1. Let's start at the beginning and with some personal stories. Please introduce yourself
Hi, I'm Michael Stearns, I live in Santa Fe New Mexico with my wife Karen and my son Brandon. Right now we are in the middle of a huge hail, thunder and lightening storm with a bit of rain thrown in. It's a typical storm for Santa Fe.
My musical history begins with my family. I didn't really come from a family that had any musical background, my father had a deep love for romantic classical music, so when I was very young he used to play a lot of it on the monophonic playback system which progressed to the stereophonic system. We used to have contests in the family where he would play something and we would try to guess the composer, the symphony and the movement ofthe symphony. That is my way back musical history.
I started practicing guitar when I was about 13 or 14. When I was 16 I was a apart of a surf music band in Tucson Arizona. We used to play on stage backing up some really big groups like The Loving Spoonful. Eventually I heard my first synthesizer when I was in college. After playing guitar for the years up to this point I was seduced by the sound of the synthesizer, in those days the early Moogs, the Mini Moogs and the Modular Moogs. That's how it all got started.
2. Back to the 70's and to the first artistic experiences. What can you tell us about Gary David and Emily Conrad, the mythical Continuum Montage, Fred Stofflet... ?
Well, because I'm one of those old guys who goes way way back, the first artistic experiences for me were in the early sixties when I first started playing electric guitar professionally. The real turning point for me was in 1968 when I dropped out of college. I locked myself in a room with all the instruments of the band I was playing with at the time and a tape recorder and recorded my first solo piece of music. This totally changed my life! It was unlike any piece of music I ever played, composed or even heard played before. It really was the precursor to what I do now.
From 1968-1972 I was in the Air Force as a Spanish and Haitian Creole linguist. During that time I was collecting musical instruments and tape recorders and things so that when I became a civilian again I could start a recording studio and start recording some of this crazy music that I loved so dearly and first played in 1968. At this point, synthesizers were beginning to enter into the scene, and I started studying the first electronic music, as I talked about in the first question. After about three years in Tucson of having a recording studio and doing commercials for Grey Hound Bus and a few other companies, I underwent a spiritual crisis.
I could feel inside that there was an alignment to this music that I had created but there was no context for the music. There was nobody I could really play it for unless people related it to the drug experience. There was no support for the development of the music. So in 1974 I decided I was going to sell all my musical instruments and become a devotee of a spiritual teacher. He was a Suffi master who ran a printing press in Tucson. It felt like the right thing to do, to get rid of my musical instruments and devote myself to this spiritual path. However, the Suffi path didn't resonate deeply with me.
About that time, a friend told me about a workshop called Continuum with a woman named Emily Conrad. She had studied the Vodoun rituals in Haiti for 5 years and I had been a Haitian Creole linguist in the Air Force, so it felt like there was a connection there for me. I took this workshop with Emily. During the workshop all the music was being performed by her husband, Gary David. Gary was playing this same crazy music that I started playing back in 1968. While I didn't have a context for it, Gary did. I thought it was great that he was playing his music for all the people doing these movement meditations and different kinds of rituals.
Two weeks later I moved to Los Angeles and began studying with Emily. I began playing live music three or four days a week. By the end, I was playing five days a week for groups of people who were meditating and doing different kinds of rituals. Those years from 1975-1981, where I was playing live on a daily basis, were the seminal 6 years in forming what I do. It was wonderful to sit down and play live for three hours straight nonstop for a group of people and create these deep contexts. Like in the title of your magazine Deep Listenings these were deep contexts.
I started out playing with Fred Stofflet a percussionist, then with Don Preston, the former keyboardist for The Mothers of Invention. Both of them were playing for Emily's classes. I also played with Gary David, Emily's husband. Eventually, Craig Hundley, introduced himself to me. He was a friend of Gary's. Craig, Fred and I started a free jazz group called "Alivity". Kevin Breheny came to one of our concerts and he and I became friends. I got Kevin interested in coming to Continuum the last two or three years to play live for the class. It was really incredible.
Then in 1981 Continuum split up. It didn't end, it still goes on today. The teachers moved their workshop to a new location. I began exploring film music. I started doing music for the first films that I was involved with and I also produced some of my first albums. Although I began producing the albums in 1976 and 1977, in 1981 when Continuum split apart I did a really seminal piece of work called Planetary Unfolding. That led me into recording my solo music and also led me into recording music for films.
