Playlist – Sound of Mind

With the world in such a weird place at the moment, now seems like a good time to share a playlist of ambient music to ease the mind.

This one, homemade on the hoof, includes some personal favourites from Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Brian Eno, The Orb and a whole lot more:

I hope you enjoy it – and if you have any suggestions for future playlists please get in touch. Happy to do a whole load more!

Ben Hogwood

In concert – Loscil & Marconi Union @ Rich Mix, London

Loscil & Marconi Union

Rich Mix, London, Monday 21 October 2019

Written by and images (c) Ben Hogwood

How do you define pure musical ambience? Is it music you can leave it on in the background and do all manner of tasks to, or is it the sort where you become so transfixed that everything else is blocked out?

Loscil’s music falls emphatically into the latter category. He may have been on the stage at Rich Mix for 45 minutes, but for that time the entire audience were gathered up and taken to the outer reaches of Vancouver, British Columbia. This is where Scott Morgan, the man behind the moniker, resides – and it is the wild, open panoramas of the region that his music so successfully evokes.

Equivalents, his most recent album, is a series of responses to black and white photographs of clouds by Alfred Stieglitz in the early 20th century, and the formations billowed on projections behind Morgan for much of his set. This aided the feeling of total immersion in the elements, meaning all we were lacking was the wind on our faces and the rain on our heads.

With little in the way of propulsive rhythm, Loscil’s music somehow captures the raw power and scale of the elements, the expanse of the Pacific coast stretching out as far as the eye can see. The mind’s eye is also drawn to natural phenomena closer at hand, with forests, lakes and birds all effortlessly alighting in the imagination.

We traversed five numbers from the Equivalents album in all, in a I – III – II – V – VII formation (with the image for the beautifully restful II shown above). The air was thick with big chords, Loscil’s keyboards and sequencing taking on quasi-orchestral designs. When silence arrived, in the middle of the set, nobody dared to move – and, after an intake of breath, on we went. It is a long time since I saw an audience so transfixed in a gig, and Loscil’s music took us somewhere truly special, way outside of a bar in Bethnal Green.

Supporting this transcendental experience was a more beat-driven variation on musical ambience from Marconi Union (above). The long-standing Manchester group make music that is more urban in origin, at one with the setting in which we found ourselves. Like Loscil they used projections, usually halved on the screen and complementing the more city-based and percussive approach perfectly.

Night time visions for tracks like Sleeper were transporting, as were the images of travel by car or train before them. Piano and guitar were key elements here, sensitively played as the quartet gelled effortlessly on stage.

The first part of Weightless was arguably the most effective, its subtly changing textures and evocations of twinkling lights most effective before an audience fully on board with this antidote to Monday night drudgery.

Both acts offered proof positive that ambience can be a transporting experience, and that the rich talent and intensity in this field remains undimmed. With well-chosen DJ sets from The Grid’s Richard Norris in and around the live acts, as part of his Group Mind initiative, this was a night to celebrate the surprising power of ambient music, whether foreground or background.

Switched On – Loscil: Equivalents (Kranky)

Loscil Equivalents (Kranky)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Scott Morgan’s twelfth album as Loscil is inspired by Equivalents, a collection of black and white cloud photographs by Alfred Stieglitz from the early 20th century. Given that he lives in Vancouver, with its panoramic sky views towards the eastern Pacific, Morgan had constant reminders while writing his concentrated musical responses to eight of the pictures.

What’s the music like?

The imagery fits Loscil’s music perfectly, Morgan often creating music that works as an audible representation of a weather system.

Once again time and space are suspended in this music, which seems to be incredibly simple when placed in the middle background, but which on closer inspection reveals intricate lines when up close, rather like those cloud systems. The eight equivalents, slightly confusing in their placements out of conventional order on the album, unfold with slow gravity. Like their clouds they are weighed down, almost to floor level, but their layers combine to make constructions of rarefied beauty.

Equivalents 1 & 3 (picture above) make a good pair with which to start, both brooding in minor keys but in the second piece oscillating softly between two pitches above a long, held note. If you close your eyes and concentrate at this point natural phenomena come into view (they did for me at least!) and there is a palpable, windswept energy despite the complete lack of percussion.

