Talks With Jim Cole 


Jim Cole

Visit Jim Coles' website


The Way Beyond




by Leland Burr



With Alpha Wave Movement


The Hollow
with Mathias Grassow







The Way Beyond: 
Ambient Visions Talks with....Jim Cole
©2004 AmbientVisions

AV:  Prior to 1991 when you began practicing harmonic singing what kind of background did you have in music? What kinds of music influenced your tastes and were you adept at any instruments at that time?

JC:  I had no formal musical training prior to 1991, but I have always been an avid listener (some favorites that have been influential include: Pat Metheny, Peter Gabriel – esp. Passion, Steve Reich, Bjork, Rustavi Choir and Georgian polyphonic music generally, Alex de Grassi, Pink Floyd, John Gorka, Santana, Pierre Bensusan, Led Zeppelin, Stephan Micus, Michael Hedges, Suzanne Vega, Jeff Beck, Steve Roach, Joni Mitchell…).  I was a self-taught guitarist from college years.  I did not think much of my voice nor of my singing, so in those days I used my voice to accompany the guitar (and not vice versa as I do now).

 AV:  What happened in 1991 that spurred you to begin practicing harmonic overtone singing? Were there any other artists that were practicing this form of musical expression at the time and did you draw upon any of them for inspiration? 

JC:  A friend gave me recordings of the Tibetan monks and David Hykes and The Harmonic Choir’s Hearing Solar Winds.  I could not believe that the sounds on the monks’ recording were entirely human voice without some kind of electronic processing or recording trick!  Although for the first months I was sure there was synthesizer above the Harmonic Choir’s voices, I was absolutely smitten with the singing on Hearing Solar Winds, and enjoyed chanting along with it continually.  The long droning tones create a beautifully contemplative mood, and as I sang, it became clear that this kind of singing could be a kind of meditation, which has been an important practice in my adult life.  The lead harmonic voices by Timothy Hill and David Hykes on the long piece “Telescoping” (on HSW) moved and touched me as the human voice had never done before, and seemed to cut straight through to my heart directly and expressively.  I was fascinated and wanted to know if it was possible for me to learn overtone singing.  I also felt that it could communicate much that I could never seem to express through singing with lyrics.  I continue to draw inspiration from the music and influence of the Harmonic Choir.  In my first five years of harmonic overtone singing practice I took several lessons with Timothy Hill, who along with David Hykes, helped pioneer harmonic chant in the West.  Their western and “choral” approaches are really the springboard from which Spectral Voices’ sound was created, particularly in terms of their use of space as an instrument (for example, they used a reverberant abbey in France for some of their recordings) and we took that concept to its extreme by using a vast water tower to record our first two albums Coalescence and Sky. 

AV:  Could you give our readers an explanation of what harmonic overtone singing is and what makes it different than the vocal renderings we might hear on other recordings? Is this form of vocalization different than the Gregorian chants that have become so popular as of late? 

JC:  It is somewhat related to Gregorian chant in that it is a contemplative form of singing.  There has been some speculation that long ago Gregorian chant was practiced with specific attention and control of vocal harmonics.  The acoustics of the spaces Gregorian chant has been practiced in traditionally is conducive to this kind of focus.  Harmonic overtone singing is basically bringing out two or more notes at the same time through one’s voice.  In most singing styles, we usually hear one distinct note at any given moment, and we hear a timbre (tone color) associated with that fundamental tone that changes character according to vowel shape, nasality, tension/relaxation, and other factors.  If you investigate that tone color or timbre very carefully in the voice (or almost any everyday sound), you find that it is composed of numerous distinct overtones that are usually much quieter than the fundamental note.  Through styles of harmonic overtone singing we learn to amplify a particular part of this spectrum to ring out individual overtones distinctly from the fundamental.  The pitches in this overtone series are fixed in relation to the fundamental, so there is a harmonic overtone series (“scale”) that emerges from any given basic tone (fundamental) that has the same intervals leading upwards.  The human voice is able to articulate and control a limited number of harmonics in this harmonic overtone series, so the joy and continual wonder for me is in experimenting musically with different combinations of moving the fundamental in parallel with the harmonic, moving the fundamental and harmonic toward each other (or both moving contrary), harmonic singing with two or more singers, and layering harmonics and fundamentals by using looping/multitracking methods such as what I did on The Way Beyond and Godspace.  There is a great variety and richness from these approaches, even without using a water tower (or other space) as an instrument.  While various traditions of throat singing around the world usually feature a soloist or a group singing in unison, harmonic overtone singing in the West has expanded the combinations of notes and chordal configurations possible, so that there are almost infinite compositional directions. 

