i n t e r v i e w s
interview/article by David Simon for indieshuffle
What's so good?
London-based artist Donato Wharton makes ambient music that’s hard to define in words. Minimalist and abstract, he produces gorgeous tracks inspired by reified imagination and vast empty spaces. While I’ll admit that not everyone is as keen on Donato’s music as I am right off the bat, I think you’ll find that listening to his music can be both a relaxing and engaging experience that puts more well-known, similar artists to shame.
Indie Shuffle got the chance to sit down with Donato and hear his thoughts on life as a sound designer, the recording industry, and ambient music in a globalized world. Check it out below.
DS: So, tell us a little about yourself.
DW: I was born in Wales and then grew up in England and Germany. I moved around a bit in my youth but finally settled in the city of Stuttgart where I started to make music. As a child, I played classical piano, I took up the guitar in my teens, but it was listening to stuff like My Bloody Valentine in the mid-late 1990's — that sort of noise, studio-based guitarwork – that got me into what I’m doing today. In fact, Loveless was an important album not only for me but for many laptop producers who are also guitarists. It was at that time when computers first started becoming avaliable to the point that you could have a home studio and have complete control over your own work. Layering hundreds of tracks suddenly became possible. Artists, including me, began thinking about composition not in terms of riffs and songs but textures and sounds. It was after working as a sound technician and studio artist for a while that I decided I wanted to make my own work rather than work for other musicians and I started to make music to publish in my own name.
DS: What would you have to say to someone who’s never heard your type of music before?
Ambient music rewards deep listening. It’s music that hopefully engages peoples’ imagination and promotes concentration. I personally want my music to open a space for my listeners’ imaginations to work in. I think that’s the main purpose of my work. People often comment that, when listening to the music I’ve made, their minds start working and they imagine things or go into their memories or experience intense emotions of some kind. I think, to me, music is about opening up a quite private space for the individual listener to inhabit. I think of it like this: maybe because the world is very loud and very fast, there isn’t much space to quietly be within yourself and that ambient music can fulfill a kind of need for some for a quiet space to not be bombarded with stuff all the time but actually instead just listen in. I would hope my music doesn’t try to drag you somewhere or sell you something or even overload you with information. If you do decide to listen deeply to some of my music – you’ll start to see an interesting structure within the sounds themselves.
DS: Do you separate your work as an artist with your “day job” as a sound designer? What’s the relationship between the two?
DW: My work as a sound manager for the past two years was to implement Jean-Sébastien Côté's sound design for a show called "The Blue Dragon" at venues that the theatre company I worked for (Ex Machina) toured at. I do also work as a sound designer myself. Sound design for me is a profession rather than an art. I do it primarily to be able to support making my music. It’s a very different kind of work – it’s a service profession. You can work creatively but you don’t have final say and you are working towards a greater unified product. Sound design is not an autonomous art like making music is.
DS: What was the main inspiration for your new album?
DW: The experience of the Canadian winter was a big influence for me. I had been staying in Canada three winters in a row – 2008, 2009 and 2010 – because of my work as the sound manager for "The Blue Dragon". I was heavily influenced by the cold environment and pristineness of the snow – just the juxtaposition in the sense of space that I associated with Canada in comparison to Europe where everything was much more spacious and empty rather than rushed and crowded. Also: all those plane rides were a big part of the construction of the album – for example, the song “A Vast White Solitude” was giving form to what it felt like to look at Greenland from a plane – just endless, beautiful, white, empty space.
DS: Would you then say you create your music as an immediate inspiration? As in, you saw that vastness in Greeland from the plane and were compelled to make the song?
DW: No – I wouldn’t say that. I wasn’t immediately compelled to make a piece based on things I saw but rather giving myself distance and reflecting plays a big role in my work. My music is a reimagined experience, memories of a landscape.
DS: So your songs are encapsulations of memories?
Well, I would say that my music is reified imaginiation – imagination turned into something tangible. It’s not necessarily a direct representation but rather process through memory and imagination. While the seed for a piece might come from an experience, the actual act of making the music is sonic. So I’ll have some sound or I’ll play something on the guitar then choose a small fraction of it. From that, I’ll build. I’m always listening. It’s not like I sit down with the intention of writing a piece right now. I make some recordings, listen back, find something that suggests I can continue with that and then build from there. I’m always listening to what a piece might suggest rather than trying with intent to make something new. The sounds themselves start suggesting space or time.
DS: Do you agree that your songs are soundscapes, i.e. vastly immersive worlds of detail and definition?
