With a focus on epic widescreen string sounds, the latest album from Marsen Jules sculpts a shimmering, shifting soundtrack fantasy from euphoria, melancholia and ice cold winds.
We caught up with the instrumental / ambient producer to discover more about his music and new album “The Empire Of Silence“. In the interview below we discuss previous and future releases alongside thoughts on production, generative composition techniques, solar systems, ultra-slow polyrhythms and wind harps.
Before you delve into the interview, fire up our exclusive stream of “Katiyana“, taken from the new album. Sign up to the Oktaf newsletter and you’ll receive a download code for the track from Bandcamp.
We’ve been loving your new album ‘The Empire of Silence’ – can you tell us a bit about your inspiration behind the release?
The album was intended for a release on “Glacial Movements” but due to different circumstances at one point there would have been a longer delay. So finally I decided to release this album on Oktaf. The sound of “Glacial Movements” is inspired by glacial and icy landscapes and this has been the inspiration for the album too.
"All titles are different terms for snow in Inuit language. It is a collection of mystic words that give some space for fantasy."
What’s behind the names of the track titles?
The album title was there already during the production process, while the track names came later. Sometimes an idea comes up and you directly know “this is it!”. All titles are different terms for snow in Inuit language. It is a collection of mystic words that give some space for fantasy. Chahatlin for example means “snow that makes a sizzling sound as it falls on water”. That’s pretty poetic, isn’t it?
"I think taking nature as inspiration for ambient music is too simple and common. I focus more on other and deeper themes."
How do you get yourself into the right state of mind to write music that evokes glacial and icy landscapes?
It was a request to do this and it took three years until something came up that worked in that context. Then it simply happened – fast, naturally and intuitive. This album is pretty rare as I haven´t done any nature inspired music after Herbstlaub.
I think taking nature as inspiration for ambient music is too simple and common. I focus more on other and deeper themes. The album “Les Fleurs“ with all its French names for different flowers for example is just a metaphor for mortality and the impermanence of beauty.
"If there´s nothing to say, it´s better to say nothing."
Do you have to work hard to find the right head space to produce this type of music? Does it help to be in a particular environment? Was it easier for you to write Beautyfear within the confines of a theatre work space in Lisbon as opposed to in a studio for example?
For me music happens like an impulse. Some inner and outer conditions come together and at some point something simply happens, without too much thinking. When I started making music I tried to force myself to be creative and I experience many “uninspired” moments. Today I have so many other responsibilities in life, that I simply jump on the moment whenever I feel some inspiration and leave the uninspired moments out. If there´s nothing to say, it´s better to say nothing. But to come to your question: if you are on the hills of Lisbon watching over this beautiful city in spring, there is a great chance for having some space for inspiration and something to express too.
"The best moments are when a conceptual idea and an artistic expression come together and are implemented with experience."
What comes first for you, an inspiration to create something or, simply, the music itself?
Musical ideas can happen on different levels. Sometimes there is a special set-up or conceptual idea, sometimes there is a special atmosphere or emotion that comes up and sometimes you find something touching while trying new things out. The best moments are when a conceptual idea and an artistic expression come together and are implemented with experience. That’s the three levels I´m working on trying to get more experience with my own music. If art is just based on a concept or setting then it often feels meaningless for me.
"My work process is closer to abstract art than to classic composition. I dissect musical moments and paint with their frequencies."
How has your approach to producing and releasing music changed in the ten years since your debut for City Centre Offices, ‘Herbstlaub’ ? Have you found new sources of inspiration to draw on since then?
It has become more intuitive. I get to know my own music better from day to day. The main inspirations are special musical moments themselves. Like a painter who is inspired by a palette of colours. Or like a sculptor who finds a special stone and directly has an imagination of the sculpture he could create with it. My work process is closer to abstract art than to classic composition. I dissect musical moments and paint with their frequencies.
It sounds like, with many Marsen Jules releases, you prefer manipulations of audio from real instruments rather than synthesis – or, at least, a combination of the two? How much of a part does real instrumentation play in your work and how much does synthesis?
Actually I take real instruments and sounds as a basis for synthesis. There is not a single sound in all Marsen Jules albums, that has a synthetic basis. This is something special for this project. It’s a must for the process and it’s an interaction with the music itself. Playing live with real musicians is something completely else. I do that too with different projects but that’s more an interaction with the musicians.
Is there a particular instrument you’ve not worked with but have always wanted to? (I like to imagine a ‘Les Fleurs’ era Marsen Jules composed entirely from Hang drum sounds)
A hang drum is very nice, but those instruments I’m interested in have even more of an ambient feeling. The concept of wind harps is very nice, also the waterphone but especially the crystal baschet and the glass harmonica. I like rare sounds of any kind and I like music that plays itself.
If you could create any musical instrument (theoretical or realistic) – what would you create?
A huge and well tuned wind harp with 1 million strings built up in a circle. That would be nice.
You’ve been producing some generative compositions recently such as the 12k release “The Endless Change of Colour“, a limited edition version of which contains 24 hours of generative music. Can you tell us a bit about your process behind the composition and what it is that draws you to generative rather than more traditional composition techniques?
Inspired by Steve Reich’s minimal music I’m using his “phasing”-technique on many layers and with very long time intervals. This way the music gets more living and unpredictable but still stays in a defined framework. One could also say I’m working with ultra-slow polyrhythms. These compositions have their own life and length.
It gave me a big moment of freedom, when I found out that some of these compositions need much more than the usual play length to develop themselves. Finally having this 24 hour file and letting it play was a completely different feeling than listening to the album. You get more feeling of the open process.
"Working with algorithms is like a growing tree. You start with something small, which develops and many things can happen in many directions."
How deep have you been tempted to go in terms of using algorithms or other data sources as a basis for generative compositions?
I read about this, especially how Brian Eno is using it, but it doesn’t touch me. For me the strict limitation and unchanging repetition takes a very important role. Working with algorithms is like a growing tree. You start with something small which develops and many things can happen in many directions. What I do is more like a solar system. Every planet has it’s determined distance and rotation speed. Everything that happens simply happens within a fixed setting.
What do you think the future holds for generative composition and applications of things like artificial intelligence to music composition?
I follow those things, but they are somehow out of my interest these days. But you never know what happens and what creative people might come up with.
The field of “modern classical” music is often very close to good film-scores. It is based on harmonies, melodies and instrumentation. It is the use of an innovation but not an innovation in itself.
It feels like the ‘modern classical’ and ‘ambient’ genres have made a great deal of headway in terms of popularity in the past decade. What’s your take on the current scene and creativity within it?
Today you can easily create music that would have needed a lot of very expensive hardware ten or twenty years ago. The field of “modern classical” music is often very close to good film-scores. It is based on harmonies, melodies and instrumentation. It is the use of an innovation but not an innovation in itself. But for sure there are always some revolutionaries who can approach things from a totally different direction. And then it is getting very exciting.
"Listen to the beauty within every sound you hear." - Marsen Jules
What’s next for you? What projects do you have coming up that you can share with us?
The 24 hour version of “The Endless Change of Colour“ was just the start for a series of much bigger ideas and projects. In autumn I will release a generative composition called “Shadows in Time” that comes in some hundred totally individual versions and for 2016 I’m working on “Enigma”, an enormous and epic project which will be my most important and expressive album so far. Besides that there will be some co-operations with other musicians and artists.
“The Empire of Silence” is released 30th March 2015 via Oktaf. Order a physical copy from the Oktaf web-store.
“The Endless Change of Colour” and all other Marsen Jules releases can be found on his Bandcamp.Marsen JulesOktaf30 March 2015AmbientInstrumentalMinimalism