Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Oöphoi | Tau Ceti ‎– Celestial Geometries (2001)

This is a beautiful album and the words which come to mind are glacial and cold. Evocative of lunar landscapes, interplanetary drifts, slowly turning galaxies, dark matter. Some would call this dark ambient and this is a fair description but for me it is something else, more like grey or the pale tones of a winter landscape.

As ambient albums go it is a lesson in minimalism, usually allowing single sounds to occupy the full soundspace and you can feel the atmosphere around the elements. A feeling of vast emptiness.

Oöphoi was Gianluigi Gasparetti, an ambient musician who died in 2013 and left behind many ambient recordings and collaborations including this beauty from 2001. 

Tau Ceti is Enrico Cosimi, another ambient composer who is still active to this day. The two collaborated numerous times.

It comes in two versions including Celestial Geometries 2 but for me it is the first album which creates such powerful, bleak, empty spaces which are chilling and awe inspiring to enter. 

Grazie molto, Gianluigi.


Thursday, 20 June 2019

Interview with Arjen Schat

One of my most recent discoveries in ambient music is the wonderful Arjen Schat. Creator of exquisite Berlin Style sequences and warm gentle ambient (amongst other things). Having been active since 2002 he has a sizeable body of work under his own name, as Ohrwert (dub techno) and as Minute of Arc (idm). I had the great pleasure of collaborating with him on an album as Network 23 which we did by exchanging files via email. The result - The Clock of Dreams - is available on Bandcamp.  This interview is a chance to find out more about this unique artist.

I know you as Arjen Schat, which I assume is your real name, but you also release music under other names. Please introduce yourself.

My real name is indeed Arjen Schat, also known for releasing dub techno as Ohrwert and trying to make a name for myself with electro and idm releases as Minute Of Arc. I’ve been active in the field of electronic music in its broadest sense since the late ‘90s and have been releasing music under various monikers since 2002.

Tell us about your sequence based tracks. How do you go about putting a track together?

I usually start with a phrase or a key I have in mind and dial that in on my Koma Komplex analog step sequencer, or on the Elektron Analog Four’s sequencer. From there I start expanding the sequence and start adding more sequences to it, whilst I’m shaping the sound of the synthesizers I use. Then I add transposition sequences, these sequences transpose the root note of its main sequence and, depending on its complexity, create infinite variations of the initial sequence. Once the sequences are running I’ll add some pads, strings, or soundscapes to it. Either by processing the sequences realtime through Logic, or by adding more synthesizers to the mix. Once everything is in place I start improvising along with my trusty Moog Little Phatty, usually for a few hours prior to recording everything in one take.

You have an interesting collection of synthesisers, sequencers etc. Tell us what devices you're enjoying using these days.

A large part of the collection is currently stored due to a smaller studio space, but I've been using the same equipment selection for a few years now. I very much enjoy using my two Moog Mother-32s with the Koma Komplex, it’s like a melodic sketch board. There’s no menus and everything is tangible so it really speeds up the workflow, it also goes from 0-100 in terms of complexity by adding a few patch cables. As for drum synthesis I enjoy using the Vermona DRM1 MK3, it can really cut through a mix, but it’s basically nine analog synthesizers hardwired to shape drum sounds. Again, no menus and quick results. My favorite piece is still the Moog Little Phatty. I’ve bought two in 2007, one for playing and one for sequencing (this was before the Slim Phatty rack module came out). I feel it has shaped my sound over the years because it has been consistently in every release. I recently bought an expression pedal for it which adds a whole different dimension to playing the instrument.

We have a huge range of devices available these days for music making : vintage analogue, old school digital, VSTs, virtual analogue, new style analogue, modular etc. Do you have a strong view of what you like to use or are you open to everything? Do you prefer to work without a DAW for example? or does each tool have it's place?

There’s a hint of that in my recent albums "Audionautic Research Program" and “SiO2", but there’s definitely more coming.

When I started making music, it was all computer based. I was deep into signal processing and wanted to extend my sound palette with external equipment. My first synths were virtual analog, then I bought new style analogue synths, then there were some vintage digital purchases. I’ve wanted a full sized modular system for years, but there was always something more interesting on my path. I’d also like to buy it in one piece, which is quite expensive. I don’t have a particular preference for what I use, I use whatever I need to achieve a certain sound, whether it’s some analog percussion noise from the Jomox or Vermona, a choir sample on the Blofeld, or even a generative patch in Max or Reaktor. I do like to work without a DAW because it’s more immediate, but it really depends on the project. Each tool definitely has its own place though, I won’t be using a digital synth to create an analogue sound, or an analogue synth to create a granular sound.

