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Nick Mulvey, Musician, Singer-Songwriter

I never know where music will lead me next…

Entranced as I was by Portico Quartet‘s Southampton performance in 2010, I would never have imagined delving into dharma, mantra, and the Muse with their founding member and former hang-player Nick Mulvey seven years later. From Portico’s inner voyages to the irrepressible enthusiasm of Wake Up Now, Nick’s music is more uplifting, its intent increasingly crystalline with each release. We speak here of transformation anchored in the present moment, of devotion as a pathway to creativity, and of how his personal urge to awaken, in whichever way we choose to understand it, may invite broader social and personal responsibility.

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Could you please define yourself as an artist?

The short answer is no [laughs], because it’s such a living experience, being an artist, there are so many elements to it. I’ve always sat between genres. To an extent, every artist does; it’s not often that you find an artist only in one place.

I write songs with the guitar, and I’ve been fundamentally influenced by the great songwriters that my parents played in the house, from their generation – from the Beatles, Bob Dylan… Growing up, that was the kind of furniture in the house, as well as a lot of classical music. I always had a really broad appetite for music. I loved lots of different bands; I also loved a lot of African music. Music has always been a meditation for me, before I could define it that way.

How did your longing for creative expression first manifest? Has that always been there for you?

Yes, it really has. I’ve been playing music for longer than I’ve been making memories. I was definitely doing it as a very young baby, and my mum gave it space, supported it. Playfulness and fun normalised music for me. Years later – at ten or twelve years old – I remember thinking, “Oh, not everybody is like this.” In my young adulthood and early teens, I started to have my own longing for expression, my own tastes. That actually started with the drum kit – I wanted to play the drums, because it looked really fun. A few years later, I had more sophisticated pretentions, and I wanted to learn to play the piano. I loved that. It was after that that I found the guitar; it was a real home for me.

Does that ease of expression run in your family?

I think so… My Dad would play the guitar, and it was like a bedtime story for us, every night. He’d sing us to sleep most nights. He had a limited repertoire, but he did really nice songs.

There’s a lovely nod to your Dad in “Remembering”… It captures that link.

In the new album! Becoming a Dad really gives me an instant connection to him. He became a father at a similar age. On one level, I know what his experience was like. All this compassion naturally comes out.

At your Thekla gig last June, I was struck to hear you singing a mantra. I couldn’t quite make it out then, but have since recognised the invocation to Saraswati, the goddess to call upon for music and creative expression…

…and language.

And language! To me, your songs feel like offerings to something that is both within and greater than you – what is your relationship to the Muse?

It’s really grown, my understanding of creativity in this way. There is a desire to understand my creativity with this mechanism of personification, but also of devotion. Having a focus for the devotion.

There is a story behind that particular lyric and the use of the Muse[1]. I had a phone call from a friend who was coming to the end of his studies, training to become a Family Constellations practitioner. Later on, he told me that he had a kind of brainwave calling to contact me, but at the time, he just said, “You’re doing something really interesting, you’re writing an album; I need to practise my work – maybe we could do a session together? Just you and I, and it would be about the creative process.” So I said, sure, that sounds really interesting.

We went to a field near his house, with lots of rocks representing the different elements or systems in my life. One represented my family, one for the people I work with in the business sense, one representing the Muse. And one at my feet, representing myself. He had me stand in different positions and communicate from them to the other parts of the system – even back to myself. In the position of the Muse, he fed me these lines, which are typical for the Family Constellations practice, “And as there’s no such thing as time / Nothing is lost and no one is saved.”

He asked me if I had any regrets in my life, and I said, maybe I could have been more organised when I was sixteen, and I would have had a stellar career, some nonsense… He asked me to say back to myself, “There is no such thing as time in the creative realm. So nothing is lost.” And it broke me open, it really moved me. It worked, and I forgave myself. I didn’t know what I was holding until I let it go. I felt very grateful for the present moment. I haven’t lost anything; everything is as it’s supposed to be.

That’s the specific story behind that lyric – those words came directly into the song. I had wanted to incorporate some mantra into the music, but I was very sensitive to getting it right. There are many ways in which you could do it wrong – a bit too new-agey… I’m trying to always bridge a gap and communicate, beyond those who already are interested in those things.

It’s one of the things that I appreciate about your work – it has so many layers. If someone comes to a gig to listen to good music, they get that and leave feeling uplifted. And if someone is open to other aspects, they’ll get that, without you sticking it in their faces. It’s there for the seeing and hearing…

I really work hard to strike that balance. Eventually, this song happened, and I thought, “Here’s the place where we can put it.” Saraswati felt obvious. The mantra is “Aum eim Saraswatiyei namaha, which to the ears sounds like “I’m.” Sometimes I wonder, do people think that’s what I’m saying? [Laughs] It’s E.I.M., which is Saraswati’s seed sound, her essential vibration.

I found out after that there’s often an order of invocation: Ganesha is the opener of the gate, but Saraswati is pre-Ganesha, because we’re using her gifts. I felt pleased and confirmed when I found almost by mistake that I was doing that.

What is your connection with that path? Would you care to talk about it?

It’s kind of personal, in that I haven’t been schooled in depth. My father was always interested in Eastern culture – more Buddhism. So there were mantras in the house a bit when I was a teenager,  it feels familiar. I was happy to reach for it in my adulthood because of that background.

The links come through Ram Dass. So much of my interest in Indian culture has been through Ram Dass. When I was a teenager, I loved African culture – and still do: there’s barely any expression of African music that I don’t love. Buddhism is also appealing, but Indian culture came later, in my later twenties. Through hearing Ram Dass and falling under his spell. He said that Maharaji, his guru, is the fisherman, and Ram Dass is the bait – I’ve definitely been caught, you know. [Laughs]

There began my interest in understanding these deities and all of the different energies and principles they represent. I got into mantra through Deva Prema & Miten, as well. My wife’s parents are friends with them.

The themes of dharma, responsibility, self-inquiry, and awakening all run through this album… What moved you to stand so clearly in your personal intentions and to have the courage to commit to being seen, so to speak?

I hesitate now to say it, because it’s really testing me – the music, and this tour. In a good way, but also taking me very deeply into understanding where I am being played and where I am playing, if that makes sense. The album is a reflection of my interests, of the things that I’ve been taking in, of musical influences. Musically, I’m still working with all of the wide listening I’ve done up to this point. More emphasis has been on the influence of Ram Dass and Osho, Eckhardt Tolle. I only wanted to hear their words, I had a desire to understand their teachings – and am interested to a degree in all saints. That’s been the pull of this album.

I also wanted to make the music that I want to hear in the world. Many people are doing great work about the same themes. In a sense, any artist who is true and surrendered is always an expression of truth. But I wanted to speak explicitly, because I feel it’s really needed. When you look for something and you can’t find it… Okay, I’ll do it myself! [Laughs] I do feel urgency in this time. I knew the energy it takes to make a body of work, and I couldn’t begin if it was just to talk about myself. By the end of touring the previous album, it was frustrating to not be speaking really clearly. Having a kid amplified that, and made me feel I need to take responsibility for what I’m doing.

I get led by the material, by the music. I always start musically with shapes and feeling – and the guitar, which informs melodies, and the melodies give me words… I go a long way in creating these songs before I’m there making decisions. They kind of have a life of their own. I also make decisions – it’s a dance between the two. And there is a choice to talk about these matters. But I was resistant to calling it Wake up Now.

It’s quite a declaration! But we need it…

It is! [Laughs] I was really encouraged by people I adore. I had written the song with the chorus, “Wake up now,” so that already existed in “Mountain to Move.” I was looking through the album for the title, talking with friends about the process, and I received that really clearly from them: Own this, be really transparent, take authority and authorship in it. I had a resistance, even when I was writing the song. Again, the music led me – the pre-chorus, “I don’t want to see us lose any more time / This moment is a mountain to move / So move it inside…” and the melody took me down to “Wake up now.”

I remember Samsara [Nick’s mother-in-law] was in the kitchen with the baby, who was very young, and she leaned round the door as I was working, the first time I sang it and went, [thumbs up gesture] – “There it is!” [Laughter] I knew it was the one, and the chorus of that song.

Immediately, resistance came up – people will think that I am being messianic, if it sounds like a command. Who am I to tell… I know the futility of thinking that any actor can have any influence over this ripening process. In the individual, and on a planetary, universal level. But I’m always doing this dance – it’s a contradiction, I live with it.

It’s brave; by being transparent, people will feel they can be, too. We need to understand that we can lead a normal life, be creative, and nurture our inner life as well.

That’s what I really want, for sure. For people to understand that they are more than their bodies, more than their desires, more than their names and roles. To stay very connected with vibrant mystery – every day! [Laughs] We will make the changes we need to make in our lives by falling in love with this experience. Treasuring and cherishing it, rather than through obligation, or guilt, or fear. I hope that people who come to the gigs really touch this magical feeling.

It’s a very joyful, hopeful album… If we place ourselves in that energy, without knowing any of its background, we can’t do anything else, the joy is contagious. We need contagious joy!

We need contagious joy – we do, we do.


Does your creative path match your highest intention?

It’s a really pertinent question. In all honesty, I’m living with a lot of conflict, right now. I don’t think they serve each other. There are many elements to it. The two are very harmoniously intertwined in the creation and recording of the songs. The recording sessions for this album were just so wonderful, with roots going back many months in meeting its many characters. The moment in which I committed to really speak the truth… You lose if you don’t and you lose if you do, so I win all around: let’s go, let’s speak the truth.

People started to arrive to help me do that. And Federico [Bruno] is a very interesting guy, the perfect character to come in. Others, too – Dean [Broderick], Fifi [Dewey]… We all know each other through an Ayahuasca church. At the heart of this record is that practise together, which we have had over the years. It came together into this recording session, in October last year. It was absolutely amazing, I really learnt a lot about how to get out of the way, put the pieces together and go into the unknown.

The greater challenges, I suppose, arrived in the beginning of the summer with the release and promotion of the music, with the record label’s ambitions. I thought they were mine, too. But I’m finding a lot of – almost irreconcilable desires. I speak in generalizations… It’s really fresh, I’m really feeling it.

Do you rest on rhythms, practices, or environments in order to create?

Through the writing and recording of the album, mantra was important. I wasn’t sitting so much in breath meditation; mantra was what I was using. And Federico taught me the Catholic version of that, and I found that we were praying. Oh okay – of course!

Even the japa mala and the rosary beads are similar…

Exactly. Through a growing interest in mantra, it was acceptable to part of me because of the otherness, maybe… I thought, praying? No thanks. [Laughs] But through mantra, I began to understand that there is a realm of metaphysical power, perhaps. Fundamentally, I’m doing it as gym for my mind. I focus on repetition, my mind wanders, and I bring it back… So when I started to hear them in my own language, or in Italian or Latin, of course I was interested. I was humbled to be able to approach it. The rosary was a big part of this album.

You’ve said that you wanted to involve friends in the making and playing of this album. How do others, family, obligations, choices fit into your creative life? How do you weave it all together?

We have the family on the tour bus [Laughs].

That’s ideal, with a little one!

We have a revolving trio of grandmas – there are three grandmas: my mum, Isadora’s mum, and her mum’s partner. They’re coming at different points in the tour. Isadora sings with me on the album and in the band, so it made sense for us to do this. It’s a real privilege, a real joy to be able to tour my own project and bring my family. So many musicians have to be away and we can do this. And he [Nick’s son] is really connected with the heart of this. It’s very important to have him along and make it good for him. He’s very comfortable around everybody.

With regard to the music and song writing, I think partly because I’d written in some degree of solitude before that, with the first album, it was natural for me to have a new place to go, to share it. It was more fun. I found I was doing that from the very beginning. That was really fostered by my work with Brian Eno, as well. Brian encouraged me to question the idea of the solo artist in isolation with his connection with divinity and inspiration, and “it comes from nowhere…” He was like, well, on one level, sure, but we’re also all interconnected, inter-influenced. What about that?

I already had these ideas, which were founded in the realisation that my expression wouldn’t be diluted by the inclusion of other people. With the right people, it would be supported.

We moved out to Wiltshire, and collaborators started to come really easily. They were my friends, so when I had doubts, times of difficulty with the creative process, when I was feeling pressure was actually when we were really fostering the depth of our collaboration, becoming really close friends with Dean and Federico.

With my wife, Isadora, I’m always writing around the house, and she’s always finishing off … She mishears my lyrics; she says it differently, and it’s better than the one I was saying. In a way, we wrote “Unconditional” together… She was singing in the living room, and it was so beautiful, with the ukulele, that I took my phone and put it on the table, and recorded it. I loved it! I listened to it for myself for months. In the studio, I played it to Ethan, the producer, and he was like, “This is amazing!” We then played it to everybody, and recorded along to it, making the song called “Lullaby.” A lullaby to the baby in the womb. I used the melody in the song “Unconditional,” so “Lullaby” is a kind of reprise to the song.

With Venus, are you referring to love, or the planet, the goddess…? There’s so much there, I felt it wasn’t just about you and Isadora and the family, but maybe more…

It is more. It’s both, and. In “Unconditional,” I’m really talking about consciousness, as well. “The Venus light” – it’s consciousness; it’s about awareness. It is love.

Have you ever felt creatively stuck, and if so, how did you move beyond that?

Yeah, I know that. You just have to learn for yourself each time. For me, it was my second second album – I had done two with the band [Portico Quartet] in the past, so at least I knew a bit to expect the challenges. From the beginning of this album, there were fears that are always there, and I befriended them, eventually. I recognised that I can carry on all the same, even if they’re here. I knew to continue all the same. Even if I don’t feel inspired, there are many things I can do. I would work on learning someone else’s song… Mostly, very practical things to get me beyond that: devices to keep going. And then inspiration eventually comes back.

