Interview: Ariel Kalma and Robert Lowe know each other somehow

Interview: Ariel Kalma and Robert Lowe know each other somehow

March 31, 2015

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Dragoș Rusu

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Intergenerational music

We Know Each Other Somehow is the twelfth volume of FRKWYS, the music, film, and event series celebrating intergenerational collaboration. For this installment, RVNG Intl. offers a collection of original compositions by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe and Ariel Kalma.

The Attic spoke via Skype with both musicians to find out more about it.

Lowe was previously a member of American progressive rock band 90 Day Men, before beginning his solo project. He was involved also in the band OM, performing tambura and vocals for stoner/doom metal band Om on their albums God Is Good and Advaitic Songs and also joined them on stage.

Parisian-born Ariel Kalma is a very meticulous musician, using rhythms, melodies and grooves from various cultures, ambient atmospheres, modal music, native instruments and nature. He studied with the electro-acoustic Group de Recherches Musicales, jammed with Don Cherry and Richard Pinhas and hung with the Arica collective, whose creative philosophies directly inspired Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain.

Review: Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe & Ariel Kalma - We Know Each Other Somehow

I think it’s safe to start with your new collaborative project, which will come out on RVNG Intl in the middle of April. So how did you guys meet?

Ariel: Matt contacted me and asked me if I wanted to be part of this project called Intergenerational meeting. I liked the idea of an older composer (which is Robert) meeting a younger composer (which is me) to play music together and record something. I liked the idea very much because I like the idea of collaboration especially with people from different backgrounds or different generations. So, I went to the States a bit later and I met Robert, who kindly took a plane to meet me and we spent one day together, one afternoon. Just to meet…Of course we had Skype sessions before, but we met in person and we even played music together. And we could see that this will work.

So how long did it take to record the album?

Robert: It took one week. I went to Australia, to Ariel’s home, we set up in the studio and over the course of one week we would spend each day composing, expanding upon ideas. One week for the recording and some more months for the mixing, because I couldn't stay for such time in Australia. So we did the mix via email.

Did you have a certain sound in mind when you started recording, or did you experiment and improvise?

Ariel: Well, with that kind of equipment that Robert has, there is a lot of experiment and improvisation. So, the interesting part was how to bring the experimentation of Robert and his equipment (and the way it functions) and my way of playing music, together. That was the big experiment. First I was contacted by Matthew to do the Intergeneration album. As I was talking with Matt and showing him that I’m doing my archives from the ‘70s, he had the idea of producing a new album, together with Robert.
It’s something that everyone can understand, because everyone understands music no matter what, because everyone has a heart beat. Everyone understands rhythm and so, that way makes this particular art universal.


Also the album’s title is suggestive: ‘We know each other somehow’. Now, slipping a little bit into the past, I would like to ask Ariel about his first contact with India, which was in 1974. Do you recall any radical experiences from that time?

Ariel: Yes, that was a big change in my life. In 1974 I was with a rock and roll band in Paris, and preparing to become a famous rock and roll band, rehearsing; and a friend of mine came to visit from England, and after a few days he told me that it would be good for me to stop all this, because it was too dangerous for my well being. That was his opinion. And he offered me a one-way ticket to India, which was expiring four days later after the weekend. And if I wanted to take the ticket, I should move very fast. And four days later I was in a plane to India. So, it was a big change, a big shock actually. I arrived in India and I had an address of a master singer there, so after the shock of civilization (which was very big, as you can imagine), I was shocked by people living on rail tracks and the poverty and also the kindness of Indian people; all this was a big shock. After some time, I went to this singer and stayed there four months and learned the very basic of Indian music. Then I went on a tour that the singer had arranged for me, to see lots of Indian music. So I was going from town to town to concerts, which lasted very long (as you know, in India the concerts last from one to ten days, with all night, and ragas at different times of the day or the night). I stayed for nine months and it was a very deep experience, which marked me very much. It was before India and after India for me, as music but also as a human experience.

