"I Wanted Weird Sounds!" - Elektronavn's Spiritual Culture Clash
I have to admit that it's pretty much impossible to keep up with everything great that is popping out of the CD-R underground these days. Given the amount of discs that come this way I am sure there's a whole bunch of great stuff passing by without me paying attention. Luckily, I didn't miss Elektronavn's Songs of Impermanence on the consistently great Ikuisuus label out of the land of lakes (Finland), as it's easily one of last year's most impressive discoveries. Elektronavn, AKA Magnus Olsen Majmon, is a Danish sound sculptor that shapes a claustrophobic, almost physical experience with haunting drones constructed from an arsenal of instruments such as clarinet, voice, guitar, organ, flute, gong, harp, field recordings and percussion. The music is pretty much impossible to lump into any particular genre but there is a strong folk vibe that runs through a lot of the music, even the more experimental and psychedelic parts. This might have something to do with the ample use of exotic instrumentation but the end result goes far beyond folk music, providing an abstract gateway of overtones that are bent beyond the world of imagination to a spiritual figure, greater than you and me. It was bearing this in mind that we contacted Magnus Olsen Majmon for an interview. We did use the medium of Internet, but what matters are the words...
Do you recall when you first got interested in music? Who/what first inspired you to want to make sounds?
First of all I have to say that my childhood memories aren't very clear. So what I mention here might have some kind of a fictive touch. I've heard that my mother did some singing with my sister and me from the start. My own first warm musical memory though is about jamming on bongos and dancing very intensively around to this fantastic swinging LP music called Something New from Africa. Miriam Makeba and a lot of South African kids playing tin whistles and swinging so very nice. I loved that LP! I must have been around 6-7 years or so. And about a year or two later I got my first used ‘Premier' jazz-kit and started some very nice duo jazz/impro-sessions with my father in our basement room. He's an amateur sax and flute player. My mother played her classical amateur clarinet too, so her music and practicing also flew around somehow? Around that same time I borrowed and explored a huge marimba and loved to jam and improvise jazzy and bluesy stuff on this warm wooden instrument. And the piano was there too. So my first musical lessons were more like jazz, impro and blues than rock or classical stuff. I think around 12 years old or so I started to play with my father's amateur jazz groups around. Kind of a strange upper sit situation compared to many other kids at that time, being able to ‘swing' a whole lot, but not really being able to play a proper heavy 4/4 rock beat! Musically it was another world being in quite early on...I mean compared to and in musical relation to most other kids of the same age.
That's a pretty unusual way to kick things off. When did you start doing your own music? Care to tell us about some of the early projects/bands?
At the age of 15 or so I met same aged great Danish guitarist Stephan Sieben and we started to collaborate and did some intense duo impro explorations the following years with him as a sound wizz guitarist and me on drums and trash metal percussion. I have a bunch of minidisk recordings of these sessions. Long weird, hypnotic and freakout scapes. Will maybe let some of them out sometime. We later started a band including bass and sax called Fumier for which I wrote quite a few compositions. It's something like weird structured themes and grooves mixed with impro/etno/punkfunk. Some of the late music from this quartet is probably going to be released on LP on Qbico sometime in 2009. Fumier broke up 2002 and meanwhile Stephan and I developed a trio called Trio Trash. In this constellation I got very ambitious with writing longer and more complex compositions with space for impro-parts here and there. We also collaborated with a string trio and recorded a CD-R and two CDs. This music was indeed about breaking down boundaries between so-called ‘classical' and ‘rhythmical' music. We aimed at a disintegration of musical genres in a very explicit manner. Some of this music is available through the distro on my label ‘empty sounds rec.'. Trio Trash broke up some years ago.
Did you have any specific goal in mind when you began recording as Elektronavn? Do you see any philosophical overtones in what you are doing?
During the Trio Trash period I slowly began not being satisfied with playing the drums anymore. I had always been integrating strange found objects in my drum setups, because I wanted another sound than just the traditional drum-kit sound. I wanted weird sounds! And if I couldn't get my musical colleagues to produce them, I realized I had to do it myself. And suddenly I realized I had to open much more up for other objects, instruments, technologies and thinkings, and the drums just had to be dropped for some time, to be able to reach some steps further in my musical and artistical development. It was kind of a hard time not being in touch with this very befriended instrument I've always been playing on. But it was a good and developing decision.
I met Marc Kellaway (Exquisite Russian Brides and Pink Luminous Invocation) on the University of Copenhagen. He introduced me to computer programs where you could put in your recorded sounds and twist them around. Thanks Marc :-) This was how Elektronavn started around 2004. The first couple of CD-R releases were aesthetically very much something like explicit post modernistic playing around with musical traditions and genres. I still had this urge for mixing genres. I liked the sound and the aesthetic of cultures clashing. Putting together elements, traditions and feelings that earth-wise didn't match traditionally. An urge for The big clash!
