BACKTRACKING WITH MORGAN PACKARD'S AIRSHIPS FILL THE SKY
Airships Fill the Sky by New York resident Morgan Packard is the second high-quality recording issued by Ezekiel Honig's Anticipate label (Mark Templeton's Standing on a Hummingbird was the first). Not only does Airships Fill the Sky impress as a remarkably accomplished and fully realized collection, it isn't even the whole story, as the disc is accompanied by a DVD titled Unsimulatable, an entirely separate audio-visual collaboration between media artist Joshue Ott and Packard. In this Backtracking session, the composer, a classically-trained electronic musician and cello and saxophone player, generously offers textura readers an in-depth view of the album's inner workings.
1. Please forgive the obvious opening question but what inspired the Airships Fill the Sky title? Did you plan out the album prior to recording with a particular musical concept in mind, or did the album's persona come into focus of its own accord while you were working on it?
I tend to just work at the sound level first, and name things when they're done. I had some techniques I was interested in, a desire to maintain some continuity with my recent work, and a general energy level in mind, but no more concept than that. I name my work by giving it a good listen, closing my eyes, and paying attention to what I see. With this one, I saw hundreds of white blimps rising into a blue sky together. I think that mental image owes a lot to two of my favorite film directors, Hayao Miyazaki, and Werner Herzog, who both make great use of expansive and aerial imagery.
2. The album has an incredibly rich and multi-tiered sound, something established immediately in the opening title piece with the accordion's presence. Obviously, you avoid any association with the instrument's clichés but what's interesting is how naturally ‘synthetic' the instrument sounds in this context; at the same time, it also resembles a Bandoneon. First of all, did you alter the accordion's sound to make it sound more synthetic; secondly, are you slyly referencing Astor Piazzolla; and, finally, is it the accordion that's responsible for the keyboard-like smears in the jazzier second section of “Waterbugs”?
Thanks for the compliment! Regarding Piazzolla, he's something of a hero in that he took a very rigidly defined style of dance music, Tango, distilled the soul of it, and abstracted it into art music without losing any of the genre's sexiness. He also had some hardcore classical composition chops and pedigree, studying with superstar teacher Nadia Boulanger for a bit, I believe. I think of myself as trying to do something similar with regards to electronic dance music: keep the soul of it, but allow it to expand out of its container a bit. So, I do feel a kinship of approach with Piazzolla. I also love what music of his I've heard (I think I'd have to say that Tango: Zero Hour is a masterpiece, and I don't say that lightly) and love of his music may have gotten me past the accordio-phobia that lots of people seem to have.
The accordion is an interesting instrument in that it's one of the only instruments which can play chords, and control the volume of sounds once they're struck. With most other multi-note instruments—piano, guitar, harp, etc.—you strike a chord, and wait for it to decay. But with the accordion, you have that element of breath, that physicality (you squeeze the thing!), that immediacy, as well as having the ability to sound multiple notes at once, so you're able to operate on several very appealing dimensions simultaneously. In response to the first part of your question, no. Besides the usual slicing and dicing, there's not much processing going on with the accordion. It's just a cool sound once you get over the polka associations! And, lastly, the waterbugs synth is pure digital, and no accordion's involved at all.
3. There's a pronounced foundsound dimension to the album, almost as if you've transplanted the field sampling aesthetic from the countryside in Early Morning Migration to the city in Airships Fill the Sky. Can you clarify how you generated some of the sounds that appear in the album: the tumbling percussive and rattling noises in “I Think I...” and “A Place Worth Keeping (Part 1),” and the swarming sounds that appear in “A Place Worth Keeping (Part 2)”?
The strong foundsound element you describe is a direct result of my friendship with and admiration for Zeke Honig. In order to make music, you have to steal from others, and I decided a while back that the best people to steal from (or, more nicely put, to be influenced by) were my friends, the people who I see and talk to every week, the people I share space with. Another very strong influence, and a person I share even more literal space with, is my friend and neighbor Joshue Ott, who developed the software and did the visuals on Unsimulatable, the DVD packaged with the album. Where Zeke's influence pushes me toward warmth, comfort, and the organic, Josh brings out my geeky side, encouraging me to dive into writing my own music software (using SuperCollider, if anyone's interested), pushing my technique further, imagining something and stretching myself to create it. So, to summarize, the sounds you described are a combination of organic sampling, and custom software manipulation.
4. Despite the fact that the album's multi-faceted material resists being defined so simply, tracks like “I Think I...” and “Dappled” could be described as ‘dub-techno.' What would be your own description of the material's style?