3 . The release of the two anthologies on Fathom surprised many people. There is Desert Moon Walk appearing from the mists of time, plus other unreleased tracks and a bunch of gems from your hard to find albums. What's happened to your old albums? Why did they disappear? Are there any plans to re-release them on CD?
The old albums that I believe you are referring to are Plunge, Floating Whispers, Morning Jewel and Lightplay which was re-released as M'ocean. The older ones such as Desert Moon Walk were only released on cassette through my little label that I had back in 1976-1981, Continuum Montage. There were also a number of cassette only releases, Sustaining Cllinders, the flip side of Desert Moon Walk. Then there was one called Resonant Renewal and Underwater Witnessing. However the four albums that were released on Sonic Atmospheres (Plunge, Floating Whispers, Morning Jewel and M'ocean ) were dropped from the catalog and I gained the rights back to them.
Hearts of Space, Fathom, was not interested in releasing them as full CD's again. However, we created the retrospective anthologies, Collected Ambient & Textural Works and Collected Thematic Works, so that we could re-release and remaster some of those real gems with the new digital technology that exists today. I don't think those four albums will be re-released in entirety unless some record label shows a real interest in them..
4. Your "Sonic Atmospheres" period is full of wonders, with the weird episode of Plunge, which shocked many listeners. How did you come to develop that album and what do you think of it today?
Plunge was developed because I had a lot of friends who were playing that kind of music. In the early 60's I had started out playing this music, not necessarily that particular style, but electric guitar type music. So, I decided I would take the technology that I had and go back and reexplore some of those instruments and those feelings and Plunge is what emerged out of that. Actually I really like Plunge today, it is very different than most of my CD's but it is something that I really enjoy listening to.
5. How did you meet Stephen Hill?
I met Stephen in 1977 or 1978. I got a call from Stephen. I had just recorded Ancient Leaves which was released as an album. At the time, I was living in Los Angeles and he had just one radio station carrying his program and no record label. He explained to me that he had some profound experiences while listening to my music and was wondering if I was coming to San Francisco any time soon. He wanted to interview me for his radio program, Music From The Hearts of Space. As it turned out, I was planning a concert appearance for The Voice of The Dragon concert Series in San Francisco about a month after this call from Stephen. So, I suggested that we do the interview during that time. After one of the performances, we went to the KPFA studio and Stephen and his then partner Anna Turner interviewed me and we played a lot of my music on the air.
About a year later, Stephen was having some physical problems and he knew that I had been studying with Emily Conrad who was a very powerful healer. He wanted to know if her method might be useful for him, so he came down for a weekend just to see what the experience was like. He was profoundly moved by it and moved to LA for a month or two living with me and studying with Emily. He learned how to heal himself. Over the years our relationship continued to grow. He did live concert engineering for different projects I was involved in. In 1987, I believe, he had just formed his record label and asked me if I would be interested in doing an album for him. I created the album Encounter at that time. His label has since released several of my works.
6. What can you tell us about the collaborations with Constance Demby and Larkin? Are you still in touch with them?
I met Constance Demby through Stephen Hill in the early 1980's. Constance and I were on the New Age chataqua at the time, we would go around and give performances at different New Age Conferences. At times we would actually perform together. Through the years we grew close. When she did her album Novus Magnificat she asked me to do some synthesizer work on it, which I did. I have not been in touch with her in years, but do hear about her from our mutual friends.
Larkin was a very similar story. We would perform live at different conferences and eventually ended up playing live together. Larkin kind of dropped out of the music business and became a French Intensive Bio Dynamic gardening specialist and moved to Mexico. I think to Chiapas, but I'm not sure exactly where. He went to teach the people some of these techniques to help with their farming. I've not heard from Larkin in years.
As a pioneer, what do you think about the New Age movement today?
I don't really have any contact with the New Age movement today. Most of my work is centered around my own music and producing sound tracks for films. Even though I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico which is full of New Age entrepreneurs, most of my work is involved with the film industry or in self-initiated projects.
6. There is a wonderful album which is, to me, a perfect "desert island disc": Lyra Sound Constellation. I love those incredible sounds from the Lyra; how did you and George Landry develop that alien instrument?