Interesting.....and you also produce very effective ambient music, which for my ears really hits the spot. What do you think is the key to a good ambient track? And how do you go about making one?
I think it’s a combination of the right sounds and the right harmonics, when those elements are in place it just flows naturally. This is exactly what I try to achieve when I’m set out to record an ambient track. Often times it’s a very slow sequential track where the sound is able to open up, combined with a long reverb, and occasionally realtime granular processing to add more harmonics. But sometimes I use processed field recordings, or just play the Rhodes very slowly.

You also have an interesting Youtube channel, Arjen Schat, with plenty of performance videos including my favourite which is you using a Doepfer Dark Time sequencer with a Dark Energy synth - an excellent demonstration of how analogue sequencing works. Are you planning on doing more performance videos?

My YouTube channel hasn’t been as active as it used to be. I’ve set it up in 2007 to publish demonstration and music videos, and continued to do so over the years. In 2015 I tried to upload consistently every week, which went alright for 37 weeks, but I noticed the videos became variations on videos I had done before. Since then I upload when I feel like it. Lately it has just been music videos, but I might record another performance video as the last one has been well over a year.

And what about live performances? Can it be done?

It can be done, and I have done it in 2016 in a theatre in Limoges, France. The setup was surprisingly similar to what I use in my current studio. There’s always a concession to be made when it comes to what you really want to do live, but apart from the pads and drones, everything was done live, including the sequencing. It was a surreal experience because not a word was spoken or a sound was made during the 80-minute performance, something I’m not used to, coming from performing mainly dance-oriented music.

Interesting. Two more questions to go. Firstly, tell us about your most recent release SiO2

SiO2 is a document of how I try to move forward with my recordings in the new studio, a year after setting it up. It still contains my sonic identity, but is enriched with subtle rhythmic elements and non-western musical scales. The album title comes from the name of the studio, which is derived from the chemical formula of the street we live on.

And so to my last question - what will you be doing next?
I’m currently doing one recording a day for this month. I felt I wasn’t spending as much time on music as I would like to, so I decided to document my daily progression for a month. No long recordings or fully arranged tracks, often different takes of various musical ideas. I might curate the bunch and release it, or it will act as a tinder to ignite a larger musical concept.

Thank you, Arjen. This interview only scratches the surface of his huge body of work. You can find out more about his music on https://arjenschat.nl/music

I'd also like to mention the album which we made with Arjen earlier this year as Network 23 - "The Clock of Dreams" which is available to download from Bandcamp. It is made up of three tracks which combine Arjen's delicate sequences, slowly building and developing like structures, around which we weave rhythms and melodies to form an elaborate, complex whole.  It was a joy to make and we hope you enjoy listening to it. The three tracks are varied in tempo and feel, with each one exploring different moods.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Arjen Schat - Primal

This is one of my favourite recent discoveries from the very talented Arjen Schat. It is a collection of ambient tracks which are all average 10 minutes long. The youtube version presents them as a continuous mix. They are abstract, beatless and very amorphous - like Steve Roach's best stuff, but highly refined so there are no breaks in the magical hypnosis of the sound. They are like clouds of vapour, drifting, swirling and evolving, never settling but always changing around a centre. Impossible to grasp but compelling to listen to. A real treat and I mean it as a great compliment to say this has been my "get me off to sleep" music for a while recently and it works very well.

Also available to download from Bandcamp https://arjenschat.nl/

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Klaus Schulze - Kontinuum

At the moment I'm in love with this album from one of the masters of Berlin School electronica, Klaus Schulze. It features rolling sequences which are neatly understated and gentle melodic lines which glide over the structure of notes. It's very subtle and gentle in it's approach and it creates a haunting atmosphere.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Interview with Janne Särkelä - SARANA

I have been a fan of sarana for a good few years now and have had the pleasure of being able to collaborate with him on two pieces over a long distance via the magic of the internet (and ninjam). 

So it is with great pleasure that I present this interview with the creator of many hours of wonderful music as sarana.