I'm struggling to a) not subscribe to a particular genre (though I highly recommend focusing on specific genres as a means of study) and b) create music that feels like a single genre, not a fusion. I guess ideally, my music would feel like a genre of its own. It's certainly not there yet, but that's an ideal I hold in mind. I really admire those artists whose work is immediately recognizable, and I aspire to be one of them. As far as the specific label to put on my music, a specific bucket or combination of buckets to put it in, for now I'm just going to make the stuff and let others worry about that detail!
5. The pairing of your saxophone with Jody Redhage's cello in the ballad setting “Mink Hills” stands out as a particularly lovely moment. Did that happen as a live duet, and that you then expanded upon by adding percussive accompaniment and accordion?
The melody is really the core of that piece. It's one I wrote a few years ago while I was studying classical theory, an activity which is very effective at waking up the melody-making part of the brain. After that, it was just a matter of finding the right way to present the melody. I had planned to keep it just cello, but the recordings lacked that extra something sonically, so I (somewhat painstakingly) did my best to match Jody's phrasing with a saxophone overdub. The additional elements were added later to fatten the whole sound up and make it work in the context of the album.
6. Like the album in general, the two-part “A Place Worth Keeping” strikes a deft balance between atmospheric electronica, dub, and foundsound samples. How conscious was the attempt to maintain that balance where the music's character doesn't move too far in only one direction but rather accommodates multiple stylistic tendencies simultaneously?
If anything, the effort was made in the opposite direction! I have a number of strong musical interests, and I always have trouble figuring out which one is more important. All the best bits I make wind up being more scattered than I'd like stylistically. A large part of the work that went into this album was me listening to stuff I'd made and really liked, but deciding that it was simply too far away from the center that the album was trying to gravitate to, and wasn't going to fit. I have an irrationally venomous aversion to the concept of ‘fusion,' and am only able to sleep at night by telling myself that my music isn't that, that it's alchemy, or a stew, or anything but a mere collision of influences.
7. The shimmering ambiance of “A Place Worth Keeping (Part 2)” and the opening section of “Waterbugs” recall the evocate sound-sculpting approach so effectively realized on Early Morning Migration. Did you plan for this to be a conscious nod in that album's direction, or did these pieces develop organically on their own terms?
All music has to evolve from somewhere; all of it has ancestors, I think. In this case, I'm using many of the same tools, which I built myself, so it's natural for there to be some continuity, and I'm glad it's perceptible. I don't think any of my music evolves on its own terms; it's all little steps built on little steps.
8. “Kelp Sway” is such a remarkably rich piece in terms of both texture and melody. Using this piece as a representative example of your work, could you take us through the composition and production stages that went into creating the piece?
That one started with the idea that I could create a texture which had a heavily masked pulse, a pulse which no one would tap their feet or nod their head to, but which, once revealed, would seem obvious. I've always liked that effect, when the perception of a musical figure changes after the addition of an accompaniment. It works quite nicely with harmony, too. So, that was the kernel, which is always unique. After the kernel, I have a fairly standard practice of adding something: listening to see if it's better, take it away if it's not, and repeat until I can't stand it any more. The main criteria I'm trying to meet are visceral pleasure (does it feel good) and a bit of contextual freshness (does it sound stylish).
9. I couldn't help but hear some hint of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians in the vibes patterns of “They Will Rise Forever.”
I've always had a fondness for the sparkly and hypnotic ends of the musical spectrum, a fondness which has placed Music for 18 Musicians near (if not at) the top of my list of favorite pieces. Additionally, Steve Reich was a big part of my desire to study and understand classical music a bit better. “They Will Rise Forever” certainly does share some of that sparkle with Music For 18 Musicians, and has some harmonic work I wouldn't have been able to do without a bit of rigorous, formal study, so I'm not uncomfortable with the connection you've made. It's far from being an homage, but it certainly comes from the Reichophile part of me.
10. Given that the album flows so naturally, I'm curious about how you settled on the track order? Did you create all of the pieces individually and then determine their sequence, or was that something planned out in advance?
I would love to be able to map out an entire album in advance, but feel entirely incapable of so organized a process at this point. For me, it's a very long process of observing, paying attention to what's not right, nudging it in a slightly better direction, repeating. I get nerdy and intellectual at the computer programming level, and with developing the original ideas for the pieces, but after that, I'm most comfortable letting intuition take over, setting aside a large chunk of time where I can relax and let my mind and my work tell me where they want to go, and giving them the help they need to get there.