At the Fringe of the Caldera: An Interview with Ariel Kalma and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe

Posted by on April 16, 2015

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Though they pursue their recordings in much different environments, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe from his current home in Brooklyn and Ariel Kalma at his Main Arm studio outside of Mullimbimby, Australia, both were in fact born to city life. Lowe was born in Kansas City before first moving to Chicago, while Kalma is from Paris, where he studied computers and played music. As quickly becomes clear during our conversation, the title for their FRKWYS collaboration, We Know Each Other Somehow, can be a little misleading. It even sounds a little evasive in the context of FRKWYS, but the two of them seem genuinely surprised at the extent of their new entanglement. Kalma’s recent presence has been facilitated by a growing interest in “new age” and the exports of European sound labs with which he’s associated with, having worked and collaborated at the GRM, as well as essentially circumnavigating the planet through his home studios and expeditions. Lowe’s work is equally distinguished by his early and active participation in the American experimental/ post-rock scene. Under both his name and the Lichens moniker, he’s released music with Thrill Jockey and Kranky — but self-released even more, with as many works in more eclectic catalogs thanks to Holy Mountain or our friends at Los Discos Enfantasmes and Rainbow Body Records.

Though part of the kernel for their collaboration was a chance encounter when travel plans lined up, during which “Kalma was endeared by Lowe’s unique set-up, a portable modular synth unit housed in a vintage luggage case,” much of the musical genesis for We Know Each Other Somehow lies in two previous albums, Kalma’s 1978 collaboration with sculptor Richard Tinti, titled Osmose (reissued late last year on Black Sweat Records), and Lowe’s Timon Irnok Manta, released in 2012 for Type. The latter is the more conceptual: a 17 minute, strobing drone composition loosely based on the 70s British TV show The Tomorrow People, about a group of mutants based out of an abandoned London metro station (the album at least is streaming via Type’s SoundCloud). Osmose though, presages more of Kalma’s extended work and emphasizes the elements that make up We Know Each Other Somehow. Tinti was connected with Kalma shortly after returning from a field recording trip to Borneo, securing a working archive of the first “trance” rhythms that Kalma explored both then and now. In both releases, you can easily perceive the relative tilt of each artist. That contrasting tone is ample proof of their relatedness; with We Know Each Other Somehow, Kalma and Lowe are like the two planes of a single angle, encompassing everything together and adding new depth at their core. Ultimately, it’s not too hard to imagine Ariel playing for Om in Lowe’s place, in a different universe, or Lowe hauling a saxophone through India with a Revox tape-delay machine intent on learning how to circular breath.

We Know Each Other Somehow is the twelfth and latest installment in RVNG Intl’s inter-generational FRKWYS series, which we have hugely to thank for facilitating Ariel Kalma and Robert Lowe’s “knowing” one another. The album is officially out and available to order from RVNG as of April 14th, along with an accompanying documentary DVD — titled Sunshine Soup — filmed by Australian designer Misha Hollenbach and Melbourne based Johann Rashid. A big thanks to Robert and Ariel for the chance to talk…

Dwight: Robert, were you familiar with Mullumbimby and Ariel’s Main Arm studio prior to RVNG masterminding this collaboration?
Robert: No, I wasn’t. I’ve been to Australia before and then I was on the east coast, only around Brisbane and Sydney, only in major cities. I didn’t really get to spend any time outside of those areas before coming to work on the album with Ariel.

Ariel: I used to live in the United States for some years, on Maui. I had a friend who had settled there but then moved to Australia, and he wrote to me “Oh man, you should come out here, it’s so much better…” or something more like “Here now, is what Maui was like ten years ago,” and I loved that feeling. At some point later me and my family were looking at what we’d do next, and we decided we’d go to Australia… so we packed up a container and moved!

When you moved, did you bring a lot of equipment with you or did you build most of your current studio up after resettling in Australia?
Ariel: I took some of my equipment with me… I still have 110 volts partially in my studio [laughs], but here it’s 220 volts. It’s been easy to set up a lot of new equipment with computers and plug-ins now though.

