Very seldom do you come across a group of musicians who are so in tune with one another that the music they yield is nothing short of heaven sent. Art for the sake of art; adventure for the sake of the journey. I am, of course, talking about Brooklyn-based hybrid digital/analog electroacoustic piano trio Sontag Shogun. The trio consists of Ian Temple on piano, Jeremy Young on tapes, oscillators, and piezo mics, and Jesse Perlstein on vocals, manipulations, and field recordings. Together, they work in tandem to construct live —sometimes improvisational, sometimes planned— analog soundscapes that incorporate beautifully artistic visual backdrops. They focus primarily on the textures of their sounds of field recordings and synthesized material to bring listeners to completely different worlds, dimensions, and times.
I had a chance to catch them for one of their live performances in their hometown of Brooklyn, NY. It’s one thing to experience their extensive catalog of music videos, recorded compositions, and live video performances in the comfort of your home, car, or office… and a completely different thing to be there, immersed within their sonic vessel cruising along a highway of auditory textures you can see and feel even more than you can hear. It seemed criminal not to reach out to get them involved in our Guest Mix series. What arrived is simply and beautifully stunning; yet another meticulously crafted work of art from the trio.
Sontag Shogun call it A Shimmering Fog the Color of a Highway, an in-depth exploration into what they call lullanoise, and it’s filled with old world music and samples built around the Fluxus radio pieces from “cassette magazines” of the 1980s. In our interview, the band discusses their love of radio, the life that musical experimentation gives to both the composer and listener, the pitfalls of modern electronic music, bringing scent and sound together, and so much more. Their insight and experience with the subversively popular world of experimental, downtempo, and ambient music can teach us all incredibly valuable lessons regardless of our respective medium, method, or discipline with which we compose.
Give our in-depth interview a read below and press play on A Shimmering Fog the Color of a Highway now.
Tell us a bit about Sontag Shogun and what the music you make means to you and the world you’re a part of.
We’re a hybrid digital/analog electroacoustic piano trio, and we make nostalgic music aided by textural sound design in harmony to depict abstract places in our memory… Jesse calls it lullanoise. We’ve recently joined collaborative forces with Alex Beth, a live scentscape artist, to bring olfactory abstract narratives and a more three-dimensional engagement with physical space into our performance experience. Listening to our music, one can expect to hear texture collages built from organic materials such as sand, slate, boiling water, brush, and dried leaves, both produced live in performance and recorded to weathered 1/4″ tape, which warm up the space between lush piano notes. And all of that is reflected coolly in the icey digital space of laptop-treated vocals and glitched field recordings, and a live-processed feed from the piano.
Not to knock what else is out there, because in fact we love a lot of contemporary music that would fit somewhere near where ours lives, but we’re a bit bored with digital music and highly automated synthesis. There were a few really great years for interesting synthesizer work and the same goes for the living room “modern classical” piano stuff, but what is considered fringe or experimental right now is getting closer to sounding just as formulaic as pop music production. So this is something we’re fighting against in some way, making Easy Music. We attempt to make sad, pretty music, but we’re on a continual journey to upend ourselves and make things from scratch, do it the difficult way (like retuning oscillators mid-song, creating beats using contact mic’d objects and surfaces rather than electronic drums, and using the laptop to live-process rather than trigger a pre-recorded backing track). All of the imperfections that are created through this process help to prove to us that there’s still a whole lot of humanity left in electronic music.
For Ian, Sontag is this beautiful metaphor for the artistic process and the way intentionality falls apart as soon as it meets the world outside your brain — but how that interaction can end up being so much more creative and interesting than anything you could have dreamed up in a vacuum. Very concretely, that happens to Ian all the time because his piano sound is affected and processed so he never has the final say in what it sounds like, but also because the musical ideas he brings to the table get beaten, morphed, hammered, etc. by this experimental collaboration they’re a part of. None of us can really hold on too tightly to anything, but what we’ve realized about true collaboration after a few years of doing it this way is that by not holding on too tightly to one’s ideas or perfectionism, everything actually comes out better.