George and I have done a number of projects together. I met George back in 1975. He came to Tucson with Emily and Gary to help teach the Continuum process with Emily. This is the very first workshop that I attended and met all of them.
George is an artist of grand proportions. While I studied at Continuum, George and I collaborated on a number of projects. In 1983, we collaborated on Lyra Sound Constellation. Lyra was George's idea. He wanted to create a huge harp that people could dance through and play. So I helped him design the different tuning mechanisms, how the strings would be stretched, etc. Once it was completed, it opened at the Double Rocking G Gallery. People would come it to play Lyra in groups or individually. On the weekends I gave a series of concerts. I would play my synthesizers and Lyra. At other times, friends would play Lyra while I was playing my synthesizers.
Lyra, the album is almost entirely created out of the raw sound of Lyra with no synthesizers. There is one piece on the album called Return which features me playing the Serge Synthesizer along with George playing Lyra. Several years later we did a project called "Landlight". It was several thousand pounds of quartz crystals with light and music. George went to Arkansas, bought the crystals, loaded up a truck and brought them back to LA. The light and sound emerged out of the crystals to create a environment that you could immerse yourself in. Lyra is currently in storage and has not been set up since 1983.
7. You've been the first to talk about "Sound Therapy" and your music is perfect to explore the inner worlds; what is the power of music?
Music is a very powerful tool both emotionally, psychologically and in terms of the human energy field. Music can definitely be used for healing. However, most of my music was never created with that intention. It was created simply because I needed, in the moment, to create the music. That is the music that you hear. Now, a lot of my music has been used for healing at different healing centers, but I want to make it very clear that it was not created with the intent to heal. Perhaps, because I feel that I am healing myself at the time of creation and I see music as a hieroglyphic for the process of whoever is creating it, that is why people are affected by or respond to my music in a healing way.
8. Do you believe in alien life forms? Encounter, one of my all time favorite albums, really captures the otherworldly essence of the contact... Any strange experiences you want to share with us?
Yes, I believe in otherworldly life forms, although I'm not sure we are not the otherworldly life forms. I have had a number of experiences. One of the most powerful was in the Mojave desert walking in Red Rock Canyon with my brother Philip. We heard a sound very distant and unique. It was unlike any sound we had heard before. As we were walking down this desert canyon, the sound grew louder and became distinguishable as the sound of millions of bees all concentrated into an area the size of a basketball. This immense and focused sound flew right by us, it seemed as though it was only 15-20 feet away and disappeared into the distance. That was my closest most powerful experience.
I personally believe that the craft, or vehicles, are flown dimensionally. If they fly within one or two dimensions of our dimension, we can still hear them but not see them. The reason for that is that hearing is a much more primary experience than seeing or vision. It is very easy to fool the eyes, movies are a demonstration of that, but it is much more difficult to fool the ears. I have also had experiences where I have seen lights in the sky that move at 90 degree angles. But the most powerful experience of an external encounter was that day in the desert with my brother Philip.
9. You are one of the so called Californian synth school; I wrote in the article about you that Steve Roach represents the earth while you represent the sky; do you think this is true?
I have a little bit of a hard time with that. In my second album in 1979 Morning Jewel there is large ambient section in the middle which is all the sounds of the earth; kids walking by, donkeys coming by, birds in the trees and the ambience of a jungle village down in Yelapa. If you listen to the album Singing Stones with Ron Sunsinger you will hear that it is the sounds of sacred rocks. To me those are earth sounds not sky sounds.
10. What about the experience of Kiva, Steve revealed some enthralling secrets to me, now it's your turn.
Steve and I were talking about doing an albuml called Kiva, then I found out that my friend Ron Sunsinger (Singing Stones ) was also planning an album called Kiva. So I asked Ron to call Steve and see if he would be interested in doing a collaboration between the three of us, he was. Of course, the seminal material that was used in Kiva were recordings that Ron had made in the Iawasca ceremony, the Peyote ceremony and the Sundance. Ron and I had collaborated on a number of projects in the years before Kiva which involved Native American singers and Native American ceremonial artists. So I knew that Ron had access to these different ceremonies and he was very excited about recording them. He had some pretty amazing experiences while recording the ceremonies. The fact that the material was allowed to be recorded and used was miraculous in itself.