There are a lot of distinctive elements on ‘We Know Each Other Somehow,’ but while we’re on Australia, Ariel, could you talk about the didgeridoo you used here? Was it termite bored?
Ariel: Termite bored didgeridoos are fantastic, real instruments like a Bösendorfer grand piano, but they only play in one key… so I have this “slide” didgeridoo, which is basically a tube in a tube, one of which you slide in order to produce the tuning you want. My music, and Robert’s also, is completely about tuning. It’s like… tuning outside and tuning inside, like with an interior and exterior ‘church space.’ The tuning outside is how harmony is created in a band or orchestra, and the tuning inside is… asking how do we become sensitive to the atmosphere we want to create.

I have to play it though, like my saxophone or recorder… I have to tune. When you tune vertically, you create a field of harmonies, it’s called intermodulation in electronics… and you create second, third voices, and so on and so on. Some of them you don’t really hear, but you feel… so for me the didgeridoo has to be tuned.

From a compositional standpoint, did the structure of the album suggest itself very naturally to you guys?
Robert: I think that it did, yea. Ariel and I had met when he was visiting the west coast, before we’d gotten into things… and we’d sent emails and done some video chats beforehand. When we finally met in person, we really sat down and talked about aspects of our work that could be integrated into the collaboration and that was really the springboard for both of us. Just having an afternoon of working and talking about the possibilities made it very easy to pick things up as soon as I arrived in Australia.

Ariel: Knowing Robert and knowing what we could do together, I made some sketches of ideas, things I thought might be good… of course we left some room for chaos also, because we like chaos… organized chaos! There is always a part of improvisation that is important for both Robert and I, and we left that, but still there was a certain direction. We wanted to evoke, in a way, the music of the 70s from where I come from, and because of Robert’s eagerness for modular synthesizers, that grew out of our plans very easily.

Can you say more about what you mean by “music of the 70s”?
Ariel: For me there is the GRM (Groupe de Researches Musicales at the INA French Audio-visual Institute), but there is also a trip to India… my meeting with Turkish musicians, playing the modal music of the middle ages in churches… and of course we’re talking about field recordings integrated with music.

When I listened to the new album, it seemed like ‘Osmose’ must have been in mind for both of you. Track three, “Gongmo Kalma Lowe,” in particular seems to be inspired by a similarly titled track on ‘Osmose.’
Ariel: Exactly, “Gongmo” was from ’78, and I suggested that we try making a new version. The original, by the way, is a trance-drumming of the aboriginal peoples from Borneo… before they go to war, they use this to enter that “trance.” It was with drums and cymbals and it was so intense that I used an analog filter to make it more palatable. So we took that filtered trance and drumming and built on it, Robert and I.

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Was there any coordinated significance to how you guys used field recordings on ‘We Know Each Other Somehow?’ Maybe I should be more specific… I mean in the vein of, using one juxtaposition or another, invoking a particular place… but I guess that’s not much more specific.
Robert: Well, with the first track you hear on the album, “Magick Creek,” the field recording was the impetus for that particular piece and it was the first thing we got into. Tuning the synthesizer to the field recording, and then setting up a patch so that everything that’s happening in the synth is in real time… so there are no overdubs. After the synth and field recording, Ariel did a saxophone track, and we fine-tuned after that.

Ariel: I remember with the creek, tuning the synthesizers with the bubbles in the water… but once you go into this kind of work, the music is really created by itself. Once you find the tuning of natural sounds, with any instrument, it becomes like a kind of scale by itself. The resonance of the water, the frequencies, the rhythms… they all make sense! Because Robert and I are both very familiar with improvisation, it was easy for us to just be in that mode and create.

Robert: Yea, it’s a very natural process, you’re able to step in very naturally and work straight through.

Would you connect that approach with how you guys have tried to treat vocals on the collaboration? There are tracks like “Mille Voix” or “Strange Dreams” that really seem to explore the range of the voice as “instrument.”
Robert: The voice is one of the most important instruments humans have. I think more often than not though, it’s treated as a carrier and not as an instrument… it’s very important for both of us to treat it as something that can hold its own weight.

