Spielberger hold torch proud for ambient music
October 19, 2011
So what would it sound and feel like to experience Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws with John Williams’ signature score replaced with the experimental, ambient drone of distorted synthesizers? The duo of Spielberger have imagined it, though it was purely inspired by the chapter titles of the DVD, and they swear they never watched the movie as they came up with the music. Heck, they even admit they did not exactly create the music from scratch, as they used a program available as an iPhone app to “generate” the music. Though both Ed Matus and Bert Rodriguez are musicians who can play a guitar if they wanted to, they chose to explore musicality in quite a different way. The result adds a strange, ethereal sense of gravitas to the movie, in a remote sort of way. If you know the film as well as I do, then just the titles of the tracks, like “Hooper Goes In” or “Town Meeting,” conjure images of the iconic film. The collision of these titles and the haunting drone of the music that seeps forth like the sludge of an Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack for a David Lynch movie, brings an unknown artsy quality to the movie while still capturing the film’s over-all dread.
Already at work on a third collection of music, Spielberger are currently promoting this recently released conceptual ambient album entitled Chrissie’s Last Swim (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). It is available at all the expected mp3 download sites for purchase without the album art, as the iTunes store rejected Rodriguez’ design, a play on the famous Jaws poster art (but join their Facebook page, and you can get the album for free, with the original art). Rodriguez is actually best known as an artist. He’s received numerous grants for his work and has exhibited at the esteemed Bass Museum in his Miami neighborhood, at well as Art Basel Miami Beach, but also at New York’s Whitney during the 2008 Whitney Biennial and in London during the Frieze Art Fair. Most recently he was the focus of a feature-length documentary that played at the Miami International Film Festival and screened theatrically at the Miami Beach Cinematheque called Making Sh*t Up.
A conceptual artist who never limits himself to any medium, Rodriguez adores the prankster aesthetic of the Fluxus movement of the 1960s. A post-Dada, post-futurist, post-surrealist movement, Fluxus owes a debt to all those movements but is probably best known for its wit. For instance, staging a dramatic play with the curtain lifted a couple of inches to only ever reveal the shoes of the performers. Rodriguez notes one stunt he is famous for that involved him buying up picture frames from retail stores and replacing them for purchase soon after with the sample pictures replaced by photographs of himself. He noted that for the Whitney Biennial, he designed a space…
… with comfy chairs, a tissue box, etc. to give psycho-therapy sessions to anyone who registered for an appointment on the Whitney’s web page, in effect creating a living, breathing example of transference between the artist and the spectator with art object taken out. In some ways he does not take himself too seriously, yet he does. “It’s like if Andy Kaufman were in a gallery,” he sums up.
He and Matus recently dropped by my apartment in the Kendall suburbs of South Florida to casually talk about these mp3s they recently conjured up. Rodriguez sits still in the corner of my couch and always seems to look straight ahead as he talks, looking at the blank TV screen in front of him. “This was a way for us to do something fun and awesome,” he said simply of the collaboration.
Matus, who was once known as the singular artist behind the experimental electronica act H.A.L.O. Vessel and most recently as a member as the eclectro-pop-rock outfit the Waterford Landing, looks for a record to put on and immediately gravitates to my Neu! box set. Rodriquez approves, and Matus selects the Krautrock masters’ 1972 debut. They both marvel at the timelessness of the grooves that inspired everyone from David Bowie to Stereolab and maybe even them, a bit.
Spielberger’s debut EP, Music for Cruises, came from a project Rodriguez had developed as a commission for a cruise line, inspired by Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, the concept album that paved the way for what Eno would term “ambient music,” an unobtrusive and atmospheric instrumental form of music that was part of the spatial environment where it was played. Though Rodriquez said the client liked the music he generated using the iPhone app called Mixtikl, they went another way. The music did not go to waste, however, and after some treatments by Matus, they released Music for Cruises (the cover art for the EP features the duo with their “instruments”). Matus, who first appeared on the local music scene as a member of the art-rock/hardcore/punk outfit Subliminal Criminal in the early nineties, spent a great part of the later years of that decade experimenting with electronic music (Here’s a story I wrote for the “Miami New Times” about his early forays using keyboards and a bank of effects pedals for instrumentation). “We were discussing that there really isn’t any ambient music,” Matus said. “Nobody’s done a real serious ambient album like Eno in the seventies.”
But, one must wonder, what sort of musicianship does Mixtikl call for? The pair both admit “none.” Rodriguez explained the parameters to create the music requires some vision, however. “It takes a certain level of intention, discipline and comfort with the capabilities and limitations of the tool itself to produce a sophisticated sound that can be guided or coaxed to create a mood or express an idea effectively,” he explains further via email. “Those qualities have very little to do with what is traditionally defined as ‘Musicianship.’ All those qualities I mentioned above are what define creative intellect as opposed to technical skill. Although one is not better than the other, and they are certainly not mutually exclusive. At the end of the day, the music has to be good and/or interesting regardless of how it was produced, and that can only be decided by a third party.”
Though they are working with a program that comes finely tuned, Matus notes it does call on a musical aptitude to realize some sort of vision. “Bert and I are both trained musicians,” he explains via email, “so there is a bit more clarity when it comes to knowing how to intentionally create a certain mood, as opposed to messing around blindly.”
