Human Greed. An Interview with Michael Begg
By Denis Boyer
Published (in French) in Fear Drop issue # 16 “Synesthesia and Language” May 2012
NOTE – The following is the raw Q/A transcript of the recent Fear Drop interview. The QA session, in the print version, is preceeded by a lengthy overview of Michael Begg’s work, but there is no English translation of this.
1 – In your music, some instruments are easily identifiable, and some other ones are treated as a part of the complex infusion which makes the ambient current of Human Greed. From one use of the generated sound to another, the slide is quite imperceptible. What is your approach of the nature of sound? Do you think that the presence of notes and pre-tunes directly linked to an instrument, among the ambient texture, is a major way to define the “frontier position” of your music?
Human Greed has evolved to become more explicitly musical than how it first appeared. In the beginning, my interest was in generating an emotion or sensation in the listener that I could not impart through writing – which was my original discipline. I had the feeling that melodic progression was only one possible route to generating an emotional response, and, very often, that response was a sentimental response, a false response. Often in popular media one finds that capacity of sweet melody used and abused to elicit sentiment in the listener. It cheapens the experience. I became aware that it was possible to identify qualities in sound – as opposed to music – which provoked an emotional reaction, and I set out very consciously to explore that, and to see what happened when I began to juxtapose sounds of differing qualities from various sources; musical, ambient, electronically generated, and so forth. Latterly, it has been possible for me to reconcile both formal melodic structure and language into the mix. Whatever anxieties and issues I had have been internally resolved and I have a heightened respect and appreciation of those core elements.
I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean by “frontier position”? It is true that my work is exploratory, and I am closest to a state of grace when pushing the core elements of instrumentation, composition, and sound structure as far from my comfort zone as possible- and for each of those elements to be pushed equally as far – but because that is the state and condition I most commonly seek to attain, it becomes, as it were, my home – and, therefore, pretty far from the frontier. The sense of the frontier is perhaps for the listener, but for me it is my home.
2 – Human voice keeps an important place in your music, which nonetheless remains an abstract music. Voice is not that frequent but when it happens, it’s remarkable, not only as a texture, but mostly because it brings a language, in addition to the one of music (which carries wordless images). Very often, artists involved in the search of musical birth are obsessed by the will of placing themselves as far as possible from words and language. Why is the word so important in your music?
Is Human Greed a literary project?
Well the word always was important. As a writer I had the activity pinned down as being directly related to survival. But there came a time when I could not work with the word. All the social mechanisms seemed to be geared towards interpretive dialogue and negotiated meaning, which, to me distracted from the central activity of striking a deep and meaningful resonant chord in the reader. The pure voice was lost. As this condition grew more acute in me I observed that there were very few instances of the written word in contemporary culture that were not aimed at selling you something, or otherwise misleading you or seeking to cunningly manipulate you far from any real sense of accountability, purpose, consequence. I stopped wirting completely, and sought to expose some of this abuse in early recordings by juxtaposing voices with unusual sound contexts. This explains why there are appearances by various voices in the early work; evangelists, plastic surgery sales consultants, binge drinking documentaries, handicapped children singing, self-help diet specialists. I took them all and sat the dislocated voices into new contexts in order to provoke the naked truth out of the words.
It would be fair to consider Human Greed as having aspects of narrative exploration rather than it being a specifically literary project, I think. It is not a work of literature. But it does have a narrative concern, and a narrative sensibility – what I refer to as the taught narrative line – that underpins the composition and juxtaposition of the sound and music elements in the work.
3 – I noticed this fragment in the fanciful dedication of your second album: “…to bring comfort to those who open their eyes in the night”. I think that it could summarize the spirit of Human Greed, its program: hemeralopia allowed by music. Do you agree with that proposal? Does it fit with the way you describe your musical universe: “night music”?
I don’t think I am blind to the charms of daylight, but there is, I think, something specific to the night that has long been observed in art that provides a comfortable context in which to situate the work. Dark thoughts arise from the subconscious and find voice and take flight. Moonlight makes a mystery of everything, and stars lead one on a thread into eternity. How small we shrink, yet how immense becomes the sweetly painful sense of longing. There is a sense, somehow, that all the oppressions of the day diminish, and the lonely and the wandering, the melancholic and the disappointed, all in their lonely pools of moonlight, assert a brief authority over the world. This is the landscape that my work occupies, for better or worse.
The night has always been very special to me. There is a clarity that comes to ones thoughts that is somehow supported by the knowledge that everyone around you is sleeping. One’s sense of scale, of distance, time and perspective just open up in such a beautiful way if one is sensitised to the night. I spent the most part of my early life walking at night among the Pentland hills. The nocturne formed me, literally moulded me. I cannot escape it.
