Despite the different trajectories of Ariel Kalma and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s musical lives, it’s not difficult to see why RVNG Intl’s Matt Werth decided they would make ideal partners for an inter-generational FRKWYS collaboration.
Both artists have carved out their own niche in modular synthesis, Kalma being an early adopter of the technology during his work in the seventies as a technician at Pierre Henry’s GRM in Paris, and Lowe recording and performing with modular and voice as Lichens since the mid-2000s. But as the title of their album We Know Each Other Somehow suggests, their affinities go far beyond a preference for what Kalma describes as the infinite possibilities of modular synthesizers.
Kalma and Lowe’s rich, extensive discographies together take in a staggering range of styles, from electroacoustic music, free jazz and New Age to noise, ambient and drone. There are common threads throughout however: a preference for meditative rhythms and engrossing textures; a taste for mystical and spiritual musics from around the world; a keen ear for the surrounding environment, and a free, spontaneous quality born from improvisation – or what Kalma calls their “two kinds of organised chaos”.
For We Know Each Other Somehow, Lowe deploys similar timbres and techniques as on his 2012 album Timon Irnok Manta, the first under his own name. A hypnotic extended piece for modular synth backed with a dub version incorporating his numinous, wordless vocals, it is one of his finest solo works to date, at once building upon and diverging from his earlier work as Lichens. It’s Lowe’s first release for RVNG Intl and Kalma’s second, following on from the archival compilation An Evolutionary Music (Original Recordings: 1972 – 1979). Yet there is perhaps more in common between We Know Each Other Somehow and Kalma’s best-known work, the 1978 album Osmose (reissued in two parts in the mid-2000s), a collaboration with Richard Tinti based on field recordings made in Borneo.
The result of a week spent recording in the rural area of Main Arm, Mullimbimby in Eastern Australia, where Kalma now lives, the six extended pieces of We Know Each Other Somehow intertwine field recordings of gurgling creeks and bird whistles with the undulating tones of Lowe’s modular synthesizer and Kalma’s saxophone. The result both bubbles with life and invites deep contemplation, its immersive music, environmental sounds and instrumentation so closely bound it can be difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Sunshine Soup, a documentary film directed by Misha Hollenbach and Johann Rashid, makes for a fitting accompaniment to the album, its vignettes of Kalma and Lowe in Main Arm rendered in saturated colours that mirror the music’s vibrancy.
When we spoke over Skype, Ariel was drinking his morning tea at his home at Main Arm, and it was approaching evening in Detroit, where Robert was at a two-week residency with the band ADULT. What follows is a lightly edited record of our conversation.
I understand you met in San Francisco. Could you tell me a bit more about how that meeting and the FRKWYS collaboration came about?
Ariel Kalma: Matt Werth approached me about doing the inter-generational collaboration, and of course I said yes, that would be good. I was visiting San Francisco and Robert kindly jumped on a plane to meet me. We’d had Skype sessions before but he decided that he wanted to meet me in the flesh. We spent an afternoon talking and playing some music, and it was really wonderful.
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe: I thought after we had been talking for a while that it would really be nice to meet in person. We live so far away it would be very difficult in any other circumstance to have any sort of meeting before we got into the process of recording. It’s nice to have some sort of a get-to-know-you moment that’s more intimate, and so I figured it would behove the situation to get on a plane and spend a few days on the West Coast.
So did you have a plan for the album you were going to come up with, or was it all quite loose?
RL: When we met in San Francisco I brought my synthesizer with me, and did a patch piece. Once I set up the patch we let it play for a while and we talked about it, and then Ariel started to play – he had brought some reed instruments and wind instruments with him from Australia. The patch was automated, sort of a no-touch piece, and Ariel was playing to it, and as we were listening and talking and playing these revelations would happen that we used as a springboard. In turn, when I arrived in Main Arm, the first thing I did was go down to a creek and take a field recording of the water rushing by. The work that we had done in San Francisco and that field recording initiated the whole process.
“If you are not present, you are absent. I think presence is the best gift we have to ourselves.”
Ariel, you have a long history of using field recordings from nature. Was anything different this time around, with Robert there?
AK: It was about the feel of the here and now, the place and the moment. At one point we were in my studio and I listened outside and suddenly I heard these birds. So we went for a walk and I put my field recorder on the trunk [of a tree] outside and let it run for three-quarters of an hour while we walked. We came back and I retuned the instruments and the synthesizer to the birds. Once you do that, it becomes an ambient environment in which you can play some scales. I’ve learned to listen carefully to the birds and to other instruments, or to the bubbles of the water, and once you tune the synthesiser it gives you a direction to explore. You find the scale, and you improvise on it.
