Rewind: Where Minimalism, Eastern Music and Techno Converge

Philip Glass Ravi Shankar Rewind-landscape
Finn Johannsen's column returns with insight on Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar from L'Estasi Dell'oro. Is techno's simplicity reductive or refreshing?

Rewind returns with L’Estasi Dell’oro, a moniker of super-active Queens, New York-based producer Christopher Ernst. His pieces, which have appeared under a number of pseudonyms on boutique labels like Voodoo Down, Berceuse Heroique and his own Flaneur Audio imprint, imbue an agoraphobe’s sense of subtlety and texture to techno. In this conversation with Hard Wax staple and frequent Electronic Beats contributor Finn Johannsen, Ernst discusses his roots in metal and his insights on techno’s simple musicality by way of Passages, a collaborative album by famous minimalist composer Philip Glass and equally renowned Hindustani sitar player Ravi Shankar.

Do you remember when you first got a hold of Passages?

Approximately eight years ago. I believe that I first became aware of the album through familiarity with Ravi’s work, as opposed to the more likely channel of Philip’s. It was the well-worn process of hearing a great musician’s work for the first time and then digging through as much of their discography as time allows.

What makes this album so important for you?

The simple answer is that this is the best collection of modern music that I’ve ever heard in my life, at least so far. There are other individual songs that I feel reach higher than any single piece from Passages—Jimi Hendrix’s “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)”, for example—but taken as a whole, the variety and almost unwavering quality across the 55 minutes are very impressive to me.

Are you generally interested in the minimalism school Glass is a part of and the heritage from which Ravi Shankar descends? Do you have a preference between them?

Both traditions are of interest to me for similar and differing reasons. Western minimalism’s longform accuracy of performance is astounding. Of course, many pieces utilize synthesizers or machines for part or all of their sounds, but there are many examples of highly-trained musicians playing these very fast and demanding arrangements in sizeable groups with amazing accuracy. Hearing a quartet of woodwinds or vocalists arpeggiate 32nd notes for 20 minutes in synch is certainly impressive, especially when each player is playing in the pocket of another’s notes and one weak link could lose the all-important groove.

I feel that, of the Hindustani music I’ve been able to discover, not too much is readily available to foreigners like myself beyond key names. In general, it’s an amazing marriage of musical rules and improvisations. Other cultures undoubtedly have similar structures, but the longform interplay between a sitar and tabla create a sound that appears loose and informal at first, but one where the performers are very highly trained and aware of their actions as a group. I’m certainly not deeply aware of the compositional rules of ragas and talas and so on. But I’m familiar enough to appreciate what those musicians know themselves. Even in the related vocal styles of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Pakistani performers, the communal aspect of group support for the soloist is wonderful.

The two traditions both place emphasis on extended songs beyond the popular format, which can leave a profound impact on the listener when done correctly. Also, the aforementioned backing of smaller choral support often features drawn-out vocal melodies that really appeal to my ear, especially with the female voice. I’ve enjoyed working with a couple vocalists in this style, which can even sound great just floating over a groove alone without the usual emphasis on a soloist drawing the main focus.

How would you place Passages in the context of Glass’ and Shankar’s respective outputs? And how much of both artists is evident in the piece? Is this an ideal, true collaboration?

As far as I can tell from the album jacket notes and relatively little information available on the recording sessions, this work is an equal collaboration between the two. Each recorded three of the six pieces in their own studio spaces, with two of those three compositions were based on riffs from the other. Philip took musical themes provided by Ravi and wrote full arrangements off those and vice versa. Additionally, each of the two recorded a third song of solely their own ideas to round out the package. Listening through, it’s certainly not just a case of Philip approximating “Indian sounds” or Ravi “attempting Western minimalism.”

There were numerous efforts to combine Western musical influences with other global traditions. The results were often half-hearted for both, or worse. Can you think of other projects where this approach really worked?

I’m sure that there are recordings that I’ve never heard or I’m failing to recall them. Unfortunately, after spending some time trying to think of worthy items to mention, I really can’t.

What mistakes do you think should by all means be avoided?

I feel that any collaboration where each of the artists has a healthy understanding of the other’s background and ideas will be more likely to produce great results. Philip had a much deeper understanding of Hindustani musical concepts than most American composers, and Ravi likewise was much more familiar with Western composition than most Indians. I know that they had first encountered one another already in the mid-’60s for film work in more of a student-teacher relationship, as well as having collaborated in the intermittent years, so that long-established familiarity helped to avoid any great mistakes.

A lot of electronic artists are influenced by minimalism and outernational elements. Are they inspired by rhythm and the according textures, or is there more?

