Drifting on the Mekong: an interview with Kelly David
The genre "organic ambient soundscape" could be the oldest kind of listening entertainment that there is, in the form of theatrical sound effects or just mindful listening to the natural world, where all those fabled trees are falling in the forest somewhere. Kelly David has been exploring this concept, coming from a background of traditional music, including very early classical training and some precocious compositions, followed by a seventeen year career working as a “top forty” DJ at radio stations in Boston, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, San Diego, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Honolulu.
The sound artist Kelly David in his natural environment
His first album, Broken Voyage (2002) was inspired by about 6 memoirs he read that were written between the 1890s and 1938, by explorers who risked their lives searching for evidence of active cannibalism in the most remote Pacific Islands. The voyages always ended badly, with shipwrecks upon heavily jungled islands where, once the seaman stepped out on the shores, native drums began sounding from deep within the island. The album Broken Voyage came about as the result of a fax to Steve Roach in 1998 with subsequent correspondence and finally a several day mixing session. Steve mixed and produced the album and contributed an awesome rhythm track to one piece to pull it together. Through this process, Kelly credits Steve with teaching him how to pull an album together.
Four album covers, from the past and future
Angkor is Kelly’s second album and came out in 2006, honoring the spirit of the land and the people of the Khmer Empire, combining harmonically rich textures and surreal sounds with field recordings and modular sequencer inspirations. Kelly subsequently released a collaboration album with Steve Roach in 2014. The Long Night is a deep excursion into the eternal nocturnal gossamer atmospheres and non-rhythmic textural harmonic soundscapes. The tracks came together over several years with the artists working together at their respective studios in Denver and Tucson. All three albums are currently available on Bandcamp.
Robin B. James was involved in music journalism beginning in the early 1980s at Op magazine, then writing for B-Side, Transnational Perspectives, Sound Choice, Option, and served as contributing editor for Ear magazine. In 1985 he initiated and edited Cassette Mythos, which was eventually published in 1992 by Autonomedia/Semiotext(e). Recently he has been reviewing jazz recordings and finding his way back into music after about twenty “lost years” of roaming the wilderness and a short career as a librarian. Kelly and Robin discussed the new album via email. Meditation in Green is Kelly's first on the Spotted Peccary Music label, and will be available for physical purchase and downloading directly from the Spotted Peccary on August 23rd of this summer (2019). The following is a collage treatment of the discussion. I hope you, intrepid reader and listener, will give Meditation in Green many good long spins.
KELLY: Today, the totality of electronic tools available to an electronic musician is seemingly endless. With that in mind, it's not the gear, it's what you do with it.
ROBIN: I am constantly struggling with the genre names, such as ambient tribal shoe gazing electronic chill trance soundscapes (in various configurations) and they are all highly amusing to me, hopefully I can get it right. What should we call it? What is an ambient organic electronic soundscape? Maybe categorizing it as anything is not acknowledging how unique it is. You have proven that music does not have to follow the old rules.
K: I can't really answer the marketing questions. It's an intriguing thought. I am not sure what marketing consists of for this ambient electronic genre. I imagine, like everything else, you want to help build your brand. Right now, I don't mind immersing myself in a more progressive presentation of, whatever my brand is.
R: What is your task as a composer?
K: My goal, as a composer, is to take the listener on a journey through a slow, constantly changing musical environment. Sometimes we end up where we began, other times we end somewhere completely different. Either way, like life itself, it's more about what we went through to get there rather than where we end up.
R: How would you describe “listening”?
K: I do different kinds of listening. When I'm writing words, I love to have music on. It stimulates my subconscious and allows me to focus. Other times I'm listening to music for more specific and detailed reasons: how does the composer develop that bass part or what is the structure of this piece, etc...