DW: Well to me, the term soundscape refers to R. Murray Schafer’s definition: the sounds that surround us. Tuning into the real world of sounds and really listening in. So, sitting here for example, we have people chattering and a boat passing on the river and this bike passing by and a plane overhead and the distant rumbling of the city. All of these things – that is the soundscape. So, when it comes to describing music as a soundscape it’s understanding musical composition as something total, something where the sound is the essence rather than the "song" or the "track". I think sound-based music like mine in that sense is indeed all about the details, all about immersive listening rather than thinking of music in terms of harmony and counterpoint.
DS: How do you feel about people who download your music for free?
DW: It doesn't upset me. Once I put music out to the world – I’ve released it, I’ve let go of it. In a way, it’s become part of the cultural fabric – it’s “in the public domain”. I think it’s about what people get from engaging with your music that really matters.
DS: Your music reminds me a lot of how visual designers love to utilize white space – the less the better. Can you tell me how that works?
DW: I’m not trying to be minimal or minimalist on purpose. I work on a piece of music until I think there’s nothing wrong with it – so there’s nothing left to change. At times this means I will add, other times take away. I rework something until it’s finished: not because I’m done but because the music suggests nothing is wrong with it anymore.
DS: Would you be willing to work on soundtracks knowing that your music is well suited for that type of medium?
DW: I’ve done music for dance theatre and I found it enjoyably challenging – making seventy minutes of music for one piece inside a couple of weeks is a major challenge. But I also found that I didn’t have the time to properly listen to what I was doing, to work on something long enough to consider it as a piece of music in its own right that could be on a record. But, at the same time, with an interesting enough project – why not? It’s not something I would categorically say no to. Although, I have tried to keep my music free from practical considerations: I am quite happy for people to use the music I’ve made in whatever context. If someone feels they want to make a film using some music I’ve done that’s fine – but me actually composing to images? It would have to depend on what the project is.
DS: What was it like to work with Serein records? Do you think their strategy – to market themselves as a boutique record label to a niche audience – is effective at getting music out?
DW: It’s been a positive experience with Huw Roberts (who runs the record label). He contacted me about releasing a new album at a time when I was actually just starting to make the music that would end up to be on “A White Rainbow…”. Just talking with Hugh – he seemed to have a good feeling for what I do and was just really interested in putting my music on his label. I like his concept of making a limited run for records (Serein only presses 500 copies of each release) since the reality of record sales is that you will not sell thousands of vinyls. I feel that, even though it’s a small audience in numbers – it’s still a global audience. That’s something special about music nowadays – it speaks to the condition of modern life: You can have global connections limited to quite small groups of people through the Internet. Ambient music is a very small but global scene. People write to me from far flung places commenting on the work that I’m doing and saying what it means to them. That’s something interesting to consider.
DS: Who’s inspiring you right now? Do you look to see what other similar artists and composers like Marsen Jules and Hauschka are up to?
DW: I’ve found myself surprisingly listening less and less to music over the years. But I recently started listening a lot to the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. To me, his use of space is really inspiring in terms of form, phrasing and breathe of musical structure. I’ve also been listening to the field recordings of a Japanese artist named Toshiya Tsunoda and a record called Jailbirds by the Greek composer Novi Sad.
DS: What’s next?
DW: I’m actually about to take a Master’s at the Edinburgh College of Art in Digital Composition and Performance. The purpose is to find a concert form for my music or develop an installation within which to present my work. I’m trying to expand beyond just making records into something like spatialization. In short, I’m looking for new ways to present my work – new formats. (I have edited my answers occasionally in this version of the interview text, to make them a little more accurate, a little more like my voice. DW)
interview by mashnote.be
MN: Body isolations is almost 2 years old. Are you currently working on new material
for a next album? The latest album was kind of a departure from the more electronic based music to
guitar-orientated music, with even subtle drone influences. Is that the musical path you
want to keep following?
DW: At the moment most of my energy goes into theatre music and sound designs. I have not found the peace necessary to properly start work on a new album yet, but I hope to begin work on a new album soon. London is very hectic and noisy – not the best place to make the sort of music I make. I agree that Body Isolations has more organic sounds and textures than Trabanten, and I think I am interested in moving further and further away from beats, song structures and other such organizational paradigms for music. For my next cd I imagine a quite static music in which nothing seems to happen on the surface, while actually a great deal happens in lower strata of the sound.
MN: You once did a remix for a Dutch band At the Close of Every Day. How did that happen? Was it fun doing?