On a deeper level, I’ve been working on this idea that I am the waiter, and not the chef. I’m bringing the music to the table, where the people are, and that keeps me in my position. The chef is something else. Normally, problems come when the waiter starts to think he’s the chef.

[Laughter] I have to remember that – that’s great!

It works, yeah.

Do you know this quote by Joseph Campbell? He wrote, “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.” How does that resonate with you?

It’s true, definitely true – which doesn’t mean I’m always there… That’s beautiful. I count myself as lucky that what I love has always been obvious to me – and it was about music… I played all kinds of instruments, and had a very broad appetite. It was fun, and I was lucky to have some early triumphs – small things, at school, or with my family, who made music available to me. Even at a young age, I was able to see that it would be other people’s conditioning to think, I should get a proper job. I always knew that this would be fine. And also that I didn’t have to know the future and have typical security. It would be fine if I just went deep into music, if I went for it. It’s a big part of this album.  

In “Unconditional,” you sing, “It was right here all along / What you’re looking for is never gone.” What is the interplay between longing and completion, between seeking and finding, in your work?

I was really beginning to understand, through different spiritual teachings, that all the different desires have a similar root. It’s about longing for Self, for the satisfaction of abiding in our own Self. Self-enquiry becomes self-abidance. With that lyric, how could I say what someone else is looking for? It’s the one thing that we actually never disconnect from. It’s impossible to disconnect from it.

Completion is the end of seeking, it becomes more about stopping. I like Gangaji a lot, and she said that she was a typical seeker, she tried lots of things, and all of that was necessary. Each thing dissolved her ego, and played a part in her journey, but at the right time, she met Papaji, and he said “Stop.” And that was the teaching.

It’s one of the contradictions I’m feeling between what I care about the most, what my spiritual path is about, and how it interplays with being a professional musician. It’s very easy in the professional musician realm to be based in future ambition, external validation, and success. The industry I work with is naturally and correctly situated in that realm, but it pulls me out of this one. It’s better for everybody if I am inspired and happy, and here, now. That’s me doing my job. And of course, that works for everybody. It doesn’t matter what side of the industry or job you’re in – we all work for that future goal better by finding it now.

What is your closest experience to simply being, to a state of connection? Is this a state you are in when writing or performing, and/or is it something that feeds your music?

My experience closest to being is… being. In the blessed moments when any obstacles are out of the way. It can be when you’re playing football and you’re really committed, in the moment. I like to play football on a Tuesday when I’m in Wiltshire, and I love it for that reason! Definitely it’s the case with music. But I don’t notice it, because it’s so natural. I want to be there, the whole time.

It’s so elusive… Sometimes you’re meditating, everything stops, and the minute you realise it, it’s already gone, you’re back in the mind. As you say, when you’re being, you’re being!

Being amazed by being is a part of the trap, somehow. You fall out of the moment.

Going back to “Transform your game,” you sing “You’ll do all the things for which you came…” If it’s not too personal a question, what would you say your gift is?

[Pause] My gift is the way I feel music. My gift is these songs. There are lots of details in my way with rhythms and harmony that all have warmth and animation, somehow. People often tell me it feels good, it’s an embrace. My uncle would always play, when the family came together, and I recognise that in the way he plays. I know what it’s like to experience it. Someone told me that my music has a Christ-consciousness to it… And I thought, maybe that’s the feeling of this warmth.

It’s very much in the heart…

It’s a heart thing. Of course, I place this resonating chamber to my chest, and I’m manipulating strings in front of it, and it sends vibrations – fundamentally and in non-conceptual ways – directly into my chest. Likewise, I think it goes out that way.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

This second baby! Even if it’s only a year since we had the first one, there have been a lot of changes, and you adapt very quickly. We’re three months into it already, it’s going to be April, and that seems so close!

Thank you.

Experience Wake Up Now here.

[1] ‘While my muse waits patiently / Dancing for the answers in the rain / She says, ‘You’ll do all the things for which you came,’ in “Transform Your Game.”

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This interview by Gabrielle Sedita is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Any form of reprinting or reposting of any content published on this website, whether in its entirety or in fragments, is authorised only if a link to the author and original web page are provided. Copyright © 2017

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Azar Kazimir, Creative Director & Graphic Designer

A year ago, I set out on a musical pilgrimage, to attend the “Nameless Endless” festival at the Berlin Funkhaus. Invited by the Michelberger Hotel, 100 artists from all horizons gathered for a week of independent, artist-driven, commercial-free musical experiments to create a unique experience. Artists “[opened] their hearts and [showed] themselves as they most of the times only do to their friends. New music, that they [had] not played before or old music that they [played] in new ways.” Our shared journey felt like an invitation to a new kind of family. 

The experience brought together my two loves – the wonder of pilgrimage and the alchemy of music. It further confirmed a hunch I’d been cultivating, that creativity can be approached like a practice, a path to the heart. Coming home was like waking up from a wonderful dream, and I knew that connecting with the people who had opened the way to such magic could only be special.

And it was! Over the summer, I was delighted to finally meet Azar Kazimir, one of the festival’s architects, and the Michelberger Hotel’s Creative Director. Beyond the archetypes and symbolism that pervade his work as a graphic designer and illustrator, we spoke for the better part of the morning about creative transformation and the shift in the music scene, the spirit of inclusiveness and egolessness that are intrinsic both to the hotel and the festival, and about learning from mistakes.

Above all, Azar highlighted how the gifts of trust and connection, personal responsibility and independence lay the groundwork for less consumerism and ultimately, for openness and change: “If you want change, change. Change yourself.”

connected heads Creativity

Can you introduce yourself – how are you a creative person?

My name is Azar Kazimir. I work at the Michelberger Hotel, and have done since 2008. Creativity expresses itself in many different ways for this job – it involves graphic design for all the various needs of the hotel, for example posters for events or online such as for our websites. We have other members in our little family, like a coconut water, or a schnapps drink, so my work will involve, say, packaging design for those things. Also I work inside the physical spaces of the hotel, working with architects and interior designers. I also work on clothes… So it encompasses a very wide breadth of things, which is why it’s so fun.

How did your creativity start expressing itself, before the professional manifestation?

I’m just me, doing things the way I’ve always done them, since as long as I can remember. Drawing has always been something I’ve needed to do, the way to express myself I feel most comfortable with.

You have a great attention to detail – would you describe yourself as a perfectionist?

Definitely. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Archetypal Themes

Would you say that a theme runs through your work, both here, and in your personal work? A lot of symbols seem to be recurring…

That’s definitely true. Recently I found a bunch of drawing books from when I was really young – four, five, six, seven – and actually, it’s pretty much the same work! [Laughs] I think everything gets laid down extremely young. The fairy tales, stories and images that you’re exposed to when you’re very young come out. I’m totally convinced of that. Forests, mountains, moons, animals… It’s all archetypal, children’s stuff in a way.

Recently I was noticing that I was drawing a lot of mandalas, circular images and started looking into that. I read that Jung noticed that the urge to do them comes at periods of intense personal growth, and that was exactly what was and is happening to me. I find it fascinating that even in the most individual of scenarios, behaviours can still be universal.

There’s a wonderful book of symbols put together by ARAS (Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism) and published by Taschen. I often find myself going to that. Fire, circles – I’m fascinated with the colour gold, at the moment…

You mentioned your family and its influences, and I wondered how much of that still influences you now…

My mum was a wonderful painter, especially strong with her use of colour. One painting of hers that I really love is one of rocks around a fire and it still hangs in our living room at home. Recently, I’ve found myself working on sketches for a painting of a fire. I wonder if that came to me because of that earlier painting. Music is also a big part of my life, and I still listen to the same music my dad played in the house as a child. Everything seems to be connected…

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Beauty

The way you’re shaping your world, the way you’re giving a form to your world – are they meeting your highest intentions?

One of the central themes of my life is beauty. I’m enthralled by the way things look. I suppose you could say that sounds quite shallow, but all I’m trying to do, in all that I do, is express my idea of beauty, trying to capture something I see in my mind’s eye.

I’m curious about why you qualify it as “shallow” – beauty is a platonic big deal…

We always get told that beauty is skin-deep and that you should look below the surface. That’s totally fair and true, but I suppose I always fell into this very old idea that beauty equates to goodness. Which on one level is rubbish, and on one level, no, it’s not rubbish. [Laughs] Since I think that my talent or my sensitivity lies in that nebulous area of beauty, it comes back to my way of doing good.

If people resonate with what you’re doing and see that as beautiful, then you’re bringing them goodness and pleasure, as well, and that radiates…

Yes. At the moment, my work is definitely not particularly profound. My background is in fine art and sculpture but I definitely would not call what I do now Art. It’s commercial creative work. But that’s wonderful too, that has its own place.

Drawing & Painting

At the moment, I’m going back to drawing and painting again. Trying to figure out if I want to paint – it’s a massive period of change for me. Everything has happened to me in the last six months. I’m also looking at the future – I don’t know what the future will be and that’s a wonderful feeling.

Are you in an excited place of transition, more than a worried place?

There’s nothing to worry about because the universe will provide; it always has and it will. Everything is about change and cycles. I’m trying to challenge myself to change, to walk into it and figure it all out. It’s a figuring out phase. Maybe I contradict myself too, but that’s all part of the process.

plannedparenthood-B

Transformation

It’s interesting that now, though, I’m starting to look in the other direction, where I came from. Doing this more practical visual work, which serves a function to contain something or to advertise and promote something, is becoming more and more of a struggle for me. I’m drawn to using my work and my energy, which I’m coming to terms with as being finite, on things that are meaningful to me.

How are you working through that? What direction is it taking?

I’ve been involved with this hotel and the people here since 2008, so this will be the ninth year. It is very rewarding now, but it was especially rewarding for a very long time because my personal work and the work that I was required to do for this place were one and the same. I was able to put myself, my ideas, and how things should be done – everything – into that work.

If you get to that place as a designer, you’re really, really lucky. I think that’s the place of fulfilment. But of course, this business has developed, grown… In earlier times, a bar menu could be whimsical and playful and silly, more like a comic book perhaps. Now the bar menu is more like a spreadsheet which can be changed easily and then distributed around other places for printing or putting on-line.

We used to have a working creative studio here. There were five people, including myself: two graphic designers, one fashion designer, one interior designer and one web developer. This meant we could do so much. However we closed the studio at the end of 2015, primarily because the needs of the hotel had changed. That was challenging for me as previously I could really focus on what I needed to focus on while other people took care of other things. I function and feel much better going in a linear way, one task after another (and I also believe my work’s better for that too), rather than multiple things on the go at once. It’s definitely about energy being so precious and finite. What you do dedicate your energy to has become really important to me. Staring at a screen and doing a menu is exhausting for me, for my eyes. But I’m working here and I have responsibilities; I really do try to live up to those. Sometimes it’s not so easy. This is all to do with the changing nature of where I am.

It’s not a dissatisfaction, it’s negotiating myself around that territory and trying to feel out what fits, what works, what doesn’t, what I can and can’t allow myself to do – being coherent in all of those decisions or realisations. How to position oneself when one’s environment is changing and one is changing.

In working life I noticed that people are so quick to blame their problems on their work… but 99% of the time, the issue lies within the person, it’s not the job. So you have to resolve the things inside yourself to find satisfaction in the things you do around you. Always look to yourself before you start looking to the things around you for the problem.

It sounds like you had the ideal situation of your personal work and your profession being melded at first, and now the playfulness has waned a bit – is it the ransom of success? Things need to be more functional now…

It’s a very positive and healthy thing; we all have trajectories, we all grow up, mature. On a day-to-day level, this has to be the same. The challenge is for me to find my place with it.

Occasionally, we have a concert poster or something will come up, like the festival, but on a day-to-day basis, the work I do here has definitely changed. And I don’t say that with any resentment or regret. I’m comfortable with the whimsical and the poetic and the purposeless things, because in there, I find magic, and I’m not comfortable with the spreadsheet approach to doing things – but I understand the need for that.

Creative Journey

Generally, when someone approaches you for artwork, what’s your process?

It used to be a nightmare for me, when people would say, “You’re free; do what you want.” That’s also something that’s definitely changing; I’m much more comfortable with that now. Maybe now is when I start to have something to say. Maybe I had nothing to say before. Maybe I was just good at drawing shapes and colours. This is something that’s very exciting for me!

There’s this very famous quotation from Hokusai about how he thought everything he did until the age of 70 or 80 was crap… I can start to be able to understand that. But the lives that we live are so demanding on our bodies, and the last years have definitely taken a big toll on me physically. In order to go on being productive and creative as you go forward, your body needs to be able to go along with you on that journey.

Squaring that circle is definitely going to be a challenge. The festival itself was incredibly draining, demanding, exhausting… It pushed a lot of people to their edges. There were definitely a few times when we were right on the edge of it. And with exhaustion, you lose the ability to think.

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Moving beyond Resistance

Going back to your actual practice, do you get stuck, and if so, what helps you get through the feeling of being stuck?

I do get stuck, of course. I find resistance is quite a powerful tool. Someone asks me to do something, and I don’t want to do it, and I go away, think about it, and that resistance gives me the energy or power to dig into something. If I get stuck, I quite often go look at old books. I’m not very interested in contemporary art or design. I tend to try and look at old paintings – I mentioned Hokusai -–or Japanese prints or graphic design… Reading literature.

Getting stuck would imply not moving, and I think I’m always moving, but I guess not always moving in the right direction, or going in circles, going backwards. The only time I suppose I would get stuck is when my body fails and I run out of energy.

Do you approach a resistance as a personal questioning, as well? “I’m resistant to this project because…” Do you go all psychological on it?

No, because I’m not a great thinker. I try not to think too much about things. If I’m brutally honest, I’ve begun to find it difficult when people tell me what they want or tell me to do something. Yet that, as a graphic designer and illustrator, is what you do! You are answering a request, or a brief – that is what you have to do.