I view my work in the studio as musical lab time. Some experiments fail, others give rise to new discoveries. Sometimes I'll have a preconceived notion of what I want to do based on some experience I have outside of the studio. I'll see a landform or experience a sound I want to use. For example, the last piece on Meditation in Green is called “The Bells of Can Tho.” Can Tho is the largest city in the Mekong Delta and has some varied sounds in this city of 1 million people. The piece begins with a swirling bell sound which is a heavily processed version of a sound I recorded with my phone over my backyard fence in Colorado: a bell tune played by the annoying, weird little ice cream truck that drives through the neighborhood in the summer. I took that recording, raised it a few octaves, sped it up and processed it into that swirling sound on the beginning of the piece. That's a good example of how I incorporate the randomness of the world around me.
I think the audience for ambient electronic is pretty diverse - in age, background, occupation. I think it appeals to folks looking to center into the different meditative qualities offered by this music.
Let's go back to the beginning of what constitutes music. For me, it's always an organization of sounds. When I was in the classical mode, I believe there was only one way to organize sounds. One must have melody and harmony both progressing essentially in parallel.
I distinctly remember the day when I first heard the music of Steve Roach. I realize that he had mashed melody and harmony together in a way that I myself was yearning for. I became fascinated with his music. So much so, that when I moved to Denver in 1997, I sent Steve a fax.
Yep. A fax. That long ago.
One of the greatest things I learned from Steve was how to undo my classical training. We joked about it when he was producing my first album. An amazing learning experience for me.
We were viewing the tracks in the computer and I asked him to move several bars back, and he remarked that it was time for me to come out from behind bars. Yeah. In some ways, I was behind bars in my trained inclinations. I am forever grateful to him for that learning.
That said, my musical organization today invariably reflects my classical training, which I can't completely undo.
Meditation in Green is the result of my exploration of Khmer temples in the Mekong Delta. Since college, I have been fascinated with the Khmer civilization. Previously, I tried to explore some of these feelings, when walking around ancient stone monuments, in my album Angkor.
The Mekong Delta was the southernmost tip of the Khmer civilization, and their only route to the sea. The Delta is water, with an immense catalog of organic life there.
Free map from https://www.researchgate.net/figure/a-Location-of-the-Mekong-Delta-Source-Mekong-River-Commission-Phnom-Penh-Cambodia_fig1_325125561
In Meditation in Green, I attempted to re-create this organic intensity of nature that I experienced in the Delta. I was also quite fortunate in meeting and working with noted Vietnamese composer, Vu Nhat Tan, a Hanoi-based composer of experimental orchestral and electronic music who contributed traditional Vietnamese instrument samples to this album.
R: What I hear is a whole new range of possibilities for listening. It is revolutionary listening matter. It’s not the first of its kind but it is the first use of this specific set of sounds. A new door has opened in my head.
Usually there is a tempo, rhythmic beats and words and singing, usually you hear musical instruments. Now we can do more than that. Before John Cage published his listening philosophy there were many other sonic explorers (such as 20th century musicians like Varese, Ives, Shoenberg, Xenakis, Stockhausen), that was way back then. Sometimes it seems like the new art comes from the contrarians who have been told "you can't do that!" and so they go ahead and do it. To paraphrase Zappa, "Actually, I do it all the time." (Apostrophe, 1974)
What is an organic electronic soundscape? Is it even music? If it is not music, then why listen to it? Push play. It plays. Time goes by, and you hear stuff. One is absorbed or distracted or amused or baffled by the sounds. I have listened to the songs on Meditation in Green enough now so that I can almost anticipate what is going to happen and sort of sing along in my head.
K: And believe me Robin (laughing), I really appreciate your attempt to sing-along with my new album.
I got lucky with some field recordings there. I recorded the monks you hear in the title track at a temple in the southernmost part of the Delta. We came upon the temple as a ceremony was underway.
My recording was made a distance away from the building and it created a kind of natural ambience. You can hear that coloration in the recording of their singing.