DW: They emailed me to ask whether I'd like to do a Remix for them. I listened to their music, and there was a track I thought offered good departure material for me to rework. I wouldn't say it was fun – it was a struggle, but I like the result. It is a quite noisy yet calm, shimmering build that contains a lot of pressurised energy. It has practically nothing to do with the original recording at all. I think the track is more like a sound object really, than like a track. I think remixes should be like that, a piece in their own right.
MN: Theatre and dance are two of your main interests. You even work as a sound designer/technician at a theatre if I'm correct. How much of that field of art influences your solo work? The expression Body Isolations is at least one reference to modern dance. Can you enjoy dance without music?
DW: There is actually a conflict between the two at the moment, and I am trying to resolve that. Work in theatre is collective, and that yields great rewards. But theatre work also tends to take over your life, there is something total about it. Like I mentioned earlier, I can't find the space to make my own music at the moment. But then again, I do love working in theatre and dance theatre. It is a conflict. Hopefully, I will find practical ways to make it possible for me to pursue both avenues of work. I'm not too sure what you mean by enjoying dance without music. I can appreciate movement for its own sake, yes. I don't think it needs music necessarily, but I do think music can help.
MN: To talk about dance some more... how did you end up in the world of modern dance and theater anyway?
DW: Initially I got involved in theatre work because I needed a job to support my practice. So I found a job in a theatre operating sound, because I knew how to use studio gear, and, as a musician, I have a good ear and sense of timing – both are sets of skills a theatre sound operator needs. After a while I felt that I could do a lot more than operate – I could contribute interesting soundworlds, and original music to theatre plays, but I also felt that I should go and learn more about the craft, so I went to London to study sound design for theatre, which is where I am living now. I first started working with dancers when I was living in Berlin, 5 years ago. A lot of theatre work gets passed around though word of mouth. Someone knows your music or your work and recommends you. They email you, or phone you, and that's how projects begin.
MN: When you perform live, it usually isn't by yourself, but in combination with someone who does visuals, or even as a genuine soundtrack live to a film. Is that the reason why you don't play live that often? Does your music need these visual impulses to enjoy it to the fullest?
DW: I don't think that my music needs the visual impulses. In fact, I think it is a risk to present the music with visuals, because there is the danger that visuals will colonise the imagination, whereas my music I think has the great advantage of being suggestive and evocative while allowing the listeners' imaginations to roam, and they can find their own inner images, or just dream away and think or feel things etc. I have always found that laptop concerts do not work, because they are really anti-performances masquerading as performances. They mimic the form of traditional instrumental concerts (i.e the stage, the performer, the instrument), but without the visible instrumental skill to admire. The musician sits at a laptop, staring at the screen which is like a wall between him/her and the audience: I've never seen it work. It would be better to just play a cd. So, as an alternative I asked visual artists to make films to the music, that were inspired by the music, and then to present these together, as an experience, preferably in an art gallery space, with cinema seats, under headphones. That way at least, there is no need for a "performer", who isn't performing anyway. I have played concerts where I have played back the music very quietly, so that you could hear all the mouse clicks and the computer's ventilator etc, and that became part of the concert, and I thought it worked quite well, because the audience had to work to listen intently and with great concentration, to minute sounds. I think that musicians are still searching for ways to present digital (laptop) music adequately and some have developed interesting strategies, like Francisco Lopez, for example. The search is ongoing. This summer I heard a very interesting piece by the Canadian sound artist Nancy Tobin in an art gallery in Prague, that was all about directional hearing. I think works like that, where the experience of one's own sense of hearing becomes the important thing rather than the presence of some performer, offer more interesting possibilities for digital concerts. (I have edited this interview. DW)
interview by Guillermo Escudero for loop.cl
GE: Is that why yr still on earth" track deals with relationships, family, dreams... It seems that a history develops by itself. Could you please tell about this lyrics/history?
DW: The idea behind 'Is that why yr still on earth' is that I wanted to communicate things about myself with words in combination with music, but not using my own voice. So I used used words, to form a collage of words and sonic situations. I think sometimes that if, like most of us, one has grown up with television and Hollywood films, that we have often seen situations acted out in a certain way by the time we encounter them ourselves in reality. And then we have that template for how to react embedded in our minds. So in a way I think it is interesting and possible to form a personal prose from pre-recorded dialogue, by using such pre-fabricated phrases. Also, with film dialogue snippets, you get a whole sound world opening up every time something is said. Spaces open up, there is background sound suggesting a situation. Like a window opening for a short glimpse of another life, worlds within worlds. So sonically it was very interesting for me to do, and the sonic character of these snippets of dialogue, is as important as the meaning that was being created by linking the words and sentences together in a new context. By putting words to music one alters the way the music impacts a listener emotionally. It is as if these voices, these fragments of thought, come together to make a new meaning and a new feeling, which allows everyone who listens to it to have their own associations with each fragment. It is a personal piece to me, but I think everyone can make it their personal piece too. So I wouldn't want to take that possiblilty away by offering my own version of what is going on in the prose.
