Talks with Michael Stearns
w/ Ron Sunsinger
Collected Ambient and Textural Works: 1977-1987
Spirits of the Voyage: Music From The Documentary Video
w/ Steve Roach, Ron Sunsinger
w/ Ron Sunsinger
Although Michael Stearns is one of the early originators of what has become known as the ambient music genre, to categorize Michael's music into any one genre, or even several genres would be inaccurate in my view. The diversity of his work is truly amazing, ranging from electronic, new age, space, and ambient music, shamanic underworld journeys, commercials, soundtracks for movies, films, documentaries, and IMAX ... the list goes on and on! Michael's quest for innovation has resulted in ground breaking sonic accomplishments that are not only musically extraordinary, but are always on the cutting edge of recording technology, both of which I deeply admire and appreciate.
Although Michael has been a prolific recording artist since the late 70s, I was first introduced to his work in 1988 where I was working in the therapeutic and healing arts communities. Michael's music was being used in several contexts including Grof's Holotropic Breathwork, meditation practices, yoga, guided imagery, hypnosis, and body work, to name a few. I became an instant admirer and have been following his career ever since. In the early 90s, the film Baraka just blew me away! I remember being so captivated by Michael's score and musical production that I kept drifting away from the visual into my own inner journey, and then again back into the visual, a process that continued throughout the film. In preparing to write this introduction, I decided to "experience" Baraka again and I found it to be even more powerful than before. I use the term "experience" because with Michael's music, it is much more accurate than the term "listening." For me this is true with his audio CDs as well as his film scores.
Because my own music, along with my therapy practice, primarily involves transpersonal and shamanic strategies, my favorite work of Michael's explores the multi-layered realms and landscapes of the shamanic worlds. Michael's sensitivity to, and what I believe must be a personal experiential awareness of these dimensions, is clearly evident in his music in ways that go beyond my ability to put language onto it. His ability to weave the organic, the natural, the primordial, the cosmic, and the realm of the electronic and new technology is for me both breathtaking and awe inspiring!
Introduction by Byron Metcalf, Ph.D., M.S., drummer, percussionist, recording artist, and record producer.
AV: The music has many names new age, electronic, ambient, instrumental or space music, what was your entry point into this new genre of music and about when would you say that it established itself in a recognizable form?
MS: The first publication of my solo music was in 1977 on cassette. In the spring of the following year, 1978, I published my first LP, "Ancient Leaves". The only marketing label invented at that time was "electronic" music. Other labels came shortly afterward. Toward the end of 1978, I performed a concert series titled "The Voice of the Dragon" in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Before I left for the SF performance, I was contacted by Steven Hill and asked if I could be interviewed after one of the concerts there on his program "Music from the Hearts of Space". He had been playing "Ancient Leaves" on his program and at that point I realized that what I was up to musically was part of an emerging form.
AV: Who were some of the other brave souls who were "following their muse" in this early form of new age music? Was there a way for other musicians to talk to one another back then and share ideas on where this music genre might be headed?
MS: On the west coast there were Georgia Kelly, Steven Halpern, Larkin, Constance Demby, Jordan de la Sierra, Paul Horn... and many others that Iím not remembering. Deuter was weaving musical magic in Poona. Many of us knew each other and would get together whenever possible. Georgia, Larkin, Constance and I occasionally found opportunities to perform together.
AV: How had your musical training or your talents prepared you for this new direction in music?
MS: I would say that life prepared me. The first time that I created a piece of music along the lines of what I do now, was when I dropped out of college in 1967. At the time, I was going to school and performing in an "acid rock" group. When I dropped out, I collected all of the bandís instruments in a room, guitars, bass, organ, and some old tape machines. Sitting in that room, the explosion of energy freed by stopping the momentum of my world, the familial and cultural expectations as to who I was and what I would become, drove me to create a piece of music that was the precursor to what I do now.
AV: What kind of reception did your music receive from the listeners, radio stations and labels in general? Did anyone see the value of this or that it might have a future?