Your sound is art incarnate, deeply rooted intention with no sacrifice, for the sake of weird and avant-garde. How do you write and compose your works? What goes into a Sontag Shogun song, and album for that matter?
We’ve never really developed a system for composing… or actually, I should say that we’ve become accustomed to a “collage-style” method of writing music due to the fact that for most of the existence of this project we’ve been living in separate cities. To record our first album, Tale, we had to send sounds back and forth from Brooklyn, Toronto, London, Beijing, and Busan over the course of, like, a year and a half. In other words, the music had to respond to the sounds, and vice versa, each and every minute of every track, which got really complicated and confusing since we don’t use samplers or clicktracks. When we have been in the same city to write new music, most of which actually just ends up happening on tour anyway, we found that we still compose in the same collage-style fashion anyway. Typically one of us brings an idea, like a multi-layered drone in a certain key or a set of changes, or a piano progression, and piece by piece we build an evolving landscape of concrète sound around it that plays off the sentiment of the tonal information. In other words, there’s a really iterative process of improvisation and layering that eventually gets trimmed and sheered.
Lately, our material has taken on a triangular shape.
Your Guest Mix with us today is an AMAZING representation of what Sontag Shogun is all about. Sound poetry and vocal art music, Fluxus radio pieces from “cassette magazines” of the 1980s and the electronic/modern classical music we’re used to hearing from the Sontag Shogun world. Can you elaborate on the mix’s intentions, direction, and what you’ve created here?
Why we love radio, and radio art, so much is that the listening experience comes with the accepted expectation of music constantly intersected by text. And when the host comes on to talk, it could be the weather, it could be banter, it could be a conversation, or an advertisement, each time the space changes with it. When we listen to music, we’re in a musical, surreal, otherworldly space, but when a human talks to us, we’re brought back into the present moment because this experience is so innately intimate to us as humans. This is something that, for all the conveniences and algorithmic sorcery that Spotify playlists bring, streaming will never get quite right. The radio station is a place of meditation, because it’s a quiet room with another person in it, and the host is our guide to the present moment… we give ourselves to the host, “here I give you my time, take me somewhere.” So, with this mix, we wanted to reference this duality of space, this experience of being brought to different places, spaces, and being handed off from host to host. The poets and artists that take us to these spaces are also able to use their unique forms of storytelling to enhance the vividness of the journey.
Sonically, on a less conceptual note, we just wanted to present some of the sound worlds that inspire us most as a project: accessible yet experimental electronic music and sound design, lots of tape, complicated drones, out rhythms and percussive landscapes, and of course, some ivory keys. This mix is “human music.”
I recently saw you guys play in a crazy underground venue in Deep Brooklyn called H0L0, but I’ve been a fan for quite a while now. How did you guys get started as Sontag Shogun, and how did the band meet?
We’re actually the three last descendants of a nearly extinct tribe. We met milking almonds out on Hoffmann’s estate in Springtime. We were tasked with becoming the custodians of the native music of our people and bringing it into the 21st century, so we formed a band called the Rokatoguu Liberation Front (RLF) and launched our first single on September 9th, 1999, “Born with my Bathing Suit. On.” It was a flop. We then retooled, renamed the project, called Hoffmann for some tea and enlightenment, and here we are.
Sontag Shogun’s visual aesthetics and compositional elegance draw inspiration from the legendary and singular photographer/composer/mountaineer, Bern’rd Hoffmann. What draws you to his art and why is he such a staple in your project?
Well, we owe a great deal to Hoffmann. He gave us the name of the project, he taught Ian to play piano, he taught Jesse how to find the up-side of an almond, and he taught Jer how to spot a peregrine in a peach tree. Plus, he’s given us all of his music. In the old days, we mostly played his music, then we stopped crediting him because we’d change things here and there, and now we play our own music but credit him as a co-writer because, well, he’s quite ill, and could use the royalties.
We still haven’t figured out where his archive ends and our oeuvre begins.