The really fim part of Kiva was the combined recording effort of the Fourth Kiva. We went to a cavern complex in Embudo, New Mexico to record the Fourth Kiva material. It was a house that had been built in the side of a mountain, incorporating the arcitecture of caverns. The sound was amazing. We returned with the raw sounds to my studio, Earth Turtle, in Santa Fe to create the Fourth Kiva. It was a wonderful experience!
In fact, each of us took responsibility for one of the ceremonies. I was responsible for the Peyote ceremony, Ron was responsible for Iawasca ceremony and Steve was responsible for the Sundance. Once Ron provided us with the basic information, and each of us brought through the music for our respective ceremonies, then we all got together and overdubbed some additional parts, so that each of us had participated on every piece on the album.
11. What about the friendship with Ron Sunsinger? Do you plan to record again with him?
Yes, I hope to record with Ron again, although I don't know what the project might be. We have worked on the Singing Stones and Kiva together as well as a number of commercial projects. In 1993, I scored the main theme to an HBO Special "Paha Sapa, Seven Generations" about the Lakota people and the Black Hills. Ron helped me immensely with that project. So, we would like to work again together. Ron lives here in Santa Fe and we have just completed some commercial projects together.
12. With every new recording you release you are broadening the frontiers of deep music. Where are you going? Which secret energies feed you?
Where I'm going evolves. It is not like being on one spiritual path. Most recently it has led me into marriage again and into becoming a father, which is an absolutely amazing experience. I'm certain that out of this experience more deep music will be created.
13. Is it true that you created the atmospheres for the soundtrack of Picnic at Hanging Rock?
No, it is not true. I am a big fan of the movie by Peter Weir. I felt that I was very deeply and profoundly affected by it. Mainly because I had had many profound experiences at that point. I could really relate to the experiences that the young women had in the movie. I ran out and got the soundtrack with George Zamfir's theme from Picnic at Hanging Rock played on the pan pipe. I created around the theme a fifteen minute long piece of deep space music. I think I gave this to Steven Hill and perhaps he played it on his radio show The Music from the Hearts of Space, and hence it snowballed and I got the reputation of being involved in this film. Although I was deeply affected by the film and wish I could have been involved in it, I was not.
14. Is your music a part of spiritual path, a way to describe colors and vibrations of this world as seen from a deeper point of view?
I would say that I have experienced the colors and vibrations from that deeper place and my music comes from that place. But it is not a part of any dogmatic spiritual path, except the path of Michael Stearns.
15. Your artistic adventure with Ron Fricke has given extraordinary results. Do you plan further collaborations?
Ron and I would very much like to collaborate on future projects. He also lives nearby in Santa Fe. He has several projects which he is developing right now and I'm sure that when one of them takes off, I will be involved with it.
16. What did the recent trip to South America represent to you? And what are the experiences you talk about in The Lost World booklet?
The journey to the lost world was really a quest for me. It was something that I wanted to do for many years. Anyone who knows my work, knows that I travel around the world searching sacred sites, spending time there, allowing myself to be affected and then allowing that to come forth as music. So, I set up a trip to go to the lost world and climb the Roraima Tepui in Venezuela. I did this in the fall of 1994.
In the six weeks I was there I had many adventures. It is an amazing landscape, with huge sandstone tepuis (mesas) rising out of the savanna and rain forest. The top of these tepuis are considered to be some of the last ecologically sterile areas in the world. Meaning that there are still endemic plants and animals there that have been untouched for thousands of years. In fact on the largest tepui, the Auyan Tepui, there was a French film crew as well as others who have claimed to have spotted small dinosaurs there as recently as the last year or two. So, to me it was truly a journey to a lost world. Of course, one of the best parts for me was connecting with the Pemon Indians and hearing some of their stories and creation myths. One of those, the story of Maripac, The Last Pterodactyl is woven into the fabric of that piece of music.
17. How much does the sound enviromnent influence the creative process of your music? How important are silence and the desert for your music?
Silence and the desert are extremely important. That is why I live here in Santa Fe in a quiet environment. There is something about the silence in the desert that deeply affects me. The sound environment may or may not influence my creative process. On some of my recordings I have created the music then taken the sound environments that felt like they were a part of the music and married them with the music to create an overall texture. On one of my most recent recordings for the Italian label Amplexus titled The Light in the Trees I actually picked out four sound environments and allowed the music to arise from the sound environments instead of the other way around.