Today I prefer what we could call an implicit pluralism as musical method. We could also use another word like ‘syncretism.' It's a more smooth and subtle way of using and mixing different traditions. Maybe in a way like the 20th century spiritual path ‘Theosophy.'. Not that I consider myself as a "declared musical theosophist," I generally just admire an open-minded mixing of methods and thoughts.
The last couple of years I've been very interested in practicing Yoga/meditation and studying Buddhistic philosophy. Yoga and meditation opens up your mind for larger Cosmic Scales and Buddhism urges a.o. Altruism. These beautiful recognitions I continuously try to integrate in my newer music. The problem is just that I also know of suffering and therefore also need to communicate this state of mind. Lately I read this fine statement from a very spectacular Buddhistic monk called Matthieu Ricard: "Western art aims at awakening passions, sacred art aims at damping them down" [transl. from Danish by m.o.m.]. Maybe we've heard these quite smooth soundscapes in so-called ‘New Age Music' and think it's ‘too nice'? Well...I agree to some point. There must be a way of making interesting complex constructive abstract music that has lots of differentiated earthly facets and still doesn't damage our body, minds and energies...a kind of music that helps and heal our earth and fellow human beings! Even though this statement might sound a little naive in some ears and minds, I think I would like to explore such a constructive way forward from here :-)
It's interesting to hear that you aim for a sonic combination of that spiritual side of things and the general state of suffering. Personally I feel both these poles are brilliantly displayed in your music. What's the key to your success? How do you do it?
There are of course different ways of explaining talent and why you choose whatever you do in your life...spiritual explanations...western academic explanations...and subjective understandings. So we could use terms as ‘re-incarnation', ‘social and cultural heritage', ‘genetics' and ‘chance'. I really find the idea of re-incarnation very interesting, but that doesn't exclude the rest! If you look deep inside maybe via spiritual contemplation you'll find resources and capabilities. Also have to mention that what you call ‘my success' or talent is not seen as talent/success everywhere ;-)
Another answer would be that one and a half years ago I decided to make music very focused! Why not create music with all my powers I told myself, and so I did. I also found a rehearsal room where I could play louder than in my "home-studio". So the last year (2007) has been kind of manic and prolific related to music production. I also decided that my music shouldn't be concerned with moneymaking. So of course I don't earn much money but as a Buddhist would say: "If you have nothing and you're content...you're the richest" :-)!
Your music is pretty much impossible to lump into any particular genre but there is a strong folk vibe that runs through a lot of the music, even the more experimental and psychedelic parts. Do you play folk in the traditional sense of the word?
I really love almost all kinds of folk music from around our Earth. Indian spiritual music, South Indian folk singing, Armenian sad heavenly duduk, Scandinavian folk., Africa, the Middle East. There's some kind of immediate vigor and warm timbre in much folk music that I really admire. To answer your question... no! I'm not a folk musician in the traditional sense of the word. I've never really been interested in copying styles or genres explicitly. But whenever I can get my hands into all kind of exotic instruments from around the world I grab them and try to learn to play and how to use them in my music. Just to mention a few instruments from my active arsenal: mridangam, zurnai, bansuri, kyotaku, udo, gongs, cello, clarinet, flute, violin ...
Personally I find a strong bond between Elekronavn and cross-pollinating groups like Vibracathedral Orchestra, Pelt and even Sandoz Lab Technicians. Do you agree?
Actually I've primarily heard the names and not the sounds of these bands. The last couple of years I couldn't really afford buying music, so what I hear is either myspace or what I can borrow from our library and friends and what I trade with labels that release my music. That said, I just got my hands on a Pelt CD some weeks ago though...that was through trading. Would love to hear these bands ;-) By the way I think inspiration/relation comes a lot more from e.g. films by Russian director Andrej Tarkovskij's Stalker or Mirror or maybe from philosophy and spirituality and human moods than from bands.
Olivier Messian transcribed bird singing into orchestral music. Varese and Russolo imitated noise. Anthropological auditive scientific work, Musique Concrete, Cage! The 20th century story about everything's possibility of being understood and used as possible music or art ...even ideas and concepts. Well... my mother gave me a minidisk recorder 10 years ago and since then I've had a lot of interesting recording sessions in the city and in nature with my auditive "camera". I make archives and just use them creatively in my compositions whenever possible. I also manipulate them. I've made one early Elektronavn album called Rationale Mystique that really has this technique very much in the foreground. And later albums just use field recordings from the old or new archives whenever needed. I love field recordings mixed into ‘traditional music'. Something that can be explored a whole lot more I think.
I totally agree with you that field recordings can be used a whole lot more in music in general. Do you see the field recordings as "just another instrument" or is it deeper than that?