AV:  What role does the location (water towers, church sanctuaries etc.) serve in enhancing the vocals when doing harmonic overtone singing? 

JC:  We discovered early on that reverberant spaces help in the biofeedback process of listening/singing to improve the quality of the “ring” of each harmonic.  The lingering reverberation of the harmonics helps in hearing them fully and in giving back information with which to adjust the voice for an intended overtone or timbre.  We also discovered that we eventually would adapt our singing to the space, using the space as a musical instrument.  We would “play” the space, using its decay for longer duration of notes, sometimes sing the particularly hot resonance frequencies of the space as drone tones, play with the longitudinal "slap echoes" off the ceiling of the water tower, etc.  The water tower, (where “Coalescence” and “Sky” were recorded) was not a place to try to perform fast music or music with complex rhythm – it would end up sounding like mud.  But singing long tones with tapered ends led to layered-yet-spacious, slowly evolving chordal textures that were enhanced beautifully by that steel wall. 

AV:  Tell me about your experiences in locating and making use of a water tower in your area that was used for practicing and recording? 

JC:  We had been singing informally and experimenting with harmonic chant for a couple of years when I heard Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening CD, (which was recorded in a vast underground cistern on the Olympic Peninsula).  I was immediately convinced that our vocalizations would be perfectly complemented by such an atmosphere and began to search for a local version.  I called town engineers, water authorities, etc. to locate a suitable structure for our use.  I also put out the word to friends and family to be on the lookout for abandoned water towers, and I tested many towers by throwing rocks against their sides to find out if they were empty.  I eventually found one that was about 120 feet tall, 25 feet in diameter, and had a reverberation time of 20-30 seconds.  We had permission to use that tower for two and a half years until it was demolished, and we recorded over 150 hours of our singing. 

AV:  What role did the Connecticut Commission on the Arts award play in moving your harmonic overtone singing into the next phase? 

JC:  The first grant I ever applied for was CCA’s artist fellowship, and I was very fortunate that they granted money to me for producing and releasing Spectral Voices’ debut Coalescence.  The support of that grant also went towards getting further training in overtone singing and in promoting live performances that year.  I thought that Coalescence would basically be a vanity CD pressing - something that we Spectral Voices and I wanted as a documentation of the best of our overtone singing experiments in the water tower, (and something we could share with friends and family), but not a real public release.  The initial response from the first three radio programs I sent it to was overwhelming:  The same week that John Diliberto (of "Echoes") offered to come interview us, I also heard from Steve Davis (Associate Producer at "Hearts of Space") that they were very enthused and planning to play it, and Chuck van Zyl of "Star's End" began to play it that week.  This in turn led Alan and me towards doing a much wider promotion, more performances, etc.  By that time the water tower had already been demolished and I had tried to get permission to use other such vast reverberant spaces to no avail.  Without the support of the Connecticut Commission on the Arts and that grant, these experiments might have ended – we were spoiled by the grandness of the water tower sound and had developed the Spectral Voices sound through it, so we really needed to find a way to continue working with that spacious sound.  As we performed out more and more, Alan and I realized that we needed to find a way to bring the water tower sound to the public.  That need, along with my commitment to somehow make our fledgling label pay for itself, propelled us eventually towards finding electronic means of recreating the water tower space for performance (dovetailing the reverberation with the natural acoustics) and for recording further projects. 

AV:  What kind of recording set up did you have to capture the vocals that were created in the water tower? What are some of the challenges of working on portable equipment and how much mixing was done to the recordings in the studio after finishing up at the water tower? 

JC:  We jacked a stereo microphone high up into the water tower space and recorded directly to a portable battery-operated DAT machine.  The recordings were two-track live.  The main challenges were timing inspiration with battery power (my DAT eats batteries quickly), and humidity stopped DAT operation many times in warmer months.  There was no mixing or overdubbing afterwards, because we wanted the final album feel as much as possible like a live experience of being in the tank.  There was some cross-fading from track to track, and the 21 tracks on Coalescence come from several different sessions.  We also inserted the ambient sound of the tower in between several tracks so that while listening you feel as if you are still within the tower during the pauses of relative “silence” between pieces.  Sky was recorded in one session and the pieces on the CD version are edited down from almost two hours of recordings we made that evening. 

AV:  After Sky and Coalescence were released as CD's, what kind of reception did they receive from reviewers and listeners in general? 

