Talks with Erik Wollo about Timelines
As a full time musician and composer, I have a lot of other projects in addition to writing new music for album releases. Last year I wrote a new piece for large wind orchestra and I also reworked my string quartet “Unity” from 2002. I was chosen as "Composer of the year 2013" by Ny Musikk in Norway and got several of my works performed during the year. It is an organisation that arranges events for contemporary music. So I had a lot of work with that.
And I also composed an electronic score for a new video animation by artist Sven Påhlsson. It is an experimental work for 9 large synchronized screens in a circle, and it was shown for six months at the Norwegian National Gallery in Oslo. We have been working together for several years, and our works have been showed in major art galleries all over the world (our first work was at the Venezia Biennale in Italy, 1997).
AV: The title of your latest release is Timelines which to my ears has a sci-fi feel to it. Tell me about the title of your new album and why you chose it to represent the songs on this project.
EW: Very often I find all the titles after the music is finished. This time, I had the album title and all the other song names ready before I started on the album. Naming my compositions is important to me, and I spend a lot of time on it. I try to find titles that are not too specific; I just want to point the listener towards a direction or an idea. It is similar to an exhibition of paintings. If there is a very abstract painting, it is cool to see that the title can be very concrete and vice versa. I am very much into modern art, and I go to exhibitions wherever I can. It is at these exhibitions that I also occasionally find (and steal...) interesting titles!
I have always been interested in how to show the phenomenon of various types of time. Everything from historical timelines to the running timeline in my computer sequencer when I work on my music. Music is the most time based of all art forms, and as an artist I am very aware of that. When a musician goes on stage and starts to play, he dictates the time. I am also very interested in history, so that is another aspect that influences and colors my music.
AV: When you start work on a new album like Timelines or on music that will eventually be on a new album how do you go from absolutely nothing to having an idea of what you want the finished album to be or sound like?
After working on the compositions for a while, they tend to take on a life of their own life. You have to just follow the stream, and let the song and its structures lead you on. Once the forms and arrangements are finished, that is often when the real hard work begins which means mixing and mastering it in the best way you can. I always try to keep that first idea and mood, and not forget why I chose this particular song in the first place.
AV: Was there anything specific that you wanted to try in terms of feel or style that you wanted to incorporate into Timelines?
EW: More than on my latest albums, I wanted to combine the acoustic elements with the electronic elements and then arrange everything in an orchestral way. Two of my previous albums, “Guitar Nova” and “Blue Sky, Red Guitars” are both very acoustic guitar based. I wanted to go back and use some of those ideas again but this time use the guitars as an underlying element together with the synthesizers to make the music organic and engaging. So it is all very electronic, but with an acoustic vibe.
The melodic elements are more fragmented this time; more sparse with a lot of space between the phrases. They are almost like poems with very few words, where you can read a lot of meaning between the lines.
Also “Timelines” is a more groove based project than some of my previous albums. It is a combination of very close and down to earth rhythmical elements together with an overall spacious sound design. It is music that is grounded, but at the same time makes you gaze upwards at the wondrously endless sky all with a certain feel of darkness that balances the light.
AV: Tell me about the electronic gear, software or instruments that you used to perform and record Timelines?
EW: On almost all tracks there is the acoustic guitar that kind of lives its own life inside the mix of all the other instruments. If you hear these guitars only in solo, they will still sound interesting. That was my idea, kind of a way of thinking that I got from working a lot on African music where every element must have its own separate life. The guitars were all close miced, and there are lots of layers of repeated arpeggios.
I used a special sampled layered piano sound this time, to give the main themes a certain depth. This became a very important element on “Timelines”. I have named the patch “Futuristic Piano”, so another Sci-Fi element here. I used piano on “Airborne” also, but that was another sample, more ordinary sounding.
There is a mix of hardware and software synthesizers on Timelines. I tend to use my hardware synthesizers on the more important parts, and use the softsynths on smaller details and effect sounds because of the sound quality.
And as you can hear on the album, I use the ebow on my Strat a lot. This has become a big part of my signature sound, and I use it to make drive and variation and as counterpoints between the major themes. The percussion elements are often loops I created myself, using various shakers and found objects.
AV: When you start work on a project like Timelines (or any new project) are you deliberately trying to break new ground with your compositions and create something you haven’t done before?
EW: “Timelines” is a unity of similar compositions, all tied together. And each track has its own character, and a different feel. So after hearing the whole album in one pass, which is recommended, I can hope that it was worth listening to. I hope that it gives the listener a new and enriched experience. As on many of my previous albums they almost feel like a soundtrack to an imaginary film. It is a sound journey. Like after watching a movie that you like, you can have a different and more positive reflection on life. But people react differently to different artistic expressions, and I certainly do not want to lead the listener too much in one specific direction. I want the listener to create their own inner pictures.
AV: What are you most happy about in terms of how Timelines turned out?
EW: I have been a full time artist since 1980, and as the years pass by, my work flow gets easier all the time. I have trained myself to be creative at any moment in the studio. I do not have to struggle so much anymore to create; I do not have to wait for any kind of inspiration. It is already there; it is a major part of my existence. “Timelines” is one of the fastest records I have ever done. I did not have any compositional problems; everything flowed very naturally and smooth! And in the end, I think you can hear that.
I think the arrangements and mixes are very fulfilled this time. I have found some new ways to achieve more depth and space, giving everything a more organic float.
On playing this album at low levels on your stereo, you might get the feeling that this is a mellow journey. But try playing it at high volume in your car, and you will certainly discover that there is a lot of power hidden in the music but while you are doing this please be aware of the traffic around you!
AV: Do you enjoy having complete control over all aspects of performing, composing and producing your music on an album like Timelines? Do you think that makes it more personal?
EW: When the new studio technology became available in the beginning of the 1980’s, I found it to be quite attractive. Why couldn’t a composer have the same way of working as a painter or as a sculptor? Why couldn’t a composer spend all the necessary time and effort to achieve and carve the sound? To create a finished result that you alone are completely responsible for and not dependent on an orchestra to perform it several years later. To be able to hear the end result in real time right there and then in your studio and to have complete total control while reaching for a certain level of perfection.
And yes, I think this process will make the music more personal. Of course there are some downsides to this working method. You have to be able to be your own producer, being very analytic, and to be able to see your art from a distance. You have to be objective and be able to edit out everything that turns out to be unnecessary.
AV: Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share about Timelines that I didn’t touch on in the questions above?
EW: In these times it is very tough to be in the record and music business. All major and minor artists are struggling, because of the new digital reality. But in spite of all this, I am happier than ever to be an artist in this genre because there are listeners out there who still want to support us. I think that is even truer in the smaller and alternative music genres as opposed to the major pop culture, where everything seems to be drowning in the streaming business model. The music field, in which I am working, will slowly and gradually become more important and accepted as time goes by. The popular genres will eventually decrease, because the majority of listeners will want something different. Art with more depth and seriousness will be sought out. That makes us as artists more responsible, we always have to create something valid and with the highest possible quality. The future is a stronger connection between the artists and the listeners.
AV: Thanks so much for taking the time out to talk to Ambient Visions about your new album called Timelines and congrats on it being named the album of the month over at Echoes. A much deserved honor which I agree with after listening to Timelines myself. I wish you much success in the coming years.