Ariel: …and Robert has a technique for working with synths in real time that’s a lot like what I was doing in the 70s, that’s part of why the similarity between us was so stunning and why this was so pleasant to work on. In the 70s I played voice into a long loop delay with lots of feedback echoes and I created sort-of chords, and all sorts of things would come out… and now Robert does it through his synthesizer.

I relate some of that to Ariel’s playing in churches, exploring vocal music but also the broad parameters of the environment in question…
Ariel: I think there are churches of two kinds. There’s the outside, which is a building that’s been dedicated to this or that divinity, and there’s the church inside… which is very accessible via music, especially via voices, of course, but anything really… I feel I’m praying when I play saxophone. It’s as simple as this. That’s where the sounds come from, and it overwhelms me in a… beautiful way. That “inside” church can be created wherever, by whomever. If you go further from the religious point of view, “God” is everywhere, and there is “godliness” in nature.

The way you guys use field recordings and electronics feels very of our time, to me at least… could you talk a little about what you think field recordings do in your music?
Robert: I would say, it has to do with environment… you’re influenced every moment by your surroundings; it makes you who you are. The circumstance informs the moment, and that’s something you can explore directly with field recordings…

Ariel: There’s a Charlie Chaplin film called Modern Times, which he scored himself, where he plays with the repetitive sounds of machinery in a factory… and it was in that “field,” at that “moment” that he improvised. I like what Robert is saying about environment though. We can say in this modern world we need that (I’ll change the word a third time) atmosphere. That’s why ambient music can be so important, because we need to create an environment where we trance ourselves out of our daily life. That is the power of elevation… we go from one state to another.

Can you extend that to performance? Maybe your live plans for this summer?
Ariel: I was meditating on this before we made plans… what do we want to create with each other. The thing I came up with was that I wanted to create an environment, a “field” that would transcend the mundane.

Robert: I agree with that, and might even add… you create an atmosphere, enter a space, and within that you create what becomes another space entirely. So, for that finite period, one space is transformed completely into something else. A patron can become wrapped up in it.

Ariel: So during those concerts, I will bring the sounds of different birds, and nature sounds, from my place because it’s one way of tapping into something very different. For shows we’ll use those sounds and even then it will be different, because it’s in a new moment. Hopefully it will be a good environment for elevation, at least a little change of mood.

One of the last things I recorded – Robert, you don’t even know about this – was poetry… I read over a background of San Francisco sounds, all the different noises from next to a highway under a bridge, and then mixed that with crickets. It was an unusual set up, but the result was very pleasant, very inducing.

The juxtaposition is itself creating a sort of urban environment.
Ariel: Yea! We hear those highways everywhere, but in cities there isn’t too much time to listen to… crickets, right? Which are very musical, and very rhythmical, but if you think about it… when you’re in a city, you’re constantly surrounded, in a car or exposed to all kind of rumbling and noise. Next time you’re in a car (not driving obviously), close your eyes [Laughs] and listen to the rumbles… it’s extraordinary. That’s an idea, maybe Robert we’ll use those sounds in our next song.

I was born and raised in Paris, and it’s very urban… for me, the choice to live in nature comes from that environment at the beginning of my life. I realized I have enough of this urban environment and I need to hear birds, to be in nature, to be “quiet.” So certainly my music is influenced by both ways, I don’t deny my origins but I also want nature to be… an inherent part of the music, because I think we’re missing nature.

Do you do much field recording in New York, Robert?
Robert: No, usually when I’m field recording it’s for something very contained or out in nature.

How are you guys planning to render the album live or will your performances entail something different?
Ariel: I’m designing a set-up for the concerts with a keyboard, laptop, microphone, audio interface, a lot of plug-ins and some programming so that we can use looped field recordings for that sort of effect. We’re essentially designing a way to communicate so that we can build part of the album back, but at a distance. So we have the possibility of evoking the album by itself, but again there will be an element of improvisation.

Robert: It will have a new life there…