JC:  Overwhelming praise!  We were amazed and delighted to hear such positive feedback.  After the enthusiastic support Coalescence received from the first three programs contacted (mentioned above), Alan and I promoted it to hundreds of radio stations around the world.  During 1998, for seven months Coalescence was in NAV’s (New Age Voice Magazine) Top 50 chart based on radio station airplay – at that time there were about 150 stations reporting monthly.  There was only one release that year staying longer on the charts, and hundreds of stations around the world gave our debut significant airplay.  Word of mouth, Internet presence, and enthusiastic reviews were other ways that these two CD’s generated a buzz.  I have edited down many of the reviews that are at our site, but the reader can see numerous responses from dj’s, reviewers, and fellow musicians enthusing about Coalescence.  Years later I still receive a fair amount of fan mail regarding these first two Spectral Voices albums.  

AV:  Each musician has a vision of what their music is all about and the direction in which they want it to move, what kind of blending and melding of this vision needs to occur when you do collaborative work with other artists? 

JC:  Each musician needs to know the other collaborators’ music well enough to have confidence that there is enough in common artistically to make the collaboration attempt worthwhile, but I think it is also important that each brings inspiration from different sources.  Many people and reviewers were surprised to hear of my collaboration (Bislama) with Alpha Wave Movement because our music and aesthetic seem very different, yet most felt it was very successful and that it brought our music into a new area that was greater than the sum of the parts.  Pairing up with Mathias Grassow to do The Hollow, the mutual artistic vision was perhaps clearer at the outset, so the focus of most of the pieces was drone-centered.  Mathias’ genius lies in continually evolving the elements of the drone to keep it dynamic, whereas my vocals contributed to the ethereal quality of the recording and fleshed out the melodic development.  The real big surprise of that collaboration was of Mathias doing lead vocals (with lyrics in English too!) on one piece of The Hollow (“Contemplation”).  Our new collaboration The Last Bright Light (on AtmoWorks) may surprise listeners even more because Mathias contributed voice and acoustic instruments along with my voices, whereas most are familiar with Mathias’ music as basically electronic (and indeed he told me that he tried numerous takes with electronics on this collaboration and eventually abandoned them in favor of the more acoustic approach).  So, the collaborators must be sensitive and flexible to add what they hear it needs, and having such a breadth and depth of experience (as Mathias certainly does) leads to worthwhile musical results.  I’ve had the fortune to work with Greg (AWM) many times live, and though he has strong ideas of musical direction, it is amazing how quickly he adapts and accommodates to whatever I happen to be doing – there’s a huge sense of support and confidence in that.  Both attitudes come from good listening skills, and Greg has learned to skillfully respond to what he hears, yet he also knows when to step forward and lead the improvisation to the direction it needs. 

AV:  Tell me about some of the collaborations that you have done to date and considering that much of it was done without meeting face to face how are these collaborations done so that you get adequate feedback from your collaborator?  Do you think that these collaborations would have been much simpler had you gone into the studio together and done it live? 

JC:  Sometimes working separately and trading music by mail is easier because there is no second guessing of each other's contributions live, and each one has the opportunity for a “full response” upon receiving the tracks at each stage.  For The Hollow, I sent Mathias dry tracks of my overtone voice (and a few paired with tamboura) and then he edited and expanded them into pieces with many layers of electronic and acoustic sources.  I have benefited tremendously from live interaction and improvisation in the groups I have performed and recorded with, and even the Bislama collaboration with AWM included live studio interaction on some of the pieces.  For the pieces of music in which my voice is featured on vidnaObmana’s albums (The Surreal Sanctuary and The Contemporary Nocturne) and Steve Roach and Byron Metcalf’s The Serpent’s Lair, I simply sent dry tracks of my voice and trusted those musicians’ artistry to use them well.  This allowed me to send raw tracks that represent the most inspired moments that I’ve captured by recording rather than trying to will a usable performance in a studio session together (which is impractical with these musicians due to the distance anyway).

AV:  Since many of your listeners and a number of your collaborators are scattered to the four corners of the globe, what role has the Internet played in the development of your music and marketing it to your listeners? 

JC:  Huge.  I decided to set up a Web site as we were releasing Coalescence so that there would be a hub for those who had heard of our music via word of mouth, radio, etc. to be able to hear our music on demand.  There are music clips that are representative of each of our albums and they are long enough to show a piece's musical development, yet convenient no matter the modem speed of the listener.  E-mail and the Web have given me the opportunity to connect with so many artists I would never have known existed and it’s such a convenient mode of communication.  For example, if a collaborator and I need to respond to artwork a label wants us to comment on to finalize album preparation, it gets sent as an attachment or posted privately on the Web, we both view it instantaneously from our respective places on the globe and contemplate changes needed, send the feedback by e-mail, follow up and the improvements get made electronically to the design, and so on – it’s an amazing tool that saves a tremendous amount of time and resources in these kinds of cases! 

