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April 29, 2015

Author Austin Bunn Interviews Musician Scott Morgan of Loscil

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Austin Bunn is is a writer and screenwriter, his debut short story collection The Brink was published this month.

Scott Morgan records and performs as Loscil, a Vancouver-based composer. His most recent album is last year's Sea Island.

Author Austin Bunn interviews Scott Morgan of Loscil:

Some context: Loscil (aka Scott Morgan) has been the soundtrack of my creative life – enveloping electroacoustic ambient music with drive, emotionality and mystifying instrumentation. His tracks have underscored the countless hours in the chair drafting the stories in The Brink and many other hours besides. The compositions seem to widen, fold, swell, and reveal themselves. With some ambient music — say Brian Eno or Harold Budd – all the synth can put me to sleep. Loscil’s tracks shimmer and seduce but something’s seriously up in the periphery. I finally had a chance to see him perform live, at the Unitarian church in Philadelphia, where a subwoofer stack and chambered ceilings did these atmospheres serious justice.

Austin: You studied with Barry Truax at Simon Frasier University, a well-known electro-acoustic composer, teacher and mentor. How did his teaching influence you? What were some of his key insights?

Scott: There are probably more things I learned from Barry than I can mention. His whole soundscape-based approach which largely came from R. Murray Schafer was certainly a big one. The idea that active and attentive listening to your environment, recording and documenting environmental sounds and incorporating these into works. Most of that came from working with Barry, working on the Vancouver Soundscape Project and such. Barry was also a pioneer of granular synthesis - mostly known for his work in real time granular processing which was hugely influential. Not only the technique itself but the idea that sounds really open up spectrally when you time stretch them and that playing with time related to audio is very interesting and adds this new musical dimension in a way.

Austin: What bands or musicians inspired you as a younger composer? What made you want to make music?

Scott: I suppose that depends on the stage of my life. As a teenager, bands like The Clash and Velvet Underground kind of opened my mind to the idea that a rock band could have all these other dimensions and be exploratory and somewhat experimental all while being listenable and essentially rooted in pop music. Once I started going to university, I was early on quite drawn to minimalism and a lot of modernist composers like Ligeti, Penderecki, Xenakis etc. But I did find the rigours of the academic approach a bit too confining in some ways and always maintained a connection to more “pop” forms of experimentation like Eno, Harold Budd and the like.

Austin: Your music is incredibly sonically rich and dimensional, with mysterious instrumentation and evolving time signatures. Can you walk through the composition process of a single track, tell its biography? (Say, "Iona" from Sea Island?)

Scott: Iona, like quite a bit of Sea Island was a composition that was floating around and changing for around a year or so. The sonic basis of that piece really is the bowed xylophone at the beginning. I had a friend’s xylophone on loan for a while and built my own sample instrument recording each note of the xylophone bowed with a cello bow. Once I had the opening xylophone line I started building the textural and rhythmic material around it. Most of that sound was originally made with a slide guitar. I was using this desktop slide guitar tuned to an open c-minor for a while and running this into the computer through some convolution to create dense drones and layers that I would build up on the fly. I dropped using the slide guitar live but some of those sounds remain. I also run those sounds through a tremolo that I can play with the speed of to get these increasing and decreasing flutter sounds. I don’t honestly remember what I used for the percussion layer. Something noisy, likely some environmental sounds chopped up. I know there is also some wind sound that comes in later run through a sidechain to produce this breathing kind of effect.

Austin: It was tremendous to hear you in concert, though also limiting since -- as an audience -- all we could see were the colored glow of buttons on the MIDI. Knowing that you are playing samples, what degree of improvisation are we hearing in performance? What do you look for in ambient concerts in terms of musicianship, or do you just let your mind wander?

Scott: You saw a rare show without video. Usually I play with synchronized video which changes the experience a bit. But even audio-only, I am basically live mixing, sequencing and playing/looping/layering sounds over each other. The elements of the composition are all there. I am only improvising how long things take to build up and transition and how strong the effects are etc. I sometimes play with live players as well but on some tours this is not possible. I am an advocate of listening first. If you don’t know what’s going on as an audience member just close your eyes and really listen to it. Interesting things can happen when you truly give in to active listening.

Austin: You've done sound design for videogames, and I think of Eno's somewhat hoary quote that ambient music is "as interesting as it is ignorable." What makes, in your mind, great ambient compositions versus just game background atmospheres?

Scott: I can't say that my efforts are great but I think why my music might work in this context at times is that it repeats but doesn’t repeat too much. Basically, repetition pushes the sound into the background but there is a point at which your brain starts to get annoyed with that repetition and brings the music back to your attention as an annoyance. Finding that balance is partly what makes something good background music; just the right amount of repetition and variation to keep the music hovering nicely in the background but not lost completely.

Austin: Recently, you worked with Rachel Grimes (of the fantastic Louisville chamber group The Rachels) on a new recording. How did that collaboration come together?

Scott: Rachel and I found each other quite by accident. I’ve always been a huge Rachels fan and we ended up talking about the possibility of collaborating. She invited me to participate in “producing” or “processing” several pieces on her record which is something I’ve always wanted to do - be a sort of producer. I think it’s an interesting combination of sounds, the electronic and the acoustic chamber ensemble. Rachel is just such a talented composer and performer and a great collaborator so it was a really pleasure to contribute some small amount to her record.

Austin: As a long-time listener, I'm interested to see how percussive and rhythmic elements (especially so on "Plume" and "Sea Island") seem to come and go from your albums, especially as a drummer yourself. Do you find yourself going through phases of interest in percussion?

Scott: Yes, absolutely. I love rhythm and do still consider myself a drummer but it’s not all I’m interested in obviously. I feel like I’ve only ever wanted to touch on rhythm with loscil, not overly indulge as maybe a dance producer would. For me though, the lovely basic overlapping of 4 over 3 or slightly off loops is just so satisfying that I can’t quite resist it.

Austin: I'm a writer of short stories and know personally that some stories in a "collection" were easier and some more challenging to finish. Were there any tracks from "Sea Island" that were especially difficult?

Scott: Not really. I think the En Masse piano part was a little tough to get. But most of the really challenging pieces just didn’t make the record. I’m not an advocate of the process being difficult. I think it should be easy. If it’s not, perhaps it’s not working.

Austin: My favorite Loscil tracks are "Rorschach" (from Plume), "Cloister" (from First Narrows), "Estuarine" (from Endless Falls), "Triton" (from Submers). What would you say this says what I hear in your music?

Scott: Maybe tension. Those tracks all have a bit of uneasy tension to them coupled with buried melody and perhaps a contemplative nature.

Austin: Are there any musicians/composers you think we should be listening to right now?

Scott: All the wonderful people around me like A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Rafael Irisarri, Simon Scott, Marcus Fischer, Benoit Pioulard, etc. I feel bad not listing everyone I get the pleasure of knowing and listening to.

Loscil links:

Loscil's website
Loscil's Wikipedia entry

Austin Bunn links:

Austin Bunn's website

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)

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