The central Equivalent 5 (above) is the most memorable and remarkable, with the closest thing to a melody you will find on this album. A four-note motif, drawn over around 10 seconds, enjoys a stately progression through the clouds, like a plane on an onward journey as the mass of water swells around it.

In response Equivalent 2 (above) has that rare breed of stillness Loscil can conjure up, floating weightlessly above the solid masses. Again though this has a slow moving, four note movement, audible in the bass part.

Finally Equivalent 4 (above) inhabits a similar timeless space to Holst’s final planet Neptune, with a rich added chord bolstered by fuzzy outlines that gradually fade from view.

Does it all work?

Yes, with the greatest intensity. Some of the best ambient music is pleasant and relaxing to listen to but carries with it a concentrated feeling. Loscil achieves that balance once again on Equivalents, placing his listener in the very photograph providing him with inspiration. On headphones that notion becomes a very intense but also private experience.

Is it recommended?

Absolutely. A Loscil album that is ideal for new listeners but which will wholly satisfy his devoted fans. If you haven’t joined them already you are strongly advised to do so!

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Interview: Loscil – granular processes, emotive results

loscil

Scott Morgan (above) is the Vancouver-based producer behind the music of Loscil. Under this moniker his music is often found filed under ‘ambient’, but in reality it has more of a foreground impact through its deep and meaningful content. He talks with Arcana about his experiences of classical music, how it can be found in the fringes and structures of his work, while discussing his methods of composition and personal investment in the music.

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

That’s a tough question! I don’t know if I can remember listening to what I understand as classical music, as I wasn’t really from a musical family at all. I’m quite sure my first exposure would have been to some sort of film or movie. I did eventually go to university for music, and it’s funny because even though I took music at high school – saxophone and playing in a rock band – I don’t remember a relationship with classical music until later.

I was studying from modernism and moving on, and of course a lot of that is rooted in classical music. Certain composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky had their more retro periods; they were doing their experimental stuff and went back to more kind of tonal, traditional classical stuff.

I always look back and kind of regret that my parents never put me in piano. My first exposure to music was through my uncle who gave me an acoustic guitar which I self taught, and then I took saxophone in high school. I eventually gave up on that, but that was the road that led to me being more of a composer and an experimenter with studio stuff, in that I loved to play around with electronics and to muck with things and make sounds. I would pick up an instrument and learn how to play it but never that well, enough to make sounds with it.

In your encounters with classical music, who are the composers you have grown to admire?

I was really drawn to people like Ligeti and Penderecki, people like these 1960s composers who were doing stuff with texture and using the orchestra as a sound palette rather than writing melodies and harmonies and traditional stuff.

Xenakis too, and I really loved all that Webern twelve tone stuff. I was really drawn to this idea that you could play with texture, because texture and timbre – the colour of the sound – had always been present, and good orchestrators know how to manipulate that stuff, but it was never at the forefront, it was always rhythm and melody and harmony that were given all the attention.

When did you realise you had a real aptitude for working with texture in particular?

I wasn’t conscious of it in my teens when I was doing rock band stuff, but when I was first going to school the splinter for me was working with computers and electronics. I had a professor I worked with who was really in to this technique called granular synthesis, and actually Xenakis explored a lot of this stuff too. There are some overlaps with acoustic writing and practice, but granular synthesis is where you take a sound and you cut it up into a bunch of tiny grains or components, and it gives you this control over the sound in terms of multiplying it in density or growing it in time. You have this sculptural control over sound.

The first time I heard it and the first time most people hear this kind of process is so ghostly, and you hear all these voices that come out of the sound. The texture of it is so rich and inviting that it creates this instant kind of sound world, stretching and multiplying the sound. I was really taken by this process, and I think finding the connections from there into what people were doing acoustically was really interesting.

That’s why Ligeti is often a good acoustic counterpart in terms of building up these clouds and textures of sound. That was the genesis for me, and then I went on to muck with other computer, digital signal processing models to build up textures and sounds. That ended up being the root of the Loscil project, which has been about building these textures and working with sound in that sculptural way.

There’s something truly different from what you heard before, that eureka moment of doors opening, where you realise that you can think of it this way now. In my early school days I was having more moments like that with worlds opening up, and different ways of thinking about sound and music.