A few of your members have solo projects that venture into other artistic realms. Some A/V, some trios and quartets. Can you talk about those and what you have planned?
Ian is composing a long-form work for string quartet and electronics and he’s been working on a “Reichian” piece for, like, 30 pianos to be performed at the Steinway Piano Factory at some point. He’s always been inspired by Jonny Greenwood and the way he’s channeled his many interests into multiple musical endeavors, so he seeks out ways to make interesting, accessible, yet challenging music in a variety of ways and genres. Ian started an online education platform called Soundfly that takes an alternative approach to music education via one-on-one goal-oriented mentorship that Jer has been contributing to for close to four years.
Jeremy is working on creating a body of audio art work that explores the notion that the audio medium is as essential to the listening experience of a piece as the sonic content that lives on it, so his work will always feature aspects or behaviors of the tape, the turntable, the surface audio and imperfections of microphones, cables, connections, electromagnetic fields, mixed in with music that sort of scores this auditory garbage dump. Jer has been working on a book+album of sound poetry recently with the Montreal-based poet, Deanna Radford, and has some other collab records out there with Shinya Sugimoto and Julia Kent, Aaron Martin, Daniel Merrill (of Dead Rat Orchestra), and he just recently made his second million selling tape loops for elevators.
Jesse is doing a lot of interesting motion-sensitive sound sculptural work these days, and to take it several steps further, he often performs inside his installations, which is, like, this crazy meta artistic collaboration with himself and the room he is performing in all at once. He’s been engaged in a longstanding A/V collaboration with the Slovenian media artist, Neza Agnes Momirski, and they’ll be opening an exhibition together at Roodkapje in Rotterdam on April 20th.
The thing with Sontag is that we’ve performed as a duo in every which way, and sometimes even solo, and we still often call it Sontag Shogun. Sontag has performed with all kinds of artists, even string quartets and soloists, vocalists, you name it, so the project at large is kind of an evolving unit as well. Jesse and Jeremy will be on the road in Europe in April doing a few local electroacoustic improvisations with artists like FS Blumm, Midori Hirano, Echo Ho, Machinefabriek, Stijn Hüwels, Sayaka Botanic, and more.
Where do you stand on the idea of “separating the art from the artist”? Do to two go hand-in-hand, or can you appreciate art even if it’s sourced from a questionable artist?
Hmm, yeah, that’s the question these days, huh? Jeremy just put an ultra slowed down sample from an early Bill Cosby comedy record on a new solo album he’s finishing up… there’s no one right answer here. Humans are complex and we personally try not to judge too readily, but obviously we’re not going to spend money on a white supremacist’s exhibit. I think you can maybe look at someone’s art who you find grossly problematic simply to try to understand how this person came to believe/feel this way, to open your eyes to the fact that it exists, while not necessarily “appreciating” it. Some of the greatest artworks in history have been produced by deeply problematic humans — Wagner being one obvious example. Even people universally admired like Einstein treated his first wife like garbage. How do you rectify the fact that these people also allow us to understand human nature and existence better through their work?
Honestly, we could probably talk about this for hours, but I think you do just that. As artists, we live with paradoxes and uncertainties and complexity all the time. In fact, we love complexity. I think you need to do the same when it comes to art, try to find the humanity within it, allow yourself to take meaning from it either the artist intended or didn’t, and then contextualize it within your own worldview as to how you plan to interact with it in the future.
What do you look for when listening to music from other artists? In terms of what makes a record worth repeat listens.
A contentness in melancholy.
Something beautiful and unexpected.
People doing things their own way entirely, and people using gear how it’s not supposed to be used.
A balance between the evidence of a lot of care put into something, and a healthy dose of “not giving a fuck,” pretty much always works to create long-lasting works of art. Jesse and I just recently saw Ryuichi Sakamoto perform (for the umpteenth time) with a glass harmonica player (Camille Norment). The piano and the glass harmonica are two of the most intricately designed, delicate and gorgeous instruments, yet neither performer really used their instrument in the way it’s typically played. Norment mostly used the glass to enhance feedback and then manipulated the speakers to control those tones, and Sakamoto basically just walked around the piano messing with objects placed on the strings and little motorized doodads.
