, I played fender bass with an avant-garde free-form improvisation group led by my mentor and University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire art professor Tiit Raid,” says Phippen. “We had a show in early March 1987, and I took the ‘new’ crude bamboo penny whistle along.”

During a conga break in one of the songs Phippen busted out the whistle while his mentor gave him the eye.

“I thought I was going to be in trouble for playing the little bamboo. But without saying a word, the next day on his way to teach, Tiit stopped by and gave me a bansuri bamboo flute from India and said, ‘Peter, if you’re going to play flute, play this.’ And that’s when it really all started,” he says.

It wasn’t too long before new flutes were placed on the altar. He was given a Japanese flute, a shakuhachi, by the flute professor at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Tim Lane. While touring with a rock group, the band’s keyboard player found a broken bamboo flute in Louisville which he gave to the nascent flute enthusiast.

“He paid a dollar for it and gave it to me. Our next stop was St. Louis, Missouri,“ says Phippen. “I got that flute repaired, and for whatever reason that is the flute that changed everything. These three flutes became my teachers, but the old cracked and repaired one dollar alto bamboo flute more so than the others.”

Since that time, Peter has recorded 25 albums of his own improvised flute-based music. On these, he also employs four antique shakuhachi, one antique and one vintage bansuri, an antique Egyptian kawala as well as an African hunter’s whistle from Burkina Faso.

Phippen isn’t, however, trying to recreate music from the cultures of his various flutes. He is making intuitive music, his own interpretation of the instruments.

“To play just one of these instruments in a traditional manner would take a lifetime. So, my approach is very non-traditional. I play these instruments as improvisational tools to express myself musically,” he says. “I’m not playing music from the cultures the instruments are from. I improvise freely and put in a great deal of time on the instruments doing my best to get out of the way of the music that I’m channeling or allowing to flow through me out of the air. I am not trying to impress anyone with my playing; I feel my playing is simple. Yet, to play simply, these deceptively ‘simple’ instruments require constant attention.”

His goal, he says, is to play as naturally as possible and while he isn’t religious, he feels his music is spiritual rather than technical.

“Now the more technique you have, the more you can express yourself musically, so it’s a double-edged sword. One has to have technique to play free in case the unconscious flow of the music calls for that, but I feel there is no room for ego when improvising or imposing your will on the music as it is unfolding,” says Phippen. “Yes, I can play fast and all that, but I’m interested in saying something deeply meaningful with the fewest possible notes. To me it’s all about the tone and the phrasing of the notes played.”

Phippen notes that every culture on earth, excepting Australia, has an indigenous version of the flute. Each fascinates Phippen, especially antique instruments.

“I love Edo period and Meiji era Japanese shakuhachi. I also love the sound of vintage and antique bansuri and museum replicas of rim-blown flutes from the four corners area of the American southwest where the originals date from 600 to 1100 CE,” he says. “I like to play and record antique and old vintage flutes most, instruments that have been around the block a few times and have a ton of mojo.”

Curiously one flute Phippen doesn’t play is the familiar Boehm flute, but it is also interesting that before the advent of that instrument, Western flutes, too, were usually wooden.

“I do have some early 19th century wooden flutes and have recorded with them. The cylindrical Boehm flute as we know it today was introduced in 1847 and in my humble opinion is a recent development. I have seen and heard some recent contemporary wooden Boehm flutes as well,” says Phippen. “However, for my music, I find the tone of these instruments unsuitable for the music I am going for. I feel any simple system bamboo flute is superior in tone color to the Boehm silver or wooden flute as we know it today.”

He adds that a popular contemporary wooden flute maker told him he “lives behind a bamboo wall.” Phippen says, “I will always go for bamboo as my first option.” He knows the flutes made of other materials. He just gravitates toward bamboo.

“There are indigenous North American flutes, and these should be made of cedar, juniper, elderberry or box elder. There are also simple system wooden flutes from all over the world made out of various soft and hardwoods. And it seems I am a walking contradiction, as I play in a highly non-traditional manner,” he says. “Yet I like the instruments I play to be very simple and traditional in nature. Still in the end, there is something about the voice of bamboo flutes that I find intriguing, especially antique bamboo flutes.” He has three modest collections: a modern one in case he has to play in a Western pitch, antique, which may or may not play with modern instruments and a “specimen” collection.

Even though he learned to improvise on the bass first, he moved away from it once he discovered the flute. He did play bass a little on his early recordings but did so as a matter of comfort.

“I do not feel the electric bass fits on my flute music. Early on I played bass for my first Canyon Records album, Book of Dreams, but only to serve the song, as I was not full-out improvising everything in 1996, there was a loose ‘form.’ After that I avoided it.” says Phippen.

He says that this could change even though he doesn’t see it happening.

“For my music I like natural and simple instruments, folk harps, gongs, singing bowls, box zithers, female voices, and African and world percussion, all supporting or talking back and forth with my simple bamboo, wood, and clay flutes,” he says. “The only electric instruments I hear in my music are synthesizer and theremin.”

Phippen says that he doesn’t control what he plays consciously but only plays what his intuition allows him on a given day.

“In a sense the music I’m playing is ‘living.’ Now of course there will be good and bad days, but that is only natural. Such is life. If my music sounds fresh after all this time, it may be because I live to play and love the feeling when the music is flowing through me,” says Phippen. “If it sounds cohesive, perhaps that is just my musical voice playing a variation of the same thing at a different moment in time. What I do know is that I play what I am feeling on any given day, following my intuitive instinct in hopes I end up in the ‘zone,’ that place where you become a medium and natural music that has always been there in the air simply flows through you. Some would call that magic.”

His improvisational style is something he was born with – or learned quite early.

“When I was improvising as a young bassist, I used to try and fight it off. It was always easy for me to ‘just play’ off the top of my head. I would improvise alone all the time but only used this skill when I was asked to take a solo during performances. This went on for years. I probably should have done a solo bass album in hindsight. However, in early March 1987 when I accidentally found the bamboo flute (or it found me), improvising free was just the best way to play. It’s funny that it took a different instrument to open my eyes.”

A large influence on his style, although he says he didn’t realize it until he was in his 30s, was his mother.

“I grew up in the foothills of the Adirondacks in northern New York state. When I was four, five and six years old, my mother would take me on picnic lunches into the deep woods. After we were done eating we would sit quietly, and she would always ask me, ‘What do you hear?’ My mother would not settle for the easy answers like the wind in the trees or the birds singing,” says Phippen. “She took me to places where there would be much to hear if you really listened. Once the bamboo flute came into my life, all my mother had taught about really listening opened up.”

There is something of the natural world in Phippen’s music: wind whispering through the pines, the ambient hum of nature and the myriad frequencies just in the realm of what we can hear.

Phippen’s latest release, Into The Ancient, is available now at Projekt’s Bandcamp page, Spotify, Pandora, youTube and all other digital outlets.