Now, I just don’t like being told what to do (in the sense of a designer/client relationship). That might be signalling a shift in me, from providing a service to a place where I’m saying, “What is important now is what I have to say.” This personal work distinction is a new one – I never made it before and never wanted to make it before, never had to make before.

What I define as personal work is work where no one has any input into it. No one is saying, “I don’t like this,” or “Can you change that,” but these things are what graphic designers or illustrators or creatives have to do. I notice within myself an increasing difficulty with managing that. I don’t think I’m becoming more egotistical. I don’t think I’m becoming more selfish or more arrogant or any of those things…

It’s my personal voice wanting to speak. Perhaps, before, I didn’t have that voice, so I was happy to fill that space with the requests and wishes of others and find my own beautiful way of taking that and expressing it in whatever object, poster… It takes me back to the point of finding it easier to just do what I want.

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Inclusiveness

You mentioned your intention for “playful openness and collaboration” in the festival “manifesto” – how does that play out when you’re running a business?

The first important thing to say about the hotel and the festival – we really want to be inclusive. Everybody is welcome. No one is interested in doing anything cool or elitist or exclusive. We want to have grandparents along, we want to have children, businessmen, romantics, the cool kids and so on.

However, the way that we communicate externally, through the way we write or the images we make, well it’s pretty idiosyncratic, a manner we feel connected to. Therefore, those communications are only going to resonate with people who share similar values or ways of seeing the world. I think that’s the filter here.

We’ve had ninety-year-old grandmothers staying here and loving it, or businessmen from stuffy companies, and no matter who you are, your age, or how much money you have in your pocket, those things don’t really define you. The spirit – the soul inside is the connecting thing. The hotel (and the festival) is simply a collection of like-minded souls. When they come and stay or when they go to the music festival, that’s reinforced. This is a tiny hotel; the music festival was tiny, so clearly there are more than enough people who are a bit like us in the world to make this work.

For someone who’s just going on booking.com and doesn’t know all this, do you sense that your vision is “infecting” them, in a positive way? Do you sense a shift in other people?

For sure, there will be guests who come here, freak out, and want to leave. There are people who will come and say, I wasn’t expecting this, I appreciate this new experience…

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Michelberger Music Festival & Egolessness

You mentioned the festival… In September 2016, the Michelberger was home to 100 artists for a week, so that a very diverse range of musicians could create new music, resulting in the two-day Nameless Endless festival at the Berlin Funkhaus.

The first thing that greeted us was a giant banner spelling out PEOPLE, encapsulating one of the festival’s themes, collaboration… How do others fit into your work?

I’m not really a collaborative person. In general, I’m a person who likes to work on their own. The festival was a very collaborative process; it was a challenge for me. That came from the artist who was collaborating with us on the visual stuff – Eric Timothy Carlson. The PEOPLE banner was his piece.

One of the themes was egolessness. It was the premise of this festival to put all of that ego stuff aside. For me personally, it was letting go of trying to have any control over the visual part of things, as I usually would. However, I wouldn’t have considered myself a participating artist. Next time, I would like to participate at an artist level, rather than as more of an organiser.

Likewise, artists were announced by their individual names, and not their band names. Can you tell me more about that?

We just didn’t want people to come along expecting a certain band to play. And if we do it again, I would not even want to announce any of the artists’ names. We talked about not doing it, but there is the simple practicality of having to sell 4,000 tickets one day, and 4,000 tickets the other day – and we had to sell the tickets. Now that we’ve done this once, I hope that it might give us a credibility to say, “This is the next thing, whatever that’s going to be. Come with no expectations. You don’t know who’s going to be there.” That sounds way more exciting to me!

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Festival: Expectations v. Growth

To me it felt like going on a musical pilgrimage – there was something sacred about the whole process. We waited in queues, whether for a concert in one of the large halls or an intimate set in a studio, without ever knowing who or what we would hear. And the reward was playful exploration, a raw kind of joy, connection. When Nadine [May] popped by earlier, she said, “The ones who stayed left with open, blessed hearts. That was a big part of what we achieved.” People could see queues either as an obstacle, or almost as a rite of passage. If you were trusting and open, what awaited you in the studios was always a surprise. It was a great gift, but you did have to put aside any expectations.

But also, we’ve all become accustomed to having things be so easy, and have what we want without the hard work that life normally entails. We are faced with this problem every day. People are putting in the hard work and the sheer dedication and commitment to something – it’s very difficult.

It was such an amazing assortment of artists, everything that went into the festival was so carefully thought out – the attention to detail is awesome at the hotel as well. But people are so used to everything being perfect because they are paying for it… maybe it takes away the element of gratitude and appreciation.

And we’d never done something like that before. We made a bunch of mistakes…. But they were well-intentioned mistakes! Everyone wanted to make the best possible experience for the guests, the artists, the people who worked to get that thing off the ground. As with this hotel: none of us had any previous hotel experience when we started it.

 That’s beautiful! [Laughter] But it might come with some difficulties.

Yes, it does! We made many mistakes with the hotel; we got so much stuff wrong, stuff we’re still dealing with now.

Did the experience of the festival feed you? Do you feel that you got something out of it?

Oh – massively, yeah! It was incredible. Everybody involved learned and developed and grew so much. You also gain confidence in yourself that you can organise something like that… Friendships were made more profound through that, which will lead into where this will go… It was one of those great life experiences that you go through. Life is difficult, exhausting, challenging – but I would say the balance was just right.

Festival: Future

Another very exciting thing is, of course, to do with the festival and how that will go forward. For a lot of the people who were involved in it, it was a very powerful experience, especially for a lot of the musicians. I think it was a reminder of what they would like music to be: spontaneous, collaborative, without all of the crap that’s connected with the industry of music, with a very close connection with the people that you’re playing around with, feeling freer I suppose.

We’re now thinking about how this will go forward – what does this mean, how will this express itself in the future. There is definitely a very strong will on the part of those involved to take this energy and this momentum and to go forward with it into something else. We don’t know what that will be yet. There’s a lot of talking and a lot of thinking, but it will definitely go forward. I’m sure there will be other events in the future.

Festival: Relationships v. Consumerism

It definitely felt like an important shift in the music scene. And beyond music, what you are doing feels very different.

There is a shift in happening in the music scene but I don’t think the festival was responsible for that shift. It was more a manifestation of the currents or energies that are going on around. It was a drop in the ocean. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a powerful drop for the small number of people, including the audience – no distinction between anybody – for a good amount of all the people who touched it.

From the audience’s point of view, there was a sense of AHA – there are people who experience things like I do, and who are willing to put the energy and work that goes into making this happen. We might be just a drop in the ocean, but we exist.

Exactly. This whole thing of going to festivals, or live concerts in general, it’s appalling – horrible. You have thousands of people, it lasts an hour or two… So many people hate the experience of a live gig.

It strips away all the intimacy, all the sacredness…

It’s a kind of consumerism. Bands are brands. You go see that band, you’ve ticked it off. Very rarely has it got anything to do with something else – especially at festivals. What we’ve also learned through this is it’s such a turnoff for the musicians too. Nobody really seems to enjoy the ways things are now.

Why are we doing it? I guess because it’s a machine with its own massive momentum. The bands get told that they have to do those things. They have to make a living and good for them. But still… if you’re a creative person, the cheque that you’re getting – is that the most important thing? In the end, I suppose you want to be excited to get on the stage, and not knock the same thing out every night. Many artists dislike it and find it unfulfilling, so that’s where this thing came from. How would we love to present music, or have music played? How would the musicians putting it together love to do something? All of the artists who were involved had an amazing time. And why wouldn’t they? They were put in their playground, this place was closed, and they had the run of it…

The reason the festival came about, and the only way it could possibly happen, is because of the close relationships between the groups of people involved in making it happen. Those relationships came together through the hotel. The musicians stayed with us and we developed a bond with them through the years, and that’s why it would be a very difficult model to replicate elsewhere unless you happen to have long-standing friendships with a bunch of great musicians. And when we talk about doing something ‘non-commercial’, we have the credibility for people to believe that. We’ve created a safe space, where they know that everything is built on trust. For me, that’s the unique thing that we have, and it’s all come through the hotel. Without the hotel, there would be nothing possible.

You are able to open up to create something new if you feel safe, and that’s part of what you’re offering…

Yeah, and to know that you won’t be taken advantage of; there’s no question of any trust being abused. It would be nice to think of that model being duplicated, and we have had some emails from people who’ve said, “I was really inspired, and look at what we’re doing here…” and that’s really nice to see, but in the end, it all comes down to personal relationships. There was no money exchanged between us and the artists, which was also a very important part of it. As we’re discovering now, that’s an incredibly powerful thing – that trust and that gift, because it means that the potential and the possibilities going forward are very interesting.

The real power, the real core of this is in the live performances – the connection between people in a space, with the possibility to be open, to be changed. We always bring ourselves to “the core is the live performance.” It’s so easy to go off in many different tangents.

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Change & Personal Responsibility

Is that even an intention, for you, to change the world in this way?

My subjective answer to that question would be no. We all see with our eyes what is happening to the world, the way it’s going. What I feel is that the only possibility for change is if you do what you’re doing, with your own vision, and on a small level, maybe someone sees that and it might set something off. But if you set out to change the world… pff… I’m not sure…

It’s quite anarchistic. We create our own bubbles, and this hotel, architecturally, is like a bubble. Certain aspects of the outside world are discouraged from entering into this space and we just do it in our own idiosyncratic way, for better or for worse.

In the conversations that have happened since the PEOPLE event, one thing that’s become clear to me is that if you set out to try and do something and if it has any connecting points whatsoever with the existing industry, you’re pretty much doomed to fail. The only chance to do something new is if you make yourself completely independent. Those existing, failing structures will fight so hard not to lose their dinner, and it’s the same for politics, or the car industry, the music industry – all of these rotten, mammoth structures are just realising that they’re standing on quicksand and they’re fighting hard. Leave those all alone. Don’t get involved with them. Otherwise, they will corrupt you.

You’re talking about change from the ground up; it has to come organically…

If you want change, change. Change yourself. And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re lucky; we have a business here, so we can do it in our way. You have to look to yourselves, don’t look to your politicians, or your political parties, or your record label, or whatever… You have to do it yourself. That’s the only hope for the future.

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Do you sense a shift, personally? What has shifted? You mentioned transitions – what’s going on, and is it connected?

That’s a bloody hard question! [Laughs. Pause] I don’t really know… At the moment, I’m primarily concerned with myself, my creative work, and how that finds expression and fulfilment… I don’t focus too much on the world around me. There are other people in this group who are far more powerful in looking around and seeing what shifts in other people are.

It’s very coherent with what you’ve just said about, “if you want to change, you need to change yourself…”

How do I run my life so that it’s not a burden on other people, so that I have a positive impact on those around me, even on the smallest level, in my workspace – so I don’t affect the people around me negatively…? I’m really concerned with looking to myself, so that my footprint in the world is as good as it possibly can be for the few minutes that I have on the planet.

Taking responsibility for your actions…

Always.

Connection

What’s your closest experience to a state of connection, or being? How does that trickle into your work?

There’s this statement that everything is connected, which many people understand intellectually, they have a sense that it’s true, but I wonder how often people really feel that in their body that it’s true.

I love being in the sea. If you go into the sea and you don’t have any goggles or snorkel on, and you just dive in, close your eyes and go down into the water and relax, in those moments, I physically feel connected with every single thing in the ocean. The water is the medium where you really feel that connection. And the air is much the same as water – it’s just a different consistency.

It’s a really tricky question… Music is a powerful tool for connecting. I love working with music, working with musicians… I definitely want to do more art for records. I don’t know if that’s where I’m searching for connection…

Bliss, rapture, being… these words – does that notion go through your work? Are you looking to have that transpire?

I know exactly what you’re talking about, but I find those in other places. I find those in nature, in the sea, walking in the mountains. Nature is a very important part of my life. In love… I don’t know if that is really a part of my work at the moment. Although I noticed that there’s a really great book, Yoga Art, from the seventies, by Ajit Mukherjee. It’s out of print, and it’s a collection of art from Vedas, and it looks like my work! There are circles and points…

Another way of putting it might be: do you create from that place?

Not really, but ideas do come in those times. Something clicks, you file it away. But I would have to be living a different life for that. I would have to be living in a natural place, with time and space to be able to do that. I’m in the middle of a city, I work 9-10 hours a day, 5-6 days a week – the life is not conducive to that. Maybe one day it will be.

You mentioned a place that is very special for you. How does it fit in?

My parents have a finca in a very isolated place in the south of Catalunya, off the grid. I spend quite a lot of time there. It’s probably the most magic place that I found in the world. When I go there, it definitely nurtures and heals me. It’s super, super important in my life. I see myself retiring there when I get to the point when I want to grow tomatoes and push goats around. As long as I have contact with that place, I know that I will be fine.

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Exciting Horizons

What are you most excited about at the moment?

There are some very exciting things that are happening. In hotel we’re turning the fourth floor into rooms. We’re working with a wonderful architect in London called Jonathan Tuckey. He does a lot of his work through sketches and making models – he doesn’t really use computers so much. This is a fantastic because mostly all the other rooms in the hotel were built in 2009, and at that point, we didn’t know anything about anything. Like how a room has to work, how it has to wear, how it has to be cleaned and enjoyed – we hadn’t much of a clue about those things and so we’re still reacting to the challenges that the rooms and the spaces present us with from those original decisions.

Now, with this floor, we can put all of our knowledge into it, and we can proactively deal with all of those situations that we know will arise. I wasn’t that involved in the design of most of the rooms in the hotel.  At the beginning, I was more concerned with the graphic work; I didn’t have such a wide focus as I do now and so I never really felt that the rooms and the space really represented me, who I am, my vision, my aesthetic ambitions. Now with these rooms, I’ll see myself in those spaces. It will really underline or strengthen my identification with the physicality of this space.