GE: You started very early producing your own music. Do you combine acoustic instruments such as piano and guitar together with digital processing?
DW: Yes, I do. The piano and guitar on Trabanten I recorded with a tiny radioshack type clip-on microphone. I love the sound. It makes the instruments sound so close, a very intimate sound. The mics sound great, they just happen to create a lot of hiss too. But then again, I love that atmospheric hiss. I use it. I actually like to leave sounds as they are. If you get the sound you want at the recording you're almost done. Because the sound itself makes the atmosphere. I use the computer mostly for editing and arranging, for multi-track composition. It is different with the digitally generated sounds (I use Reaktor to generate sounds). That involves a lot of experimentation and manipulation. But once I have found the sound I want, I do not filter a great deal in mixing. I do compress to make vertical space, and I use the stereo field a great deal, also to make space, lateral space. I also work with volume levels and reverb/delays a lot. It is very basic: Mostly it is volume, panorama and reverb/delay I use in mixing.
GE: Also Jimi Hendrix's "Electric Ladyland" was a very important record for me and the first from this musician. I remember the cover album with a drawing of Hendrix’s face. What I like of this album is its chaotic sound. Which elements of Hendrix's music are in your music?
DW: I understand what you mean, when you describe the music as chaotic. The paintings of Jackson Pollock come to mind as a visual analogy. Some of his paintings [the drip paintings] to me have a visual aesthetic that is related to Jimi Hendrix's guitar playing/sound aesthetics. In the paintings, so much happens at the same time and all of it seems balanced in a perfect harmony, a kind of energy field, but also offering a rich visual texture. The paintings radiate energy. The paintings appear chaotic, improvised, but considered as structure they become really astounding. It is much the same for me with the music on Electric Ladyland. I much prefer the Jimi Hendrix Experience to the Band of Gypsies, because in the Band of Gypsies the sound has been cleaned up, the playing appears far more disciplined or controlled, and less radiant. The structure is more readily accessible. But because of that the sound lacks the magic, the depth of the many many layers and textures, and the unending surprises of the earlier recordings, especially Electric Ladlyland. I think the important thing here is imagination, the myriad ideas used. In Hendrix's sound it is as if he had imagined this world, and made it real in sound. That is what I tried to learn from Electric Ladyland, to attempt an expressiveness of sound. There is something cosmic captured on Electric Ladyland. (One must not forget also to credit the sound engineer, Eddie Kramer). Every time I listen to All Along The Watchtower it is like I’m hearing it for the first time and I am again thrilled by the interwoven rhythms, the butterfly-like guitar fills, the deep, wide sound... I had wanted to be able to create a whole sound-as-expression for a long time but only really was able to make it happen when digital computer based production became available to me. Now I am not limited to a single instrument but can compose a complex sonic world to express what I need to express. I am very grateful for the technology which makes what I do possible. I am of course also fascinated by Hendrix's guitar playing, being a guitar player myself. He does things on the guitar that are magical. When I was learning how to play the guitar I listened to Hendrix all the time. Some other guitarists I rate very highly are Caspar Brötzmann, Kevin Shields.
GE: I think Flutlichter is really a good track. The piano notes are deep and emotional. There is a special idea behind this quiet track?
DW: When I made Trabanten I wanted it to become an album where each piece is a really good piece in its own right, and a world of its own, within itself. But I also wanted the record to have a proper structure as an album. I wanted it to be a coherent work one could listen to from beginning to end. So it needed to have a strong beginning, a progression, an ending. The succession of tracks was very important. I spent a lot of time working it out. And I am really into endings. I love those 2-minute end pieces that work like an afterthought, a final contemplation before dying away. Sound has a soft way of dying away into infinity. So I made Flutlichter to be the final track, as the end, to leave the listener with a beautiful feeling. It is meant to create a moment of peace in which to reflect on what has happened. I wanted Trabanten to be a contemplative record and to end it the right way, I needed Flutlichter.
GE: Do you have any side project?
DW: No I do not have any side project. As I also work in a theatre, that is my side project, if you will, to earn a living! As far as making music is concerned, I want to continue working on music alone for the time being. I am starting work on a new album this month. Text Guillermo Escudero (I have edited this interview. DW)