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Janne Särkelä, and I currently live in Helsinki, Finland. I’ve been interested in sounds since early 90s, and from 1996 or so onwards I have produced music as SARANA. I have been performing my music live since about 2000, and it’s always been more or less improvised. The thrill of performing something live that has never been heard before intrigues me, and forces me to stay focused on the present. 

Besides producing music I’m also interested in photography, art & technology and sound design, and I have my own business - Sanara Creations (sanaracreations.fi) - to provide my expertise on those fields. I’ve for example created the 1000 year GIF animation loop As Long AS Possible (aslongaspossible.com) for the artist Juha van Ingen. The work is in the permanent collection of the Finnish national museum of contemporary art, and it’s making rounds in the international circles of media art. 

I wish I could live on my music and creative work, but for now it’s a passion. 

Thank you. 
I'd like to ask you about the beginning of your works. I first encountered your ambient music on Drone Zone, what must be at least 10 years ago, and I was immediately mesmerised. After some exploration I found a huge collection of your works on the Internet Archive and this opened up a fascinating world of sonic exploration as well as some of my all-time favorite long form pieces. 

Tell us about your early works "The Archives". They seem to be minimalist electronic experiments using very limited equipment but producing a unique series of sounds, often lo-fi or "low quality". At times you amplify noise to create the sonic textures. Feedback loops are frequently used.  

How did you first get into electronic music? 

I remember hearing radio for the first time. It was the kind of small radio with cassette deck my mother had. We had just moved in to a new place after my parents separated. I entered the kitchen. Something strange was in the air. It sounded like noise, but with beautiful parts in it too. The sound stirred emotions inside me. 

I couldn’t comprehend it, and I didn’t realise music was probably playing on it - some early 80s hit I guess. 

Astonished I asked my mother what that was, and she said it was a radio.

Some of the stuff in the archive is me most likely reliving that sudden, strange and beautiful experience. 

A few years later I had a C64 computer and a lot of games. Few of them had great and memorable soundtracks, Rob Hubbard in Nemesis the Warlock for instance. I used to listen that in loop with my cousins, immersing in the power the track possessed. 

Not long after I copied all the Jarre albums my father had and listened to Oxygene (There’s this one magical moment in Oxygene II), Equinoxe and others in loop too. The melodies and harmony in them got me emotional almost every time. I used to listen to them while devouring science fiction from the local library. 

I went deep in the synthesised music (those cheesy collections...) and from there found Vangelis too, and later Kraftwerk’s Radio Activity, getting in my hands the real releases. In the early 90s I started to feel the power of Berlin techno, acid trance...

I don’t have musical background, and creating sound and music has almost always been an experimental process to me. In the process I have my own space and total freedom. 

I played with C-Cassettes, twisted the tape backwards and played with varying the record speeds. I had a drum synth in my C64 which I used for something simple. 

The things got really interesting when I actually won Amiga 500 in a draw held by a Finnish computer magazine in 1990. 

Within few weeks I was playing with tracker sequencers, and then later with samplers and keyboards. This is documented in the archive, which holds almost complete record of my sound creations. 

The use of feedback has perhaps been a way for me to have an immediate response. Something akin to letting go of oneself, succumbing to a greater power... At least it felt natural to plug the the cord from out to in. It fits there so why not?

Can you tell me about your first synthesizers? You mention the Ensoniq ESQ-1 and the Korg Polysix amongst others. To what extent did these early devices shape the music you were making? 

Very nice of you to ask about my synths. I’d say they shaped the music very much. It’s sort of a self fulfilling prophecy where I settled for the devices I happened to find.

I didn’t have specific synths on my mind before acquiring them from the used gear corners of music stores. I used to make visits to the places and try things out every now and then. I found Polysix and ESQ on different occasions when looking for a synth with my pay from a summer job in my hands. 

Polysix had this sweet smell of tobacco in it and slightly out of tune filters, and the sound was phenomenal to my virgin ears. When trying out ESQ-1 I managed to make the sound really weird and then silent by just randomly tweaking everything, not really understanding what I was doing. I thought I can make anything with it. They then became my platform of sonic exploration,  synthesis and keyboarding studies. 

The hands on method the both synths proposed fit well to my method of improvising and recording tracks live without overdubs. Then again it had to be that way with those specific synths. 