Gift

What is your gift – how do you most enjoy being remembered?

One thing I’ve learned is that the way we see ourselves bears absolutely no relationship to the way others see us. So I’ve given up thinking about that stuff! One of the nicest things someone has said to me was actually at the festival from Brandon Reid (who manages The National), a very sharp, professional, capable kinda guy, who said during some mad moment: “Whenever I see you, I feel calm, because everything feels like it’s under control when you’re around.” And I was like, what??? I don’t see myself like that!! Inside, I feel like I’m a sort of fiery, volatile kind of person and I don’t think I radiate calmness! So is his perception of me more accurate than my own? One thing I struggle with myself is self-confidence. I put myself, my work, my contribution down too much. I make myself small, which annoys me. I don’t know why I do that. I don’t need to – I’m in a circle of trust, with people who support and trust me. I know that my work has a simple value in itself.

Thank you.

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All images © Azar Kazimir

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Dustin O’Halloran, Composer

Entering Dustin O’Halloran‘s felted-feeling world, whether painted as a sonic backdrop to acclaimed films and ballet, performed for his project, A Winged Victory For the Sullen, or experienced in the stillness of his solo albums, is very much about being submerged in music as a pathway to another state. It is a simultaneous presence to oneself and to the whole, a tuning into the precious layers of humanity enfolded in the music. It was a privilege to collect Dustin’s reflections on turning to his work as an approach to transcendence, on sitting at the piano as a kind of meditation.

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Can you introduce what you do – how are you an artist, a creative person, for those who don’t know your work?

I’m a composer. I started with a band with the singer Sara Lov, it was called Devics, and we released music on Bella Union, a UK record label. Then I started working on my solo piano records, which were also released on Bella Union. I released another record on Fat Cat, called Lumière, and I’ve been slowly working on films along the way, on Marie Antoinette, Like Crazy, and most recently, Lion [with Hauschka]. Basically, I’ve been exploring electronic music, piano compositions, string compositions – anything that I want to hear! [Laughs]

How did your longing for creative expression first manifest? Can you trace it back?

My brother gave me a tape of one of my first piano compositions. Pretty early on, I didn’t love piano lessons. I didn’t really take serious piano lessons, but I loved sitting at the piano and composing in my own way. It was really interesting to hear this super early, super elementary composition, because there is an element of DNA that is still there. That interest was pretty early.

Did your family offer fertile ground for musical creativity?

My mom was a dancer, she taught dance, so I was always around movement and music. We were all a very creative family; there was a lot of expression. I think I was the one who was the most focused on music, but it’s all relative, really.

You’ve mentioned your synaesthesia and the influence of Rothko’s work. Could you elaborate on that? How does your synaesthesia manifest itself – are you translating an emotional colour into your music?

I always saw colours when I was composing, and when I started to read more about it, it made a lot of sense to me, because when I’m creating music, I’m never thinking about the chords, really. I’m not thinking about the mathematical part – it’s always the visuals for me, it’s always been about colours. It’s always been about how to combine colours to get the colour that I want to see. And I feel that way about music, too. Brown and orange are not my favourite colours, and some music really reminds me of that, so I haven’t really been able to listen to it so much! [Laughs] My favourite colours that I like to work with are blue, and green, and white, and reds… These are my palette.

Do you start with colour, or with sound? How does it work?

I start with sound, and then search for the colour in the sound. In the composition, too. For me, usually the colours are very pure, in a way, and probably muted. I imagine that it probably feels that way for other people, as well. I feel like it’s a natural thing, to feel the essence of blue or white in my music. Maybe it’s just me, but I always think that’s obvious.

You seem to be on the road a lot. On a day-to-day basis, do you rest on rhythms in order to create? Do you need to be in a special environment?

I don’t really compose outside of my studio. My studio is my haven, where I work. And I usually create a bit of space… I spend so much time in my studio that it has to feel like home. I’ve been living in Berlin for about ten years, but I am moving back to Los Angeles. I’ve been in Europe for about fifteen years… I was living in Italy before that. Now I’ve bought a house, and I built a studio here in Los Angeles. I grew up in Los Angeles, so it’s a bit of a homecoming for me. But now my studio is back in my house, and it’s a place that I spend a lot of time in, so I make it very comfortable.

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I travel a lot on the road with my project A Winged Victory for the Sullen – most of the touring that I’ve done in the last five years has been with that. I’ve kind of slowed down my solo touring because that project became so active, that between the scoring and all of the other things that I’ve been doing, there’s just not enough time to stay on the road. My favourite place is the studio. When I’m on the road, I don’t get a chance to compose, but when I’m in my studio, it’s every day.

Do you think this sense of homecoming will affect your work? I was reading the notes to your first AWVFTS album, and the recording locations are very geographically precise – various studios, the Funkhaus, Grunewald Church, but there is also a very poetic description… “outside Ferrara, Italy, next to a big river with Mr. Donadello” – it could be the title of a short story! How does geography influence your music?

[Laughs] I think it always does… Because most of my composing life happened in Europe, I felt like coming to Los Angeles might be strange, but I found a place that’s a little bit isolated, so I have a little bit of separation from the city. For me, it’s just about finding a sense of space and quietness. Obviously, where you record, acoustic spaces have a big influence, but when I first came back I did the score for Lion, and I realised that you take your work with you. I like moving because it changes your work, it pushes you into different places. I don’t think that I could stay in Berlin forever. It’s been a really positive thing to feel an evolution.

Did I see you at the Funkhaus, last October, at Gyda Valtysdottir’s performance?

Yeah.

From the outside, Berlin gave me the sense that you were evolving in a kind of family environment, and obviously, your work is very collaborative… How will that work in the future?

Gyda and I are good friends, and there are a lot of people that I love collaborating with in Europe. Ironically, since I’ve been here, I’ve already recorded with Gyda twice… Los Angeles is like Berlin, people come through. That’s what I liked about Berlin; it was a very metropolitan city, and a very international city. But I think if you live in London, or you live in Berlin, or New York, or L.A., your friends are going to come through in some way. A lot of people that I collaborated with in Berlin didn’t live in Berlin, so it’s about being in a place where people are coming through…

Francesco Donadello, who has been a great collaborator of mine… he’s been here a few times already. The world gets pretty small, and I’m not afraid to move around, and they’re not afraid to move around. I’m enjoying being back in the sunshine, to be honest! [Laughs] I missed the ocean. There are a lot of things that are really beautiful here.

The proximity to nature is much closer…

Oh yeah. We have the ocean, we have the mountains – it’s really spectacular.

Would you say that you have a guiding energy, an overarching theme, or a major question that you are trying to answer?

I’m always kind of looking forward and backward at the same time. Recently, my work is much more forward-looking. In the past, I was more interested in memories, and this sort of nostalgia, the way that memories stay with you, in how they evolve inside of you. I think now, I’m more fascinated with the sort of metaphysical realms. Not so much the future, but transcendence is what I’m more interested in right now, things that are less about story-telling, and more about a state of being.

I was at your Barbican performance of Atomos, and it was like a musical meditation for me. How do you return to the world after that kind of experience? How do you access that place, and how does the transition work for you?

A Winged Victory is a really special project; it’s the combination of Adam [Bryanbaum Wiltzie], and me. I’ve played so many shows, and I really love that state… Even if no one’s in the audience, it’s a really beautiful state to be in. It’s just something that’s special between him and I, which I couldn’t do on my own. I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done, happy with what we’ve been able to do. That was a really special show for us, as well.

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(c) Luke Cole, photographer


What is your closest experience of a state of connection, to a state of being, as opposed to doing – to a kind of transcendence?

I think playing piano is always the most natural state of being for me, because that’s when my physical body is connected to music. If I’m writing, it’s a very simple, direct connection. In a way, my meditation is to sit and play the piano. That’s the closest feeling – writing at the piano.

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(c) Luke Cole, photographer


You mentioned somewhere that you are exploring meditation…

Yes, absolutely. It’s really hard, and I’m not good at it, but it’s something that I’m definitely exploring. For me it’s all connected, and maybe it’s even more interesting than music. I really think that transcendental states are really important to music. We’re in an age where a lot of people are remaining on the surface of a lot of things because of the way that the media works, the way that we’re connected to our phones. Slowing down and taking time is how we know ourselves, how we are able to feel more connected to the universe… These are important things right now, more than ever.

I was reflecting on the scores you did for Drake Doremus’s Breathe In and for Wayne McGregor’s Atomos, and I saw a dynamic between longing and completion…

Well, Breathe In is a film score, so it’s more connected to the film, and ultimately, the film is what you need to follow [as a composer]. I always try to feel connected, to bring a part of myself to the film, so that it feels human and real. But that film is about longing!

Does the path that you’re creating match your highest intention? Are you enjoying what you’re creating?

For the most part. Film scoring is always a compromise – it’s work that I really enjoy, it’s very collaborative work, but I don’t think it’s the highest form of music. There’s a functionality to it that keeps it restrained, in a way. Ultimately, the work that I do for my records is more satisfying work. But I love making films, I love the collaboration, and the power of film – it’s just a different medium. What I love to do the most is just to make music without a timeline. In that sense, in the visual arts, the work that I did with Wayne McGregor for Atomos was probably my favourite collaboration, because dance is such a natural collaboration with music, it’s so human. It really brings its energy up to a different level. I was very proud of that.

In day-to-day life, how do relationships, obligations, etc. all fit into your creative life? How do you weave it altogether? The man, the artist?

There’s never really a separation, because you’re always trying to find a balance. Right now is a really, really busy time for me. It’s the busiest time in my life: I’m working ten to twelve hours a day, composing. I have a lot of projects going on, and I’m trying to make a balance of how to stay healthy and maintain a bit of contact with friends and family. It’s a very good period; I’m very inspired, working on wonderful projects. I’m up for it right now, but I don’t think I can maintain it like this forever. I’m finishing a bunch of film projects this year, and next year I’m working on original music, and I’m going to take time for that.

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(c) Onya Devaney


It sounds like you’re not stuck at the moment, but have you been stuck in the past? How have you moved beyond that? Where do you turn for solace?

Writing music isn’t a problem, but writing music that transcends – that’s not always happening. A lot of it is always putting the time in. You’ll get there. If I’m feeling stuck, I just need to go and hike, connect with nature, and friends. Just get out and live life. If I’m not connecting myself to life, then at some point, there’s not much to say… You just have to get out of the studio and live a little bit! [Laughs]

There’s a quote by Joseph Campbell that I always like to bring up, “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.” Are you doing that? Are you following your bliss?

Yeah… For the most part. There are always moments when you question that. Doing what you love for a living doesn’t mean you’re blissful. There’s always a double-edge. Bliss is a much simpler answer than just creating art and making a living… I’m at a point in my life when I’ve been working as a musician for a long time, and there are things that I realise that I need to focus on that are as important and that don’t involve music. It’s not always about a creative bliss, it’s also about finding harmony with your body, finding harmony with the planet, and being in emotional harmony.

Is there a question you wish someone would ask you?

[Laughs] I’m happy to answer what people want to know. There are questions that I wish people wouldn’t ask me! [Laughs]

I hope I didn’t go down that road!

No, no – people ask all these insane questions. These have been nice questions.

Thank you very much.

Dustin O’Halloran’s latest album, 3 Movements, will be released later this year with Hauschka, via 1631 Recordings. 

This interview by Gabrielle Sedita is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Any form of reprinting or reposting of any content published on this website, whether in its entirety or in fragments, is authorised only if a link to the author and original web page are provided. Copyright © 2017

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Rebecca Partridge, Artist

English-born, Berlin-based Rebecca Partridge picks up and broadens the conversation around mysticism that began with Modernist Utopian abstraction. Buffered from the pleasant bustle of Landwehr Canal and its Kreuzberg scene, stepping into the realist yet minimal natural views that bring her studio to life draws you both away and inward – into a play of light. Rebecca’s paintings are imbued with a generosity that stems from the dynamic between looking outward and being fully present, ultimately bringing the inaccessible and the invisible back into the landscape.

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Could you introduce what you do – how are you an artist, a creative person?

 Primarily, I am a painter, but in the last few years, I’ve also been writing about other artists’ work, which I now see as part of my creative practice. In the studio I also sometimes make some films; I’ve used my voice, and I’ve also made ceramic sculptures… I’m really doing a lot of different things – and I’m teaching art, which is also creative.

How did that longing to create first manifest?

 I think there are two strands of it for me, which are embedded in each other – there’s an intellectual curiosity, and there’s a yearning for a certain kind of physical relationship with materials. I can trace back the moment of when the intellectual curiosity was triggered in a creative sense, when I was looking at a Mondrian, during a school trip to the Gemeentemuseum in  The Hague. I had this incredibly strong physical resonance with one of his late paintings, and as I learnt more about the artist and all of the mystical references in the work, this brought up a lot of questions. I became very excited about painting, and visual art. There was a parallel desire to want to make certain images that I would then have that physical relationship to again.

So the two things are tied into each other.

So far, do you enjoy the physical world that you’re manifesting?

I enjoy the world that I’m manifesting in the studio. The broader world of being creative has its problems. I think as a visual artist, it’s impossible to get the work into the world without having to navigate the commercial realm and that I find problematic. But the practice that I’ve created becomes more and more rewarding as time goes by.

Does your work have an overarching theme, a main source of inspiration?

There are different ways that I can talk about the work – I can talk about synaesthesia, I can talk about landscape… But I’d say that the overarching theme of the work is expressing certain values through actions in the studio. So attentiveness, for instance. I don’t like using the world mindfulness [laughs], because it’s overused, but there’s this a sense of presence with the work, a relationship to looking outwards. There is, I hope, a generosity.

You mentioned synaesthesia… You have a very particular way of approaching your work and infusing it with something quite special. Could you tell me about that?