MS: In 1975 I moved to Los Angeles and began performing at the Continuum Studio. There, my music was used as a context for meditation, movement, and theater production. After "Ancient Leaves" was released in 1978, I began working with my friend Craig Huxley scoring movies and I started to receive some limited airplay. By 1979, I was traveling several times a year to new age fairs where I would set up a booth and sell my cassettes and LPs. That was the only market that I could find for the music and it supported me in some very lean years. At that time, other than the fairs and direct sales to a few stores and catalogues, there was no real distribution of the music. It hadnít yet been formally dubbed "New Age" for marketing purposes, and there were only a few daring souls who played it on their radio shows. Those of us who were creating this music, were driven by the muse.
AV: What kind of folks stopped by your booth and bought your music at the new age fairs and what were some of their reactions to your early compositions?
MS: Everyone from New Age Seekers to witches and warlocks! The director of a school for autistic children came by and bought everything. She called me several months later to say that someone had stolen the tapes and her children were very upset. Those early shows were really a potpourri of vendors and audience. Sometimes I would perform live at them.
AV: Tell me about your first few releases on the Continuum Montage label and how these recordings began to define the vision of the music that you held?
MS: I was very interested in what it means to be human beyond our cultural descriptions and definitions. Music can be seen as a metaphor for how we describe/create/define ourselves. So, the releases on Continuum Montage were all about that...music as a context for the exploration of what it means to be human beyond the cultural norm... new music for new humans.
AV: Was there a primary instrument that you preferred to use when composing your music and why is that?
MS: The Mini Moog led me to the EML which led me to Kevin Braheny and the Serge. After working with Kevinís Serge for a year, I built my own. It became my instrument of preference, probably because it was so open ended... so many possibilities for creating music. In those days you built your own Serge, so the arrangement of the modules and wiring were a direct reflection of how you thought about the process of synthesis and music. Each Serge was unique in that way.
AV: Was building your own Serge a difficult proposition or did you have a background in electronics that enabled you to do it without any serious problems?
MS: I had something of a background, enough to assemble the kits. They were pretty straight forward unless you wanted to make mods, which I often did. Then, having Kevin Braheny as a friend was very helpful. Kevin was working for Serge at the time, assembling systems for musicians who didnít want to do it themselves. So, I consulted with him when I ran into a problem.
AV: Your music started to get used in quite a number of situations other than just being purchased by consumers at record stores, tell me about some of the places that your music was used and how you felt as a musician to see it used in these ways.
MS: Itís a mystery to me as to how my music finds its way, gets passed around. After "Ancient Leaves", I was contacted by NASA about using my music in a production for them, then Laserium used it in one of their shows, and a piece was choreographed by the Berkshire Ballet. The drive to create it is often so personal, Iím sometimes amazed when it resonates within others and finds other uses.
AV: When someone contacts you about using your music in any of these productions what is your involvement in the process if any?
MS: If I own the rights to the music, then I have to make the deal. Thatís based on what the use is and how much of a piece is used. Other than that, sometimes they request a surround version, or stems, or delivery in a special format. In that case, I have to create the version and format that they need.
AV: Tell me about how your involvement with Stephen Hill came about and what kind of influence he had on getting your music out to the public? What kind of influence did Hearts of Space have on the ultimate spread of the ambient/new age genre?
MS: Steven first interviewed me on his program in 1978. We became good friends. As Hearts of Space, the radio program, became syndicated and picked up more and more stations, it served so many of us composers, getting our music out there. It really turned on an audience and made my music available to people that I would have had very limited access to.
AV: Do you create music specifically for films and TV or is your music taken from recordings already made and then made to fit the visual images?
MS: Both. Last year I scored a feature film, a PBS documentary and a planetarium show. That was all music specifically written to picture. But, often music from my solo efforts, my CDs, gets used in motion pictures and television. Thatís what happened with Titanic. There are stories and memories expressed in the music... written from the fabric of my life and what I have opened myself to. Those are often archetypal and sometimes transcendent in nature, and a natural for use in films and visual mediums.
AV: Tell me about the differences in the composing process when writing something just for yourself and when you are scoring a film or television special. Do you still feel that the music composed to someone else's visuals (i.e. movies, television) is just as personally yours as if you went to your studio alone and came out with an album?
