Back at the end of August, I was fortunate to attend the 20th edition of Mutek in Montreal. Part of the festival is a series called A/Visions, which is devoted to explorations of audio visual performance. I was able to catch up with loscil, before his performance. The long-standing project of Vancouver based artist Scott Morgan, loscil blurs field recordings into densely layered and textured compositions that teeter on the edge of minimalistic electronic dub and ambient sound collage. His extensive catalog has primarily been released through Kranky, the legendary Chicago-based experimental label. For Mutek, loscil performed a live A/V performance of his newest album, Equivalents.
Joe Mygan: I’m very interested in your creative practice and process, could you expand on your current approach to creating and how it has evolved throughout the loscil project.
loscil: We just talked about this, how loscil as a project might feel like I have an obligation to it now in a sense that it has got it’s own identity, and I think why a lot of artists create artist names and project names is because it kind of takes it outside of themselves in a certain sense and allows them to focus a specific creative direction in one way in one object. With loscil, the guts of it have always been about taking sounds from the world, like field recordings and instrument recording and manipulating them and building textures out of those found sounds that kind of get reassembled into a fairly dense and layered deep listening experience that invites people inside of the sound as much as possible. Elements like rhythms and melody and traditional music frameworks come and go, but the core is layers of texture and density. That core hasn’t changed dramatically over 20 years but things have come and gone from the sound. I am always trying to layer in new things and layer in different perspectives on that same approach. In a way the challenge of keeping it true to itself is also a motivator, it’s kind of just pushing all between those two forces and keeping it sort of interesting and keeping it true to itself.
You build a collection of techniques as an artist and specifically with a certain project you build this set of techniques that operate on their own. When I sit down and start something new, I have many possible entry points that are comfortable for me so I usually start with very familiar processes and see where it takes me, and often what is surprising even with the same approach and the same processes and the same kind of thinking you can end up in a different place, or what I think is a different place. I still don’t think that I’ve exhausted all the paths to making a record, every one is slightly different than the other. What is important to me and the only reason I keep naming it a loscil record is that it has a truth to itself in terms of the sound, otherwise I would just put it under my own name or a new project name.
JM: What are some of the philosophies or concepts behind your work? What are the materials you use in your work, you said you use a lot of field recordings?
L: Many years ago when I was going to university in Vancouver, I studied music but I also studied what was a subset of communications department, electronic and electro-acoustic communications. They were focused on ideas of studying sound in the world. R Murry Schafer who was one of the composers/ teachers behind this sort of way of thinking coined this idea of sound ecology. Listening in the world, trying to understand the world and human impact on the world through sound. Schafer began things like the World Soundscape Project, which was about documenting sound and collecting sound not just for creative reasons but for pseudo scientific reasons, the idea of having this sonic artefact of the world. The idea was to continually update this, I actually worked on the Vancouver sound project in the 90’s as a sound recordist.
Doing this research kind of turned me onto this idea of listening to the world, and listening like how a photographer would document the impact humans have had on nature.
Chris Watson comes to mind, thinking of a sound recordist who goes out and collects and goes to great lengths to collect sounds from the world to show everyone. Well this is what the world sounds like right now and some of these sounds are disappearing and some you might never hear again because species are dying.
Philosophically, I think taking a lot of that into my practice, I started as a field recordist and there are two sides of that, one is that I enjoy the process of recording sounds and manipulating them and turning them into music. The other is the act of listening, specifically deep listening where you try to immerse yourself into the sound. I try to encourage that with the music I make too, because I think we all could benefit from that.
JM: For your performance at Mutek, you are performing pieces from your album Equivalents? Could you talk a little about this album?
I was reading that you were inspired by Alfred Stieglitz?
I am also curious, what is your perspective on the link between image and sound?
L: So Equivalents sort of grew accidentally out of this idea that, ironically I wanted to make a record that didn’t have a theme, I wanted to accept abstraction for what it is. I wanted to permit a little more subjectivity for the listener, so when someone came to the music they weren’t told by the titles or presentation exactly what they should feel or think when listening to the music.
That kind of comes from receiving feedback over the years and being surprised by people’s interpretation of my music and how it can show up such strange situations, like some people have given birth to my music and some people have used it to get through a hard time. People give me this feedback and I was amazed because my own intentions, although they probably did influence on some level, didn’t reappear in terms of how people were interpreting the music.
I started from a place where I would like to remove as much of my own subjectivity in just the presentation and not have a theme. Some of my thematic works have not been that suggestive, it’s not that they are that strong, telling you what to think. I think with Monument Builders which was the previous record, I had reached this point where there’s a specific kind of feeling I am trying to convey to people that I want to get across, and it’s not pleasant really, it’s kind of riddled with anxiety about the world.
