Thursday, April 19, 2012

Outerdimensional Akara

I write for different venues, mostly for magazines, blogs and papers related to social work, enviromental issues and society. In english my writings can mostly be found in connection to Wusik sound magazine. An outlet dedicated to music technology aimed at new and old music producers alike.
Seeing that the last issue was just published, I'll post an interview that I did with much talented Joshua Penman here. Joshua is a composer tied to the extremely fascinating psychedelic act Akara. He's also created some of the most evocative and original music I've heard in the last few years.
Hope you enjoy the read, also: don't forget to check Akara's music out, you can listen to it near the end of the article.

Tell me a bit about your background and what drew you into music to begin with?
I went to school for a long time for music, I have a doctorate in classical composition. I wrote music for lots of different groups - orchestras, chamber ensembles, wind ensembles - and had these pieces performed a lot. I started playing piano when I was five, and performed in a bunch of different kinds of musical groups including several classical choirs, an industrial band, and a Balinese gamelan. I also studied Indian classical singing pretty in Varanasi... I come from a musical family - my mother was a cellist, so being in music (though not necessarily doing it professionally) was very much a part of my mileu growing up. 

What made you want to work with digital and form Akara?

Listening to lots of dance music and psychedelic ambient music and realizing that I couldn't get that sound unless I brought in synthesizers and production.

I can definitely hear an amalgam of many influences on the album Extradimensional Ethnography, how would you describe it in your own words?

Psychedelic ambient, West coast bass music, classical minimalism, Maurice Ravel, Indian classical music, Balinese gamelan, medieval polyphony, Claude Vivier, old-school jungle...

You have a lot of other collaborating musicians as well. Among others the very talented Femke Weidema, how did you go about recording all these musicians?

Femke and Noam, the Indian mandolin player, I recorded at my home studio. The string quartet, flute, and horn, I recorded at a wonderful LA studio called Entourage. The harp, I recorded in my friend Jason's studio. A Neumann U87 was often involved. There was a wonderful Sony stereo pair and I think AKG stereo pair in the string quartet recording, as well.

What kind of production set-up do you use?

Cubase, Omnsiphere, NI Komplete, Waves, Altiverb, a few PSP, Sonalksis, and SoundToys plugins, Stutter Edit, the DestroyFX plugins, a Moog Voyager, and an Eventide DSP7000. 75% are of my synths are Omnisphere, the rest some mixture of FM8, the Moog, and assorted sample libraries.

I know you program your own patches in Native Instruments Reaktor, how do you find working in a modular studio?

I actually use Reaktor very little. It's of course extremely powerful but I find it generally uninspiring to work with compared to Omnisphere, which I love. I don't find the sounds that it ships with terribly useful (there must be some kind of alternate IDM universe in which those kinds of patches have some musical application but that universe does not intersect mine), and it's often a lot of work to do simple things. So I tend just to use Reaktor to solve very particular production problems (I've used it to generate MIDI to send to Omnisphere, for example).

However, what modular systems like Reaktor excel at are doing things that no one has thought of before... My main use of Reaktor is the massive patch I created to run the Akara Lightship, our onstage lightshow. The patch generates OSC data based on MIDI sequences, which gets converted to DMX and sent out to the lights.

 You went from classically trained into the digital, do you think people starting in a DAW milieu would benefit from going in the opposite direction – to look into starting to play classical instruments and incorporate it into their productions?

It's probably too late at that point to learn to play them. Classical instruments are really hard - you need to start them when you're young. But I think that many producers could study some more music theory and find something really useful in it. And also, they could think about starting to work classical instruments into their productions... It's a deep study unto itself to write effectively and creatively for instruments, but learning how to use notation, make parts, etc., is totally doable and incredibly rewarding. That said, there's a lot of electronic music (probably the majority!) that works perfectly well without any more music theory or instruments...

What kinds of obstacles and opportunities do you see for people making a transition into either one direction?

Well, classical music is really hard, as I said, so that's a huge obstacle in the one direction. And even if you don't try to play one of the instruments, there's an incredible amount of technical stuff that has to go in to just working with them properly, and knowing how to communicate with the players, how the instruments want to sing.

In the other direction, I think that most people in the classical tradition simply aren't exposed to what is really great about digital music. Also, there is a deep transition that needs to go on from thinking about music as notes to thinking about it as sound. Classical composers write melodies to be interpreted but in the electronic realm, we can't just sit back and give a few notes to a synthesizer and expect it to sound as good. We need to get on the knobs, modulate it, cut it up, etc. Also there is a legacy of absolutely awful experimental electronic music associated with "classical composition" and that stuff needs to be conceptually pitched into the wastebasket if a composer is going to do anything musically worthwhile.

What are your thoughts on the future and where do you plan on taking Akara next?

Well, I've been working very hard on our onstage light installation, the Akara Lightship. We've got a lot of shows this summer, and I think the show is going to blow people's minds. We've also got two incredible music videos that we're shooting, and I'm plugging away on the second album. It's all happening, and I'm just looking forward to doing this more, for more people, in bigger venues, etc... Down the road I hope to have a big integrated touring show with dance, bigger sets, etc. But the Lightship is a great step in that direction and I'm just unbelievably excited to start taking it out...

As a last question, what kind of feelings would you like a listener to take with themselves experiencing your music?

I'd like the listener to be taken on a mystical journey, to hear songs that they have never heard before but sound achingly familiar, to lose themselves and let themselves be transported into a magical other world...

"... kaleidoscopic passageways for the truth-seeking multi-dimension-traveling soul. The music hypnotizes your mind and overloads your senses with luminous dreams and psychedelic visions."

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