Breaking Up In The Atmosphere: L/I/N/E

Navel-Gazers #17 is an interview with Nathan Moore a.k.a. N.O. Moore a.k.a. Breaking Up In The Atmosphere who is going to talk to us about L/I/N/E. This is a recent release which caught me totally off guard. Over two years playing improvised music with Nathan, I can't say he's ever hinted at any inclination towards "electronic progressive rock", either verbally or musically... or has he? I do notice one characteristic of this music which I'd associate to Nathan: a broad palette of electronic sounds which shifts and evolves as the minutes tick by. What's so different on 'L/I/N/E' is the way these sounds are organised. It's an imposing piece of sonic architecture where there isn't much improvisation in evidence and there isn't much of Nathan's usual instrument - guitar - but again... is there? I'm reminded that even when Nathan is playing guitar, it usually doesn't sound like one, and perhaps this is a great example of how recordings differ from performances... the explanation behind 'L/I/N/E' lurks behind a layer of intrigue, that familiar cloak of invisibility which is the unique domain of the recording artist. Then again maybe we can apprehend an explanation right here on Navel-Gazers, where Nathan is gracious enough to talk to us about 'L/I/N/E'. Here's hoping!

AC: Thanks for joining me here. I especially appreciate it as you mentioned to me that you'd been reluctant to release this album to begin with. So, why was that?

N.O. Moore: There are several reasons. It's always an odd thing with music about whether it is a 'finished piece' or not. With composition proper, something written out - and especially if it is a few hundred years old - the question of whether it's finished doesn't really come up. Of course, it might be that there are earlier versions, or less successful parts, but a composer signing off denotes a certain completion. For different reasons, I feel it is the same thing in improvisation - everyone knows when a performance is over, and it often comes to a seemingly natural end. And that's that. It happened; if it was recorded, there is a document, but the question of whether or not the improvisation is finished does not come up. I don't read or write music so, if it is not improvisation, the easiest way for me to work is in recording sound directly. It's not a new thing, to treat the recording process itself as the compositional means, but it seems to me that it does make the question of whether a piece is finished or not a bit more difficult to resolve. Another layer can always be added (or removed)! It's a bit different to written music, I think, because there the possible variations, once the composer has signed off, are really matters of interpretation. When the performance, recording, and the composition are all part of the same activity - as they are in the case of something like 'L/I/N/E' - then when it's over seems more contingent. At a certain point, you just stop. So that is one thing I think about in relation to this sort of music-making: when exactly is a piece a piece?

That ties to something else that I'm interested in: what is it that connects musical events together into a sort of whole that makes it a piece? I mean, a discrete piece of music like a song, or composition. What stops a piece from just being one sound after another? I suppose that it is a question of form, and the manner in which the parts relate to the whole. I also think it is something that is a consequence of listening to a lot of progressive rock, where pieces tend to have a lot of different parts, as well as 20th Century composed music which, in many instances, favours constant variation. It can often fail, and seem capricious, but on other occasions, somehow all the bits seem to work together to produce something more - a piece. That is also a question in improvised music for me: what is it that makes a performance a singular event, and not just a collection of discrete sound events following each other. It has a lot to do with feeling I think. It's true of something simple too, like a drum machine pattern - what makes it sound as a rhythm, rather than just one sound event after another?

In terms of making 'L/I/N/E' available for anyone to hear, there is also a certain sense of doubt about what the point of that is. With improvisation, I have some sense of what the point is - I mean, personally: why I do it, what I am engaging in. I also understand the role of recording, documenting, and disseminating in that context. There is a social dimension to it that I take part in, and recording and making those recordings available for people to hear is part of that sociality. It pre-existed me, but it was an area of musicking that, thanks to Eddie Prévost's workshop, I was able to enter and take part in. With 'L/I/N/E' though, there is no real social context for it. That's one reason why I'm actually glad that you asked me to talk about it - it suggests that it could have some sort of social dimension to it. But, before that, it is just something I did. I am interested in why I did it - it's not clear to me. I don't regret doing it by any means, but I am intrigued by the fact that I spend time putting these things together. Certain sounds suggest things to me and, before you know it, they have turned into some sort of structure. But even then, why bother!? So, not being entirely clear what motivates me to do it, it raises questions about why you would put it into the world. What is it for? The way I look at it, in terms of a digital release, is that it can't really hurt anyone or anything if it is out there! And it is not as if I don't carry on doing these things - I constantly have a few pieces on the go that are being made in this way. Essentially with synths, drum machines, bass guitar and electric guitar.

It might be that part of it is a bit therapeutic, at least for me. I am cautious about music reduced to the status of therapy, since my experience generally is that it is much more than this. Not to condemn therapy - it can be something for music - but music is a lot more too. But in my case, I have a sense that this type of work enables me to hollow out a space in the density of all the music that now exists in the world. I often imagine all of the music that has been recorded in the past 140 years - especially in the past 30 years or so. In many ways, I find it quite overwhelming and a bit horrifying. What is the point of all this recorded music? As a commodity? But increasingly, as an act of narcissism? That worries me, that I am just using music in an attempt to construct an image of myself for myself and, perhaps, to be noticed by other human beings.