Most people these days either want in-your-face hard music, nostalgic classics, or formulaic pop music. What are your hopes for your own audience and how can we perpetuate the art within audio?
We think the soft music out there could use a bit more of the hard stuff.
What do you think happens when we die?
Crows pick at our brains, worms enter every one of our orifices and lay eggs, and our bodies become dwelling places and food sources for thousands of creatures.
Do you believe A) There is intelligent life on other planets, and if so B) Have we made contact with them?
I still don’t think we’ve discovered intelligent life on our own planet.
What do you have planned for 2018?
We just launched our short film for the music we made with Sanae Yamasaki (moskitoo), “The Things We Let Fall Apart / The Thunderswan.” The film was shot by Jon Yu, and follows a series of messages left in the earth (which were written by Leonard Cohen) by a wandering nomad in search of other people in a desolate wilderness, or perhaps… one person in particular?
We just finished recording a new full-length LP with the incredible Seth Manchester at Machines With Magnets in Rhode Island. No announcements yet regarding its release, but what we can tell you is that if you’ve ever seen Sontag Shogun live, you may know that we sound nothing like we do on record. All that changes with this album, it’s big and bold and unrelenting at times, and thanks to Seth, it sounds fucking great! Other than that, we’re working on a couple collaborative projects with other musicians, a choreographer, the exhibition in Rotterdam in April, and some tours will happen later in the year. Stay tuned!
I listen to your 2017 record Patterns for Resonant Space quite often. What can you tell us about the conception of that record that many people don’t know?
Thanks man! Well, one thing that people don’t really know is that we recorded this as a “side-project” to another record we were more heavily focused on at the time, that featured a full string ensemble and some production collaborations. But that record got shelved indefinitely for a few reasons, and we currently have no plans to release that music publicly. So when we did Patterns, it was this experimental “reverse engineering” process that was meant to jostle us out of our comfort zone and force us to compose more improvisationally, with an ear towards the feeling of a space, the sounds in a room (in every room), and meander musically through those hidden narratives in the space. The experiment turned out, even in its crudeness, to be more reflective of where we were at in this moment in time, than the professionally-recorded and mixed album we were sitting on.
You “reverse engineered” it from your usual composition process… what did you learn about yourselves and your art while exploring this process?
So, in our live sets, we perform these tightly written pieces that take work and energy to compose and execute at the highest level, but as we enter and leave those pieces, we’re tuned in to a more freeform approach to music-creation, drawing from musique-concréte and free improvisation, that make the set about 50/50 written and improvised. In the past, we’ve perhaps devalued those moments in the set as “transitional” and “exploratory”, but the process of making Patterns for Resonant Space absolutely solidified that this is in fact, a central tenet of this project. The dynamic shift that’s created when we enter this exploratory sonic play mode is essential to the flow of our live set, it pushes and pulls the attention of the audience, the air in the room, and it even affects our own mood, our concentration, and movement through the music. Our music is all about playing with focus, evolving the roles of who is currently leading and who is following. And this record kind of officially stamped this distinctive element of our music making process into the Sontag catalog.
Can you talk about your smell collaboration? What does that involve?
Well to continue what I was just talking about, the live collaboration with Alex Beth, who is as much of an “improviser of scent” as we are musically, if not more, helps to enhance the experience of the space, and our relation to it. Architecturally and emotionally, the evolving scentscape that overtakes the room, can make us notice different things about the present moment, and so it becomes another instrument or tool in the process of reorienting one’s focus, again like a meditation. And we all know that scent is one of the most potent triggers for memory, so this is an enormous point of intersection, as Sontag’s entire purpose is to try to extract and animate our most deeply buried nostalgias.
