an interview with Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))) on playing solo, Nazoranai & more ++ pics from Big Ears Festival
words and photos by Joshua Ford
Upon his return home to Paris after the 2014 Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN (and after touching down on four continents in just four weeks, a NYC show at Baby’s All Right included), Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))), Nazoranai and countless other projects, graciously took some time to discuss his three performances at this exceptional U.S. festival with Joshua Ford.
Friday’s lineup at Big Ears had O’Malley performing a solo set, focused on the volume/tone/drone aspects of his body of work most commonly associated with Sunn O))). On Saturday the festival reached critical mass at one o’clock am with O’Malley, Oren Ambarchi and Keiji Haino performing a smoldering improvisational set as Nazoranai (who play the Wick in Brooklyn on May 21). A scant nine hours later, at noon on Sunday, O’Malley and Ambarchi switched gears and performed two written compositions by modern composers Alvin Lucier and Iancu Dumitrescu.
FORD: How did your involvement with Big Ears come about? Was it the plan from square one to have you be involved in that capacity, on multiple days, and have you play three sets?
SOMA: We got an offer for Nazoranai to play, but at the time we didn’t have any other things going on in the states, so it would have been very expensive to fly everyone over. I’m American but I live in Paris; flying myself from Europe, Mr. Haino from Japan and Oren from Australia to play one show is pretty expensive. You know, it’s to the advantage of the festival to try and get more out of it. We all play in different formations, we’re up for that, and it gives a chance to stay for the weekend. It kind of blossomed from there, and I’m really glad that happened.
FORD: I’d love to get your perspective on Big Ears as festival. I felt it had a really refreshing curatorial concept, as they have put it “Big Ears / Open Mind”. I’ve had difficulty explaining the idea behind this festival in conversation with others, how would you characterize the concept/mission of Big Ears?
SOMA: I didn’t really know that there was a concept at first, but then I started reading interviews and hearing different points of view that compartmentalize things. Yeah, that’s part of what a curator does, their job is to find a common ground for different artists and more disparate types of music, visual art or film. I knew a prior edition had a really nice lineup that included Terry Riley. It reminds me of how festivals happen in Europe, using various local venues that are really nice, instead of temporary venues or stages. My experience with the audience was so positive.
I didn’t know what would happen during my solo set, you know? It’s pretty challenging material to listen to for an hour. Sunn O))) played once in Knoxville, and that band has its own thing going on so I know that the audience is probably not going to be just wandering in to a Sunn O))) show. It’s going to be people who know about us. However, at a festival there are going to be people wandering in that don’t really know what I’m doing with my own music, which is kind of like wandering into a room where the temperature is 140 degrees. It’s not exactly comfortable for some people! (laughing) Actually, the audience was full when I finished, and the applause was really positive. It sort of clicked to me what the festival structure was and what kind of people were coming there. Introducing people to different types of music is one of the concepts of the festival, so that type of audience goes there. It’s not a hip-hop festival, or even an experimental music festival; it’s more open-minded. I was the first act at that venue, and it was quite early in the festival, so that was pretty smart programming I thought, because If I was playing at one in the morning on the first day, people would’ve gone through a bunch of music already and would be kind of toasted. It might have been a different type of experience at that time, because its so intense, but they got to go in to the solo set having a clean palate. I appreciate that.
FORD: Absolutely… I spoke with a few people near me who were experiencing that very specific kind of volume/tone in a club setting for the first time, and they were totally blown away and overcome. Smart programming indeed! There were some beautiful venues being used: Tennessee Theatre, Bijou Theatre and Knoxville Museum of Art… Were you able to explore these beyond your performances and were you able to catch some other artists?
SOMA: I didn’t see that many other sets, I tried to, but it was difficult because we had to take care of all of our scheduling. Every set I did see, I was like, wow this is a fucking cool venue. It was great to sit and watch the band Television from the balcony of the Tennessee Theatre, or see Glenn Kotche in a beautiful venue, which I later learned was a Christian rock venue. I said, “We should start playing Christian rock venues they’re a lot cleaner than the fucking non-Christian ones!” (laughing) Being at the festival as a musician, you always have that problem of wanting to see a bunch of things but not being able to, and then you have the great “problem” of socializing. For instance, a band I really wanted to see was playing but I’d just met up with and had a chance to hang out with my friend Dylan Carlson from Earth.