MS: Iím approached to write for picture because the director or producer is already familiar with my body of work and they are looking for something along those lines. Writing for picture is usually a collaborative process. You have to let go of the ego in a big way, because you are serving someone elseís vision. In the end, you still feel very personal about what youíve created. Then there are directors like Ron Fricke who I have such a rapport with, that collaboration goes on in the silent space.
On Chronos, he and I had conversations about what he was looking for in the different sections of the film. Then he went off to shoot the picture for four months and left me alone to compose. I had a 16 track 2" machine with a huge 14" reel of tape, and I started at the beginning of the tape and wrote one long piece, in several movements, to the end of the tape. When he and the crew returned, he took a temp mix of the music and edited his footage to it. Thatís not the usual way it gets done, but it works with Ron. Usually, the director wants more input and control, and you score to picture. When Iím in the studio working on one of my own projects, I stay very focused in my own musical vision. I wonít play the work for anyone until itís finished. Except for sync licenses of music from my CDs for film or television, Iíve never really made much money from my own projects. Iím driven to create, so Iím not really concerned with how other people respond to what Iím doing. Itís not about making money.
AV: Let's jump ahead a few years to the point where the music does have a name and the name is ambient. How has the genre changed from the days when you had to play new age fairs just to find a place to sell your music? Is it still difficult to explain what ambient music consists of and who the target audience is to those who don't know?
MS: The genre has certainly changed. For some of us itís still about the exploration and discovery of new musical territory without worrying much about who the target audience might be. When I have the time to compose my personal music, I have to do something that resonates deeply in me, no matter what name the music is going to be marketed under. Iím grateful that it continues to sell and that record labels are still interested in releasing new material from Michael Stearns.
AV: When was it that you moved into Earth Turtle Studios and how did it feel recording your music in your own space as opposed to renting time in a local studio? How was the studio dubbed Earth Turtle Studios?
MS: Actually, Iíve always created my own studios. The first was in 1972 in my home in Tucson, Arizona. Then I moved to LA in 1975 and had a studio first at Continuum, and then in my home in Culver City. It was more like a bedroom in my studio. Steve Roacheís first few releases were mixed there. We lived a few blocks from each other. I built Míocean studio in Santa Monica just before scoring Chronos in 1984. It was a large studio space that housed my first 6 channel surround monitoring set up. Míocean moved to Marina Del Rey in 1989, where I scored Baraka and a dozen IMAX films. Then in 1992, I moved here to Santa Fe. The first night of building out the new studio, I had a dream in which I was descending through the earth into a cavern immediately below the studio space. Out from behind a giant boulder came a huge tortoise/turtle that looked me right in the eye. When I awoke, it was clear that the creative space embodied by the studio had a new animal familiar. Hence the new name, Earth Turtle. Because I see the entire studio as one large instrument of synthesis, and that is how I approach the set up of my studios, it would be very hard for me to rent time in a commercial studio and do what I do.
AV: Could you give our readers an idea of what goes into choosing the equipment for and then setting up a studio like this? How current do you try to keep the equipment in the never ending struggle to keep abreast of new technologies?
MS: For me, space is the place. Not necessarily outer space, but geometric or architectural sonic space. So, having a flexible surround monitoring system is primary. Then, having musical instruments that I have an intuitive relationship with is important. That creates the technical musical context in which you can follow your impulses from moment to moment. Up until about six years ago, I was tracking on a 24 track 2" machine with 24 channels of Dolby SR. Then I got into ProTools and it has been ProTools ever since. I was very happy with the sound of the 2" machine. The choice to make the shift to digital really came from working with ProTools at Hearts of Space while mastering CDs, and also having my supervising soundtrack editor switch over to ProTools. It seemed logical to try and keep everything in the digital domain from first impulse through final delivery. And once I had made the switch, the 24 track started gathering dust. I try to stay in the ProTools upgrade path. Iíve been using the Mix Plus system for three years, and Iíll be upgrading to the new HD system in April when I have a break between projects.
AV: In a related question, how is it that technology has changed the way that you compose and record the music that you love?
MS: Itís wonderful to able to track non linear. To have the capability to cut and paste sound and music... grab an idea and expand it, refine it. The speed at which I compose has accelerated. Itís easier to hone in on a feeling of resonance. The technology has helped, and Iíve also just gotten older and more adept at what I do.
