Monument Builders is something new from Vancouver’s premiere purveyor of monochromatic electronica, loscil (aka Scott Morgan). While an alternate title might be More Songs about Buildings and Mood, Monument Builders touches down firmly in the mid 1970s with its architectural references, sonic clues and in the titling of tracks. I’ve been a loscil fan for many years and listened as the recordings have become comfortably reliable. Here, though, we have a meaningful shift that takes us backwards and forwards simultaneously. And it’s a welcome change, fitting with, it seems, the swirl of world events.
Built forms have always been a reference point for Scott. Think of the diagram of the Lions Gate Bridge that is the cover image of his superb 2004 CD First Narrows…or the steam tower on the cover of 2006’s Plume that carries echoes of the Factory Records logo (1970s) and Pink Floyd’s Battersea Power Station-shot cover for 1977’s Animals.
When Scott approached me this summer to do some new portraits we talked of two buildings that served as visual signposts: Arthur Erickson’s 1968 MacMillan Bloedel (MacBlo) building on Georgia Street and Vladimir Plasvic’s 1974 Medical/Dental building (better known as the Frank Stanzl building) on Broadway. They are Vancouver’s two most conspicuous examples of the concrete brutalist style of architecture, a style often derided by the public and not always judiciously employed where public spaces are concerned.
Erickson’s SFU campus has served as a film location for dystopian sci-fi features (1972’s Groundstar Conspiracy) and the MacBlo building (or The Waffle it was often called by locals) was used as the villainous banker’s lair in a Muppet Christmas Movie (2002) and the Canadian Secret Service’s headquarters in the excellent CBC series Intelligence (2007).
By contrast, Vladimir Plasvic’s Medical/Dental building on Broadway (which appears on the cover) still stands clearly apart along the south False Creek skyline. It’s still graceful and, by all accounts, a pleasure to work within. Even the ‘70s font at the entrance of its underground garage retains its charm. It represents the upside of the movement, and it’s tough to imagine a dystopian nightmare unfolding within its walls. An appreciative essay by Lindsay Brown can be found here: http://ounodesign.com/2012/05/27/1970s-brutalist-building-vancouver-vladimir-plavsic/
Both of these buildings were distinctive and provocative structures for their day and in retrospect it’s easy for some to project a society’s ideals or failures on them. There have been many more concerning urban architectural developments since then but of these two, which would sci-fi author JG Ballard choose to set a novel in? What would the soundtrack be like?
There’s been a recent feature film adaptation of High Rise, a 1975 Ballard novel about a dystopian future where social breakdown occurs within a self-contained high-rise development. The set designer fully embraced the concrete brutalist aesthetic. Further connecting us here is the use of Tangerine Dream’s music on the soundtrack with a piece heavily indebted to another great minimalist, Steve Reich, whose masterstroke, 1978’s Music for 18 Musicians is a foregrounded influence.
Which leads us to the music on Monument Builders. Another cited influence is Koyaanisqatsi, the Godfrey Reggio film from 1982 (but shot mostly in the 70s) which brought the movie music of Philip Glass (whose signature style was developed in the 70s) to a wide public. Scott recently saw it again on an old VHS tape and was reminded of its impact but experienced it anew with a level of visual/aural distortion caused by its condition of being an aging artifact requiring a fading technology to reanimate it. It has a marked influence on this new recording. On Red Tide fragments of Glass make a brief appearance in the wake of a sequenced pulse reminiscent of Sorcerer-era Tangerine Dream, the synth-driven technocrats of the so-called Krautrock era in 1970s Germany. It’s the first time I’ve detected any noteworthy influence of other artists coming to the surface in Scott’s music but it’s purposeful and welcome.
Straw Dogs (another title from the 70s, this time of a very dark film directed by Sam Pekinpah) feels very much like an electronic brass lament or calling which gradually builds into a kind of martial crescendo leading us to a cliff edge. I’ve never seen the film but that description fairly traces the narrative arc of the story line. Deceiver is more straightforwardly mournful and more familiar in terms of the lugubrious sound palette long term fans will recognize.
The title Anthropocene stems from the recent and widely accepted view that we now inhabit an age where the human species exerts a (largely negative) dominant force upon the earth, its biodiversity and sustaining systems. It is another pulsing Glass/Tangerine Dream-like piece that immediately puts one at the centre of a shiny, damaged future/present world where rather than being repulsed by decay we might be dazzled by its remaining shards and colourful, toxic abstractions.
Monument Builders is no pulsing, slightly scuffed and bucolic Autobahn for Vancouver as I once described First Narrows (over a decade ago!). Nor is it the blissful, billowing aural float session of Plume. Even the more recent and much cooler Sea Island offered few hints at the queasy undercurrent to come on Monument Builders. Overall, there is a more anxious tone, a persistent foreboding, a palpable anticipation of force majeure.
And there have been some unexpected life events informing the work. In addition to ruminating on mortality generally and reflecting on the ambivalent beauty of photographer Edward Burtynsky’s depictions of humanity’s relentless scarring of the earth, the illness of a friend’s young daughter came as a special shock. Scott rose to the occasion the best way he knew how: to create. Thus For Greta, a digital EP was released on-line in aid of the family. And that, ultimately, is the point. We create to endure and hope our creations endure.
Monument Builders is both a dark turn and an act of survival, an act of creation to spite fear. It is music of our time … or rather all time because we are forever tired, beaten, fearful, energetic and joyful.