I kind of just wanted to just step away from that with the record and be like: “ here this is I have my own feelings, and I am not going to tell you what they are when I made the music. I’m not going to reframe it in a way that tells you how to absorb it.” I was working on a dance piece with a local choreographer in Vancouver and we were using a lot of cloud imagery. I take photographs, i’m kind of an amateur photographer and I had this ridiculous collections of thousands of cloud photographs and wanted to do something with them. I was exploring the history of photography and came across Alfred Stieglitz’s “Equivalents” collection. I think there were two main things that drew me in, one was the he’s kind of credited as one of the first photographers to explore the idea of abstract works of art with photography. Photography was viewed as kind of documentary art, it was there to take portraits and pictures of scenes in the world, it wasn’t there to be expressive. Taking a picture of the sky with no reference points, no horizon, no trees, you know just the clouds using equipment hat was pretty challenging to do so with. Photography sounds so simple now, we just point our phone somewhere and take a picture, I read in an interview Equivalents was a challenge for Stieglitz technically, but also a challenge of him expressively and that combination of technology and expression runs true with me. I gravitated toward it because of my love of photography and because of this idea of abstraction and the minimalism of it. So I kind of just ran with the idea, stole the name, and started to work with that as a theme. Ironically by starting with the intention of not having a theme, I ended up having a theme which has just revealed to me my process. I kind of need to rally around an idea, I need something to unify the whole, otherwise it feels like a collection of random musical ideas. I like to present things as a unified whole and that’s the sort of theme that ended up appearing to me.
Equivalent 6 from loscil on Vimeo.
JM: I was curious, are there are any mental spaces that you tend to occupy when you are creating, and if there’s a difference when you are creating these works or also performing them?
L: I get a lot of inspiration from the West Coast. I’ve lived on the West Coast in Vancouver area for my whole life. My parents live on Vancouver Island, so we spend a lot of time on the ferry back and forth and in the mountains. It’s all very accessible there and rugged and still wild enough to be to feel like you can disconnect from urban life a little bit. It can be cheesy but that’s a place to go for inspiration and rejuvenation. In a way it’s great to disconnect from all this concrete sometimes, and so having that be so accessible, and the ocean in particular keeps coming back into my work in many different ways. Water in general even subconsciously I gravitate to, I don’t even consciously do a lot about it, it’s just a natural progression like “oh what should I start with? I will start with sounds of waves again”.
With the field recording, I usually start building a sound palette, like with Equivalents I really was interested in kind of clusters and textures that were very cloudlike. When you think of the history of western music, it’s only periodically that texture and density become a kind of actual musical focus point. When you think of some of Ligeti’s works or Xenakis did some cloud stuff. Some of the 70’s 80’s era computer music got into granular synthesis and this idea of creating clouds of sound and in the pop realm, My Bloody Valentine were doing these sheer density massive textures. As a starting point I was really interested in density and texture as a musical focus rather than an add on. It’s not like a synth pad that goes underneath, it’s more like what occupies the core of the music. I built all these textures with a bunch of samples I collected, field recordings, also some recordings of Glenn Gould’s piano in Ottawa that I had as part of a tribute to Gould that Ryuishi Sakamoto had done in Tokyo. I was their guest to contribute to this and sampled his piano and built some sounds out of that. This was the pallet I had lingering around that I had on my machine and I decided to build a record, a bunch of compositions out of.
The live stuff generally comes after I’ve made the record and I have to decide that I’ve got all this material, how do I structure them and keep the compositions as they are on the record or reinvent them. Some of the live compositions that I’ll play tonight are pretty close to the record and some go off in different territories. I have an ability to do a tiny bit of improv and building up of the sound live too, so keeping some of that flexibility is important and inspiring to me. If I want a piece to go a little longer and maybe build a little more I can have that flexibility and the video will just follow along and loop until I nudge it to the next section. Live the goal is to build a sound environment that is conducive to immersing yourself into as an audience member.
JM: Do you have any things you are working on now for the future?
L: Yes, I’ve got tonight and I have a little tour in Europe in October for UK dates and a couple of mainland European dates.
I’ve been doing the sound design and music for an interactive piece of art called Lifelike, which is launching in the fall as part of Apple’s new Arcade subscription service.These Austrian developers contacted me kind of randomly asking me if it would be able to work on this project. It was just very beautiful artistically and interesting, so I took it on and I’ve been working on that the past couple of months just building theses sound worlds for all the levels in the game. That’s been a big part of my focus over the past couple of months and should be wrapping up in the next couple of months. There’s little bits and pieces out there now.