I ditched computer completely at some point and enjoyed the immediacy of the gear. After years together I felt they were extension of myself in a way. Live playing had an intuitive and organic touch. I didn’t want to be directed by arbitrary presentations of time presented by left-right or top-down sequencers, but felt the music was more like a growth process and an unknown planet to explore inside somewhere. 

I still have both of them, and recently upgraded Polysix with MIDI and had it renovated for the over 20 year anniversary of our travels. 

So how did you become interested in creating ambient music, which emerged from your electronic experiments? 

Where there any particular influences, other makers of ambient music?

My first touch with actual ambient music most likely happened through a national radio show, specialised in ambient and experimental sounds (also classical music in similar vain). That’s where I also sent my very first experiments with effects modulated feedback loops, and I was flabbergasted that they actually aired the experiment. I didn’t catch any names of the musicians, composers or producers from that show however, but I used to listen to the show every week for years while in high school, and so went through a lot of the history of electronic and classical experimental music. The scheduling of that evening on one national radio channel was really great. It started with world music show, then progressed to jazz and finally to experimental and ambient sounds.

Perhaps I already had all of the releases by Jarre, but on one day I deviated a bit from by usual browsing habits at a record store, and looked for something else. I found this one release, which had an interesting name, not many tracks on it and an intriguing cover (My method of deciding an album was great. I didn’t bother to listen to them before bying). It was Soma by Steve Roach and Robert Rich. In my opinion that is their best work together. Mystic and so welcoming at the same time. From then on I started to gather albums by Roach and Rich separately and together. When I found Structures from Silence by Roach I felt I had found something truly magical and beautiful. I felt like I was at a spiritual home. Trances and Drones by Rich was my other favourite.

These releases and others expanded my view on what is possible and what can be done. Much later when I found Sun Ra and listened to all of the music he ever released that I could possibly find, I finally realised there really are no limits. When my first album was released by Vir Unis’ on his Atmoworks label I felt a kind of circle had closed. Vir Unis had after all collaborated with Steve Roach on some albums, providing ever changing fractalized beats to them. 

Of movies, definitely 2001: Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick was the most influential. I first saw it in my early teens and then made it a ritual to see yearly, perhaps a dozen times after that. 

I ended up playing beatless live ambient, because of my inability to produce rhythmical textures with my setup then. I was unhappy when listening to my live sets, and I saw a lot to improve (and be ashamed of...). Also, I believed that time should not be divided by repetitive beats. Instead, I thought a constant sound presents the moment of infinity. It’s as if one stays still and is present everywhere at the same time, floating at the infinite speed, in the sea of all the possible outcomes.

Some of my favourite of your ambient pieces are the very long-form live performances which are available on the internet Archive and I refer to by the location names of where they were performed like Pallomeri or Sai or Katana. These were the first time I'd encountered very long ambient pieces and the idea is fascinating, immersing oneself in a sonic environment is as sensually enjoyable as mood lighting or incense.

This has spoiled some other ambient artists work for me now because a track which lasts only a few minutes seems brief and rushed. Once you've created a wonderful mesmerising atmosphere you want to bathe in it, sit back and relax like a warm bath. Float away. 

How were these pieces performed?  What were the locations like- chillout, post rave party comedown? What was the audience response? How do you perform something like Sai which lasts 10 hours?

Except for Pallomeri the locations you mentioned were the chill out spaces of underground rave parties. Pallomeri was an album release party for Yacht Club Records’ (yachtclub.fi) second compilation called Pallomeri. I was and still am member of the crew who released the albums. I’ve performed live over 50 times at small and large events, from urban and nature underground to art galleries.

At Sai rave my set was the chill out for the whole event. I basically took my studio there, and sat very satisfied on a comfy armchair, the synths and gear around me. I don’t think I moved much around during the night. I’ve noticed that the part progressions from the beginning to the end last around 20 to 30 minutes during the live performance. That is, there’s a point where something new is emerging, and then I start to follow that and build on it. It reaches a culmination point after which I feel the winding down phase starts, and then the cycle repeats.

At the most ready point of the progression I sometimes feel that I become a listener, and let go of myself as the mediator of the music and float on it. It’s an emotional moment for me. It feels like a small death or a surrender and release, like breathing air a bit over a surface, and then falling down again to trying to find new ground to build on.