FORD: Were you able to catch Earth’s performance on Sunday?
SOMA: I watched the entire Earth Set, of course. That was the cool thing about Sunday, we played so early (and without any sleep from the night before because of Nazoranai’s performance), but since we played so early we did get to see some stuff. Actually, when Oren and I arrived in Knoxville and finally saw the schedule, we were bummed out because we were supposed to soundcheck Nazoranai at the exact same time Television was playing. We all wanted to see Television. As the day went on we learned that everything was slightly delayed at the Bijou as Oneohtrix’s gear was lost or something. So, the organizers were nervously telling us “oh, your 12:30 am show is pushed back later” but Oren and Mr. Haino and I were like “that’s great!” We can see Television now! It was actually positive for us.
FORD: Television’s sound was so full, I’m not sure if it was Jimmy Rip (new lead guitar player) or the theatre itself…
SOMA: That theatre has a certain acoustic quality, I was talking to Susanna and Deathprod who plays in her band, and they said “its great to play in a place like that because of the sound, it’s just that sound.” No matter what your actual timbre is, it’s going to have some of that color. It’s just the way those places sound. I thought the same thing, I’d never seen Television before but I thought this sounds kind of like a rock band! It brings out more of the rock sound, and electric guitars sound great in places like that…
FORD: Going back to the content of Friday’s solo set, was that a new direction for you, as far as solo performance?
SOMA: I don’t play solo very often. But in the past year I’ve actually played solo more than I ever have in the past, five times or so. I’ve had a little bit of a sequential development of a few pieces of music of my own, which is always nice because I cant always practice that way when I’m in Paris. Yeah, playing solo for me is a weird thing because for me music is about being with other people, to put it simply, and work with their creativity. When you are alone it’s a very different experience. Oren and Mr. Haino’s solo material inspires me. I love their music, and I’ve had interesting discussions with them and other friends who play solo or have a longer history of doing solo concerts. It’s a bit of a weird thing, I mean some of the people I work with from the more metal side of things think it’s a little egotistical to do solo things, (laughing) and I can see their point there too. But, I think it’s valuable for me as a musician to have the opportunity to do something more stripped down and bare, closer to my own sort of compositional tendencies. More importantly, in a live environment, is it useful for the audience? Otherwise what are you doing? You are wasting your time and it’s being gratuitous. The response I’ve gotten has been the type of response you want in that situation, as a musician.
FORD: Within the context of Big Ears, specifically, it was really interesting to see solo sets from yourself and Keiji Haino (the individual parts, operating on their own terms) following the collaborative/group effort in Nazoranai.
SOMA: I realized that on Sunday morning; it was pretty evident that this is very different than the Nazoranai show. But, it’s also something that Oren and I are deeply vested in as well, so here we are. You know? There’s a complexity to each musician that goes beyond being one part of a band, it has do with their own point of view on music in general, and their influences/interests and their practice. We were fortunate that the festival invited us to open up in that way.
FORD: While on the subject of your and Oren’s performance on Sunday, can you discuss the creation of those two compositions, and how they were written specifically for you and Oren?
SOMA: Starting with Lucier, in May of last year we were invited to participate in a festival called Tectonics in Glasgow, curated by a conductor named Ilan Volkov. Oren and I have worked with Volkov in many different ways. He’s based in Tel Aviv, where he opened a club in 2006. Some of his first shows were Oren playing solo, the first Gravetemple show happened in this club, which was kind of the first loud show that he put on there. For Tectonics Glasgow, he invited Alvin Lucier to be the featured composer and much of his music was highlighted, as well as Lucier performing his own music. He doesn’t perform much in England/Europe, he’s been doing more since then, but it was a really great opportunity for us, and the rest of the audience, to hear some of his music live. Volkov asked Lucier for a commission specific to electric guitar, which would be atypical of the instrument, and told him he had two musicians that could pull it off. So, he wrote Criss Cross for us. He was very open to the idea, it was amazing! Lucier is someone that is important, and from a generation above us; there were all these great aspects of composition/collaboration at play. That concert was great as well, and we were working with him directly in the soundcheck and on the “tuning” of the room. It was really educational, as well as being completely stressful to play a premier of an Alvin Lucier piece in front of 600 people. (laughing) But we did a good job, I think! He said that, so… Later, Mr. Lucier was invited to have an evening of his music at the Musée du Louvre, in Paris, and he invited us to perform the piece again, which was an amazing experience as well. Last month, we were invited by Volkov to perform the piece at Tectonics in Adelaide, Australia, which was the piece’s third performance. Big Ears was the first US performance of Criss Cross.