AV:  Leland Burr is another side project that you have worked on, tell me about who is involved with Leland Burr and why it was that you added your talent to it? 

JC:  Larry Derdeyn plays synths, kalimbas, flutes, bass, bells, chong, percussion, singing bowl, water pot, chimes, and so forth, while Geoffrey Brown does percussion, voice and live percussion loops.  In 1997 Larry invited me to join him and percussionist Shane Shanahan (who is now in the Silk Road Ensemble) to form Leland Burr.  Alan and I had just finished several months of effort in producing Spectral Voices’ debut CD and I was eager to get back to live improvisation.  I also wanted to be in a group where I was free to use any kind of spontaneous vocal expression since Spectral Voices had become so intensely focused on harmonic overtone singing.  A few months after the birth of Leland Burr, Geoffrey joined us, so we were a foursome for 2+ years.  Leland Burr is a joy and challenge to work with because anything can happen as we explore new terrain, and we have learned to expect the unexpected.  For a few years we were performing out 2-3 times a month and the character of our live improvisations seemed to take on a multitude of personalities on its own. 

AV:  Where does your inspiration flow from as you create all of this music with your voice? Is it from within or from without? 

JC:  Both.  There is a mutual interaction of the inner and outer.  The voice is so directly connected to circulating air within, and radiating it through vibration brings great joy and inspiration at the core.  The real and virtual spaces we have used as instruments to shape our singing within are essential to our creative process, and of course the water tower was an “outer” inspiration that continues to reverberate through our music, though that tank was demolished years ago.  Inspiration is nurtured and refreshed through my walks in Cotton Hollow and other beautiful natural places around here.  Sometimes I quietly absorb the sights and sounds of those areas, other times I am inspired to sing and interact.  Singing to my daughters Emily and Amanda at bedtime is another big source of continual inspiration, and though this single-voice acoustic music seems much different than the multi-layered reverb-drenched music that we are most know for, I think it carries over into that realm in various ways.  Many sound and musical impressions help the inspiration to flow, and live performance has particular resonance this way for me lately – the Gathering Room concerts we have hosted, featuring some of my lifelong favorite musicians in our living room, for example.  It is a curiosity to me that I often cannot make a direct connection between the music I most often like to listen to, and the music I and we Spectral Voices make.  For example, Led Zeppelin’s music charges me again and again with inspiration lately, and yet while singing with the loops and deep reverberation in our living room, I have no idea how and why I sing what I do – it does not seem to be much of a reflection of anything I have heard, yet I’m compelled to bring “it” out. 

AV:  You have a new project out called The Way Beyond, how is it that you first conceive of a project like this and what are the first steps that you go through as you begin? 

JC:  The only preparation I can claim for this project is the years of practicing with loops, reverb and harmonic overtone singing.  There are very few times that I record inspired and “flawless” music for more than several minutes continuously.  That particular session was rare in form and inspiration.  As I sang and listened to the interaction, it became clearer and clearer that this was a significant moment of composition, and I simply aimed to ride with it (the whole 75+ minute episode) as best as I was able. 

AV:  Has it gotten easier over time to take a concept like The Way Beyond and bring it to completion in the form of a polished CD? What have you learned about this process and yourself in relationship to it over your musical career? 

JC:  It is difficult to predict when focused music will come extemporaneously, and I try simply to recognize those special moments of flow and let them run their course freely.  I try not to force creativity, voice, muse in any direction, but rather view them as teachers that my attention can follow and perhaps learn from.  There are several elements intrinsic to The Way Beyond that express what I have most desired and imagined over time would be a good direction to explore with multi-layered overtone singing, but I cannot say that I directed my singing consciously to “cover” all those elements during that session. 

AV:  Tell me about The Way Beyond and what listeners can expect from it as compared to work that you have already put out. Is it pretty much in the same vein as previous releases or do you see a subtle progression of growth and change? 

JC:  It’s a development from my last solo album Godspace.  These two albums were created live on the fly, using reverberation and much looping throughout.  The Way Beyond has much more dynamic interaction of live voice with the succession of momentary voices in the loops throughout.  I never imagined that so much subtle evolution - yet constant change - was possible using my voice live with the looping-on-the-fly approach.  Listeners can expect even more magic from this album than anything that has come before from Spectral Voices and myself.  There is more intensity, plenty of dense cloud-like harmonies – yet also spacious moments, poignant melodic development, and so forth. 

AV:  When you get feedback from listeners and other musicians does it have any effect on what you might do or how you might do it in future projects? 