But, more positively, I also feel that by making these types of recording-compositions I am clearing a bit of a space for myself in the ever increasing mass of recorded music in the world. Of course, at the same time, I am adding to the problem - but I can't think of a viable alternative. Stopping does not seem to be an option for me. In the past, when I was practising the guitar a lot, I would get disgusted with that and stop for a while. What sort of activity is that for a person to do, practising the guitar so much? But, I can't stop for long. As I approached 10-14 days without practising, I really missed it, so I go back to it. Why not? After all, holding off would just be an exercise in self-overcoming, and that doesn't interest me at all. For whatever reason, my fate is with music - and it doesn't matter at all if music itself is indifferent to me. At least, I hope it doesn't matter!

AC: Your description of a digital release as "adding to the problem"... I realise that wasn't your only point above, but it was one which really got my attention! ... and your whole calculus around that, almost reminds me of the "anti-natal" position in philosophy. That's well out of step with the way most artists seem to regard their work, but it's thought-provoking and it's something I've considered myself, at least in terms of which work is worth putting out there and why. And you touched on something else, which is the usual topic of discussion around here, that is where exactly did this music come from? Stylistically and structurally 'L/I/N/E' comes across as the work of a fully autonomous artist and yet you mentioned not being entirely clear what motivates you to do it. I sense a paradox...

N.O. Moore: I am not so familiar with the 'anti-natal' strain in philosophy. The absurdity of it appeals to me a bit but it is rather unconvincing. A cost-benefit or pain-pleasure analysis of whether human life is worthwhile seems a little over-economised, to say the least. But, more of an issue is that it seems a contradiction to me to say that human life is insignificant or without value, but to then try to turn that insignificance or valuelessness into not only a significant point but, the significant point or true value of humanity - it is a bit too much of a joke. I also worry that this line of reasoning, as seductive as it might be, is of a very Western cast - perhaps it is a specifically European problem and I am not at all sure that it would make convicing sense outside of that. I would expect different types of pessimism with, perhaps, different solutions!

AC: You're right, anti-natalism is not convincing as a position, it's an amusing thought experiment but it's surely self-contradictory. The analogy to art and media certainly interests me, as part of my original mission for this series (Navel-Gazers) has been to grapple with an unfathomable avalanche of recorded music which has emerged especially, as you say, in the last 30 years!

N.O. Moore: The concern for me is to do with utility, I suppose. Just what is the point of all of this recording and availability of recorded sound? It is not so much that I think it should not exist, but I do think it is worth thinking about, even if an answer is not immediately obvious. I think it touches on a deeper issue with selectivity and decision which, by their nature, are cuts or exclusions. Perhaps valorising everything is the safer path to take! But it seems to me that this also touches on the paradox you mention between autonomy and automation, as it were. Well, that is a question that I am interested in. One thing about the synth and drum machine set-up is that your status as an element in a system is much more obvious. To what extent am I deciding, as against simply enabling potentials of the system to be actualised? In truth, it is a feedback system where both autonomy and automation are in effect. This is true of the guitar too - or any other instrument - but the nature of the interaction there tends to conceal this fact, and makes it seem that playing an instrument is simply a matter of self-experession. Well, that is part of it, but the expression is only possible because of the affordances of the machine or instrument in question - and these can foster other types of expresssion.

And yes, the Navel-Gazers mission is a good one! You are also making a little space in the midst of things; but you can already get a sense, I think, that while I am keen to make space, I also have a bit of an urge to immediately fill it up again. Maybe this is a problem of seeing connections where there are none ... but then again, perhaps 'seeing' (or hearing) brings them into existence ... I will try to focus!

AC: Ok so let's dig deeper into the question of where 'L/I/N/E' came from.

N.O. Moore: If we take the track, The gleedogs, specifically, in terms of where that came from. First, I think it shows the point about automation: I acquired a polyphonic analog sythesiser and it seemed to me that the point of that would be to use it for harmonies. I got interested in harmony as I began to realise that things that might sound 'out-of-tune' on the guitar could sound more pleasing in different articulations. I began to consider that the perception of atonality depends very much on timbre and octave differentiation and, with something like a polyphonic synth, there is more scope to explore that. But, in any case, with that particular track, I started out with a chord progression, that also had a small rhythmic concern inasmuch as I didn't want the progression to always conform to where the bar lines were. So that was the starting point. The progression itself is a bit jazzy in a sense, and that is because my main knowledge of harmony comes out of studying jazz tunes.

Once the progression was settled on, then it was a matter of rhythm. One thing that I like about sequencing is that you can easily get different things happening. I don't recall precisely now, but that first section involves juxtaposition of the beat being divided up into 3, 4 and 5 - sometimes simultaneously. I like that sort of co-ordinated asynchrony - I would have trouble playing that all manually, with overdubs. I also like the sound of a good drum machine. It is different from a live drummer, and I don't see much point in comparing the two - I like both for different reasons. Then melody is a way to add a bit more interest, hopefully. I am interested in melody, how and why it works. They tend to be very powerful centres of gravity, which can be good or bad depending upon circumstances.