Dumitrescu is very different than Lucier, he works in a different type of music. I’ve been really affected by his music, personally, in the last 10 years. I was discussing Dumitrescu with Volkov, and Volkov had invited Dumitrescu to Israel, so he also invited me there to perform with that ensemble in 2009 or 2010. I actually had met Dumitrescu in Paris at one of his concerts right before that, but I got to really speak with him and spend time with him in Israel, which was great. There’s a personal relationship there now. Volkov invited Dumitrescu to Glasgow as well, and one of the pieces Dumitrescu wrote for that festival was a concerto for orchestra and electric guitar, which I performed with the orchestra there. There have been several other pieces that Dumitrescu has written that I’ve played in, that festival but also other places over the last 4 years. In the case of the Adelaide Tectonics festival, which happened last month, Volkov also asked Dumitrescu to write a piece for Oren, him and myself. Volkov was conducting the piece. So, we programmed the piece South Pole for Big Ears before we had preformed it in Adelaide, and before we had seen the score. We knew it was going to happen and I was confident that it would be great to do with Oren. So, there is a conductor in the score and also percussion, which is scored for the conductor to perform. In Adelaide, we decided to have other percussionists so Volkov could focus on conducting, and not split his brain in that way. At Big Ears, however, we didn’t have a conductor but we did have percussion (Tim Barnes). It was only the second time we’d performed that piece, and was quite different than having a conductor. We had to really watch the clock, because the core of the piece is an electronic composition, and we are also reacting to that. It makes sense in the score, but you really have to follow the clock, unlike with a conductor, because that is his job – to make those commands/conduction. Anyway, it was quite different. I was really happy with how it turned out at Big Ears, but I do prefer it with a conductor, its more freeing as a player. At Big Ears, I had to run the audio file, watch the clock, speak with Oren (I don’t know if you noticed that we were speaking during the piece) and also arrange things with Tim Barnes. It was a lot more on my shoulders, which was fine of course, but it was just a different way of doing it. I think it would have been amazing to have a conductor, in that space, at that time of day. It just wasn’t built that way, and I wouldn’t want to ask another person to conduct Dumitrescu. Dumitrescu usually conducts himself and he has a very shamanistic way of conduction. Volkov is one of the only people who has been allowed to conduct Dumitrescu’s work besides Dumitrescu himself.
FORD: Can you tell us a bit about the placement of the amps within the museum hall for this performance? There were two Ampeg stacks on stage, and then mid-way back, on the sides of the audience, there were also two Orange half-stacks, at an angle facing the wall.
SOMA: The Lucier piece calls for a specific phenomenon: the movement/phasing and the sort-of modulation between the two sound sources (belonging to each guitar player). In order to make that happen in the space, you have to find the correct position for the amplification, and that’s not always logical. When we played in the Louvre, the half-stacks were actually facing the wall, quite far from us, not even facing the audience. This is a characteristic of Lucier and his music, to activate acoustics in space. It’s one of the central precepts of his work. That’s why those were placed there.
FORD: So, with each room, is there trial and error involved in finding the sweet spot?
SOMA: Oh yeah! There’s a whole “tuning” that happens where we have to move things around, and at the same time someone has to listen. It’s a little bit complicated, but it’s really very interesting, because at the same time you learn a little bit about acoustics. Lucier is knowledgeable about acoustics in a real way, but we are learning about the room during the tuning. Hopefully the audience is as well, if the pieces are in the right place. Just the fact that you are asking the question validates that. I guess ideally, the amplification probably would be invisible in the space, but it’s an interesting “decoration” in that way. Dumitrescu’s work is a lot more open as far as how things blend, it has more to do with illusion of timbre and ideas often associated with spectralism as a style of composition. We decided to also use those positions for amplification for the Dumitrescu piece to create more character and more “event” possibilities.
FORD: Whether consciously programmed this way or not, there seems to be a very interesting connection between Criss Cross and some Reich’s work performed that day, as far as phasing in/out…
SOMA: Yeah that’s great, these kinds of connections are interesting to bring up. There’s another whole discussion that could be had about the relation, if any, between Lucier and Reich’s music. But just the fact that a person listening to both of those composers in the same weekend can start making connections in their own mind and their own experience, that’s really positive I think! There are all of these threads that exist in music, I find extremely interesting.