Before you met, what kind of affinities did you find there were between your work?
RL: I had discovered Ariel’s music some time around 2006. It was a reissue of Osmose, but it was only one part of the record, as there were two LPs and only the content of only one was reissued. I didn’t know until about the field recordings until a bit later [when the second disc, made up entirely of field recordings, was reissued separately]. I felt a kinship between the work that I had been doing at the time and the way that I approached creating with what Ariel had been doing in the 1970s, because of the tonal structures, repetition, the particular timbres that he would touch on, the field recordings. Everything about it – his intuition with the recordings, and how I deal with intuition in a spontaneous manner with a lot of my own work. It very much made sense to me.
AK: For me, I’ve always been interested in modular synthesizers. When I talked with Robert long-distance before I met him, I could feel a sudden affinity with the way he designs the sounds and patches of his modular synthesizer. I was an early adopter of the first modular synthesizers, first with the EMS VCS3, a matrix synthesizer, and then later when I was working at the GRM in Paris, where they had these huge modules that you could plug one into the other. I was familiar with this style of phase-shifting amplitude modulation, and I was interested to go back to doing something with that. And to do it with somebody who knows what he’s doing is always good! In the ’70s I had great jamming sessions with Tim Blake – Robert, is he familiar to you?
RL: Yeah, he also played in Gong.
AK: I loved it, because it gave me freedom to improvise with saxophone or keyboards or effects. [In the ’70s] Patrice Warrener was also doing laser shows and we used to rehearse at a triage house, in the middle of railroad tracks of a busy main station, in preparation of a show.
Of course, the FRKWYS series isn’t just about combining collaborators’ styles but an opportunity for two generations of musicians to learn from one another. I was wondering what each of you gained from working with the other?
RL: Well, I do a lot of solo work and a lot of collaborations, and the one thing I always like about collaboration is relinquishing control to a certain extent. Working with Ariel, I was able to relinquish control of certain ideas. The way Ariel works is different from the way that I work. I work with this idea of tuning, but I’m always tuning to myself, or I’m always in tune with myself, and that doesn’t necessarily fit inside of a specific key, or necessarily inside any particular theory or system. Because I’m using a modular synthesizer that has the possibility of those variables, I can step outside and not worry about being in middle C, not worry about quarter tones or what have you. But then when you bring in other instruments that have some sort of fixed range, I have to step back and flow with that, and then we tuned to each other in a very specific way. That was something that was really nice and ultimately comforting.
AK: For me, to be able to play music together is like a language that is a part of a meta-language outside of the bubble that Robert and I create. And to have that meta-language, to able to reach people, I think it is important to be tuned with the environment. I think there are many ambient musics now which lack this element of being tuned to our lives. I miss that. For me, it’s good, it’s interesting, it’s sometimes food for thought. That was also my experience when I was working at the GRM. This abstract music, which is basically noise and cracks and blips and puffs and cutting tapes and reversing tapes and all these things – it was very interesting and thought provoking, but behind that it lacked the human element that made me connect to the music in an emotional way, a sensitivity which I missed in the music. I think I can say my meeting with Robert brought me patience, to be really honest, because I have preconceived ideas, and Robert does not. I could see myself, sometimes, saying “Now what?” because I had to look at the way I function, and that was very interesting for me, to hold off a bit and to just let it happen instead of wanting something to happen.
RL: I would agree with that. I work in a very spontaneous manner.
AK: I also work in a spontaneous manner. Let’s put it this way: the organised chaos of Robert and my organised chaos are different. Between two kinds of organised chaos, we had to find the linking points, which was beautiful.
RL: I think so. This project was about the expansion of vernaculars; it was additive instead of subtractive. Even though you work in a way that is not necessarily your own, you garner these new ways of thinking, troubleshooting and problem-solving, and your approach is lifted. In going into collaborations that I’ve done since working with Ariel, I think I’ve come into them in a very different way. With specific projects that I’ve taken on, I have actually taken from our collaboration, and in other ways, not so much.
“The organised chaos of Robert and my organised chaos are different. Between two kinds of organised chaos, we had to find the linking points, which was beautiful.”
So what was the link between your two kinds of organised chaos, between tuning to your environment, Ariel, and to yourself, Robert?
RL: For me, especially with any performative aspect of what I do, the environment is actually a part of the performance. For many years, the way I’ve approached live performances is to create a space within a space. No matter what the venue, you are the vehicle for the event, and inside of creating that event you change the architecture, not only sonically but also physically and in terms of how things are perceived. Whatever I would do to change the physical aspects of the room before the performance – these ideas of ritual that I would get into, or how I would dress the stage, how I would patch the synthesizer – all of these things are intuitive for me, and I look for them internally and then express and put them out into a space in which others exist. Getting into that situation with Ariel, it became something that was performative, but not necessarily in the same way. I was taking that idea of the ritual and performance and putting it in the studio where Ariel and myself were the audience.