It seems to me that not enough electronic artists are influenced by these elements, since rhythm in techno is often extremely rigid; 98 percent of tunes I’ve heard are all at a single set tempo, even excluding DJ-focused tunes, which are uniform for obvious reasons. Recording while syncing synths often makes tempo changes an afterthought because hardware machines and computer programs make that hard to do, at least compared to a group of musicians sitting together and being able to do so at the ease of a head nod. It’s still a bit strange to my ears, since the main music vibe that I grew up with as a teenager was the local hardcore, metal and punk scene. Bands like Botch, Converge, Dillinger and Skycamefalling relied heavily on really interesting arrangements and a mixture of both subtle and jarring tempo changes. It was great for my curious 14-year-old mind, along with millions of others across the country and, to a lesser extent, the world. And it was great fun dancing—or rather, jumping and kicking and punching—to those bands. There’s a lesser-known album named Finding Solace in Dissension from the band Taken, on which at some point long ago I realized that they don’t repeat an arrangement section throughout the entire album. Even for that music, it’s pretty rare to never go back to a verse or chorus after a breakdown or anything. It’s not the greatest album of its style, but I really appreciate the fact that they purposefully tried something uncommon and pulled it off.

Regarding the according melodic textures, I agree that they’re highly influential, although perhaps too much focus is put upon the machine-source aspect of the minimalism sound palette. I do really enjoy getting some twisted and head-affecting sounds out of these electronics, but rather than just those bleeps and pads, I feel that the female voice is by far the best instrument, and I wish there was a healthier balance of songs that feature the voice as do processed computer beeps. I can say that it’s usually much more fun to record vocal sessions and work with those sounds, and that it’s no coincidence that people have enjoyed the songs “Cry Stahl” and “Iscariotic Lips” more so than any of my other 12″s released thus far. In recent times I’ve mainly focused on incorporating my girlfriend Sadie’s spoken words into my original pieces along with the current live touring setup that I’ve began working with. Even a microphone through a space echo pedal and a few bits of hardware can come together really nicely.

As a producer, you work with musical elements that aren’t typical of the genres your music is associated with. With techno, for example, functionality is often as important as musical ideas. For people who value traditional musical training, techno may offer little of value compared to an album like Passages. Is that due to a lack of musical education among techno producers?

Well, I myself am not musically educated beyond common public school band lessons and beginner reading of sheet music, but I do find myself occasionally disappointed by the rudimentary arrangements and melodies that are the norm in techno. I can only imagine that, for people way more educated than myself in these areas, this sentiment can be stronger. I mean, there’s no denying that a majority of great techno songs feature melodies and chord changes that a young child would learn in their first home piano lesson. It’s the background sound elements and locomotive grooves that hold my attention. I kind of understand how individuals from a more “educated” musical scene could find techno very refreshing for these reasons, and it works wonderfully regardless, but I do occasionally question what an already amazing techno song could have sounded like if double the time was spent developing an arrangement beyond a single idea stretched to seven minutes. Something like a situation where no thought is influenced by a hypothetical DJ and the entire momentum and energy built over an extended set would become necessary to achieve within each song alone.

It’s a difficult question as a producer to know when it’s better to try to incorporate these things into the music, or when it’s best to keep it extra simple and leave it up to the DJ spinning your record to spice up the song. When I spin records out I really enjoy playing types of techno that I wouldn’t necessarily produce myself, but work great in context. Ideally, I have a third turntable to throw spoken word, ambient, or acoustic works over top of the groovers, which also allows me to make more interesting mixes and dynamic changes that only two decks don’t so freely allow. The vast majority of times that someone will talk to me about a record I’ve played, it’s about a song from an “unrelated” genre to techno that they would never expect to hear in that setting. Whether unknown poetry or a very recognizable melody, I can see peoples’ ears perk up in these moments.

Are their other fields you would like to explore as producer and music enthusiast?

Over the past couple years I’ve been actively digging into the current metal scene, which is closer to my roots. But I can’t say that I was very aware of the more extreme end of the spectrum as a kid. I’ve found some amazing works amongst the mediocre, actually located in particular proximity to my part of Queens/Brooklyn, namely Krallice and Castevet, along with a few others. Take a good listen through the album Diotima and see if you can draw some inspiration as I have. It’s another good example of skilled musicians really attempting to create something together as has happened many times in the past, and hopefully many more times to come.

Creatively, the person reading this may be familiar with my records and rightly say that I’ve occasionally followed some of these overly re-re-re-visted themes in ways myself in the past, but my more recent material that will be arriving in the future is getting closer still to the sounds I’m reaching towards. Although I’ve enjoyed playing various instruments in various bands with friends, it’s only been over the past five years, starting with the Penalune material, that I’ve been actively concentrating on creating music to release to the wide world. I admit that I’m still actively contemplating how to go about this best, and am really genuinely excited about what songs will come to be in the future months and years.

Click here to read past editions of Johannsen’s Rewind column with Call Super, Flemming Dalum and The Maghreban.

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