The program indeed offers an intimidating amount of variety that calls on musical creativity to produce a specific form of music, as demonstrated by the poster art promoting it (click the image below for a larger view of the various screens involved):
Rodriguez had said, in the end, it’s not too different from how Eno designed works like Music for Airports or its predecessor, 1975’s Discreet Music. “It’s just how Eno would have done it. You set up certain parameters, you pick key, scale, whether it’s major, minor, then you pick tempo, and the banks of sound [the program offers].” He also noted that Mixtikl “was created by the same guys who created Koan, which Eno pioneered the use of around ’95, ’96.”
The result of the duo’s first collaboration, Music for Cruises, can be streamed in its entirety right here:
For ambient music, it does offer quite a dynamism, from the rhythmic ebb and flow of the tracks to the variety of pulsing electronic sounds that offer an array of tonal color and textures. It sounds kind of like post-Dark Side of the Moon era Pink Floyd with the guitars, drums and voices stripped away, leaving only the bare, skeletal hum of the backing electronics sighing and groaning on their own.
Spielberger’s latest effort, Chrissie’s Last Swim, already reveals a bit of a departure for the duo. Opening with the white noise of “The Town Meeting,” the album starts with a roar, like a long frozen moment of horror that is the shark attack. “The Expert,” arrives to bring some calm to the proceedings, as a whispering howl ever so slowly fades in for over a minute and then seems to blow and recede, as a soft metallic metronome beat keeps a rhythm for the ghostly sound that only seems to follow the pattern of the wind. “July 4th” opens with a metallic quaver that sounds like it must come from an electric guitar, yet one cannot discern any plucking on it. The noise ebbs and flows for eight minutes to reveal a calm layer of whistling synth noise below the din, which quietly fades away over the course of a minute. Steve Reich would be proud.
From the album title to the individual tracks, all the titles are indeed lifted from the chapter insert found inside the DVD case of Jaws. The album rounds out with the following tracks:
4. Face to Face
5. Hooper Goes In
6. End Titles
Rodriguez explained that Spielberg the director has no direct influence over the music or its theme. “We never really chose Spielberg in favor of any other director or something. Our relationship to him is actually pretty random. It’s just become a starting point for an ongoing joke that started with how the name came up for the group. We never set out to make fun or pay homage to him over any other director or even anyone else at all for that matter. It was a funny exploration that has led to the images I’ve created thus far, which we’ll either move on from or not.”
Rodriguez shared more images that iTunes would probably never allow as future album covers. All are variations of famous posters for even more famous Spielberg movies, while offering a typical example of Rodriguez repurposing existing art as his own. Though he created an array of these images, he and Matus have not committed to future albums designed the same way as Chrissie’s Last Swim, with music named after other chapter titles from other Spielberg DVDs. Rodriguez presents Music For Cruises as an example contrary to such assumptions, which he called “a riff on Eno’s Music For Films .” In that album’s case the titles were inspired by the feminine word for “Sea” in different languages, Rodriguez noted. “There is really no reference to Spielberg in that record at all,” he said.
Matus even noted that to consider Spielberger only a musical project would be unfair. He and Rodriguez did hint that they are trying to conceive a live show out of it sometime before year’s end. “We can reproduce what we do live,” Matus stated. “However, due to the generative nature of the program, things will be different. The mood of the song will be the same, and there’ll be enough for someone to recognize it, but the events will be happening at different times, intervals etc. … We do plan on doing this live. However, we don’t want to define ourselves as just a music project or a band. Spielberger has many facets, which we hope to show during our performance, as well as the follow-up to Chrissie’s Last Swim, which we are working on now. Our intention was to create a vehicle in which anything and everything can happen. We are currently planning a performance in which the generative aspect is a tiny component among many. Hopefully, this will happen in December.
Rodriguez goes into further detail: “… the nature of ‘Generative Music’ is such that once you create and play that composition the first time, any time after that, even if the rules and parameters are exactly the same, it’s never the same exact composition. We can definitely save those parameters and perform a likeness to the original but, it will never be exactly note-for-note to the original. That’s also really liberating and exciting for me because it gives us a chance creatively to think about live performance outside of the traditional way where you sit there and play music while a bunch of people just sit there and watch you do it … That’s why I describe Spielberger as an ‘experimental duo’ formed of… We created Spielberger as a platform for us to be able to explore and execute any idea we had musically or otherwise. This is just the beginning. We’re working on a new record which will sound nothing like the last two records. And we already have ideas for other recordings in the future that are even less like any of those. We have ideas for some videos, even some limited edition projects or releases. We have lots of plans for things that also have nothing to do with music at all. I believe we both enjoy using this program so much and have so much yet to explore within it that we’ll probably continue to release generative compositions like the ones on the first two records in the future. We’ve only really worked together for a few months and have produced a great deal of music in a short time. For our live show, we’re planning on incorporating the music into a much larger context of what a performance can be, from anywhere between Andy Kaufman, Stanley Kubrick and the Pet Shop Boys.”
So, consider these two releases Spielberger’s calling card for something much grander to come… stay tuned.