Synaesthesia, for those who don’t know about it, is a neurological condition, when one sense is stimulated, and that triggers a response from another sense. You might hear music, and see a colour. I have grapheme-colour , sound- colour/form synaesthesia and a heightened sense of certain geometric percepts. Most often, if I think of different letters or numbers, or days of the week, they all have their own particular colour.

This sounds like it’s a very subjective thing, but for each individual, it’s actually an entirely objective experience, in that the red that I see in my mind when I think of the letter A, is exactly the same red now as it would have been when I was three years old, or will be when I’m eighty, and this can be proved. There are different tests that you can do, where in response to different letters and numbers, shown over and over again in random sequence, you ascribe a colour using a tone/colour range graph, and it’s so fast that anyone who’s not a synaesthete would never be able to recall the same colours again and again. A synaesthete’s error rate is less than 2%. It’s innate in you.

When did you first become aware of having that quality?

It’s always been there. Even now, I’ll have conversations with people, and they’ll say, “Wow, I have that!” and they never realised they did, because it’s so normal to them. I was aware of it because I used to have these play arguments with my mother about what colour letters and numbers have – she has it, too. It’s often inherited from female line and it’s quite common with creative people.

Is that something that you use in your work?

Yes and no. I don’t use it directly. I personally don’t see any value in expressing or describing my own particular synaesthesia. But what is interesting is that everyone is synesthetic until they’re about three months old. So on a pre-linguistic level, we all have an understanding of what it means for a flavour to have a colour, or for a sound to have a shape. There’s something about these pre-linguistic relations which could tell us about our empathetic sensory responses, like listening to music, visual art… So it’s a much wider model of how our senses relate and how we physically experience art works. That’s something that really feeds what I’m doing. So it’s a much broader model. It’s all about interconnectivity.

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You mentioned generosity – how does that manifest in your work?

I see my work is part of a lineage of abstract painting, even though what we’re looking at is a landscape – we’re looking at spaces. All of those landscapes, the spaces that I depict, are essentially abstract. The problem with abstract painting, which is married very much to a language of mysticism, is that it can be hermetic, closed, and inaccessible. So I would see the works being generous in that I try to take that language and put it on the outside, in a space that’s open, that you can visually enter. There is also a generosity in the sense that it’s completely honest – you see the mark-making. There’s absolutely nothing hidden in the process.

It’s inclusive…

It’s completely inclusive – not that there aren’t layers to the work, but it’s very open, clear, accessible.

Can you speak about the presence you mentioned earlier, how do you factor that into what you’re doing?

There are two parts of the creative process for me. The first part is when I’m actually out in the landscape with my camera. All the places that appear in the studio, in the paintings, are places that I’ve been. I will have had a particular experience in those spaces. Usually places where there are no signs of contemporary life, where you can really empty your mind. Then I’ll bring the photographs back into the studio, and a lot of people ask me, “Why can’t we just look at the photograph, why do you need to make a painting?”  To come back to this question of presence, a photograph depicts one single moment in time, whereas by sitting with an image of this place, potentially for months, and physically using the brush and the materials, I’m very present with it, completely inhabiting it…In one sense, you’re inhabiting an image, and you’re making this commitment to it – this is another word that would come up in the studio, the sense of commitment – but in another sense, the actual physical practice is very meditative. I have to be present with myself. If I’m having a bad day, I’m completely with that in the studio.

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The way you describe your process of painting very much sounds like you’re approaching it like a spiritual practice, with that intention, that purposefulness…

The word “spirituality” is difficult for me, but I think there are some linguistic problems generally with it. There’s also something about things being elevated – in the past, I always thought about spirituality as related to ideas of ‘transcendence’. Whereas now, when I think about these ideas I’m more interested in something that comes from – not necessarily below – but from within, that’s grounded.

Coming back to presence, it’s not up there, with you reaching, but you bringing it together and making it present for yourself and for others.

Yes, and to link that back to the idea of abstraction and things being hermetic, one of the criticisms was always the idea that it has to come from above. It’s elsewhere, and it’s higher. And I want to flip that idea by literally bringing it back into the landscape, into the ground.

We used the word intention – does your creation match your highest intention? What is your highest intention for your work?

This is really occupying me at the moment, the idea that at the root of everything, when you’re making an art work, it is the intention that comes through. If I make a painting and it’s rushed, that’s felt through the work. The painting has a power when you can feel my intention to be present in your experience of looking at it.

In that first stage, when you go out and take your photographs, what kind of experience are you having?

I have to go to certain places to experience  and photograph the kind of landscapes I think about in the studio. I went to Canada and spent time up in the Rocky Mountains and specifically went out onto a glacier to get particular images. Or I spent time in the desert in California, and specifically went to photograph dawns and dusks – those were big, epic trips. And I came back from both with resources to make work for quite a long time. It can also randomly happen, maybe on the Moors or looking at trees… but they are always places that are unlocatable in time. You often have to travel a little bit to get to those places, so it has the feeling of a real journey.

Do you rest on any personal rhythms, rituals, or environments to create?

Rhythms and rituals – they’re a very prominent theme, although I’ve very rarely achieved the rhythm or the structure that I’m constantly trying to achieve! I’d say generally that I’m not somebody that could make work in states of emotional torment, as is the cliché of the artist. I need a healthy, stable life. The work tends to get better the more that I can keep up a routine, but I’m easily distracted.

I also find in the studio that I’ll set up different works which I have a very different physical relationship to.  I work on several things in parallel and often engage depending upon how I feel that I want to physically interact. Some of my works are very small and detailed, and I’ll be sat at a desk making those, a bit like I would be if I was writing. Others are huge, and involve me getting up and down ladders, putting my arm in the air and stretching, measuring things over two metres – that kind of interaction is completely different.

What is your experience of leading an artist’s life? How do the world, family, relationships, career choices… how do they all fit into that?

Teaching is something that really feeds me. It’s always difficult to focus if you’ve been teaching and you want to go into the studio – that transition can be quite difficult, having been engaged in other people’s practices and refocusing into your own. But it’s really important, because otherwise pretty much everything in my life is self-generating, which is an enormous freedom, but at the same time, a huge responsibility. You can become extremely selfish – I think this is one of the dangers of the artist’s life, if you’re not careful. That’s why teaching is so important.

Could you tell us about what you teach?

Most of the time when I’m with students, we’ll be having  one-to-one tutorials or group critique sessions, where we look at their work. My goal is to try and help them become critically aware of their own practice, so trying to see what they’ve created from the outside, and evaluate it – which is something I am equally trying and do with my own practice. We have lot of conversations; looking at artwork and saying, “Right, what have we got here?”

Often students start out with the idea that making art is all about self-expression, but with really interesting artworks, the creative process is about much more than that. It’s also being able to step outside of yourself and be self-reflective, really, and responsible for yourself. Learning this balance between intuition and criticality, between making something and stepping back and analysing what you have done… Becoming aware of how you, as a person, affect what you make, where you are located in the bigger picture… that’s what I’m doing with students.

How do others fit into your creative and your inner world – whether they are fellow artists, or people who are not at all in the art world, whether they are supportive or not? How does “the other” fit into your world?

As I said earlier I think one of the dangers of being an artist is that we can get completely wrapped up in ourselves. In a sense it is important that you immerse yourself in your own creative practice, but it is also really important to be in dialogue. Recently I’ve been engaging with other artists’ practices through writing, which I find extremely rewarding.  Thinking deeply about other artists’ work I have also found helpful in articulating my own concerns and issues. Intuitively, I’m drawn towards writing or thinking about artists’ practices, whose values resonate with my own, though its often not immediately apparent. In many cases their practices appear completely different to my own.

In practical terms, there have been certain people throughout my career, who’ve really supported me, without whom the work wouldn’t have gotten out into the world. Artists are absolutely dependent on those people – who could be gallerists or curators, people who’ve seen the work and really believe in it, and introduce you to people, helped, or people who have wanted to write about it. It’s impossible to exist in isolation.

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Have you ever been stuck? And if so, how have you gotten beyond that feeling?

God, yeah – really stuck. [Laughs] It seems to me to be cyclical… I don’t know where in this cycle to start, but let’s say with the crisis point, where everything’s on the floor. Typically, when students go to college, everything gets broken down by their tutors and they have no idea what they’re doing, and it feels horrendous – a whole load of rubbish on the floor which they have to reconstruct. That reconstruction goes on, and then things are articulated, and rearticulated, and then perhaps they get to the point where they’re so articulated, or so finely tuned, that it hits a brick wall, and this is where you get stuck. Then again, then, you have to smash it all up and start the cycle again. For me this cycle continues over years.

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Do you revisit your work?

There are three pieces of work that are in the studio at the moment, which are not finished, or maybe not started – these desert dawns and dusks… I know that these sunrises and sunsets have their place in the bigger network (I don’t see any of my works generally as individual pieces, I see them as part of a larger network that describes the kind of gestalt– it’s almost a lifelong project, in that sense). The dawn and dusk panels are important, they float off the wall and kind of glow from behind – but currently don’t have the life in them that I imagine… They have been sat in the studio for nearly a year and a half, now. I’m banging my head against them a little bit. I think I’ll get there – I’m working through different practical solutions. It’s about marrying the process with my impulse to capture the original moments in the desert.

There is another series of works, where I literally return every three years to the same tree.  It is a series of large scale watercolours always from the same angle cropped in the same way. This framework over time reveals the subtleties both of how the tree transforms and my relationship to it. I find the idea of revisiting, of coming back to things in general very interesting.

Does playfulness fit into your process?

I don’t think I’m a hugely playful artist, but to not be playful suggests that you’re in some way serious, or not experimental, which isn’t the case. How would you define playful…?

The reason that playfulness wouldn’t immediately jump to mind is because I’m so concerned with objectivity. Everything that I paint is very tied to reality. It is exactly as I saw it. I don’t invent places, colours; I don’t have a certain mood and then express it in a certain way. It’s really an objective thing. The dialogue that happens through the process is a dialogue about the objective world outside, and my subjective responses to it. In that sense, of it being more like a meditation, playfulness isn’t a word… I mean, maybe meditation can be playful, I don’t know?

How about sharing your work – would you say it’s intrinsic to the creative process?

Absolutely – for me, a work isn’t complete until it’s in the world and it’s seen. It’s really important. When you make something, it feels like it has a life, and it has to go out – it sounds very romantic, but…

There’s a quote I like to always bring up, it’s the Joseph Campbell quote: “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.” Do you agree, and how do you follow your bliss?

I do agree. There are moments when I doubt it, and then I hope that it’s true. It’s a really difficult question, isn’t it?

I guess another way of putting it is, do you feel that your work is a way of following your bliss?

Yes, though on a more personal level, for whatever reason, there are all sorts of things that I will put in the way of getting on with works… I’m sure we all struggle with these things. I think we are complicated beings, and it’s a really complicated question, actually. There are times when I am working and it feels like ‘everything is okay in the world’, then other times where you completely lose track of it. Sometimes, you might intellectually know, “my bliss is in the studio” [laughter] but then you’re sat there, doing it, and you’re not feeling it at all!

What is the place of longing in your work?

Longing is a very romantic term and this idea of romanticism is central to my painting practice. For several years I’ve been working on a curatorial project, working with other artists who embrace some kind of romanticism in their own practice. So longing is definitely something I think about.

When I was a teenager, I used to get the train to London, and anybody else who used to come into King’s Cross might remember this graffiti. It said, “Far away, is close at hand in images of elsewhere,” which is really nice. That sentence has always played on my mind in that it’s what I do. I make these paintings of “elsewhere” – it is a longing for that. It’s a longing for being away from modern life, probably, this kind of empty, undisturbed, peaceful place… even if that doesn’t really exist anymore. So longing is really important.

What is your relationship to a sense of completeness or completion, or a lack of it? How does that affect your work?

Nothing is ever really complete. Individual works can be, but I think of my work in general in much wider terms. I would tend to think about things in an opposite way, embracing a sense of incompletion, of flux and fluidity and things always moving, continuing beyond the studio and beyond me, hopefully.

What is your gift and how do you most enjoy being remembered?

I’m not concerned with being personally remembered, but I want the paintings to have a life beyond me. What is the gift of my work? On one level, there’s the art historical conversation about painting that I feel like I have something to contribute to. I would like the work to be remembered or to be a part of that dialogue. On another hand, I’m not ashamed to say that I want to put something into the world which provides some moments of pause or calm. Just little moments of someone else having this kind of resonance with a picture, a sense of expansion…

When you say part of a conversation of the history of art, is there a specific lineage or movement…?

There’s quite a specific lineage in abstract painting, a conversation that began at the turn of the 20th century with Modernist utopian abstraction; Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian all of these people were having conversations about mysticism… So it’s bound up in that. Throughout the 20th century, there have been various disavowals and contradictions of that language – important things that happened through post-modernism – but now I feel like there are different shifts that are happening.  When I was at college my professors and peers would recoil in horror at terms such as ‘sublime’ or ‘longing’… but I find this very limiting and regressive, these are timeless themes we cannot simply dismiss. So I want to return to this conversation that started in the beginning of the 20th century between abstraction and mysticism, but I want to return to it with the full knowledge of everything that’s happened since.

How does that tie into the individual and social element? Do you see your work being social in any way?

There are multiple ways of being an artist and I have an absolute respect for artists who are directly socially engaged, but I probably occupy a position at the opposite end of the spectrum, of quiet, contemplation – it’s almost apolitical, in a way, though the values I aim to embody of course have their political place.

Is there a question you wish someone would ask you? Something you would like to add?

I think when anybody asks any question, it’s always  exciting, because it shows genuine curiosity. Being asked questions is generally something I’m really grateful for!

Thank you.