18. Please list your equipment and your favorite instruments.
My electronic equipment is composed of a Roland XP80, Roland S760 Samplers and Roland MC303 Drum Machine. The studio is equipped with a six channel surround, multi channel discrete surround sound system. There are actually nine discreet channels for doing different kinds of surround sound work and a Bag End sub woofer system for mixing film. I use a Yamaha 02R mixing console, a Yamaha 03D and a Mackie 1604 VLZ. I also have a lot of unusual equipment. Probably the most well known piece is the Beam. It is a twelve foot long extruded aluminum C beam with 24 piano strings. That is the very low growly earth tone that you hear in a number of my recordings. That is another reason I say that I like to think that my music is the earth and the sky, not just the sky. The Beam is definitely an earth instrument.
My favorite electronic instrument is probably my sampler. When analog synthesis gave way to digital synthesis, I was attracted to the sound but not intuitively to the programming of these instruments. This is because of my devotion to the multitude of analog equipment that I had acquired over the years, such as the Serge Modular system with twelve panels and Oberhiem Matrix 12. But when I started doing 12 bit stereo sampling I took to it with the same enthusiasm and intuition that I had with analog synthesis. So, sampling became my main electronic expression. I must say that the human voice is my favorite instrument overall.
19 . Do you think technology helps creativity?
That's a loaded questionl Technology can both help or hinder creativity, it is totally up to the individual.
20. Do you like world instruments?
I love world instruments. I have been very lucky in that I have been able to travel around the world both hearing indigenous peoples music and their instruments and also being given the opportunity to record and sample their instruments. I am also fortunate to own a collection of instruments that include Tibetan Bells, a Japanese Koto and several Balinese Flutes among other things.
21. Which music do you listen to? Please list your 10 desert island discs and your favorite artists.
I definitely have favorite discs and favorite discs from favorite artists. I really like Arvo Part's "Tabula Rasa" and definitely Vangelis' soundtrack to Blade Runner . I have favorite pop music artists like Basia. Most recently I was in Brussels mixing an IMAX film and heard a lot of techno music which hasn't made it over to this country. I like Tricky, Faithless and The Chemical Brothers. There is a part of me that really likes more modern progressive music.
22. What is your favorite book and film?
Probably, Rashnesh's book "The Way of the White Clouds" and my favorite film is Tarkowski's "The Stalker".
23. Do you consider yourielf a cosmic musician?
I consider myself a cosmic musician who has dropped into the Earth planet for a few years, or maybe a lifetime, or a few lifetimes, who knows.
24. Can you describe a typical Michael Stearns day?
I always wake up in the morning to my son Brendon, who gets up fairly early these days. Brendon climbs into bed with my wife, Karen and I. We wake up as a family together. Usually around 7 and 8 o'clock. There is usually a diaper change first thing because he is only a year old... Is this what you want to hear?
Most recently I have been involved in a heavy schedule of commercial work. So, usually after a light breakfast I go to work in my studio which is here as part of our home. I usually work very late, 8 o'clock or sometimes later. That's the end of the day.
25. What do you want to communicate to the listener with your music?
What I hope is transferred to the listener of my music is a certain depth. I think the depth that I am really speaking of is that we as human beings are the artistic process here on the planet, as individuals, groups, countries and as a global experience. What we create and think of as our artistic outpouring, be it music, the painted art, a sculpture or just a beautiful dinner that we might create for somebody, are really metaphors or hieroglyphics for the depth of our own participation in the moments that we create them. I hope that this depth creates a context for other people to experience deeper things inside of themselves.
26. Do you like to play live?
I love to play live. I am looking forward to headlining at KLEM Dag this year October 11 in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. I am also going to have a concert in Santa Fe October 25. I am looking forward to performing more in the future.
27. Your future projects.
The imminent future project is performing live in October. It has been several years since I have done a live performance. I also have several albums that are in constant process. "Ulu Watu" is one that comes out of my experiences in Bali and the magic that I find in Bali. I have been there four times. Currently, I am putting together a compilation with a lot of new material on it, which is called "Dark Territory".