JC:  Alan’s continual feedback has had a profound effect on many levels, from breathing technique, phrasing, and musical elements to overall performance and conceptual stuff.  I think feedback from listeners has effects on what I am likely to do in the future, but most of it has a long gestation, is unconscious, and may have an “indirect” effect.  I will never forget one listener’s comment at a labyrinth walk:  “Your music is like the Universe breathing.” – it may not have any clear effect on musical direction but it certainly changes the way I tend to approach and appreciate what I do!   

AV:  You’ve been around ambient music for quite a few years now, where do you see it headed in the next few years? Growth, decline or just maintaining the status quo.  Why? 

JC:  No clue.  “Ambient” music seems to be so broad and proliferating at such a rate that I cannot say much intelligible about it, and I’m sure that I am only aware of a very small portion of its music.  As for the area of ambient that our music seems to be associated with – spacemusic - I suppose its growth will depend on innovation within and on creative approaches expanding its definition (like using tuba, bowed piano, or electric guitar as the main source of sound, different musical and imaginative approaches, etc.).  I believe there is much more to be developed using timbre, dynamics, harmony and melody within ambient spacemusic.  AWM and Paul Ellis are two musicians who have strong melodic development in their works whether it is ambient spacemusic or any of the other genres their music traverses, and I’m very interested to see where that aspect of spacemusic heads. 

AV:  How has The Way Beyond been received so far? What kind of feedback have you received to date? 

JC:  There have been several very positive reviews of it and fellow musicians and friends think it is the strongest JC/Spectral Voices music yet.  Sales have been slow to catch on, but I attribute that more to a sluggish economy, a changing music industry, and perhaps my limited ability to market myself.  Listener and customer responses have been extremely positive so far. (editors note: You can find links to a couple of  those reviews on AV's reviews index page) 

AV:  In many of these interviews it seems that the musician has their hands in quite a number of projects for future releases, how about you? What is on the immediate horizon for Jim Cole and what kind of long-term projects are you considering? 

JC:  Alan and I have talked about another Spectral Voices project for a few years.  We would both like to try a studio multitracking approach, which we have never done.  I applied for funding a while back to enable us to go out to the cistern chapel (where Pauline Oliveros et al recorded Deep Listening), and though it fell through, it would be a fun inspiration to try another recording like the water tower-era Spectral Voices with present level of musical experience.  On the immediate horizon is The Last Bright Light collaboration with Mathias Grassow, which is being released on AtmoWorks.  There are some other potential collaborations that I’d rather not specify as yet. 

AV:  Do you have any live performances scheduled during 2004 where listeners could get more of an appreciation for your style of music?  A rather unique aspect of your live performances is your home concert series, how did this come about and how could someone actually schedule you to do a live performance at their home? What kinds of limitations do you have on these home concert performances? 

JC:  I keep the concert page on our Web site updated regularly to let those interested know about upcoming performances.  The home concert series is a great way to experience this music in an intimate setting and that aspect is why I began offering them – there is a close connection to the audience and our music benefits from this intimacy.  All a homeowner needs to do is contact me to set a date and gather a dozen or more paying listeners, then we (or I) will come perform for 2+ hours.  The obvious limitation is the travel time/distance fromHartford, but when we are already touring in a particular area it makes an attractive and feasible way to hear us in a smaller venue. 

AV:  As a final question for this interview what is it that you have to do to keep your music fresh and new both for yourself and your listeners? 

JC:  Sometimes it means not doing it for awhile, but even when we are singing selections from our debut for umpteenth time live, I think the whole improvisatory frame of mind is essential: that one approaches each unfolding moment as unique and a chance to experience something wonderful.  Whenever Alan and I start to go through the motions on a piece and take the magical interaction for granted, it’s time to retire the piece and start doing more raw “music on the edge” improvisation.  Doing this live tends to cause the performers to become very focused and attentive.  I focus on the joy of creating music and on whatever it reflects back in our listening.  Sometimes it can be feedback from a member of the audience that guides me back to hearing the music afresh; other times it’s something astonishing that emerges from the gathering of voices that awakens us to hear anew.  Our chosen form of expression (spacious overtone singing) tends towards a calm yet active meditative state and this form of singing does not tire the singer or the voice – rather there’s a relaxed intensity that grows through its practice that leaves one feeling fresh and renewed.  So after 6 ½ hours of singing (as we once did in the tower) we were feeling the music fresher than even the beginning and our voices were still prime! 

Thank you Michael for this interview.  I have thoroughly enjoyed reflecting on your questions and am glad to have had the chance to express these ideas.  Best to you and Ambient Visions!And tha