Your music has a vast sense of space in it. Is that something you are keen to have, or is it a by-product of how you write?

I think it’s a bit of both. When you’re working with electronics, everything is so instant in real time that you can almost be as much of an audience member or listener as you are a composer. I find there is this very zen-like state that I get in to making stuff where I can sit and listen to loops for long periods of time, and really enjoy that space, and in fact feel kind of guilty that I have to really impose myself on it as an editor and as a composer, to present it to people. I’ve done a couple of releases, one of them a digital release a few years ago called Stases.

It was this exploration of these long, drone-like textured arcing shapes that had a longer trajectory to them. They didn’t have really identifiable elements to them – rhythm, melodic components, and yet they have been some of my more popular recordings. People like to put them on and have them as this kind of aural wallpaper, while they’re writing or working on visual arts. I find people put these on as a mental stimulus. I get into these patterns when I’m working that is an altered state, half listening and have creating, and the tools let you do that. I guess a lot of instrumentalists get into a similar state, where you’re zoning out on scales or something.

I find your music very effective during travelling to work on the train.

Train travel is an interesting one. There is something inherent about the rhythm of the train and the movement outside the window and I assume a lot of commuters want to get out of the reality that they’re in when commuting!

What I perhaps wasn’t quite so prepared for at first was the depth of emotion or concentration in your music.

Sometimes there are things you can’t quite explain when you’re creating stuff, and where it comes from it’s hard to put your finger on. I know I am generally a happy person, but things come out when I’m making stuff! There is a way of using the creative process and the creation of music to express that which you can’t express in other ways, and that’s what ends up coming out a lot of the time.

With your new album Monument Builders, was it a coincidence to be releasing it on Remembrance Day, or was that planned?

It’s funny. I didn’t choose that, but I asked the label if it was intentional, and I got a three word reply that was something to the effect of ‘yes of course!’ I believe it was somebody’s intention, but not really mine.

Was it inspired by a particular event or set of events? I know you mentioned a link with the Philip Glass score to Koyaanisqatsi.

I rewatched Koyaanisqatsi, and the version I was watching was quite messed up. It was a VHS tape and the pitch was a little off, and the tracking on the machine, and I thought it was interesting. I saw it first in a Vancouver theatre, which has ironically been destroyed and replaced with condos, which is the Vancouver thing right now.

We’re such a young city, and that is my attraction to it. I used it for the cover of Monument Builders, a 1970s kind of brutalist thing. It is one of only a couple of buildings of that style in Vancouver now, everything else is like flashy glass towers. I found that related to Koyaanisqatsi as something that was very epic and meant to spark you and wake you up emotionally as to what is going on in the world – over consumption, over population.

Over time, as technology progresses, maybe what was once epic is no longer quite as epic, and especially when it was projected on an old format. It’s like you are looking into the past, warning you of the future. A lot of time has gone by now, over 30 years since that movie came out, and there is something interesting to me about that and relating it to architecture.

You look at our city, and my mum thinks that building is so ugly, but there is something beautiful about it too, and there will probably be one of the last things standing. It was a swarm of ideas about that kind of stuff. Some of it is admittedly a little dark but there is a core beauty about it too.

There is a certain brightness to your music too, for instance in the previous album Sea Island where there are bright, deep blues implied.

When I look back at most of my catalogue, I realise so much of it is unintentional when you’re inside it, but when you see it splayed out in front of you a lot of my work accidentally plays with the spectrum between the natural world and the industrial world. There are times when I have moved to one side over the other, but ultimately I think I’m after some sort of balance of what it is to be human, and what it is to be human inside of this natural world we live in. We are a part of it but we’re also outside of it – or we think of ourselves as out of it.

When you are writing with electronic sounds and samples do you feel like you are in charge of an orchestra, in a classical sense?

A little bit. I definitely take some of my musical education in terms of writing for instruments and apply that. You’re often working in tonal ranges or pitch ranges, the bass, the mids and the highs, and you’re always wanting to balance those things, and I definitely think I compartmentalise those things in a similar way. I don’t think of moving a melody among different instruments and things, but there is a slight touch that is definitely taken from acoustic writing.