The following is a repost of an article that originally appeared on the old Vancouver Review blog in 2011. I’m reposting it here for a few reasons. First, the old VR is toast and this was at risk of getting lost. Second, Scott has a great new disc on Kranky called Sea Island which continues his sonic explorations on themes of local interest. Third, it gives us a chance to mention that the next VR Music video will consist of an 8 minute music video collaboration with Scott. This version is slightly edited.
Scott Morgan (aka loscil) is our favourite local ambient musician and his 2011 recording coast / range / arc is intended as a reflection upon the timeless, often barely perceptible dynamism of the earth in the form of our local mountains and ice fields. The titles will be familiar to those of us who grew up here on BC’s wet coast: Black Tusk, Fromme, Stave Peak, Névé, Brohm Ridge and Goat Mountain. The music represents a distinct departure from the calm, pulsing, billowing electronica for which he’s best known, suggesting stases masking enormous power.
From the beginning, loscil has always looked to the local for inspiration. His 2004 release, First Narrows (ie. Lion’s Gate Bridge) was a kind of Autobahn for Vancouver (see the article Global Span in VR’s Fall 2004 issue. PDF available upon request). 2006’s Plume was inspired by wind currents and 2010’s Endless Falls was all about the grey and rain of Vancouver’s long winters…and occasionally a good portion of our summers.
Though we met up on his porch on an unusually warm and sunny day in May, 2011, it had been a particularly cold and wet spring so I began by asking him about the role of the rain on Endless Falls.
SM: I think it’s a subconscious thing but it bubbles to the surface obviously. With Endless Falls rain is the key to the whole record. Not only do I use the actual sound of rain, but all the other sounds are processed using the sound of the rain so in a way it constitutes the musical notes. The actual ambient sound around us becomes the ambient musical sound of the record itself. I like that idea. My little studio’s in the back of the house and when it rains it’s very much a part of whatever I’m working on. That recording of actual rain on Endless Falls was made in my backyard so it’s like I’m giving listeners a piece of the experience I had while I was working on the record.
MM: The CD on the Italian Glacial Movements label (run by mountaineering devotee Alessandro Tedeschi) features a more static sound with seemingly fewer musical events taking place over the course of six tracks. Each is named for a local mountain peak or ridge. You’re not a mountaineer like Alessandro but you’re clearly inspired by the pacific coastal range here.
SM: I’ve been to Black Tusk and Grouse, obviously. Part of it is actually going to those places but another part of it is seeing them from afar and I have a view from my office at work. I can see both The Lions and Grouse Mountain. Something that’s always fascinated me is the fact that we don’t think of them as dynamic. We think of them as very static. They’re fixtures and they seem the same every day, other than maybe being covered in snow (or not) but they are actually incredibly dynamic on a timescale we can’t perceive and there’s something about that I like, that timelessness. Imagine writing music on that timescale, thinking in terms of millions of years. There’s something fascinating about that and it’s part of what I’m trying to create with ambient music; the sense of a timescale that’s outside of “real-time”, outside of our daily experience of time, which is obviously much faster.
MM: The only way to really solve this one would be with generative music, that which employs randomizing systems to create an endless piece of music using recombinant and regenerating sound sources. Unfortunately it’s hard to do that with the limitations of the CD.
SM: I like the sense that each one of those pieces on coast / range / arc feels like it’s been cut off at the beginning and the end, that it could be much, much longer and that they are just little snippets, like seeing just a hint of the horizon, it’s meant to seem so much more infinite.
MM: Almost like a core sample, or ice core sample. Or if you’re talking about our relationship to the local mountains, most urban dwellers know them only through “view corridors.” Have you worked with generative systems?
SM: Yeah. I’ve done some generative stuff but it’s always towards a seed of an idea rather than an installation type thing where you could just turn it on, walk away and leave it running. I’ll use generative processes to make a little unit of sound and I’ll take it out and apply structure after the fact. But I do like the idea of creating a generative piece that could just be left on forever.
MM: If there’s the technology around and maintained to see it through!
SM: Wind chimes are still the best generators, the best generative music ever written! But I’m born and raised here so I feel like the mountains are part of me in the sense that they form my own backdrop and it finds its way into my music. There’s something about a mountain landscape when you’re off hiking in the woods. There’s the solitude, an emotional connection and the fact of being alone. We’re lucky we’re close to the mountains, the ocean, the forest and the water. Those things are always on my mind in some weird way.
MM: In some form, these things are universal even if not directly experienced. I think of some of the music by Cluster, Popol Vuh, Harold Budd and others and how it’s so utterly fitting beyond the pastoral or desolate environs of its creation. Two of Ralph Towner’s compositions inspired the official naming of craters on the moon!
SM: There are certainly some universal things. Space has played a very influential role in a lot of different music and I think it’s about that individual wondering of what’s out there, what are we all about and the need to express something we can’t put into words. So people unite around something like space as a metaphor for a search for meaning and landscape functions pretty similarly to that. If I lived in the desert would it have the same influence on me, play the same role in the music that the mountains, ocean and the rain do? You can’t really know until you move to the desert I guess.
MM: Musicians like Austria’s Fennesz and Germany’s Alva Noto are producing music that in addition to being created from field recordings and/or being influenced by landscape seems to pull sound from the invisible thickness of electronic signal-suffused air. What’s next for you after mountain ranges?
SM: Actually, I just curated a new record with the theme; The World Without Us (after Alan Waisman’s book which details the impact on the planet after suddenly becoming bereft of human presence and, more importantly, the maintenance of our myriad systems of survival and energy generation – ed.) Chris Herbert contributed a piece that was all about radio waves and what would linger beyond, like snatching remnants out of the air, decaying electronic signals that might still be hanging around.
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