Simona: Robert, I would like to ask you about your collaboration with Om and also the use of Indian music influences. That’s a thing you both have in common. How did you get to this?

Robert: For me, collaborating with Om for about years now, the sort of basis for a lot of the content of Om’s music deals with this idea of Indian classical and also spiritual teachings. For me, my particular role in the group tends to be more like a timekeeper. In Indian music there’s always someone who keeps time throughout the hand percussion and the stepping through the keys and the guitar and the hand percussion. It’s not something necessarily specific, I think it came more from my love of Indian classical music and also Arberto, who is the main focus of the group, his studies in a lot of Indian philosophy and teachings. So I think that would be the true line for that. But that being said, that specifically applies to that group, because the way it was initiated.

Robert: My love of Indian classical music also is my love of Tarab and traditional Arabic music, or Senegalese music, or Icelandic folk songs…It’s all on the same level, because I have not only a fascination with, but a true love of all these different types of sounds and traditions, because it’s something that’s a part of the world, it’s something that makes humans kind of amazing, in a way that you can take these sounds and create different contexts and mythologies and everything around them is wonderful. It’s something that everyone can understand, because everyone understands music no matter what, because everyone has a heart beat. Everyone understands rhythm and so, that way makes this particular art universal.

Simona: I also think Indian music is close to metaphysical. In the film that you've been starring (“A spell to ward off the darkness”) there was a girl saying something similar, that water can spiral like a record into infinity.

Robert: In the film, the young lady is talking about one of her professors in university, walking about the theory of Utopian ideas and Utopian architecture and how it’s like a record on a turntable, always spiral and always going. Also you could relate that idea to secret geometry, that’s equidistant on each of its rotations but every time coming closer and closer, like a needle on a turntable. I don’t know what I can say specifically for me, that’s a good interesting theory. For me, everything is interconnected. I think the universe is something that’s quite large and quite small in the same time. It’s hard to see for humans, but it’s all there. It’s all and nothing at the same time.

Bindu, Don Cherry and Terry Riley

Simona: Ariel, you were also talking about your way of perceiving music, as being the closest you can get to silence, which is also a very charged concept. Can you tell us more about how you relate to music?

Ariel: I will make a joke now: to connect the dots between cosmology, Indian philosophy, music and mystical, and what you just quoted me, because I said closest to silence, in indian philosophy (I will not say religiousness, but philosophy), there is nothing in the universe until comes the bindu (Ed.: Sanskrit word meaning "point" or "dot"). The bindu is the dot. It is the first appearance of a point into the universe. This is the same thing. If you take a music note as a bindu, then out of nothing comes the bindu. So the closest to silence…

Ariel: You see, when I stop talking and I leave the silence, when I make a long sentence and I leave the silence, I make like … Our mind goes into the silence because we want to go on with what’s happening. And that is the principle in which my music is based. What is in between the notes, not only what the notes are. Is that making any sense?

Yes, absolutely. Ariel, I also want to ask you to share with us some of your experiences of jamming with Don Cherry.

Ariel: Ok. Well, that’s another story of a one-way ticket. In 1976 I was invited to New York, somebody sent me a one-way ticket to New York. It did not work out very well. I had to spend time in New York earning my return ticket. I had many adventures in New York and it was great. The fact is that I went to The Village at night to play in the streets and ask for money. I went also to Wall Street, it was fantastic to play music and practice my saxophone in the middle of the people. The people were passing, passing, passing, never stopping; maybe one person would stop in two hours. It was like an ocean of legs, because I was sitting on the floor and I looked at the legs and I would play with the legs passing by. It was a very funny experience. Anyway, at night, on the weekend, I would go to The Village and play on the streets, busking. The Village is a place of downtown New York where many things happen at night. While I was playing my saxophone, I suddenly hear o trumpet playing the same thing like I’m playing. I say, wau, that’s really good! And when I turned and I looked, there was this guy sitting and playing his trumpet in the street also. At one point I go to him and I say ‘hi! Great jamming!’ And I say my name is Ariel, he say his name is Don, and I look at him and say ‘oh. Do, as in Don Cherry?’ And he says ‘yeah, yeah, I’m Don’. And I say ‘this is great, fantastic, I love your music man’ and he says ‘well, I love your music, man’. So we had a very simple meeting and I told him what I am up to, and he says ‘come tomorrow, I sing tomorrow’. Because in New York things are more ‘tomorrow’ rather than ‘next week’. (laughs) And then I went to The Kitchen, where Don Cherry would play. It was full of people, it was great, he presented me to his band. We didn't play together, but we had a jam session and he invited me to a concert also and that was it. I met his family, his daughter.. Nina.. she was very small at that time. It was a beautiful family.