AV: Tell me about your collaborations with other artists (Ron Sunsinger, Steve Roach etc.) and how you handle the give and take of working with others who have strong ideas of the way things should be done? What do the listeners find of you and your collaborator in each finished product? Equal amounts of both or something that is greater than the sum of the parts?
MS: I enjoy the collaborations. Itís a gift that once in awhile I get to get to work with fine composers like Ron Sunsinger and Steve Roach. For myself, the process is usually about making the space, the internal space for the collaboration... tuning in to the project. When Ron and I first got together for Singing Stones, we discovered that we had similar approaches to composition. Both of us love collecting ambiences on our DAT recorders out in the world and weaving them into our music. And we also both had built up our own unique sample libraries. On Kiva, which Ron, Steve and I created together, the process began with Ron collecting field recordings. He took part in a Peyote Circle, an Ayahuasca gathering and a Sundance. I took his Peyote Circle recordings, Steve took the Sundance material, and Ron the Ayahuasca. Each of us created a musical "Kiva", a composition which emerged out of the source recordings, or into which the source recordings were woven. Then we gathered at my studio in Santa Fe, and overdubbed as an ensemble on each of the three pieces. Finally, we traveled to caverns north of Santa Fe in Embudo, and there created in musical ritual the fourth Kiva, over a two day period. As composers, while working together, we disappear completely into the compositions that emerge from these collaborations.
AV: Your latest release is a CD entitled The Storm on Spotted Peccary records, I was reading that this is an expansion of an earlier work. Tell me about where The Storm actually started and how it ended up in its finished form?
MS: Howard Givens at Spotted Peccary called early last year to ask if I would have something that they could release in the fall. Iíd been swamped with commercial work and hadnít had time to pay attention to a new release. So, I sent him about four hours of original music, most composed within the last two years, and asked if he might have the time to focus on the material. The core of what I sent were four pieces that had originally been released by amplexus on a mini CD titled "The Light in the Trees". I had composed those four pieces in a two week period, just before a trip to Bali, and had recently reworked and remixed all of them, adding new material. Those four became the core of The Storm. Howard discovered a resonance in a number of other pieces within the material that I had provided. Some of the music was previously unreleased, some had been published on compilations in Europe, and some was from film work. We began a musical dialogue, sending CDs back and forth, refining the concept and the relationships between pieces. The Storm emerged.
AV: Do you have many pieces of music like that which start out smaller and end up being a full blown project all its own? What is it in your mind that recognizes when a piece of music is ready to move from just a fragment to something much bigger?
MS: Itís always an inner knowing, something within that resonates. The Storm was the first time that someone else was involved in the process. It was not unique in its creation, emerging from a group of pieces created for unrelated reasons that resonate uniquely together. Míocean was like that, as was Floating Whispers and Sacred Site . There are invisible wheels turning. My friend director Ron Fricke says that he goes out into the world and films trusting his inner knowing as to what to shoot. When he finishes and moves into the editing stage, there is an innate intelligence within the footage, within each shot, which tells him how to organize the material. Iíd say my process with music is similar, that the intelligence at work is the same., both while composing and in the process of selecting pieces for a release Perhaps thatís why Ron and I work so well together. Some projects start with a little music and mushroom, like Planetary Unfolding. Some appear to come from outside, but resonate deeply within, like The Lost World, Singing Stones and Kiva. Others come from feelings and dreams.
AV: When it comes to your music, composing, recording, and playing, how is it that your relationship to the Earth, to your family and to the world in general shape and mold what streams out of you in the end?
MS: I am deeply affected by my family, my travels, and my relationship to the Earth, its peoples and mysteries. What we call art, whether it be a musical composition, a painting, or a meal created for the guest, can be seen as a hieroglyphic for the depth of participation, the awareness of its creator.... the level at which one has freed oneself, or not, from buying into the illusion of separation. As such, we are the real artwork, and our lives are the tapestry in which that work unfolds. That unfolding can be expressed on many levels.... as music that is cultural in nature, expressing cultural themes.... like love and money, or rebelling against the establishment and cultural mores. Or music can provide a context for what it means to be human and experience beyond the cultural.... emerging from the matrix of our earth, from the universe, from the unknown that can be known, and from the unknowable.