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This interview by Gabrielle Sedita is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Any form of reprinting or reposting of any content published on this website, whether in its entirety or in fragments, is authorised only if a link to the author and original web page are provided. Copyright © 2017


 

 

 

 

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Tom Adams – Composer, Song-Writer

In the wake of  Tom Adams‘ new album  Silence, a magnificent collection of introspective piano musings, we met up for a rambling conversation on the blend of compass-like focus, serendipity, and trusting enthusiasm that make up his creative process, whether applied to song-writing, electronic music… or skateboarding.  

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Aylin Uysal

I set off to do a PhD in music composition and electronics in the U.K., but after about a year of working on it, I was increasingly feeling like it wasn’t the right thing for me to be doing as I increasingly wanted to make music more than talk about music. As part of the degree, I had to give a talk at a conference that was in Berlin. The first night I arrived, Nils [Frahm] was playing a show, and went straight from the airport to the concert. At the end of his set, Nils invited a member of the audience, “Does anybody want to come up and play a song?” I did, and it went down really well, which was wonderful. It turned out that there were a lot of very useful people to have met in that evening.

At the time, I knew nothing about the music industry, so Felix [Grimm] came up to me afterwards and said, “Are you doing music, are you working, what’s going on?” And I didn’t know what a manager did, so I just sort of blew him off a little bit, and was like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m doing some stuff…” I wanted to go say hi to Nils! Somebody later said, “Oh my gosh – Felix knows everyone! If he wants to work with you, that’ll open up so many doors…” So I got in touch with him, and we started working from there.

It’s very brave to play after Nils!

I only felt I could do it because being a singer-songwriter, I wasn’t trying to do anything that overlapped. If I’d got on stage and tried playing some solo piano, there would have been a degree of comparison… I wouldn’t get on stage and play a song after Radiohead had just got off stage! [Laughter] Doing something different, where there’s no overlap, is the only thing that’s going to work in that kind of situation.

I was actually going to ask you about serendipity… When you’re in the place you described with your PhD, that in-between place of not really being happy with it, but not knowing what’s next… It creates a space of allowing, a space for letting new things happen…

Yeah, it also made me more motivated to work on my own music. In the process of starting the academic study, I realised it was taking time away from what I wanted to do, which is making music. Suddenly, having this opportunity put in front of me to focus on my own music – it really gave me a lot of drive to actually put time into my own projects and see where they could go.

It’s like the whole universe is conspiring to say, No, this is for you…

Yeah [laughs]. I had this wonderful evening, and the following morning, quite hungover, at 9 o’clock, I was giving a talk to fifty very sober-looking academics, and I realised, this is not what I want! Last night – that’s what I want. And that was really a moment for me – that weekend, I had a lot of clarity.

Did you end up finishing the PhD?

No, but I was able to convert it to a Master’s degree, so that was good. I think I’d enjoy going back and completing a PhD at some time, but later in life, where I feel like I’m looking for the right things out of it.

Could you introduce yourself, tell us how you’re creative?

That’s a very hard question, actually! I’m mostly creative by accident. When I try to be creative, nothing interesting happens. Sometimes you need to give space for something to happen, and when it comes up, you just follow it where it wants to go. Most commonly, that’s been music, for me.

Increasingly, I’ve been getting into drawing and – it’s a bit random, but also making Lego. [Laughs] I wanted to study engineering for the longest time, until I got distracted by playing the guitar. I think making Lego taps into that a little bit. It’s so satisfying, making something physical – with music, you very rarely make something. You make something that exists on a computer, and then it exists in the air, and when you finally get a CD or a vinyl, then you have a physical thing, but it’s a long process. When painting or making Lego… you just have a thing in your hand, straightaway. That tactile feedback is very rewarding.

Would you say that it’s as a child that you started to want to create things?

Yeah, I used to make Lego all of the time, and then I got very much into building radio-controlled cars. I built some robots which were trying to mimic animal movements as a teenager – I actually went on a BBC programme called Techno Games, which was essentially robot athletics. With the help of my Dad and a neighbour, we made a few different animal-themed robots that did horribly badly in the competition, but it was still a lot of fun, and a great learning process! I was really interested in that for a long time.

Do you enjoy this world that you’re creating?

Yeah, it’s really satisfying to make stuff. More recently, I’ve mundanely been making tables for my studio, and that’s also very rewarding. I think it’ll spill over into making music. I almost only use hardware to create, so physical synthesizers and tape machines, and that kind of thing. Not necessarily for the sound, but just for the quality and immediacy of the interaction, which feels much more real than doing things on a computer.

I feel like I need to touch stuff, interact with stuff, otherwise I feel like there’s always a barrier between me and it. It’s one of the beautiful things about any acoustic instrument – to make a noise, you have to physically interact with it. When you do anything electronic, your physical interaction is disproportionate to the sound coming out. It’s like a paradigm of effort and rewards inherent to playing an acoustic instrument, which is broken when you interact with an electronic instrument. So I can move a finger very slightly and hit space bar, and make every sound that’s ever been made.

I’m always looking for ways to physically interact with sound, because for me, the playful element is being able to see how this bit fits and can you plug this into that, if you twist this, how does it interact with that? It’s something that I enjoy much more with the physical stuff than on a computer, because when you’re using a mouse, you always need to use your eyes as well. With hardware, you can very quickly and easily learn muscle memory for where things are, so you don’t even have to look at it, you can just sit there, doing this, and look at that over there, and feel in control… It’s a lot more instinctive.

So you do introduce physicality to electronic music!

Absolutely. In a certain way, it’s a similar pleasure from doing something like Lego, where you end up with a thing in your hand… Lego released software, where you can build virtual Lego models, and I’ve always thought that was enormously pointless [Laughter].

Do you rest on rhythms, on a day-to-day basis, little things that you need to do before you work?

Yes, definitely. It works very well for me to have quite a rigid format to my day. It’s not necessarily timing-wise rigid – I don’t have to spend eight hours in the studio making music to feel like I’ve had a productive day. A shorter, more focused length of time, works well. And I’ve got really into skateboarding, and so my day tends to be: get up, go to the studio, go skateboarding, and then go home.

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Aylin Uysal

When you’re skateboarding, are there things that you’re working through? People often say that they’ll go for a walk, and…

I find that getting into nature and going for a hike is always good for the creative juices, but actually in my daily routine, it’s the opposite that works for me. I also go climbing. The thing that both skateboarding and climbing have is that they take 100% of your attention. You’re not even thinking about anything, you’re in your own little world – you get into this moment of flow, where you’re just doing your thing, and you’re not thinking about anything. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, so long as you can get into that moment. When you come back to whatever you were doing before, you have a completely clear mind and a fresh perspective.

How do you get to that place of flow, when you’re composing?

It comes back to what we were just talking about with the hardware-type thing: I very much enjoy improvising, and often I start with an initial idea, set off in that direction, and see where it ends up. Particularly when working with synthesizers, I have been building a Eurorack modular system, and you come up with a concept for this. I see what sounds come up, and what that inspires, and just follow that path.

I recently moved to a studio space which has got no windows. I was in two minds about this, but it’s fantastic, because you’re in your little world… The rest of the world doesn’t exist; you’re just there, doing your thing. There are no distractions, no anything. You’re in your cave, this temporary bubble of making music, and you walk outside again, and you take a bit of a break.

Do you need to adjust? Is it a bit of a shock to the system when you go back to a world of distractions?

Yeah, but it’s nice; it’s a good experience. I work very well getting in my own little world, getting in the moment and forgetting about everything.

You mentioned somewhere that when creating Silence, there were a lot of human sounds filtering in, and that you weren’t so attached to perfection. It’s fascinating that you’re putting connection above perfection.

What was very interesting moving to Berlin was that I lived in a countryside village for most of my life before that. I’m very used to having the windows open at night, and it was completely quiet, maybe the odd bird. And then obviously, living in a city, there’s constant noise, a lot of people, and it’s very hard to get your own space, sound-wise. For the first year and a half, I was always working in the flat, and there were always little sounds coming in. I was aware that the neighbours could hear what I was doing or there was a car passing… It wouldn’t interrupt what I was doing creatively, but it was the awareness, in the back of my mind, that there are lots of sounds going on.

That was good for me. I realised I couldn’t get rid of them, so I accepted them and moved on. Lots of recording processes can be noisy, with lots of imperfections. You can talk to any sound engineer and they will tell you about trying to reduce noise in your system, getting the best signal to noise ratio, etc.… I found myself working with equipment which was quite noisy, and I decided to just roll with it, and not worry about that. To just focus on delivering a story with the music. Once I accepted that, a new quality emerged from that, which is actually much more interesting than I could have got by trying to micro-manage everything from a technical perspective.

I wondered if I was hearing a metronome in “Sparks”?

In “Sparks,” I did use a drum machine, and I did the drum machine after the piano, and that produced a problem for me, because drum machines work at a rigid tempo, and I had recorded all of the piano parts in free time. I had to spend a very laborious and uninteresting time just dragging everything around so that each individual beat more or less matched up with piano noted. The end result was worth it, though!

But there are a couple of moments which I completely missed: at one point on the record, you can clearly hear my phone going off in the background… And I was so tuned out of those kinds of problems, was so accepting of everything, that they made it onto the record. I don’t think it matters. It’s like telling a story: deliver the music in the best possible way.

When you take it to the stage, do you have the same approach to perfection, or non-perfection? Are you trying to recreate something from the album, or do you simply let things happen?

It’s interesting because the album is recorded almost entirely as live takes, so the live show is quite a similar experience to the record, really. Most of the electronic sounds on the record were also created as live performances, using a patch I wrote in the software MAX / MSP that is processing the piano in real time and reacts to your playing. And I run that same software live, so often it’s quite funny, because if someone in the audience coughs, all of a sudden it gets picked up by the microphones and you get a processed version of somebody coughing – it’s not ideal, but I guess it’s okay. [Laughs] Particularly with live performance, I think that people appreciate the fact that what they are hearing is happening live in front of them, rather than being played off a backing track.

I was wondering how family and relationships – everything that’s not music – fits into what it is to be an artist. Do you ignore it, do you integrate it…?

I owe a tremendous amount to the support of friends and family. It’s very important to have friends who will say, “I think you’ve written better stuff…” Because when you’ve just made something, obviously you think it’s great. It’s great to have somebody who knows you well enough that they can be honest in their opinions.

My parents also, and my girlfriend as well, have always been wonderful. From a young age, my parents have always been amazingly positive about driving me to gigs, and you need that, particularly as a newer artist, because there isn’t the money and the big structure in place to really support you. You’re doing gigs by Ryanair and trying to fit everything in your hand luggage. I have no complaints, though! I’m enormously grateful to all these people who like what I’m doing enough that they want to put their energy and their time to help me continue doing it, it’s amazing.

You say in three different songs, “It’s all that I have,” and I was wondering, do you feel that you have an inner compass, that you have everything you need inside you to find your way?

Ha, I didn’t realise that; it’s not very original of me…! [Laughs] It’s definitely a theme in the album, however. If you want something, you have to commit fully to making it happen, or else you’ll always be asking yourself the question, “What if?”

It’s what I really felt with music and several other things in my life. I thought, I really have to do this to the fullest extent that I can, so that if I’m in a situation where I can’t do it, I don’t regret not having done it more. You can take that attitude too far, of course, but I really feel with music, it was important for me to move to Berlin, even though I didn’t particularly want to be in a big city…

Why Berlin – because of the contacts?

Because of the contacts, because I kind of knew that living in a small village wasn’t going to take me anywhere. And Berlin’s kind of… sexy [laughs]. Everything is happening in Berlin, and it’s much smaller than London; it’s easier to get in with the scene and find things going on. The opportunity was there and I knew I would regret not taking it!

When you’re making that kind of decision, is it “YES, this is it”…?

I tend to make big decisions in my life very quickly; I just have a feeling, and trust it. Sometimes, that’s worked out really badly, but something like moving to another country, you can’t spend a long time making that decision. There are always reasons to go, reasons to regret, always pros and cons, so if you’ve got a feeling about it, it’s always best to trust it and see what happens.

There seems to be a lot of trust in your process.

It’s partly what we were talking about earlier, having people supporting what you’re doing. I’m not putting it all on the line, I know that if everything goes wrong, I could move home for a couple of months, find a new direction, and move on from there. I have a lot of faith in the music that I’m making, I feel like I have a lot to learn, and I’m not going to learn that by half going for it. And I really want to just find out what music I can make, basically.

Every time I do a project, I’ve come out of it with more questions. My Dad told me, when I went to university, “You should come out of university with more questions that what you went in with. Then you’ve got the most out of it.” I think it’s the same with anything in life – you just want to keep learning. You want to come out more motivated to learn more – it doesn’t matter what it is.

I finished this record very keen to make electronic music. Because I engaged a lot more with the electronic side of it and I feel like the next record won’t be a solo piano record, it’ll be something different – in a similar style, but coming from a different place. In the meantime, I’ve made an electronic record, for myself, to explore that, and I’ve come out with a lot of ideas about new ways to approach what I want to do.

It’s not just faith in the music, as much as it is in yourself, in your art itself – it’s there for you.

It’s a journey of finding things, and also, developing your confidence. Funny, it’s the same with skateboarding – I’m a very bad skateboarder, but I enjoy it a lot. But you just have to get confident. The more you do it, the more confident you get. It’s things you could have always done, from day one, but you just couldn’t make your brain do them. You have to get your brain and your body to get onto the same wavelength, and then you can do these things. It all goes hand in hand. I get more and more confident with the sports I do, with the music I do, because every time you do something, you make mistakes, you learn, and you can have something that works. You get some positive feedback, you learn from that, and you keep moving on.

There is a quote that by Joseph Campbell, I think it fits particularly well with what you’re doing, “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself in a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.”

Yeah, it’s a bit of a cliché, but if you do the things that you enjoy, then you couldn’t ask for any more from life. You set off on a path and then things come up that you’re not expecting. You just follow where they lead.