What about the meeting with Terry Riley?

Ariel: Terry Riley used to come to Paris, actually every year, or something like that. I had a friend who was the organizer for touring for Philip Glass, when Glass was not known, even in New York. You see, many American artists would come to Paris at that time, because Paris was easy with music and easy with black people also. The avant-garde musicians from US would come to Paris very often. There were many great people before they were known, they would come to tour in Paris. So I came to know Philip Glass and his ensemble when they were not known at all. And then he introduced me to Terry Riley, he said I have similarities with Riley, which I probably did. I loved his music also. So I went to several concerts with Terry Riley and I met him and we would go for a drink, talk, I was very interested in his equipment. I even found a cassette (Robert, can you imagine?), which I recorded myself when I was sitting in the backstage on the side where Terry was performing on keyboard. It’s a historical cassette.

Field recordings

You both use field recording elements in your music. How do you relate to this? Do you have any specific places where you go and record or certain things you want to record?

Ariel: For me it started very early, when I was mixing all kind of things. I like to record bits and pieces of elements, and mix them together, not necessarily having anything to do with each other. When I was working at the GRM (Groupe De Recherches Musicales) there were so many tapes there, and I started discovering birds, beautiful recorded birds. I realized that if we listen very carefully to the songs of the birds, to a certain scale, depending which birds and different animals. I started to experiment with scales, which I learned in India and birds, which are the nature, and some scales were fitting very well. Then I started going with my cassette recorded everywhere and I started recording all kind of things, and then came the Osmose period. So this guy (Richard Tinti) came back to France from the rain-forest of Borneo and brought all these 15 hours of recordings and he was asking ‘what can you do with that? Is there somebody who wants to do something with it?’ And the people at GRM told him ‘go see Ariel, he’s playing with birds’ (laughter). So he came to me and then we did the Osmose project.

Ariel: The field recording for me it’s important; it’s like…what is around us, you know? What’s the field around us? We could say the same way like a magnetic field influences what a current or what a magnet the same way the environmental influences us on a certain level. I wanted to create fields of sounds, which create a certain interest. And also the GRM people were experimenting all kind of styles, they were mixing all together - Pierre Schaeffer and all these people…I still love field recordings.

Robert: For me, the field recording is something very important. I think the way I deal with it is slightly different. When I first started, it was actually a recording of my own voice and I would emulate a bird song with a recording whistles and sort of fake bird song with my own body. And from there I would create pieces on top of that. So it was automatically tuned, because it was all coming from my voice. Also, in a lot of early recordings there would be live recordings and not necessarily in a studio situation, where everything was isolated, so sometimes you would hear the reverberation of a truck going by outside, and that would be inside of the recording. A sort of cloud of sound. That’s mainly how I started utilizing the field recording. And I’ve always been interested in field recordings and everything down on location.

Robert: Listening to Alan Lomax recordings, or Chris Watson, these guys are doing something in a very specific way and sort of document a very specific region or moment or people. This is something that I find very interesting and I relate to very much. But I think that my implementation of the field recording has more to do with that environment in that particular moment, in relation to me and anyone directly around me.