FORD: I’ve saved Nazoranai for last, as that performance is so indicative of what Big Ears represents, as it is (to some degree) a culmination of many of the moving parts seen individually through the weekend. For many it was a highlight of the festival. That performance tapped into something very deep, almost on a subconscious level, and challenged those in attendance to hear with an open mind. As you mentioned, the set was pushed back to about one am…
SOMA: You know what, I’m glad it got pushed back later because then it’s really in the night, not at the end of the day, but we are in the night. That didn’t separate it from the rest of what happened at the Bijou that night, but it seemed appropriate. Oren, Mr. Haino and I discussed this the next day, we were talking about light on stage and how we like it to be very dark and Mr. Haino said, “Actually, our sound is light. We are in the night, we don’t need visual light because the sound is the brightness, and it’s filling that role”.
FORD: I’m selfishly glad there was some stage lighting as it allowed me to document the performance photographically, but I totally see his point. Great point also about being in the night, is “night” in any way a starting point or for Nazoranai? What was its genesis?
SOMA: Oren has done more with Mr. Haino than I have, but Nazoranai has actually done now several concerts since 2010. What can I say about it? Its pure improvisation, I’m going to try and avoid as many clichés as I can here, in talking about improvisation. That’s the whole thing though, its not a cliché, the idea is that I don’t know what the idea is. The idea is in the present, so everything that happens is happening right then, and will probably never be repeated. Even stylistic tendencies, I’ve noticed, have been completely different every time we play together. I really appreciate Mr. Haino for that. I mean, he is the conductor of the group, you know? That’s why we are the rhythm section. In my fantasy world, and Oren’s, it is a rock & roll power trio. Maybe Mr. Haino thinks that too, and maybe it is, but it’s just coming from a different angle. That’s why I play bass and Oren plays drums, we want to be rhythm section. We love Mr. Haino’s guitar playing, especially. We want to be the rhythm section so he can play guitar leads, you know? We’re right there, we get to hear it and see it very closely, and we get to participate in that way. We are not a backing band at all; the whole character of that music is not that way of course. I can just say what is happening from my perspective. It’s an interesting exercise in patience, in trance, in timbre and in alertness as a player. I don’t want to talk about how it came together; the important thing is what actually happens. Whatever the history is, it doesn’t matter. We could’ve played a set on a 747 jumbo jet, flying over Antarctica, and that could be an interesting thing in the history (we didn’t do that of course), but as an example, it has no relevance to what actually happens when you are performing or playing together.
How do you discuss things in that context? In talking to other musicians, I’ll hear “What do you do? How do you do that?” I mean, I’m sweating like crazy before the show because I’m so fucking nervous, you know? I don’t really consider myself to be a great improviser, but I know that being there with Mr. Haino and Oren, they are great improvisers. Oren has restricted himself, quite a lot, by just having drumsticks and a drum kit. I really trust everyone’s minds, and I guess they trust my mind too, that’s why we continue to do it. It’s fresh. I mean, it’s a different way of doing things as a player.
FORD: I think that immediacy comes across. It’s dangerous/thrilling, like watching a high-wire act or tightrope walker.
SOMA: That’s a good way to put it!
O’MALLEY TOUR DATES:
03 05 2014
Stephen O’Malley (solo)
donau festival 2014 , Krems, Austria
17 05 2014
NAZORANAI (Haino, Ambarchi, O’Malley trio)
FIMAV, Victoriaville, Canada
19 05 2014
Steve Noble & Stephen O’Malley (duo)
New Paths Festival / St. Francis Church, Philadelphia, USA
20 05 2014
NAZORANAI (Haino, Ambarchi, O’Malley trio)
Empty Bottle, Chicago, USA
21 05 2014
NAZORANAI (Haino, Ambarchi, O’Malley trio)
The Wick, Brooklyn, USA
23 05 2014
Stephen O’Malley & Oren Ambarchi (duo + ensemble)
Tectonics NY / Issue Project Room, Brooklyn, USA
31 05 2014
THIS IS HOW YOU WILL DISAPPEAR (directed by Gisèle Vienne)
La Filature Mulhouse, Mulhouse, France
more pictures from the Big Ears Festival below…