4 – Black Hill: Midnight at the Blighted Star is certainly Human Greed’s work which stands the closest to chamber music; whereas Pilgrim: New World Homestead is surely your most abstract work (I dare not say experimental as all your music follows that suspenseful impulsion). Is there in a conscious way, when you compose an album, the preliminary will of a clear direction, a guided exploration, an aimed landscape which colours and balances are translated by Human Greed?
There is usually some abstract idea that gets the process started – or, more commonly, a number of unrelated elements that push for a degree of attention. This is just, in painting terms, taking out the oppression of the blank canvas. Broad strokes to kill the white empty field and begin the dialogue in earnest. Once the pieces begin to emerge they become in themselves very active participants and so the original idea often becomes obsolete and is lost. It might surprise you to learn that the original working title for Black Hill was “Human Greed Eats Pigs and Chickens” and that the working title for Consolation was “The Gilles de Rais Museum of Childhood”
A title acts as a banner, or some kind of totem. It announces a certain flavour of intent and allows you to enter into the work with some kind of anthem in your heart. It takes some time for the work itself to begin to assert its voice, then all the tricks and tokens and charms that you set out with fall by the side of the road and leave you only with your own voice and that of the work itself.
5 – Human Greed obviously stands at a frontier post in music. For instance, you told me that it’s situated “in the divide between formless sound and formal melodic structure”. These musical places are very important concerns for me, places where melody is about to be born, where humming blossoms. As it is a strong component in Human Greed’s music, can you tell me how you and Deryk Thomas feel about melody and its importance?
It is a curious thing because, as you say, so much of our work has been situated in this frontier territory where we have stretched and twisted and torn all the noise and all the music to gauge the emotional impact and find curious new juxtapositions and pathways leading to surprise. And yet recently I feel myself to have become something of a traditionalist. Having fallen out long ago with formal melodic structure, and verbal or textual expression, I find that I have returned like a prodigal son to have a deep respect, love and sense of consolation provided by melody and by text. I feel somewhat paternal towards these forms now, as I have paid witness to how horribly they can be abused.
You have alluded to my sensitivity towards the liminal aspects in the work, the journey of one thing becoming another, highlighting the most fragile point in the journey where something loses its old sense of being but is yet to become this new thing. It is so fragile, so full of possibility, so momentarily lacking in form. It strikes me now that melody, counterpoint, harmony, rhyme – these disciplines, these objective expressions of subjective experience – all perform some kind of aspirational role. Romantic perhaps, and consequently fatally flawed, but this is where my thinking is right now. Perhaps it is a violent reaction to distance myself from the seemingly endless hordes of artists aligning themselves purposefully with the avant-garde, and the self-declared counter culture. Who can say? What does seem certain for me at the moment is that there are few achievements higher, or more sublime than a song.
6 – When this melody gets more prominent, when it gives to your music a more narrative dimension, it’s quickly balanced by harmony for instance or more generally by abstraction. I was wondering, is it on purpose of a separation of these two directions that you’ve given a sibling to this quite figurative album, Fortress Longing, with Deshret, an album of dark textures that you’ve composed, using the same sources, with Colin Potter? (in the same way, the two of you, along with William Basinski, have mixed an abstract interpretation (Three Beams) of the sources from Fovea Hex’s Here Is Where We Used to sing).
Well, the narrative element is – or should be there – regardless of melody being present or not. It is an economic truth at the moment that the few of us who still prefer a tangible object rather than a digital download respond well to the
availability of a bonus disc that approaches the material from a different angle. It provides a good opportunity to act with a little less anxiety and a little more freedom. The main work is done. The album is tightly constructed and sure of itself. The bonus disc allows, you know, stretching room. If you think of narrative as having elements of character, location and time, it might be fair to suggest that the bonus discs concern themselves more with inhabiting the spaces, rather than the events or characters. You are allowed into the museum at night. You are allowed in the city when everyone is tucked up in bed. Explore those dark places at your leisure.
7 – How did you meet Clodagh Simonds, how did you join Fovea Hex, and become now such an important member of this project?
Clodagh and I met through MySpace. I quickly, very quickly, became utterly devoted to her as a friend and as an artist. I am afraid I didn’t really leave her much choice as to my involvement. I demanded it! I would always be wary of suggesting that I was, as you say, such an important member. I love the work, and I love the people involved, but Fovea Hex is not the tangible entity that many folk would wish it to be. Fovea Hex is steered by Clodagh’s movements and, equally, by time, wind, rain and the details that pass between days. Clodagh and I share much in terms of our approach, but she is, as Leonard Cohen would have it, a hundred floors above me in the tower of song.