AV: Do you think that there is a mystic quality to music that allows it to cut through some of our outer layers and touch places within us that would otherwise be untouchable?
MS: Absolutely. It goes on all of the time. Your question is really a statement of fact.
AV: Once a project is done and turned over to the record label for distribution what role do you play, if any, in marketing your project?
MS: Occasionally Iíll find myself performing, or doing radio interviews. But, I donít have a lot of time for that. Usually, Iím on to something else immediately.
AV: How do you handle the feedback that you receive from your listeners when they offer you their feelings on what your music means to them? Does it give you a sense of connection when you share this "musical" common ground with listeners who recognize exactly what you were communicating with a certain piece of music?
MS: I love getting feedback. The connection is about myself and the listener/participant being connected to something greater than both of us through the music.
AV: Your website offers us glimpses into some of the places that you have traveled to, how do these travels add to the music that you write when you finally come back and sit down in your studio?
MS: Traveling internationally, and right here in my South Western backyard, can be very inspiring. Removing oneself from oneís habitual surroundings and contexts can be very freeing. When I travel, the blinders come off. What it means to be Michael Stearns at home in Santa Fe, or in the USA, is not the same as what it means to be Michael Stearns out in the world. Opening to that change can generate a lot of energy and shift oneís awareness. That shift is essential for what I bring through both musically, and in my being.
AV: Sometimes the location actually becomes the music as is the case with the Singing Stones an album that you did with Ron Sunsinger. When you take the DAT out in the field to capture sounds what is it that you are looking for and how is it that you know you have it before going home?
MS: When Iím recording out in the world, I often enter into the same space that I feel when Iím composing. Itís a feeling of opening, of dissapearing. My sense of hearing is heightened by the input from the recording system, and my whole being becomes heightened. I donít really go out looking for specific sounds. Some recordists do that, but for me itís more about the overall ambience of a location. Recently, in conjunction with my scuba diving, Iíve started recording underwater sonic scapes. Itís really a trip because, for the most part, I donít know what creatures are making what sounds. Itís a very alien sonic world. Iíve been building my own hydrophones to make the recordings with. When I return and listen to what Iíve collected, sometimes Iím struck immediately and inspired by a section of ambience. And sometimes, Iíll come back to something several years later and hear a natural orchestration that I missed completely earlier.
AV: Do you have any other albums, collaborations or projects that are coming up in the near future that you might like to share with our readers?
MS: Iím working on some visual pieces right now. Iíve done so much musical work to other peoples images, it seemed natural to start collecting them myself. Two years ago, I bought a mini DV camcorder and started collecting footage much the same way that Iíve collected ambient recordings. I set up the office computer as a DV editing station about six months ago, so something will emerge soon. Iíd like to use some of the stuff in live performances too. Chronos is about to be released on DVD with a high bitrate dts 5.1 soundtrack. It will be great! Last spring I scored a planetarium show and Iím hoping the music from that will come out soon. And, in the world of collaborations, Ron Fricke has several new projects in the works.
AV: How often do you go out on the road for live performances and when might we catch you out and about in 2002?
MS: Iím trying to re-think the live performance thing. The last time I was out in a big way was in 1997, and it felt like the end of an era. Now Iím thinking of performing in conjunction with visuals. Maybe my own, maybe other peoples. There are thirteen hours of footage shot for Baraka that didnít make it into the film! Who knows? Spotted Peccary has spoken with me about a possible live appearance in May.
AV: As we close out this interview do you have any words of wisdom for someone who is just starting out in the ambient/new age field and wants to make it a life long journey?
MS: Make your life the journey and live it deeply. If you do that, then the music, or anything that you create, will flow from an authentic place. Whether or not that will support you financially, who knows? But it will support your "being", and those who connect with you and what you do at the level of "being". And thatís what itís all about.
AV: I thank you for spending some of your journey speaking to me and sharing with my readers some of your thoughts about your music and your life. May your spirit always find the satisfaction that it seeks in your travels in this world and may that satisfaction translate to continued musical success.