I think I'm really into creating musical collages now. I take bits of sound and figure out how to organize the piece parts in a way that creates a tapestry.
I don't really want to overthink that part of it too much. Mainly, because I can overthink a lot of things in my life. I blame that on the legal training.
I was the oldest of five kids. Anyone from a large brood knows it confers a nominal amount of responsibility on the oldest. My parents had me take piano lessons beginning at age 5 all the way through sixth grade. It didn't grab my soul. But as I think back it really gave me some fundamental understandings that formed a critical foundation in my later musical life.
I switched to trumpet in sixth grade. It was okay. But then in seventh grade I was put on the French horn, because there were too many trumpets. The French horn became my thing. I studied with a principal horn player in the National Symphony. When he moved to the New York Philharmonic, I switched to a different teacher, also with the National Symphony.
She was very cool. She gave me books on compositional form and really supported me into attending the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.
I started writing my own music in middle school. I still have a copy of my first composition set to a poem of Carl Sandberg. All harmonies moving in open parallel fifths, a voice leading “no-no” in the traditional classical sense. There I was, breaking the rules, early on.
In my home, I was exposed to a wide variety of the classics. My parents enjoyed symphony, ballet and opera. We went to the symphony on a regular basis.
One cool thing my father exposed me to early on, and it was weird coming from him, were field recordings made for the Smithsonian in the 1930s featuring Native American music.
My father, born in a coal mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania, loved the primitive power coming from those drums and the word power coming from the singing.
The son of a Serbian immigrant, my dad grew up weird in that coal mining town, liking opera as a kid. Throughout his entire life, he listened to the Metropolitan Opera Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts. He's 90 now. My father listens to my music. I think he's very supportive. That said, I doubt he's ever listened to any piece more than once. But it's okay. He has always been there for me in the music.
R: I am of the age that the word “Vietnam” and “Mekong Delta” means something very specific to me, I mean that long war of course. Thankfully there is nothing like war heard on or in Meditation in Green, it is all about the beauty of the place, with monks chanting, some twangy old strings, some gongs, odd atmospherics, maybe a little short wave radio, water and thunderstorms on a magic carpet ride. Stuff like that.
This concept of ambient sound art is not exactly new, but it creates a situation that allows sound artists today to be very original in how to take the concept of musical entertainment. Varese, Zappa, Ives, Cage, Xenakis, Stockhausen… None of them sound the same in a recognizable trend or style except for being remarkably unusual listening, when compared to more popular music. Meditation in Green is not like that too. The vocabulary is still being developed for talking about these sounds. All I can do is try to describe what I hear. “Revolution Number 9” was a big deal for me as a teen adventurer.
K: The Beatles, while part of my pop background/childhood, never influenced my musical work, so "Revolution Number 9" was not there for me. More so, in addition to the names you mentioned, it's been Wagner, Stravinsky, Copland, Bernstein, Penderecki and today it's the wave of Icelandic composers (like the late Johan Johansson and the band Sigur Ros) and Estonian composer Arvo Part is also an inspirational influence on me.
R: Is an organic ambient soundscape the ultimate novelty act? Is it a new kind of fashion or temporary craze? I suspect that this art is from the old Zen notion of somehow causing an awakening and new awareness. Maybe the music has no such intention beyond learning to listen with your new ears.
Strange things to hear in headphones for amusement. Ear goggles is what I heard Jimi Hendrix call headphones on some interview years ago, I forget now. Once there was only a home hi-fi set, then it was in the car, now we carry these little sound listening devices with us in our pockets. What next! What are you thinking about?
K: Musically, I'm not sure where I'm going next. Trying to spend as much time in the studio, as I can. I never seem to have enough time (laughing).
The weather here in Colorado is pretty spectacular from the summer to late into the fall. Hard to stay in a windowless studio all the time on weekends. I have two young Vizslas that require a lot of exercise and an older mixed breed Golden. These hounds provide the necessary motivation to get out and get going.