AK: It was more than this though, Robert. We were composing something for a larger audience. We were in the room but the project was already a bigger event that would be listened to by many. That was my intention.
RL: That makes perfect sense.
AK: The tuning inside Robert’s self and my tuning inside the environment is basically the same; it’s just a degree of difference. The most important thing is to not be selfish, to go beyond the self. Then it’s easy to tune to myself, or to you, or to an audience, or to an environment.
You mentioned being present in the here and now. How important was that when recording?
AK: If you are not present, you are absent. I think presence is the best gift we have to ourselves. I don’t know about Robert’s spiritual practices, but what I saw is that it works.
RL: It’s like what Ariel was saying earlier. There is a commonality. Whether we internalise or externalise it, energy moves and is broadcast further and further out; it’s internalised and then flips, and is reflected out into the world. As far as any meditative or spiritual practice goes, I think those things are ultimately folded in.
“I think, as with anything, when you get into a new situation, you have to move through a different landscape and feel it out, do things a certain way. You might have to wrap your brain around doing different things.”
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe
How was the dynamic, Robert, with Main Arm being Ariel’s home and yet an entirely new place to you?
RL: It was exciting and exhilarating. I travel quite a lot, maybe for half the year every year. I’ve always been excited about the discovery of something new, no matter how small it might seem. Everything that you encounter, everything that you witness or take part in, expands you. In a way it’s like gorging myself, and it’s something I truly love and enjoy, no matter how difficult it might be. I was thrilled to be there.
How much actual material did you come up with?
AK: It went on and on, and we realised we had enough material for two CDs. And that was only in one week, so it went pretty well! But this is the nature in which Robert and I function separately, and therefore together. It’s infinite; he with his modular synthesizer that has infinite possibilities, and me with my scales and my way of exploring the world of music through all those crazy rhythms and scales from many countries in the world which I have visited or heard about. They make infinite possibilities. We could play music forever, together or separately!
I also wanted to mention the documentary film, Sunshine Soup. How did the filming fit in with your recording sessions?
AK: The two guys who were there were so awesome – they were there but not there, constantly filming, but not interacting with us. It was a presence without disturbance.
RL: I would agree. It’s a document of the things we were doing, but it has a larger identity because it also brings in two visual artists known for film and video work, and for me I took my hands away from it because I would rather have them do their work in their way and let it happen naturally. I understood the taste level that we were dealing with and had no worries.
You mean Matt’s taste?
RL: Yes, and also the taste of Misha and Johann, who made the film. There was an unspoken understanding, and we all existed in the same room, if you will.
AK: It was so beautiful. We would drink tea, and talk about all kinds of life stories, and it was just so harmonious. At the end, I thought it would be a nice moment if we all played music together. In one piece, ‘Miracle Mile’, we all played percussion and sang.
It sounds as if the whole process was very harmonious, despite what you call these additive compromises. Were there any surprises along the way?
RL: I think, as with anything, when you get into a new situation, you have to move through a different landscape and feel it out, do things a certain way. You might have to wrap your brain around doing different things. I don’t think there was any butting of heads, but as human beings, the ego comes into play no matter what, no matter how heavy or light that can be. Certain things might work for you in a very specific way, and they don’t necessarily work for someone else. It’s like the idea of truth. My idea of truth is not necessarily Ariel’s idea of truth –
AK: That’s true!
RL: – but that doesn’t mean they can’t work together. The system can be manipulated in a way that is not detrimental, and everyone comes out the other end having grown. Does that make sense?
AK: It does! What I would say is collaboration means “co”, as in two parties, and “labour”, as in work. It’s not always easy, but is it harmonious? Yes. Like I was saying before, I had to be patient because when I work alone, I work and work and work, and I have an idea of what’s going to happen, and I shape the music in a certain way. With Robert, I had to hold off, so for me the work was more when Robert and the whole team left, and I was with the raw material to mix. We set up a long-distance system where I would send the mix and Robert and Matt would listen and send feedback. Because Robert was travelling a lot, sometimes I felt a bit alone with that, and it took longer and was much more work than I thought; for me, to mix and master is a long process, because the devil is in the details. When we record synthesizer or saxophone, for example, and have the recording, there might be a grain there, or a sentence that is not finished well, or noise in the background, and we have to cut that part and change it – that was the arduous work. But that’s all part of the process.
We Know Each Other Somehow is released through RVNG Intl. on April 14.