An element of emotion

Simona: Robert, you’ve recently had this performance with Midi Sprout (Ed. - a project recently developed by a collective from Philadelphia named Data Garden), which is making music from a plant. How does that work and how did you come to use it?

Robert: I was commissioned by the Science museum in San Francisco last summer to do a piece, and it was a part of the series, I was the last commission of the season. The one before me was Roscoe Mitchell from Art Ensemble of Chicago. And I took this piece of technology, called Midi Sprout, which is a piece of hardware that converts bio data into a midi signal. And so you use censors like the EEG (Ed. - Electroencephalography) censors, like you would put on your head for brainwaves, or put on your body to measure hard rhythms. So you attach them to plants, and the plant is outputting this bio data. This bio data is read by a piece of hardware and then converts into a midi signal which is then sent into my synthesizer. And so the plant was controlling aspects of the movement of the patch piece in the synthesizer. So that’s how that worked.

Are you going to incorporate this into your work? How do you think these new technologies can influence the way you make music?

Robert: Well, is something I would like to eventually implement into what I do compositionally. The one I had was a prototype, so they’re doing a final manufacturing just now. So, hopefully I’ll have one sooner than later, to experiment with. I think the way that they can change how people are making sound is by having an influence of another living thing that does not relate specifically to any sort of human system. It gives you this moment where you can … you can let go. You can trust that another organism will be implementing energy to create the sound and you can actually let the ego go for a minute. And I think that is something wonderful and something that people need to fully explore.

Ariel: It is true that in the ‘70s the focus was dehumanizing and I felt that way, I felt that we were missing something, by going dehumanizing and letting the machines run, but not biological machines (or driven by biological elements, like Robert was saying). At that time it was more like what can we do with those machines and let them dictate what we are composing. And I felt that’s missing, I was always mixing elements of natural sounds or voices to bring together the technology and the human also, because I felt that music is closing itself in itself it’s a closed circuit. That’s why it is a bit hard for me, in the music of today.. When I hear these very simple beats, that are repetitive constantly, and you see people dancing, like a robotic dance, and forgetting the human element. It’s a bit hard for my head to see that. For example, you come from a culture that has polyrhythm, right? And these polyrhythms are very complex; 9 beats, 11 beats. The music from your country is very hard to follow; you can not just go and hack it into 1, 2 – 1, 2, which is the disco and the modern music. I think it does something to the human mind, that’s why people of your country can speak several languages very easily, compared to people of the West who speak only one language or two languages, because they don’t have the inner training of the brain to go poly-rhythms. I've seen that in Indian music also; those young people are crazy intelligent; they are not developed intelligent but they are crazy.. it’s just mind-blowing what they can do with their brains. The link between the dehumanization, the robotisation of music and loss of developing intelligence is very important to me. That’s why I always bring an element of emotion in the music I create.

Robert: Also, to add to that, I would say that I think what you’re saying is very correct. And I think that the reason why we see these sort of things is because in outside of the West, culturally intuition has more to do with any sort of understanding or carrying out the day-to-day life. And in the west you have this sort of states quo, something that is really strong and you must learn it this way. And you’re inside of a box. No matter what you do or what you say, the box remains. And that happens over and over again; ‘you have to do it this way, this is the only way’. No, that makes no sense. You should be able to trust your own intuition and make what it is to make, do what you need to do.

*photo credits: Ariel Kalma and Margot Anand, Corfu, Greece. 1980

Theater and film

Robert, did you consider making music for theater plays?

Robert: Well yes, actually I’m in the process of working on a project with another artist right now, doing a theater piece. We have taken Jean Cocteau’s piece ‘’The human voice’’ and we have re-imagined the idea of the stage play, which is meant both for theater, gallery installation and film. It would be a two persons stage play, myself and this other artist called Alex Wolkowicz. She is reciting Cocteau’s text from the play, and I’m doing a live manipulation of the voice with a synthesizer. The entire length of the play is a one person play, where a woman is on the telephone having a conversation, yet she’s always being interrupted or having sort of a dialogue with (you can’t hear it on the other side) the telephone operator. And so, myself, with this patch bay, I’m the telephone operator on the other side, that’s interacting with her. So that’s one way of this installation, this stage play.