8 – Let’s talk about the double live CD you’ve released with Colin Potter (Fragile Pitches), you told me that the music is informed by the transitions between formal geometry of worship places and musical scales, “where the sound is en route to becoming stone”. It gives a pretty high dimension to musical beams, to which the building of cathedrals was accommodated in order to allow the sound to raise up. It also gives a dimension to your music that is not necessarily present in Human Greed, which sounds more intimate, more in the transforming of inner structure. What I mean to ask is if you see parallel concerns or opposed concerns in metaphorical use of music to translate the movement either in micro-events or in vast horizons…
I am not sure that I would seek to align the concerns. Human Greed is at a basic level motivated by interior processes whilst Fragile Pitches was very much a musical response to a particular kind of physical space. But, as you allude to in your question, a physical space cannot be without context. The cathedrals take their shape by adhering to musical harmonic scales. Scales relate to resonance and resonance is affected by particular space. So the human voice raised in song is a by product of a physical space. So on and so forth. The connections, the point of dialogue between the human expression, the equipment of delivery, the space and the effect of sound on the body is fascinating. Did you happen to see Steven Halpern’s footage about the elliptical cymatics readings of chanting being taken in the Kings Chamber in the great pyramid? A truly fascinating alignment of sound in space with a specific purpose generating vibrations manifested as exquisite pattern that in all likelihood stimulated the body at a cellular level. And how is the body stimulated? What thoughts occur, and how do they lead to further musical expression and architectural dreaming? What is the next turn of the circle leading to?
Now, my own work doesn’t aspire to such giddy heights, and I must confess to holding a deep seated cynicism about such intellectual frivolity that always stands in the way of my own enjoyment of such phenomena, but its all there as background noise. I wouldn’t like to think that my own relationship to my own work was so academic. These are mostly thoughts that occur in the wake of the event, rather than as part of an orchestrated plan of attack. I am like a small child leaning out of a little boat and dipping my hand into deep, deep, cold, dark water
9 – What I hear, feel and understand from your music makes me think deeply of the concept of alchemy, and it seems to be all in the process of transmutation. Do you accept such a comparison?
If it works for you then its good enough for me! Transformation is a key idea, as is the juxtaposing of seemingly unrelated or incompatible elements, but I don’t think I am driving towards some great single conclusion. The work is not a means to an end, it is an end in itself. The execution, the process, the acquisition of elements, the dialogue with the work as it emerges. These are all equally as important as the final document.
10 – Can you tell us more about the main theme of Fortress Longing, the “Internal campaign for the safe and complete return of the sleeping Egyptian to the desert”, and how it fits in your musical project?
Fortress Longing is a faithful and accurate document that evidences the experience of the last 3 years. Some time ago I decided that I really had to face up to my anxieties regarding death, and so that inhabited an increasingly central position in my thoughts, but the full fabric of the period of time in which the work was undertaken is equally documented – like snapshots and essays of travels and days.
I was making a lot of trips to London in 2008 and on one of those trips I went to kill a few hours in the British Museum. In the Egypt rooms I was absolutely dumbstruck by the exhibit of a 5000 year old body, curled up like a baby on the floor. His grave had been replicated in his glass case – some sand, a few trinkets and pots that he had made. For the first time I as struck by the idea of consolation and repose in death, and equally I was charged with some great paternalistic duty to see this old soul returned to his home in the desert.
I began a process of free association and meditation that saw a narrative emerge – the Internal Campaign of the title. The campaign involved my establishing a small army with Federico Garcia Lorca, Bernadette Soubirous, Our Lady of the Grotto, Thoth, Lord of the Moon and a nameless blue lamb (The Lamb I went on to commission from Nicole Boitos which formed part of the cover art of the record)
My little army travelled around with me over the three year period whilst I gathered clues to the work. I travelled quite a lot during the recording – Athens, Heraklion, Frankfurt, Ile de Re, Antwerp – and all these places yielded clues. I visited libraries, museum collections and gathered source recordings from riverbeds, churches, fairgrounds, on and on.
I worked up a central chord progression that would underpin the while work, and once I had that nailed down, I began to ask friends for their contributions. I fed them a brief line about the internal campaign and asked them to adhere to the chord sequence, so that I would be able to move all of the elements around without imposing drastic key changes.
I was quite open about the whole process inviting a kind of insanity.
11 – Again, with symbols and the huge brooding metaphorical power of music, I sometimes have the impression (confirmed by some drawings in your CDs and by the note about the piano in Black Hill…) that your music also contributes to blur the frontier between the living things and the unliving, the conscious and the unconscious, the vivid and the still. Is it also a part of your “liminality” process?
Liminality is becoming a kind of sensibility to me. I am beginning to accept that transition is our natural habitat, and that we are just moving from one state to another. As I wrote in The Green Line; There is a path, a green line that runs from the twilight mountains to the midnight sea. The longer you walk this path the more clear it seems, you can never return to the mountain, you will never reach the sea. That, to me, is where we are at. Caught in that liminal transition, carving our names into trees as we pass, dragging sticks to make lines in the sand, and recording the sound of the passing time.