As it happened at the Michelberger Hotel, with Nils Frahm…

You have to be ready to take opportunities when they come up; you need to be emotionally ready. It’s important to recognise when there’s a space in your life, that you’re ready for something new. You don’t have to go out and kill yourself looking for it, it’ll come along.

I’ve often thought about it in terms of looking for a piece of string… When I first moved to Berlin, I had a very bad bike, and the rear mud-guard fell off. I thought, “I just need a bit of string to tie this back on, so that I can get home,” because I couldn’t cycle with the bike as it was. Five minutes later, I found a piece of string. And I must have cycled past hundreds of bits of string earlier that day…

There’s lots of stuff out there, but if you’re not looking, you don’t see it. And as soon as you look for it, and you’re open for it… It’s there all the time, you just need to be looking in the right way and ready for the right thing. You just tune into stuff and it’s part of your world, all of a sudden.

Where do you turn for solace?

I love getting out into nature. I find it very inspiring creatively, as well – going camping, going hiking, getting away from lots of people. It doesn’t have to be by myself, it can be with some friends, or family, but the experience of being out in nature, getting out of the city is so important. You can do a lot of good thinking there. You mentioned earlier people going for a run and working through ideas… I don’t go for a run to work out ideas, but if I go on a week camping, I always come back having figured out something that I didn’t know I was thinking about.

Did you say that when you went on tour with A Winged Victory For the Sullen [AWVFTS], you set the guitar aside and composed an entire set specifically for that tour?

Yes! The music I was writing at the time was all guitar orientated, but when the opportunity to play alongside AWVFTS came up, I wanted to take the opportunity to write something a bit more cinematic and get away from the traditional “singer-songwriter” approach. Most of the guitar songs didn’t translate to piano so well, so I wrote a set of all new songs in the days before the shows. It was a good call, actually, because sound-combining synthesizers, piano, and the live electronics fell into place almost overnight. For me, it laid the groundwork creatively to go on and write the Voyages by Starlight EP, and now the full length Silence.

Do you see yourself going back to the guitar?

Tom Adams guitar

Aylin Uysal

I would like to, I barely play it now, which is a shame! It was the first instrument I really connected with as a teenager. Until that point, playing music had always involved slowly plodding my way through piano sheet music note by note – I’ve never really worked well with sheet music.

Playing in bands with your friends involves a lot more learning by ear, however – and that came very naturally. Getting into the electric guitar opened up music for me in a way that I hadn’t experienced it before. Now I’ve almost completely abandoned it! [Laughs] I want to start playing again; I think it will be good to have more guitar on the next album…

You mentioned your next album…

Yes! I’m just starting to work on it now! It is likely to be a much more fully-fledged affair. I wanted the record Silence to be very personal and very honest – that’s why I wanted to do the live takes, keep all the mistakes in there. I wanted to say, “This is me playing some music right now.” As a result, however, Silence ended up being quite a “safe” record to make because it occupies a particular space and doesn’t stray too far from there. I’m interested to explore bigger contrast in the next record, take a few risks, and use the studio more. It’s all up in the air right now and could go in several different directions – it’s exciting!

Thank you.

This interview by Gabrielle Sedita is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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Vincent Moon, Filmmaker and Explorer of the Invisible

Over the summer I delved into a most wonderful conversation with Vincent Moon, who weaves together the sacred threads of music and of the invisible through his collection of Petites Planètes films. First known to indie music lovers for launching a fresh take on music videos via La Blogothèque‘s Take Away Shows, Vincent’s approach to film-making is both independent and generous – all of his work is published under a Creative Commons licence. Turning in recent years to an exploration of the sounds and rituals of spirituality, his art is that of birthing the invisible. By transcending the camera tool and simplistic definitions of what is traditionally accepted as sacred, he creates a new language, one of flickering intimate connections. Bringing together ancestral wisdom and ultra-modernity, he gives way to an overarching spirituality where all paths are possible. We speak here about the poetic relationship to the invisible he has been cultivating via Hibridos, the transmedia ethnographic project on the religious cults of Brazil he has been developing for the past two years with photographer, writer, and traveller Priscilla Telmon. He also shares a collective interpretation of a live cine-trance session experienced last October at the Michelberger Festival in Berlin. (What follows is my translation of our original conversation, in French).

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© Jérémie Bouillon

Can you introduce yourself to those who don’t know you?

I don’t really like that kind of thing; you can introduce me, if  you like… Definitions tend to limit things.

What is  creativity?

It’s a way of being poetic day by day, of responding poetically to a given situation, at a given moment, and with a given set of people. Something that relates to the invisible…

Yes – when I first approached you about this conversation, you immediately focused the theme of our talk on “the invisible.” What is the invisible? Where does your fascination for it come from?

I think everyone has it – in any case, everyone should. I grew up in a cultural environment that was very French, very rational. With regard to reality in all its glory, this new century has a very narrow vision… As I traveled, I became more interested in understanding reality as something that is a lot more complex and beautiful, a kind of game between two levels of reality: a material level, and the level we could call spiritual, or invisible. It’s something that we don’t see, or don’t feel physically at times, but which exists nonetheless. Modern Western science has always struggled with this concept, and continues to quarrel bitterly over it to this day – which is actually quite exciting to see.

Quantum physics has begun to push open that door… Beyond this navel-gazing scientific approach which is also an attempt to spread its wings, what especially interests me is encountering other ways of understanding reality through tribal peoples across the world, through other cultures. Understanding the richness of reality from all angles.

The invisible is the total integration of what reality can be. It’s the Yin and the Yang – they go hand in hand. There is a great deal of talk today about society’s crisis, whether it be economic, political, or social, but I think it’s essentially a spiritual crisis, caused by its denial of the invisible. We’ve turned our backs on the invisible for far too long; we’ve become disassociated from an integration of the great All. That’s what a genuine spiritual experience is – understanding that everything is part of everything else, that everything is constantly interlinked. Overcoming our physical limitation is actually fairly simple.

What was your first experience of the invisible?

The first time I came across a trance ritual. I was just a Parisian who for years, had flitted from concert to concert, from play to dance creation, from exhibition to street art, and who wanted to know everything about everything, and I found myself by chance one night in a forgotten dark alley of Cairo. I had been led there by someone saying, “You’re about to see something amazing, something that is forbidden here.”

It was a Zār ritual, a healing trance ritual specifically created by women, for women. The chanting was marvelous; it opened up a whole new dimension of music, integrating the invisible by working with spirits. Leading patients into a trance state is a very ancient form of treatment.

I was in complete shock in the face of music whose sole purpose was not just being listened to or appreciated; I was transported to another dimension. Had I been interested in the sacred, I could have had that experience with music in my own culture, but it has been so overlooked and dragged through the mud in some aspects of Western culture, that I had to go to Egypt to really be hit with it. I pondered this for a long time; my path was really enriched by the experience.

My musical research started to gravitate around the question of where music comes from. What if music were more than a bunch of musicians on a stage playing for a beer-drinking audience that claps at the end of each song? I became interested in the relationship that permeates music and the thread it has always woven with the invisible. In music as a response to the invisible, as a way of dealing with spirits. Since time immemorial, music has originated from this.

What I’m interested in today, is getting back to that ritualistic relationship, especially to the healing relationship. Music as a healing art – in other words, as the actual healing effect of sound – it’s in every wisdom tradition.

You’ve said, “We are all artists, we’re all shamans.” What does that mean, on a personal level and on a broader perspective, for society? Is your work a form of activism, a socio-spiritual  invitation to be more connected and experience this sacred dimension?

I’ve been living in Brazil for two years with my sweetheart, who is also French, and who has developed a much stronger connection to spirituality and a much older connection to healing than me. I feel a bit like a total novice; my only aspiration stems from an amateur’s curiosity. This curiosity has taken the shape of a tool, the camera, which I approach as a pretext for taking an interest in others, to shed light on and translate the invisible differently.

Above: “This digital trance is the result of a diverse collaboration interweaving films taken over the past five years by Vincent Moon all around the world, mixed by him in a new form of live cinema, combined with the experimental body sounds of performer Marco Donnarumma, filmed by the amazing Priscilla Telmon and reinterpreted into a new form of transcendental oneness by Ramin Krause. It points to a place where nothing is separated, where we are all one, where the invisible floods our being, where we have left the physical world to merge into one with the spirits, with mother earth.”

I’ve been struck by how Brazil is a country that is one of the great world economies while maintaining an incredible connection with the invisible, especially via Spiritism. It’s baffling to think that we have reached a point in humanity where, when we say that a person is rich or poor, we are only speaking from an economic point of view. Having traveled quite a bit, I realized that the “richest” countries are the poorest culturally, that very often, the economy and culture strike a diabolical balance…

Mediumship is not just the gift or the good fortune of a few. Quite the contrary, it’s a possibility that can be developed by anyone. I became very interested in the role of the pineal gland, which has long been underestimated by Western science, despite being the key to the invisible and to different levels of reality. In Brazil, a major part of the population has developed their pineal gland, much more so than elsewhere, through mediumship, a form of meditation and of connecting to your brain which – it’s almost funny – is grounded in the French theories of Allan Kardec, who has totally disappeared from European history.

Brazil is the only country to have totally integrated and developed Allan Kardec’s ideas. Throughout Brazil, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of spiritism centers, which follow a very precise healing method mainly via the invisible, and also by developing one’s own capabilities as a medium to create bridges between various ways of apprehending reality.

My work has only been that of a curious seeker, to see how far I could get in this form of evolution using my own body, by coming in contact with cultures who were theoretically very removed from that in which I had grown up. I realized that all this is just for show, and that the main issue today is how our individual identities are evolving – it’s fascinating. Identity is something that is much more flexible and changeable than it was only twenty years ago, especially due to the impact of new technologies, and to a new way of relating to others.

My work involves investigating how we can live together. When you asked me if I could define myself – I don’t want to, because words significantly limit possibilities and our apprehension of reality. It’s something you learn when you come into contact with indigenous populations. Very often, the majority of Brazilian tribes don’t have the same relationship to language as Western civilization. They elude language because things cannot always be explained.

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© Priscilla Telmon

CaciqueBira Yawanawa shared a beautiful anecdote. He is a very well educated man who has a foot in both worlds. He has always defended the tribe in which he was born, and he traveled the world. Upon his return, he applied a method which he felt was the best way of maintaining his identity while building it around his relationship to others. He said, “In our culture, we are very caring, we welcome the anthropologists and scholars who come to study our ways. Filled with good will, they come and stay with us for two, three, six months. They ask many questions, and write many things. After some time, they send us their findings in the form of 100, 200, 500-page books or theses. And I tell them, well done, this is amazing work, but it has nothing to do with our vision of the world, since our vision of the world cannot be written down.”

So the time has come to build a bridge to this other reality, which cannot really be approached through words. But it’s a mission that can be claimed by cinematic language.

You mentioned Allan Kardec – do you use his teachings to access other states of consciousness? Is this a tool you use in your work, and how does it influence your work?

I have kept a very intuitive outlook in that regard, I haven’t really taken the time to delve more deeply into those books. Kardecism has many forms of practice in Brazil, it isn’t just applied Western style, in the sense of “spirit,” but in applications that are more sensory-based, in Umbanda centers. Umbanda is a religious encounter – a type of spirituality, a very open doctrine which arose from Afro-Brazilian Candomblé worship and Kardec’s spiritism, shaping it into something that is absolutely fascinating, as it integrates elements from indigenous cosmologies. It’s the great spirituality of Brazil, which is extremely open, and in constant evolution.

I have never belonged to any kind of center. It’s part of my need to escape from any doctrine – everyone needs to invent their own way in life.

When you are filming, do you access an altered state? You don’t seem to just be an observer, but a participant, when you are filming trances…

Of course… What’s interesting is that certain rituals and plants open up a rather direct access to the invisible and to other levels of reality. They act like easy shortcuts, which is why there is such a forceful return to psychoactive plants today, namely ayahuasca. Its dissemination across the world stems from the fact that it’s an incredible shortcut, which has its dangers, of course.

Trance states give rise to a lot of fantasizing and fascination. This revived interest in trances is one of the most fascinating subjects of our generation, because it manifests a willingness to escape from a type of intellectualism that has shown its limitations. Our renewed interest in wild and unknown territories is extremely beneficial to humanity. What we call “trance” – where does it begin? How far can it go? It can take very different forms.

In Brazilian Candomblé spirituality, trances can be incredibly intense, they are akin to African rituals in which there is a loss of consciousness. In Umbanda, a more complex, interesting balance is found: it’s not always obvious that a person is in a trance. It’s like downloading knowledge and entities, by way of connecting to a general level of consciousness that’s floating about.

Is consciousness within us or outside of us? It’s a huge, wonderful question. I’m convinced that consciousness resides outside of us, and that we can connect to it via various methods. Brazil is fascinating because it presents a range of relationships to the invisible and to entranced bodies which push us to our limits via altered states of consciousness that are constantly accessible at different levels. There is no distinct rupture – there isn’t a person in a trance and one who isn’t. There are only rising vibrations, which can become incredibly intense, to the point that a person experiences a loss of consciousness, is totally possessed. There are many more interesting stages in between,  intermediary stages where you are in a state of pure reception to outer energies that are modifying your way of being, while being utterly conscious.

This is what I’m interested in filming and in conveying. I’m working on this form of “live cinema” as a way of returning to the intuition I experience when I’m filming. That’s why I’ve never wanted to write my films. The few films that I tried to think through beforehand turned out to be dreadful cans of worms, full of preconceptions about what was going to happen. I’ve always steered clear of projections, of the brain getting ahead of the body, of applying an idea that the body will try to follow.

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© Ramin Krause

Humanity is totally stuck in a very warped relationship to time. I really don’t think that time is how it was explained to us at school, that it’s limited to past-present-future. In a way, the past and the future don’t exist; they coexist in the present moment. Eastern indigenous ways of apprehending the present help us set aside preconceptions and return to a more flowing relationship to time that is totally connected to the present.