Robert: Also, I just came from Detroit, where I had an artist residency and I did a piece for a museum in Detroit; that was a piece for sound in movement. I worked with this dancer and choreographer called Biba Bell and we produced this dance piece, as a commission for the Cranbrook museum. It was improvised, as a part of the exhibition of their permanent collection called Hall of Wonders. It was like taxidermic animals, pieces from antiquity, they were all combined; and she would move inside of all these stuff, which is quite risky for a museum to let it happen. But they did and it was nice. It was really good.

What about you Ariel?

Ariel: Well, I haven’t been active in concerts or collaborations with theaters for a long time, but I used to do that a lot. I used to do dance theater pieces with several of my friends of that time. One of the dancers I worked with did a composition dance, on my first album, ‘Reternelle’, which is 19-minute piece with a saxophone, echoes. Later, I did a piece with a beautiful dancer and another musician, where the other musician was playing titanium pieces of metal, and I was playing harmonium and flutes; it was very very interesting music. And the dancer was moving on stage, between big glass light elements and large wooden sculptures on which she would dance and do movements in space, and using as an artifact to dance it was beautiful. And I did many dance events where I would perform music in different variations with only me or other people. But I haven’t done that for a long time, because my life has changed at one point in the ‘80s.

Simona: Speaking of music for theater and film, I want to ask Robert how did you get to make the score for the horror flick Last Kind Words. If I’m not wrong, you won the best original score at the Brooklyn Film Festival 2012.

Robert: I know the director of this film (Kevin Barker), we worked together before and he approached me and said he was working on a movie and wanted very much for me to do the score for the film. So it’s the first time I had done a complete film score, like bodywork for a film. But that’s really it, that’s how it came about. And then it screened at some festival and I did won Best Original Music at the Brooklyn Film Festival, which I didn't even know that I was nominated for. But I got a text message from him, in the night of the awards ceremony, and said ‘hey.. you won.’ And I had no idea.

Simona: Do you have any horror music composers that influenced or inspired you?

Robert: There’s a lot of horror music composers that I like quite a lot, but I think it has less to do with a specific genre and more to do with the form. I grew up with the cinema, I saw a lot of film when I was very young, it’s something that I really appreciated, I was introduced to cinema from around the world at a young age. There are a lot of composers that I think they have made really wonderful and really interesting sound from the inception of film, the turn of the century on up. There is not necessarily one composer that I like more than another. I actually like very much John Carpenter, but I think that has in a lot of ways more to do with the fact that he was an author and he wrote the films, he made the films, he composed music for the films, it was a complete work and that’s something that I think is really wonderful.

Actually he recently released his first studio album. Did you check it out?

Robert: I did, I heard it, I like it! But when he was asked ‘why now’, why he decided now to make an album that had no relation to a film, he said ‘well, why not?’

Ariel: End of ‘60s is a great age!

Robert: Yes!

Simona: Robert, you were saying that you grew up with the cinema. How did you meet Ben Russell?

Robert: Ben and I, we both lived in Chicago some years ago; we've met through mutual friends. We had a mutual appreciation for each other’s work and we did a small trip together some time ago, each doing performances. He was using film projectors with light sensitive electronics, to create a sort of big chaotic sounds and I was doing voice pieces. And on this particular trip (this is at the time after I had moved to New York), he and I had decided that we wanted to work together in some way, to collaborate. And at the time it had not revealed to us what it was, but after he met Ben Rivers and they decided to make a film together, Ben Russel said ‘there’s this one person I would like to be involved’ which is myself. And he approached me with the idea, I went to London, I met Ben Rivers for the first time and we got along very well. And it made sense to work together.

Simona: So how did the script of ‘A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness’ come up?