At a certain point, though, the cycling of all of this needs a change. I remember quite clearly with this piece because, at the time, I was very taken with the films of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani and how they recycled soundtracks from old giallo movies - Morricone, Nicolai, Cipriani, etc. I already liked that sort of music, especially Morricone and Nicolai. Anyway, I wanted to realise the chord progression in that sort of style. The key to that, for the B part, was playing the progression on an old clavinet. It also goes into 5/4 there, as I recall, just for a change. I don't accept that there is anything natural about 4/4 time. Then Part A returns, but transposed, and with more variation in the rhythms. That is it really, for that one. It was just figuring out what to do with a chord progression that, to my mind, suggested something a bit jazzy. Of course, I am using synths, so perhaps it sounds a bit fusion-y! Finally, there is a sequence of drum machine and synth that I played a guitar solo over. For some reason, that solo reminds me of Prince ... but, perhaps that is just me. That section was more of a coincidental thing, I think. I had that as a separate piece, but thought it worked well in the context of 'gleedogs'.

Thinking about it now, though, and the way in which it evolves certain references or memories for me, one element of this type of synth and drum machine music is - probably - to work out a certain relationship to a lot of the music that I listened to growing up. I was a bit out of step with my school mates, who were obsessed with going to raves, while I was obsessed with trying to become Buddy Guy or Albert Collins! In hindsight, maybe they were right, given the circumstances.

The other pieces sort of arise in a similar way - an initial idea like a chord progression, or rhythmic pattern, or sound, and what to do with it over a relatively brief period of time. With HC-JL for example, I had a metal flask I used at work and, it having a certain resonance, it was inevitable that I would end up sampling it. A nice sound, but what to do with it? As I recall, that is in 9/8, so I probably started with those two things - a sound and an odd time signature, and the problem of trying to get something out of that.

AC: So it sounds like the initial idea can vary, and as for the culmination of the idea, well to return to your original question, when is a recording finished that the other side of the equation? So at some point this creative feedback system kicks in, and at what point have you got something titled 'The gleedogs' (for example) which is finished, and distinct from these three other pieces?

N.O. Moore: With finishing a piece ... as a rule, I like dense sound arrangements. I don't really get the 'less is more' mantra that people like to trot out, presumably in the name of efficiency? So, I think there are two things at work for me - with any given arrangement, take it to the point where it collapses under its own weight, and then back off a bit to the point just before it collapses; and with structure overall, maybe I like to take it to the point of exhaustion, but then back off from there - to where it is not yet quite exhausting. Then I feel like I have got everything out of it, and it comes to a close. But it is not always easy to judge just where those points are, or how I decide where they are.

I hope this answer is not too exhausting!

AC: Not at all. So then how did you decide when the album as a whole was finished? I wanted to ask about the final track The valley between two moons. To my ears this plays like a summation of everything leading up to it - by any chance was it also the final track recorded? In fact the mood by the end of 'L/I/N/E' seems to me so conclusive, so resolute, that I'm left wondering whether you'll ever return to this style of music again! Almost as though you've exorcised the concept...

N.O. Moore: There were 3 other tracks I recorded that I thought might be a part of 'L/I/N/E', but they were excluded. This was partly because they didn't work as tracks but, too, that the eventual four tracks just seemed to work well together - they seemed to form some sort of whole to me. Again, it is difficult to articulate why, or where this sense comes from of a complete album. But 'the valley' is the most ambitious track because it incorporates several styles and moods. Somehow though, it works - at least I think so! I think you are right to consider that it was the last track. I started it before a couple of the others, but by the time I was finishing it, I think I knew it would be the final track. Currently the tracks I am working on are shorter, and more compact, so you might be right about having exorcised the concept - at least for the time being! As an album, I do consider that it is a sort of reminiscence in sound ... I had not really thought about it before this exchange, but I suspect that 'L/I/N/E' is quite a personal work in many ways - much more than I had realised, and maybe in ways that I am yet to realise.

AC: That's the sense that I got from listening to it.

I suppose the question now is how will we know when the interview's finished?

N.O. Moore: Yes, it is difficult to know about endings. Hopefully I have not gone on too much. It was interesting to think about the music outside of the context of simply making it - I mean thinking about what I must have been thinking! So thanks for the opportunity to do that.

AC: Actually I do have to ask one more thing: what's with the cover?

N.O. Moore: The cover is a photo I took at the Pompidou Centre back in 2010. A performance piece called Snow White. It was quite affecting, and I always liked this particular image of a Snow White with her rifle.

AC: Thanks for clearing that up! You have not gone on too much. I really enjoyed this one, great speaking with you.

N.O. Moore can be found at Breaking Up In The Atmosphere on Bandcamp.

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