It’s a way of being that I first discovered through making films without any preconception. These ideas came to me much later, after I had made many films. It was through the films that I understood why I was making them. [Laughter] It’s as though they were saying, let me tell you why you created me.

So the power game is totally defused, because I’m not a “director.” This very Anglo-Saxon vision of life has shown its limitations. I’ve never been able to direct anything. It’s about being in the flow, being a conveyor, a bridge. Being penetrated by these energies, and translating them with the help of a tool. Everyone has a part to play. I’ve never been able to tell others what to do – do whatever you like! I’ll react to your desires, and my way of reacting with my camera, as I dance, will in turn influence your way of being, and vice-versa.

The whole debate between the camera’s objectivity and subjectivity is totally ridiculous, we should really let that go. There is ONLY a subjective relationship to reality. Everything else is a mental construct that doesn’t generate anything interesting for our society. What’s interesting is the sensory, organic relationship, that is generated when you rub up against entities, rituals and trances that bring us back to the present moment. Because that’s the only time that exists.

During your performance, and even before, it’s obvious that you are totally in the moment…

On the Sunday of the Michelberger festival in Berlin, one thing led to the next in a completely awesome way, especially during our last show, with Senyawa, Rabih Beaini, Priscilla Telmon, and Shara Nova. It was absolutely cosmic. We let everything go, in a complete improvisation. [Laughter] The most powerful moments I’ve experienced in my “creative” life have been the most improvised ones, when the brain is very removed, totally overwhelmed by sensory inputs. We reach something together that runs right through us, reaching something akin to a collective trance state. Our own identity merges with others’, reaching an incredible collective creation.

It gives meaning to Mircea Eliade’s beautiful sentence, that the shamanic experience is the dissolution of the ego. It’s an ecstatic dissolution in the moment, in joy, in sheer pleasure. You’re no longer rooted in beliefs. Often, people ask, “So, you believe in the invisible? You believe in spirits?” My personal experience hasn’t led me to believe in them, but to know. I don’t believe in something that someone has told me about, I have lived that experience, I am able to interpret it in my own way. Everyone should have their own experience. There is a division between religion and spirituality: religion is mediated spirituality, it is diluted by someone who claims to be the only one in contact with the invisible, with gods…

But be careful – this spiritual renewal can also cause a great deal of damage, because it leads to a culture that is totally doped, where the use of psychoactive substances is all over the place… And where do we go from there?

Yes, and you can get stuck in unsavoury planes…

Of course, it’s essential to be very cautious around this. And I’m not at all in a conservative stance when it comes to this sort of thing. I’m not saying that you can only go take such and such plant in a forest with a shaman. It’s important to experiment, because life is always a remix of itself. You just have to figure out how to be a good remixer. [Laughter] How to be a good DJ of life! To be your own alchemist – in other words, fair, subtle, connected with the elements that surround us… It’s something you learn on a personal level, through  your own experiences.

You’re offering the world a chance to remove the division between the self and the invisible, between artists and their audience… Like a bridge…

I have never theorized or wanted to conceptualize all that. People sometimes say to me, after seeing one of my films, “I was right there, I could really feel things, I was no longer watching a film, I was in the present moment…” That’s fantastic, because that reaction connects with my desire to break distances.

Several months ago, I was confronted by an anthropologist who has a certain knowledge of Brazilian spirituality. I had emailed him my work, and quite rapidly felt that he was very uncomfortable. He said, “I really don’t like what you do.” I really appreciate sincerity. So let’s talk about it, why don’t you like it? What disturbs you? And he managed to say, “It doesn’t include enough distance.” [Laughter]

That’s a very French reaction…

It certainly is! Because my work is about breaking down distances, because there is no such thing as distance! It’s a mental construct. The difference between cultures is incredibly easy to overcome. Becoming someone else is now easier than ever. I want to integrate my camera, the act of filming into moments that are ritualized, ceremonial, sacred.

I’m not always entirely sure what is going on in some of the forms of worship that I film. I gravitate in a kind of nebula of research; I read a lot of things online, without ever going all the way. It’s a bit like opening a book, reading several pages, getting all excited, and then immediately closing it again because you’ve found what you need. You don’t reach the conclusion, because that’s not the interesting bit – what’s interesting is the input that you receive, and how you’re going to interpret that.

Without holding all the keys to understanding them, I’ve filmed traditional cultures, shamanic rituals, Sufi rituals in Chechnya. It opened up a much more sensory door, because I didn’t give myself any limitations on my way of filming and being. I was totally anchored in my body, and absolutely not in the idea of interpreting what I was seeing.

The idea is to leave behind any preconceptions so as to connect completely with the moment, with bodies. That’s why I was so welcome and accepted in these forms of worship. People approached me as an amateur, as someone who loves what he’s doing and who loves others. I’m generally not interested in working with film professionals, because they are often guided by loads of preconceptions. They’ve been applying certain ways of working for so long that some of them fall into a kind of comfort zone in their way of relating to others. It’s very difficult to change that. Without a specific work method, you are like tumbleweed, doing loads of things all the time; you’re able to adapt much more easily.

And what is time, actually? An anthropological relationship to time would postulate that the more time [you devote to something], the deeper you go. But I believe that the longer you stay, and the greater the risk of creating your own mental barriers and developing a detachment that wasn’t there originally.

Of course, I’m simplifying. Consider the work of Bruce Albert, an amazing French researcher in anthropology who spent thirty years with the Yanomami, North of Brazil and South of Venezuela, and who co-authored a book called  The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman with Davi Kopenawa, the spokesman for the Yanomami, Davi Kopenawa, one of the great indigenous leaders. Through his desire to translate their viewpoint, Bruce Albert became a Yanomami to such an extent that over a ten-year period, he was able to create a 900-page first-person account on behalf of Davi Kopenawa, who paints a vision of the world that is radically different from ours.

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My work has a a lot to do with a certain fleetingness of time, and is very attached to the body. Bodies are incredibly malleable, it’s totally possible to become someone other than oneself. It’s the work I do on a personal level, to try and escape a form of intellectual rigidity, without necessarily sending it packing, because I also really enjoy thinking about these topics. I’ve always wanted to hold onto a fresh outlook in how I approach the world and in my work.

When you experience something as intense as this, how do you integrate balance? How do you feel, the next day? How do you integrate timeless moments into everyday ones?

Well, how do you integrate timelessness all the time? [Laughter] I see it as a continuum… Of course, anyone with any kind of connection to spirituality will tell you that the transition from one reality to the next is very tricky. You need to learn to navigate those waters, because the aftershock can be rough. You can go too far… Last Sunday, at the Michelberger festival, I participated in eight concerts, with eight different people in a row. At one point in the afternoon, I very nearly exploded. I was in a very unpleasant trance state; I wasn’t feeling well at all at the end of one of the concerts. It was much too strong, as though I had opened too many channels and could no longer speak – I was totally jittery. I called too many spirits, too many things came through us.

I tend to experience ‘live cinema’ sessions very intensely. Afterwards, you need to find your balance again, but at the same time, you feel like completely letting go, like going all the way and seeing where it will take you. These performances can be incredibly intense, and they disturb a lot of people – which is a good thing!

It’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Yes, of course… I’m interested in playing with night and day, black and white. All-consuming love comes with all-consuming hatred. We can’t be made of only love, we need to deal with our darkness, too. As a result, my performances tend to delve into a certain level of violence, in experimental music noise. You have to explore that in order to collect something that is ultimately much richer. Neo-festivals that cultivate a kind of blissed-out state are far from being constructive. When there is such a desire to escape from darkness, which stems from a benevolent relationship to “good will” inherited from North-American culture, it boils down to exploring what we already know. If you don’t work on your darkness, you won’t get anywhere.

Afro-Brazilian cultures and rituals are very powerful, because they are constantly dealing with their darkness, especially via the figure of Exu, who is the most complex orisha (spirit) of all the Brazilian spirits. In Umbanda worship, the figure of Exu is extremely present – simplifying a great deal, he’s the figure whom ultra-conservative Protestants associate with the devil. But Exu is actually not the devil, he represents complexity, encompassing both good and evil. The first spirit to be invoked in Umbanda rituals is Exu, because he opens pathways. By calling forth the darkest figure, you establish respect. You say, okay, we need you as well, otherwise we won’t manage to build anything. As a result, our humble live cinema rendition often tends to take people to uncomfortable places.

It brings to mind Kali-Durga or Shiva… whose aspects need to be integrated, rather than denied.

Exactly, we live in a ridiculously Manichean society that totally denies our dark side. It has created a division that is splitting our society apart. It’s also present in Brazil, it’s awful. The country is in utter chaos; it’s discouraging because it has all the ingredients for possibility, yet people indulge in simplifications. I want to fight against the dumbing down of our world in its simplification of reality. Reality is always much more complex than what words can ever express.

You don’t stand for a soppy kind of spirituality…

Of course, it’s to be avoided at all costs! I’m incredibly radical, I’m a real pain for that sort of thing. And I don’t always make friends… You can’t just make friends, it’s also really important to make good enemies! [Laughter]

They force us to work on ourselves…

They really do push us along. And maybe we can find common ground again later. It’s important to be radical, direct with this sort of thing –  sentimentality is just the worst. It’s akin to status quo.

I know you’re not a big fan  of definitions, but what is sacred, for you?

Everything. Everything is sacred. It isn’t about a specific place. How you see the world, how you position yourself in relation to these things is what you infuse with respect – because everything is worthy of respect. Everything is alive. It’s an integration of everything. Understanding that every single tree is communicating with every single plant or mushroom, that we’re part of this great loop of life… The separation between the sacred and the secular is totally artificial, it does a lot more harm than good to our culture.

After Brazil, you’re heading for Japan – will you be focusing on similar projects?

I don’t know. My work will be on a narrower scale. We stayed in Brazil for too long, working on an insane project – we need to catch our breath. What fascinates us about Japan is the very interesting balance it strikes between hyper-modernity and the best part of primitivism, between its relationship to ancestors and noise. Japanese experimental music has always fascinated me.

They are remarkable modern shamans. I’m thinking more specifically of Yamantaka Eye, the leader of the Boredoms. It’s extraordinary – a new ritualistic form for a new era. They are very advanced, because under their ultra-modern appearance, they are intrinsically connected to nature.

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© Noriko Kawakami

I want to develop projects with a much more concentrated scope, occurring over a week or two. We should also be playing at the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music in May, putting together a specific creation a week beforehand. We would film Sufi rituals on site, and reinterpret them on stage by playing back images and sounds and inviting Sufis to play over them, creating layers of connection that would give way to new ritual forms. I feel like weaving all this together.

When these explorations fit into this type of dialog, everyone benefits from it. Of course, many people are afraid that this would impoverish and simplify these cultures. But nothing disappears, everything is transformed. We just need to support the transformation and reach a balance. Some elements will be lost, but others will be created in the process.

We’ve reached a wonderful time in humanity in terms of artistic creation. Musically, it’s by far the most exciting period I have ever experienced. I hear new sounds every day. A new kind of  fusion is opening incredible fields of experience, and therefore, new identities. We are literally reformulating the world. Experimentation is crucial.

What is the intention behind the work with Priscilla Telmon? Do you see yourselves working on an individual or a collaborative level? Are both aspects linked?

It’s not necessarily something that we’ve put into words. We have strong sensibilities which have come together through our work on the invisible. Our overarching motivation is to celebrate what’s happening right now! [Laughter]

Important bridges must be drawn. A lot of doors are being opened. A few months ago, I set up film installations on three screens at the CTM Berlin, which is a kind of temple to technological and electronic ultra-intellectualism. Not everyone is going to like what you’re doing, especially when you’re talking about spirituality – some people won’t be able to go there. But we’re trying to loosen things up a bit.

In the end, one of the best gateways is for shamans and hackers to meet, because they cultivate the same relationship to the code of life. Shamans are playing on the spiritual code of life, whereas hackers are playing on the digital code of life. You quickly come to understand that digital and spiritual fields overlap – it’s amazing.

The integration of the digital sphere into our society is a spiritual rebirth. We are entering into a different kind of relationship with reality, in which things are no longer limited to their matter. That’s exactly what spirituality is about – there are no limits, time doesn’t exist. And there’s no space, either – everything co-exists simultaneously. We are broadening and inventing new realities, making them more sophisticated. It’s incredibly complex and dangerous, but it’s also fascinating. The massive arrival of virtual reality will necessarily add another layer to this.

The spiritual renewal that stems from entheogens is occurring just as virtual realities are starting to develop. They’re very interesting notions, which should be combined.

We’re also mature enough for this, socially, we’re ready to experience this sort of thing…

Yes… Spirit guides us; spirits know what they’re doing. There’s Albert Hofmann‘s famous story – he discovered LSD in the middle of the Second World War because it needed to be discovered at that moment.

We need to let ourselves experiment. And most importantly, not retreat into ourselves. We live in a society where we’re being eaten alive by fear, it’s the antithesis of life.

Some of your films, for instance the Senyawa performance, can be frightening… How do you react when someone recoils and tells you they’re afraid? You can’t force people…

Of course, we won’t convince the whole world, but little by little, lines are shifting. Some people need to be reassured at different levels. Many turn to western science as a religion, without even being aware of it. When science says that something is true, people go for it. Many things are being tried in the field of quantum physics. As western science progresses and people become more aware of the invisible, our approach to reality also broadens. Maybe scientists need to put their stamp on the invisible and on energy to tell us that they exist, for everyone to say, great, we can let loose now! It will take time, but we’ll get there [laughter].

Would you like to add something?

There are so many things we didn’t talk about, Gabrielle, but we talked well! [Laughter] Let’s stop words here.

Thank you.

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© Mykola Karnaushenko

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