Robert: They would come up together with the concept of the film. They would travel doing a tour, showing their films in different cities. In Australia they have done a long series of travelling with their films, this is about the time that they decided that they wanted to do a collaborative film and came up with the concept for the film. So in that regard, it was already in motion, it was already in place what they would do and I had no say in that. It was also nice for me, in the capacity that I was involved, to work with other artists in a round where I had to completely let go and sort of let them direct me through these actions, throughout the course of the film, but also then I would facilitate certain aspects like the last 30 minutes, the black medal scene. I put a group of people together and we composed this music that was to be performed, the whole film was very performative, but that specifically was a 27-minute block of performance that was sort of unending. Within the collaboration, I would facilitate certain aspects of it. But there was no script, there was no storyboard, it was only the idea in their heads. We would talk about these actions and then we would see them through. So it was interesting in that way, where it’s not a conventional way of making a film, not sort of conventional cinema.

Simona: Do you intent to work in the cinematic field?

Robert: Yeah. I would like to do more, I’ve done a bit more of work with film scores, I’ve worked with this composer called Jóhann Jóhannsson on two films, recently. But as far as the idea of being in a film, or acting in a film, it’s something I can’t be sure. I met Jóhann 7 or 8 years ago. I was invited to support him in some of his concerts in US. We got along very well, and once again, our sensibilities were matched in a way. And we talked about doing some sort of collaboration. And throughout years we talked about certain things, nothing had materialized until very recently. He was in the process of working on these film scores and he specifically wanted my particular voice, or my way of composing and creating sound. One is a Hollywood film and the other one is a short documentary.

Ariel: Hollywood film! I want to see that!

How about a Bollywood film?

Robert: I would love it!


Ariel, you started improvising in free jazz, right?

Ariel: Yeah. Well, I started with campfire. Around the campfire. Playing folk music with an accordion, with my small recorder and that’s how I started. And then I practiced with my brother, who played guitar, and he introduced me to jazz, but the soft jazz, in the beginning. And then, later, I went into more hardcore jazz, I had my period of free jazz with a fantastic drummer from Paris, called Jean-My Truong, who is still performing jazz and is very active on the Paris scene.

How was Paris back then, musically? Let’s say.. in the ‘60s?

Ariel: Like I said before, it was very interesting. Lots of artists from the States would come to Paris and make concerts. So in the Latin quarter you had some small clubs, where only 25 or 50 people would be. And here would come Miles Davis and plays with his band, or even with a local bands, and jams. You are having a drink there and maybe somebody else comes and joins, you know? You never know who would come and jam, because one would play in one club, one would play in the other club, and after midnight they would meet in the third club and have a jam session. So it was really fantastic. At the same time, there was a lot of Unesco driven concerts, with world music with people from Africa, India, South America, coming and performing. So it was very educational for me.

Ariel: Also, what was influential for me it was when I bought my first turntable. So I wanted a hi fi turntable. I was 12, 13. I went and worked my ass of in a supermarket during the weekends and the evenings, to earn money for my turntable. And I got a stereo turntable. It was a Teppaz. When I got that, I needed records. I found a place near my house and they were selling those jukebox small records. 45s. They were selling them second hand (or second needle maybe). And they had all those stocks from US, so I would go there and look in big batches, flip there, I would find some awesome music, like Ella Fitzerald, Louis Prima, Jimmy Smith, all these American jazz things, that I would bring them home and listen to them. And I was practicing my saxophone with them, so that was a good training.

As a closing, do you have any plans to play together in the future nearby?

Robert: Yes, we’re talking about some concerts in the summer, in US. Since we live so far, it’s not so convenient to do a live collaboration, but we blocked a piece of time when we’re planning to do some live performance in July and August.


*photo credits: Misha Hallenbach
About the Author

Dragoș Rusu

Co-founder and co-editor in chief of The Attic, sound researcher and allround music adventurer, with a keen interest in the anthropology of sound.

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