Some sets have happened during sunrises, and there’s been a lot of beauty in that like witnessing the first rays of sun illuminating a chill out space in a forest and dew drops on the synths. It’s interesting how acutely sensitive one can be to the others while on stage, to feel what energies make up the mix this time. Lot of that comes from how well I hear what I’m playing, how comfortable I feel about my instruments and that I don’t feel to have been left alone, but listened to. It goes without saying that the connection is strongest when the mind and body are clear.

I call my sets meditative and intuitive because they force to be acutely present and focused but at the same exist in another level of consciousness, a dream like state from where only snapshots can be remembered afterwards. The sets are mostly improvised in a way where I have some sense of how things might play out but I have no sense of the emerging details, and things often go to surprise directions. Things are at constant change and I need to first accept that.

Live setup has gone through a few transformations, and I’m confident and happy now where it’s heading.

And as well as your solo performances, where you also in Luonne?

Yes. I played keyboard, effects and flute in the free form  collective called Luonne (luonne.org). It was established by myself and Marko, my friend from my hometown. The idea was to only play together at gigs and improvise everything, and never rehearse. It helped that all the other people had a musical background, so it worked quite well for most of the time. We were active only for a short time, two - three years or so. What we played sounded a bit like ambient-experimental-jazz, with 70s vibe in it. Luonne winded down when Marko, a fragile, creative personality and a star gazer, died tragically while travelling abroad. Luonne material is also on archive.org

Thank you. I'm saddened by the loss of your friend and musical colleague.
More recently you've mentioned changing your live ambient setup to be based around an auto-generative system (if I understand it correctly) where sounds from the location trigger sonic elements. Tell us about that - how does it work?

The idea was to blend completely in the surroundings, as if the music would emanate from the environment itself. I had idea to make music from sounds - in the same vain as spectral music composers had done earlier I think. I was bored of my live sound at that time, because it felt too easy to just make beautiful melodies and the physical keyboards felt restricted because of the 12-note system. They were not fluid enough and too discrete. So I started to build a system on Max/MSP, where sound frequencies were directly transferred to MIDI messages using 14 bit pitch bend / channel.

It was a laborious endeavour, and I created a couple effects like filters and other things for the system also, which used the original frequencies as their input. I went too far into it, and lost the connection to performing live. It was very difficult to play anything on top of the spectral set, because of the modified tuning, and building patches on Max became too time consuming. I had to learn Max though while creating the live set process, and then went on to create a couple of sound installations with it.

My installation from sound art gallery Akusmata: Ambient^2 ) is most likely the purest display of the process.(https://vimeo.com/sarana/ambient-spectral-sound-installation

From the process I learnt that no matter what the fundamental frequency is, if the harmonics on top of it are in some order the resulting music will sound like music, even though it’s practically impossible to play anything on it because of tuning differences (which are in flux also…). In the end I started to implement some stricter mechanics to how the system picked frequencies and build harmonics on top of that, but I was still unhappy of the distance to actually playing with the sounds. Besides, I wasn’t happy in the sound design and the palette that I had. 

So I ditched Max and rebuild the set in Live, using some Max for Live patches. It was an easy choice, because a lot I was thinking of implementing in Max was already done in Live, and I was able to master the sound properly too. Live ecosystem works well for me. I now have a system which analyses sounds, and constantly, but in a very controlled way builds harmonies and lively melodies from the original sounds. On top of that I’m able to perform live, tweak things to any direction and invent melodies. Because of multitude of polyrhythmic layers the music never quite repeats itself.

The original Max process still exists, and I intend to bring a couple of things from there to Live. But if anyone would like to have a sound installation at any space, where the  music would come from the space itself I’m open. Because I have completely managed to drop myself out of the equation in the Max set it can be totally independent ambient music machine.

And, at times, you've collaborated with others including an all female experimental noise group also called Sarana in Indonesia.  Tell us about that.

Yes, that was an interesting experience. I was going to play a live sunrise set at an total solar eclipse festival in Sulawesi, Indonesia. 

Some time before the event I was contacted by someone on Twitter, who had seen my name in the lineup. Apparently there existed a band called Sarana in Samarinda, Borneo. They were interested to meet up, and so it happened. I travelled there after the festival.  We had an event at a music studio in Samarinda, and it was covered by local media. 

Oöphoi | Tau Ceti ‎– Celestial Geometries (2001)

This is a beautiful album and the words which come to mind are glacial and cold. Evocative of lunar landscapes, interplanetary drifts, slo...