August 17, 2006

Interview: Gregg Kowalsky

For some, instrumental experimental music might not prove to be that exciting of a listen. To the casual ear, one instrumental drone might sound the same as the next. Considering the number of bedroom laptop Brian Eno-inspired musicians making music, such an assessment of the state of modern experimental music is, sadly, not an unfair one. That doesn't mean that all artists of this genre are to be held suspect; when you find an artist like Gregg Kowalsky, it makes you appreciate their talent all the more. His debut album, Through the Cardnial Window, was released earlier this year on Kranky, and is a collection of gentle, complex instrumental music that is as suitable for mental relaxation as it is for intellectual examination. He was kind enough to answer some questions about his music and his compositional methods.

Your compositions are dense, yet have a very distinctive cinematic quality. When you compose and create, do you mentally create a visual picture or an imaginary film to highlight or accompany what you are creating?

I don’t really have any images in mind when beginning a composition. For me, the imagery comes as a listener, after I finish the piece. I will sit and listen to it over and over again, to better understand it. That’s when I start to visualize things. It’s usually a night time scene of sorts or one scene in a frame with no camera movement. I have shot some single frame video that looks like a still shot, but has minimal movement due to wind. I am planning to score these little vignettes sometime.

When you started to write and create music, what attracted you to making ambient instrumental music?

Around the time I began composing, I was exposed to experimental electronic labels such as Ritornell and Touch and heard some amazing textures and microtones in the works of Oren Ambarchi and Stephan Mathieu. Made me realize the drone doesn’t have to be the backing track to beats or whatever. There is so much going on in these layers, they can stand alone.

I also appreciated the idea of composing pieces that contain little movement on the surface, but lots of movement hidden in the microtones. I liked the challenge of digging deeper into the textures. And, everyone in a space listening to the same piece of this kind could be having completely different auditory experiences.

You recently participated in what I have seen described as a live audio experiment with Greg Davis and others, involving "the art of intense listening." How did the experiment come off? When you wrote for this project, what kind of goal did you have in mind?

The event is part of an on-going series called LISTEN, and is cuated by Christopher Willits. He commissioned pieces by a wide range of composers to be played back in a studio with an audience. There is no performance, just a listening experience. I composed a piece using tuned sinewave oscillators, cassette tapes and loops I cut from material I was given by the group Rameses III. I wanted to create a sound environment where frequencies and tones would interact with one another to induce a psychoacoustic listening experience. I wanted to fill the space with dense textures as well.

The event was held in a yoga studio in Berkeley, California. It was as close to a New Age experience as I have ever had. Actually, it was completely New Age, and I loved it. All of the yoga instructors were there, as were some of their students and others from the Bay Area. There were lights, crystals, candles, oriental carpets, etc. You are forced to focus entirely on the music, as there is nothing to look at, no performer, no instruments. It is quite a different experience than going to a performance. There is no bar, no people talking, no beer bottles clanking. Basically, it is just ear candy. I can’t say it was much of an experiment because these types of situations have been carried out many times over the years. Tape music! I think the next installment will contain works by Willits and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

You've performed a soundtrack to a Derek Jarman film, and you're currently composing another Jarman soundtrack for performance this fall. What attracts you to Jarman's work, and do you plan on doing any further soundtrack composition?

I am a huge fan of Derek Jarman’s Super-8 short films. I am attracted to the density and textures of his work, as well as his use of light and reflection. Brian Eno, Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV originally scored some of the short films, which were all done in the late 70’s/early 80’s.The event I organized using his films actually occurred last November and was a prototype for something I am hoping to try and put together in the coming year. While at Mills College I matched up 6 ensembles with 6 of the short films. The ensembles performed their scores to films which were projected on the back of the Mills Concert Hall in the Greek Theatre. It went so well and the scores were magnificent. So, I am planning on putting this together on a much bigger scale. I really want to try and expose his films to people who haven’t come across them as they have come across Brahkage’s work, for example. I am in talks to score and lend some of pieces to a documentary still in production. Right now I am just teaching post-production audio for film.

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