Hmmm....well? We have to define the term ‘field recordings' then? This earth is where we live and we want to tell some stories more or less abstract about all the facets of being on this earth using the elements of what's around here and limited to the capacity of our state of mind. Is a ‘musician' limited to the audible world? Well...the artistic areas have been expanding and transforming a lot during the last century. And of course music has been used in many different ways through out history of humanity e.g. sacred and ritual music, dance music and nowadays for e.g. commercial purpose.
If we compare composing music with a painter painting a picture, the palette is e.g. our Earth and it's up to the artist and his mind capability to use all or some elements on several levels in his art. So to answer your question: "Is field-recordings ‘just another instrument'"? Well...it depends on how you define and relate to this communication tool called ‘an musical instrument'. Do you think everything is separated from everything...or that everything is related to everything somehow? I think ‘field-recordings' used in man-made music is just a natural integration and transformation of everything's around. So you can ask..."Why isn't there e.g. sausages in music" ;-) and I would answer... "there is...somehow". Compared to most other animals, mankind just has the possibility of choosing what to use and not use!
Your music somehow seems equally drawn to the pulse of the big city as to the vastest countryside. Do you prefer being in the nature or the city?
In the city all our energies are very compressed. We live in small boxes on top of each other and it can be a challenge to find space for contemplation and fresh air. On the other hand the city is culturally multifaceted, you can easily socialize around and you're confronted with your fellow human beings and their good and bad sides. So the city is interesting but not always very healthy! My beloved just moved to the countryside and here you can relax much more and interact with the old nature which I love very much. When you are in nature it's like you remember yourself and ‘essential being' much more intensely. That said, both city and nature have "cruel" and "lovely" aspects. If you're trained everywhere is just perfect.
My first introduction to your music was through Songs of Impermanence on the Finnish Ikuisuus imprint. How did that release come about? Did you have particular ideas in mind for the album as a whole, how it was going to sound?
You can say Songs of Impermanence reflects a spiritual development or realization. We move from ‘Loss, grief, perishableness' and further on to ‘Impermanence, Emptiness'. This realization is to find out that everything's impermanent and thereby empty. That's the intellectual theme of the album.
When it comes to the technical composition, the album shows us two of many varied ways I work out Elektronavn compositions. The first track is based on an Elektronavn live recording I brought to my home studio and did a lot of additions on. The second track is all built up from scratch in my home studio. The album is also kind of distinct Elektronavn-wise because of the very explicit use of my voice with words. The last track is kind of a long strange folk song. I really have many different working methods...sometimes determined, most often intuitive and just letting go. Often a composition features elements from very varied work stations, methods and places.
If you'd compare it with your other outings what would you say are the unifying links and what sets them apart?
All my albums are actually quite different even though I hope you can hear some kind of a connection!? There's a gap from 2005-2007 where I didn't make any albums. 2008 will bring us quite a few new and very different Elektronavn releases. First of all there's a CD coming out on Ikuisuus called Cosmic Continuum. I think this is really a synthesis of everything I've done until now. It has a great production too I think. Qbico will release a LP in 2009 with strange hypnotic, repetitive impro stuff. Digitalis will release a CD where the instrumentation is very simple...only rusty piano, chant and cow bells! And then there's some CD-Rs coming on Rural Faune, Students of Decay and Secret Eye and more. All albums are quite different!
There seems to be quite a few releases in the pipeline. Do you see a risk with letting so much out at the same time?
In general I prefer quality much more than quantity. But what could I do! 2007 was such a crazy prolific year related to composing music...I just had to let go. And the labels were so very kind to release it in different ways. Of course I hope it's all quality...that's maybe up to you to decide? I didn't want to hold the stuff back and wait for the right offer and format. Besides from the quality/quantity issue I don't see any risk in letting all this out? Now I'll take a break though.
How do you describe your music when someone outside the "scene" asks, "What sort of music you're playing"?
Hmmm? Most times I just say ‘strange stuff' and tell them to listen to it. Other times I open up like in this interview.
I think people have to find out this for themselves? The environment is created in correlation between the music and the listener. Sometimes headphones are ideal, sometimes it has to go out into a big room and work in the room and the music gets more physical then? The best environment is maybe if everything absorbs into each other...the music the room the listener the sky the universe etc.
Do you play live? What can someone who is lucky enough to catch one expect from an Elektronavn live show?
Yeah I do play live. Often with a lot of instruments...hypnotic, freakout, singing. Sometimes just very simple! I've also been integrating some performance now and then. I really like playing live, the spontaneous nerve and interaction. The spirit of the Now!
Any plans of playing outside Denmark?
No, but I would love to! Maybe we'll do some touring in the future with co-band Pink Luminous Invocation and maybe we can put some Elektronavn acts in there? That would be cool.
Dreams for the future?
I'm actually fine where I am right now. Everything may change as well...and that's fine too! If I continue playing music, I certainly hope my music is going to help in some abstract way in healing up our Earth.