What her work involves literally though, is Alex preparing a few natural substances beforehand, with a burner and different porcelain bowls and pots and a couple fans. She’ll wait for the music to begin before starting to create her first introductory scent foundations, usually a non-intuitive combination of things that are being crushed with a mortar and pestle, boiled, or toasted, and then slowly she adds and takes away, combines further notes and complexifies the collage of scent, always in reaction to where the music is going. Sometimes she creates dissonance and sometimes there’s an incredible harmony. But its important to note that she uses no essential oils or aromatherapy infusions, it’s all created on the spot in performance, and wherever she goes she tries to obtain natural “ingredients” from that place. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful. It’s beautiful in its reiteration of the ephemerality of things.
It also seems that more and more, our music is becoming a non-ingestive experience of the kitchen, with me using whisks and chopsticks and sushi rice to make sound, and Alex doing everything but the actual cooking of food to produce scents.
Who have you been listening to, and who do you draw inspiration from musically?
It’s all in the mix!
A Shimmering Fog the Color of a Highway Tracklist:
0:00 M’lou Zahner Ollswang – Mosquitos (1985)
1:35 Sontag Shogun & moskitoo – The Things We Let Fall Apart (2017)
4:48 Matteah Baim – Dark Ship (2007)
8:10 Martin Tétrault & Otomo Yoshihide – 教育 Éducation (1999)
8:56 Vito Ricci – Dox E Koo (Solo Voice) (2015)
9:45 Andrea Belfi – Broken Shoes (2006)
12:11 Raoul Hausmann – Poème Sans Titres (1919)
13:46 Marina Herlop – Doiloi (2016)
17:23 Vincent Gallo – Glad to be Unhappy (1983)
18:50 Susanna – Cold Song (2018)
23:12 Joan Jonas – The Anchor Stone (1988)
25:06 Sontag Shogun – No.6 (Coils) (2017)
28:03 Raime – Exist in the Repeat of Practice (2012)
33:16 Dedekind Cut – De-Civilization (2018)
35:54 François Dufrêne – Concertino Pour Hiver et Printemps (Février 1947)
36:59 Hiss Tracts – Beijing-Bullhorn / Dopplered Light… (2014)
39:30 Serafina Steer – The Sisters of Proportion (2010)
41:35 Antonio Sanchez – Night Chatter (2014)
42:51 Eli Keszler – Willing to be Open (2016)
46:30 Ellen Fullman – Memory of a Big Room (For Matthew) (1985)
48:42 Maurice Lemaître & Paul Thorel – Lettre Rock (1958)
50:32 Valby Vokalgruppe – Gøgen Fra Kina (2010)
52:27 Günter Baby Sommer – Ed Blackwell (Dedicated to Ed Blackwell) (2013)
55:10 Afrikan Sciences – Swash (2014)
59:00 Rii Kanzaki – Flora (1987)
1:00:00 Sontag Shogun & moskitoo – The Thunderswan (2017)
1:06:17 Kate Carr – 1001 (Missed Connections) (2017)
1:10:27 Roger Eno – Where To Now? (2017)
1:11:50 Richard Huelsenbeck – Phantastiche Gebeté, 1916 (1967)
1:12:27 Vivian Reed – God Bless the Child (1976)
Jeremy Young & Jesse Perlstein | “Braided Sound” tour, site-specific electroacoustic improvisations
4.18 – Amsterdam, NL @ Cafe De Ruimte, improvisation with Frank Rosaly, Asuna & Otto Kokke (Dead Neanderthals) + Leonie Roessler & Sohrab Motabar duo
4.20 – Rotterdam, NL @ Roodkapje, improvisation with Machinefabriek
4.21 – Düsseldorf, DE @ Kunstraum Düsseldorf, improvisation with Echo Ho & Frauke Berg
4.22 – Berlin, DE @ Spektrum, improvisation with F.S. Blumm, Midori Hirano & Sayaka Botanic (groupA) + Maxwell August Croy
4.28-29 – Hudson, NY @ Basilica Hudson for the 24-Hour Drone Festival
7.12 – Brooklyn, NY @ Wonders of Nature, with Liam Singer