Some of the Loscil tracks could in theory be played by an orchestra.

Yeah, I’ve actually tried to imagine that at times myself. It is a really interesting question, wondering how I could create this sound not using electronics and only using an orchestra. It would be a really fun challenge but I just need more money!

I think I have always really been a kind of acoustic composer at heart, who just ended up using electronics. I think that’s part of the reason I’m folding in acoustic instruments a lot of the time. On Monument Builders I wrote a lot for the French horn, I thought that would be interesting.

The final track on Monument Builders, Weeds – does that use cut-up vocal sounds?

Yeah, that’s my friend Ashley Pitre. She sang on a couple of tracks on Sea Island, and I had the samples still kicking around. I ended up using some processing on them, and it has some of the granular technique I was talking about, to chop up the voice a little bit.
When I play live I tend to leave that one towards the end, because you can’t do much after it! It has more of a dynamic range that is not as common in my work – most of it gets to a point where it sits at one particular level and will then gradually decay. That track really goes from nothing to everything over the course of seven or eight minutes, and when I do it live the volume gets quite a bit louder at the end.

Do you think your sense of structure has a lot in common with modern classical composers?

Yeah, maybe I’ve not experimented with structure as much as I could have done over the years. I did do a release, an interesting project with an Irish record company called Wist Rec, who asked me to score a novel and they were using these Penguin mini-classics, and asking composers to write music for this book. I was given Malcolm Lowry’s story Lunar Caustic, which is a short story about a pianist in New York who loses his mind and gets put in an asylum.

He mentions the Grieg music to Peer Gynt in his story, and listening to this in the asylum. I ended up writing and working with a friend of mine on the piano parts, and we ended up referencing elements of the Grieg piece. We played a lot more with the structure, and because the book is so structured it allowed us to think in a different kind of shape.

Normally I approach a piece of music as an isolated thing, and this was like four movements, so that was one of the few times I’ve stretched the structure away from what is common for me, which is making a bunch of pieces that might speak to one another but ultimately get compiled and turn out on an album. Because of vinyl’s popularity again you think about sides and the length of an album, and it’s interesting to be freed from that and be a little more flexible.

The original version with the book, I’m not sure if you can buy it anymore, but the version on Bandcamp is a reconstructed version with my friend Kelly Wyse, a pianist from Seattle.

What does classical music mean to you?

It’s a treasure trove. For me I would say any kind of music history. I am actually drawn more to early music, and the study of that alongside politics and history, and what’s going on in the world. I think you can draw so much looking back at classical music like that.

I also have an incredible respect and admiration for classical players. Any time I get an opportunity to work with performers who have dedicated their lives to an instrument, and are masters of that instrument, I have so much respect for it – probably because I am just not that person! I have not mastered an instrument. But the discipline that goes along with that, and the ability to read music off the page and understand an instrument so well that you can express through it, is fascinating to me.

Is that what makes electronic music so great, that it enables people to formulate more of what’s in their heads musically?

I think so, but I think there is another element with electronic music that you get the ability to not only do that but you get a feedback system, and get drawn in to areas of experimentation that you just would not discover. I think that’s a lot harder to realise than with a traditional approach of sitting at a piano and orchestrating. You don’t get that immediate feedback of what it does when you bend it and shape it. That’s relinquishing to the machine, but it is part of the process as well.

If you could recommend a couple of classical pieces for Arcana readers, that have maybe held a special place for you, what might they be?

Because we spoke about Ligeti I would definitely recommend Atmosphères. I’m obviously on the modern end of things here, but the opening of Koyaanisqatsi is high on my list these days. My composition teacher hated the minimalists, so it was held from us in a certain way, but I discovered those on my own later. He was really into Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

I love Gregorian chant, too, and Thomas Tallis. There is something about that modal music, and because it is religious music it is performed in these massive churches and cathedrals with their massive reverb.
Reverb now is such a massive part of electronic music, so the idea of a fully natural reverb is fascinating and interesting, and also when you think of what we are drawn to electronically does have its roots in religious music. I’m not a religious person but it makes you wonder if something fundamentally spiritual is being handed down in that sense.

Loscil’s album Monument Builders is out now on Kranky. For more information on Loscil and Scott Morgan, head to his artist website